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One-on-One: William Friedkin

A conversation with the legendary director of The Exorcist and The French Connection (and Blue Chips) about sports, movies, and the time he almost bought the Boston Celtics.

William Friedkin

William Friedkin has had his share of second thoughts. In his new memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the Academy Award–winning director sizes up a career on the edge, whether as a director of live television in its golden era, hard-hitting documentaries that cried for advocacy on the streets of his hometown Chicago, feature films that kicked back with Sonny Bono, or Puccini operas that featured Plácido Domingo.

Were he to shoot the most thrilling moments of the iconic car chase from The French Connection now, would he endanger the lives of innocent bystanders on an unpermitted shoot inside a Pontiac prepared to “eat up” the streets of Brooklyn?1 And was it OK to slap the face of an actor (and actual Jesuit priest) and then yell “Action!” on the set of The Exorcist? Of course, these are second thoughts about process, rarely about results.


That one is a resounding no — though perhaps not the bit about the permit.

Stashed throughout the memoir are Friedkin’s thoughts on sports, including a passing reference to at least one missed opportunity to carry considerable weight in the NBA. Declining the chance to take an ownership stake in a just-discovered Mike Tyson was an easy pass, but the offer of one-third ownership in his beloved Boston Celtics — at a rock-bottom price, no less — still intrigues him. Friedkin declined. The next season, Larry Bird stepped onto the court and, as Friedkin puts it, “the entire financial structure of the game, as well as the game itself, changed.” The moment Bird was unveiled before a frenzied home crowd in 1979, a fan released a dove inside Boston Garden.

Friedkin spoke by phone about his thoughts on the NBA and the time he nearly ascended to Boston basketball royalty. Like that dove, it was one that got away.

What drew you to the Boston Celtics?

Going back to the early 1950s, you couldn’t see basketball on television. It was rare. First of all, I could never afford to go to a game. There was a pro team where I grew up, the Chicago Stags. I was a fan, by the way — they had Max Zaslofsky and Andy Phillip. I was following college basketball, as well. I was playing ball at school and the Clarendon Park field house. There were great intramural games between various field houses around Chicago that were every bit as good as the high school games.

The only real contact I had was seeing pro games on newsreels. The Movietone News would show highlights. I remember seeing and really being struck by the Boston Celtics. I used to read about them in the sports pages in the ’50s, in my late teens. I’d see clips in the newsreels, and I was very influenced by what I saw of Bob Cousy. He seemed amazing, an absolute wizard with the basketball. So I continued to follow the Celtics as I got older, and the games began appearing on network television — usually just on a Sunday afternoon, like NFL football at that time.

What aspect of Cousy’s game made the strongest impression on you?

Ballhandling. The guy had an absolutely dead-on sense of where and how to hit the open man. That’s always been the key to championship basketball. Cousy was a damn good shooter himself, but he was an expert ball handler. I’ve never really seen better. I’ve seen some of the greats, like Pete Maravich or Magic Johnson — finding the open man was the most important aspect of their games and their success. The great Celtic teams that Red Auerbach put together proved he had an unerring instinct for chemistry. Red’s instincts are what really made those teams, because Cousy didn’t really start to win the championships until Bill Russell and Bill Sharman came to the team — especially Russell. Cousy and Russell are easily the most lethal combination I’ve ever seen on the basketball court. It’s a different game now, of course. It’s different in every way. But in those days, it was really the basics.

When did you first meet Cousy?

I believe 1977. Around that time, I would speak at various colleges — they’d give me a doctorate or whatever. One of the colleges I was asked to speak at was Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had heard about Clark and the famous episode where they brought Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud to speak — the only time Freud and Jung had a public debate about psychology versus parapsychology. Clark brought them over on a boat and they hosted a series of debates that was really the start of people’s consciousness of psychology and parapsychology.

Cousy/Auerbach What was of greater concern to me was that I knew Bob Cousy went to College of the Holy Cross, which was in Worcester. I remember asking the president of the college if he had ever heard of Cousy. He laughed and said, “Sure, he lives right up the block, would you like to meet him?” Of course I did, so he called Cousy and [Cousy] walked down the block to Clark and listened to my talk and we became friends. He took me to a couple Celtics games at Boston Garden and introduced me to Red. We became really close friends, and I remain friends with Cousy.

Before Bird arrived, you had the chance to own and operate the Celtics. How did this opportunity present itself?

There was a time in the late ’70s when there was friction between the fans and Irv Levin, who owned the team at that point and had won a championship. There happened to be a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon. It was the farewell game for John Havlicek. Irv Levin came out on national TV and had his shirt open several buttons and had several gold chains and he was a Hollywood guy, who I knew because he was one of the owners of National General Pictures.2


National General Pictures was the first company to option The French Connection. “We went through a couple scripts with them,” Friedkin said, “and then they dropped us. After they passed, National General was out of business. In later years I would see Irv and kid him about it. Irv always felt really bad that he passed, because of the film’s subsequent success. He always felt that if he’d done that picture, it might have saved his company.”

So anyway, Irv went out to give Havlicek the usual gifts on national TV — a car, a piece of the floor, all the usual hazarai that was given in those days when a major star was retiring. Irv went out and was roundly booed by the crowd in Boston Garden, because the team was at the bottom of the East that year. The following Monday I had lunch with Irv. He said, “You know, I’m really fed up with this city. I gave ’em a championship and it’s always, ‘What’ve you done for me lately?’ I wanna get the hell outta here. I know you love this shit and Red’s crazy about you. I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll sell you a third of the team for what I paid for it.”

What was the price he was asking for?

It turns out what Irv paid for the Celtics was about $4.5 million. He was basically offering me a third of the team for $1.5 million, and I would be able to operate it. I was stunned. But I was concerned about it, because I couldn’t be an absentee owner and I would never, ever be in a situation where I was disagreeing with Red Auerbach about the course of the team.

At that time, Auerbach was really pissed off at Levin. They weren’t getting along at all. Auerbach was considering an offer from Sonny Werblin, who ran Madison Square Garden for the owners, and they owned the Knicks. Werblin offered Red to come to New York and run the Knicks and the whole Garden. And it would’ve been a massive salary raise. It got in the papers that he got this offer, and that he was considering it. Everywhere I would go with him, people would yell, “Please don’t go, Red.” He was really on the fence; he was going to go if Levin stayed with the team.

Meanwhile, I took this offer Levin had given me to my business manager, Ed Gross. He looked at the financials and said, “Well, this might be a lot of fun for you, but I have to tell you the Celtics lose money. Most NBA teams do.”

I passed on the ownership of the Celtics for several reasons. One, I frankly didn’t want to lose money. Two, I thought it could put a strain on my relationship with Red. Irv Levin then traded the Boston Celtics to a guy named John Y. Brown, who owned Kentucky Fried Chicken and was later governor of Kentucky.

The following year, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came into the NBA. Red drafted Bird in 1978, knowing that he had to wait a year until Bird’s eligibility. Bird was going to finish his senior year at Indiana State. Red had that much faith in Bird that he signed him even when he couldn’t get him for a season.

That year local television stations in Boston were broadcasting Indiana State games so fans could renew their hope in the franchise, knowing Bird’s arrival was imminent. Do you remember that sense of anticipation?

Oh, sure. I still have a VHS copy I made of the Michigan State–Indiana State finals, Magic vs. Bird. That was a national phenomenon, not simply in Boston.

I was born the day after that game. My father was actually at home watching it when my mother went into labor and he had to pull himself away.

[Laughs.] It was one of the great games. I’ve watched it many times since. It was phenomenal. Mano-a-mano. Of course, Michigan State won, but that was only the beginning of the rivalry that would come to dominate the NBA, until Jordan came into the league. Jordan gradually became the dominant player.

Bird was a legendary figure. The arrival of Bird was truly a major event. I’ve seen that a couple times. It happened here in Los Angeles when Donald Sterling had the Clippers at the Sports Arena — there was a guy named Danny Manning, who was an All-American out of Kansas. Sterling drafted him and it was Manning mania. He was going to be the savior, but he was often injured. There were people waving flags with Manning’s name and number all along the streets and bars.

Before you brought the deal to buy the Celtics to Ed Gross and learned about the financial downsides, did you strongly consider the offer?

Yeah, of course. That would have been a kind of nirvana to me. My earliest dream was to play college and then professional basketball. I really wasn’t good enough. In my own mind, I was. It wasn’t until I started seeing a number of the other players my own age — the gigantic strides they were making, season after season, which I wasn’t — that I realized I wouldn’t make it. I practiced every day from the time I was 12 to about 17. In the snow I’d go out and shoot baskets. I got to be pretty damn good in my circle. If I could’ve played basketball professionally, I would have never even thought of doing anything in film.

If Ed had said it was financially feasible or profitable, would you have been able to put film aside and focus solely on basketball?

What quickly happened, after Bird and Magic had established themselves, was the giant corporations and multimillionaires started to get interested in pro basketball. The earliest owners of teams were wealthy guys, but they weren’t multimillionaires, let alone billionaires. There were no corporations. There were no Mark Cubans. Walter Brown, who started the Celtics, was a modestly wealthy man. What would have happened, had I agreed to the offer to buy a part of the Celtics, I could have never competed. I would have either had to sell the team shortly after I got it, or go into some kind of junior partnership with someone with deep pockets, because it became unaffordable for a well-to-do businessman to get involved.

You write in the book about Red inviting you to take part in Celtics scrimmages. Were they full-contact?

Yeah. Five-on-five and full-court. They let me suit up and run the various plays.

To what extent could you keep up with the pros?

I couldn’t get a rebound if my life depended on it. But in the five-on-fives I would always draw one or two of the best players on the team. When I first started working out with them, Havlicek was on my team and I was matched up against Ernie DiGregorio.3


“Incidentally,” Friedkin added, “his nickname was Ernie D. But the people in Boston and around the team used to refer to him as Ernie No D. Because, really, he was a totally offensive player.”

They used to have visitors who would watch practices from the stands. I remember Havlicek gave me a pass and I did a little dribble around DiGregorio and scored a jump shot the first time I got the ball. The handful of people in the stadium went crazy. No one expected me to do anything, but I scored over Ernie D. I could run with them, but I certainly didn’t have the size and couldn’t really compete, so I’d have to say they were taking it easy on me. I could run the full-court drills and the weaves and run some of the plays. I did all the workouts and then we’d have shootarounds.

Were you a part of the team’s nightlife at all?

After every practice, there was a racquetball court in the gym that we’d play on, at Brandeis University. It was mainly a group of four of us who’d play, including Red, who was close to 80 at the time. He’d invariably win the racquetball games, which we played hard. The assistant coach, Jimmy Rodgers, and the head coach, K.C. Jones, would play as well.

Then we’d always have dinner afterward. Red loved Chinese food, so we’d go to a favorite Chinese spot. We would always meet up before the games in Red’s office in Boston Garden, between 5:30 and 6. There’d be all these deli sandwiches and several other Boston notables: a judge, Mark Wolf, who presided over the Boston racketeering trials; occasionally Ted Kennedy would show up, or John Kerry; or Red’s heart specialist, the leading heart man at Mass General. We’d sit around and listen to Red tell stories, then go watch the game.

Did you ever rush the court after a big win?

In Houston, when the Celtics won the championship, I did. It was really wild.

Was there a sense of danger?

I don’t remember there being real danger. In those days, in the ’80s, we didn’t live in the fear of crowds as people do now. Now, it’s kind of nuts. I’m thinking of the Boston Marathon. Then, there was no fear of anything like that. You still see, at the end of college games, you still see people rush the floor and tear down the nets, and that’s done without fear.

What was the atmosphere like in the Celtics locker room before games?

There wasn’t a lot of drama. But I will tell you, and what I don’t think a lot of people know, is that they worked, psychologically, on developing a hatred of the other team. Red encouraged it. It was trumped up. They would get themselves worked up to a hatred of Magic or whichever player they were up against. This was before Magic and Bird became a mutual appreciation society.

What was the spark that would incite the hatred?

Somebody would mention a nickname, names you can’t print in the magazine. Asshole or Jerkoff. “When they get it to Jerkoff, make sure he doesn’t go to his left. Cut the son of a bitch off.” It was down and dirty — stuff you wouldn’t expect in the pros. It was like they were in high school. I’ve been in other locker rooms, but I’ve never quite seen that. I don’t know that they really hated these guys, but they had to regard them as if [they were] an enemy in battle.

With your background as a filmmaker, did the coaches ever approach you to help psych up the team in any capacity?

Yeah, they’d ask me to talk to the team. Bobby Knight did that, too, when Nick Nolte and I were in Indiana shadowing him and making Blue Chips. He would have each one of us occasionally talk to the team about what it took to excel in directing or acting. The players were always interested.

Knight would often get some inspirational general or football coach he admired to come in and talk to the team. He did that with me. And I did that early on with the Celtics, as well. I can’t tell you what I said. I was completely unprepared to do it. I would summon up enough to tell some kind of inspirational story about The French Connection, which was a big film to athletes. It’s the thing that drew Red to me, because they really admired The French Connection. I was shooting The Brink’s Job at the time in Boston and Red came on the set often. And of course it was through Red that I met all the guys I ended up putting in Blue Chips, starting with Bobby Knight.

In the brief section of the book focusing on Blue Chips, you write, “It’s hard to capture in a sports film the excitement of a real game, with its own unpredictable dramatic structure and suspense. I couldn’t overcome that.”

It’s impossible.

Is that why you were drawn to material from the perspective of a coach? The strategic aspects of the game translate to the screen pretty well.

Well, it was a script by Ron Shelton, and I liked the script. Ron had a very good knowledge of basketball, among other sports. He brought the project to me, and I loved it. We went on a big campaign to get Nolte on it, who at first didn’t want to do it. We made a lot of changes to the script as we went along, and I decided that the only way to try and capture the flow of basketball was to play real games with the best players possible. Hoosiers is a great film. The basketball scenes in it are not, to me, the greatest I’ve ever seen. Some of the shots of the lead kid practicing, where he hit a number of long shots, are phenomenal.

The thing about basketball is that it’s so spontaneous. When I see these coaches drawing up plays and telling guys to go here or there, watch how the players are pretty much not even listening. You can’t control the game. You can certainly set up defensive and offensive patterns and try to get the ball to your best shooters or get it down low, but you can’t guarantee that anything like that is going to happen. The flow of the game is spontaneous and uncontrollable. That’s what makes it exciting. That’s why people sit there and cheer constantly for everything that happens. You don’t know who’s gonna get a rebound, get hurt, or make a phenomenal dunk. I thought the only way to capture what Shelton had in his script was to cast the best college players possible — players who were about to go pro — and let them play. Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Bobby Hurley, Rick Fox — some of the best players in the game who had just come out of college.

I told Bobby Knight, “I want to play real games. Where do I go where I can do that, draw a crowd, and not pay the crowd?” Without a blink, he said, “You go to Frankfort, Indiana. Go to Frankfort High School.” Frankfort was almost like the spiritual home of Indiana basketball. They had about five or six thousand seats. We played three full games in front of a live audience from which I was drawing all the basketball footage. We drew the audience just because of the caliber of the players and coaches, like Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Jerry Tarkanian. We had turn-away crowds and something like 10,000 visitors and out-of-towners in Frankfort who came in to get a glimpse.

I had them play full games except for the set plays that had to end the sequence. The game that ends the movie ends on a play Nolte draws up that is a pass in to Shaq for a dunk. That was set. Before I shot it, while we were rehearsing it, Knight told his team, “Don’t let this motherfucker score.” And they fucking blocked Shaq! Finally, after two or three takes, Knight let me run that play. But Bobby was a guy who loved to take the mickey out of everyone.

I felt that it would be easier for me to find basketball players who could act — and by act, I meant be basketball players — than to find actors who look like they could play. There are no real actors who have the size or the game. That’s always bothered me, especially in basketball movies.

To your credit, you got a performance out of Shaq.

And Penny and Hurley, as well. They were good enough. I mean, I wouldn’t do this with Shakespeare. But these guys were talking about what they knew and about their lives. I felt the script had a lot of truth about it, even though it was more about coaching and recruiting than the game itself. But I felt the first thing that had to register was how the games were played.

In the prologue to your book, you mention passing up an ownership stake in Mike Tyson when he was first discovered by Cus D’Amato. What happened?

Jose Torres was a good friend of mine. He was the first Puerto Rican light-heavyweight champion. We were good friends in New York. One day Jose said to me that Cus D’Amato would like to find one more great fighter — a white heavyweight. He thought that if he could find a potentially white heavyweight who could win a championship, it would be license to print money.

Jose said, “Would you be interested, if we could find somebody, we’d give you a third of the fighter and you’d pay all the expenses.” The deal was that I would finance the guy — pay for the meals, the training expenses — and Cus would handle the training, I would have nothing to say about that.

I liked boxing in those days. I thought it was very exciting, especially the welterweight divisions. Jose suggested we go to some tough-man contests, where young kids get in the ring, mostly without gloves, and just beat the shit out of each other until the last man is standing. Jose wanted to go to one in a place called McMinnville, Tennessee, which is near Lynchburg, where Jack Daniel’s is made. He heard there was a tough-man contest there that was, over the years, pretty good. We went to a few and didn’t see anybody who Jose thought had the stuff, but that one contest in McMinnville was memorable. I called the promoter of the tough-man contest there and told him I was coming down there with Jose Torres, and the guy was really excited. We drove down there from Nashville and the promoter met us, got us a room, escorted us to the fight.

The night after watching this marathon fight, we went to a local bar, and we were actually run out of town. Five guys showed up at the bar with shotguns and said to the promoter, “The white boy can stay,” referring to me, “but he’s gotta go.” He was referring to Jose, who is a light-skinned Puerto Rican. The promoter said, “Come on, man, don’t do this. This is Jose Torres, he’s the light-heavyweight champion of the world.” He said, “We don’t give a shit who he is, we don’t want him in this bar.” At gunpoint, they drove us out of town.

Jose continued to look for fighters. Nothing happened for a couple years. Then he called me and said Cus had found a kid he thought he could train to be a champion, though he was an African American kid. By then I’d sort of lost interest in it. So I passed. Two guys, professional promoters, took my position, who were later driven out by Don King. Cus died, and Mike Tyson had no father, just people there to exploit him. Again, like when I said I passed on the Celtics, I couldn’t have competed with those billionaires. With Tyson, once he became Tyson, the guys who took my slot were driven out, so clearly I would have [been], as well. Those were opportunities I mentioned that I had passed on, or that fate passed for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Slate, The Atlantic, Wax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint.