Alumnus Finds Success and Opportunity in a Fickle Profession
As a walk-on for the St. John’s University Men’s Basketball Team, Otoja Abit ’08CPS quickly realized the importance of teamwork—which is serving him well now as he pursues an acting and directing career.
“As a director, I have a say who is on my team,” he explained, noting that it is uncommon for people in his industry to work together on multiple projects. “I come from the sports world, where I am only as good as my team. If I did it well already one time, why change what works? That attitude differentiates me from a lot of people in the art world—and I think that is a good thing.”
The son of immigrant parents from Nigeria and a native of Queens, NY, Mr. Abit wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, who graduated from St. John’s. “He went to this prestigious school in New York City, and I saw the good it did for him,” Mr. Abit recalled. “Plus, I was attracted to their great basketball program.”
A graduate of Archbishop Molloy High School, Mr. Abit wanted to stay home for college and play for a NCAA Division I team. “I knew St. John’s was a stepping stone and would offer me so many more networking opportunities after I graduated. Luckily, I had the right people supporting me.”
While at St. John’s, Mr. Abit became acquainted with Donald (’53C, ’89HON) and Eleanor Taffner ’94HON, longtime supporters of the University’s athletic programs, both of whom became his mentors. Mr. Taffner, an independent distributor and producer of television programming, was responsible for bringing such television shows as Three’s Company, Too Close for Comfort, and The Benny Hill Show to the US.
“He knew what it took to be successful both behind and in front of the camera,” Mr. Abit said.
Mr. Abit felt the pull of acting, but basketball and academics left him with little time for anything else. He eventually realized a career in professional basketball was unlikely, so he began to vigorously pursue acting—something he felt equally as passionate about as athletics. During the summers, he began auditioning for local projects in the New York City area.
“Mr. Taffner made me part of his team from day one, which propelled me into this career because he believed in me,” Mr. Abit explained. “It all started with him during my time at St. John’s.” Mr. Taffner connected Mr. Abit with people in the industry who eventually helped him obtain representation and steer him in the right direction.
Mr. Abit’s life changed after meeting Broadway director Gregory Mosher, who offered him a position as Assistant Director on That Championship Season, which starred Brian Cox, Jason Patric, Chris Noth, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jim Gaffigan, in a play about four basketball players and their coach. “I felt the stars aligned for me right there,” Mr. Abit recalled. “Basketball was what got me into that play.” His knowledge of the game intertwined with the subject matter perfectly.
As he built an impressive body of work, Mr. Abit realized the importance of marketing and creating his own opportunities and brand. Working on That Championship Season inspired him to create material that served as a showcase for his talent. “People want to know what you have done before and why they should invest in you,” he observed.
He wrote and directed Jitters, a short film which tells the story of a groom experiencing a bout of nerves on his wedding day. The film garnered a wealth of positive critical attention and was shown at several film festivals. Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr. Abit followed it with his first feature film, A New York Christmas Wedding. Both films explore the theme of roads not taken, and how a single decision can forever alter one’s life.
Mr. Abit was fortunate enough to cast Mr. Patric in Jitters and Mr. Noth in A New York Christmas Wedding. He viewed their willingness to appear in his productions as a huge stamp of approval. “It is wonderful when friends and family tell you that you have done a good job, but when you have people who have enjoyed success at a high level put their name and talent in my film, it means so much,” he said. “They are saying they believe in me.
“That’s something that started at St. John’s, with people like my coaches, teammates, and Donald Taffner. All roads lead back there.”
The trailer for Jitters can be viewed here and A New York Christmas Wedding here.