“I’ve often regretted that I didn’t start directing earlier like most of my peers did,” actor, producer and director Tony Bill told FilmInk in 2012. “But I also think that being able to do three things is also maybe more enjoyable than maybe only being able to do one.”
Like many other directors who have excelled in other fields (see other Unsung Auteurs like Jack Cardiff, Frank Pierson, Bobcat Goldthwait, Lewis John Carlino and others), Tony Bill rarely receives the credit he deserves for his strong work behind the camera. Though best known for his long career as a character actor, and for his bravura success producing era-essential cult favourites like Steelyard Blues (1973) and movie classics like The Sting (1973) and Going In Style (1979), Tony Bill also has a small but fascinating resume as a director. “Directing is much more rewarding,” Bill told FilmInk in 2012. “Acting is much easier…you just have to show up!”
Tony Bill was born in San Diego, California, and attended St. Augustine High School. He majored in English and art at the University of Notre Dame, and after graduating in 1962, he began his career as an actor. Bill made an auspicious debut in 1963, appearing opposite Frank Sinatra in Come Blow Your Horn and Steve McQueen in Soldier In The Rain, after which he worked steadily throughout the decade, appearing frequently on TV, stage and the big screen. Bill turned to producing in 1973, enjoying cult success with Steelyard Blues and then stratospheric success with The Sting in the same year, which triumphed at the box office and pulled in a massive haul at the Oscars, including a Best Picture gong. “From a producer’s point of view, it doesn’t matter too much,” Bill told FilmInk in 2012 of the Oscar win. “The next day, you’re back on the street looking for your next project. You’re not perceived to have real talent in the way that a director or an actor does. You don’t benefit a lot as a producer from an Academy Award. It’s just the icing on the cake.”
In 1980, Tony Bill made his directorial debut with one of the decade’s best – and most under-celebrated – coming of age teen flicks with the masterful My Bodyguard. Sensitively handled and deeply emotional, this cogent drama stars Chris Makepeace as Clifford, the bullied new kid at school who hits back at bad guy Moody (Matt Dillon) by hiring his own bodyguard in the form of the hulking Linderman (Adam Baldwin), the school’s most feared – and most misunderstood – student. Beautifully acted, wholly sympathetic to its teen characters, and redolent with important themes, My Bodyguard is right up there with other essential 1980s teen flicks like The Outsiders, Say Anything, Valley Girl, and anything by John Hughes.
“I’m very proud of it,” Tony Bill told FilmInk of My Bodyguard in 2012, “and I hear so often from people to whom it meant a lot. That’s always great to hear, because you always hope that your movies will affect people’s lives. I’m very proud of the kids that were in the movie, not just the kids like Matt Dillon, who’s gone on to movie success, but everyone else too. It was also the first of its kind too, in telling a story about kids bullying kids, which is all over the news today. Nobody has really noticed, and I’m kind of disappointed that the film doesn’t tie into their memory somehow. People don’t remember that we made a whole movie about this subject a long, long time before other movies were made about the subject matter.”
Since My Bodyguard, Bill has continued to produce, and has also directed prolifically on both episodic TV (Chicago Hope, Felicity, Monk, Leverage) and television movies (with a host of strong efforts including 2000’s Holly Hunter-starrer Harlan County War, 1984’s John Ritter-Penny Marshall rom-com Love Thy Neighbor, and 1996’s Sissy Spacek drama Beyond The Call), while also helming a small collection of fascinating features too. Bill followed My Bodyguard in 1982 with the Dudley Moore-Mary Tyler Moore family weepie Six Weeks, which wrings the expected emotion out of a story about two friends who try to make a dying girl’s last weeks special. Bill worked with Dudley Moore again (the pair were friends and business partners off-screen in a Venice, California restaurant) in 1990 on the underrated black comedy Crazy People, in which an ad exec has a nervous breakdown, and produces a series of mistakenly successful “honest ads.” Pithy and effectively satirical, the film’s “honest ads” are very funny (“Jaguar cars… For men who’d like hand jobs from beautiful women they hardly know”), and it’s also amusingly ahead of its time.
In between the two Dudley Moore flicks was 1987’s delightfully strange and unpredictable Five Corners, penned by acclaimed playwright John Patrick Shanley and packed with wonderfully black humour. Set in the 1960s in the eponymous New York neighbourhood, the film is a bizarre relationship triangle made up of Jodie Foster’s assault victim, John Turturro’s fresh-out-of-prison attacker, and Tim Robbins’ now peace-favouring protector. Though now completely forgotten, Five Corners is incredibly well performed, and Bill creates an atmosphere of urban grittiness that perfectly offsets the story’s slightly surreal flourishes. Five Corners is a terrific little film well deserving of rediscovery.
More conventional but no less enjoyable were 1993’s comedy drama A Home Of Our Own (in which the typically excellent Kathy Bates struggles to set up a new home for her six kids after being fired from her job for standing up to a sexually harassing colleague) and 1993’s romantic drama Untamed Heart, which sensitively tracks the unlikely relationship that develops between Marisa Tomei’s diner waitress and Christian Slater’s introspective bus boy. Bittersweet and deeply affecting, Untamed Heart showcases both Bill’s skills in working with actors, and also his ease in dealing with difficult, emotionally fraught subject matter.
By far Bill’s biggest and most ambitious directorial effort has been 2006’s Flyboys, which still stands as the multi-hyphenate’s most recent big screen effort. An early adopter of digital cameras, Bill’s epic action drama is decidedly classic in tone. Starring James Franco, Martin Henderson and Jean Reno, Flyboys is the story of The Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young American volunteers who joined the French military and fought in the sky during World War One when America was still officially a neutral party in the war. Up against Germany’s superior military power and Fokker aircraft, the brave but inexperienced Lafayette Escadrilles’ life expectancy was a mere three to six weeks. Though keenly tapping into the story’s sense of adventure and excitement, Bill doesn’t shy away from the tragedy at its core, and Flyboys rates as another effectively bittersweet effort from the director.
Though he’s found his greatest success as a producer, Tony Bill has constantly proven himself to be an imaginative director with a keen eye for unusual, slightly left-of-centre material that he is able to breathe fresh, fascinating life into.
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