On Location: 'Fort Apache,' A War Zone In The Bronx

Originally published on August 24, 2011 8:03 pm

When the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, starring Paul Newman as a conflicted cop patrolling a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and drugs, came out in 1981, it was a controversial hit. Local community leaders fought with the film's producers and threatened to sue because of the way the film depicted blacks and Puerto Ricans.

Fort Apache, The Bronx opens in an empty lot full of rubble, as a graffiti-covered subway car rumbles by on an elevated track. A strung-out prostitute, played by Pam Grier, walks up to a police car where two rookie cops are sipping their morning coffee, pulls a gun, and shoots them both. After the shooting, local citizens emerge from the shadows, grabbing the badges and wallets out of the cops' pockets.

It's an over-the-top scene, but it crystallizes the way that police officers viewed the real conflicts that took over this neighborhood 30 years ago. Which makes Fort Apache, The Bronx a perfect film to revisit for "On Location," our series that considers the importance of place in American cinema.

At the time, New York City cops really did talk about the neighborhood as hostile territory. That's how the station house in the 41st Precinct earned the nickname "Fort Apache," after the 19th century U.S. cavalry outpost located on Native American land and the John Ford film that depicted the conflict between the Army and the Apaches.

Former cop Peter Tessitore, who worked at the 41st Precinct in the 1960s, remembers how the building got its name. "Our lockers were on the third floor, and somebody from across the street shot arrows through the window," Tessitore says.

Fort Apache, The Bronx is loosely based on the experiences of Tessitore and another former officer, who were the inspiration for the main character, a cop named Murphy. Played by Newman, Murphy is a tough but honest cop who cheerfully keeps order on his beat, delivers the occasional baby and flirts with a nurse at the local hospital.

The 41st Precinct earned another — not unrelated — nickname, too: Little House on the Prairie. By 1980, two-thirds of the people who lived in the precinct had fled. Hundreds of landlords resorted to setting buildings on fire to collect insurance money. Community activists who had remained in the South Bronx were not happy to see a high-profile Hollywood production arrive.

"They were in our neighborhood. This was our territory, and they were an invading force," says Gerson Borrero, who in 1980 was part of a group of local activists who called themselves the Committee Against Fort Apache. "They were here to really do us harm. Not physical. But [to] film something that was not totally true."

Borrero and his fellow activists got a copy of the script before shooting started, and they complained that most of the black and Puerto Rican characters portrayed in the film were pimps or drug addicts or worse. The committee demanded changes to the script, and threatened to sue. They organized public demonstrations.

"Some of the protesters did go a little too far," Borrero says. "And yes, there were security concerns on their part."

"It got tense," says Christopher Nowak, the art director for the film. "They started demonstrating and wanting to obstruct shooting. So we had to have security. And the police presence made it even more difficult. It was a very tense situation."

Nowak says the producers would deliberately try to keep the shooting locations secret to avoid clashes with demonstrators and other angry residents. "We had a couple of incidents where [they] got on the rooftops and threw things down at the crew," he says. "Like toilets. Shattering porcelain from six or seven stories is a pretty exciting event."

Exciting enough to make it into the film — the same thing happens in the movie, when rioters throw a toilet off the roof at cops.

The film's producer, Gill Champion, remembers things a little differently. He says reports of the protests were exaggerated. "We did change a couple of locations which we felt wouldn't be the best place to shoot at," he says. "But all in all, despite what might have come out in the press, we shot the movie on schedule, on time, made a lot of friends."

Champion says relations with the local residents were basically good. And he rejects the charge that the filmmakers were there to exploit the neighborhood:

"We were exposing something that the world hadn't seen. That there was areas like this within our country. And hopefully there was a chance for people to earn a better life somehow."

According to Champion, the production spent a lot of money in the South Bronx and hired residents to work as extras. But Nowak says there weren't enough jobs to satisfy the locals. "A movie crew, even though there are a lot of people on it, everyone has a very skilled position. And it's all unionized. And that was a very difficult situation. So we couldn't really offer them jobs," Nowak says.

In interviews at the time, Newman did seem troubled by the charges of racism leveled at the film. But he insisted the script was just as tough on the cops as it was on the pimps and drug dealers. Though the filmmakers deny that they changed the script to suit the protesters, Borrero thinks otherwise.

"You still have blacks and Latinos and Puerto Ricans being dope pushers and bad guys," Borrero says. "But we saw in the film there was some conveyance that there were white officers who were really bad, also."

The protesters and other activists tried to organize a boycott of Fort Apache, The Bronx when it opened in 1981, but despite — or perhaps because of — their attempts, the movie was a box-office success. The protesters did get one thing they wanted: At the beginning of the movie, a disclaimer flashes on the screen, acknowledging that the film doesn't deal with the law-abiding members of the community or "the individuals who are struggling to turn the Bronx around."

In the 1990s, the stone bunker that previously been home to the infamous 41st Precinct was converted into office space for police detectives. Even Borrero, standing in front of the building, has trouble recognizing it.

"I mean, this is a beautiful building," Borrero says. "It could be any government building. But it used to be an intimidating place, with police officers looking out like they were gonna be assaulted. It looked like a fortress."

Today, the once-vacant lots around what was known as Fort Apache are filled with new apartment buildings and single-family homes. It's a diverse, working-class neighborhood. If you're looking for the burned-out shell the South Bronx used to be, you'll have to rent the movie. Because you won't find it here.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. When the film "Fort Apache, The Bronx" came out in 1981, it was a hit. Paul Newman played a conflicted cop in a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and drugs. "Fort Apache" was also controversial. Local community leaders fought with the producers and threatened to sue because of the way the film depicted blacks and Puerto Ricans. As part of our series On Location, NPR's Joel Rose visits the South Bronx 30 years later.

JOEL ROSE: "Fort Apache, The Bronx" opens in an empty lot full of rubble, a graffiti-covered subway car rumbles by on an elevated track, and a strung out prostitute, played by Pam Grier, walks up to a police car where two rookie cops are still sipping their morning coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FORT APACHE, THE BRONX")

PAM GRIER: (as Charlotte) You all want to come party with me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rookie Policeman #1) No. Not now, baby.

GRIER: (as Charlotte) I got something fine for New York's finest.

MAN: (as Rookie Policeman #2) Well, we're on the job.

GRIER: (as Charlotte) (Bleep) I'm on my J-O-B, too, just like you. (Bleep) an important job. You all just take a look at this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS AND SCREAMING)

ROSE: After shooting the cops, Grier stumbles off. Local citizens emerge from the shadows, grabbing the badges and wallets out of the cops' pockets. At the time, New York City cops really did talk about the neighborhood as hostile territory. That's how the station house in the 41st Precinct earned the nickname Fort Apache.

PETER TESSITORE: You know, all our lockers were on the third floor, and somebody from across the street shot arrows through the window.

ROSE: Former cop Peter Tessitore worked at the 41st Precinct in the 1960s. The way Tessitore tells it, one of his colleagues did not take kindly to those arrows.

TESSITORE: And Gill said, you know, with a little profanity, what the (bleep) is this? You know, Fort Apache meaning John Wayne's movie with Indians, et cetera.

ROSE: The movie is loosely based on the experiences of Tessitore and another former officer. They were the inspiration for the main character, Murphy, played by Paul Newman. Murphy is a tough but honest cop who cheerfully keeps order on his beat, delivers the occasional baby and flirts with the nurse at the local hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "FORT APACHE, THE BRONX")

RACHEL TICOTIN: (as Isabella) You need a drink.

PAUL NEWMAN: (as Murphy) I need a nurse.

TICOTIN: (as Isabella) You supply the booze. I'll supply the nurse.

NEWMAN: (as Murphy) You asking me out? I get asked out by about 200 nurses every day. Why I should say yes to you?

TICOTIN: (as Isabella) Because you say yes to all the others.

ROSE: The 41st Precinct earned another nickname too: Little House on the Prairie. By 1980, two-thirds of the people who lived in the precinct had fled. Hundreds of landlords resorted to setting buildings on fire to collect the insurance money, and community activists who remained in the South Bronx were not happy to see a high-profile Hollywood production.

GERSON BORRERO: They were in our neighborhood. This was our territory, and they were an invading force. They were here to really do us harm, not physical, but rather film something that was not totally true.

ROSE: This is Gerson Borrero. In 1980, he was part of a group of local activists who called themselves the Committee Against Fort Apache. They got a copy of the script before shooting, and they complained that most of the black and Puerto Rican characters portrayed in the film were pimps or drug addicts or worse. The committee demanded changes to the script. They threatened to sue, and they organized public demonstrations against the filmmakers.

BORRERO: Some of the protesters did go a little too far. And, yes, there were security concerns on their part.

CHRISTOPHER NOWAK: It got tense.

ROSE: Christopher Nowak was the film's art director.

NOWAK: They started demonstrating and wanting to obstruct shooting, so we had to have security on. And the police presence made it even more difficult, so it was a very tense situation.

ROSE: Nowak says the producers would deliberately try to keep the shooting locations secret in order to avoid clashes with demonstrators and other angry residents.

NOWAK: We had a couple of incidents where people got on the rooftops and threw things down at the crew, like toilets. Shattering porcelain from six or seven stories is a pretty exciting event.

ROSE: The same thing actually happens in the movie, when rioters throw a toilet off the roof at the cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

ROSE: The film's producer, Gill Champion, remembers things differently. He says reports of the protesters disrupting the shoot were exaggerated.

GILL CHAMPION: We did change a couple of locations which we felt wouldn't be the best place to shoot at. But all in all, despite what might have come out in the press, we shot the movie on schedule, on time, made a lot of friends.

ROSE: Champion says relations with the local residents were basically good. And he rejects the charge that the filmmakers were there to exploit the neighborhood.

CHAMPION: We were exposing something that the world hadn't seen, that there was areas like this within our country, and that hopefully there was a chance for people to earn a better life somehow.

ROSE: Champion says the production also spent a lot of money in the South Bronx and hired neighborhood residents to work as extras. But art director Christopher Nowak says there weren't enough jobs available to satisfy the locals.

NOWAK: A movie crew, even though there's a lot of people on it, everybody has a very skilled position. And it's also all unionized, and so that was a difficult situation. So we couldn't really offer them jobs.

ROSE: In interviews at the time, Paul Newman did seem troubled by the charges of racism leveled at the film, but he insisted the script was just as tough on the cops as it was on the pimps and drug dealers. The filmmakers deny that they changed the script to suit the protesters, though Gerson Borrero thinks otherwise.

BORRERO: You still have the blacks and Latinos and Puerto Ricans being prostitute, dope peddlers, I mean, the bad guys. But we saw in the film there was some conveyance of - that there were white officers who were really bad also.

ROSE: The protesters and other activists tried to organize a boycott of "Fort Apache" when it opened in 1981, but the movie was a box office success despite or maybe in part because of their efforts. The protesters did get one thing they wanted: At the beginning of the film, a written disclaimer flashes on the screen, acknowledging that the film doesn't deal with law-abiding members of the community or, quote, "the individuals and groups who are struggling to turn the Bronx around."

BORRERO: We're right in front of the infamous 41st Precinct of the New York City Police Department...

ROSE: I met Gerson Borrero outside Fort Apache. In the 1990s, this stone bunker of a building was converted into office space for police detectives. Even Borrero had trouble recognizing it.

BORRERO: I mean, this is a beautiful building. This - I mean, it could be any government building. But it used to be an intimidating place with police officers hanging out and looking out like somehow they were going to be assaulted. It looked like a fortress.

ROSE: Today the vacant lots around Fort Apache are filled in with new apartment buildings and single-family homes. It's a diverse, working-class neighborhood. If you're looking for the burned-out shell the South Bronx used to be, you'll have to rent the movie, because you won't find it here. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.