Even with career highlights like working on The French Connection, Sophie's Choice, and Naked City, William "Bill" Gerrity says receiving the DGA's Frank Capra Achievement Award in 1983 was his greatest moment.
"Elia Kazan was honored that same year, and my first job in this business was on A Face in the Crowd," the retired AD/UPM says. "What an amazing day that was with my family watching."
Amazing actually came fairly easy to Gerrity, thanks to a solid grounding in the New York City film unions. His father, a film grip, was a one-time president of IATSE Local 52. "When medical school didn't work out, I realized this industry was the best fit, and joined IATSE Local 161 [for assistant directors and script supervisors]. That was before the assistant director branch merged, in 1963, with the West Coast and joined the DGA."
Gerrity recalls what it was like working in New York in those days. "The city was such a different place to shoot back then. You couldn't go to the mayor's office and get a single blanket permit. Every department required a different permit—sanitation, fire, police, etc.," he says. "I remember on [the TV series] Naked City, jumping off the camera car while driving through the Midtown Tunnel, and trying to stop the traffic behind me."
Gerrity chuckles when he says shooting "old school" in New York meant "a sliding scale" of payoffs for the police department—from the captain on down. "The worst part was when we shot past 4 o'clock and the police department changed their entire shift," he laughs.
No New York shoot left more of an imprint than the legendary car chase sequence from The French Connection. "We had to do it in one-to-two block sections because New Yorkers could care less that you're making a movie. They'd just cross the street without looking."
Gerrity even employed a 'dummy camera without film,' so pedestrians wouldn't gather in one spot and further jeopardize safety. Although his team had walkie-talkies, the huge, single channel units didn't have much value. "We mostly used bullhorns, and different colored handkerchiefs to signal 'Cut' and 'Action,' as we did on Naked City."
Although he made a seamless transition to UPM, even relocating to California at the behest of director Alan Pakula, for a handful of features (Klute, Dead Again), Gerrity insists that it was the rapport he was able to build with actors on set that was his greatest pleasure. He appreciated the give and take with actors, and they seemed to appreciate him. On The Owl and the Pussycat, producer Ray Stark told him that Barbra Streisand was notoriously late and could he stay on her case. "The first day she comes in 30 minutes late," recalls Gerrity, "and I say, 'Good morning, Ms. Streisand. You owe me a half hour.' The next day she's right on time and we're still lighting the set. I tried to hide, but she found me and said, 'Get over here.' Then she whispered in my ear: 'We're even.'"
Then there was the time on the TV mini-series Family Reunion when Gerrity as the new UPM went to a suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel to greet Bette Davis. "She said, 'Come on up Mr. Gerrity,' and I said, 'Please call me Bill, Miss Davis.' And she said, 'I'll call you Bill when you can prove to me you can produce this fucking movie.' A few weeks later we were shooting and she said, 'Bill, I want to see you.' That's when I knew I had made it."
By David Geffner