Fondly Celebrates And Reflects On The 36th Anniversary Of The Warriors, The 35th Anniversary of Xanadu, The Premiere Of His New Film The Grace Of Jake, And Discusses His Extraordinary And Iconic Career
By Arlene R. Weiss
Actor Michael Beck is best known for indelibly portraying the iconic role of Swan in director Walter Hill’s fantastical, surrealistic, hit cult film, 1979’s The Warriors. Beck’s dynamic and electrifying portrayal of the heroic leader of the fictional Coney Island, New York street gang has also transformed Beck into an icon himself among movie buffs, film critics, and fans of the film.
This year marks the 36th anniversary of The Warriors, and the film continues to grow as a pop culture phenomenon with every year. Beck and his fellow Warriors cast members continue to celebrate the film’s cult classic status with their many worldwide fans, regularly holding cast reunions and making guest panel speeches. They also hold meet and greet appearances at many international comics and film conventions, as well as at special Warriors fanfest events.
The Warriors did great things for Michael Beck’s career as an actor and silver screen star, breaking out Beck, who at the time was just beginning his acting career. The Warriors helped to firmly establish and place Beck on Hollywood’s map, while showcasing his stellar talents to some of film, TV, and theater’s most esteemed directors and producers.
Beck is a multi-faceted, classically trained theater actor of immense emotional depth and range. He grew up and was raised on his father’s family farm in the Arkansas delta. He attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi on a football scholarship, but Beck wound up portraying Romeo and Juliet‘s Tybalt on a friendly dare and immediately became enamored with the craft of acting. Beck then studied acting for three years at London’s prestigious Central School Of Speech and Drama. He then spent two more years developing his craft performing repertory theater in the UK, taking on the great works of Shakespeare, Chekov, and many more esteemed playwrights.
Since then, Beck has immersed himself in a wide diversity and range of acting roles and genres – encompassing drama, musicals, science fiction, comedy, fantasy, crime drama, and more – on stage, screen, and TV. His esteemed canon includes portraying Hans Helms in NBC’s 1978 Emmy Award winning miniseries Holocaust, and a multitude of roles on some of TV’s biggest hit shows including, Murder She Wrote, Walker Texas Ranger, JAG, and Babylon 5.
In July of 1985, Beck returned to the U.K and to the theater, garnering much critical acclaim for his starring role as Chance Wayne, in a London stage production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth. Staged at The Haymarket Theater in London’s West End, the production starred Beck with screen legend Lauren Bacall, and was directed by the venerable playwright Harold Pinter.
Beck also starred in the emotionally rich 1987-1988, CBS police drama Houston Knights as Sgt. Levon Lundy, a Texas cop taking a stand for justice.
Beck also acted, danced, and roller skated!… his way into people’s hearts in his starring role as Sonny Malone, the love-struck artist following his dreams in 1980’s pop musical, romantic fantasy, Xanadu, starring alongside Olivia Newton John and the legendary Gene Kelly.
More recently, for more than a decade, Beck has enjoyed a very successful voice acting career, narrating the many audiobook adaptations of legal suspense thriller author, John Grisham’s best-selling novels. Michael’s latest narrative reading is of Grisham’s newest thriller Sycamore Row. Beck has also performed and voiced the audiobook edition of former President Bill Clinton’s memoirs My Life, and performed many more audiobook editions of novels written by the literary world’s best-selling authors.
Michael is especially proud and exuberant discussing his current return to film acting, starring and performing in his first film in over a decade, the critically acclaimed independent film, The Grace Of Jake.
Directed by Chris Hicky and starring Beck, Jake La Botz, and Jordin Sparks, The Grace Of Jake is a deeply emotional story imbued with well-drawn, emotionally rich, nuanced characters. The film depicts the story of the turbulent first time meeting of an emotionally conflicted son (Jake Haynes portrayed by La Botz) with the father he has never met (Henry Haynes portrayed by Beck). Jake learns to deal with his chaotic emotions for his father, leaving his troubled past behind. Jake comes to embrace the heartfelt people, soul, and culture of the Arkansas delta setting and surroundings that form the catalyst of the story.
For Beck, The Grace Of Jake is a project that is a true labor of love. He joyfully relates that the movie is a powerful and uplifting “story of redemption. Redemptive stories resonate in me.”
On a beautiful spring day the first week of May, just a few days prior to The Grace Of Jake‘s world premiere at The Little Rock Film Festival in Little Rock, Arkansas, the week of May 11-17, 2015, Beck graciously talked with me about The Grace Of Jake.
Beck also joyously expounds about the craft of acting, his storied career, and fondly reflects on the 35th Anniversary of Xanadu, and especially on the 36th Anniversary of The Warriors. Beck and the cast of The Warriors will be celebrating the anniversary when they reunite at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Con 2015 convention, May 14-16, 2015 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The cast will be part of a special screening event of The Warriors, and hold several guest speaker panels and meet and greets.
Congrats on the premiere of The Grace Of Jake at The Little Rock Film Festival. For people who haven’t yet seen the movie, what can you tell people about the film’s storyline, and especially about your character? How does he relate to his son, played by actor and musician Jake La Botz?
The Grace of Jake is the story of a man who was abandoned by his father before he was even born, and suffers from the wounds of rejection and the lack of a father’s blessing in his life. Upon release from prison in California, Jake’s bitterness drives him across the country to the Arkansas delta, where he hopes to seek revenge on his long lost father. I play Henry Haynes, a local crop duster and the father in question.
How did you become involved with this project? How did you first come to the attention of The Grace Of Jake‘s director Chris Hicky?
In keeping with the title, my getting this role was a gift of grace. A couple of years ago, my wife and I moved back to where I had grown up in the Arkansas delta. One day I was out fixing a leak to my water main when I got a call from a fellow named Byron Burch. We had grown up together as kids, but I hadn’t seen him in decades. He told me that his wife, Sarah Tackett, was casting a movie that was to begin shooting locally in about a month, and wondered if I would be interested in reading the script. They thought I would be perfect for the role of Henry Haynes. He told me that writer-director, Chris Hicky was originally from Forrest City, Arkansas, and planned to shoot the film in and around his old home town. I read the script and loved the story. My wife Cari videoed my audition on her iPhone, and I emailed it to Sarah who then forwarded it to Chris in Los Angeles.
How did he approach you for the role, and what did he see in your artistry that he wanted you to bring to the dynamic of the film?
He saw something in that audition that made him want to see more. A few days later I drove to Little Rock to have Sarah shoot a couple more scenes for Chris. Traveling west on I-40 on the way to that audition, a bright yellow crop duster flew low across the highway directly in front of my car. The character of Henry Haynes is a crop duster. I knew immediately that the job was mine. As if that were not enough, a couple of blocks before arriving at Sarah’s office, an SUV suddenly cut in front of me. Its vanity plate read FLY AG. Crop dusters are also known as “ag” planes. I started laughing and said, “Lord, you are so good. I know you know that I don’t always pay attention. But, come on, I got it the first time when the plane flew across my bow.” A gift of grace. And the job was mine.
The Grace Of Jake also showcases your return to acting in over a decade. Why the lengthy hiatus from acting, especially when so many people enjoy your creative work?
My hiatus from acting was not a conscious choice. It is what sometimes happens in show business. I think it was Michael Caine who once said that actors don’t retire, they simply stop getting called. In the early 90’s I moved my family from Los Angeles to Oregon. Both my wife and I grew up in rural settings, and we didn’t want to raise our kids in Hollywood. I thought at the time that I would be able to maintain my career from long distance. However, there is truth in the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
What was it about this particular film that creatively spoke to you and not only drew you to the story, script, and screenplay, which Chris Hicky also wrote, but made you want to return to acting in film?
I liked the story. It is a story of redemption. Redemptive stories resonate in me. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to act again.
You were born in Memphis, Tennessee and you grew up on your father’s farm in Arkansas. Tell me about your childhood and life growing up in the southern delta. How has your Southern roots and upbringing informed and influenced your creative interpretation of your role as Henry Haynes?
I grew up where the film is set. Generations of my people come from this part of the country. I know these folks. I am one of them. My pump got primed, through performing the audio book version of John Grisham’s Sycamore Row the week before I began shooting on Grace of Jake. I was definitely in the pocket when I showed up on set.
What inspired you to become an actor and was your first audition and acting role? When was this and how old were you at the time?
I went to Millsaps College on a football scholarship. Acting was not on my radar. In my junior year a friend dared me to try out for a play. I accepted the dare, and the following week I auditioned for the role of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. I got the part and have never looked back.
The Warriors just celebrated its 36th Anniversary! Your role as Swan is iconic in both film and popular culture. How did that role come about for you?
How I got the role of Swan in The Warriors is an interesting story. I went three years to drama school in London and worked for two more in repertory theater in the UK before returning to New York City. I had been in New York for about eighteen months when Walter Hill came to town to shoot The Warriors. The casting agents for the film thought of me as a classically trained theater actor and didn’t see me as a Coney Island street gang member. Consequently, they would not submit me for the film. My agent did everything she could to get me seen, but they were adamant that I was not right for The Warriors. It looked like a dead issue.
How did director Walter Hill first learn of your acting talents? What did he think you could bring to the table?
Walter Hill was a producer of the film Alien. [He] screened a movie called Madman to see Sigourney Weaver on film. I played the lead role in that movie, so Walter saw me as well. [Hill] thought that I was right for The Warriors. I auditioned for Walter, Larry Gordon, and Frank Marshall and got the part of Swan.
What was it like filming on location in New York, from Coney Island, to the subways, to the streets and parks of the city?
Filming The Warriors in New York was a blast. All of the cast lived in New York. For many, it was their first film. It was exciting and exhilarating and hard work. We filmed for eighty nights all over the city. We went to work at dusk and returned home after daylight. We lived in an upside down universe. It was great! We were young and having fun. Lifelong friendships were forged over those long nights. It was a physically grueling film to shoot, with all the running and fighting. By the time we wrapped we were in the best shape of our lives.
What are your creative feelings in crafting such an edgy, almost surrealistic film and its fantasy images of gangs in colorful and iconic costumes and make-up?
I love the movie. I love the simple story. I love the way it looks. I love the soundtrack. I love the energy and pace of it. It has become a cult classic, and I am grateful to have played my part in it.
My favorite gang that fights The Warriors is The Baseball Furies, with their make-up and baseball uniforms. What is yours and why, and what are your thoughts on how Walter Hill and the costume and makeup designers choreographed that scene, The Warriors versus The Baseball Furies?
I agree with you, Arlene. The Warriors versus The Baseball Furies confrontation is my favorite fight in the movie. From the first sighting of those Kabuki-faced batsmen on the street outside the subway station to the final image of the victorious Warriors walking off into the shadows of Riverside Park, it is a fantastic sequence. I have no idea whose creative mind came up with the idea of that make-up with those costumes for The Baseball Furies, but it was brilliant. Really exciting scene!
What was it like working with such a talented ensemble of actors as James Remar as Ajax, David Harris as Cochise, Terry Michos as Vermin, the late Marcelino Sanchez as Rembrandt, Dorsey Wright as Cleon, Tom McKitterick as Cowboy, Brian Tyler as Snow, and the lovely Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Mercy?
It was wonderful working together with such a talented cast. Life imitated art in the making of the movie. We grew close. We had each other’s backs. We became a gang. We still are a gang almost forty years later. Whenever we get together for a reunion, like we will on May 14-16 at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Con 2015, it is like we haven’t missed a beat. We still enjoy each other’s company. We still have each other’s backs.
The cast regularly hold reunions at many international comic and film conventions and fan fests. There are also many fan groups and forums devoted to The Warriors. Why do you think that after some four decades, The Warriors still resonates so strongly with people?
I don’t know what it is about The Warriors that resonates across the decades with old and new fans. I suppose that question could be asked of any film that develops a cult following. Nobody – writer, director, producers, actors, studio heads – could have predicted the lasting appeal to multiple generations that The Warriors has enjoyed. I am grateful to have participated in such a beloved film.
My favorite scene is near the end of the film, on the subway going home to Coney Island. A dirty and disheveled Swan and Mercy are sitting together, two middle class teen couples dressed up in tuxes and gowns from their prom get on the subway and sit opposite Swan and Mercy. Then one teen stares at Mercy, looking her over and down on her. Mercy awkwardly raises her hand to straighten her hair out of shame. You gently take Mercy’s hand and move it back down as if to say to her, in spite of your differences in social class, neighborhood origins, and economic backgrounds that Mercy should not be ashamed. She should be proud of who she is. Then you give Mercy a corsage that one of the couples drops when leaving the train and she asks “What’s this for?” and you reply “I just hate seeing anything go to waste.” I just love that tender, poignant, and nuanced scene, and the meaning and statement that you, Deborah, and Walter Hill (who also co-wrote the screenplay) made. What are your own thoughts on how that scene was written?
Arlene, that is also my favorite scene in the movie. The night that Deborah and I shot our reaction to the prom couples, there were no prom couples to be found. Their half of the scene had been filmed a few days before. So a couple of pieces of tape on the opposite wall of the train car stood in for them while Walter Hill talked us through the scene. Don’t you love it? The magic of movies!
This is the 35th anniversary of Xanadu! How did that role come about for you? What did the filmmakers want you to bring to the dynamics of this exuberant pop musical fantasy?
Larry Gordon and Joel Silver, who produced Xanadu, also produced The Warriors. It was through that connection that I was cast in the film.
What was your creative experience like working on that film, and with Olivia Newton-John and especially Gene Kelly?
The creative experience on Xanadu was at times difficult and frustrating, as well as, joyous and wonderful. I loved working with Olivia. She is the down to earth, beautiful person you hope for her to be. A wonderful lady. And Gene Kelly? Are you kidding me? A Hollywood icon! He was thoroughly professional, personable and very kind to me. I am glad to have had the opportunity to work with both of them.
You’ve enjoyed many memorable acting roles in TV series including Houston Knights, Murder She Wrote, JAG, Walker Texas Ranger, Babylon 5 and you have performed in theater as well. What can you tell me about the creative experiences of some of these roles, and how have all of your acting experiences helped you to grow, stretch, and evolve artistically as an actor and artist?
I’m impressed, Arlene, you remember my work better than I do! I have been blessed to have played a wide variety of different characters throughout my career which has made it fun and challenging. Every role draws on some aspect of who I am and on my imagination. Some roles draw from a deeper well of my being and help me to discover more about myself, as well as the characters I play. I enjoy getting to know them all.
I especially liked the concept of the wonderful police drama Houston Knights, which ran on CBS 1987-1988. Your character, Sgt. Levon Lundy and his partner, Michael Pare’s Officer Joey LaFiamma were two very well emotionally drawn characters with a lot of rich back story. How did that role come about for you and what was your creative experience working on that series and with Michael Pare?
I auditioned for the role of Levon Lundy in Houston Knights. I read for the producers and then later for the network, and fortunately I got the part. I loved playing Lundy – a good ole boy Texas cowboy cop. It was great fun working with Michael Pare. He is a funny guy. He was like a mischievous kid brother. We were always laughing.
You also have enjoyed a wonderful career narrating audio books, including many written by legal suspense thriller author John Grisham, former President Clinton’s autobiography My Life, and many more esteemed novels and books. How did you initially get involved with voicing audiobooks, in particular John Grisham’s and former President Clinton’s? What other books have you done?
John Grisham’s first novel was called A Time To Kill. His subsequent novels, The Firm and The Pelican Brief put him on the bestseller lists. His publishers decided to reprint A Time To Kill and to release an audio version of it. The way I heard it, Mr. Grisham was insistent that whoever performed the novel be authentic and accurate in all the Mississippi dialects in the book. The producer in charge became frustrated when Grisham would not okay any of the readers she submitted. One day she mentioned her dilemma to a colleague, who replied that he knew just the person for her: Michael Beck. This colleague was an old friend of mine from Millsaps College days. We had done plays together there. That was my start in the audiobook world. I have been very fortunate to have performed many of John Grisham’s novels, in addition to other bestselling authors. Because of my relationship with the publishers of President Clinton’s My Life, examples of my work, along with that of other readers, were submitted to him for his approval. He chose me. I have no idea why. Maybe because we are both from Arkansas.
How long does it generally take to record an audio book in the recording studio?
It depends upon the length of the book. A 400 odd page novel generally would take me about three days to record.
Have you met former President Clinton and John Grisham? Have they, or any of the author’s that you have narrated books for, told you their creative thoughts on your voice acting performances and interpretation of their works?
I have not met the former President nor John Grisham. I assume Mr. Grisham likes the way I read his books since I have been allowed to do so many of them. And I hope President Clinton was pleased with how I read his memoir.
You’re an author and writer as well. You were writing your first novel last I heard. What can you tell me about that? What is your novel is about? Was it published, and if so where can people find your book? Are you still writing and if so what are you currently working on?
I put aside my first attempt at a novel. It didn’t come together as I had hoped. Since then I have written a creative non-fiction book for which I am seeking publication.
What are some of your fondest memories as an actor?
Filming The Warriors is right up there at the top. I learned so much about acting in film from that experience, and more importantly, I made some lasting friendships. I have fond memories of working with some of Hollywood’s all-time greats: Gene Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Lee Remick, Art Carney and Meryl Streep. What a privilege it has been to work with artists such as these.
You’ve acted in many projects that have included some great music scores and soundtracks. The Warriors, Xanadu, The Grace Of Jake, and Houston Knights feature soundtracks performed by some of music’s most esteemed artists. Besides Olivia Newton John and Jake La Botz who have acted with you, did you get to meet any of the music artists who performed on the soundtracks? Did you meet Joe Walsh, who composed and performed one of my favorite songs, “In The City,” the emotionally uplifting end credits theme for The Warriors? Also, do you have any musical talents of your own, do you sing or play the guitar or any instruments? Have you ever played in a band?
I did not meet Joe Walsh, but like you, I love the song “In the City.” However, I did meet Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra during the filming of Xanadu. What a great band! I, however, am not musically talented. I play no instruments. I can carry a tune, but my wife says I sing a little flat. Guess you can’t have it all.
What new creative projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to?
At the moment, I have no projects in the works. The Grace of Jake is being screened at the Little Rock Film Festival during the week of May 11th. I hope fellow Arkansans come out to see it and enjoy the movie.
Copyright ©2015 Arlene R. Weiss/PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 10, 2015.
#1-3 © 2015. Courtesy of Chris Hicky. All rights reserved.
#4-6 © 1979. Courtesy of Paramount Home Video. All rights reserved.
#7-9 © 1980. Courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. All rights reserved.