Ms. Petrie began her career as an actress, and later worked as a casting director and agent. She began her producing career 1979 with Orphan Train for CBS, while simultaneously publishing a novel of the same title.
Dorothea: "I've worked throughout the industry with the exception of business. In my next life, I'm going to have a business degree and a law degree. When our girls were in high school and our boys were in college, I realized that I would soon have some time and I felt that producing was the thing that I could do best. I know material. I've worked with good writers like Carl Sandberg. Dan had a fine reputation but I didn't want to go on that reputation. I didn't want people to hire me because of Dan and expect Dan to direct the picture.
"I found this historical story about trains in the 1850s that took 100,000 orphan kids around different cities to find homes for them. I researched it and sold it first to United Artists as a feature film with Steve McQueen (as the gambler on the trains) and Ali McGraw (as the woman shepherding the orphans). Steve and Ali broke up and the project died. I bought it back and sold it to CBS as a TV movie. This was 1979 and the Sam Peckinpah period and the tough tough pictures he did.
"I felt more comfortable in the world of television. I took the project to EMI, to Roger Gimbel and Marian Rees. It was the kind of picture that had something to say aside from being an important story. I want the audience to say, 'Oh, that's interesting,' without knowing they're getting a message.
"I'm occasionally asked to do a picture that not like that and I say another producer can do that better. I don't do rape or the latest headlines.
"It's harder to sell my type of movies right now because the networks aren't buying as many films. They now need the marketing and the star names as much or more than the story. That's why we have a lot of films being done that perhaps shouldn't be.
"I've been in the fortunate position over the years to have people ask me to bring them projects. I'm known for my niche. I can do any subject, but I like to have something positive about that subject."
Luke: "Would you judge any of your projects as failure or are all of them successes?"
Dorothea: "In degrees, I think they're all good to terrific. The last one I did, for Masterpiece Theater, called Song of the Lark, is a lovely picture. But we were using Willa Cather's 400-plus page novel. I hesitated to do it because each of her characters could've been a film in itself. We used the most autobiographical part of her novel - about a girl who felt like a fish out of water in her home town. She's a talented writer and nobody understands her goal to be someone. Willa Cather was most interested in the struggle to become an artist. I think our movie was good but it was not good enough. And I don't think we could've made it good enough unless we had done it as a mini-series.
"It sounds pollyanish, but I try not to do anything that I know I'm not going to be pleased with ahead of time. Directors often think they can do anything..."
Luke: "It sounds like you put an enormous effort in pre-production..."
Dorothea: "When you're asked to do something in a real hurry, that's when you're found out. I had problems with a lot of the shows but the biggest problems I had with a picture called Crash Landing: The Rescue Of Flight 232. I told the sponsor AT&T that I don't crash pictures but they told me that this was different. And it was. It was about a young guy, Gary Brown, in the Sioux City, sheriff's department. He said we should have a rescue unit in case we have a tornado or something. The hospitals aren't ready. And he bugged everybody so much they gave him some space and let him do his thing. He ran practice rescue operations and people would smile.
"So when that plane lost its transmission, they asked, 'Where can we land? Keep us away from the city.' And Sioux City said, come to us, we're ready. And they were. And they saved almost everybody on board.
"AT&T had to downsize, so we lost them as a sponsor. When I went to the Sioux City community and said that I had to shoot the movie in Canada because of the exchange rate, they said no. We can help you. And they did. We had someone donate a plastic silo. As a producer, you have to find ways to get things done.
"All the rescue operations around the country that had their budgets slashed, the monies were restored because of our picture.
"The second film I did was License to Kill, about drunk driving. My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was a youngster. I didn't want to do that story but MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) came to me to do their story. I wanted people to sit in the audience of License to Kill and say, 'That could've been me. I had an extra martini at lunch.' The story is about an upright citizen, with a wife and kids, who had a couple of drinks at lunch and was driving with his drink. And it is a high school girl, the Valedictorian, who's driving along and is killed."
Luke: "Isn't there a level of ruthlessness required in getting films made? Have you ever felt that you had to sell your soul to do a project?"
Dorothea: "No. And I wouldn't. I've never had to be ruthless. I have had to fire people. I'm not afraid to be tough. Actress Jean Stapleton said about me, 'She's so nice but she has a spine of steel.'"
Luke: "Your background as a casting director has helped you working with actors?"
Dorothea: "Oh yes. I used to think I knew every actor in New York. Many people that are well known today, we gave their first job to..."
Luke: "Many producers fear actors."
Dorothea: "Oh that would be terrible. I've only had a couple of prima donnas who thought they knew everything. That's unfortunate because it shows up on the face of the actor. They're not the best they can be. Those kind of people I don't understand. I think they're hurting themselves. I wish that we could do pictures now that didn't depend on a name. Many times you have to cast someone who is not as good as can be for a role, and as a result, the movie is not as good as it could be.
"When I was doing Orphan Train at CBS, the casting head was Jeanne Guess. She said to me, 'Dorothea, I love this project but they're going to drop it because there isn't a prominent enough star.' Remember we had 24 children and a man and a woman. A big star wouldn't do it because of the 24 kids. Jeanne said to me, 'Tell me who you want for the picture and that's who we'll get.'
"I had the cover on New York magazine. There were four actresses - including Jill Eikenberry. Jill had only done theater and wore her hair in a Victorian style. I wanted her to play Emma Symms. Kevin Dobson played Frank Carlin the gambler. We couldn't cast such unknowns today.
"You've got an Aussie actor Tom Wilkinson right now in a wonderful picture called In The Bedroom. He's a wonderful but unknown actor. He's paired with Sissy Spacek and the movie's directed by Todd Field. But it's rare to get an independent picture off the ground with only one star. You Can Count On Me is a wonderful independent picture with no big stars. That's the way I'd prefer to cast unless the star is right. To have Chuck Heston, to have Noah, piloting that plane in Crash Landing was perfect."
Luke: "Can movies only do good or can they also do harm?"
Dorothea: "Movies can do terrible things. You only have to see children going around shooting with their fingers. I think the people that do features with violence for violence sake are just awful. I truly think that kids on the border [of sanity and morality] see themselves being heroes. I think commercials can be a great danger. Every time we sit down and see a car commercial which shows someone going from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds... If I was a kid looking at that, I'd say, 'I have to get into a car and go like that.' I think that's very destructive.
"I wouldn't make anything that I wouldn't want my children or grandchildren to see.
"If I found the right story, I'd deal with suicide or mental illness. But it can't be about those subjects, it has to be a wonderful story."
Luke: "How did you balance your career with being a wife and mother?"
Dorothea: "Fortunately, I never had a problem balancing work and being a wife and mother to four children. As casting director for the U.S. Steel Hour at the Theatre Guild, and later an associate with Lucy Kroll, a prominent New York agent, my work schedule ended at 3PM - deliberately timed to match the children's coming home from school. Because my schedule was timed to my husband and children, there never seemed to be any resentment."
Luke: "Is Hollywood a nice place to raise a family?"
Dorothea: "Yes and no. Our permanent move to Los Angeles came when our oldest son was entering college, our second son entering high school, and our twin daughters in elementary school. One of the first questions our daughters asked after attending school was, 'Who do we know who's famous?' In the East they had been around celebrities, and they were just the same as all our friends. Los Angeles is a "star-struck" community and the need for status in Hollywood does affect children and families more than in other communities."
Luke: "How do you measure success?"
Dorothea: "Any person who is fortunate enough to work at something they truly love is successful. It is hard for me to imagine spending hours at a job I disliked. I am pleased to be respected by my peers. Good reviews are always gratifying. Earnings are important in Hollywood. I was told, 'Do you know that you are the most expensive television movie producer in Hollywood?' That fact is important and impressive to some folks in our business. What they don't know is that if I truly love a project, I'd do it no matter what it paid."
Luke: "What do you still want from producing movies?"
Dorothea: "I want wonderful stories and scripts that are exciting and meaningful. And I want gifted people to work with me."