Mary Ellen Trainor Zemeckis had been acting since the age of seven, but she spent her first year at San Diego State preparing for a career in speech pathology.
Life was lean in the Trainor household – Mary Ellen's father, who was rendered deaf from an injury, had seven mouths to feed, so earning a consistent living was foremost in her mind. And, as many people were quick to point out, acting was unlikely to pan out.
But everything changed the day she overheard a professor lecturing to a journalism class at San Diego State University.
"I thought, wait a minute, this is where I'm meant to be," she said. "If I can't be in front of the camera, I can be behind it."
She changed her major to telecommunications and enrolled in the professor's class. He took the class on a field trip to the San Diego news radio station KSDO. After asking the news director an astute question "to look like she was paying attention," she was offered an internship at the station.
She was the first woman ever to work in the newsroom.
"That's when I knew I could do anything," she said.
In between working the graveyard shift at KSDO, studying for classes at SDSU and serving food at the Old Spaghetti Factory, Mary Ellen met someone who would turn out to be a lifelong friend: Kathleen Kennedy.
The two graduated in 1975 and Mary Ellen moved to Los Angeles. She waited tables until landing her first job in the entertainment business. When the radio personality she wrote for pitched a pilot to Columbia Pictures, Mary Ellen found herself on her first movie lot and neighbors with future movie mogul Steven Spielberg.
An offer of help yielded her a gig answering their phones. Before long, however, she assumed the role of production assistant and began a romance with Robert Zemeckis, the writer of Spielberg's "1941."
Following the success of the movie, Spielberg invited Mary Ellen to Tunisia to help with "Raiders of the Lost Ark." She refused because she and Zemeckis were secretly planning to wed, but she suggested Kathleen in her stead. Today, Kathleen is best-known for producing the blockbusters "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List."
On the other side
Eventually, Mary Ellen ended up in front of the camera. After serving as an executive at 20th Century Fox and even dabbling in politics, she went on to break through with the movies "Romancing the Stone" and "Goonies."
She says she feels extremely grateful for the lasting friendship she found with Kennedy and for the break she got from that professor 34 years ago at SDSU. She continues to appear on television and in films, but her creative versatility is guiding her into yet another role: author.