Michael Beck | THE WARRIORS

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Walter Hill’s 1979 The Warriors is rightly revered as one of the biggest cult classic movies of all time. And as the film edges ever closer to its 40th anniversary, the remaining cast members are heading to Edgbaston Stadium, Birmingham for a special UK Conclave event on April 1st and 2nd. Ahead of that event, we were lucky enough to grab some time with Michael Beck, who played Swan in Hill’s iconic movie, to discuss working on The Warriors, the film’s legacy and status as a cult classic, how that affected his career, and a whole host more.

STARBURST: First and foremost, your involvement in The Warriors. One of the stories out there is that the interest from Walter Hill in yourself came from him seeing you in Madman. Was that indeed the case, and did they reach out to you directly or did you have to audition?

Michael Beck: Well what actually happened, I was in New York working as an actor at that point. My agents were like anyone my age in New York at that time, trying to submit me to the casting agents for The Warriors. I had trained at the Central School [of Speech and Drama] in London then worked for a subsequent couple of years in theatre over there. So they knew me, the casting agents for this particular film knew me, they had cast me in some Broadway stuff, and they knew me as a classically trained stage actor. They made the determination that I couldn’t play a New York street guy, so they would not allow me to be seen. So had Walter not seen Madman to see Sigourney Weaver – that was her first film – for Alien, I probably would not have been seen for it. What happened, once he had seen that he contacted the casting agents and said, “Why has this guy Michael Beck not been submitted? I wanna see him!” So they then submitted me and I went in and met with Walter and Larry Gordon, the producer, and I think Frank Marshall was there also in the meeting. I read a scene for them and they called my agent within half an hour of my leaving the place and said that I had the role.

Was there any talk at all of you being considered for any other roles in the film, or was it always Swan that was in mind?

Yeah, I think it was always Swan. He had seen that picture, Madman, and I guess he saw something in that performance that let him know that I was right for the role of Swan.

Were you aware of Sol Yurick’s original Warriors novel at that point or did that come later on?

No, once I was cast I found out that the screenplay had been based upon a novel. I read the novel, as did probably everyone in the cast, and the novel had very little, but some, to do with how Walter adapted that to the screen.

There’s various stories over the decades about how certain things were in the original screenplay but ultimately taken out completely or cut from the final film. How different do you remember the movie itself being from what you were first given as a script?

There were some major storyline differences. Probably the most major storyline difference was that in the original script Fox ends up with Mercy, and Swan had a different kind of arc but still ends up back at Coney Island and reunites with the boys at Coney Island. He’s captured by a rival gang, he escapes from them, and he gets back to Coney with the boys for the final confrontation on the beach. So that’s a major storyline change, that Swan ended up with Mercy and Fox ends up being killed in the subway. That was very different from the original script. And just other things, scenes that were deleted. There was an intro section to the beginning of the movie. I remember Walter telling me when we were filming it that he patterned it on Kurozawa’s Seven Samurai movie. That’s how he was introducing each of these Warriors characters. That was all done in daylight at our headquarters down at Coney. I think, as I remember how he explained it to us, towards the end of the shoot he said how he’d scrapped all that, and he just shot these little scenes to pop in at the beginning of the movie; Cleon talking to someone; Swan talking to Rembrandt; all of these little exchanges as the train is moving towards The Bronx for the conclave. He felt that once they started editing the movie he said, “This movie needs to all happen at night, expect for the final confrontation. That’s the only time it should be daylight.” So that’s really why he scrapped that beginning sequence. Other than that, pretty much it’s scene-for-scene. I’m sure I’m forgetting maybe some small scene here or there, but everything else is as pretty much per the original script that I saw.

 

Supposedly you guys had to go through a stunt camp before the shoot because of the physicality involved. How much of an intense production was it for you?

It was a very intense shoot. I’ve heard Walter say in interviews before that when he was casting this movie, when he and Larry Gordon were casting it, not only did they look at actors to determine whether they were capable of playing the part, but they looked at their physicality because they knew it was going to be a rigorous shoot, that we were going to be running every night, that we were going to be doing stunt fights, etc. So you needed to cast people who were capable of not only doing all of that physical stuff but being able to maintain doing all of that stuff through an 80-night shoot. They had that in mind, and yes, it was intense. But we were all young, and we were all in much better shape by the end of the movie than we were at the beginning. And Craig Baxley, the stunt coordinator, he came about 2 weeks prior to shooting. I think he met with us probably 3 to 5 times in a 10-day period before we started principal photography, just going through basics; how to throw a punch so the camera can read it, how to take a punch, how to fall, all of that stuff. I would say we did 98% of our own stuff. When Vermin gets thrown into the mirror in the bathroom fight, a stunt double actually went into the mirror not Terry Michos. Other than that, I can’t remember anything we didn’t do ourselves. We were young, starting-out actors so there was no insurance problems with us. It wasn’t like having Tom Cruise and people screaming “Oh no, he can’t do that!”… although he does his own stuff either way.

For the upcoming Birmingham event here in the UK, you’re bringing over near-enough all of the surviving cast and crew. Having been to so many of these events over the years, there must be a huge bond there between you guys. When the movie was being shot, was that bond pretty instant or did it take a little while to build up a chemistry and rapport with each other?

It seems in retrospect that it was fairly instantaneous. For all of us, I would say within the first week to 10 days of shooting, that pecking order had been established – which was kind of the pecking order of the gang. It was kind of like life imitating art, not the reverse. It was really interesting how we did bond over the period of that shoot and how that has maintained through almost 40 years. I mean, Deborah Van Valkenburgh (The Warriors’ Mercy) through the years has come to Thanksgivings and Christmases at my house. David Harris (The Warriors’ Cochise) introduced me to my wife and is a Godfather to one of my children. Which is rare in film and television! You meet a lot of people, you have intense relationships during the shooting, sometimes you maintain relationships with them during your life but not often, not like this. This is quite extraordinary, and for me the most valuable and meaningful thing I take away from that movie is the relationship I have with the guys almost 40 years on.

One of the more famous stories surrounding The Warriors is that you actually got a call from Ronald Reagan once the movie had been released. How true is that?

Yes [laughs]! Well I didn’t actually speak to the President at the time, I spoke to his Press Secretary. It was hilarious. My wife and I lived in a studio apartment on West 22nd Street in Chelsea, New York, and we had a dog, we’ve always had dogs throughout our almost 37 years of marriage. I was out walking around the block, it was 9 or 10 o’clock at night, taking the dog for his final walk. I came back in to the studio apartment and my wife’s grinning like a Cheshire cat. She says to me, “You’ll never guess who just called!” I said, “Who?” and she said, “The White House.” I said, “Yeah, right,” and I probably had some more punctuated words in there as well. But she said, “No, they’re gonna call back.” And surely within about 10 minutes there was a phone call. I can’t remember the gentleman’s name but he was Mr Reagan’s Press Secretary and he just wanted to pass on from the President how much he’d enjoyed a screening of The Warriors at Camp David [the country retreat of the President of the United States].

You talked about how you’d gotten your start with stage productions and with Madman. Obviously The Warriors projected you to a whole new level of fame and celebrity, so how did you find having to deal with that new attention and was that particularly surreal to experience?

Yeah, I think so. I think it probably is for most people in this field when they have a movie or television programme or play or whatever that takes them from obscurity to a place where they’re recognisable, at least by a certain section of the population who’ve seen that work. The Warriors certainly opened the doors for me to have what career I had. It was the inciting incident, as they say. But yeah, it was the first major motion picture that I’d done and it was a picture that people in Hollywood – behind the scenes, producers, etc – had a lot of buzz over before it was released. It was exciting but at the same time kind of “Oh, okay, this is it. Let’s see how this rollercoaster ride goes.”

 

You mention there that there was a lot of buzz behind the scenes in Hollywood before the movie came out, but was there any particular moment with yourselves on set where you realised you had something special or did that not hit home until the film was released?

I would say it was more the latter. I think when we were doing the picture we were having fun but we were slogging away making this movie. I’m sure we all hoped it would be successful, but I had done one picture, Madman, James Remar had done one picture called On the Yard. So we were the most experienced actors on the set. Everybody else, it was pretty much their first go around – so we were just thrilled to be working. We were thrilled to go from the unemployment line, from getting a dole cheque, to getting a salary. I think we all harbored hopes, “Paramount’s producing this thing. Maybe it’ll be a hit movie. Maybe it’ll get me some traction to get somewhere in this business.” I can’t speak for everyone else, but for myself I don’t think there was a defining moment during the making of the movie where I thought, “Yeah, this is gonna be a hit movie.” I didn’t really know enough about movies and the making of movies to make that determination. I would not hesitate to say I doubt that Walter Hill and Larry Gordon knew that this movie would become the cult classic movie that it’s become. How do you figure that when you’re making a movie? They may have thought that it had a chance to make some money at the box office, but to transcend generations of people over 40 years who love this movie is crazy. I don’t think anybody saw that.

The film itself seems like the perfect storm for that point in time, but it wasn’t without its controversy upon release due to the negative press garnered by real-life gang battles at some screenings. In fact, some stories claim that there were even some deaths at screenings due to rival gangs fighting. Do you think that the infamy and attention caused by that helped create a must-see feel to the movie for some audiences and added to the publicity?

You know, I really don’t know. The Warriors was a low budget movie, even for 1978 when we made it. It was an under $5 million picture, which is not a lot of money to spend on a picture even then. For whatever reason, the opening weekend – mid February in 1979 – it was the box office champ in the States. It took the box office! And then the incidents… and they’ve been overblown. There were not riots in the streets. I think there were two major incidents; one on the East coast; one in California where two rival factions had gone to see the movie at the same time and had an altercation. In each case a gang member was killed, which is awful. At that time the press jumped all over it, and it was blaming this incendiary movie for causing two rival factions to go armed to see it. I think they were already pre-disposed to do that. That’s not justifying The Warriors - by any standards of today it would be a pretty tame movie. I’ve even heard that Paramount over the years have admitted that they may have been a little hasty in pulling the film. But that’s what they did. Within 3 weeks of that movie opening, it was not playing anywhere. All the publicity had been pulled on it. So, long-winded version of “Did that add to the mystique that helped make this movie a cult classic movie?”, I don’t see how it could not have to some degree. But I don’t know, because actually the first that I heard it was getting some kind of cult recognition was I had a friend who had been in Paris in the early ‘80s – I’m gonna say ’83 to ’85, somewhere in that time, which is 4 or 5 years after The Warriors originally screened – and I was living in California at the time, but when he got back, he said “You’re not gonna believe this. The Warriors, I was in Paris and it was like Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s people lining up outside, people dressed up like the characters.” So that was the first thing, and in Paris of all places! That was the first I had heard of any kind of movement with the movie after its initial release. I don’t know how much it’s original controversy played into that, but that’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that, whether specifically the notoriety played into its cult status. I don’t know, it may have or not.

How familiar were you with the gang culture of New York at that point in time?

Well I lived in Manhattan. After I left the UK to come back to the States in ’76, I lived in Manhattan from ’76 to ’82. So when we did The Warriors in ’78, I’d been in Manhattan for a couple of years at that point. Most of the gang activity was not in the area where I lived. When I did move up to the Upper West Side and lived on West 79th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam, on West 82nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam there was a gang. I’d walk down that block just in walking around my neighbourhood, and you’d see these kids outside this brownstone and it was pretty obvious. They weren’t dressed in any kind of colours like you saw in The Warriors, it may have tended more towards the Orphans than anything, but it was pretty obvious who they were. If you talk to David Harris who played Cochise, David grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And Dorsey Wright (The Warriors’ Cleon) grew up in Brooklyn. So they grew up with, and were very aware of, the gang culture in the city. In 1978, it was way different than now. New York got cleaned up considerably when Giuliani was Mayor. Time Square now is Disneyland. Then it was hookers and drug dealers and you name it. When we were making that movie, one block over was certainly a very dangerous and risqué area. We were aware of it, but I didn’t live in a part of town where I was ever threatened by gangs.

 

Were you ever privy to any gang action on set at all? Countless rumours have circulated over the decades about how certain local gangs took umbrage with someone making a film about gangs…

Yeah, there were a couple of incidents but they were certainly not to the degree that they’ve grown in mythology. I can’t remember where we were shooting, whether it was Brooklyn or The Bronx, where a local gang was upset. You know, between setups and things we’d stay close to set but you might be walking down the street or whatever, and we just kept our little vest on. And they got upset, whoever the local gang was in the area, and they made it known to the location scout or the production manager that they were not happy, even though we were actors and not real gang members, for us wearing those colours on their turf. So they insisted that when we were not shooting, we’d not walk around wearing our vest – which we obliged. We just took off our vests in between takes. And I’m guessing that they simply didn’t get the pay-off, because usually wherever we shot, whether it was a gang or the mafia or whoever controlled that area, somebody got paid. That’s the way movies get made usually to ensure that everything was gonna be copacetic. Another instance that probably sticks out in my memory more than anything is we went to an area in The Bronx one night to shoot just a running shot. It was just gonna be a shot of the Warriors walking down a wet-down street as a travelling shot that would’ve taken probably less than a second or two in the movie. Why Walter wanted that location was that on both sides of the street were these derelict buildings. It looked like Dresden after World War II. The window frames just looked like they were bombed-out buildings down this one block on both sides of the street. They were just empty, vacated, rundown, derelict. It was a pretty cool visual for us just walking down this street and the camera sees on both sides of the street these derelict buildings. So we get set up for the shot, the streets get wet down. Right as they call “Action!” and the Warriors are trooping down this street, these previously empty windows on both side of the streets fill with these young gang kids yelling and screaming. And they wouldn’t quit, so we just packed up our stuff and moved on. It was just kind of a wasted half a night of shooting. That always sticks out because I really found it quite ironic and amusing at the time. These kids wouldn’t let us make this shot, and it was pretty funny. But I don’t remember really any scenes where local gangs caused any kind of threat to us or to anyone involved, and I’m sure that has grown into mythology that there was that. I mean, there may have been that and I was unaware of it, but I can’t recall any personal threat. I should probably be saying everything you’ve heard did actually go on – we had a rumble!

The film was a huge launching pad for yourself, but in the aftermath of The Warriors did you find yourself a little pigeonholed in the roles you were offered after people had seen how great you were as Swan?

Initially, not at all, because the next thing I did after The Warriors was an American television movie, a Thanksgiving special with Anthony Hopkins. It was about the voyage of the Mayflower, I played John Alden complete with the Devon accent. So that was totally different from Swan. Here’s this lovesick guy on this ship sailing across in the 1500s. And the next thing I did after that was Xanadu, which was a totally different kind of thing. So no, it didn’t pigeonhole me. Now further down the line I did get offered some similar kinds of action-oriented roles which may have come from people knowing me from The Warriors.

There’s a classic quote out there from yourself along the lines of The Warriors opened so many doors for you, then Xanadu closed those doors completely…

I did say that. I didn’t put the completely on there, but I think what I said was, “The Warriors opened the doors for me, and Xanadu slammed them shut.” You know, I look back on that and I’ve certainly changed my feelings on that movie a little over time because at these conventions that I’ve gone to over the years there’s been a sizeable contingent of fans that love Xanadu. Depending on how old they were when they saw it, it really spoke to them in a kind of life-affirming way that they could follow their dreams and do what they wanted to do. I’ve had people come and testify to me with, “I saw Xanadu when I was 13 years old and I became an artist because of that, and that’s what I do today.” And this guy’s in his 40s or whatever. So that’s made me have a greater appreciation for the movie than I did initially. Larry Gordon, who produced The Warriors, produced Xanadu along with Joel Silver, and I think they had looked at everyone at the right age in Hollywood and not found someone, so they contacted my agent and sent me a script. I was working, actually, on Mayflower. I had a script sent to the location where I was, and I read it, and I thought “You know, I’m not a song and dance musical kind of guy. This is just really not my wheelhouse of acting.” All actors want to think they can do everything, and we always want to do song and dance. I can carry a tune, but it’s really better left in the shower. Fortunately I didn’t have to sing, at the end of the day. I’m not a dancer, I can move okay but I’m not a dancer. It’s kind of a romantic comedy, so I just really thought this is not what is really my strong suit, though it might be appealing to do from a character point of view. So I passed on that movie twice. I didn’t think, because of those reasons, that it would further my career because I didn’t have enough confidence that this was the best casting choice for me. But then they came back a third time and I think the offer financially, I bought my first house in California from it. You kind of go, “Well, now this has become an economic issue rather than an artistic one.” I was about to get married, because Cari and I got married in September right after that movie opened, so I took the film. And I enjoyed the process of making the movie, I certainly enjoyed meeting and working with Olivia [Newton John]. She is just an unbelievably gracious, down-to-earth person. She’s everything all her fans hope she is! Gene Kelly, I’m sitting there pinching myself on a director’s chair in Malibu going, “I grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and I’m sitting here with one of my heroes.” Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favourite movies, I loved that movie. He was just a Prince of a person. I was on location, I lived in New York at the time, the filming went through the Thanksgiving holiday season, and Gene Kelly, knowing I was just there staying in a hotel and doing the movie, he invited me to his family’s Thanksgiving. I ended up not going because my sister and her family lived in Southern California and she had previously invited me, but I always thought “How nice and gracious is that, that a man who’s a Hollywood legend asked you to go and have Thanksgiving with his family?” I still have lifelong friends from doing Xanadu, but I still think in my own mind that I was miscast, and the film itself, it just suffered – during the making of it, probably four or five writers were hired and fired for reams of rewrites. It’s hard to make a movie when you reshoot things that you did last week and they’re totally different, so you’re trying to figure it out. It was difficult from the production point of view for me. When it opened, it bombed, it just failed at the box office. I think there were high expectations for it, but it too has become, on a lesser scale, a cult movie. Who knew? So I did say probably somewhere in the early ‘80s that The Warriors opened the door for me and Xanadu slammed it shut. That’s a long-winded answer!

 

Given the nature of our very own publication, we love to cover the horror genre. You got to work with Wes Craven on Chiller in 1985, and while yourself and The Warriors have a certain place in cult history, so too does Wes. How was it working with him?

I think he’d done the first Nightmare prior to that. It was delightful working with him. Having been a college professor, he was very articulate. I loved talking to him, he was very gentle spirited, a very caring man. It was a pleasure working with him. That’s the only horror movie for me. I’ve done other work that even though it’s not a horror movie, it is a horror movie because I play monsters in them, but they wouldn’t be in that genre. The reason that I took that movie besides Wes Craven directing it was I just thought, “This is going to be challenging to play. How can you play a person who has clinically died, been frozen, 10 years later is brought back from death because now science has found what they can do to heal his body from whatever killed him, but you come back without a soul?” I just found that spiritually, philosophically and metaphysically an interesting question. I wanted to look at how I was going to play that. So that was intriguing to me in taking that role on. There were some others involved – Beatrice Straight, Paul Sorvino – who were very, very good actors. I had a good time doing that movie. But because it was a made-for-television movie in the States, it doesn’t have wide viewership even in America but certainly not around the world. People go, “Wes Craven did this? How do I get it?” Like most made-for-television movies, at least in the States in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, they aired once, they might bring them back 6 months later or a year later and air them again just to get all of their cost and profit out of it, but then they just go to the vault.

Moving back to The Warriors, 2015 gave us The Last Subway Ride Home. What was that like to go back to Coney Island and see the lasting legacy of The Warriors?

That was really quite an experience, to go back to that particular event. We had done an event around the time that the 25th anniversary of the movie happened. We did a thing with an outfit called Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which at that time was in Austin, Texas. It partnered with Netflix and did a thing in New York that ended up being in Coney Island for a screening of the movie on a big inflatable, portable screen. That was our first kind of reunion where it was just a Warriors event, as oppose to several of us going to a convention where there are all kinds of other franchises. That was the only experience we had had of just a Warriors event, so this thing in 2015 happened probably 10 years later. It was a 1-day event, and 8,000 people showed up at Coney Island to see The Warriors. I was humbled and astounded that that many people showed up, and it was a blazing hot day in September. They stood in line for hours just to come by and shake our hand, getting an autograph or a picture. At a lot of the conventions you go to, there’s a slot of time where you can have a brief conversation with someone. This was sign, “Thank you so much”, then the next person was there because that line was constant all day long. I was simply astounded at how many people loved this movie. I knew it from going to conventions, but it was 1 day of showing us. They came out 8,000 strong to see us! That’s a pretty humbling deal. People came from Australia, the UK. It was amazing to me that people came from foreign countries to be part of this event. It was quite something. We’re doing really the same thing in Birmingham at Edgbaston - it’s Warriors only. So I’m really looking forward to seeing all of our UK fans. I’m hoping that they will show up for this because it’s really just for them that we’re coming over there. It should be a cool event, and we’re really looking forward to it.

 

There’s been talk over the years of a remake or a TV series of The Warriors. Do you think that The Warriors could be made today, or do you think it’s too different a time, that the pieces aren’t in the right places these days?

Everybody would be armed, wouldn’t they? And they would have cell phones. Unless you did it in some dystopian futuristic place, how would you have this gang running for their lives to get home? I mean, you could do it in some sort of vehicle and as a bang-bang shoot-em-up kind of thing – that’s done all the time. To have the kind of innocence that The Warriors had, I don’t see how you can recreate that in the present time. The last viable rumour was when Tony Scott was still living. He, for several years, wanted to do a remake and set it in Southern California and cast it with hip hop stars and rappers, and just turn it into a different thing. Which may well have been a wonderful movie, I have no idea, but it would not have spoken to the same people because, to me, you are talking about New York and how it resonates to people. New York of that time and era is a main character in that movie. I find The Warriors to be a quintessential New York movie in the same way that Mean Streets or Taxi Driver is. You recognise the city and the city is an integral part of it. So to make it somewhere else, and that’s not to say that it couldn’t be done and couldn’t be done well and couldn’t tell that story in a respectful way, but it wouldn’t be the same. Remakes rarely are. I’ve never been a huge fan of remakes, though I did like the Coen Brothers’ True Grit better than the original. I’m a Duke [John Wayne] fan and I do like the original, but I loved Hailee Steinfeld, she was marvelous in it. [Jeff] Bridges was good, too. But remakes? There are tons of remake. The Ben-Hur that we love most, the Charlton Heston one, was a remake. So you can’t argue and say all remakes are crappy – they’re not!

And before we wrap things up, is there anything else you’d like to add or share with our readers?

Just that the cast is excited to be coming to the UK, and we look forward to meeting all of the people who love this movie. So please come on out and see us.

The Warriors UK Conclave event takes place at Edgbaston Stadium, Birmingham on April 1st and 2nd. For full details, head to www.ukconclave.com.


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