Movie Man

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The cinematic life of William Wolf

By Allen Houston

William Wolf is a walking encyclopedia of film theory and history.

Whether interviewing Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin or screening the latest indie flick, Wolf, a famed film critic, president of the Drama Desk and NYU professor, has been documenting the highs and lows of the New York arts community since the 1960s.

William Wolf

His essential “Movie Preview Class” at Lincoln Center will be celebrating its 30th anniversary when it kicks off October 16 at the Walter Reade Theater. Students preview upcoming films and take part in a discussion led by the professor. Some of the films shown there prior to release include Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, Pan’s Labyrinth, La Vie en Rose and Pollock.

Wolf grew up in Bound Brook, N.J., and attended Rutgers University, where he graduated with a degree in journalism.

“I started out wanting to be a political journalist but I always had this love for film,” he said. “They changed the movies a couple of times a week at the theater in my hometown and I tried to see everything that I could.”

After college he worked for the AP in Huntington, W.Va. He quit that and moved to Paris, where he worked as a freelance writer.

“Even then, I always wanted to live in New York,” he said.

When he left Europe, Wolf moved to the Big Apple, where he started freelancing arts articles, cracking into the industry by farming out his stories to newspapers around the country.

“People love local angle stories,” he said. “So, I found the hometown paper for theater and television stars and began to target my stories to each publication.”

Reputation established, he sold general articles about the New York film and theater scene, eventually becoming film critic at CUE Magazine, bible to the entertainment industry at that time. He was critic there from 1964 to 1980, before it was purchased by New York magazine and he became a contributing editor there.

When his “Movies Preview” class started in 1980, it was billed as “where the stars meet,” bringing in stars and directors to discuss their work. Some of the actors that came to the class include Kevin Kline, Steve Martin and Dustin Hoffman.

He changed the format in recent years to showcase upcoming works.

“What was frustrating about the old format was that when a guest was there my students weren’t as vocal about what they liked or didn’t like about a work. It’s a freer discussion now.”

Over the years he has interviewed hundreds of film and theater notables. He donated 460 tapes that were gathered from those interviews to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library.

One of his favorites was with Charlie Chaplin at his home in Switzerland before he came back to the United States to receive an honorary Oscar.

“He announced in the press that he wasn’t going to do any interviews when he came to the U.S., so my wife and I went to see him. It was a shame how shabbily he was treated in the country during the McCarthy period,” Wolf said. “When we got there he was old and a little slow, but he told us ‘I’m going to America, I love America and I’m going to be shot.’”

The critic turned his love of film into two books, The Cinema and Our Century and The Marx Brothers.

Of the countless films he has viewed, he finds himself draw back to the work of Ingmar Bergman, French films of the 1930s, post-war Italian movies and of course, old Marx Brothers movies.

The West Side has been home to Wolf and his wife, Lillian, since he moved to the city more than three decades ago. That’s about the same amount of time that he’s lived in his current apartment.

“It used to be a tree house and we could see all the way to the World Trade Center, but now towers have sprung up all around and the view’s not what it used to be.”

In addition to all of this, he is finishing out a term as president of Drama Desk and is a professor at NYU, currently teaching “Cinema and Literature.” He also still reviews film and theater at www.wolfentertainmentguide.com.

Even with his massive workload he’s out on the town almost every night. A typical week might consist of reviewing Karen Akers at the Algonquin, doing a write up of Orlando, going to screenings at the New York Film Festival and attending a play Off-Broadway. All of this before the weekend.

“I’m not complaining how busy I am,” he said, laughing. “Somebody has to do it.”

For more information about the class, contact 212-352-3101 or visit www.filmlinc.com/williamwolf.

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Know any interesting East Siders?
Email profile suggestions to ahouston@manhattanmedia.com.

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