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Director Tony Bill returns for film screening

Brian Doxtader | Monday, November 6, 2006

Academy Award winner and Notre Dame graduate Tony Bill came back to his alma mater this weekend to screen his latest directorial effort “Flyboys.” Bill has worked as an actor, director and producer over a four-decade career. His first major acting role was in the 1963 Frank Sinatra film “Come Blow Your Horn.” After acting in several films, he switched to producing, and in 1973 produced the Robert Redford-Paul Newman classic “The Sting,” for which he won an Oscar.

Bill graduated from Notre Dame in 1962, majoring in Art and English, and originally planned to be an actor. His first taste of acting was at Saint Mary’s College, where he performed in several shows. As his career progressed, he moved away from acting (which he calls “easy”) into directing (which he calls “challenging”) and producing. He had a major success early in 1973’s “The Sting,” which remains a classic of American cinema.

“The Sting” began life as a screenplay, which was pitched by UCLA graduate David S. Ward. Ward wrote an excellent script (for which he would later win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar), which Bill agreed to fund and help make, with the effort of fellow producers Julia and Michael Philips. He hired director George Roy Hill (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” also starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford), which in turn brought Robert Redford onboard in the starring role. Newman requested to be in the film, which required rewrites, since “The Sting” was written for a child, rather than an older man manifested in Newman.

“The Sting” was a great success, one of the top box office hits of 1973, and a major winner at Academy Awards. Bill, however, said the success was negligible in the long run.

“The Oscar had no effect on my career,” said Bill. “At least, it didn’t feel like it did.”

However, Bill said that the success of “The Sting” did not, for the most part, surprise him.

“When we were making the film, we had no idea that it was going to be such a big critical and commercial hit,” Bill said. “You can’t think about that stuff. But when we were sitting in the award ceremony and it had already won six awards, we thought, ‘yeah, it has a pretty good shot at winning.’ But you never know, there was a one in five chance.”

Bill likened the film industry to gambling, referring to himself and his colleagues as “professional gamblers.”

“The film industry is, in a lot of ways, a game of chance,” said Bill. “If you’re lucky enough to get a good hand, and you’re lucky or skillful enough to stick with it, you can succeed.”

The most famous of his directorial efforts is the 1980 Matt Dillon film “My Bodyguard,” a coming-of-age high school story about two unlikely friends. Bill noted that he wanted “My Bodyguard” to be a more realistic portrait of high school life, eschewing typical comedic clichés in favor of a more character-oriented approach.

Bill’s latest project, the dog-fighting period piece “Flyboys,” combined two of the director’s passions – aviation (he is a life-long pilot) and filmmaking.

Though the film met with commercial failure, Bill takes comfort in some of the positive critical responses, and hopes for a better reception in the foreign markets. He also noted that the film’s financial failure was disappointing, but his directorial work was generally praised, which alleviates some of the apprehensions about future projects. For instance, Bill sent a copy of “Flyboys” to Tom Cruise, who requested to see it and reportedly loved the film.

What makes “Flyboys” particularly unique is that it was made outside of the studio system, and was thus completely independently funded. Bill is inclined toward what he calls “the smaller film,” and while he admits that “nobody wants to [work within the studio system],” he has often done it with positive results, among them “My Bodyguard” and “The Sting.”

Of all the aspects of filmmaking that Bill has participated in, he noted that he enjoys directing the most.

“Directing is the most challenging, and therefore the most rewarding,” said Bill.

At a master class session, Bill discussed his Notre Dame education, but was dismissive of film school as a necessary way to enter the industry.

“It doesn’t matter where you go to school, and that’s not the point of education,” said Bill, who believes that education is about broadening the mind, rather than trying to break into a particular industry.

Although Bill does not know what his next project will be, he hopes to direct another film and is searching for the right script. Whatever he chooses, his history of critical acclaim will ensure his credibility and talent, whether or not his project is the next “The Sting.”