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Q&A, Part Two: William Friedkin

Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Director William Friedkin in Los Angeles, Oct. 2005 / Photograph by ZEN SEKIZAWA

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Monday, January 23, 2006

By James Hughes

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

For more information on this issue, click here

LIKE AN ACT OF GOD: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
(EXCERPT)

The Academy Award-winning director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and To Live and Die in LA discusses his career in television, coming of age in Chicago and why Citizen Kane is a quarry for filmmakers.

Stop Smiling: Where did you grow up?

William Friedkin: I was born on the West Side of Chicago. For most of my childhood I lived in a one-room apartment with my mother and father at Sheridan and Gunnison, a half block north of Lawrence Avenue.

 

SS: Was there ever a time when you lived on the South Side?

WF: No. I spent a lot of time down there, going to jazz clubs. I used to go to places like the Sutherland Hotel, which no longer exists, where I would hear on a regular basis people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Philly Joe Jones, Bill Evans. They used to play at the bar in the Sutherland Hotel. I thought the music was great, but I had no idea it was going to become legendary, which it has. It's America's classical music. Then I used to go to a place called the Checkerboard Lounge and Theresa's Lounge, where I used to hear Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Jimmy Smith.

One night, I signed off the night at WGN, and at about 12:30 I went downtown to the Blue Note, which was the famous jazz club at the time. There was a massive snowstorm in Chicago — the streets were all white, everything looked like the Wrigley Building. There were a few feet of snow, and my car was the only one on the street. I got to the Blue Note and Oscar Peterson was in town. In the club, it was just me, the maître'd, the bartenders and the waiters. Oscar Peterson went up and played for about two or three hours, straight through — he just improvised at the piano for us for hours.

SS: As a North Sider, it makes sense that you were working at Wrigley Field as a kid.

WF: I worked at Wrigley when I was about 11 or 12 years old in the summer, selling pop. They only had bottles of pop then, there weren't cans. You had to carry these huge cases of 30 bottles and kegs of ice in a half-moon tray that you wore around your neck. I used to get two cents a bottle — 60 cents a load. I would sometimes come home with 40 or 50 dollars. In a double-header I would make 90 dollars. I remember by heart the lineup of the 1945 Chicago Cubs team, which was the last team to go to the World Series. Though to me, baseball is like watching hair grow. Later on, I would occasionally do a baseball game for WGN.

SS: What were the steps between your first viewing of Citizen Kane and landing a job directing live television at WGN?

WF: I worked at WGN when I saw Citizen Kane. Before I saw that film, I just went to movies like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers westerns. There used to be a theater on Irving Park and Sheridan that I went to with a lot of kids my own age called the Mode. It was a high-class name for a funky theater on the near North Side. Every Saturday they would run 50 or so pictures for kids: shorts, serials, cartoons, newsreels. It probably cost a quarter or so. I watched things like that. I had no idea about the art of film — it was just another thing to do on a Saturday afternoon.

At WGN, I was promoted from the mail room to a floor manager, which is the equivalent of an assistant director. They used to promote you that way, because there were no film schools. Most of the great live television directors started as ushers or in the mail room. People like John Frankenheimer, Sydney Lumet, Bud Yorkin. I started in the WGN mail room right out of high school. Within about a year and a half, I was directing. Anyway, one day somebody told me that I might be interested in a film called Citizen Kane. It sort of registered with me, and it was playing at a theater on the near North Side on Dearborn and Division — it was before Hugh Hefner bought it and it became the Playboy Theatre. It was called the Surf Theater, probably because it was built along Lake Michigan. I went on a Saturday afternoon to this art house theater to see Citizen Kane, which was the only theater where it was playing. It began at noon and I stayed there until about 10 o'clock at night. I saw it about five times, and it was a revelation to me. I couldn't believe what I was experiencing. It's like a quarry for filmmakers, the same way James Joyce's Ulysses is a quarry for writers. Citizen Kane moved me to such an extent that it was a very cathartic moment for me.

I had one other experience like that in Chicago. That's when one night I was leaving WGN and I had signed off the station. I was driving home on the outer drive late at night. I usually listened to a guy called Daddy-O Daylie who played great jazz. I accidentally twisted the knob of the radio and I heard these otherwordly sounds. I pulled over to the side of the road and I listened, to completion, to Igor Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. I had never really listened to classical music before. But when I heard it, it held me completely enthralled. It was from another planet. So I went out and bought the record the next day and listened to that a lot. That's what got me into listening to and appreciating classical music. It was an accident.

Then I really got the bug to make films, but I was working in live television and had never done anything on film at that time. I did every kind of live show — it was new, it was a revelation. I was in at the ground floor. This was all in my early 20s. It was a great education.

 

To read the complete interview with William Friedkin, click here


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