A photo of a man from the shoulders up
After graduating from VCU in 1973, Richard C. Hankins went on to an award-winning career designing sets and lighting for theater productions and television shows. (Courtesy photo)

Emmy-winning alum gives back to VCU theatre department that helped him find his calling

Richard C. Hankins is donating $500,000 from his estate to start an annual scholarship for students following in his footsteps and majoring in either scenic, lighting or costume design.

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Dumb luck brought two-time Emmy winner Richard C. Hankins to Virginia Commonwealth University to study theater design in 1969. But his experiences here made such an impact that it stayed with him throughout his career — which started in local theater productions and culminated on prime-time television shows such as “NYPD Blue” and “Private Practice.”

“What I learned [at VCU] was the camaraderie of being in a theater production with other people, all working together to make something really wonderful,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience and that’s what I think I carried through my whole career — being a part of that.” 

Wanting to give back to the community that set him on his path, Hankins is donating from his estate, a gift of about $500,000 to the Department of Theatre in the VCU School of the Arts to set up an annual scholarship for students majoring in scenic, lighting or costume design.

“I have always been interested in helping young designers, whether reviewing their portfolios, hiring them, or referring them to other designers and producers,” Hankins said. “I wanted to set up a scholarship fund for talented designers in the VCU Theatre program to help defray the costs of materials and the cost of starting their careers as designers. I have been so very lucky to meet and work with talented people who gave me my chances, and so I wish to honor those who gave to me by setting up a scholarship specifically for designers.”

Scholarships mean so much for future generations, said Bonnie McCoy, chair of the VCU Department of Theatre.

“For many years the theatre department has been very successful at training designers and technicians and helping them get their first professional jobs,” she said. “Most of our graduates go on to successful careers nationally — including working in regional shows, touring companies, and even on Broadway. We have been able to do this in spite of the fact that we don’t otherwise have a lot of scholarship funding available. Our faculty work professionally and take great pride in helping students begin professional careers of their own. This generous gift will help us support those students in other ways as well.

“We are very honored that Hankins is a part of the VCU history.”

A black and white illustration of a crime scene.
One of Richard Hankins' sketches for an “NYPD Blue” set depicting the lobby of an apartment building. (Courtesy photo)

VCU speaks the universal language

Hankins originally applied to the art department at American University across the river from his hometown of McLean, Virginia, simply because he had a lot of friends in the area.

But the AU admissions officers weren’t interested in his art portfolio. Rather, they wanted to know how many years of a foreign language he had taken in high school.

Technically he had taken a foreign language for three years — one year each of French, Spanish and Latin. But AU required at least two years of one language.

“And I said, ‘Well, I don't quite understand that. I'm going into the art department. And my understanding is that art is a universal language,’” Hankins said. While the clever response failed to impress AU, it’s just the kind of off-the-wall attitude that VCU embraces.

After reviewing Hankins’ record, talents and interests — and his art portfolio — VCU’s admissions counselors suggested he join the theatre department. “You could be a design major,” they said. At that point, Hankins said, he would have taken anything.

“So, I applied, and they accepted me in the theatre design department, which I had no idea what the hell that was,” he said. “How I got into the theatre department was just by luck, I mean just sheer luck. And actually, my career has been kind of like that too.”

A photo of a the lobby of an apartment building.
A set from “NYPD Blue” based on Richard Hankins' sketch of the lobby of an apartment building. (Courtesy photo)

The road to Hollywood

After graduating from VCU with a degree in scenic and lighting design in 1973, Hankins designed scenery and lighting various venues around Richmond; Washington, D.C.; and Brunswick, Maine. He made about $50 a week — barely enough to cover gas, food and rent. He moved on to the assistant designer position at what was then the Virginia Museum Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, eventually becoming the resident designer. His first production there was “The Caretaker” by Harold Pinter.

“It's an interesting play,” Hankins said. “It kind of starts from nowhere and ends in nowhere.” After the director, Keith Fowler, rejected about 25 set designs, “I realized what he wanted me to do was to design a show that asked nothing but questions, that gave no answers because that's what Pinter did. Once I figured that out, it was like, ‘I got it!’ So, everything designed for the set made no sense.”

Hankins later became resident designer with former classmate Jim Bloch.

“I always appreciated Richard’s dedication to his role in the design team,” Bloch said. “Always looking to help out where needed and using a fresh and innovative eye towards his designs. I learned a lot from him. He was a good friend and colleague.” 

Hankins went on to work for several more theaters in the Richmond area — winning several honors, including being named to dogmatic theater critic Roy Proctor’s “Phoebe List” in the Richmond Times-Dispatch numerous times — before deciding he could no longer live paycheck-to-paycheck and needed to take the union entrance exam. He moved to New York in 1979, joining United Scenic Artists, local 829, and landed jobs on several productions including the soap opera “Another World.”

“I immediately went from making $1 a day to $600 a week,” Hankins said. Working on television sets for a few years — including “Guiding Light,” which earned him two Emmy awards — allowed him to understand how the camera sees the set, differentiating TV and film from stage settings.

Two black and white illustrations of city streets with text describing the sence underkneath.
A sketch by Richard Hankins for a scene in the television show “NYPD Blue.” (Courtesy photo)

By 1995, Hankins had moved to Los Angeles where he joined the Art Directors Guild, local 800, and became production designer for ABC’s “NYPD Blue” — a position he held for more than 10 years and more than 200 episodes.

There, Hankins said, he worked with a great group of creative and gifted people. “We all had a lot of fun. … But the biggest thing was that Steven Bochco — who was the executive producer and co-creator — believed that you hire the best people and you let them go do their thing: ‘As long as I see it on the screen!’ And so that was it. I was allowed to read the scripts and allowed to design without worrying about a budget.”

He received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Art Direction and a Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors Excellence in Design nomination for his work on “NYPD Blue.” He went on to design the first season of TNT’s “Saving Grace” and two seasons of ABC’s “Private Practice.” In addition to numerous Emmy nominations throughout his career, Hankins was nominated twice for the ADG Outstanding Production Design award and received the Lou Dorfsman CBS Outstanding Design award.

The devil in the details

Hankins’ work has always been informed by his time at VCU, which required theatre students to take a wide swath of classes, regardless of their concentration. So as a design student, Hankins still had to take everything from acting and directing to dance and costume design.

An illustration of a stage with actors standing on it in costumes.
VCU alum Richard C. Hankins sketched the setting for a scene from “Richard III” at the Virginia Museum Theatre in 1977. (Courtesy photo)

“One of the things that the acting class taught me was, when you had a character, you would be required to come in with a complete bio of that character — where they were born, how they were brought up, events in their lives, everything that pertained to their character that would not be in the script,” he said. “And by doing that, it taught me to do the same thing as a designer.”

If an actor opened a drawer, Hankins made sure that drawer contained something relevant to their character.

“I would always tell my decorators that everything should have a backstory,” he said. “So, if I pick up anything on the set and say, ‘Where did this come from?’ I expect you to tell me where the character got it and its history.”

Details like that support the action, Hankins said. It gives the actors room to be even more creative.  

Today, Hankins lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he continues to create — a passion that goes back to his childhood when he would take things apart and put them back together just to figure out how they worked.

Back then, he would disregard the instructions to plastic model kits, and construct the model by looking at the picture on the box and building what made sense to him. “Which was, you know, the fun of it all,” he said. He worked his way up to giant models with thousands of pieces, such as the Cutty Sark clipper ship.

“I loved doing that,” Hankins said. “I [also] started drawing as a young child and doing sketches. I became a big fan of N.C. Wyeth for his illustrations that were very cinematic and theatrical.”

These days, Hankins regularly hosts potluck dinner-and-movie nights for 20 or 30 artistic friends outdoors — his giant movie screen comes with a lighted marquee that reads “THE WILMINGTONIAN THEATER, CLASSIC MOVIES UNDER THE STARS!” — or in “THE CINEMA GARAGE,” his former two-car garage that he converted into a smaller movie venue for rainy days and winter showings. 

A photo of a screen in a back yard with a sign over it that says \"WILMINGTONIAN THEATER\"
VCU alum Richard C. Hankins had an award-winning career designing sets and lighting for theater and television productions. These days, Hankins regularly screens classic movies outdoors at THE WILMINGTONIAN THEATER in his yard. (Courtesy photo)