To coincide with today’s release of the “Ultimate Director’s Cut” of The Warriors on DVD, we’re giving you a director’s cut, web-exclusive version of the “Oral History Of The Warriors” piece by editor Eric Ducker, which originally ran last year in F26. Can you dig it? Can you diiiiig iiiiit?!
On Friday February 9, 1979 the front page of the New York Times Weekend section ran the headline “Six Films Open With A Galaxy Of Stars.” The movies highlighted were Murder By Decree, Hardcore, In Praise Of Older Women, Agatha, Quintet and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? There was also a seventh, unmentioned film that opened: The Warriors. It not only became the surprise box office winner of the weekend, but the film that went on to find the greatest cultural impact. 25 years later its surreal vision of New York has had an influence not only in film, but also in realms including music, fashion and art. Through constant showings on basic cable, midnight movie screenings and word-of-mouth rentals its audience has transcended generations. It’s a thrilling, brutal, vibrant and sometimes hilarious movie. It’s also weird as shit. Still, The Warriors is one of the few cult classics whose quality actually surpasses its kitsch appeal.
The movie tells the story of nine Coney Island gang members, and the girl they pick up along the way, who must bop their way back to their home turf after they are falsely accused of killing a powerful leader named Cyrus at a city wide meeting of the gangs in the Bronx. The film is loosely based on the novel by Sol Yurick that takes its inspiration from the Greek tale of Anabasis by Xenephon.
It was writer-director Walter Hill’s third film and starred a cast of unknown actors trained in the New York theatre world. Today some of them continue acting on stage, in episodic television, or in occasional film roles. Others gave up the profession. Some members of the cast have passed away, including Marcelino Sánchez who played Rembrandt the youngest member of the gang and Lynne Thigpen who played the faceless DJ that tracks The Warriors’ progress back home.
25 years later the film’s legacy remains alive in popular culture in more than just hip-hop name drops and Burger King commercials. Rockstar Games plans to release a video game based on the movie this year and Tony Scott has been attached to direct a remake. Today sees the release of a special edition DVD of the original with minor, but significant, adjustments made by Walter Hill.
This is the story of The Warriors from those who made it, as they remember it.
Craig R Baxley, stunt coordinator
Michael Beck, played Swan of The Warriors
Fleet Emerson, assistant to extras casting director Sylvia Fay
David Harris, played Cochise of The Warriors
Jery Hewitt, stuntman and played the lead Baseball Fury
Walter Hill, writer and director
David Patrick Kelly, played Luther of The Rogues
Terrence Michos, played Vermin of The Warriors
James Remar, played Ajax of The Warriors
Deborah Van Valkenburgh, played Mercy
Thomas G. Waites, played Fox of The Warriors
Joel Weiss, played Cropsy, Luther’s sidekick in The Rogues
Sol Yurick, wrote the novel The Warriors
Sol Yurick: It’s not my best book. I wrote it as a kind of a joke. It took me three weeks to write.
Walter Hill: It was a preexisting script that was sent to me by [producer] Larry Gordon with the novel. Larry and I were going to do a western from an original screenplay I had written with Roger Spotisswoode and the financing slipped away into the night. We were scrambling looking for a picture and Larry thought he might be able to get The Warriors on at Paramount because they were interested in youth movies. I wanted to do it a lot different than it was on the page at that point. I was instantly drawn to the extreme narrative simplicity and stripped down quality.
Thomas G. Waites: [Hill’s] a very laconic writer, very sparse. There’s not a lot of dialogue to illustrate a character’s position.
David Patrick Kelly: I remember being impressed because Sol Yurick had his political agenda going and then Walter, being this post-Peckinpah guy, had a cowboy/male bonding thing going, a code of ethics and a code of action.
Waites: Walter is a very interesting director. He sees all of his movies as westerns in a way: the hero up against seemingly insurmountable odds and fighting his way back home.
Michael Beck: The movie we made has nothing to do with real gangs in New York, but at that point we didn’t know that. In the script you didn’t see all the visual things Walter was going to do. You could have interpreted that script as a realistic take on it.
Hill: I don’t think you can understand the movie without understanding my infatuation with the American comic book. It was the height of my creative interest in that art form. I wanted to divide the movie into chapters and then have each chapter come to life starting with a splash panel. It was a low budget movie and there was very little time for post-production because we had a fixed release date that we agreed upon.
Terence Michos: There was a big push to get The Warriors out before The Wanderers.
Waites: They came into town looking for a cast. They saw all the people who were hot then.
James Remar: I think they auditioned every actor in New York.
Beck: I did an independent film that was shot in Israel called Madman which I was cast in the lead for. Walter Hill was a producer for Alien and Sigourney Weaver was also in Madman. He screened that movie to look at Sigourney for the lead in Alien and was impressed enough with my performance to see me for The Warriors.
Deborah Van Valkenburgh: I had an agent who submitted me and I think he had to convince the casting directors to see me. Walter told me that I was the unobvious choice.
Kelly: I was doing this musical on Broadway that James Taylor wrote the songs for that was a musicalization of Studs Terkel’s book Working. Walter Hill, [associate producer] Joel Silver and Larry Gordon saw me in that.
Michos: They didn’t want me at first. I think Tony Danza was the guy they were looking for, but he got Taxi. That’s when I got the role.
Joel Weiss: When I got the job I was a doorman. I got there three hours before my appointment. I wore all this gang stuff. I had greased up my hair, I put a toothpick and a match in my mouth, I chewed gum, I had my leather jacket from a guy who went to Vietnam.
Van Valkenburgh: The concept of using a lot of people that no one really knew about was something that appealed to [Hill] aesthetically and budget-wise.
Yurick: In the book there is practically nobody in there who is white.
Hill: Paramount wasn’t too high on the idea of an all black cast, as they explained, for commercial reasons.
Weiss: When we had the group reading everybody had their own persona, but a lot of us were not signed yet. James Remar came in, he banged his chair down. He was in character. He was Ajax. I looked at Marcelino [Sanchez] and I said, “He must be signed.” Thomas Waites he was the second guy that was kind of outrageous. We’re in the middle of the reading. The flow was going. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, Thomas Waites breaks character and he says, “Is there going to be room for improvisation?” And everybody is silent. I turned to Marcelino and I say, “He’s gotta be signed.” Let me tell you something, I’m not going to say a word. It’s my first movie.
David Harris: We were all in pretty great shape. We were pretty lean. Before we started shooting the movie, each guy basically had like one percent body fat.
Craig R. Baxley: Walter wanted to have the most realistic, grounded fights. The cast was all unknowns and I took them and basically had a stunt school for them and taught them all how to do a picture fight.
Harris: What do we do? We run and we fight all night long. If we’re not running, we’re fighting. How many times do you see us sitting down and having a conversation?
Remar: I hung out at Coney Island and tried to learn something about gang life down there and find a model for my character. There was a guy who was working at one of the games at Coney Island and I asked him, “So what kind of people hang around down here?” He just smiled and spread his arms and said, “The worst kind.”
Hill: I had a very simple thing at the beginning of the movie which [Paramount] wouldn’t let me do which was a legend that said, “Some time in the future.” The great minds at the studio thought that was too much like Star Wars. I thought the movie was close to being incomprehensible without that because it always seemed to me to be a science fiction movie.
Harris: The entire film was shot in New York. We shot at Astoria Studios for some interior shots. Basically we were on the streets of New York for four months.
Beck: We would shoot as long as there was darkness and in the middle of summer you have fairly short nights in New York. Sometimes after shooting we would hang out, go have a beer for breakfast or whatever.
Remar: It was like being the center of the universe. A group of young, untried actors being given the run of the city from sundown to sun up.
Kelly: I lived on Spring St. and 6th Avenue at the time. I’d walk home every night. It wasn’t fancy. We all dressed in one trailer I think.
Remar: [Hill] cast us confident in knowing that we would bring to the screen what he wanted to see. He rarely said “Good” and I don’t think he ever said “Bad”. If he needed it again he’d do it again.
Waites: I believe the movie was considerably behind schedule and over budget. This was when Michael Eisner was the head of Paramount.
Hill: As they say, it was a contentious place to work at.
Waites: I remember talking to [Hill] once and going, “How are you doing?” He said, “Well they are never going to tell you at the studio whether they like a picture too much. They’re going to screen the dailies and tell you what they don’t like, but they are not going to get carried away and tell you how wonderful everything is.”
Beck: Because New York is a 24 hour city, there was always a crowd of people hovering around the outside of what we were doing. I always thought, it’s four o’clock in the morning, why are these people up?
Van Valkenburgh: I felt like I blended into the city after this film. The whole process was sort of beautiful in its intensity for me.
Baxley: It was a different time then. The city was so depressed. We were shooting in the Bronx up in the projects and they were tossing bricks off at the crew.
Weiss: My scene at Avenue A we had to cancel filming. There was a double homicide up the block.
Fleet Emerson: [Hill] wanted some real gang members for the big meeting that was filmed in Riverside Park. We did get some for him, as many who weren’t being prosecuted at the moment. Knowing New York you’d find some on any corner. We had off-duty police officers that were put into the crowd to see to it that nothing really happened.
Baxley: The budget they had, they wouldn’t allow me to bring any stunt men from Hollywood. The African-American guy I wanted to double Cyrus, they wouldn’t let me bring him back. I talked Walter into this fall where Cyrus gets hit and falls back like fifteen feet through this little plank. I put a three inch judo pad there and the guy would go straight on his back and look like he hit the pavement. There were only two [black] stunt guys in New York at the time and neither one of them wanted to do it. I had to do it. I came out with afro sheen in my hair and black skin with my blue eyes. I though I would get killed. After I did the fall I got mobbed. They picked me up on their hands and were cheering.
Beck: There were instances of gang members coming and wanting to challenge us, but it never got through to us. There were bodyguards there. I certainly saw a couple of kids get their clocks cleaned by some of the security guys.
Michos: They would say, “You think you’re tough?” And we’d say, “Nah, we’re just actors.”
Beck: One night we were shooting in the Bronx and Walter wanted the look of this particular street which had all these derelict, burned out buildings. The powers in the real gang world had not been paid off in this particular locale, which was the usual manner that people were taken care of. (You know how movies are made in New York.) So out of these derelict buildings, on the second and third floors all these faces of people, who we learned later were gang guys (and there were a ton of them), just started yelling and screaming and making so much noise that we couldn’t shoot there.
Hill: We were out on the streets and occasionally in very rough places where we weren’t totally welcome. I don’t think there are any extraordinary stories about it. There would be threats. There were a couple confrontations as I recall. We had security. It’s not that I didn’t take it seriously, but I was trying to direct a movie and there are people who take care of that type of thing.
Jery Hewitt: Years and years later [Beck] was doing a TV series and they came to New York and I got to work on the job. I showed up on the set, and it was probably ten years later, and he says, “Jery Hewitt, it’s so good to see you.” That young man was a gentleman and it didn’t change. Whatever success he might have had, he was Michael Beck and he was a man’s man and he was a good guy. He held the thing together better than anyone.
Beck: Quite early on we gelled as a gang, on the set and in life. Not that we were doing a method thing of living our characters, but I became the defacto leader. They naturally followed me because that was what was happening in the movie. We grew very close to each other.
Waites: It’s a business of temporary intimacy. You really create a little family. I have a lot of fond memories and strong recollections of brotherhood that I experienced with the other guys on the shoot.
Hill: Movies become units and you get kind of sealed off from the regular world until the movie is over. The bonds you often make on a film are so intense, then suddenly it ends. I’m sure many of them remain friendly with each other. I’m certainly friendly with any of them I run into.
Beck: The character of Fox played by Tommy Waites, he was supposed to end up with Mercy. My character was supposed to be captured by a rival gang of which I later escape and then I join up with the guys for the final battle.
Weiss: There was a gang called the Dingoes and in that gang were Kevin Bacon and John Snyder who plays the gas station attendant. The Dingoes were supposed to be a gay gang with Doberman Pinchers and blonde wigs. They were supposed to capture Michael Beck’s character.
Waites: I was let go about eight weeks into it, which was entirely my responsibility. I was sort of difficult and at the time I probably gave the director a little more trouble than I was worth. I was supposed to be in it all the way through, but Walter let me go, which I don’t blame him for. I had a tendency to be argumentative unnecessarily.
Beck: I remember the night we were told Tom would no longer be in the picture. We were taken aback. It was not something we expected to happen, even though there was some conflict going on, but no one expected it to take that turn. What I was also told was they were seeing things develop, that the character Swan made more sense to end up with Mercy.
Van Valkenburgh: What [Hill] discovered in the course of looking at dailies was that Michael Beck and I had great chemistry.
Waites: They had a stand in, and they shot him from behind and they pushed him in front of a subway train to illustrate my death.
Michos: I saw Michael Beck and some of these other guys as having the real strong roles, so I started playing Vermin based on an old Hercules character, this half-man/half-animal. This guy always repeated everything, he always said, “Hey Herc, Herc.” I just started using that and making Vermin more comedic. I was able to end up having my role extended. I think Vermin was supposed to be killed off, but he became funny.
Harris: At one point my character was supposed to get killed and dumped into the Hudson River. I end up in a park by myself and I get caught by these guys. It came down from the studio that Cochise is not going to die.
Weiss: [Kelly] was never interacting with the Rogues. He never talked to them until he brought them Irish Soda Bread and a case of beer on the last day. He was totally into the role.
Kelly: One thing Walter told me during The Warriors was Richard III. That’s the kind of the take, the energy I tried to bring to it. He was reading Xenephon and so was I. I was reading Hubert Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn and Satre’s Nausea for this kind of existential epiphany that he’s got going on in there
Weiss: We were in Coney Island and [Kelly] picked up two dead pigeons, he had them in a bag. He brought the pigeons and Walter Hill said, “That’s not going to work.” He got the bottles and he did the “Waaaaarriors, come to play” thing. It was all improv.
Kelly: I was a working theatre guy, very much into the theatrical avant garde. The people that influenced me in movies were theatrical innovators who were great at making gestures mythic. What I was trying to do with The Warriors was tweak the method acting conventions of that time. I broke one of the codes of method acting, which is to not judge your character. I wanted to make Luther evil, so he was influenced by this really bad guy who I knew in downtown New York who would make fun of me and say, “Daaaaave. Daaaaave. Daaaaave.” And it was the creepiest thing I ever heard.
Hill: We had Orson Welles ready to do a brief narrated intro which tied in the Greek themes. But the studio didn’t think it was appropriate. We had to have the studio write a check, so that never happened.
Beck: For many people it was their first experience with film. None of us really knew how to look at a rough cut of a picture. It’s got temp music, it’s got scenes missing, it’s got all kinds of things. I remember after we saw that at the Gulf+Western building we went over to some Irish bar that was right around Columbus Circle. A group of us just sat there at commiserated because we thought, “God, what an awful movie.”
Kelly: I was sitting with my friend the late Lynne Thigpen. I think she was kind of shocked that it was just her mouth, the close-up. They shot it on her face. At the same time I don’t think she realized how evocative that voice of hers is, how memorable that was.
Hill: It debuted at number one quite unexpectedly. It came out of nowhere and all the kids went to see it.
Van Valkenburgh: We went to the big premiere at a theater in Times Square. It had a quality of old-fashioned matinees where everybody was always screaming and getting excited. I just remember loving that.
Yurick: I thought the speed to which he got to the meeting was terrific, but once he had [Cyrus] making his speech, it all fell apart, because the guy was terrible. For me the best moment of the movie was my name flashing up and covering the whole screen.
Michos: Pauline Kael wrote this unbelievable review. She said it became a social commentary on the times instead of this campy film. She said it really took on its own life.
From Pauline Kael’s review of The Warriors in The New Yorker: “With Walter Hill’s The Warriors movies are back to their socially conscious role of expressing the anger of the dispossessed…Paramount opened the picture in six hundred and seventy theatres, without advance press screenings, promoting it as an exploitation film, via a thumping TV commercial. Probably the assumption was that the audience for this picture doesn’t read reviews. But the literate shouldn’t miss out on it. The Warriors is a real moviemaker’s movie: it has in visual terms the kind of impact that “Rock Around The Clock” did behind the titles of Blackboard Jungle.
Beck: I was certainly surprised and shocked that kids who went to see this movie ended up fighting and killing each other. The press jumped all over that and Paramount got cold feet about supporting the movie and pulled all the ads on it. It opened well and then it just died a death.
Hill: At the end of the first week they pulled some advertising. There were certain theater owners that thought the movie wasn’t safe to exhibit and Paramount pulled back on some theatres in certain areas that they thought might lead to trouble. The movie was a financial success and still kicks out profits. Before the trouble it looked like it was on its way to becoming a massive hit, but when they pulled the advertising it lost all chance of that.
Remar: I feel if all that energy is there and an 88 minute motion picture can release it, then there is something going on beneath the surface. Maybe The Warriors released some stuff, but I don’t think it created anything. It’s a difficult legacy, I didn’t want a film I made to promote violence in any way.
Van Valkenburgh: You think about the intensity of what is being filmed today, our stuff was balletic and abstract and there is only one bit of blood in the entire movie. It’s more like the Three Stooges than anything else.
Hill: Everybody always talks about the fights – and it’s very stylized, it’s not brutally realistic – and my intention was to get laughs. I saw it with a big audience a lot of times and it got a lot of laughs, and the right kind of laughs. But that’s rarely commented on. The unfortunate things that happened after the release of the movie darkened the image, so the idea that there is a lot of humor in the movie got forgotten then. In one sense I think it remains forgotten, but not with its fans, so what the hell.
Beck : I remember hearing that in Paris it was playing like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. People were lining up for midnight showing as characters. This was within four or five years of it’s initial release. At that point I knew that this picture has got a different kind of thing going on now.
Kelly: Adam Sandler told me a story about Eddie Vedder having the “Warriors, come out to play” chant on his answering machine for years.
Harris: That was 25 years ago, I was a kid. People stare at me in Ralph’s or wherever I am and say, “I know you from The Warriors.”
Beck: It’s still the thing I’m most recognized for. 25 years later I can be on the street, white hair and a beard.
Remar: It’s mostly young men, anywhere from 18 to 50 who get very excited about the film and excited about meeting me. I don’t get a lot of girls saying, “Oh I loved you in The Warriors.”
Hill: I know they’re talking about remaking it. Larry Gordon and I laughed about that they’ve probably gotten as much money in scripts now as it probably took us to make the movie. I don’t have anything to say about that. Good luck.
Beck: There was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the film. The whole original introduction of The Warriors took place in daylight. I understand it’s ended up in television versions.
Hill: The only movie I know about is the one in theaters. I’ve never seen it in any other form than the theatrical release. Whatever [footage] is not in there doesn’t exist anymore. I asked Paramount about that and they went on a big search. They, like a lot of studios, throw out everything that’s not the film. I don’t think there is some great thing that has been lost. I think the best version of the movie is the movie that was the theatrical release.
Van Valkenburgh: I just love that I was a part of this. You look at a career and you go, well there’s not a whole lot that I can necessarily remember specifically. If there is nothing else I am so psyched that this was part of it.