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The Warriors star Michael Beck on the cult ’70s movie that keeps thrilling fans

There’s cult movies and then there’s The Warriors. The 1979 movie is excellence in a leather vest, telling the story of a gang framed for murder who are trying to get from one side of New York City while battling a host of other immaculately dressed gangs. It’s been referenced by everyone from Wu Tang Clan to The Simpsons and now, 38 years after its release, the first ever UK fan convention for the movie is taking place. The UK Conclave presents The Warriors Celebration is happening at Edgbaston Stadium in Birmingham April 1-2 and a load of stars from the film will be there – leather vests and all – including Michael Beck, who played dashing gang leader Swan and Deborah Van Valkenburgh, the super sassy Mercy. We spoke to Beck ahead of the event about the griminess of 1970s New York, doing all your own stunts and getting fanboyed by the President. Can you dig it?

When you were filming, did you know you were creating something special – something that would endure?

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“Absolutely not. We were all young actors. I think I’d done one feature film, and a couple of the other actors had done the same. For most people it was their first outing – we had no clue, we were thrilled to have a job. I would question whether Walter Hill, or Larry Gordon, or the producer Frank Marshall, who’s gone on to do so many films, had any inkling that this picture would become a cult movie that transcended generations, I don’t know how you know that unless you’re a prophet.”

When were you first aware of the film’s cult status?

“Good question. In the early to mid 1980s I had a friend who had been on vacation to Paris. When he returned he said, ‘you won’t believe this, when I was I Paris, there was a midnight screening of The Warriors and it was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all the people were dressed up as the characters. That was the first inkling. I went ‘wow, something else is happening with this movie.’”

What about the film speaks to people?

“I think it’s a compelling, simple, and many time told story, that attracts people. We all have those dreams or nightmares where we are innocent, falsely accused, and there’s an unrelenting force out there trying to take us out, and all we’re trying to do is find a place that’s safe.”

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The film was all shot on location. What was New York like in those days – was it as bleak as everyone says?

“The New York City of the mid to late 70s was very much like what you see in the film, it was much grittier than today. You look at Times Square today, post-Mayor Giuliani’s clean up of the city, it’s Disneyland! If you went to Times Square in 1977, 1978, if you veered a block either way, you would run into pimps and hookers and drug dealers. If you wandered a couple of blocks over, you were in danger, things happened to you that you didn’t wanna happen!”

Culturally there was a lot going on in New York in the late 1970s – from Studio 54 to CBGBs – did you hit up any of those spots?

“We usually finished at daylight – we started filming at dark, and they’d drop us off after the sun came up. Marcelino Sánchez, who played Rembrandt, he loved Donna Summer, he was a disco guy, he knew everybody at Studio 54. He was definitely into that scene, I was into the Eagles. I was still a Beatles guy! I’d go to some of the downtown East Village music clubs and things. Punk was just starting to make its move, it had made it earlier in the UK, and was just showing up in the States.”

Was music something you and other members of the cast bonded over?

“Well sometimes people would bring in a boombox. In the trailers we shared there was always music playing. I would plug in my Bob Marley – I had a lot of Bob Marley – and I had my Jackson Browne. ‘Running on Empty’ was my theme song for that summer.”

You bare your chest for quite a lot of the film, it’s quite a revealing costume…

“I went to the gym every day! I’d wake up about 1 in the afternoon, have lunch, head to the gym at 2-2:30 and then work out because vanity, vanity!”

Apparently Ronald Reagan once called you to say he was a fan of the film, is that correct?

“Well that’s almost correct! This was the first year I was married and my wife and I lived in a studio apartment in New York. We had a dog which needed walking several times a day. I was taking him for his final walk around the block at about nine in the evening, and I got home, and my wife said, ‘You’re not gonna believe who just called… The White House’. I think I went off with some swear word, and she said ‘they’re gonna call back in about ten minutes, you wait buddy’. Sure enough the phone rang, and it wasn’t actually President Reagan, it was his press secretary, who said “president Reagan wants you to know how much he enjoyed this past weekend’s screening of The Warriors at Camp David’. Pretty crazy, huh?”

Did you do all your own stunts?

“Absolutely. The stunt coordinator came a couple of weeks before we started principal photography, and showed us how to throw punches for the camera, and take punches, stuff like that.”

Did you ever get hurt?

“There were bumps and bruises, but no one really got hurt, apart from Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who played Mercy. In the sequence where the cop is running down the platform, and Swan takes a baseball bat and throws it and hits him in the shins, she’d stand on a mark so I wouldn’t have to worry about her any more. Well, in the first take, somehow, something happened so she wasn’t at that mark, and I’m not looking back I’m looking at the guy. I swung the bat back, and I hit her right in the eyebrow and busted it open. Furthermore, in the sequence with Fox, before he gets killed and thrown under a subway train, she fell down a flight of steps in the subway. She broke her arm and had a cast for six weeks, hence the blue jacket that she wore. She’s the one who took it on the chin for the rest of the cast.”

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