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'77 DUHS Graduate lives in L.A.

Dowagiac Daily News
By John Eby

Margo Burrows A lot has happened to Margo (Towe) Burrows since she graduated from Union High School in 1977.

Steve Burrows, her multi-talented husband of 15 years, is like living with three men.

His writer personality is quiet and thoughtful and, like all of the Dogwood authors, writes in longhand on yellow legal pads.

The director is "bossy." The actor just wants approval and love.

The director cast former porn star Traci Lords as Margo in his first full-length film, "Chump Change," a comedy about a Midwesterner trying to make it as a writer in Hollywood.

Lords is "the only one who saw the love story in it," said Margo, who has found life in Los Angeles (Westchester, about three miles from the ocean) an exciting adventure.

Miramax will release "Chump Change" on DVD Jan. 20, 2004.

Steve, who has been compared to Woody Allen and Albert Brooks for his ability to act, write and direct, shared a page in the Aug. 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly's "One Week in Hollywood" with Duran Duran.

"George Clooney kissed me. How many people in Dowagiac can say that?" she laughs. "He had just done the 'ER' pilot when we got to know him. He looks like a star. We used to live by the Hollywood reservoir, which is blocked off except to foot traffic. Madonna used to live right around there. I saw her all the time, and Madonna does not look like Madonna without makeup, hair, all that stuff. I don't see how actors can do it. They get rejected 20 times a day."

On her walks she also encountered O.J.'s friend, Al Cowlings, and Joan Van Ark.

"We were in Rome about a year ago when Steve was filming some commercials. He had to be there for a month," Margo said.

The elevator door opened and Mel Gibson winked at her.

Another time, she found herself bowling next to Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton.

"The first Christmas Steve spent with my family he taught my dad how to play the saw," said Margo, whose father, the late Art Towe, was Lewis Cass Intermediate School District superintendent. Her mother, Carol, appears in "Chump Change" doing the chicken dance. Margo is the third of four children.

Burrows' own father played "Autumn Leaves" with bow and saw when Steve was 13 on "The Gong Show" in 1976.

"My parents have been so supportive of us out there. It's a tough life in California," she said Monday. "When I come back here I think people want something when they're just being friendly. It takes a while to switch back into the Midwest. Everything's harder. It can take a half hour to an hour to drop off something at the dry cleaner because of the traffic. Out there is costs $14 to go to a movie, $10 for a matinee."

"Of all the people who could have bought us, we were on cloud nine that it was Miramax," she said.

Miramax bought the film rights to "Chump Change" in March 2001. The critically acclaimed comedy will never receive a theatrical release.

A Miramax official actually told Burrows that his film is "too independent to be mainstream, and too mainstream to be independent."

Burrows plays "Milwaukee Steve," who earned minor fame starring in a jock-itch commercial. When his acting career stalls, he goes on "Wheel of Fortune" and plays horribly, trying to buy a "Y" during a break and failing to solve "Print a retraction" with only the "p" and "c" missing from the puzzle.

He made a satirical short about the experience, "Soldier of Fortune," a hit on the film festival circuit but the subject of a cease-and-desist letter from its creator, Merv Griffin. Threat of a lawsuit halts screenings, but makes Milwaukee Steve more sought after as a screenwriter.

A 1980 Greendale, Wis., High School graduate, Burrows attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study political science. Needing one class to graduate in the summer of 1984, he took acting.

Burrows moved to Chicago in 1985 and joined ex-Second City artistic director Del Close's improv troupe. For four years he juggled roles on-stage with daytime production duties.

The latter got him screamed at by Sean Connery when the former James Bond was cued too soon for a rainy scene in "The Untouchables."

Steve and Margo moved to Los Angeles in 1989. An earthquake struck the day they arrived. In Hollywood, they lived in an apartment complex whose landlord legally changed his name to "god."

Burrows joined the Groundlings comedy troupe, wrote for television shows, made commercials and did guest appearances, most notably on "Seinfeld." He frequently worked at the Groundlings with Cheri Oteri, who went on to "Saturday Night Live" and cheerleader skits with Will Ferrell.

In February 1998, his major studio script languishing (dismissed as "too funny"), Burrows cranked out "Chump Change" in 25 days, wrangled three financial backers for an estimated $600,000 budget and launched production.

The movie careens from Los Angeles to Wisconsin. Milwaukee Steve returns home to find his mother has gone to Iceland and sublet his boyhood home to Sam, Lords' character, who wears nothing more provocative than a parka.

Her notoriety, however, meant a Milwaukee sausage company prohibited its mascot from involvement in the filming.

Tim Matheson, "Otter" in "Animal House" and, more recently, the vice president on "West Wing," plays a producer. Burrows also got Jerry Stiller and his wife, Anne Meara, and Fred Willard to participate for the actor's union minimum rate, $248 a day. Filming took 21 days in Los Angeles and snowy Milwaukee during January 1999.

When Liza Minelli backed out of making a cameo appearance, she was replaced by Abe Vigoda, "Fish" from TV's "Barney Miller."

Roger Clinton also makes an appearance.

Burrows was hospitalized with kidney stones in June 1999, which is why his urologist shares space in the thank-you's with Edwardsburg attorney Dale Blunier.

"Chump Change's" break with Miramax resulted from a March 2001 screening at the HBO/U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. The finale saw Billy Crystal giving Lords the Best Actress award and Burrows accepting the Audience Award from Catherine O'Hara.

After months of fruitlessly faxing Miramax to experience the laughter "Chump Change" generated at public screenings, the studio expressed interest. Burrows delivered the film in the morning and a deal had been made by lunch time.

"Chump Change" was dealt setback after setback in the form of canceled or postponed focus group screenings. Studio executives supportive of their project had a habit of leaving or getting fired. Plus, Miramax was distracted by $200 million it had wrapped up in "Gangs of New York."

Although "Chump Change" garners great reviews and audiences love the movie, studio executives said it appealed to working professionals with kids who are more likely to rent movies than go to a theater. It will find an audience on DVD like "Office Space" did. According to Variety, studios made $1 billion in theaters, but $6 billion in DVD and video sales.

As one executive told Burrows, "Would you rather have 'Chump Change' open in theaters in 10 markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver ... because we can get 100,000 people to see this as an art-house movie. Or, we could get 10 million people to see this" on DVD, HBO and other cable outlets and pay-per-view.

If Miramax makes a good return on its investment, Burrows might also see another script made, a murder-mystery comedy set in a fictional Wisconsin theme park, Dairyland.

In the meantime, he makes his living directing commercials.

"We went to see Jerry Stiller," Margo said of the quiet man known for playing bombastic fathers on "Seinfeld" and "The King of Queens."

"We were in his dressing room and Anne Meara was there," she said. "Jerry was excited because his son was going" to be on one of the late-night talk shows. "Amy Stiller, their daughter, is also in the movie. We had everybody but Ben. Jerry Stiller is the sweetest, gentlest man. He reminded me a lot of my dad. Jerry sold chicken door to door even after they had their comedy act" in case show business didn't pan out.

Margo moved to Dowagiac in 1974, her sophomore year of high school from Cheboygan, where she showed and barrel-raced horses.

She types her husband's scripts -- he can't type -- helps him learn his lines "and generally do whatever needs to be done. I was on the set most days. I'm in it several times as an extra. I don't like being in front of the camera. I like being behind the scenes."

For graduation she received a trip to Cancun, arriving at O'Hare airport, the same time as Burrows and his friends. Their flight was delayed.

"Those boys look like fun," her mother remarked about the fellows dressed as cabana boys.

Margo grew up in Mount Clemens, where her dad was assistant superintendent. When the Towes first moved to Dowagiac they lived in the Colby house at 400 W. Division St. where Dr. James Wierman's medical office is. Then they built a house on McKenzie Street.

Margo played basketball and was on the track team and in National Honor Society.

She worked at the University of Southern California putting out a physics newsletter. Margo majored in communications and German and French at Western Michigan University. After a year of college she took a break and worked at Dorman Insurance Agency.

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