When Michael Underwood stepped on the Jennifer Stevens Stage to deliver an acceptance speech for his induction into the Waxahachie Fine Arts Hall of Fame, he had one unrelated thought.
“Stunning, absolutely stunning.”
“I was so proud to stand on that stage. The only thing I could think of was, ‘If only we could have had this,’’ Underwood said over the phone as he recalled the evening and induction.
Five other outstanding Waxahachie High graduates were recognized for their successes and contributions to the fine arts on Saturday, March 2 at the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Waxahachie High School.
In his high school years, Underwood received awards for “Best Actor” in back-to-back years during the UIL sanctioned One-Act Play.
The 1973 graduate has since had a 40-year career as a director and cinematographer. He helped establish the film department for Home and Garden Television and owns his own photography and film company, contracting with clients such as Diet Coke, DIY Network and Ralph Lauren. His talents have allowed him to shoot around the world —from Brazil to Romani and China to France.
Underwood returned to Waxahachie to shoot a commercial for the Disabled American Veterans — he disclosed it was the most impactful gig he has had.
The military, to Underwood, is a story of his father who served as a serviceman in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany. The Munich Trials were in session, and the 18-year-old Texas-born was assigned to manage the movie theater for the troops in Nuremberg. His father was in charge of recreations as well and often hosted dances, which is where he met Underwood’s mother, who is now 90.
Underwood acknowledged his mother, a survivor of WWII, influenced him through his personal and professional obstacles.
"She taught me the power of inspiration and courage," Underwood said during his acceptance speech. "She supported me in my early years and nurtured my desire to pursue a life in the arts."
Underwood has spent the majority of his like back and forth between the U.S. and Europe but favors his home in Germany. Nowadays, Underwood is blessed to work on projects he chooses and spends the better half of the year overseas.
His permanent residence is in Knoxville. Underwood admitted he always carves out a couple times to year to visit Waxahachie, where he moved to during the end of his sophomore year.
Underwood acknowledged Pat Sawyer, a former English and speech teacher, for her efforts in assembling a group of students to compete in the UIL One-Act Play. Former English teachers, Wanda Cain and Lucille Smith also played a role in this first for the district.
English students read the scripts aloud in class not knowing it was actually an audition for the play, “Ile,” by Eugene O’Neill. Underwood played the captain in the mellow-dramatic production.
“I think I was one of the few kids that did not have a Texas accent, so I think that helped me in terms of acting.” he laughed.
Underwood earned the award for "best actor" his junior year as well as the following when the WHS students performed the Russian comedy, “A Marriage Proposal.”
“That was what helped me decide that I might go into this field in some fashion," Underwood explained. "After those successes and a lot of encouragement and support — Pat Sawyer, I give her all the credit.”
Brent Winn, another 2019 Fine Art Hall of Fame inductee, was acknowledged for mentoring Underwood. A 2018 inductee, Chuck Coursey, was also recognized as a mentor that sculpted Underwood's unique artistry.
He later enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, which is when he transitioned from center stage to the creativity behind the camera lens.
“I felt that something was missing after a year in the theater department in Austin,” he explained.
The radio, television, film program was established at UT in 1974 and Underwood was registered in the first class. Within the first six months of graduation, he had directed his first TV commercial.
He spent 10 years in Dallas directing at Image House where he filmed short-form with commercials, music videos and promotional videos.
“I felt my style and what I was interested in doing with a film perspective was not feature films, and the main reason was the time involved,” Underwood elaborated. “I like to do a lot of little projects.”
Bert Rodriguez, who was famous in the commercial world for his work with Lays potato chips, hired Underwood as his assistant and eventually directed on his own.
With a more established career, Underwood found himself in Tennessee at the ad agency Davis Newman Payne, who then hired Underwood’s former boss, Rodriguez. After 10 years with the company, it reconstructed and coincidentally, in 2001 the Home and Garden Television network established headquarters in Knoxville.
“I helped launch HGTV — you know, during that time they had already launched it, but I helped them launch their film division and did that for about six years.”
In February 2019, HGTV was recorded at the fourth leading cable network in the United States with 769,000 viewers per day, according to statista.com.
HGTV later reconstructed its staff, which encouraged him to found his own directing and cinematography business — Tantrum Pictures. HGTV has been a client of his for the past 23 years.
“It was modeled after Bert Rodriguez’s company,” Underwood acknowledged.
Recently, Underwood has worked with the hosts on HGTV and the DIY Network.
“Chip and Joana are great people and, in fact, I did their first promo when they first started. They are very special people,” Underwood said.
He most recently was on set with Vanilla Ice — Rob Van Winkle — and was inspired by him and explained Vanilla Ice was “gracious” while they filmed the series, “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.” On the set, Vanilla Ice renovated the home of an Amish family and went out of his own way to reconstruct a heavily dilapidated barn himself.
Underwood expressed it was moments like these in his career when he gains perspective.
After Underwood provided the timeline of his work’s success, he referred to his acceptance speech where he noted the key for success to the future of Waxahachie ISD students.
“Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. So go forth and do brave work. Work that inspires and elevates. Everything else will follow,” Underwood read from a lectern on the stage of the WHS Performing Arts Center.