The seminal 1979 film is currently screening in theaters across the U.S., with dates set until March 2017. One such theater is Film Forum in New York City, which hosted a revival, reuniting cast members Karen Allen, Toni Kalem and Tony Ganios, as well as the writer of the critically acclaimed novel on which the movie is based, Richard Price (Clockers, The Night Of).
“I was 22 when I started writing The Wanderers,” Price said. “The stories were true but kind of true-apocryphal. It was an entire cosmos with its heroes, its great beauties and legendary women and its brains and its doomed people. It was just a whole world.”
The world was the Bronx circa 1963, and the main characters were people Price had grown up around and the Italian-American gang that populated the neighborhood and gave the film its title.
At Film Forum, Price spoke at length about the making of the movie, which was shot on location in and around Fordham Road, the Grand Concourse and Pelham Parkway: “I remember when the movie came out. They shot in my part of the Bronx; I knew every street. I went to see it in the movie theater right in the heart of my old neighborhood where they filmed it, and it was like The Rocky Horror Show. People were lining up; they were talking back to the screen. Everybody in the movie theater was yelling out, ‘Don’t fuck with the Wongs’ before the Wongs said it. It was great; it was the ’70s. I would take every date I had, ‘C’mon see my movie. It’s premiering.’
“I remember being in line to see the movie and there was some girl in front of me. She was Italian from the neighborhood, and I said, ‘How many times did you see this movie?” and she said, ‘Six. You know they used my bedroom to shoot some scenes.’ I said, ‘That’s great.’ ‘You know, I loved this movie. I’m gonna see this movie 10 more times,’ she said. I said, ‘You know it was based on a book?’ She said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I tried to read the book but it sucked. But it’s such a great movie.’ You win some, you lose some,” Price joked.
Price may not have won the Italian girl over with his prose, but director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff), fell in love with the novel when it was brought to his attention by his teenage son. In his director’s statement about the film, Kaufman writes about how the movie made its way over to him and his wife Rose, both eventual screenwriters of the film:
“My son Peter was 14 when he read Richard Price’s book and told Rose and me to turn it into a film. The book stunned us: this Price guy was the Bronx Mark Twain! He was writing about coming of age not on the Mississippi; but in alleys, basements, football fields and back seats of cars. It was a world jammed with perils and thrills, told from the perspective of kids experiencing things for the first time—unknown, confusing things they were struggling to make sense of. It was a dream of a time that was no more, a remembrance of a teenage urban yore, an idyll filled with angst, haunted by music seared into the brain. And it was written with a fast-beating heart and oozing glandular secretions; it was painful, scary, tragic, and funny as hell.”
“I liked social realism. I wanted to write a photographic portrait of that time and place and that mentality,” Price said. “I can tell you stories all night long of the bizarro stuff that happened while filming.”
Tony Ganios, who played Perry, spoke about the fight scene in Van Cortlandt Park. “It took a whole week to shoot that scene. A lot of people really got hurt.”
“When they were shooting the recruiting scene with the Fordham Baldies,” Price recalled, “the actors were hanging out on the intersection of the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road right by Alexander’s Department Store and Loew’s Paradise, this massive Moorish movie palace. The problem with the Bronx in 1978 was there were real gangs. And they started sniffing around. These gangs were from the South Bronx and they were mainly Black and Hispanic. And they were killers. They all had names like the Chingalings, the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. These actors started getting freaked out. One actor left the set, went to a pay phone and started shrieking at his agent. ‘What did you get me into? You gotta get me out of this!’ Nothing happened, but this is life, man. You can’t beat it. God is a first-rate screenwriter.”
Irony wasn’t relegated to just the shooting of the film; fate had a hand in the movie’s release as well. Price and the cast noted that 1979 marked the release of both The Warriors and The Wanderers within six months of each other. Karen Allen explained that The Warriors earlier release had something to do with why The Wanderers wasn’t as successful during its initial run.
Kaufman was more explicit: “There had recently been violence in movie theaters, and now exhibitors were more afraid to show the film… And so it was shunned, relegated to oblivion, and released in 17 drive-ins and two theaters. Fucked.”
Thankfully, over the years the film has experienced a resurgence and achieved cult status. In his statement, Kaufman writes: “Wandering around the world The Wanderers found friends everywhere. The film caught on big-time in England, Germany, Europe, Japan, Asia; someone sent me a photo of a kid in a Cambodian refugee camp wearing a Wanderers cap. In 1982, a Wanderers fan club formed in Telluride Colorado; and they meet every year at the Telluride Film Festival wearing Wanderers jackets, singing the songs, reciting every line from the film, telling tales of their own lives, and toasting: ‘Wanderers Forever!’ I saw the film at Telluride with a thousand filmgoers and filmmakers high in the mountains under the stars, and, next to me, sitting on a blanket humming along, was the great director Zhang Yimou from China—Don’t fuck with the Wongs!”
Price affirmed the power of film: “Movies give you faces; movies give you color, visuality. Novels give you depth. It’s quite the trade-off because you could get some unforgettable stuff on the screen that you can’t find on the page.”
Much of The Wanderers visual power and unforgettable moments comes from DP Michael Chapman’s formidable cinematography (he also lensed Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull). As for the faces, one need to look no further than the poster art, adorned with the striking ensemble cast led by Ken Wahl. When Tony Ganios appears onscreen for the first time and delivers his iconic line, “Leave the kid alone,” it’s hard to fathom that this was Ganios’ first film. His uncle encouraged him to go on the audition and there were 40 actors there to read for the part of Perry. Ganios, chewing on a match, his own trademark, won the part.
Toni Kalem who plays Despie Galasso in the film, auditioned eight times over three months for the part. “Finally,” Kalem recalls, “The last time I went in, I had heard something like maybe my tits weren’t big enough. So, I wore a tube-top and a push-up bra and I said to Phil, ‘Are these fucking big enough?’”
The cast reminisced about the making of the film and, like Karen Allen, all agreed that The Wanderers was a highlight of their lives. Thirty-seven years later, they all have Kaufman to thank for careers that have endured.
Allen just directed a short based on a Carson McCullers’ short story, “A tree, a rock, a cloud.” Toni Kalem starred in and wrote episodes of The Sopranos and is in pre-production on a film starring Penelope Cruz called Layover. Tony Ganios is shopping a script called Daddy’s Girls that reunites the crew from Porky’s, a bunch of old reprobates who are forced to raise their teenage daughter’s as single parents. And Ganios has formed his own distribution company and is focused on bringing his first film to the big screen, Bronx Paradise.
As for Richard Price, The Night Of premiered this past summer on HBO, and now he’s working with David Simon (The Wire), on a new series called The Deuce about the porn industry set in Times Square.
When the lights came on after the Q&A, Tony Ganios raised his fist and yelled “Wanderers forever!” He got a standing ovation.
I guess you can go home again. MM
The Wanderers will screen at the Film Forum on December 19, 2016 with director Philip Kaufman fielding questions via Skype. Check here for other dates and venues.