Texas Tech University

Randy Cordray: Risk-Taking as a Way of Life

Jamison Driskill

April 6, 2021

Part I: From Slopes to Sitcoms

Randy Cordray (BA, 1975) is an avid outdoorsman living in a remote part of Oregon under the pretense of retirement. He is also an in-demand Hollywood television producer with movie-star charm, the enthusiasm of a recent college graduate, and an incomparable knack for storytelling. Cordray's life journey, which eventually led to the helm of television's "The Office," is an epic tale of perseverance and determination which is as inspiring as it is entertaining.
Last week, between backcountry skiing expeditions, Corday shared his story with me over a couple of extended Zoom sessions. What follows are the highlights of the first of half of our conversation about his beginnings in theatre through his early career in Hollywood.
Where are you?

I live in a little town called Jacksonville about 30 minutes Northwest of Ashland in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. We have great hiking, mountain biking, and skiing. I've been a skier most of my life. The whole reason I ended up at Texas Tech was because of my love of skiing. Should we get into this? Do you want to know my history?

Absolutely. I understand you're from Casper, Wyoming.

I was born in Casper. My dad worked for Shell Oil Company and got moved around a lot, but most of my early life was in Denver. I loved the Rockies. I started skiing there. Then, as sort of a cruel joke, just before my senior year of high school my dad got transferred to Midland, Texas. I was really a fish out of water. This was 1970, I was an aspiring hippie, and I was the only kid in town with a European drop-bar racing bicycle. The cowboys would drive by and throw beer bottles at me.

Yikes! How did skiing bring you to Texas Tech?

My dad insisted that I stay in-state, so I unfolded a map of Texas and found the school closest to ski slopes – Texas Tech! I enrolled as a theatre major, but I didn't get too involved right away. I never intended to stay. I thought I would end up back in Colorado, or maybe California, so I wasn't very motivated. Then, near the end of my sophomore year, a couple of younger students jumped me in line for paid assistantships and I had this major epiphany: “If I can't even rise to the top here, what's going to happen when I try to go to Broadway or Hollywood?”

Everything shifted my junior year. I was involved in everything and I was really focused. That summer, I went to work at Unto These Hills, a big outdoor theatre in Cherokee, North Carolina. I got to work with a bunch of professional technicians and actors, and it opened my eyes to the idea that I can transcend my background and propel myself into a professional career.

When I came back for my senior year, I was so driven. This was 1974-75, which was a such vibrant time at Texas Tech University Theatre – a lot of great work was being done. There was a lot of new blood and I was now one of the movers and shakers of the senior class. I directed, I produced, I acted. I was as busy as I could possibly be, but I didn't get much skiing in.

After graduation you moved to Los Angeles?

I was either going to New York or Los Angeles. New York was a little threatening to me. Los Angeles was less so, and – here it goes again – there is skiing out there! If I failed in California, I figured I would end up in Lake Tahoe loading chair lifts or something.

When I first moved out there, it was tough. I moved to Hollywood without any contacts or knowledge. My whole career plan was based on one thing: I can work harder than anyone else around me, and with a bigger smile on my face. Eventually, I applied to this union that provided stagehands to live theatres and television studios called IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 33. It's hard to get into these unions without someone bringing you in, so I didn't get any calls for quite a while. But after a few months, they finally called and asked me to go to work on "Wheel of Fortune." That was my very first job. And then I was on their books, so they started calling me all the time.


Yeah, and I have to tell you – The work ethic I had developed and the drive that was instilled in me at Texas Tech really set me apart from the other people working for Local 33. I quickly rose to the top because they could count on me. They could call me anytime, day or night, and I would go to work. I did this for about six months, and I got to see a lot of different things. I was onstage for the 1976 Oscars tracking Ray Bolger, from "The Wizard of Oz," with a follow-spot as he tap-danced his way down the aisle and onto the stage. I was in a tuxedo, on the apron of the stage, with Jack Nicholson right there on the front row. I felt like I had really arrived.

What an experience!

It was, but I didn't like being sent to a different place every day. I could never make any connections or friendships. I also saw some corruption. It grated on me. I really wanted a more permanent position where I could learn and progress on my own merit.

It sounds like you were ready to graduate from Local 33.

I was. So, I started creating relationships. One of the best places they would send me was KTLA Channel 5, which was a venerable television studio owned by Gene Autry, the famous singing cowboy. His company also owned six full-sized sound studios that they rented out to other studios for sitcoms, game shows, and what have you. I really wanted to be on staff at KTLA, so I tried to get to know people. I finally got the opportunity to fill in for the props master on a sitcom for a week. At the end of the week, the production manager offered me a thirty-day apprenticeship. If I made it through, they would put me on permanently. And I did. I worked my ass off. Nothing could stop me.
Read the culmination my conversation with Randy Cordray (Part II: The Final Ascent), in which he discusses how he clawed his way through the Hollywood television industry into the role of producer for major network sitcoms such as "Dharma & Greg" and "The Office."