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Spelling bee champ achieves success as writer, actor, teacher

By Elena Watts
March 15, 2014 at 9:05 p.m.
Updated March 15, 2014 at 10:16 p.m.

Mel Cowan, 36, of Los Angeles, Calif. canoes on Lady Bird Lake in Austin. The writer, actor and teacher was the 1992 Regional Spelling Bee Champion.

"G-R-I-S-S-I-N-O."

"Grissino," said Mel Cowan, then 14, at the 1992 regional spelling bee.

Correctly spelling the word for a crisp breadstick won the Crain Intermediate School student a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The champion speller has remained interested in words.

The writer, actor and teacher lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, Katie Neith, a science writer and associate editor at Caltech.

Cowan, 36, advises future spelling bee champions to have fun in Washington, D.C.

"I remember fondly the smart kids I hung out with," Cowan said. "Hundreds of us were all keyed up and excited, running around the hotel, getting into mischief."

"V-O-L-I-T-I-O-N-I-A-L. Volitional," Cowan said at the national spelling bee.

"I put an extra 'i' in there," he said.

Misspelling the word, which means willpower, taught Cowan an invaluable lesson. In hindsight, he learned the importance of remaining graceful in defeat.

"I'm ashamed of how cranky I was when I didn't win," he said. "It was a blast, and I should have been excited about the good stuff instead of being grumpy about the bad."

Cowan grew up on Rio Vista Drive in the Cimarron subdivision and attended DeLeon and Dudley elementary schools as well as Crain Intermediate School. He graduated from Victoria High School in 1996.

In 2000, he earned his bachelor's degree from the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin.

Fresh out of school, the graduate stayed in Austin as long as he could before he took the plunge in Los Angeles.

"I was close to making it happen in Austin, but there was not enough industry there at the time," he said. "There were more jobs in L.A."

Cowan worked the graveyard shift in "awful, menial production assistant positions" for reality shows to make ends meet.

"The first year in L.A. is awful," he said. "You either make it work, or you leave."

Cowan landed a writing job with the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He composed content for the magazine and website as well as other school materials.

Cowan and his friends formed a group called Animals from the Future at a time when the alternative comedy scene was growing in Los Angeles. They began creating sketch videos.

"We would have a dumb idea, and we'd say, 'Let's film it,'" Cowan said. "It was a D-I-Y sort of thing."

The group disbanded in 2005 when member Bill Hader joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live."

In 2006, Cowan began taking improvisation classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles. He began teaching the classes two years ago.

"UCB is the only nationally accredited school of improvisation in the country," Cowan said. "I owe an enormous amount of whatever success I've had directly to the theatre and the people I work with every day."

Through his theater training and contacts, Cowan has carved out a niche as an actor in television commercials and other projects.

"Acting and teaching pay for my writing habit," Cowan said. "My first dream is to write, but the ability to perform is a pleasant surprise."

Cowan is working on a variety of projects, including an hour-long drama and three comedies.

"Some people focus on one project at a time, but I take the intense-fire, shotgun approach," he said.

The collaboration Cowan has practiced in the theater has prepared him for his main goal.

"We try to make each other look good," he said. "We take each other's ideas and try to make them bigger and better."

Cowan ultimately wants to work in a writer's room for a television show.

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