No myth: Alumnus explores his calling through writing, traveling

December 22, 2022
Two pictures of Phil Cousineau, the right one of him smiling outdoors and the left a photo of him sitting next to a sign saying Global Spirit.

When Phil Cousineau was a first-year student, he couldn’t keep his eyes open in class.

It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the material of Judy Serrin’s 8 a.m. journalism class at University of Detroit. But in addition to taking a full course load, Cousineau was also working night shift at a steel factory to help support his mother, brother and sister. 

What happened next is what Cousineau ’74 called “a mentor moment,” the first of a string during his time at the University that helped shape who he became and pushed him toward a long and multi-faceted career following his graduation.

Phil Cousineau and Joesph Campbell, in tuxedosFrom teaching at the American Film Institute, to hosting a show on PBS, to writing and publishing dozens of books, films and documentaries and being considered one of the “go-to guys” for mythology in the modern world for several Marvel Universe and Major League Baseball films, Cousineau has used his education to carve a unique and fascinating niche in the world.

But it wouldn’t have happened without the help from mentors, like Serrin, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize while working at the Detroit Free Press.

“She found me falling asleep and she did something that I will never forget,” Cousineau said. “She took me aside and said, ‘What’s wrong? You’re a good writer, you’re late with all of your work, you’re falling asleep.’

“I told her it’s because of working in a factory and you know what she did? She looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t know, I wish you had told me. So, here’s the deal: If you can, hand in all of your stories that I ask you to write by the end of the year. I won’t do that for anyone else, but I understand the situation with your family.’ It changed my life.

“Here’s something from my journalism professor saying that I trust you, I want you to keep writing, I don’t want you to drop out of school. In many ways, it changed everything for me.”

Cousineau, who grew up in Wayne, Mich. — and fell in love with writing the first day he walked into his job at the Wayne Dispatch at 16 — always had a love of learning. He discovered that rather early in life and it was spurred even further when the family television broke when he was 10. Instead of watching TV as a family, the Cousineau family read.

And that yearn for reading, learning and what he calls a lifelong fascination with words continued when he arrived on campus at Livernois and McNichols in 1970.

“What U-D gave me was a love of words,” Cousineau said. “I think that goes back centuries in Jesuit lore, where you are taught a love of learning, a love of words, a love of research and that has never left me.”

phil cousineau paris outside a storeAnother mentor during his college career at U-D was Theodore Walter, S.J., who, also during Cousineau's freshman year, pushed him even further with reading and books. Fr. Walter, seemed to know what he needed, Cousineau said.

“We mostly talked about books. He gave me reading lists from philosophy to mythology to the sciences,” he said. “He knew what I needed, that love of learning and respect for research. I remember him helping me get into the Stacks in the library and helping me find books for essays I was writing. That rigorous discipline that the Jesuits had been known for centuries was implicated on me. My teachers gave me a discipline that I’ve had for the rest of my life.”

And Cousineau carried that Jesuit legacy into his multi-disciplinary career that has carried him on many different pathways since he graduated in 1974. After living for a few years in Europe, soaking up art, history, languages, he moved to California where a chance encounter with a fellow patron at a movie theatre led to him teaching at the American Film Institute.

“It was one of those life-changing moments,” he said. “Within two weeks, I was teaching a course on Myth, Dream and the Movies at the American Film Institute with James Earl Jones and Julie Christie in the front row.

“Everything that I had been reading, everything that I had learned at Detroit was all coming to fruition. It felt natural.”

Cousineau’s fascination with mythology eventually led him to work with writer Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars and has helped pave Cousineau’s unique career path ever since.

“I worked with Joe and I’m the one who did the interview with him where he says, ‘follow your bliss and doors will open,’” Cousineau said. “I was able to get that out of him because that’s what I’ve done, I’ve followed my passion ever since I left U-D.

“Right at that time, nobody, not even George Lucas, had really begun talking about the mythology in movies. That was really the big career break. I’ve carved out this life, one of the most fun things, being the go-to guys for myth in the modern world.”

And that path has taken him all over the globe.

His mythology expertise has been utilized in films on Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Tony Romo, Wonder Woman, Batman and the Pixar movies, Coco and Soul.

cousineau in greece outside“I’ve always wanted to find patterns,” he said. “I want to know what the connection is between biochemistry and mythology. I’ve studied things like that for years and I was encouraged to do this at U-D because my advisors, especially Fr. Walters, constantly encouraged me to be cross-disciplinary.”

His published books include The Art of Pilgrimage, which examines the spiritual inspiration behind why we travel; The Olympic Odyssey, which examines the mythology in sports and Ancient Greece prior to the 2004 Olympics in Athens; and The Painted Word, another ode to Cousineau’s love for words and their origins.

The U.S. Olympic committee enjoyed The Olympic Odyssey so much that it was presented as a gift to all of the United States athletes who competed in Greece in 2004. His published works have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.

Cousineau’s love of learning is still strong as he continues to write, teach students from all over the world, lend his expertise in mythology and lead travel tours overseas.

He owes it all to his parents and the strong mentorship and the education he received while attending University of Detroit. And it’s what he passes on.

Recently he was guest lecturing in a journalism class just across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, where Cousineau resides, to students who were back in the classroom for the first time since the pandemic.

“They looked shell shocked. And I told them what I want them to think about from this point on is, ‘what can I do to contribute?’ and these kids, you could tell, a tremendous weight had been lifted from their shoulders. It wasn’t just about success. It's what you can do to help others.

“Later, I heard from the teacher who said that most of those kids had never been told that they can make a difference in the world. And I think that I got that originally from my parents and from U-D. That’s what I try to carry on.”

More on Cousineau

  • Cousineau has published more than 40 books, has earned 30 scriptwriting and 25 television credits, and has contributed to over 75 other books. 
  • His screenwriting credits have won more than 35 international awards and he’s sold over one million books, which have also been printed into more than a dozen languages.
  • Host and co-writer of Global Spirit on PBS for a decade, with 5-6 million viewers each week.
  • Story consultant on Myth in the Movies for more than 30 films, including Warner Brothers, Twentieth-Century Fox, Lucas Films and Pixar.
  • Led travel study programs all over the world, including Ireland, Greece, Paris, Cuba and England
  • Appeared in all four programs of the Smithsonian and MLB-produced Major League Legends documentary series on Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Hank Aaron.
  • Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement was honored as the Campus Book of the Year, as suggested reading for all 40,000-plus students at University of Indiana in 2014-15.
  • Book on baseball poetry, Fungoes and Fastballs, was endorsed by no less than Ernie Harwell and Mickey Lolich and is currently completing a novel on boyhood hero, Al Kaline, entitled, Waiting for Kaline: A Baseball Story for All Ages.

— By Adam Bouton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.