The successful movie director Andrew Davis — whom everyone calls Andy — spent more than two summer months back where he came from, which is Chicago, doing something he had never done here or elsewhere, which was hugging and squeezing and kissing his first grandchild.
This tiny girl, whose name is Edith — whom everybody called Edie — will one day get to know the city in which she was born, and one powerful way she will be able to do that will be to watch the movies her grandfather has made here.
Davis has, almost without argument, done more than any other movie director to give Chicago to the world in films such as “Stony Island” (1978), “Code of Silence” (1985), “The Package” (1989), “Above the Law” (1988), “The Fugitive” (1993) and “Chain Reaction” (1996).
There have been other films — among them “Collateral Damage (2002), “Holes” (2003), “The Guardian” (2006) — but his Chicago movies are distinguished by their lack visual cliches, an understanding of the city’s neighborhoods and indeed its DNA.
Whenever he comes back home, the city turns into a virtual and personal movie set. There on the Michigan Avenue Bridge or at the old U.S Steel mills, he can see Keanu Reeves on the run in “Chain Reaction.” In the former Armour mansion, now part of Lake Forest Academy, he sees the German chateau it became for “The Package,” just as Pulaski Woods in Willow Springs is for him Germany’s Black Forest in that same film.
And visual echoes of “The Fugitive” are everywhere: the one-armed man’s house in Pullman; the store on Commercial Avenue on the Southeast Side, where Richard Kimble bought clothes; the former Cook County Hospital, where Davis was only allowed to film for one day, and the school in Woodlawn that later “played” Cook County Hospital; the ballroom of the Chicago Hilton and Towers where the film’s climatic scenes take place; City Hall; the Wrigley Building; and on and on.
And then there is the “L,” which has appeared in more than one of his films. “Yes,” Davis says. “I know that’s kind of become a cliche in Hollywood films and TV shows, but I will proudly claim it as my cliche.”
He was born in 1946 on the West Side, spent his early childhood in Rogers Park and then moved to the racially diverse and racially tense Southeast Side. He graduated from Bowen High School.
His parents were Nathan and Metta Davis, who met when they were young and active in the Chicago Repertory Group, an experimental-theater company with a left-wing affinity that performed in support of civil rights, labor unions and in the cause of world peace. She would go on to become a schoolteacher and he a pharmaceutical sales representative. But they ran with a creative crowd.
“I remember as a kid meeting Studs Terkel, Pete Seeger,” says Davis. “From an early age I like to think I was socially aware and taught to care about other people, all people.”
He was president of his YMCA photographic club at age 8, a grammar school movie projectionist, played guitar in local bands and was a journalism student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He worked with writer/director Haskell Wexler on “Medium Cool,” that highly acclaimed (the late Roger Ebert called it a “well-crafted masterpiece”) 1969 film that in compellingly unconventional fashion focused on a television news reporter who gets deeply involved in the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention here.
Davis then moved to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles, where he worked successfully as a director of photography on television commercials and documentaries.
He made his directorial debut in 1978 with the critically acclaimed independent musical “Stony Island,” which he also co-wrote and produced.
It is largely based on the youthful adventures of his younger brother, Richie, who also stars in the film and is still making music with his rhythm and blues band, the Chicago Catz (the brothers have a sister named Jo). In his three-star review, Ebert called it “an easy-going, cheerful city movie about a bunch of kids who start a rock band” and wrote that it “captures a city spirit, with a certain refreshing cynicism.”
The other movies followed, boosting Davis onto the industry’s A-list of directors and allowing him to shoot his movies in Chicago, where he would employ local actors and crew, many of them longtime pals.
He also cast his mother and father in his films. His dad had turned seriously to acting in his 60s and over the next decades fashioned a successful and admired career in film and on stage. (Former Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen said, “He was a small, wiry man, but he made his presence known on the stage. You could always count on Nathan to come through with a good performance.” Little Edie will never know them (Nathan died in 2008, Metta two years later) but she will likely get to know some of her grandfather’s childhood friends, especially the five grammar school buddies with whom he gets together once a year at various places around the country.
“I saw some of them here and a lot of other old friends and met some new ones, some great writers, artists, musicians,” says Davis. “I saw some exciting theater and ate some great food.”
From August through October, Davis and his wife, Adrianne, lived in Ukrainian Village, from which they were able to walk to see baby Edie and her parents, Gena and Alex. (Andy’s son, Julian, is a doctor and lives with his wife in California.)
Now he is back in Santa Barbara, where he and his wife have lived since 1984 and where he runs his Chicago Pacific Entertainment group. He once contemplated making a film version of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 Chicago meat-packing expose, “The Jungle.” Now he is busy with a number of projects, including a political eco-thriller; a multipart documentary series focused on the possibilities for America’s energy future; and what he calls “a modern retelling of ‘Treasure Island,’ set in post-Katrina Louisiana.”
It’s unlikely that Chicago will be the setting for any of those projects, but one never knows.
“I love Chicago and I know Chicago,” he says. “I did a lot of bike riding while I was there, and one of the things I loved about that was riding along the lakefront and seeing people, people of every color, race and religion all mixed peacefully together.
“Now I know what else is going on in other parts of the city, and it is depressing to think about all of that, the crime and the killing. But there is always hope.”
Asked what was his favorite thing on his latest trip back home, he hesitates not a second before saying, “You should see my granddaughter smile.”
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