MOST OF US NEVER GET THE CHANCE TO GROW. Like seeds locked inside a box, we’re denied the opportunity to sprout and realize our full potential. The world does not allow it.
William Friedkin, on the other hand, has been one of the lucky few. The only child of poor Ukrainian immigrants in Chicago, he barely finished high school and never attended college, and yet still rose to become a famous, wealthy movie director. Friedkin was plucked from the seed bin and planted in the richest soil imaginable, given optimal conditions to grow, and provided with opportunities to develop into the brilliant filmmaker and brash, outspoken man he would become. Of course he is talented, intelligent and energetic. But so are a great many people who, unlike him, never get to find out who they could be.
As a teenager, “I didn’t know a damn thing about anything,” Friedkin wrote in his 2013 autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. “I never read a book in school, wasn’t even curious.” With friends, he used to “deface buildings and break car windows. It’s a miracle I didn’t wind up in jail or on the streets.”
In high school, “I didn’t know right from wrong,” he reveals in the new book William Friedkin: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 161 pages, paperback $25). But he changed his petty-criminal ways after seeing “my mother crying when I’d been picked up for robbery at Goldblatt’s department store as a teenager.”
In 1951, when Friedkin was sixteen years old, he finished high school early, with “no particular education to speak of,” he says. He attempted to answer a newspaper ad for an entry-level mailroom job at a Chicago television station that offered opportunities for advancement. He went to the wrong station, WGN-TV, but they hired him anyway. By the time he was 18, he had worked his way up to directing live TV. When Friedkin was in his early twenties, a WGN writer named Francis Coughlin, who was then in his late forties, took Friedkin under his wing and introduced him to the city’s artists, writers, intellectuals, museums and cultural life.
SMASH HIT: Friedkin won the Academy Award for Best Director for his 1971 crime
drama The French Connection.
At the age of 27, Friedkin talked the general manager of Chicago’s ABC-TV affiliate into putting up $6,000 to fund a documentary about an African American man on death row at Cook County Jail who had been sentenced to die in the electric chair for murder. Friedkin rented camera equipment that he had never used before. A man at the equipment-rental shop gave him a one-hour demonstration in how to load and operate the 16-mm handheld camera, the only technical instruction the renowned director would ever receive in filmmaking.
The resulting documentary, The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), helped save the condemned man’s life. After seeing the film, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner decided to commute Crump’s sentence to life in prison (years later, Friedkin would conclude that Crump probably was guilty of murder). The film won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and caught the attention of a talent agent with the William Morris agency named Tony Fantozzi, who told Friedkin that he could only go so far in Chicago. Fantozzi pitched Friedkin’s talents to David L. Wolper, who ran a production company in Los Angeles that made TV documentaries. Wolper invited Friedkin to come work for him in L.A.
Friedkin’s seed was starting to germinate. Powerful friends helped propel his rise toward the sun.
‘There’s no real reason I ever should have become a film director,’ William Friedkin says. ‘I never studied film … I was never that enamored of film.’
Before Friedkin left for Los Angeles in 1965, his friend Irv Kupcinet, a gossip columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, told him that if he needed anything in L.A. he should call a man named Sydney Korshak. Friedkin called Korshak and they had lunch together in Beverly Hills. As Friedkin recounts in his autobiography, Korshak told him, “You’re a friend of Irving’s, which means you’re a friend of mine.” Friedkin soon learned that Korshak was a high-powered lawyer for the Teamsters Union and the Chicago Mob and looked after their West Coast interests, reportedly wielding the power to start or stop union strikes at the big Hollywood studios.
After his lunch with Korshak, Friedkin was called in to meet the head of the William Morris agency in L.A., who told him, “We think you’ll have an important career, and we’re going to help you build it.” Suddenly, and with no more explanation than “We want you to be happy,” Wolper Productions gave Friedkin a 20 percent pay raise. Friedkin knew that Korshak had intervened on his behalf.
GOOD VERSUS EVIL: Max von Sydow as Father Merrin in Friedkin’s 1973 cultural
phenomenon, The Exorcist.
For Wolper’s company, Friedkin directed The Bold Men, a 1965 TV documentary that profiled rocket-car racers across the desert salt flats, lion tamers and other daredevils. In 1966 he directed The Thin Blue Line, a documentary for Wolper about the narrow distinction between police and criminals.
Just five years later in 1971, after directing a few arthouse pictures, Friedkin would release his classic crime drama The French Connection, a film that earned him an Academy Award for Best Director at the age of 36. His next movie was 1973’s The Exorcist, which like The French Connection derived much of its power and realism from the documentary-filmmaking techniques Friedkin continued to employ. The tale of a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil would break box office records and become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. By the time he was in his late 30s, Friedkin was being paid a million dollars a picture.
“Most people work for a living,” but as a director, you’ll never “work another day in your life,” he’s quoted as saying during a 1990 interview in the new book edited by Christopher Lane, which compiles interviews that span Friedkin’s career. “I swear to you, man, it’s just fun, you know? It’s a good living … a great life … you’re like chosen people.”
But after the spectacular successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist, flops and failures followed for the director: Sorcerer (1975), his dark, mis-titled and ill-timed (Star Wars came out soon after) story of desperate men transporting nitroglycerine through the South American jungle; Cruising (1980), the disturbing story of a serial killer stalking the gay S&M bars of lower Manhattan; Deal of the Century (1983), a comedy about a small-time arms dealer starring Chevy Chase; Rampage, a 1987 serial-killer movie that was never released; and Jade (1995), a slick thriller about a San Francisco detective who pursues a killer who may or may not be his former lover. Friedkin’s last great movie was To Live and Die in L.A., but upon its initial release in 1985, the film—about an obsessive U.S. Treasury Officer chasing a counterfeiter who murdered his partner—also fared poorly with critics and audiences.
‘Any kind of success, to whatever degree, fosters an extraordinary amount of criticism,’ Friedkin says. ‘There was a lot of jealousy and resentment.’
Despite his many setbacks, William Friedkin has continued to direct movies, including the dark psychological thriller Bug (2006) and the pitch-black comedy Killer Joe (2011), both adapted from plays by Tracy Letts. Today, the filmmaker is 84 years old and lives in a hilltop mansion in Beverly Hills with his wife Sherry Lansing, a former studio head who produced Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal and oversaw many other hit movies. Until recently Friedkin kept up an active travel schedule, adored by fans at film festivals and public appearances around the world.
Over the years he has burned bridges, squandered friendships, and suffered jealousy and resentment—from other people toward him, and within himself for his films that have failed. “Any kind of success, to whatever degree, fosters an extraordinary amount of criticism,” he says.
HOT TAKE: To stay out of jail, a woman on parole lets a U.S. Treasury Officer use her for
sex and information in Friedkin’s 1985 crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A.
On balance, William Friedkin seems to understand how fortunate he has been, and how unlikely was his rise from a Chicago slum to the heights of Hollywood. Among the topics that recur in his interviews are two similar, perhaps overlapping concepts: the mystery of religious faith (which he says The Exorcist was about), and the mystery of fate.
When it comes to the movies he’s made and the opportunities he’s been given, “It all comes down to fate,” Friedkin says. “There’s no real reason I ever should have become a film director. I never studied film … I was never that enamored of film. But why did I get the breaks that I got? I couldn’t tell you. It’s not about talent … you need ambition, luck, and the grace of God. That’s the mystery of fate.”
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Author Greg Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller
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