Alumni Stories: Stephen Unger, Fall 1965

Stephen Unger while studying in Florence in 1965

After attending NYU’s Graduate Film School, Stephen A. Unger lived abroad for 10+ years during which time he co-founded Foster’s Hollywood, a massive European restaurant chain with over 200 locations in Spain and Portugal. He went on to make a name for himself in Hollywood as a producer, distributor, and executive recruiter. In May he returned to Florence and visited the Villa Rossa.

When did you study here and how did you arrive in Italy?

I don’t recall the precise dates of my studies in Italy.  I know I came early for the Fall ’65 Program, and stayed late. My family had moved to Paris, France after my graduation from Beverly Hills High School in the spring of 1963. I enrolled at Syracuse that September and for the next two years spent Christmas, Easter and summer vacations in Europe. I drove from Paris to Florence, accompanied by my older brother Tony, arriving a couple of weeks before the start of classes. Since (at least in those days) Syracuse students were not permitted to drive during the Program, I turned my car over to Tony who returned to Paris in it.

What did you study here? 

Fine Arts (especially the Renaissance), Political Science and, of course, Italian.

What was your impression of Florence?

I loved every minute of my time in Florence.  My folks had already instilled in me a great interest in foreign cultures and world history. Florence was and is glorious. Roaming the city was like being embedded in a fabulous outdoor museum. I was totally swept up in the breathtaking art and architecture, political intrigue and momentous historical events which were emblematic of Florence.

Any particularly memorable experiences either inside or outside of the classroom while you here?  

Too many to count or recount.  I had great teachers so the course work was vigorous and rewarding. The program encouraged us to immerse ourselves into Italian life, make Italian friends, speak the language (in those days, the two families I stayed with were instructed not to speak to us in English and that was a very good thing – “Necessity being the mother of invention.”). I remember the Giotto room at the Uffizi as being particularly impactful.  Facing Giotto’s Madonna flanked by Duccio’s and Cimabue’s, I felt like I was witnessing the birth of the Renaissance (or at least a precursor to it.) Also memorable was my brother’s return to Florence at the end of the program when he turned over the keys to the Triumph Spitfire to me and I spent the next two weeks alone driving down from Florence to Rome to Naples, down the Amalfi Coast to Reggio Calabria. Taking the ferry over to Messina (Sicily), then Catania, Siracusa, Agrigento and across to Palermo. The way back to Naples to ship the car back to Syracuse where I would join it for the remainder of my Junior and Senior years. Lots of fun for a 19-year-old kid in a convertible!

Stephen Unger in the 1980s

You went on to have a very successful career as a Hollywood executive, among other things. Did your time abroad have an impact on your career path?

Absolutely! It was integral to any success I may have enjoyed.  It’s helpful to know foreign languages (I’ve managed to learn several).  An accidental byproduct of learning other languages is that it necessarily improves your fluency in your mother tongue. You become much more attune to grammar, structure and meaning.  However, it is much more useful to be culturally fluent; that is, to be able visit/reside in a foreign land and adjust accordingly.  Said otherwise: to be able to see things through a foreigner’s eyes.  To be open to differences and embrace them. I ended up living in Europe for over ten years and it helped me immeasurably in my personal interactions as well as my business activities.

How has Florence changed since you studied here?

In 58 years….lots! For one thing, it is much more crowded, almost unrecognizable from the mid-1960s. The long lines around places of interest and the constant influx of tourists is noticeable. However, the beauty of Florence is eternal and it is still thrilling to approach the Duomo and other majestic sights – that has not diminished.

Any advice for current students?

Be bold. Battle to learn the language as well as you can. Reach out for new Italian friends.  Treat every day of your stay in Florence as if it were a precious jewel.

Stephen Unger at Villa San Michele in Fiesole, May 2023