In conjunction with the Buffalo Broadcasters Association and the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, The Buffalo History Museum held the first of what many hope will be an ongoing series called “Behind the Screen,” a sort of local “Actor’s Studio” in the stunning redecorated auditorium. Mayor Byron Brown was there to deliver a proclamation that Sunday, March 6, 2016 was “William E. Fichtner Day.”
Sitting in a pair of overstuffed leather club chairs during the sold out event, interviewer Jeff Simon engaged the Cheektowaga native and celebrated actor of stage, TV, and film, William Fichtner, in conversation on topics such as growing up in WNY, attending Maryvale High School (Class of 1974), and what it’s really like to be in showbiz.
An enormous red carpet leading to the front steps, a photo-op screen, and souvenir “Set Access” passes on lanyards to all attendees added to the “show biz” excitement. Cindy Abbott Letro was the emcee and roving reporter handling the audience questions (“There’s only one rule – I hold on to the microphone.”) And, at the end of the program, in case there was any doubt that we were in Buffalo, Museum Director Melissa Brown reminded everyone to enjoy refreshments at the meet and greet and be sure to try her mother’s peanut butter balls. I tried one and it was excellent.
While technically born on an Air Force base on Long Island, within a few months Fichtner’s family had returned to Western New York at the insistence of his mother. So, when anyone asks where he is from, he says proudly “Buffalo!” His path to stardom was meandering. He needed a fine arts course to graduate from SUNY Brockport and so took an improv course. He was so good that his professor opened doors to taking more theater courses. Then he went to NYC, which he says is much better than going to LA, because live theater helps you develop a character over the rehearsal process, whereas in film, you are expected to deliver exactly what you showed in your screen test. He credits his years on the soap opera “As the World Turns” for removing his jitters so that now, even on a set such as “The Lone Ranger” with 275 others and a camera lens 12 inches from his nose, it’s the most relaxing place he could ever imagine, “his happy place.”
And, his costume, boots, hat, and coat from “The Lone Ranger” were on display in a glass case at the museum. “Usually at the end of a movie I don’t want to keep anything, but I wanted that costume.”
On screen Fichtner often plays extremely intense characters such as FBI Agent Alex Mahone in the TV series “Prison Break,” the angry bank manager in “The Dark Night,” Sanderson in “Black Hawk Down,” or David ‘Sully’ Sullivan in “The Perfect Storm,” but he comes across as a very even tempered guy in real life. When Jeff Simon kept urging him to “dish the dirt” on difficult Hollywood stars, Fichtner said that, for the most part, the biggest stars got to be big by sticking to their craft and concentrating on the job, not by behaving badly. When pressed he did admit that he had seen actress Brett Butler treat others badly, but never him during his 8 episodes as Ryan Sparks in “Grace Under Fire.” However, he then went on to say that it might have been more than 8 episodes except for a child actor on the set who had asked Brett Butler “Are you and Ryan going to get married?” She glared at the child and said “The show is called “Grace Under Fire, NOT Grace and Ryan Under Fire.” It was too bad, said Fichtner. He was already thinking about a car he soon might be able to afford.
And, speaking of cars, he told of a practical joke that George Clooney played on him. There were some studio reshoots for “The Perfect Storm” and on a sunny California day, Fichtner told Clooney that he wanted to drive to work that day in his beloved 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner with only 36,000 original miles, but could he park it next to Clooney’s trailer? Of course! After the reshoots, ready to fire up the engine and impress his movie friends with the trademark rumble of the engine, Fichtner noticed an enormous pool of transmission fluid under the car. He was in a panic. Then, he noticed Clooney peeking out from the back door of his trailer. Turns out that Clooney had sent an assistant to buy a quart of transmission fluid and then pour it out under the engine. Clooney had punked Fichtner and was enjoying himself immensely.
For the most part, the biggest stars got to be big by sticking to their craft and concentrating on the job, not by behaving badly.
Fichtner told many more stories including taking his mother to the premiere gala for “The Perfect Storm” where mom had a long intimate conversation with Cher, Fichtner’s lifelong crush. Then there was the time his older son came to visit him on the set of “The Lone Ranger” and his first question was “Where’s Johnny Depp?” And he mentioned the first time he saw Paul Newman during the filming of “Empire Falls” in a scene where the son, played by Ed Harris, talks to his father who is up on a ladder. Fichtner was amazed at how 80-year-old Paul Newman, up on a ladder, was still the essence of cool.
The program lasted over an hour, with Fichtner, who describes himself as an introvert, getting more and more warmed up and telling more and more stories.
And what does William Fichtner think about just before he falls asleep and the first thing upon awakening? Producing his screenplay in Buffalo. Some of the scenes would require the hills of central New York, but most of it could be, should be, shot in Buffalo, said Fichtner. The Mayor, the Film Commission, and the entire room heartily agreed.
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