Accessible Navigation. Go to: Navigation Main Content Footer

Find Us On FacebookTHE MONTANAN

The Magazine of The University of Montana

A Family Production

‘UM Drama Brat’ Casey Kriley ’93 Keeps Dad’s Legacy Alive

story by Nate Schweber Photos by David Savinski


Casey Kriley, a reality television show producer in Hollywood, Calif., won an Emmy Award for Top Chef.

The Emmys are a big to-do in Hollywood, a town of big to-dos. Attending means spending hours getting the makeup perfect and the hair just so. And then there’s squeezing into that hello-flashbulbs! dress.

Casey Kriley, who was raised in the theater at The University of Montana, goes to the gala every year. The limousine ride and red-carpet walk are mostly just a de-rigueur part of her job as a successful television producer; a fancy one-night break from the grueling hours she puts in working for a booming company that creates some of the most-watched reality-competition shows on TV.

Still, she always tries to make the Emmy party special. She invites her mother to leave the family home tucked beneath the saddle of Mount Jumbo in Missoula’s tranquil Rattlesnake Valley and fly to “Hollyweird” for a night of glitz and glamour. After all, it’s not every Garden City mom whose daughter helps produce Top Chef, which has been nominated for an Emmy five years in a row.

Kriley didn’t expect to win in 2010. The Amazing Race had dominated the category seven years running. Then one moment she heard actress Keri Russell say, “And the winner is,” and the next moment Kriley’s mother was on her feet, fist in the air, and screaming.


Kriley, who keeps a grueling schedule, often works from her home

“I cheered like I was at a Grizzly football game,” says Mary Kay Kriley, Casey’s mom.

Casey’s jaw dropped. Her eyes welled. She felt exultation, surprise, joy, and triumph. Even today she says the win was “a complete shock.”

There was just one thing missing from that moment: her father, James Kriley.

He had been gone almost two years, found dead on Flathead Lake the day after his beloved sailboat mysteriously washed ashore empty. He was the one who introduced Casey to the performing arts as a child. She remembers him as passionate, tireless, and hysterical; a lover of gin and tonics, the f-word, and sailing. At Griz football games she would watch his eyes overflow when the home team scored a key touchdown.

“He was one of those people who cried from joy,” she says. “It says a lot about his heart.”

When he died, she didn’t just lose a father, she lost a mentor and an adviser.

Standing onstage at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, Emmy statue in hand, Casey held proof that she had truly taken her father’s legacy and run with it.

For James Kriley every Saturday was take-your-kids-to-work day. He moved his wife and three daughters from Seattle to Missoula in the mid-1970s to teach drama at UM. For him the dual commitments of raising a family and putting on shows were done simultaneously, under the same roof. Casey, the middle daughter, says her earliest memory is spending a Saturday afternoon at UM watching her father direct the Mark Medoff play When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder. James was quick to integrate his daughters into the productions. Some days they sewed costumes; other days they hammered props or painted sets.

“You know how kids in military families are nicknamed ‘Army brats?’” Casey says. “Well, we were ‘University of Montana drama brats.’”

Other faculty members nicknamed the trio of girls “The Krilettes.”

“It was really a special time,” Mary Kay says. “UM was like an extension of our home.”

By the time Casey was seven, she had her first starring role, playing Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“Everyone said how cute my parents’ son was,” she remembers.

Casey recalls how focused and commanding her father was during her formative years. She watched the way he emoted and bore down on his actors and crew for ten-hour days. The lessons she absorbed from him would serve her well in her work in television.

Jane Lipsitz, who co-founded the production company Casey has worked for in L.A. for the past ten years, says she sees uncanny similarities between father and daughter.

“She is very much like him,” Lipsitz says. “She is very creative, and she can be a force to be reckoned with.”

Randy Bolton, a colleague of James Kriley’s and one of Casey Kriley’s professors, also sees the ways they are alike.

“Casey and Jim both have an untiring tenacity—never letting go—getting it done completely and thoroughly,” he says. “She is a direct reflection of her dad.”

When it came time to choose a college, UM was obvious. By the time Casey graduated from Hellgate High School, her mother was teaching math and finance at UM. James was the dean of the School of Fine Arts, and on Sundays after church he would take his family through his biggest production yet, the under-construction Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center.

“It was an exciting time,” Casey says.

Casey’s sisters went to UM too, but they deviated slightly from their father’s career path. Meegan, the oldest, studied political science. Colleen, the youngest, studied technical theater and went on to work lights on soap opera sets in L.A.

“We got our love of theater from our dad,” Colleen says. “But Casey always seemed to be the most into it.”

Casey showed nerve by deciding to study acting at UM. Not only did it set her up for a life of hustling in a notoriously tough field, but it also meant she had to take classes from one of the most challenging professors on campus: her dad.

Casey once stormed into her father’s office, furious after not being cast in yet another play. She announced she was leaving the program. He didn’t try to stop her.

“He said, ‘If you want to quit, go ahead and do it,’” she says. “I was surprised, but looking back I see that he knew surviving in the arts is really difficult financially, so there was a part of him who, as a concerned parent, didn’t want me to pursue the arts.”

The move was quintessentially James Kriley: blunt, but motivated by love. He didn’t give his daughter an answer; he pushed her to find her own. Rather than walking away, she instead doubled-down on her work and went on to star in many plays.

During her final semester at UM, she took a directing class from her father. It inspired her to spend the next three years earning a graduate degree in writing and directing from the California Institute of the Arts.

Having absorbed her father’s lessons, it was time for her to strike out on her own.

Graduate degree in hand and Southern California zip code on her mail, Casey’s showbiz path followed a familiar script: She waited tables for a year.

Then in 2001 she interviewed with a young production company called Magical Elves, which worked in the burgeoning genre of reality TV. Casey landed a job as a producer and immediately sensed a familiar connection with the company’s founders, Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth.

“You know how when you leave Montana and you meet a fellow Montanan you just kind of click with them?” Casey says. “I instantly clicked with Dan and Jane. They’ve essentially become my second family down here.”

Cutforth says he admires the fact that Casey has a “hunger” to “make every show as good as it can be.” He also appreciates her friendship.

“The great friend part is perhaps the most important of all, because when you spend as much time together as we all do, you’d better enjoy each other’s company,” he says.

Casey has worked for Magical Elves for a decade now, a longevity she also attributes to her father. He worked for UM for more than thirty years. She was with Magical Elves in the beginning, when she was one of just six employees working out of the owners’ guesthouse. And she is still with them today, one of the most senior of its 300 employees working out of a large Hollywood office.

Magical Elves began to take off after the company was hired to produce the second season of Project Greenlight, an HBO series that Academy Award-winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck created. The Elves produced Project Runway before the show moved to Lifetime Television, and hit their stride with Last Comic Standing and, of course, Top Chef.

For Casey, producing this level of quality meant spending double-digit hours on sets, something ingrained in her DNA from her dad. It also meant making sure the shows came in under budget. That skill she inherited from her mom, the mathematician.

“I feel I have half my mom’s brain and half my dad’s brain,” she says. “And like yin and yang, having both has helped me succeed in what I do.”

By summer 2008 everything looked up for Casey. Her shows were hits, and she bought a home in the Hollywood area. The house sits just a block away from the Samuel French bookstore, which specializes in plays and musicals. It was James Kriley’s favorite place in the City of Angels, and he made plans to fly out, help fix up the house, and spend his mornings drinking coffee and perusing the titles at the bookstore.

Then the unthinkable happened.

On August 18, 2008, James Kriley’s empty sailboat washed ashore on Flathead Lake.

A plane scoured the water and found his body in Big Arm Bay. His family still isn’t sure exactly what happened. Heart attack? Stroke?

All they know is that he died doing something he loved, in a remarkable setting.

“It’s so classic of my dad to go out with a big bang in the location he loves the most,” Casey says.

And so it is that with every TV show that Casey

helps make, and every accolade she receives, James

Kriley’s influence lives on. It’s something she takes

very seriously.

“I really pride myself in continuing his legacy,” she says.

If only he could have seen her win that Emmy. She can just imagine his reaction.

“It would have been like one of those sporting events where he would start laughing and crying and his voice would break when he talked because he was so excited,” she says. “He would’ve been thrilled.”


What is it like working in the field of reality TV and is it something you ever saw yourself doing?

The way Magical Elves approaches shows is very much from documentary style, versus some shows that are more produced. With documentaries you spend a lot of time observing and listening. So we shoot tons and tons of footage and then figure out what stories we’re going to tell on tape. We love to focus on storytelling and characters. It’s what we are all passionate about, and it’s the approach the company has had since the beginning. Figuring out what the story is and how to tell it is what I love about my job.

Was storytelling something that you learned growing up in the theater at UM?

I spent a lot of time watching rehearsals and fell in love with rehearsal and storytelling from a very early age.

Your job title now is vice president of current programming and you have done a tremendous amount of work as a producer. What does that entail?

There are two kinds of skills that go into being a producer. One is being creative and the other is being very organized and detail oriented. You have to look at things and project their outcome while also dealing with budget constraints.

Do you get back to Missoula often?

As much as I can. Missoula just completely grounds you. Whenever I’m burnt out and I go back, within five days I feel at home. It’s nice to get out of the rat race down here [in Los Angeles].

Many of the people who know you say they see similarities between yourself and your father. Do you see any?

I think I have similar traits in terms of my personality. A lot of people, when they talk about my father, say he was a great mentor, a father figure. People were very afraid of him. I have a lot of those same traits. If you ask people I work with they probably have similar feelings about me. Why I don’t really understand. I always found humor in the fact that people were intimidated by my dad.

But another thing I get from my dad is that he taught us a tremendous work ethic. Where I’ve ended up today I never would have in a million years imagined. I have just literally put my head down and continued to work. That’s what it was about to him; just show up and do the work.

authorAbout the Author

Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist who graduated from UM’s School of Journalism in 2001. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, Budget Travel, and The Village Voice. He lives in New York City and sings in a band called the New Heathens.