Luther from ‘The Warriors’ tells all
In the late 1970s, my mom and I used to drive to New York City for the holidays. We’d take the Cross-Bronx Expressway to Utopia Parkway in Queens and I’d stare at the rows of destroyed buildings. Mayor Koch tried to clean up the area around that time and the city pasted thousands of decals of shutters, house plants, and the occasional sleeping cat over the broken windows.
Today, broken windows and arguments over the broken windows theory abound, and, once again, a mayor in NYC presides over a city in crisis. The New York of today looks something like the dying city of the 1970s, back when Ford told the city to drop dead. Boarded up stores, all-night illegal fireworks, and a shuttered Coney Island–everything old is new again.
It’s the perfect time to revisit the 1979 NYC classic, The Warriors. Directed by Walter Hill, The Warriors is Greek mythology on the subway. Gangs in bespoke costumes meet in Van Cortlandt Park to discuss a peace treaty, but the evening ends in bloodshed. The Warriors get unfairly blamed for a murder and must fight their way back to Coney Island. As they stagger off the subway, the Warriors have a final terrifying encounter with Luther and his gang, the Rogues.
Even if you’ve never seen it, you’d recognize its signature (and unscripted) line: “Warriors, come out to pla-ay!” In this edition of Making the Scene, Luther himself, the actor David Patrick Kelly, discusses that magical moment of divine inspiration. Resplendent in a WFUV Fordham radio t-shirt, Kelly FaceTimed an interview from the East Harlem apartment he shares with his wife and daughter.
The original critical reception for the Warriors was fairly damning. Roger Ebert gave it just two stars, calling it “a ballet of stylized male violence.” Others claimed it glorified gangs. Over the years, the movie gained a cult reputation as a classic. Were you surprised or hurt by the early criticism? What do you think changed?
Ebert’s quote sounds exactly like what I said about John Wick [Kelly plays the character Charlie]…I am a lifelong fan of stunt people and martial arts and they are people who are in the business of understanding the physical AND emotional cost of a life and death struggle. I was thrilled by Pauline Kael’s rave in the New Yorker which immediately blew away all the negatives. And I think there were other critics who recognized its achievement. I read something in a Catholic magazine talking about how it represented people who don’t see themselves on screen at all.
Did you shoot the famous confrontation scene in sequence? Everyone looks so exhausted that it really seems as if there’s been countless battles from the evening before.
It was in sequence, which probably led to Walter wanting more out of that final stand-off. He had his storyboard ideas and wanted these young actors to do what he said being a young director in charge of a big complicated production. I was fine with that because my physical training (dance, mime, martial arts) made me ready to work with being choreographed, even emotionally. I like to get behind the challenge of that and make it my own, so contrast the scene where Luther receives the gun to commit the assassination. That is strictly and beautifully choreographed. Then by the end of the shoot, having led this large unwieldy army through a tough shoot, Walter was ready to allow me to ‘make something up’ as he asked me to do.
There’s a mythical element to the movie, the classic separation-initiation-return for the hero. How did you envision Luther as part of this mythology?
Walter and I mentioned briefly Richard III doing whatever it takes to steal the throne. I personally was thinking a lot about the corruption and gangster-powered city of NYC at that time. I imagined Luther as an apprentice gangster. I lived in a neighborhood which was dangerous if you were not street-smart, which I quickly became. Luther’s phone calls to whoever (Walter only referred to him as the Boss) made it clear there was a higher power that Luther was trying to please…to ‘make his bones’ as the saying goes.
But I also read Xenophon’s The Anabasis and looked at the references in the Bible to Cyrus who was trying to be a uniter. I was influenced by Sartre’s Nausea, Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets, Street Corner Society by Whyte. I saw a photography show at the Whitney by Martine Barrat, who worked with gangs in the Bronx, and I think Luther’s headband came from that.
The final scene contains quite a bit of mystery and legend . The bottle clinking, the sing-song way you say “Warriors, come out to play.” I don’t see the line in the official script. Please describe exactly how this brilliant, astonishing moment happened.
It was a strong compositional impulse of Walter’s I think to make something new and revelatory happen to lead us into the final sequence. There was nothing in the script. Two gangs finally stand off and fight. Walter, Joel Silver, and Larry Gordon had seen me in WORKING on Broadway and in that I was singing and playing these lyrical Irish tinged ballads with my guitar. They cast me in the Warriors on the basis of that show where I did a funny scary monologue about killing my bosses.
So in hindsight I think it might have been Walter trying to be generous to me and show more of my range because he called me over and said, “I need more in this scene. Make something up. Sing them something.” I had been doing experimental theatre down at La Mama and working with my band at CBGB so a lyrical ballad did not come to mind. This low-level gangster who was neighbor of mine would say my name in a sing songy way and give me the creeps. So I found three little bottles and invoked Liz Swados and Harry Partch and let Luther’s fury rage.
Why do you think your song is so menacing? Do people demand to hear it when they meet you?
I think it was a monstrous expression of jealousy and rage and frustration and whatever horrible things Luther had been through to get to his position of power. And it was so crazy and free at the same time. So even though Luther is by any measure a cowardly evil person, people respond to this kind of abstract expression of absolute emotional craziness.
The Rogues slowly follow the Warriors in a memorable vehicle. Was it a hearse or just an old-fashioned big sedan? Who painted it?
The Rogues’ Death Wagon was a classic Cadillac Hearse. Unbeknownst to most viewers was the fact that there were no seats. Only Cropsey the driver had a seat. Luther and the Rogues sat on boxes or nothing. Car painter unknown.
What happens to Luther at the end?
I like that it’s left for audience to decide. Very Greek with offstage violence. But you could also spin paranoid loops that the Riffs were in on it or he was protected in some way. But Richard III is very final.
New York in 1979 looked and felt post-apocalyptic. It wasn’t too long after the infamous headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” What do you make of the current situation in NYC? Do you see any parallels from now to then?
NYC then was quite scary for so many reasons. But now is like just suspended time. It’s like Rip van Winkle. We’re all going to wake up and see this world that’s changed after these months away.
I’ve always wondered if Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ in Do the Right Thing was inspired by the dulcet tones and all-knowing DJ in Warriors, the late Lynne Thigpen. Any thoughts?
Very well could be. Lynne was beloved.
Speaking of Spike Lee, you had a fantastic role in Crooklyn (Tony Eyes).
You see that painting back there? My sister did that for Crooklyn. You can almost see it in Crooklyn. That is a fictional portrait of my mother right there, of Tony Eyes’ mother. So Spike agreed to let that be in there for a second.
Did you want to talk a little bit about Crooklyn?
You’re the only one who’s ever asked.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I think that his other films get more attention.
Tell me about your role in there and how you saw yourself, how you created that persona.
I thought it was his 400 Blows. It’s so personal for him. It was really interesting, because Sam Jackson was doing his auditions. He had seen me with John Turturro, his friend, in the CSC Theater, which is a tiny theater on 13th Street, doing Brecht, doing Arturo Ui, back in the early nineties, just when I had finished Twin Peaks, the first season of that. John was coming out big in the Coen brothers movies, Barton Fink. There was Sam Jackson, reading the other parts for him, because Sam hadn’t gone such boom by then. But so yeah, and he told me, he said, “Now, David, this was a crazy character with smelly dogs and all this kind of stuff.”
But then what I so admired about him is that his character is almost worse in that movie, the glue-sniffing bully that he plays in that. He was trying to get a good set of stability, and so I appreciated that character, because it represented this extremely repressed person and his relationship with his mother. I play the … is it Engelbert Humperdinck?” It’s Not Unusual” on the organ there, playing it. Which deeply offends the sensitive ears of the jazz musician father.
There I am by myself, and then there’s all these kids next door. It was quite healing. I came to it right after doing The Crow and the tragedy of that with Brandon Lee, so it was quite healing to come into that. It was really great. Alfre Woodard was really wonderful and Delroy Lindo. You talk about The Warriors resonating. That one really resonates in terms of the guy who’s trying to bring the peace, and he punches Tony Eyes in the face.
We were talking about sort of the post-apocalyptic feel of 1979. You’re still living there today. What’s the feeling that you’re getting now? Does it feel just as burnt out and scary or just as burnt out and something else?
Well, I’ve always been kind of a health addict and a martial arts person, and I think because of my daughter, I’ve always been optimistic, too, but because of her, I really am willing optimistic things to happen, good things to happen.
Thank you. I’m going to end the interview with that, that, shockingly, you are feeling that this is actually a moment of change, rather than sort of despair.
Yes. That’s the way I feel about it.