FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE: 40th Anniversary Special Pt 2 – Interview with William Sanderson

Jessie Lee Kane Speaks! Josiah Howard’s new exclusive interview with prolific actor William Sanderson

William Sanderson (born January 10, 1944 in Memphis, TN) has been acting—in your face—for a long time. With more than 200 film and television credits, he’s an entertainment industry staple: a face and distinctive voice (he’s voiced many cartoons) that has traversed five decades and shows no signs of stopping. The credits are myriad: The Onion Field, Last Man Standing, Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, Quincy M.E, Bret Maverick, Deadwood, The X-Files, Married With Children, ER, Matlock, True Blood and Monk.

From 1982-1990 Sanderson played Larry on the top-rated TV show Newhart. While on Newhart he also appeared in seven films including Coal Miner’s Daughter, Raggedy Man and 1982’s game-changing Blade Runner. “…Sanderson pulls focus and offers the viewer a sanctuary in which to reflect…” this author observed in Archetype magazine at the time. “…His is a calm, soothing performance in a very uncalm and un-soothing film…”

The commitment to craft that William Sanderson brought to Blade Runner is also on vivid display in Fight For Your Life, an incendiary home invasion tale released in 1977. One of exploitation cinema’s most notorious entries, in Fight Sanderson plays racist Jessie Lee Kane—one of three escaped convicts who, for more than sixty minutes, terrorize an African American family—a church deacon and his wife, their invalid mother, their son and daughter, and their neighbors.

In this exclusive Fight For Your Life Part II interview (see Part I here) William Sanderson takes a wary step back and re-considers his contribution to the film. “Frankly speaking it’s not a career highlight” he states honestly. But to exploitation film fans, his pitch-perfect performance deserves a place right alongside his many other stellar screen credits.

As Otis in Savage Weekend (1979)

You studied both business and law. How did you turn to acting?

During my second year in law school at Memphis State University I went to see a production of Hair and came away impressed—especially as that was where all the girls were! After that I kept hanging around the theater department. I helped with painting the sets and eventually someone asked me if I wanted to be in a production. My first play was To Kill A Mockingbird. Soon afterwards I enrolled in an acting class. I remember I did a scene in which I played a crazy person. It was in a loft, a very unstructured setting. After the scene was over there was dead silence. A moment passed and the whole room burst into applause. Well, I never got that kind of reaction in any of my law classes. After that experience I did a couple more plays and became convinced I was supposed to be an actor. I took off for NYC like a nut.

You left everything behind?

Well, ‘everything’ wasn’t much. After two years in the Army, four years in college and two years in law school I thought ‘I’ve finally found something that I’m comfortable with.’ I love the quote “the heart has its reason that reason doesn’t know.” I liked putting a mask on. That’s what acting is—putting on masks. I couldn’t put a mask on in real life, even when I wanted to, so acting was the next bests thing. It was a repository for all the anxieties in me.

How did the role of Jessie Lee Kane come to you?

I saw an advertisement in Backstage magazine and I answered it. Fight was a non-union film and at the time I was just barely in the Screen Actors Guild so I was a little afraid of doing it; but I did it anyway. I was young and desperate. Everyone kept telling me ‘Bill you have to get footage—it doesn’t matter what it is.’ So, I was really just building my reel. What I wanted was to be able to take a scene from a film and show producers and agents what I was capable of.

As James Anon on Bar Karma (TV)

What were your ideas about playing the part?

To do a good job. I was tall and thin, I had the accent, I had the long hair, so those were character traits that were useful and already in place. I just wanted to be true to that particular character in every way possible. I’ve never known anyone like Jessie so I had to put my imagination to good use.

Given the film’s controversial nature, did you hesitate or think twice about making it?

Yes, I did. I wondered if it was the right thing to do: if it would come back to haunt me. But, you know, it was better than my bartending job. Also, I thought about my parents who would be really embarrassed by this. In my whole life I never heard my mother curse: not even one time. She was a school teacher and she took care of challenged children. But I talked myself into it. I thought ‘well, it’s just an independent film, no one’s ever going to see it.’

Remember this was way before home video. Low budget films like Fight came and went and were never seen again. It wasn’t until after we finished filming that I learned that (producer) Mishkin had previously only done X Rated films. Fight was a step up for him—a film that didn’t have explicit sex scenes. But, looking back, I think that Fight really is just another kind of porn.

You sound dubious about Fight’s merits.

I am: the film haunts me. I kind of blocked it out of my mind for many years—decades really. Until now no one has ever really referenced it or taken it seriously. I saw the interview you did with (director) Bob Endelson and I thought it was good but I also thought ‘gosh, why are they talking about that film?’ Maybe it’s the Quentin Tarantino influence, I really don’t know. He loves the picture and has even hosted screenings. But I never, ever thought I would be talking about it again.

Over the years I’ve played a lot of objectionable characters but Jessie Lee Kane is by far the worst. Right now, I’m trying to be more positive—put out more uplifting work and play more positive characters. I mean, isn’t Fight For Your Life considered a racist film?

As Sheriff Bud Dearborne on HBO’s True Blood

No. Jessie is most certainly racist but he’s one part of a whole. For fans of the film Fight is a text book example of exploitation cinema. It’s considered one of the best.

That’s good to hear. When I have my doubts about the film I always remember Anthony Hopkins who played a sadistic cannibal in Silence of the Lambs. He was perfect in that role and I’m sure people don’t think he actually eats people! I guess I just want to make sure that people don’t think I’m that despicable character in Fight. I’m a working actor. Sometimes you don’t get the parts that you want—you just the parts that are available.

Looking back, would you change anything about your performance?

I probably wouldn’t have overacted so much—I spit almost every single line out. The words are horrible enough. You don’t need to foam at the mouth to get the point across. Personally, I think understated acting is more effective. In my experience dogs that bark don’t bite.

What was the shoot like?

Professional. I liked the people I worked with. Bob (Endelson) was very easygoing. I got along especially well with Robert Judd—who played the African American father. We talked a lot, we were very comfortable with one another and had a lot in common. At the end of each days shoot we’d sit back and he’d have his Dewars and I’d have my beer. I really respected him and how he handled what we did in the film. He was put in a lot of humiliating situations and I felt for him.

Were there any on-set challenges?

I remember the scene where I attempted to strangle Mrs. Turner was really difficult for me to do. Other than my relationship with Robert, what worked for me was to try and keep a distance from the rest of the cast. I thought it would help me give a more authentic performance. But you know what, looking back, I was wrong. I’m unhappy that I didn’t work on connecting with Reggie Bythewood (the child actor). I should have talked to him and made it clear that I was acting. He was terrified of me. Today a case could be made that what we were doing was child abuse but back then no one considered those things.

As for on-set challenges, I remember doing a scene in which I kick Gerardo (the Latin thug). Bob called out ‘cut’ and stopped the production because he thought I had really kicked Gerardo. Well I know something about self-defense and I knew what I was doing—it just looked like I was kicking Gerardo—which was the whole point, right? But Bob made us do take after take until he thought it was right.

Don’t you know, after the film came out and we were all attending early screenings to gauge audience response, I was in a theater in Newark, NJ and a little boy came up to me and said ‘I know you really didn’t kick him, you were just pretending: it didn’t look real.’ I should have gone with my instincts!

As E.B. Farnum on HBO’s Deadwood

What was it like seeing Fight in a theater?

I went to a lot of screenings, some in New York City and some out in LA on the Sunset Strip. It was always an interactive experience. I remember I brought an agent with me to a one of the showings. I was shaking the whole way through it. When the film was finished I asked the agent what he thought, and he turned to me and said. “I think you’re an incredible actor and this proves that you can carry a film on your own.” I was so relieved. Something that I was essentially embarrassed by was opening up the door to new opportunities.

Were you ever recognized as Jessie at the time?

Never. I once went to a theater in Times Square and sat in the back. No one recognized me. I’m sure that the audience never dreamed that the actor up on the screen would be sitting right next to them. My biggest thrill was seeing Fight on a Double Bill. It was paired with a Richard Pryor film (Greased Lightning). I was a huge Richard Pryor fan so when I saw that my film was playing alongside Richard’s I really thought I hit the Big Time!

What did you think of the DVD release?

You know this was so long ago, forty years now. To tell you the truth I have yet to watch it all the way through. The last time I saw Fight from beginning to end was in 1977. Maybe one of these days I’ll pop it in the DVD player and give it a look.

Were you surprised that Robert Endelson didn’t participate in the DVD release?

No. I had a good sense of Robert—at least the person he was at the time I worked with him. He was a man that was not going to do what he was not going to do.

What is your opinion of exploitation/blaxploitation films?

I don’t really have one. I worked with Richard Roundtree on a movie once (City Heat). I was on-set for six weeks and during that time I got to know him. I respected that he created a market for his unique talents and I witnessed him handle several difficult situations on the set. I came away very impressed with him.

As J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner (1982)

Will you see the new Blade Runner? You made quite an impression in that film?

Will I see it? Yes. But why did they make it so long? No film should be close to three hours long.

I agree: it’s self-indulgent.

If they wanted a film that long they should put it out in a special edition on DVD or Blu-Ray. My son named his business The Blade Runner so my attachment to the original film remains strong. I’m proud of the work I did in the film and Sebastian is a very special character to me. Genuine and sensitive. More than that, my work in the film as well as my association with it put me in a whole different category of consideration in Hollywood. It was A-list with a capital “A.”

How will you be remembered?

I won’t be! If I am, maybe it will be as my wife Sharon’s husband and my son Andrew’s father. Tennessee Williams once said ‘it’s been providential to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity.’ Maybe I’ll be remembered for doing that too!

Furious Cinema would like to thank Josiah Howard and William Sanderson for participating in this in-depth interview

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Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard lives in New York City. His writing credits include articles for The New York Times, The Village Voice and Motion Picture. Currently he is adapting a previously published work for the big screen. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, he is a regular contributor to the film review website Grindhouse Cinema Database and in 2014 was featured in five episodes of TV One’s award-winning documentary series Unsung.

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