The Three Hats of Tony Bill

Shampoo (1975) is a movie with so much to commend it that I’ll watch it anytime it’s available. It’s so rich in thematic elements and details that you take away different things every time you see it. I watched it again just a few months ago and reaped many rewards. Because it’s set in 1968, but was filmed in 1975, it speaks to both periods. One aspect that’s fascinating is that it deals with the resurrection of the Republican party, which had really been on the ropes a decade before the film was made. It talks about Hollywood’s (and hence America’s) lack of values, its culture of expediency in personal and professional relationships, and of course, sex (in both senses of the word). This time I think I caught some foreshadowing references to the Tate-LaBianca murders. I also think it’s probably Warren Beatty’s best performance — certainly his funniest one. But (to finally get to the advertised topic of this post) this time I also found myself wonderfing about the sixth-billed player in the proceedings (beneath Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant and Jack Warden), the only one of the principals I knew nothing about, whose name, as it happens, is Tony Bill (b. 1940).

As an actor, Bill always played these kind of supporting parts. In a cast of four or six principals, he’d be second or third male lead, the brother, the friend. He’s one of those likeable, forgettable actors, good looking yet bland, cast because they are unthreatening to the star. But that is FAR from his whole story, which is why he rates a post here at all! By the time Shampoo came out, Bill’s presence in the film amounted to stunt casting. It was a “meta” gesture, because at that stage he was a hot, very successful PRODUCER. And a few years after that, he also became a successful director, of some quite well known films. So he has this amazing, very eclectic resume, and it’s the sort of career I love. He’s so accomplished in so many fields, yet becaused its so dispersed he hasn’t gotten the major name recognition he might have rated if he stuck to one thing. In addition to this, he didn’t even stick to one medium, he’s done a lot of television in addition to theatrical films. He clearly chooses projects (and the part he’ll play in them) based on what he thinks he will find rewarding or interesting. (Past tense is more appropriate; he seems to have been mostly retired since 2009). But its fun to trace his twisty-turny journey.

Bill graduated from Notre Dame in 1962 whereupon he wrote a letter to the VERY Catholic Leo McCarey, who immediately hooked him up with an agent, who immediately got him a part of the brother of Frank Sinatra in the 1963 film of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn. He was thus immediately fixed for life! He also acted in Sinatra’s next two films None But the Brave and Marriage on the Rocks (both 1965), as well as in the film Soldier in the Rain (1963) with Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason, and had a recurring role on Dr. Kildare, and guest shots on other shows. In 1966 he had a supporting part in the early Francis Ford Coppola film You’re a Big Boy Now, some foreshadowing of his future association with New Hollywood. Other stuff from this early “just acting” phase included Disney’s Never a Dull Moment (1968), Ice Station Zebra (1968 — which contains MANY a dull moment), the problematic Native American dramedy Flap (1970), and the memorable ABC TV Movie of the Week Haunts of the Very Rich (1972). A two part Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode he appeared was released as the movie How to Steal the World (1968).

In the ’70s, Bill became…a producer! Who knew you could just do that? Well, you can’t just do that, you have to have the skill and the will, and a million other qualities, some of which are shared in common with actors. His first film with the producer hat on, a trucker road movie called Deadhead Miles (1972), scripted by a pre-Badlands Terence Malick, was never theatrically released, so now I MUST see it! His next was the caper comedy Steelyard Blues (1973) with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Peter Boyle (1972). But with his third one, he hit the bullseye, for he collaborated with Michael and Julia Phillips to produce the blockbuster The Sting (1973), earning an Oscar (or a third of one) for his efforts. This is why it was kind of “meta” to have him in Shampoo. Other films he produced in the ’70s included Hearts of the West (1975), and Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), both of which were more in line with his earlier efforts, and the popular codger comedy Going in Style (1979), with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg.

Meantime he continued to act, mostly in made-for-tv movies and TV mini-series, through the mid ’80s. These included Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? (1977-78), The Initiation of Sarah (1978), Are You in the House Alone? (1978), and Portrait of an Escort (1980) among many others.

In 1980 Bill expanded his reach yet again by becoming…a director! Not only that, he helmed one of my favorite movies of the time, the youth-oriented My Bodyguard (1980), which I loved so much I watched it several times (I was 15 when it came out, the target audience). His next was the weepy romance Six Weeks (1982) with Mary Tyler Moore and Dudley Moore. (He and Moore went partners on a resturant shortly after this). In 1987 he produced and directed the John Patrick Shanley scripted Five Corners, with Tim Robbins, Jodie Foster and John Torturro. After Crazy People (1990, again with Dudley Moore), and Untamed Heart (1993), most of his directing has been for TV, though much of it has been prestige stuff like the 1994 adaptation of Truman Capote’s One Christmas (1994) and the historical Harlan County War (2000) with Holly Hunter.

And he continued to work as a supporting actor, in such films as Heart Beat (1980), PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985), Less Than Zero (1987), Barb Wire (1996, with Pamela Anderson!), Lying in Wait (2001), and Must Love Dogs (2005). Flyboys (2006) with James Franco was his last theatrical film as director.