Oscar Winner Tony Bill Still Flying High

Author: Eric Butterman

Hollywood hyphenates are common these days: singer-actor J.Lo; writer-director Kevin Smith; director-producer Steven Spielberg; screenwriter-director-actor Woody Allen; and on-and-on-and-on.

When Tony Bill ‘62 broke in as a Hollywood actor in the 1960s, the lines didn’t connect. Directors directed. Producers produced. Actors acted. Maybe starring opposite Frank Sinatra in some of his first few films was an omen—like the Chairman of the Board, Tony Bill did it his way. The 1970s saw him perform the then-rare switch to Oscar-winning producer. In the 1980s, he directed one of the bigger sleeper hits of the decade, My Bodyguard.

By the mid-‘90s, however, the character-driven stories Bill preferred were on the outs as big-budget blockbusters proliferated in the Hollywood machine. But now a fusion of both has brought him back to the big screen. A $60 million film called Flyboys, the true story of Americans who volunteered to fly French fighter planes during World War I before the United States entered the war, becomes Bill’s seventh feature and adds one more change in job description: action director.

Despite always trying to do what no one thought he could, the experience with his new film makes Bill believe he could have been more persistent in his career. “The present movie is being made because the producer, Dean Devlin (Independence Day), never gave up trying to do the impossible: raise all that money,” Bill says. “And he did it with no studio, no distributor, no big star or foreign sales. I, on the other hand, have always taken ‘no’ for an answer, always moved on when it was obvious there was no way. This has been a big lesson for me.”

One lesson Bill could teach is how to discover burgeoning writing talent. Did you love the dialogue of Moonstruck? That was John Patrick Shanley’s second produced script. His first was Five Corners, commissioned by Bill after seeing a play of Shanley’s. Were you conned by Redford and Newman in Best-Picture-winner The Sting? Bill encouraged then 20-something David Ward’s twisty story and championed it to the top. Maybe that’s why Ward felt little hesitation to write the script for Flyboys.

“He never reads your script and blurts, ‘This is awful,’” says Ward. “Tony’s collaborative and specific—doesn’t just say this bothers me and make it better, it’s ‘I like this but I’d rather have it go in this direction.’”

Ward, who went on to write and direct Major League, adds, “He also listens better than most people you’re likely to meet.” But another reason Ward felt particularly comfortable on this project is because Bill just happens to be an aerobatic pilot. A longtime flier of biwing airplanes, Bill brought a clear jolt of enthusiasm to the project, Ward says. “This particular subject is such a passion for him—and it will come through in his vision. Because the film takes place as far back as World War I, the planes actually flew at the kind of speeds where you could see what’s happening. Tony isn’t going to miss that detail, and the aerial shots I’m sure will back it up.”

Tony Bill’s first directorial aspirations involved driving more than anything else. Few remember that he produced Taxi Driver, but even fewer recall that he lobbied to be the director. “I would have made more of an aggressive effort to direct Taxi Driver,” Bill says, “but I didn’t want to drag my producing partners into my aspirations.”

When the actor-producer finally got his shot at directing four years later with the hit My Bodyguard, he found he could attract top acting talent. A year after Marisa Tomei earned Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny, she was seen in Bill’s heart-tugging drama Untamed Heart. Best Actress winner Kathy Bates had one of her grittiest performances as the touching but tough mother in Bill’s A Home of Our Own. Ward says the cast Bill gets never surprises him. “Tony only does projects he believes in,” Ward says. “He has a habit of making everyone else believe, too.”

Even though he’s long removed from that handsome young actor in Come Blow Your Horn, Bill found his way in front of the camera for a recent episode of Law and Order: Trial By Jury. Despite not having acted in years, he found it, well, easy. “For me, acting is a paid vacation,” he says. “There’s nothing to worry about beyond knowing your lines and showing up on time. Still, it’s always fun to meet a new cast and very flattering to be invited.”

Now Bill has his own cast to worry about. Working with Spider-Man‘s James Franco, Flyboys is clearly Bill’s best opportunity budget-wise, but that also makes it the largest amount of pressure he’s faced in his career. Not exactly something people near Social Security age welcome. Then again, there was nothing exact about the way Bill got to this point. “I’ll keep staying behind the camera, as I have for the last 30 years,” Bill says. “Except for those occasional paid vacations.”

Eric Butterman, a three-time Nicholl quarterfinalist in screenwriting, also has profiled such directors as John Woo and Richard Donner. He recently directed his first film, Unspoken Words.