Director William Friedkin declared “To Live and Die in L.A.” to be one of his personal favorites of his career when he dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The film was being shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and it played as a double feature with “The French Connection.” But while Friedkin was scheduled to be there, he brought along two of the movie’s stars as surprise guests: William Petersen who played Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, and Darlanne Fluegel who portrayed his “girlfriend” and informant Ruth Lanier.
With “To Live and Die in L.A.,“ Friedkin worked with casting director Bob Weiner who had also worked on “The French Connection.” With this film, Friedkin didn’t want any stars and could only consider no-name actors as the budget was only $6 million. In a sense though, casting unknown actors was a plus for this film as the characters they play walk a thin line between good and evil, and having recognizable stars might affect how this came across.
Known these days for “C.S.I.,” it was a shock to realize that “To Live and Die in L.A.” was Petersen’s first lead role in a movie (he previously had a small role in Michael Mann’s “Thief“). Weiner discovered the actor when he was playing the lead in a Canadian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Petersen said he hadn’t done any movies nor did he have an agent at the time. All he knew about Friedkin was the films he directed, and they met in New York to do a scene together. But Petersen didn’t ever get around to finishing when Friedkin interrupted him to say, “That’s good enough for me. You got the part!”
From there, Petersen said he didn’t know what to do. Excited as he was for the opportunity, he was already scheduled to be in another play soon and wasn’t sure how to go about negotiating with Friedkin or the studio. It didn’t even occur to him he would be making $400 a week! So, he ended up talking with John Malkovich, who knew him from Steppenwolf, to get advice on what to do. Later, Petersen went back to Friedkin saying he wouldn’t be able to play Richard Chance due to his prior theatrical commitment. To this, Friedkin told him, “No problem. We’ll wait for you.”
Now how cool was that?! Seriously, how many other directors, let alone movie studios, would wait on an actor who is not even an established name yet? Considering the sheer charisma Petersen exudes onscreen just from one look on his face, it makes perfect sense why Friedkin waited on him before he started production.
Although he was used to doing theater more than film, Petersen said he found making “To Live and Die in L.A.” a “freeing, fun experience” and thought all movies would be exactly like it. This, of course, got a good dose of laughter from the audience as we know they are not. Despite the long hours on set, Petersen was never tired at day’s end.
In researching his role, Petersen worked with Gerald Petievich, the former Secret Service Agent who wrote the book this movie is based on, and with criminals including actual counterfeiters. This led Friedkin to tell the audience how Petievich ended up getting a counterfeiter paroled from jail just so he could create the fake money they needed. Friedkin even admitted he passed so many fake bills to where he concluded the government’s money was worthless and only paper. Some kids of the special effects supervisor were not as lucky as they ended up taking some of the fake money to buy candy, and a Treasury Agent got called on them in ten minutes flat.
Fluegel was shocked about getting a part in “To Live and Die In LA,” and she created one of the film’s most unforgettable characters. She said working with Petersen was “so easy,” and they both agreed there never was a moment between them which didn’t feel real. We always hear these stories about how actors don’t like doing sex scenes and how awkward they can get, but Fluegel said they were actually easy to do. She also made it clear neither of them actually had sex onscreen even though it looked like they did. When they worked together, everything always flowed perfectly.
But one great behind the scenes story Petersen told was when they were at the airport and Chance was chasing down John Turturro’s character of Carl Cody. This had Petersen jumping on top of the moving walkway while in pursuit, but in rehearsing it, security came over and told him and Friedkin it was against safety regulations and didn’t want him to do that again. Petersen, however, was insistent as it was easier for him to jump on top, and it worked better for the scene. So, when security was out of hearing range, Friedkin told Petersen to jump on top anyway when he said action, and that after he said cut, Friedkin would yell at him not do it again, making it look like he didn’t forget what security said previously. Once again, Friedkin does movies his way regardless of the warnings others throw at him.
Like several of William Friedkin’s movies which came out after his heyday with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” was not a big hit when first released. It was only after its debut on video and DVD when it gained a cult following which has gotten bigger and bigger over time. Seeing it on the big screen was a blast, and it deserves to be ranked alongside the best movies of Friedkin’s career. Besides, this is much more preferable to watching him pick his feet in Poughkeepsie.