Remember the Warriors: Behind the Chaotic, Drug-Fueled, and Often Terrifying Making of a Cult Classic
The D, F, N, and Q trains all converge at Stillwell Avenue near the southernmost tip of Brooklyn. Visitors are funneled through the newly polished Coney Island Terminal, past the growing line of souvenir shops, until they are shot out toward the bustle of Surf Avenue and Bowery Street. The boardwalk's iconic Wonder Wheel spins lazily behind Nathan's Famous, the 99-year-old hot dog joint, which serves as something of a welcome center for those seeking the winding row of amusements that line the beach.
Amid the refurbished boardwalk and laughter of children, it's easy to forget that Coney Island was once a place where tourists did not venture. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, street gangs dominated this neighborhood. They ran rampant through the area's neglected housing projects, tearing along Surf and Neptune avenues toward West 8th Street. Those gangs, or gangs like them, and that incarnation of Coney Island would form the backbone of author Sol Yurick's 1965 debut novel, The Warriors, about the young members of a street gang. More than a decade after the novel's publication it would be optioned and, eventually, turned into a major motion picture of the same name.
Shot almost entirely on location in the streets, trains, and subway stations of New York, the film was released with great fanfare — and controversy — and, to this day, maintains a rabid fan base around the world. In the last decade it has enjoyed a new relevance as an oft-referenced pop-cultural touchstone with the release of various comic books, video games, and modernized action figures, thrilling old fans while picking up new ones along the way. Because while The Warriors is in many ways a fantastical journey — more spaghetti western than cinéma vérité — it nonetheless portrayed something true about Coney Island, the five boroughs, and America at that time. In the Seventies, when Coney Island's first low-income housing complex, Carey Gardens, was built, there were gangs that ruled nearly every neighborhood in New York. They were born out of the street crews and underserved ghettos of the Fifties and Sixties. During the crack epidemic of the Eighties, the gang situation would go from bad to worse, but the five boroughs were already reaching record highs in homicide rates. By the time The Warriors was in production in the summer of 1978, an atmosphere of danger hung menacingly over the city.
In the ensuing three-plus decades following the film's release, New York City, on many levels, has become virtually unrecognizable from the gritty version portrayed (realistically, at the time) in the film. Perhaps because of this, the film has, over the years, earned the sometimes dubious status of "cult classic." By the time the film was set to hit theaters, in February of 1979, gangland America had become a powder keg ready to explode. But for the first time, a film did not seek to explain away gang violence, nor rationalize its existence through bourgeois social theory. Instead, The Warriors attempted to present the experience of America's downtrodden youth as it was, with no moral judgment.
"With film and literature on street gangs there tends to be two different voices, two different kinds of views," says Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. He uses The Warriors to teach one of his courses. "One is the social problems: 'Why are these kids in this and how do we get them out of it?' The other one is the idea of looking at street gangs as modern-day knights — that [they exist] out of this purported universal need for men to defend their group. I put The Warriors' aesthetic vision in that camp. In the modern-day city, this is valor."
For many troubled young people, The Warriors would mean seeing a part of themselves reflected onscreen for the very first time, the film's director, Walter Hill, tells the Voice today.
"Our film doesn't say everyone is supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor or something," he says. "The movie sees gangs as a defensive alignment in order to help you survive in a harsh atmosphere."
On September 13, members from the cast — some of whom went on to long Hollywood careers, others of whom never acted again — will reunite on Coney Island for perhaps the last time. Some 36 years after the movie's release, the actors will celebrate the legacy of a project that was almost derailed by personality conflicts, a near-impossible filming schedule, and the real-life gang violence that plagued New York City at the time of production.
Thomas Waites was billed as the next James Dean after being cast in The Warriors.
In 1978, Thomas Waites was poised to be a big Hollywood star: the kind of brooding, charismatic figure that the right film could turn into the next James Dean. He was 23 and he'd just finished wrapping his first feature — a prison flick called On the Yard, which co-starred John Heard. Already, new scripts were starting to pile up on his agent's desk.
That spring, two major studios were casting gang films in New York City: One was The Wanderers, a coming-of-age tale bankrolled by Warner Bros. and set in the Bronx of the early 1960s. The other was the Paramount Pictures adaptation of a then largely unknown novel called The Warriors. Though being made on a small budget, The Warriors promised to be a bold, run-and-gun action movie charting the exploits of a Coney Island street crew as they fought their way back from the Bronx to Surf Avenue. Locked in competition to secure the best local talent, both pictures were interested in Waites for the lead role.
It was the first time the actor — who'd been raised in the post–World War II working-class neighborhood of Levittown, Pennsylvania — would experience the opulence of major film studios. The Wanderers held its auditions in the luxurious Sherry Netherland Hotel on 59th Street in Manhattan; The Warriors was headquartered in the black-and-silver-striped Gulf and Western Building overlooking Central Park. Waites was taken to expensive dinners and Broadway shows by casting directors who told him he was one of the most interesting young actors coming up in the city, where he now lived. And while Levittown was only some 67 miles from the bright lights of New York, it may as well have been another planet.
"For me, just being there was a big deal," Waites says today. "I grew up in a violent neighborhood and there was a lot of fighting and I used to really be into that sort of bullshit. It was just awful for people."
Waites was raised in a home with eight other children — six siblings and two cousins. Money was often tight and his father was rarely around, busy working three jobs to keep the family afloat. So as a teenager, left to his own devices, Waites joined a neighborhood crew known as the Bristol Terrace Gang. They would rumble with their rivals on the rooftops of nearby schools, charging toward one another and smashing wildly at each other's bodies with pipes and fists. "I really hurt a guy one night," he remembers. "There was a big circle around us and we started fighting and I picked this guy up and threw him down and heard this girl say, 'He's really tough!' That went right to my suffering, depleted ego. I thought, 'That's what I'm going to be. That's what I'm going to do well: fuck people up.' "
Despite his tough-guy image, he discovered drama in high school, taking on the role of a Russian spy in a stage production of Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water.
"The audience listened," he says of his first experience onstage. "It was the first time in my life anyone had ever listened to me."
After high school he was accepted to Juilliard in Manhattan. And by his early twenties he found himself reading a script for a major motion picture that spoke directly to his own experiences, a story that illustrated the trials of rough-and-tumble street kids as they clawed their way out of a hopeless situation. He felt the screenplay was a little thin, with the gratuitous violence portrayed in its pages striking a bit too close to home — but he could connect with the narrative. Waites wanted to be a Warrior.
He traveled to the Gulf and Western Building one last time to meet with the film's producer Lawrence Gordon, director Hill, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who would later be cast to play the movie's smoky-eyed femme fatale, Mercy. Though Philip Kaufman, the director of The Wanderers, had asked him not to accept any roles until his picture had cast its lead, the next day Paramount offered Waites the lead role of Fox in The Warriors, $1,500 a week, and an additional $50,000 option deal — more money than he had ever seen in his life.
Larry Gordon first came across Yurick's novel while browsing through a bookstore in Hollywood, searching, as he often did, for new film projects to snatch up. Gordon already had a few small films under his belt, but was still a few years away from becoming one of Hollywood's most successful producers. He would go on to launch the Die Hard and Predator movie franchises and serve as president of 20th Century Fox from 1984 to 1986. But in the late Seventies, he dug through the bargain book bins himself.
The novel was shabby-looking and missing its cover, but something about the story — eight boys from Coney Island battling their way through enemy territory after attending a gang summit in the Bronx — caught Gordon's eye. He called Yurick up himself and made a deal for the rights before shopping them to Paramount.
"It was a big gamble," Gordon remembers of producing the film. "The movie was a very difficult movie, but I knew we were making something exceptional."
While The Warriors was Gordon's idea, it was Hill's vision that would ultimately shape the film. The two had worked together twice before: first on 1975's Hard Times, and then again on The Driver, a crime thriller starring Ryan O'Neal that would be released in July of 1978.
Hill took an earlier screenplay of The Warriors drafted by writer David Shaber — a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel — and stripped it down to its bones. The dialogue was now hard-boiled and spare, the action sprawling. Hill planned to film the picture on location in some of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City while using a cast of young, untested actors in the leads and real gang members as extras. The film's aesthetic would blend the grime of 1970s New York with the hyperrealism of a graphic novel — an approach inspired in part by a character in Yurick's novel who busies himself reading a comic-book adaptation of Xenophon's Anabasis, the ancient story of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who warred their way out of the depths of the Persian empire.
"I was — how do I say this — half-crazy in those days," explains Hill, whose Driver would bomb terribly at the box office shortly after he'd begun production on The Warriors. "I had the feeling that I wasn't going to last very long as a director, so I wanted to get my licks in."
The Warriors director Walter Hill: “You have to remember, this was a long time ago. I was, how do I say this, half-crazy in those days.”
Even with just one movie credit to his name, Waites was among the most experienced actors on set. To support him and Van Valkenburgh, Gordon and Hill auditioned dozens of New York City actors, assembling a ragtag group to portray the likes of Swan, Cleon, Ajax, Cowboy, Cochise, Snow, Rembrandt, and Vermin. Together they would form the Coney Island Warriors. Hill had handpicked Michael Beck, the actor cast to play the gang's de facto leader, Swan, after seeing him perform alongside Sigourney Weaver in a small Israeli film called Madman. But even more than résumés and acting ability, Hill was looking for actors who could physically withstand the grueling pace of his shooting schedule.
In the late Seventies, Paramount was notorious for being one of the toughest Hollywood studios to work for; they wanted their films made fast and cheap. To be a Warrior would mean running all night, every night, through the sweltering summer streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. It would mean showing up for work at six in the evening and not wrapping until the crew could see the sun rise over the East River. It would mean hopping subway turnstiles and enduring the taunts of the local street gangs. The line separating art and life would become blurred, the making of the film an adventure in and of itself.
"I was really going to put them through it out there," Hill remembers. "You never quite knew what you were going to run into."
The trouble started almost immediately. Hill and Frank Marshall, the film's executive producer, had badly miscalculated just how difficult it would be to shoot on location in New York City — and in the middle of the night. Both had grown up along the beach in Southern California, and neither anticipated how short the summer nights could be in New York City. The film needed to take place in total darkness, and a normal day of shooting shrank to just a few shadowy hours in the early, predawn morning. The picture quickly fell behind schedule and ran increasingly over budget. Run-ins with real gang members and hostile residents often threatened to derail the production even further.
It was Marshall's job to deal directly with the street crews. In those days, to film in a neighborhood anywhere in the five boroughs, a production had to pay off whichever individual or gang ran that piece of turf. The film had a contact inside the NYPD who would tell Marshall which gang members needed their palms greased.
"Our gang adviser would tell us what gang was part of what neighborhood, whether it was a dangerous gang or not, and we tried to go where the friendly gangs were," says Marshall, who over the years has become one of the premier film producers in Hollywood. "In those days it was really about fists and being macho. I think the worst thing that could have happened was somebody would have pulled a knife.
"It was exciting and it was dangerous," he adds. "You could never make this movie today."
If the right person didn't receive his fair share of the cut, a truck's tires might get mysteriously slashed, or a brick might fall unexpectedly from a rooftop. Once, while filming below an elevated subway track one night, Hill says a local gang began urinating on the actors from above. According to Beck, another shoot had to be called off after dozens of kids swarmed the block's abandoned buildings, jeering the Warriors incessantly from the normally vacant windows.
"There were city permits that you had to have to shoot, and those cost a standard amount, but then there was the cash you had to have on hand to spread around to keep everybody happy," Marshall says. "It was all part of getting permission to be in the neighborhoods. The different territories were very much like in the movie. We would be on some gang's turf, and even though it was a movie, sometimes they were upset by our guys wearing their colors."
As the cast began to bond during filming — feeling more and more like a real gang each day — the actors would wear their costumes out in the city between takes. The uniforms were leather vests, or "cuts," with the Warriors insignia and colors patched to the backs, loosely resembling those of the Hell's Angels. The cuts put fear in some and drew derision from others. On more than one occasion the actors were challenged to prove their machismo, dared to convince the local gangs that they were worthy of wearing their colors. Whether they were actors filming a movie or not, cuts could not be worn through a gang's turf without risking a fight.
"It didn't bother me because I'm a New Yorker. On the Lower East Side, where I grew up, there were gangs galore," remembers David Harris, the actor who played Cochise. Now 56, he's sitting with his legs folded on a curb outside the 72nd Street subway station, the location where the Warriors first meet one of their fiercest rivals, the Baseball Furies. "It was the times. Gangs were boppin'. They were doing their thing. Especially in the South Bronx. I mean, the South Bronx was riddled with real bad gangs."
NYC native David Harris, a/k/a Cochise
Courtesy David Harris
One of the film's most iconic sequences — the conclave scene, in which gangs from all five boroughs gather in the hopes of forming a citywide crime syndicate — was set in the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, but shot at Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. In the movie, thousands of juvenile delinquents are supposed to have gathered to hear Cyrus, the prophetic leader of the Gramercy Riffs (played by the late Roger Hill), speak of uniting an army strong enough to take on the city's police force.
With the budget too tight to wardrobe hundreds of extras, and the film feeling a dire need to make peace with the neighborhood's ruling crews, the production enlisted local gang members to join the mob. Ultimately, it is their fists the audience sees raised in the air in solidarity, their cries of angst heard in response to Cyrus's message of revolution.
As Hill, Marshall, and Gordon struggled to stay on schedule and keep the gangs at bay, the production ran into another problem: Thomas Waites was unhappy. Though the cast was growing closer each day, he thought it was unfair that eight grown men, sweating and stinking in the dog days of summer, should be forced to share one trailer. Waites was the star, after all, and felt he had a responsibility to look out for the others.
Instead of calling his agent, he threatened to report the production to the Screen Actors Guild himself. Working on a shrinking budget, and facing mounting pressure from the studio, the film responded by bringing in one extra trailer, putting four Warriors in each.
Hill and Waites had been on shaky ground from the beginning. Seeing Waites as his James Dean, Hill had invited the young actor to the Gulf and Western to watch movies like Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden for inspiration. Waites remembers Hill offering him a glass of liquor during the screenings, but he declined. Though Waites would eventually struggle with alcoholism, he wasn't yet a heavy drinker and felt uneasy at the prospect of bonding over a drink with his new director.
Today, sitting on a park bench near his home on the Upper East Side, Waites is no longer a hardheaded 23-year-old fresh from Pennsylvania, but open, honest, and forthright — a father and a teacher. Now sober and in his sixties, his wild, curly brown hair has gone bone-white and wavy, his eyes a deep, pale blue. He's made a living over the years as a performer and an acting coach, but he maintains the slightly somber air of a man with regrets.
"It was a big mistake," he says of refusing Hill's invitation that day. "If you're going to drink, you may as well drink with your director and bond with him. And that's what the guy was asking me to do."
As filming continued, the schism between Waites and Hill grew deeper. The two would clash over dialogue, the arc of the story, and the way the shots were framed. Waites began to sneak off set between takes to get high, coming back stoned and belligerent. The violence of the scenes was starting to disturb him. The film, he thought, was drifting further and further away from the redemptive tale he had once envisioned for his character.
"We started shooting and we were laboring over these scenes with all this violence. Laboring over them," Waites recalls. "And I was getting really fucking frustrated, because I could see this was almost obscene with violence. It wasn't what I signed up for. I signed up to be part of a love story, in difficult circumstances, that changes these people."
Finally one night, roughly seven weeks into shooting, Hill had enough. The production was filming at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Downtown Brooklyn — a scene in which the Warriors must make a mad dash from the cops across the subway platform. Craig Baxley, the stunt coordinator on the film, remembers Hill turning to him during the shoot and saying, "You have to come up with a way to kill this guy, because I don't want him in the movie anymore."
Stunned, Baxley demurred. Such a critical scene would take careful planning. But Hill was insistent. "I don't give a shit how you kill him," Baxley recalls the director saying. "Kill him."
After finding a crew member who resembled Waites from behind, Baxley quickly staged a stunt in which Fox is thrown off the platform by a police officer just as a train comes barreling through the station. His body is ultimately trampled on the tracks, the character all but forgotten for the final hour of the film.
"It was like someone cut my soul out and left a shell," Waites remembers. He would later demand that his name be removed from the cast altogether; he remains uncredited to this day.
The incident devastated Waites, but didn't keep him down for long. Later that same year he would appear alongside Al Pacino in the critically acclaimed courtroom drama ...And Justice for All, and in 1985 he became a member of New York City's prestigious Actors Studio. Having mended his relationship with Hill, today he only blames himself for the rift that developed between them. As an acting coach, he now helps his pupils avoid making the same mistakes he did, encouraging them to stay humble and levelheaded on set.
"I've taken responsibility for my own actions and I got a chance to apologize to Walter and make amends with him," Waites explains. "I was belligerent. And believe me, you pay for that shit. You pay for every act of belligerency and rebelliousness you engage in. Along the line, you will face the consequences for it."
Michael Beck relaxes at his lake home near Memphis, Tennessee.
On January 18, 1979, Michael Beck found God. He had spent much of his early life resisting the religious upbringing of his Christian family in Tennessee, instead leaving home to study acting at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. He had dabbled in the Eastern philosophies in college, nodded politely when his younger sister spoke of her devotion to Christ, but spirituality was just something that never stuck. But now, three weeks away from the release of his first big Hollywood movie — standing on the precipice of having everything he had ever dreamt of — Beck was somehow left feeling empty.
During shooting, once Waites was out of the picture, and with his own spiritual awakening still months away, Beck became the star of The Warriors. The chemistry between him and Van Valkenburgh, the female lead, was undeniable, even back in the early days of filming. With the death of Fox, Hill quickly made the decision that Beck's character, Swan, would now not only lead the gang back to Coney Island, but also get the girl.
"He was a very impressive specimen, and he was even more impressive on film," Hill says of Beck's physicality and presence onscreen. "If it wasn't working with Thomas, it wasn't too hard to figure out who was going to be the next [star]."
But hedonism was everywhere on the set, and, all of a sudden, cocaine and women were now available to Beck in even greater quantities as leading man.
"I had money in the bank. I had a couple of girlfriends. I had all the drugs I wanted to take. And my career was on the threshold," he recalls. "All of those things that I wanted were either there or potentially there, in greater intensity going forward. And the knowledge of that, or the realization of that, just didn't answer that hole in myself. That God-shaped hole."
So on January 18, just as The Warriors was about to open, Beck had what they called back home in Tennessee his "come-to-Jesus meeting." He knelt down and prayed to God and was overcome with the feeling that he had to call his sister. He listened one more time to her preach the Gospel, and was changed.
"Like Saul, the scales fell from my eyes," he remembers. "I could see and hear the truth."
From that moment on, Beck would live his life as a born-again Christian.
Despite all the hurdles, all the budget battles, all the run-ins with the gangs, The Warriors opened in 670 theaters nationwide on February 9, 1979, debuted at number one at the box office, and pulled in $10 million in its first two weeks — nearly double the film's production costs. People were lining up around the block at screenings. In a rave review for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael declared that "with Walter Hill's The Warriors movies are back to their socially conscious role of expressing the anger of the dispossessed." (Voice critic Andrew Sarris was less effusive in his review, calling the film "too studiously unreal" and not "as glorious and memorable as some of its less discriminating admirers would have it.")
But the celebration was short-lived. On Monday, February 12, a nineteen-year-old boy was fatally shot at a drive-in showing of the film in Palm Springs, California. That same night, an eighteen-year-old bled out after being stabbed in a movie theater 165 miles away in Oxnard. Other incidents of violence between rival gangs and moviegoers were also reported throughout the country. The news media raced to blame the production for inciting riots.
The morning after the incidents, Larry Gordon was called in to see the bosses at Paramount — then-chairman Barry Diller, and president Michael Eisner. Gordon's job for the majority of the shoot had been to keep the bosses out of Hill's hair, giving the director the room he needed to stretch the schedule and keep on shooting. But the violence had pushed matters past the point of budget concerns.
That weekend, Gordon had broken up a fight himself in the lobby of a movie theater in Westwood, California, where he had gone to see the film with his wife, sons, and mother. Inside, the audience was screaming and stomping their feet from the moment the Wonder Wheel flashed across the screen. "It was like watching Ali and Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden," Gordon recalls.
The meeting didn't go well: Despite the film's financial success and an impassioned protest from Gordon, Paramount ultimately decided to pull the movie from theaters.
"It wasn't worth having somebody else get stabbed or shot or killed in line because of a movie we made. It just wasn't worth it," Eisner, who would later become the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, tells the Voice. "Thirty years later it maybe was an overreaction, but I think it was the right reaction." (Sarris's Voice review agrees with Eisner's modern-day assessment that pulling the film was an overreaction: "The gang members on the screen are pussycats next to many of the people I see walking in the streets," he wrote. "Hence, there is no point in banning The Warriors.")
The chemistry between Deborah Van Valkenburgh, the female lead, and Beck was undeniable, even back in the early days of filming.
Today, remnants of that Warriors-era Coney Island can still be found. Clumps of housing projects continue to flank the beach, looming drearily over the boardwalk below. Nearby storefronts are burnt out and graffiti-ridden. Rusty barbed wire is strung haphazardly around vacant lots and desolate junkyards. On West 22nd Street, across from the sprawling Carey Gardens houses, there is a mural featuring the names of those from the neighborhood who have lost their lives to violence over the years. Scrawled next to an image of a black snub-nose pistol, the list of deceased is so long it threatens to spill off the side of the building.
Today, the gangs, the violence, and the vice depicted in the movie all still exist, but have been pushed further and further toward the city's periphery — away from 42nd Street and deeper into the shadows. The Warriors has enjoyed a second life as a cult classic, in part because it allows viewers to re-experience the grit and grime of what has become a largely romanticized vision of 1970s New York.
When the cast reconvenes later this month as part of a fan-driven effort to unite them all in Brooklyn once again, they will be returning to a Coney Island boardwalk vastly different from the one they strutted down in '78. Instead of rival gangs, they'll be swarmed by droves of enthusiastic fans eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take a picture or snag an autograph — the chance to be a part of the adventure at last.
"What we haven't said yet, and many times never quite gets said, is how much fun the movie is," Hill notes. "People liked going to the movie, and they had fun going. In a certain way, it was a very positive and pleasurable experience. That's the biggest trick of all."
Having repaired his relationship with Hill and made peace with his part in the film, Waites says he plans to attend the reunion and stand under the Wonder Wheel, once again donning his leather Warriors cut.
"The film has an innocence and a youthfulness that I don't really see that often in other pictures. There's an energy that Walter managed to harness," Waites says. "I'm sure we all wish we had do-overs in life, right? But if I had a do-over, I wouldn't have been such a pain in the neck."
The 1979 Coney Island of The Warriors
The reunited cast of The Warriors will appear on September 13 at the Warriors Festival on Coney Island. Doors open at 10 a.m. at the Surf Pavilion (3029 Stillwell Avenue). Tickets range from $15 to $400.
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