Throwback Interview: William Fichtner from 1999

by / Mar. 4, 2016 5pm EST

Glad to see that Cheektowaga native William Fichtner is getting some local attention with his appearance ths Sunday at the Buffalo History Museum. (Sorry, it’s sold out.) Here’s an interview I did with him way back in 1999, in conjunction with his appearance in the movie Armageddon:

Michael Bay, director of such blockbusters as Bad Boys and The Rock, describes Cheektowaga native William Fichtner in the same breath with Ben Affleck when describing the kind of up-and-coming talent he was happy to get in his new film Armageddon. And after nearly two decades of scrounging for work in Manhattan and working in well-received independent films, the Maryvale High graduate is enjoying his first taste of Hollywood Babylon.

“I just got back from the premiere of Armageddon at Cape Kennedy,” he says by phone from his Manhattan apartment, “which was so much fun — what a blast! The Air Force guys all wanted me to take a picture with their wives. We had a party in this museum underneath the Saturn 5 rocket, they set up a little grandstand and Aerosmith [who provides songs for the film’s soundtrack] played an intimate concert for 200 people while waiters were passing around cocktails. It was great, great, great! I’m recovering today.”

Fichtner plays hard-nosed Col. William Sharp, leader of the mission flying Bruce Willis and his crew of oil cowboys to destroy a Texas-sized asteroid on a collision course with Earth. And if he’s partying now, he’s earned it. His role in Armageddon had him on set for more than five months, much of which he spent in a spacesuit for which “comfort was a secondary thought. The first day they put me in that suit, I thought, this is cool! But then they put the air pack on — there’s another 30 pounds in the middle of my back, and then the helmet with the free breathing unit that ‘s not really pumping the air as much as you’d like it to be, and your body temperature starts rising …

“You’d lose a couple of pounds of water weight a day, but we had this caterer — these guys will blow your mind with what they cook. I’ve worked on films where the whole budget had to be less than the catering budget here. You’d put it all back on at lunch! But it kept you in shape, let me tell you, lugging all that stuff around.”

Tension between Col. Sharp and Willis’s hero drives the third act of what is essentially an old-fashioned action film. Still, that doesn’t mean that Fichtner, who has gone for extended periods without working rather than get stuck in a rut of similar characters, was willing to be a cardboard villain.

“The day I started work,” he recalls, “Michael Bay said to me, I want you to be real intense, jack it up. But that’s not this guy. I’ve spent time with pilots — shortly after I found out I was going to be working on the film I called up my sister Patty, who’s a major at the Niagara Falls Air reserve station. I spent some time there, met some of the pilots, went out to Edwards Air Force Base in California, and talked to the head of the test pilot school out there. When you spend time around these pilots you start to understand what their focus is, their steadiness. There’s a lot of big testosterone flinging in Armageddon, and I didn’t want Col. Sharp to be the guy who was losing his cool to jack it up. Because these guys don’t lose their cool, they’re steady as rock. They lose an engine on that aircraft and they’re like, it’s fine, we’re going to put it down, because they believe that. So we always had to come to a meeting of the minds as to how we were going to play that stuff.”

Fichtner first became interested in acting when a friend introduced him to Broadway while he was a freshman at SUNY/Farmingdale on Long Island.  He transferred to Brockport to finish his degree in criminal justice. Needing a fine arts course for his core requirements, he signed up for an improv acting class.

“At the time my major concerns were passing my classes, Budweiser and the gym. My hair was way down beyond my shoulders, I probably weighed 200 pounds, and I’m sure when I showed up for class everyone else was just groaning. But I was loving it — the freedom, the expression, I’d never had a chance to do anything like that.” His instructor persuaded the department head to let Fichtner enroll in acting classes otherwise available only to majors, and most of Fichtner’s senior year was spent in theater classes.

After graduation, “I knew that I wasn’t going to continue on to be a police officer or anything in the law enforcement area — my heart just wasn’t there anymore. So that summer I auditioned for an acting school in New York, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I must have been a last minute fill-in because they called me about a week before classes started. So I left my pickup truck at home in Cheektowaga, asked my mom to sell it, and took a bus to New York.”

Fichtner spent the next eight years in the classic grind of the struggling New York actor,  “waiting tables and working for subway fare. You come out of Cheektowaga and you get off a bus at Port Authority, you’re talking culture shock to the nth degree!” He declined a second year at AADA (“I learned a lot there, but I felt they were babysitting a lot of kids with a lot of money”) and began studying with teacher Peter Thompson. Unwilling to go on auditions until he felt he was ready, he studied for five more years before seeking roles. 

In 1987, Fichtner accepted a role on the TV soap “As the World Turns.” “At first I thought, oh god, there’s the end of my career. But I spent every day in front of a camera and got very comfortable. That really serves me well today. The first 7 months on that soap, the boom over my head was so close I thought, it’s gotta be picking up my heartbeat! That’s how long it took me to relax.

“I had a three-year contract, but after one year I asked them to write me off. It’s a great job, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with the rest of the business, it’s a world of its own. And I knew if I stayed, I’d become like a lot of other guys who re-signed because they had financial commitments to take care of. I had a guarantee for a salary in the low six figures in my third year. I asked them to write me out and not pay me that money. And the next year I think I barely cleared $10,000. But I never regretted it for a day.”

In 1989, Fichtner decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. In eight months he worked once, a guest spot on “Baywatch” which he figures just about paid his bills for the sojourn. “It was a very disheartening time. But it answered the question  of where I needed to be. When I got back to NY I started working in theaters that I hadn’t had the chance to work in before — the Public Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, the Circle Repertory Theater-  and I think that commitment trickled down into my work.”

While working in the New York theater, Fichtner also began to get small parts in films like Malcolm X, Quiz Show, Virtuosity, Strange Days, Heat and Reckless (directed by Norman Rene, for whom he worked in The Fiery Furnace at the Circle Rep). His first major film role was in Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath. Of the few people who saw it, one was casting director David Rubin, who suggested him to Kevin Spacey when the actor was casting Albino Alligator, his directorial debut and a film otherwise filled with people Spacey already knew.

“I’d never met Kevin Spacey before I auditioned for him,” Fichtner says, “and I didn’t  feel good about what I did in that audition. Kevin didn’t immediately offer me the part, because they had to make sure they had their names in line. It’s a business; everybody wants names, because that’s how they get backing and sell tickets. Kevin told me, I’ve got Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway, and if I can get Gary Sinese, I’ll have room. And the day he found out he had Gary, he called and offered me the part.”

Another little-seen film, Albino Alligator netted Fichtner plenty of attention. The New York Times mentioned “… the photogenically feral-looking William Fichtner [who] like Benicio Del Toro in The Usual Suspects, is the wild-card wiseguy who rivets attention in the strangest of ways.” And the New York Post said that Fichtner “steals the movie …  playing a charismatic, sadistic, psychotic ex-con as effectively as this sort of role can possibly be played.”

But because Fichtner had already played that sort of role a few times already, he chose not to capitalize on his notices but instead to wait until a change of direction came along. That turned out to be Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, in which he plays blind astronomer Kent Clark. “I had two months notice before I started shooting, which was a tremendous luxury, because I could take that time to try and get the character down. I went to the Jewish Guild for the Blind, spent hours in my apartment every day with a blindfold on, worked with a cane and a seeing-eye dog. Did that stuff make it in the film? No, but it was worth it in getting into that character’s head.”

Fichtner recently completed work on two more films that should be released in the upcoming year. Go is the new film from Swingers director Doug Liman. The Settlement is an indie film with Fichtner and John C Reily as partners in a company that buys insurance policies from the terminally ill so that they can have the money while they’re still alive.

Having learned early not to be seduced into a high lifestyle that would dictate his career choices, Fichtner has been able to hold to his self-promise not to take a job just for the money, “unless I had to, and so far I haven’t had to.” It’s a strategy for survival in a mercurial business, as demonstrated by his experience on Armageddon.

“I met [director] Mike Bey at the premiere of Albino Alligator, and he said I want to talk to you about a part in this movie we’re doing. A couple of months later we talked and he had me down for the part of Chick Chapple. A few weeks later me and him and Jerry Bruckheimer talked again, then a few more months later they’re not interested anymore, they want Will Patton for that part. They offered me a different part I didn’t want to do. So then they said, How about Col. Sharp? and I read it and said hey, I like this. So I was all over the place in that movie (laughs), but that’s the way this business goes.  Nothing in this business is real until you’re actually shooting. Everytime I’m on a film, I always wait until they’ve actually shot the first scene, then I find a phone and call my agent Joe and tell him. ‘It’s real.’”