In his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, director William Friedkin chronicles the improbable path to his debut feature, a musical comedy starring Sonny and Cher.
Born to Ukrainian immigrants, Friedkin grew up in a poor uptown Chicago neighborhood.
Unremarkable at school—aside from a bad-boy streak that saw him pinched for shoplifting as a teen—Friedkin graduated with few prospects and no interest in college.
A newspaper want ad led to a mail room job at television station WGN-TV.
Live television production fascinated Friedkin, who soaked up every bit of information he could. Seeing the director at work unlocked an ambition Friedkin didn’t know he possessed.
The mail room job soon led to a floor manager job. Though he struggled out of the gate, he caught on fast, learning the principles of pictorial composition and the pragmatic realities of managing a live production.
Less than a year later, with a few hundred live shows under his belt as floor manager, Friedkin ascended to director.
He continued directing at public broadcasting station WTTW after losing his job at WGN-TV in a cost-cutting measure.
At WTTW, he met Lois Solomon, the producer of several local arts shows. She invited Friedkin to a cocktail party at her mansion on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In Friedkin’s words, “The hostess, Lois Solomon, invited me because she thought I was ‘interesting.’ All her other guests were interesting. They were doctors, lawyers, judges, actors, teachers, playwrights, scientists; Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners; and Lenny Bruce at the height of his notoriety as a nightclub comic.”1
At the party, he met another “interesting” guest, Father Robert Serfling, the Death Row chaplain at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. To make conversation, Friedkin asked Serfling if he ever met anyone he thought was innocent. Serfling told Friedkin about a man awaiting execution now, named Paul Crump.
That conversation led to Friedkin’s first film, a documentary titled The People vs. Paul Crump. The documentary won awards, which led to more documentary work, which led to Friedkin gaining representation by the William Morris Agency.
This led to Friedkin moving to Hollywood, where he cranked out documentaries for The Wolper Company.
Meanwhile, another William Morris client, Sonny Bono, wanted to make a movie. The agency knew a veteran director would never cede the control Sonny wanted, so they matched him with Friedkin, who they felt they could trust.
In Sonny Bono, Friedkin found an improbable mentor. Wrote Friedkin, “I’ve worked with many talented people, but only a few geniuses. One of them was Sonny Bono.”2 Given Friedkin’s ambition and inclination toward directing, Sonny must have astounded. Rising from a gopher working for Phil Spector to the top of the pop charts, despite not knowing how to read or write music, Sonny directed his life like Friedkin might direct a television production.
Consider the series of chances leading to this pairing. What if Friedkin picked up a different newspaper all those years ago? What if he blew off the cocktail party? What if he never met Father Serfling? What if he signed with a different talent agency?
Add another chance to the pile. Friedkin almost passed on the job. He had an offer from John Frankenheimer to helm second unit on Frankenheimer’s racing picture Grand Prix. Friedkin idolized Frankenheimer, as Frankenheimer had come up through live television like Friedkin and graduated to make A-list pictures like Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate. The William Morris folks convinced him to do the Sonny and Cher picture, “Because if you do second unit on the Frankenheimer movie and it works, you’ll be a second-unit director forever. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have a hard time getting a film to direct. Do Sonny and Cher, and whether it’s good or bad, you are a film director.”3
So Friedkin signed on, and he and Sonny set out to draft a script. They floundered before recruiting amateur screenwriter Nicholas Hyams, who proposed Sonny and Cher play themselves trying to make a movie. The relationship between Hyams and Friedkin soured fast. Sonny stayed loyal to Friedkin and dismissed Hyams. Sonny and Friedkin retained the meta contextual premise and set about crafting a movie. They landed on a Faustian tale that would see them enact fantasies of the kinds of movies they might make, which would satirize the western, Tarzan, and private-eye genres.
The producers budgeted $500,000 including Sonny and Cher’s $100,000 fee. Friedkin proposed an $800,000 budget and the producer threw a fit before agreeing, then pre-selling the rights to Columbia Pictures for $1.2 million before they even made the film. Of course, Friedkin didn’t know that.
He also didn’t know much about vetting and managing union crews. A series of bad decisions saw Friedkin blow through his twenty-day shoot and budget with just forty-five minutes of usable footage. The producer was apoplectic. Sonny, nonplussed.
Friedkin proposed a solution. He’d recruit his The People vs Paul Crump partner, cameraman Bill Butler, from Chicago, and, along with a small non-union crew, steal enough shots around Los Angeles to complete the film for under $100,000. The producers thought him crazy, but agreed. Two weeks later, Friedkin had another forty-five minutes of footage and a finished movie.
The tone and production style of the satirical fantasy sequences evoke the then-contemporary Batman television series—complete with George Sanders as the celebrity villain. Friedkin proffers some novel camera angles—bird’s eye views and high-corner shots—but can’t overcome the production’s innate flaw.
Throughout the film, Sonny and Cher worry about “selling out” and making a hollow cash-grab of a film. Having them play themselves proved inspired, but Sonny’s reluctance to show the reality behind the curtain—where Cher remained in his thrall—forced an artifice upon their screen personas. Cher handles it with practiced ease, but Sonny struggles. I couldn’t shake the sense that he was “playing” Sonny.
Maybe it was the dissonance between his age and haircut, but unlike Cher, he feels like a façade. A projected image meant to conceal something more calculating. Consider the sequence where Cher forbids him from riding his motorcycle. This attempt to cast him as a hen-pecked husband rings false. By Friedkin’s account, Cher was “completely and voluntarily under Sonny’s domination, but this wasn’t an image you’d want to portray.”4
Thus, the film, meant to be ironic, turns out as the vapid cash grab they feared. The hard-boiled segment elicited a few chuckles, but the rest of the comedy fell flat.
Audiences seemed to agree. Wrote Friedkin, “The film tanked. Ironically, the very thing it was about—selling out—is what we did, while convincing ourselves we were doing it on our terms. Only Cher seemed to get what was happening. She continued to do everything asked of her, while never fully committing to the fiasco that was our film. She wanted to make a movie, but not this one.”5
Despite the audience reception, the William Morris agents proved prescient. Friedkin was now a director and his own star would soon eclipse Sonny and Cher’s.
- William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection (HarperCollins, New York, 2013), 30, Kindle.↩
- William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection (HarperCollins, New York, 2013), 94, Kindle.↩
- William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection (HarperCollins, New York, 2013), 97, Kindle.↩
- William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection (HarperCollins, New York, 2013), 99, Kindle.↩
- William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection (HarperCollins, New York, 2013), 109, Kindle.↩
Commentary watch. Lee Gambin, an unabashed fan of both Friedkin and Sonny and Cher, offers a wealth of information about the film’s production and stars. But he did little to convince me of the film’s merits. At best, I gained an appreciation for Friedkin’s dynamic camera work. But I still struggled with Bono’s uncanny valley performance. He’s a thirty-something man acting like a teenager.
The supplemental interview with Friedkin from 2018 proved more enlightening. Friedkin reveals he passed on directing second unit in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix to make this film. He also makes clear how Bono was the driving creative force. Looking back, he regrets the film’s vigorous rehearsals, though admits Sonny and Cher required them. Maybe he’s reacting to the same artifice in Bono’s performance.