ROCKPORT — Writer and director Andrew Stanton thanked his wife, children and colleagues while accepting the Academy Award for best animated feature film, "WALL-E," in Hollywood's Kodak Theater on Sunday night.
But the Rockport native's gratitude also extended 3,000 miles east to Cape Ann, where his former high school drama teacher, Phil Perry, sat weeping in his living room upon hearing Stanton thank him by name during the acceptance speech.
"He caught me and made me cry," Perry said yesterday, from his East Gloucester home. "I got telephone calls until 11 p.m. and it started again (Monday) morning. I wasn't surprised at all that he (Stanton) would succeed ... I've always been very proud of him."
Sunday's Oscar was Stanton's second — he first won in 2003 for "Finding Nemo" — and his honor proved to be the only win of the night for the robot romance "WALL-E," which was nominated for six awards, including another nod to Stanton for best original screenplay.
"It's been such an inspiration to spend time with a character who so tenaciously struggles to find the beauty in everything that he sees. It's a noble aspiration to have at times like these," Stanton said from the podium.
"I dearly want to thank everyone that's been on this film: the cast, the crew, everybody at Disney and Pixar Studios. To my wife Julie, my kids Ben and Audrey, I love you so much — and I guess I'd be remiss if I did not thank my high school drama teacher Phil Perry for 28 years ago casting me as Barnaby in 'Hello, Dolly!'
"Creative seeds are sown in the oddest of places," he added.
Perry, 74, started the drama department at Rockport High School after starting as a chemistry teacher in 1962. Stanton impressed Perry both academically as a student in his science class and as an actor in "Hello, Dolly!," Stanton's first major role.
"Andrew was one of those students, when he was assigned a part, he wanted to know everything about the character; he knew you had to take on more than just the name, you had to be the character," Perry said. "He was interested in making sure what he did was good and it always was; he was just wonderful to work with."
The Rockport presentation of that musical has clearly stuck with Stanton. In the film, one of WALL-E's favorite pastimes — aside from collecting interesting items left behind by humans after they escaped a severely trashed planet Earth — is watching and mimicking the dance numbers contained on an old videocassette of "Hello, Dolly!"
Perry loved "Finding Nemo," and found himself swooning over "WALL-E" as well. He was surprised to see "Hello, Dolly!" featured so prominently in Stanton's tale of enduring love and determination.
Though many view the film as a warning about the dangers of complacency and consumerism, Stanton said the movie is really about the importance of true human interactions.
"I think a lot of people attach a little too specifically to the ecological aspect or the complacency aspect of humanity. But I use those as devices to focus on the biggest issue, which is people caring about one another. People connecting with one another," Stanton said in backstage comments posted by the Academy. "Whether that's literally love between two characters like robots or just you acknowledging that your neighbors (are) right next to you as opposed to being blocked between a cell phone or something. I felt that disconnection is going to be the cause, indirectly, of anything that happens in life that's bad for humanity of the planet, so to me, my focus was connectivity."
Stanton's mother-in-law, Roberta Evans of Rockport, was overjoyed her son-in-law's film industry colleagues saw fit to honor the father of two with a second golden statuette.
"It's absolutely thrilling, he's so good at what he does, we're all so proud of him," Evans said of Stanton.
But she was equally happy that Stanton added a special thank you for Perry, who also taught her while she was in Rockport High. Perry's legacy is noted at the high school, where the theater's stage is dedicated to him.
"I'm so happy he mentioned Phil Perry," she said. "There's something about a lasting teacher; he cared about all his kids and he was so thrilled."
Evans recalled that Stanton was never into sports, but found a creative outlet in Perry's "marvelous" theater program.
"They did the best productions back in those days and that was just wonderful for Andrew," Evans said. "That's how he and my daughter met. Andrew loves Rockport, he's very proud of his hometown."
Perry said he loved to teach theater, especially to the "great" and "receptive" students in Rockport, but never really enjoyed being up on stage himself. He was awarded a state Teacher of the Year Award before eventually retiring early to help his mother combat an illness in the late 1980s. Once she recovered, Perry returned to teaching, and now tutors students at St. Ann's School.
"He (Stanton) sent me an e-mail from backstage after he won the award," Perry said. "He said he was happy to have been able to say (thank you) and that he meant it."
Perry, who has directed many talented Rockporters, including movie producer Sarah Green ("State and Main," "Frida") and singer Paula Cole, said he would return to Rockport as a volunteer drama instructor if budget cuts start to severely threaten the school district's arts programs.
"If (budget cuts) hurt too hard, I'd be willing to go in and volunteer," Perry said. "(Arts) help the children, not just in theater, but it helps them in their ability to meet people and (be) more relaxed."
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.