Friday, April 13, 2012

Dennis Palumbo: A Shrink Who’s No Shrinking Violet

Some people say that anyone who seeks a career in Hollywood should have his head examined. Dennis Palumbo knows all about that, having experienced show biz from both sides of the couch. Starting in 1976, he wrote for several TV series (including Welcome Back, Kotter and The Love Boat), then earned story and screenplay credits on the Peter O’Toole comedy classic, My Favorite Year. After laboring in the entertainment industry for 16 years, and benefiting from the psychotherapeutic process as a patient, he decided to enter the field. Today he’s a practicing psychotherapist who specializes in treating creative types: writers, actors, directors, and producers.

Dennis writes “Hollywood on the Couch” for the Psychology Today website, and is the author of Writing from the Inside Out, a book that several of my students have found helpful in combatting writer’s block. In his spare time, he publishes mystery novels (Fever Dream is the latest). None of this was how his life was supposed to go. But a movie changed everything.

At age seventeen, Dennis saw The Graduate, and was deeply struck by that poolside scene in which Benjamin Braddock is advised that the future lies in plastics. The point, of course, was about parental expectations for their children’s worldly success. Dennis himself was then heading for college and an engineering career: “I was the first of nine grandchildren, and I was gonna be doctor, lawyer, engineer, or – as a fallback position – priest. Those were my four choices.” When he saw Ben reluctantly descend into his parents’ pool in his gift SCUBA gear, “That’s how I felt. I felt like I was drowning, because I didn’t want to be an engineer.”

Says Dennis, “When your patients are creative people struggling to justify wanting to be writers and directors and actors, as opposed to what their parents wanted them to be, The Graduate comes up all the time. Because Benjamin challenges the conventional wisdom of what he should do with his life.” But non-Hollywood types also feel the impact of moviegoing: “For the average person a movie can change their life, if only by illuminating things that make them feel they’re not alone, or reinforcing things that have [been] niggling under the surface. They see the film and they say, ‘Gee, y’know, I am allowed to get divorced,’ or ‘It is possible to leave a small town.’ Or ‘A black guy can be a hero,’ or ‘Your girlfriend can be Chinese.’”

Or, of course, “You can trade in a writing career for a fulfilling life as a psychotherapist.” Curiously, as Dennis points out in a recent column, movies currently reveal a changing view of the whole psychiatrist profession. Once upon a time, therapists were kindly paternal figures like Claude Rains in Now Voyager and Lee J. Cobb in The Three Faces of Eve. Today, they’re apt to be rapists, murderers, and even cannibals (see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Silence of the Lambs). And Dennis’s hair-raising piece doesn’t even mention Michael Caine’s role as a cross-dressing psycho(therapist) in Dressed to Kill.

Because Palumbo sees therapists as getting a bad rap at the movies, his mystery novels feature Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist who sleuths for the Pittsburgh police force. Rinaldi, haunted by past tragedies, has had his share of personal trauma. But though he’s sometimes ornery and temperamental, he remains, in Dennis’s words, “someone trying desperately to make a difference. To help others on the path to healing, even if only as a way to come to some kind of peace himself.” In short, he’s a great character for a movie.


  1. What an interesting guy! I love My Favorite Year - and I watched Kotter and Love Boat incessantly during their network runs - glad Mr. Palumbo made a move that is more fulfilling for him - while still keeping his toe in the pool of the arts. Congratulations to him - and kudos to you, Ms. Gray!

    1. I will forward to Dennis your enthusiastic response to his career path. Thanks, Mr. Craig!