When television and film screenwriter and producer Rob Edwards started at Cranbrook Schools as a seventh-grade boarder, his writing career trajectory began.
“My journey started at Cranbrook. I was the only Black kid in seventh and eighth grade so making friends, being funny, and exposure to art, music, literature, and theater really helped me dive into the notion that I wanted to tell stories,” Edwards said.
While at Cranbrook, Edwards had many formative experiences and his earliest writing success. He created a comic strip in the school newspaper and taught a student-led class on filmmaking. “I really just wanted to get some other kids to help me make a movie,” he laughingly said.
After graduating from Cranbrook in 1981, the Detroit native attended Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts where he spent his spare time writing fan letters and reading screenplays and biographies so he could see how others in the field shaped their careers. After his college graduation, he quickly moved to Los Angeles to get work as a writer since his physician father gave him only nine months to succeed or he was expected to return home and go to medical school.
Edwards started out working on a CBS lot in Hollywood delivering supplies and making important connections. Determination, persistence, talent, and a keen sense of humor swiftly paid off for him. “Four months after I moved to L.A. I was making a living as a professional writer when so many don’t succeed. I like to say I may not be as talented as some other writers, but I will out-hustle them.”
The Emmy-nominated writer has worked on many popular shows, including “Full House,” “A Different World,” “In Living Color,” “Roc,” “Out All Night” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." He also wrote for Disney animated feature films “Treasure Planet” and “The Princess and the Frog,” both of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
For his meeting with the creator of “The Fresh Price of Bel-Air," Edwards noted, “I went in wearing my preppiest outfit and told stories of my time at Cranbrook – as someone who understands both sides of the two main characters. They knew that I ‘got it’ and I was hired.”
Edwards also took photos of Cranbrook to the set design department and “with minor changes,” Cranbrook became the design inspiration for Bel-Air Academy, the private school in the show which main characters Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) and Will (Will Smith) attended.
Currently, Edwards is working on a series of graphic novels centered around Robert Smalls, a formerly enslaved South Carolina Civil War hero who freed himself, his crew, and their families by commandeering a Confederate ship and sailing it through Charleston Harbor to a Union-controlled area where it was put in service as a Union warship. His heroic actions helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept Black soldiers into the Union Army.
“I love the research and am a nerd at heart. I’ve been able to uncover some things that make a good story even better...Within his story are some truly inspirational stories of people doing the right thing for the right reasons. Robert Smalls was a real live action superhero.”
The California writer continues to be involved with his former schools by teaching a screenwriting course for graduate students at Syracuse University and serving on the Board of Governors for Cranbrook Schools. He and his wife of 33 years have two adult sons.
“As a writer, I start every day fresh by asking myself ‘How can I make this better?'” he explained. “Cranbrook’s motto is ‘Aim High’ and I still carry that with me. If I come short of perfect, it’s still really, really good.”
Story: Tracy Donohue
Photo: Ross Oscar Knight