All he ever wanted to do was run the movie projector.
Gray Frederickson’s desire seemed simple enough at the time. The then-12-year-old was already taking tickets and doing chores at his job at the 1940s-1950s era Lakeside Theater in northwestern Oklahoma City.
But run the projector?
“That they didn’t want me to do,” says Frederickson.
“Ironic” seems a timid descriptor as Frederickson recollects his childhood love of move palaces. If he’d gone on to be a projectionist, ironic might suffice. But given that he has spent his career in the motion picture industry and, oh, yes, picked up an Academy Award for producing a little flick called Godfather Part II, among production credits for several other of the most lauded films of all times, irony comes up short.
“I was always at the movie theater anyway, so I figured working there let me get to see movies for free,” Frederickson recalls. “I loved the movies, going into the darkened theater and being immersed in a different world. Whenever I would get up to get popcorn, walking up that darkened aisle, I felt like I was the cowboy hero who was up on the screen.”
But the idea of working in the film industry didn’t occur to Frederickson. He was born in 1937 to an Oklahoma City family typically in energy and construction work.
“I never thought about working in movies,” he says. “There were no film schools in Oklahoma at the time. I had a few friends who said they were going to go to Hollywood and become stars. But nobody said they wanted to be a grip, or a cameraman or a producer.”
In dusty central Oklahoma of the mid-1950s, Hollywood glamour might have been a world away, but the Old World was not. At 18 years old, Frederickson visited Europe and liked it enough to think that maybe his future was as a globetrotting travel agent.
“Mostly I just wanted to get out of Oklahoma,” Frederickson says. “I went from high school to the University of Oklahoma, which was an easy transition. But after a year, I was suspended for having a girl in my room. I don’t think people get suspended for that anymore. Well, my parents later said I had to do something, so I went to school in Europe – mostly because I liked to ski and it was a good way to be able to do that.”
Frederickson enrolled at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Europe was a very different place then.
“There were no McDonald’s, and you had to stand in line at the American Express office to be able to make a call home once a week,” Frederickson says. “You were really cut off then.”
But despite the fact that Frederickson would earn his business degree at OU, it was his experience in and after his European college excursion that circuitously took the Oklahoman to the critical creative moments of three of the 100 best films in history, according to the vaunted American Film Institute – and to having friends he unremarkably refers to as Clint, Marlon and Francis.
Gray Frederickson makes no bones about how he got started in the movie industry.
“A lot of it was bullshit,” he says.
After graduating from OU, Frederickson still didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he was sure he wanted to work in Europe and was eventually offered a job, through skiing friends, in Rome for an international engineering and construction company. He took the job and found himself working in places like the Lebanon-Syria border, surveying roads patrolled by equal parts security and bandits.
“I hated my job,” he says. “My roommate was an actor. I would go to work at 8 a.m., and he would still be asleep until noon. I would come home from work and he would be on the balcony with a couple of topless girls!”
But the job came with the benefit of a steady paycheck. It cost him half his salary for the payments on a Maserati, but coincidentally, it proved to be the catalyst for changing Frederickson’s life forever. At the time, Italy was experiencing a film renaissance – American films. Italian-made films simply didn’t succeed in Italy: American films did, and particularly westerns. In this era of “Spaghetti Westerns,” Italy was rife with filmmakers creating Italian-made “American movies” starring B-grade Hollywood actors, shot often in the U.S. but always completed and produced from Europe.
“I met some people who had a package together to make a movie (Natika) with John Barrymore, Jr. attached to it, and they asked me to produce it,” Frederickson says. “They had everything, they just needed money to get it done. They had the perception I had money because I was cruising around in a Maserati.”
Frederickson, just 21 years old, took the opportunity, returned to Oklahoma and, with friends, raised money for the production. After shooting it, Frederickson realized that post- production would also cost money and there was none remaining. He sold the camera used to shoot the film for post-production services and subsequently found himself with a completed – but unsold – movie.
“I was left to sell it myself, and people said I should go to Cannes and sell it at the film festival there,” he says. Frederickson did just that but had no budget to promote the film or to get it into the right hands. So, the son of pragmatic Oklahoma came up with a commando promotion scheme. In lieu of ads and billboard promotions, he hired people to take chalk to sidewalks to tell people about the film and direct them to see it. The ploy worked, the film was sold and around the industry the youthful American garnered the reputation for being able to produce and sell a movie on the cheap, and also for bridging the gap between European cinema and the U.S.
“That was the first and last time I was ever involved with raising money,” Frederickson says.
But it was the beginning of a career that propelled Frederickson to the top of his profession – and it all began with smoke and mirrors.
“It was really entirely an accident that I got into producing movies,” he says, recollecting. “It’s amazing what you can do when you’re young and don’t know any better.”
“Producers are always the first one in and the last one out,” Frederickson says. “Cameramen work a few weeks and then go – might come back for editing. Directors are in, do their part and then go on to the next thing. Producers are never off a production.”
As a producer, Frederickson would be responsible for schedules, budgets, working crews, etc. But still, he says, studio films generally come as turnkey operations with most details handled well in advance.
It was Frederickson’s ability to get things done inexpensively that helped propel his career after his success in Cannes. He would spend the next decade in Italy producing films and acting as a liaison between the industry there and in the United States.
Among his early titles was the quintessential Spaghetti Western, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (as production manager), starring a young Clint Eastwood, whom Frederickson considers a friend.
Decades later, Frederickson was attached to a revisionist western being made with Robert Duvall in the lead, when production stopped.
“I called Clint and told him about the script and he ended up buying it and making Unforgiven,” Frederickson says. “He asked me to produce it, but I had other obligations. I turned down Unforgiven for (Rodney Dangerfield vehicle) Ladybugs.
“That wasn’t the only time something like that happened,” Frederickson continues. “I turned down producing E.T., (but if I hadn’t) we wouldn’t be having this conversation! I’d be off on my yacht somewhere. I turned down E.T. for One from the Heart.”
Steven Spielberg’s E.T., of course, went on to become one of the most commercially and critically successful movies in history. Francis Ford Coppola’s Broadway-esque musical One from the Heart was largely panned, and its bad box office bankrupted Coppola.
Eastwood, though, wasn’t the only contact Frederickson made working on The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. He also met Albert S. Ruddy, with whom he would work upon returning to the U.S. after 10 years in Europe. Together they produced Little Fauss and Big Halsy starring a young Robert Redford in 1970.
“Through the people I’d met, I got into Paramount,” Frederickson says.
Paramount was planning a production of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather with Coppola attached to direct. That began a 25-year relationship between Coppola and Frederickson, with the latter as the former’s producer, and finally kicked open the door entirely for the Oklahoma native.
In the years that followed, Frederickson’s lengthy list of credits included The Godfather and its two sequels, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders (set and filmed in Tulsa) and lighter fare such as UHF (also filmed in Oklahoma) and television’s The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Houston Knights – among scores of other credits on the big and small screens.
Frederickson also worked with some of the greatest icons in Hollywood, including directors Coppola and Spielberg, actors such as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and countless others. Spielberg even talked Frederickson into a small role on-camera in his comic 1941 – one of several performances included in the producer’s impressive biography.
Although Frederickson’s Academy Award resulted from 1974’s The Godfather Part II, he says it was UHF that he enjoyed the most. It was the famously chaotic making of Apocalypse Now that he recounts as his most challenging.
“Everyone should get the chance to make a movie like UHF,” Frederickson says. “It was a lot of fun.”
Making The Outsiders and UHF in Oklahoma might have influenced Frederickson in other ways, as well. In the late 1990s, Frederickson would receive a call that would take him, finally, full circle. Twister had just been shot in Oklahoma and received wide acclaim, and the state wanted to promote filmmaking on the prairie. And Hollywood’s luster was wearing off.
“Hollywood’s a young person’s game,” he says.
Asked to help Oklahoma recruit film productions and offered a position as artist in residence at Oklahoma City Community College, Frederickson agreed to return. He made the move, family in tow, in 1999.
“I was coming back to everyone I knew,” he says. The producer, more used to friends like Clint, Marlon and Francis, was returning home to friends like “Frank (Keating), David (Boren) and Mary (Fallin).
“I was home.”
In the years that Frederickson has now been back in the state, filmmaking in Oklahoma has had some high-profile successes. Most recently, the announcement that playwright Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County will be filmed in-state excited local boosters. But Frederickson says that Oklahoma has a long way to go.
“You have to look at why people would film here,” he says. “The good news is that Oklahoma looks like any place in America. The bad news is that Oklahoma looks like any place in America. We had the first rebate program, but no one in Hollywood knew about it. Other states started doing it, and some, like Louisiana, went to California with a huge promotional effort. Hollywood knows about those rebate programs because those states got the word out. I tried but had no advertising budget.”
Another challenge facing Oklahoma in attracting film productions is the dearth of crew talent. That, however, is changing, thanks to the training program for film professionals at Oklahoma City Community College. With Frederickson onboard, the program has attracted the support of both the college and others who have generously helped develop the program into a singularly unique opportunity. Today the OCCC studio is considered one of the best of its kind in the region. Whereas many university film programs focus on history and the art, the OCCC program is more like “applied film school,” Frederickson says.
“We’re getting 300 people a year through here, and students have gone on to work in television stations, on productions and in Los Angeles,” Frederickson says. “We have a wonderful studio, huge editing lab, state of the art cameras, etc. We have had absolutely tremendous support.”
The mercurial Frederickson wasn’t idle in Oklahoma while facilities were being developed at OCCC. With a group of local investors, he formed the short-lived GrayMark Productions and produced a number of feature films in Oklahoma, including the Burt Reynolds comedy Cloud 9 and Armand Assante thriller Soul’s Midnight. Filming in-state permitted GrayMark to eventually use talent from the college’s impressive program.
Accolades continued, too. Frederickson won an Emmy in 2007 for Dream No Little Dream: The Life and Times of Robert S. Kerr. He was recipient of the Oklahoma Film Icon Award at the deadCENTER Film Festival. Frederickson recently finished a documentary on the oil and gas industry and is at work on a multi-part series on the Chickasaw Nation.
“These days I’m doing what I want to do, which is mostly seeing these kids do well,” he says. “It’s very rewarding.”
And it’s ironic. The man who, as a 12-year-old in Oklahoma City, wanted most to run the projector at the Lakeside Theater is today dedicated to students learning the intricate crafts of filmmaking in the same city.
Frederickson admits that eventually his childhood boss did let him run that projector a couple of times.
“Change-outs were fun – when you had to (switch out film reels),” he says. “They don’t do that anymore.”