Why one Mormon man left Hollywood to be a high school teacher

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 11 2013 8:00 a.m. MST

Every now and then it still happens. Someone will stare at Scott Ditty, a local high school coach and teacher, and ask, “Do I know you? You look familiar.”

In another lifetime, Ditty was a professional actor. He made a brief career with small movie and TV roles and commercials until he decided he could better live his Mormon faith and do more good by teaching and coaching youth. These days you can find him at Alta High School, where he plays many roles: defensive coordinator of the football team, head track coach, powerlifting instructor and film studies teacher. The latter is one of the most popular classes at Alta. Students get to watch movies in class and then discuss them with a guy who was in them.

For 15 years Ditty was in showbiz. A decade ago he gave it all up and moved to Utah, trading a footloose and sometimes-glamorous lifestyle to teach teenagers in a portable on the back lot at Alta.

“Honestly, I love teaching and coaching,” says the 50-year-old Ditty. “I love these kids.”

I became acquainted with Ditty while coaching football and track at Alta myself, and I have firsthand knowledge about the intensity and passion he brings to the job. But seriously, who gives up on Hollywood to become a school teacher?

He was no star, but he was making a living and getting call-backs and bit parts regularly. He was a guard in “Con Air,” working with John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage and getting a giant, tight shot of his face on the screen. He was the henchman in a family movie called “Just Like Dad.” He had a lead role in a TV movie, “Just in Time.” He was Frank in “Last Resort.” He was Officer Gaines in a TV movie “Before He Wakes” with Jaclyn Smith (“I teased her that my childhood dream of hanging out with Charlie’s Angels had come true; she was well-mannered and sweet.”). He played a guard (again) in “Blink of an Eye” with Mimi Rodgers. He was Gerald Stone in “The Ticket” with Shannen Doherty. He had guest roles in the TV shows “Touched by an Angel,” “Promised Land” and “Extreme,” among others.

But mostly he was Jim and Ruth’s son, and ultimately that shaped his decision to make a middle-age career change. The Dittys raised five children in a tight family whose foundation was built on the LDS faith. Jim, a tough Irishman from Chicago’s south side, was a high school coach and teacher, and eventually Scott followed in his footsteps. Jim was a graduate assistant football coach at BYU and then the head football coach at Pleasant Grove High for two years before moving his family to Weimar, Calif., and making a career of coaching and teaching at Placer High.

As fate would have it, several people in the entertainment business settled in the Dittys' neighborhood. One of them heard Scott singing in church and convinced him to audition for local theater productions. He was the Artful Dodger in “Oliver” and Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” In high school he drifted away from theater to sports. He was an undersized (5-foot-7) linebacker and guard on a state championship team and later played for Sierra College. A broken vertebra ended his playing days.

Ditty turned to theater again and rediscovered his love of acting after playing one of the lead roles in “Grease.” He accepted an invitation from his sister to join her in Utah and enrolled at Utah Valley Community College, where he studied acting and competed on the debate team. Three years later, he left school and went to LA “thinking I’m going to be a star. It was a dose of reality.”

He studied acting at the famed Beverly Hills Playhouse and paid his bills washing windows and working construction until he began to land acting jobs. He did national TV commercials for Levi's, Diet Coke and Gatorade, among others. Every time a commercial aired, he got paid again. For a bachelor, life didn't get much better than that. He surfed all day or worked as a personal trainer while waiting for the checks to arrive. He began to land TV and movie roles in the mid-'90s.

Ditty returned to Utah to complete his degree while also continuing his acting career. Encouraged to teach acting classes, he founded the Professional Actors Conservatory of Salt Lake and discovered a love for teaching. Working professionals saw their work triple in his class and novices began to book agents and shows. “It was an awesome thing,” he says.

He returned to California in 1998 and dived into the Hollywood scene again. He was one of two finalists for several career-making, recurring TV roles, including one on the hit show “Frasier,” but failed to get them. At the same time, he was growing more disillusioned with his career choice for other reasons. For years he had gotten caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle and wandered from his faith, but in the early '90s he recommitted himself to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As he tells it, “I started looking around at the industry and what I was doing, and I thought, ‘This is not who Jim and Ruth Ditty raised. I need to start living my life the way I was raised.’ After I went through the temple I looked at everything with entirely different eyes. I continued to work and teach acting classes and continued having many rich experiences, but I was always conflicted by the types of projects I was asked to audition for and the things I witnessed. The profession was not conducive to what I wanted for the rest of my life. The acting business is hard, but not inherently evil. It’s the culture around it — the indulgence, the moral relativism, the narcissism. One day I heard a female actress talking openly about cheating on her husband, and the others in the class blamed her husband. I saw so much of this behavior.”

In 2002, at the age of 39, Ditty married a woman he met on ldssingles.com named Kim Williams. He and Kim and her two children moved to Utah, where he embraced his other passions, football and teaching. In the spring of 2003, Ditty had an epiphany when his agent called to tell him a producer wanted him to audition for a big role in a movie about the mafia. This time Hollywood was seeking him, not vice versa. Ditty asked for more information about the movie.

“It was a hard R film — lots of profanity, tons of violence and nudity,” he recalls. “But it paid a lot of money and we needed it at the time. I called an LDS friend who was in the industry and asked him, ‘Can I justify this?’ He said, ‘When you’re asking yourself those questions, you know the answer.’ I remember thinking, ‘Not only can I not do this audition, I can’t do this anymore.’

“I’m not saying you can’t be a good member of the church if you’re in that profession; I have many dear LDS friends who make it work. Mine was a personal choice to follow inspiration and pursue the noble profession of teaching and coaching.”

Looking back, Ditty believes he had been similarly inspired to return to Utah a few years earlier to get his teaching degree, which unwittingly prepared him for the next step in his career.

“I wasn’t even sure why I did it at the time,” he says. “The spirit has spoken to me throughout my life about what I should be doing with my life; I just didn’t always listen. I remember once sitting in church when I had another major epiphany. Suddenly the spirit spoke to me: ‘You know you’re not here to be an actor.’ I prayed right there, and the answer was that I was there to be a voice for what I know is right and that I could do that best as a teacher and a coach.”

He still entertains thoughts of trying acting again — he gets occasional calls for auditions — but for now he is content to work on the sideline and in the classroom.

“The contribution that is made through coaching and teaching became far more appealing to me than what I was doing,” he says. “This is my favorite job I’ve ever had.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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