By Jesse Marx
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By CP Staff
The high point of Michael Bodnarchek's professional life, he says, was meeting and getting to know Johnny Cash. The St. Paul-born Hollywood producer of music videos and commercials found himself on a flight to Minneapolis seated next to the Man in Black in first class one day in 1996, though the executive didn't recognize the musician at first. Bodnarchek may have been distracted. He hates flying, and for years he had traveled in his own Madden Cruiser-style Lincoln Navigator to avoid setting foot on a plane, crisscrossing the continent with one of those first-generation, giant, military-style satellite phones. By 2000, the demands of international success had forced him to rack up 100,000 airline miles a year, and he had started taking medication for the anxiety.
On this '96 flight, however, the white-haired man beside him at last turned and said, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," and Bodnarchek sank into his seat. The younger passenger had grown up in east St. Paul loving Cash. He told the singer that he was on his way home, and brought up his production company back in L.A., A Band Apart.
Cash pulled out a script, according to Bodnarchek, and said, "This is about me, and it's called Walk the Line. Johnny Depp's attached. Would you be interested in working with us on it?"
Bodnarchek had co-founded A Band Apart Commercials in the summer of 1995 with celebrated director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender, but his specialty was TV ads, not motion pictures. He kept Johnny Cash in mind a few weeks later in L.A., however, pitching the idea of using him in a Nissan ad.
"I called Johnny's manager, and next thing you know I'm down in Hendersonville [Tennessee], sitting at his table that's like 30 feet long," says Bodnarchek. "John's saying, 'You know, you're sitting where Bono sat and Bob Dylan sat.' He took me up to the house and said, 'You're one of the few people that I've brought into my closet.' His closet was all black clothes. He goes, 'I had to wear that white one for my son John Jr.'s wedding.'"
Bodnarchek tells this story over a bowl of borscht at a Polish eatery in northeast Minneapolis, light years away from the glamour of Hollywood. His bulky frame hints at a love of weightlifting, ceding, perhaps, to a deeper love of food. He admits to being the Lance Armstrong of name-droppers. Yet his story fits the known facts. Cash wound up singing the Laverne & Shirley theme in a famous 1997 Nissan spot. "That was when he was getting cool again," says Bodnarchek. "And I feel like I played a small part. I made Johnny Cash a million dollars, which to me was more important than any award."
Bodnarchek compares himself to Forrest Gump, the lucky idiot who beat out Tarantino and Bender's Pulp Fiction at the Oscars in 1994. Bodnarchek spent 22 years in Hollywood, between his departure from the overnight assignment desk at KARE 11 in 1985 and relocating here earlier this year. During that time, he experienced the kind of odyssey some residents of L.A. and the Twin Cities daydream about, meeting and working with the artists and celebrities he admires, racking up Cannes Golden Lions and MTV awards, and helping to change the culture along the way by bringing a more cinematic style to commercials and music videos. He headed A Band Apart for eight years, executive-producing legendary spots such as Everclear's Gap ad, and videos such as Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca."
Yet almost as quickly as A Band Apart grew, it tore asunder. If there was a low point in Bodnarchek's professional life, it came in December 2003, when he publicly resigned from the company he had helped build. "I had an addiction problem with Xanax," he says. "My doctor said, 'You need to get your stress level down or you're going to die.' And then that became abusive. And then everything collapsed."
Bodnarchek faults Bender, his business partner in A Band Apart Commercials, and Jeff Armstrong, an executive producer whom Bodnarchek hired, for betraying him in his darkest hour. Bodnarchek claims that Bender was callous, and Armstrong used Bodnarchek's confidence as ammunition against him, going straight to Bender with designs on taking over the company. "He went to Lawrence and said I was a cocaine addict," says Bodnarchek. "I've never done cocaine in my life. I wouldn't even know where to get it, or what to do with it. And it all turned on me. And I didn't want to fight it anymore."
An assistant to Bender said the producer was unavailable to participate in this article, despite repeated requests for an interview, while Armstrong denies Bodnarchek's charges in every particular. "Anybody who was there knows that I tried to get Michael help," says Armstrong. "The other executives at the company saw me work very diligently trying to get Michael to face his demons. I tried to help him keep his job and his company."
The undisputed fact is that Bodnarchek was out, and Armstrong was promoted. In 2005, the story surfaced that Tarantino had dissolved his longtime partnership with Bender. In the summer of 2006, A Band Apart folded.