Joseph Zolfo ‘86N came to Admiral Farragut Academy by way of Staten Island and to filmmaking by way of childhood plays and home movies. Today, he produces the hit CBS TV show God Friended Me.
“Unequivocally, I would not be sitting in this chair today if I had not gone to Farragut,” he said from his office at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. “That’s an absolute fact. The bar was just set so high at Farragut.”
Joseph manages a crew of 300 from one of the largest TV and movie production facilities outside of Hollywood. His productions today may be more sophisticated, but certainly not more special than the shows he produced as a Staten Island boy.
He auditioned and cast his friends, assigning those who could sing and act into starring roles and those less artistically inclined in roles such as ushers and popcorn sellers. He played the lead, including a run as Danny in Grease, while managing to film it all on his 8mm camera.
Homemade programs were distributed to parents and neighbors, who had to buy tickets to watch the shows. He paid his actors and ushers between 50 cents and a dollar — keeping for himself “the lion’s share, of course,” he laughed.
Eventually, those backyard shows made way for summer fun at Farragut, thanks to Joseph’s mother. Once she told him about Summer Camp at the Pine Beach Campus, Joseph — still in junior high — just had to go.
Soon, Joseph was begging his parents to let him attend Farragut for high school. The Zolfos, like many parents, wanted their firstborn close to home (Joseph also has a younger brother, Nick). But Joseph’s success with the structure, discipline, and unique atmosphere of Farragut was hard to resist. They finally gave in.
Their decision to send him to Farragut would have a dramatic and lasting impact on Joseph.
Joseph quickly proved that transferring to Farragut was an excellent decision. A football player both years and a varsity wrestler, his true passions were piqued when he discovered an out-of-commission photography darkroom that had laid dormant for years. After writing a proposal to Headmaster Bob Matthies, he secured funding for the newly reinstated Photography Club at Farragut.
This was a turning point for Joseph, though not a distraction from Farragut’s rigorous academic standards.
His memories of Farragut are happy, especially those of his friendships, particularly with fellow cadet Scott Jacobs ‘86N. Joseph swears (wink-wink) that he and Scott, now living in New Jersey “NEVER went AWOL!”
“Times were actually so much more innocent then,” he said. “If we were off campus and met some nice girls out and about, we would ask them to join us for a slice of pizza at the local pizzeria and invite them to our next cotillion.”
As a junior and senior at Farragut, Joseph showed a talent for leadership and a heart for young people when serving as a Chief Petty Officer, 3rd Co, of the junior school kids. He still enjoys mentoring younger professionals and likens it to his days in training at Farragut.
Take for instance, Michael, a recent NYU graduate working today as Joseph’s assistant: “I tell Michael to keep writing and my dream is I’ll be working for HIM one day! That’s success.”
Encouraging Michael and building collaborative teams with others comes naturally for Joseph, who persevered against the odds to follow his passion.
After graduating from Farragut, Joseph’s father expected him to go into the family business, Variety Stores in Brooklyn. Instead, Joseph announced he would be switching from studying business at Long Island University to photography at Pratt Institute. This wasn’t exactly what his father had in mind.
The discipline, organizational skills, perseverance, and dedication learned at Farragut helped get him through. To pay for his classes, he would open the family store every morning, run to classes at Pratt, then come back to the store to manage and close. Within one year, Joseph increased sales, revamped its practices, and had it running more successfully than it had ever been.
Pratt became too pricey for Joseph and so he enrolled at SUNY Purchase, an acclaimed art college in Westchester County, New York, with a much more affordable tuition. It came with a seven-hour daily round trip commute from his apartment in Staten Island.
While still at SUNY Purchase, Joseph started work on his first job in film as a Parking Production Assistant for the Woody Allen movie Husbands and Wives. It paid $80 for a 12-hour shift. To maximize his earnings, Joseph would work a 72-hour shift with no sleep and go straight from the PA job to his 3½- hour commute out to SUNY.
“I did 72 hours on zero sleep each week for a year and a half, graduated after five-and-a-half years and completed 19 credits in my final semester alone,” he said.
Because of the work ethics of his family, the guiding principles from Farragut, and his own tenacity and focus: “I never missed a day of school, or a day of work . . . always early, never late.”
After college, Joseph began a career in film and television, going from Parking PA, to Production Assistant on the movie Sabrina, with Ann Roth, an Academy Award-winning costume designer. While on this film, Joseph was asked to become the “Parking Coordinator” on another Woody Allen movie, Mighty Aphrodite. Parking Coordinator meant having a supervisory role and managing a staff and a budget.
Knowing that Joseph wanted more than anything to eventually be a producer, Ann Roth encouraged him to leave the position with her and take the job with Allen, saying that he would realize his goals quicker by doing the Parking Coordinating job. Grateful for her advice and mentorship, Joseph took the position.
Later, Joseph landed the job of Location Manager for Without A Trace, which gave him the flexibility to secure iconic locations for filming and then have enough time to produce his own low-budget movies.
In 2006, he produced his first movie, Things That Hang from Trees, with only a $1-million budget. Joseph quickly garnered a great reputation in the industry and became a Production Supervisor, then Production Manager, and eventually Lead Producer on many films including the comedy Puerto Ricans in Paris and the action thrillers Safe and Dead Man Down. His growing demands as a TV Producer eventually led Joseph to prominent producer credits on NCIS: New Orleans and his latest project, God Friended Me.
God Friended Me won out over several other film and television projects with various studios that Joseph was asked to produce in 2018. The overall message of the show speaks to Joseph’s heart in a way he feels is more in line with his personal beliefs than past projects that often included crime and violence.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “We try very hard to tap into raw sentiments. That’s what this show is about, the emotional aspect and faith. It’s a show that just makes you feel good.”
Another thing that makes him feel good is giving back to his communities. His list of philanthropic giving and civic activism exemplify Farragut’s core value of integrity — “demonstrate caring and compassion for others.”
That caring and compassion includes supporting several schools and charities, including A Child’s Wish of New Orleans and The Sunshine Kids organization. He also founded a bi-annual trash removal program in New Orleans, is a vocal proponent of Prep school personnel and first-responders, and a business ambassador for his communities.
Meanwhile, he found time to create a paid internship program on the set of NCIS New Orleans, specifically for students at the University of New Orleans. It was his way of keeping a promise to himself that if he ever got to a point where he could help young people get their start in the film business, he would.
Despite his busy schedule, Joseph remains committed to his wife Carrie, a financial analyst, and their 10-year-old son Maximilian. Although his four years of producing NCIS moved his family to New Orleans, his wife and son are seriously considering a move back to Staten Island so they can again be under one roof.
As for the possibility of Maximilian attending Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg? Joseph said he would absolutely love for his son to get an education at Farragut. For now, however, Maximilian sees himself as a “computer coder” — rather than a Top Gun pilot (one of Joseph’s dreams for his son).
Joseph reminds himself that at one time his own father’s dreams did not match his. Still, his love of Farragut and the lessons he learned there have filtered into the habits and mindset of his son.
“Maximilian truly understands the ethics of hard work and showing up,” he said, adding that Maximilian has taken to mimicking one of his Dad’s favorite mantras, “Early is on time. On time is late!”
For Joseph Zolfo — producer, husband, father, son, brother, alumnus — the principles of Farragut still guide him today and provide a set of ideals on which fathers and sons can ultimately see eye to eye.