From highlander to hollywood

'Big Bang' Actor Makes a Big Impact for UCM

By R. Tyler Habiger

Big Bang Main Cast

Brian Thomas Smith with the main cast of CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory"

For UCM’s 2021 Giving Tuesday efforts, a very special digital campaign was launched to engage alumni and donors. Not only were the majority of the day’s events student-produced, but they also featured a major UCM success story: actor and 2000 alumnus Brian Thomas Smith.

All donors who made a gift of $25 or more on Giving Tuesday received a pair of limited-edition UCM socks and were invited to an exclusive live conversation with Smith. Brennen Van Breusegen, a senior majoring in Digital Media Production, interviewed Smith from KMOS, the campus PBS television studio, via Zoom.

With support from his student producer, Isaac Reeves, ’22, Van Breusegen took questions from the virtual audience as Smith answered from his dressing room at the Warner Brothers Studio Lot after a day of filming CBS’s “United States of Al.”

“It was a great experience being able to chat back and forth with him,” Van Breusegen says. “I would say that was my favorite part, being able to hear all of the questions from the audience and hear things from his point of view and the experiences he has had.”

Smith always has Missouri on his mind. He and Van Breusegen both hail from the St. Louis area and are both athletes. They are also naturals in front of a camera. Smith still goes to Cardinals games whenever they play at Dodger Stadium. During last year’s NFL season, Smith melded Hollywood with Missouri sports in a DirectTV commercial with Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The spots are airing again this season.

Smith speaks fondly of the impact UCM continues to have on his life and career. When deciding on a college, he knew he wanted to do something “outside the norm” and discovered what was then Central Missouri State University. While there, he joined Sigma Phi Epsilon.

“I don’t think people knew my real name in college,” he jokes. “I was just BS.” The “Thomas” came later when he became a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the name “Brian Smith” was already taken.

He spent a lot of time working with UCM’s Campus Cable Network and wrote “Campus Quiz” with fraternity brother Jared Long, ’02. He also videotaped sketches for his classes and put them on the network between scheduled programming.

“I would get the keys to the editing room and spend all night editing,” Smith recalls. “I learned how to tell a story through editing, learned that it’s a lot of work to get it to where you like it. I learned you need dedication, and you need patience.”

Having performed in a play in high school after basketball season ended, Smith enrolled in the Introduction to Acting course at UCM. His instructor, Laura Downing, encouraged him to try out for a theater production.

“I got the part, got a lot of laughs, and it got me thinking that I wanted to move out to LA and try to be an actor,” he says.

During an Advanced Acting class his senior year, Smith performed a Vince Vaughn monologue from the film “Swingers.” The experience comes full circle this fall as Smith acts alongside Vaughn in the Apple TV+ series “Bad Monkey.”

BTS Vince Vaughn

Smith was greatly influenced by Professors Emeriti Ed See, ’62, ’66, and Richard “Buzz” Herman, ’78, who ignited his passion for acting. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Media and a minor in Theatre, he DJ’d and was a bartender on Pine Street and at Lake of the Ozarks to save money for the move to Los Angeles.

“I actually struggled to find an acting agent, and it took years before I got TV and film auditions and representation,” Smith says. “I took a lot of acting classes in LA and brought with me the confidence I developed from my years at UCM.”

He started to get some traction booking commercials, one of them being a global Heineken ad with Jennifer Aniston in 2005. Later that year he and his brother Greg were chosen to compete on the seventh season of “The Amazing Race.” The brothers traveled all over South America and Africa before eventually being eliminated in Botswana. Smith also performed with comedy troupes in LA to hone his craft.

“I love making people laugh,” he says. “I’m the fourth of five kids, so I had to be funny to get attention in the family. My little brother [Greg] laughed at everything I said, so I thought I was really funny at a young age.”

Smith’s career took off as he landed guest roles in TV shows, including “Two and Half Men” (CBS), “Happy Endings” (ABC), “The Neighborhood” (CBS) and “9-1-1 Lonestar” (FOX). Then, a big break came: he got the role of the lovable, dim-witted Zack Johnson on the long-running CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory.”

Zack appeared multiple times from seasons three through 12 and helped cement the show’s place in Hollywood history. “I often walk by Stage 25 [at Warner Brothers], now called ‘The Big Bang Theory Soundstage,’ and it is amazing to think that I was a part of something so special and still watched by millions around the world.”

When thinking about UCM, Smith is filled with gratitude and eager to give back in the ways most meaningful to him. He reflects that “when you are a student, you really are not aware of the alumni, and [now] it feels so much better to know you have a network out there.”

In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith made a guest virtual appearance to Digital Media Production students in a class taught by Shannon Johnson, ’98, ’00.

“It was great that he was willing to give back to his alma mater,” Johnson says. “He is very gracious and spent more than two hours visiting with two classes talking about the TV industry, behind the camera as well as in front.”

Smith says it is an honor for him to give back in this way, talking with students about his two decades of professional experience in the industry. He was also thrilled to help with Giving Tuesday 2021, remarking that the sort of live interview he did with Van Breusegen was “exactly something I would have done when I was a student.”

On Giving Tuesday alumni Jim, ’80, and Eileen Hatfield and the UCM Emeriti Association generously provided over $12,000 in matching gifts. Van Breusegen and Reeves from the DMP program hosted two livestreamed power hours featuring the Fighting Mules Army ROTC cadets and the Mule Riders. The efforts resulted in a total of over $29,000 raised for the Central Annual Fund from 200 donors, with 30 of them being first-time donors to UCM.

Giving Tuesday ROTC 2021

When his toddler son and infant daughter are older, Smith hopes to bring them and his wife, Maggie, to Warrensburg and show them where he got his start at the Highlander Theatre.

“I would love to go back and stand on that stage and see how many seats are out there, because it looked like a million when I was in college,” he says. “I’d love to stand on that stage and soak it all in — this is where it all started.”

In the meantime, Smith has several projects in various stages of production, including the Christmas-themed movie “Holiday Twist,” playing Mr. Bolhofner in Nickelodeon’s live-action comedy “The Loud House,” the second episode of the upcoming season of “NCIS,” and, of course, the muchanticipated Apple TV+ comedy “Bad Monkey.”

No matter where the work takes him, Smith will always rely on the education he received at UCM to guide him forward.

Brian Thomas Smith Family

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