INTERVIEW: William Fichtner, actor and Cheektowaga, NY native

An edited version of this interview was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Buffalo Spree magazine

Even if the name William Fichtner hasn’t procured a place on your cinematic Rolodex, you definitely know his face. He had a successful run on hit TV series “Prison Break” as complicated FBI Agent Alex Mahone, recently starred opposite the latest incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and found himself standing in the way of Heath Ledger‘s Joker during The Dark Knight‘s opening heist. There’s also his Colonel Willie Sharp sternly uttering my father’s favorite Armageddon quote: “Get off the nuclear warhead … now.”

He’s coming into focus now, isn’t he?

Raised in Cheektowaga, NY and a graduate of Maryvale High School, Fichtner has cemented himself as one of the most versatile character actors in the business. The desire to work in Hollywood didn’t burn inside from a young age, however. In fact, he only took that defining improv class because he was short an elective while studying criminal justice at SUNY Brockport. Now, over three decades later, there’s no place he’d rather be than on a movie set.

With that said, Buffalo is a close runner-up. The Queen City pumps through his veins so much so that he ensured NFL Sunday Ticket was working on his TV while shooting season three of his series “Crossing Lines” in Prague. With family still residing in the area, Mr. Bill’s chicken wings sizzling in their fryer, and a (fingers-crossed) Bills and Sabres teams on the rise, you can bet Fichtner will continue coming back.

Listening to the way he speaks about Buffalo’s potential of becoming a legitimate destination for film production within the next decade, the world may soon see him on the silver screen with a local landmark glinting over his shoulder.


Buffalo Spree: Where did a kid growing up in Cheektowaga go to see a movie in the 60s and 70s?

William Fichtner: I remember my mother would take us down to the Bailey Movie Theater [destroyed in a 1986 fire] because on Saturday afternoons—boy I’m really going to date myself here—a matinee was thirty-five cents. So you didn’t know what you were going to get.

But then, in my neighborhood, just a few side streets behind where I grew up, was where the original Holiday 1 and 2 opened up. I think that they opened in ’71 right on Union Road. [According to newyorkdriveins.com, the Holiday 1 and 2 began construction alongside the old Aero Drive-In during the fourth quarter of 1963 with its four-theater expansion commencing in 1971.] And it became the Holiday Showcase—you know where the restaurant is. The first and second were the two big movie theaters.

I remember playing in the pit. That’s where we ran around playing war games inside where the movie theaters eventually were. When they opened up—I don’t think they’re even there anymore [Holiday Six Theatres closed in 1995]. When they opened up, you never saw anything like that. The way the carpet was inside and the red seats. We’re from Cheektowaga, New York, we’ve never seen something that beautiful before and it was a movie theater. I remember I saw The Godfather: Part I there.

So that was our place for neighborhood kids. You have to remember too at that time families were going to the drive-in and we had the twin drive-ins up on Walden and Dick Road. But then we had [the Hollywood 1 and 2] and that was literally like a six-minute walk from our house—these amazing movie theaters. And they built four more in the back where whatever is there now became a huge plaza complex behind the Showcase [Union Consumer Square]. And I think they added like another four and kept expanding. I don’t even know if any of them are there anymore. I don’t think so.

I felt pretty fortunate. When you were asking a girl out for a date in high school, you had the Holiday Movie Theaters right in your hometown. That was pretty cool.

Did you see any movies during those years that really stuck with you?

Yeah. I remember seeing—the first movie I saw at the Holiday Theaters was … Robert Blake was in it. I don’t even re—

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. That was it! I can’t believe I remembered that! Oh, my God!

Movie-going experiences when I was a kid—I remember some friends of our family took my four sisters and I to see The Jungle Book at the Colvin. Is that still there? [It was razed in 1984 for senior apartments.] It was like one of the big—back then they didn’t build a complex, they just built one big one. And most of those were really amazing. I’ll never forget that. Seeing that on a big screen.

My favorite film of all time is The Graduate. I was dating a girl in high school. Her name is Jenny. In the summertime in August her family—July, August, sometime during the school break—would go on vacation. We all went to Maryvale High School together. I still occasionally run into her kids and her husband Ron. She married a great guy who went to high school with us.

She went away on a family vacation. Like that first love where you’re, “Oh my God she’s gone for like two-weeks.” You know? So I’m moping around my hometown—I’m like fifteen years old or whatever—and I went up to the same movie theaters I was just talking about. The four-plex in the back, they were open at that time. I went in and saw The Graduate.

Totally blind?

Well, I went to see another movie and as I’m walking out I noticed the show times. This movie The Graduate was about to start. It was the middle of the day and I was by myself—I went to like a noon show or something. And I thought, “I’m not done seeing a movie today.” So in typical kid fashion I just popped into that one and I sat down and saw The Graduate.

That movie finished and I sat in the seat looking at the screen. That was the most awesome experience that I ever had. Oh my God. Mrs. Robinson. And I’m missing my high school girlfriend. I think I went back to get a ticket for that other movie and walked into The Graduate because I think—was it rated R?

It might have been with that quick shot of Mrs. Robinson.

Whatever it was I felt the rating didn’t allow me to get a ticket for it at the age that I was. I think I saw it the next five days in a row. I just went back. Listening to that Simon & Garfunkel music, watching those performances.

Back at that time I’m not even thinking about acting. I’m still in school. I’m not really going to plays. I’m not involved in theater in any way. I ended up going to college—two years at SUNY Farmingdale, two years at SUNY Brockport—as a criminal justice/political science major. So I’m really not thinking—I’m not looking at it in any way of, “Boy, I hope my life evolves to do something like this.” Not at all. It was just an emotional experience. I just did it over and over and over again. Seeing that film. It’s probably my most memorable movie.

When did you decide to pursue this career?

I started to see a few plays through a really good friend of mine that was into theater when I was going to school on Long Island. I was living close to New York and I’d seen a few Broadway shows. And like everybody’s experience the first time you see a Broadway show—I don’t know anybody that isn’t completely knocked off their feet. Oh my God. I didn’t think anything could be that dynamic and fantastic live.

Then when I was a junior at Brockport—the first week of school my junior year, I got a call from an admissions counselor who said, “You know, you’re short one fine arts course.” You have your core—you take your own major courses and electives, but you still have to do your basic core thing of science and math and this and that. I needed a fine arts course and I didn’t want to take any theater or anything like that. So I ended up—there was an improv class available for non-theater majors. I took that for no other reason then I didn’t want to take Intro to Theater with fifty kids in a lecture room when I know I will nap through that entire class.

So I took this improv class with this pretty fascinating, amazing professor named Sally Rubin. She was just really influential talking to me. She said, “You should do this more. You having fun?” I said, “Oh, yeah. I love this.” She said, “I can kind of tell.” So it was really a little bit of a trigger at that point.

And then I graduated. It was the summer of ’78. I graduated and I came home. I was here working at Mulligan’s Beach Club [at Sunset Bay] on the weekends with a bunch of my buddies just thinking, “What am I going to do with my life?” I’m twenty-one.

Somewhere in that summer I was dating a girl from Cortland, NY and she gave me a book like right at the end of college. A paperback—I still have the original copy she gave me. It was a book called How to be a Working Actor and it was all about—you have to remember, back in the seventies this is pre-computers and Age of Information. You didn’t know anybody that was an actor. Not really. Now everybody wants their fifteen minutes with reality stuff and that. But back then if you told people you wanted to be an actor, they looked at you like you said you wanted to build a spaceship and go to Mars.

She gave me this book and I remember working at Mulligan’s Beach Club and [reading it] over and over for like two months. It was a how-to. If you want to move to New York, these are the acting schools, the voice teachers. You could do this and do this. It was kind of like a guide—”What do you do?”—for somebody who wants to be in the business. Even reading something like that was fascinating because it was just such another world that you’d never think about. I never thought about it.

From reading that book I set up a regional audition in Syracuse for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and I had to prepare a couple of monologues. It was pretty much a first. I remember going and I auditioned for a woman that I believe worked at one of the television stations there and I got accepted. Then I went and waited a lot of tables. [Laughter] And went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. So it really kind of began back then.

Now your first year doing movies was with Robert Redford, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Mann. How great a entrance into the industry was that?

I graduated college in ’78. I went to New York. I didn’t even audition for the first, I would think probably three years. I’ve always attributed that to my Buffalo sensibilities of “don’t put the cart before the horse” sort of thing. I wanted to have a sense of if I could act before I’m going to walk in a room.

I studied. I went to the first year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. You’re invited back the second year—I chose not to go. I was invited back, but I didn’t want to go back there. By that point I was hearing about scene study classes and studios and that was more of what I was looking for: real nuts and bolts, some people working, some just going in. You wait your tables or [take] security guard jobs and all sorts of things and you go in and just do scenes and work on everything.

So I was doing that for years and even though I was learning a lot being on stage, make no mistake about it: I was dreaming about movies. I wanted that. I moved to New York when I was twenty-one. By the time I did my first film, everybody that I knew or was hanging out with had worked in a movie. Everybody I knew except me.

I was hired once to play a one-scene police part. Typecasting, right—with the college thing? [It was] in Malcolm X. I found out the day before I was going to do it. I was all excited, finally getting my first scene in a film. And they wrote it out. I got a call, “Oh, they cut the scene.”

So I was doing theater and was working with what then was an incredible theater company called Circle Rep [Circle Repertory Company] started by a director named Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson, the Pulitizer Prize-winning writer. They kind of created this theater company. It was very respectable, Circle Rep, and I was working with them. But I’d still yet to work in a film.

I got my first film when I was thirty-six years old. That’s a long time to be pursuing and wanting that. So when it finally came around—your original question about what it was like working with those people in the beginning. I was so grateful that life had taken there.

Steven Soderbergh was the first. I did a small part in Quiz Show. Very, very small. I never counted that as a first role in a film. I worked a couple years on a soap opera. On “As the World Turns” playing Josh, the misunderstood farmhand. But then when I got this film called The Underneath. It was the first time I had auditioned for something and Steven was doing these really cool indie films. Sex, Lies, and Videotapes and King of the Hill and all these really, really interesting movies.

It was a movie called The Underneath and that was my first shot. After that I met Kathryn and Michael Mann. Those were some of the earlier things with small roles, but memorable. I remember working with Michael Mann on Heat and that was really memorable.

The truth about it is: it’s all memorable. You could ask me about anything I’ve worked on and I could probably be very close to telling you every single day and what it was like shooting certain scenes. I truly remember all of it. A lot of that is attributable to the fact that I love being on a film set more than anything. More than anything in a work sense. There isn’t a moment when I’m working on something where I don’t look around and think, “I’m so happy to be here.” I’m more at peace in that scenario. And as an actor, to be on something that you love and believe in—and I don’t take jobs for any other reason than that I love it and believe in it. To sit on a set and look around and think, “Damn. Love this. Love it.”

With the work being done on Buffalo’s waterfront and the overall rejuvenation of the area—do see our city appealing to a Hollywood sensibility? Do you see some of the productions going to Toronto now possibly coming here?

Absolutely. I think in five to ten years from now this area is going to have film production. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that people who are not from around here—they don’t get the beauty of our hometown. We know what it’s like. You hear the Buffalo jokes when you’re out there, but you never hear them from people who are from Buffalo. No. We love Buffalo. We know how amazing it is here.

A lot of it has to do first with tax incentives and Governor Cuomo passed—this January 1st, 2015—a new tax incentive in Upstate New York. You’re not going to see it right away. There’s not really a huge crew base here. But if you build it, they will come.

Look at what happened down in Louisiana. I’ve shot films in Shreveport and I got to tell you something. There are some very nice, very fine people in Shreveport. But Shreveport’s no Buffalo. We’re amazing and I believe we’re going to get to that place. We’ve got the Falls. We’ve got the lakes. The rolling hills of the Finger Lakes—I’ve driven on most dirt roads all over this state. Hiking in the Adirondacks and the Catskills and the Finger Lakes. I know how beautiful it is here. In time. In time. It’s changing now. It’ll take a little while.

Also, too, we have Rich Wall and Tim Clark from the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission here. These guys are making it happen and with their support and people around—

Listen, I was here last summer spending a lot of time. I co-wrote a little film I’d like to do in Upstate New York. I don’t want to shoot it in Canada. We love our Canadian brothers and sisters, but I wrote it for Upstate New York. I don’t want to shoot it in Shreveport. I don’t want a big muddy river. I want crystal clear Finger Lakes in the background.

You’re going to see more and more things like that. People are going to come here. But also you need support about it. Our Mayor Byron Brown—besides being just a terrific human being is really supportive of these things that are happening. So are people like Senator Pat Gallivan who produced the legislation that went to Governor Cuomo. Our senator right here in Western New York, he introduced that legislation. So we have tremendous support in this area. And now you look at what’s going on downtown. I mean, come on. Are you from here?

I am. Yes.

You get the feel. You get the feel of what’s going on.

Listen, my favorite ladies over here at the Avis counter of the Buffalo Airport—Debbie and Patty. I was here so much over last summer. I came early on in the summertime and the ladies were sharing with me about how there’s all this exciting stuff that’s happening downtown. When people are talking about it around town, it’s in the air. It’s not just newspapers or politicians trying to sell you on this stuff. No, no, no. People know it. People know it now.

And with the Pegulas and their huge commitment to sports—and we know what sports mean to us here. I don’t know them, but [bends towards the recorder] thank you! Thank you very much. Thanks for our Bills being right where they should be. We don’t need to play any Bon Jovi right now. [Laughter] I’ll skip that record.

There is just a thing in the air. It’s pretty amazing and I feel great about it. And I do believe, like I said the next few years. It would be a dream for me to work on something—possibly my own thing—here in Western New York. I just can’t imagine. The only thing that would be missing in that whole scenario is that my mom passed away a few years ago and won’t be here to see it. But I’ll tell her all about it anyway.

I bring friends here—who have never been—for the first time. I take them to my local bar right around the corner from where we’re sitting here. Mr. Bill’s. They’ve got great wings. I get my Labatt Blue.

I can’t say enough about it. I’m very proud that this is where I grew up.

Do you have any other local haunts you hit when you’re in town?

I do. I got off the plane the other night and I went and saw my friends Barb and Tony—we all went to high school together and still are quite a group that stays in touch. Yeah, right up Cayuga and Cleveland Road. It was a bar when I was a kid called Bosela’s and it changed its name and now it’s called Mr. Bill’s and we still go to that place. I’ve been going there—let’s put it this way. I’ve been going into that bar longer than I’ve been eligible to go into a bar. [Laughter] You get my drift here?

I like to go and see my buddies Sammy and Mark down at Mothers. There are a lot of places. I just came from having lunch down at Chef’s. You go down there and see Louis and all of that food. It’s amazing.

That’s just three of them off the top of my head—places that when I’m home I tend to end up at each of them. Every time.

Now you’re still a huge Bills and Sabres fan. What do you think about Rex Ryan as the new Bills head coach?

I met Rex last summer. I was in Cortland, New York at the Jets camp actually and I had a chance to meet him. He’s a gentleman. A total gentleman. I like his enthusiasm and I think he’s inheriting a team that in my opinion has a pretty high talent level at this point. Sure there are some positions he’s got to work on, but I love—

I’m living over in Prague now in the Czech Republic. I have been for the better part of the last two and a half years. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my iPhone on or not getting NFL Sport News. And we have NFL Game Pass. I watch more Bills since I’ve moved to Prague than I ever have.

And my twelve-year old: he was born in New York, raised in California, but everything is Buffalo.

The fandom permeates down.

Everything. I took him to the Raiders game up in Oakland this year and that kid was just fearless. We’re talking about the Raiders. These fans—these are some crazy silver and black fans. My son dressed that morning for the game head-to-toe in Buffalo gear. I’m like, “God bless you, buddy. God bless you. Let’s go.”

I’m going to tell you a little story about that too. I was fortunate enough to have some sideline passes so we were down right on the side when the Bills were warming up at the beginning. And my son Van—Vangel is his name—he was standing down there. He had his Bills jersey on, his Bills hat: red, white, and blue in a sea of silver and black standing on the sideline with a Sharpie. He’s just standing down there waiting.

The Bills are doing their thing and he’s just surrounded by silver and black. Even on the sideline. Kids and people: everybody is Raider, Raider, Raider. He’s just standing there with that Sharpie looking around.

Right before the Bills go back into the locker room before they come out for kickoff—twenty minutes before kickoff—number 23 Aaron Williams comes over. He’s got his helmet on and he’s ten feet away from my son Van. I wasn’t standing next to Van. I was way back, but everyone is kind of watching Williams because he came real close to where all the people were.

He really slowly started taking each finger one at a time out of his Buffalo Bills gloves [miming the deliberate show of it that Williams performed]. Here’s this defense back taking them off like that. He’s doing this kind of little dance thing and he gets both his gloves off and takes one big step to the left and [clap] puts them right into my son’s hand. Doesn’t say anything. Just [snap]. And I thought, “Wow.”

My little kid was like—this was absolutely the greatest day of his life. Being such a Bills fan. And I don’t know this, but I have a feeling out of all that silver and black, that one kid standing there dressed in those Bills colors. If Aaron did it, he probably thought, “Good on that boy, right there.” Put ’em right in his hands.

My son, he wears those gloves to bed. He plays baseball and wears them when he bats now. He carries them around and puts them in his school bag. He goes everywhere with them. And he wrote Aaron a letter too.

The teams love the fans and the fans love them. There’s a really great dynamic between the two. All the old players eventually move back—the Sabres stage their Alumni games. It’s a lot of fun.

Over the years, people who come and play here and then are traded or something—the percentage is probably as high if not higher than any other market. They stay. Once you get here—we’re not a big market. We remind me a little of a Green Bay. Not a huge market. But come Sunday afternoon at that stadium? In droves.

I’ve been to places—a tailgate here and there and all that sort of stuff. It’s big, but it’s never bigger than Buffalo.

You’re a hockey fan too. You presented the 2009 Vezina Trophy to Tim Thomas, a division rival.

Tim Thomas said the funniest thing. I’ll never forget.

Two years before that I presented the Calder to Evgeni Malkin in Toronto. The fine folks at the NHL said, “Would you like to come and present—”

“Uh, yeah!”

So two years after that they said, “Would you like to come back and present? We’re doing the awards thing in Vegas.” And I said—because I played goalie when I was a kid on the neighborhood teams here in Cheektowaga. And I said, “You know, I’d love to come back. If it’s possible, you think I could present the Vezina?” You know, being a goalie when I was a kid. They said, “Yeah. You can present it with Tony Esposito.”

I almost took a knee. “Wha? Wha?! With ‘Tony O’? You kidding me?!” [Laughter]

Tim Thomas’ line when he came up, he said, “When they told me that I was on the ballot for the Vezina—listen, I’m just happy when I’m on the roster.” [Laughter] I’ll never forget that. I’m just happy if I’m on the roster. Forget about the ballot for the Vezina. That was pretty cool. That was memorable.

We grew up, we played hockey. North Creek and South Creek in Cheektowaga—that thin little creek froze in the wintertime and that was our rink. Then they built the Holiday Twin Rinks up on Broadway there.

We fielded a team with kids from Maryvale and most of them in the two blocks where I lived. They’re not big side streets. We all played hockey and got a lift from somebody’s parents to go see the old Bisons down in the Aud. And then we got the Sabres. That was pretty remarkable and special.

Any favorite films set or shot in Buffalo?

I mean, right off the bat you have to talk about The Natural. I don’t know this, but I’ve heard this, that they really searched for where—I’m sure they did for locations. Where would they get that? The old Rockpile? You just look at that in the movie and you think, “For real? This is really here? They’re going to make a movie called The Natural and this is here?” I’m sure the location scouts had a mini heart attack when they saw that with glee.

I remember my dad taking me. Watching Jack Kemp who was our quarterback and Daryle Lamonica was the backup. All those old players—we used to get Pepsi caps and on the other side of the Pepsi cap were Buffalo Bills players. We didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I’d shovel driveways and save as much as I could so I could buy as many Pepsis as I could to get those caps.

I grew up going down to the old War Memorial. Lot of memories there and of course—getting back to your question—The Natural has got to be the most memorable just because it’s so unbelievably beautiful. And I believe they used the Statler in that, walking into the interior of that lobby.

See, that’s the stuff, the undiscovered stuff about Western New York and Buffalo.

It was about ten years ago. I was still living in New York and the New York Times Sunday edition, which is like three inches thick, did a whole four or five page thing on the hidden architecture of Buffalo. It had the old train station. Remember the big one?

The Central Terminal.

And the Frank Lloyd Wright building, City Hall—this whole spread of the amazing architecture up here. People don’t think of Buffalo in that way.

I was down—I met some high school friends last night down at Mother’s. Told ya I go. And I walked out the backdoor of the place through the kitchen, there’s a little parking lot back there. I was walking to my car and I looked up at the row of buildings right across the street. I think some of them are private homes. I looked out at the whole stretch of them and thought each one is so unique. I’m just standing on the sidewalk looking at these five buildings—I’d live in any one of them. They’re just so different and amazing.

Wait ’til that catches on some day. It will. People are going to shoot things here and see that and go, “Wow.” Lot of hidden gems in this town.

Do you see yourself coming back at all?

I come back as much as I can. But yeah, I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever move here for this to be “home” home—for a lot of reasons. My wife and I have very close people in our life and my son—for the last two and a half years we’ve been living in the Czech Republic. We have dear friends where my younger son has grown up and my older one grew up mostly in New York City—he just graduated college, Bowdoin College in Maine. So I’ll always have that. But Buffalo is Buffalo.

As I said earlier, the dream for me would be to get the opportunity to not just work on a film here, but to—it would be awesome with this film that I cowrote to make in Upstate New York with tremendous support from my hometown and Erie County and the City of Buffalo. I can’t imagine anything would be more of a dream then to get a chance to come back here and work on something.

How does it get any better than that? Come on. I can have a chicken wing and yell, “Roll camera.” All in one thing. [Laughter]

That’s the dream right there.

They’re not Buffalo wings. They’re chicken wings.

That’d be special. I look forward to that day and that day is coming.


photography:
[1] William Fichtner. Photo by Rich Wall – Buffalo Niagara Film Office.
[2] Holiday Showcase images courtesy of alknobloch at cinematreasures.org
[3] The Graduate
[4] The Underneath
[5] Mr. Bills courtesy of their Facebook page
[6] Rex Ryan attends a press conference announcing his arrival as head coach of the Buffalo Bills. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
[7] LAS VEGAS – JUNE 18: Actor William Fichtner and NHL Hall of Famer Tony Esposito present the Vezina Trophy during the 2009 NHL Awards at The Pearl concert theater at the Palms Casino Resort June 18, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images for NHL)
Credit: Bruce Bennett / staff

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