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‘Runaway’ director Andy Davis brings his first film back to the big screen

Andrew Davis lives in Santa Barbara, California, which is a beautiful place to live, with sunshine and warm breezes. He and his wife, Adrianne, have lived there and elsewhere on the West Coast after leaving his hometown of Chicago decades ago. But he’ll be the first to tell you that Chicago is in his blood, in his dreams, and in many of the movies he’s made.

He is one of the most successful directors in the industry and is most famous for directing 1993’s “The Fugitive,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and for which Tommy Lee Jones won best supporting actor.

It too was filled with our city and came alive with it. To remember? The one-armed man’s home was in Pullman. The store where Richard Kimball bought clothes was on Commercial Street on the Southeast Side. Davis was only allowed to shoot one day at the old Cook County Hospital, and so he used a school in Woodlawn to “play” that hospital. Of course, you remember the ballroom of the Chicago Hilton and Towers, City Hall, the Wrigley Building… there were so many more.

“Chicago became my cinema playground,” Davis says.

He used this effectively in films such as “Code of Silence” (1985), “Paket” (1989), “Above the Law” (1988), “Chain Reaction” (1996).

Having launched his career as an A-list filmmaker, he will be back in town later this week to talk about his debut film, 1978’s “Stony Island.” The film’s 45th anniversary and its release on cable, satellite and digital platforms by Freestyle Digital Media are being celebrated with an event at the Siskel Film Center.

After the 95-minute film screenings, I will speak on stage with Andy, his brother Richie, who stars in the film, and some other cast and crew members.

Part of the conversation will travel back in time to 1946, when Andy was born on the West Coast, the son of Nathan and Metta Davis, who met at the Chicago Repertory Group, an experimental theater company. She would become a teacher, he a pharmaceutical sales representative, and later an acclaimed actor on local stages and in Andy’s films.

The family, including Richie and his sister Jo, moved to Rogers Park for a time and then to the Southeast Side.

He was president of the YMCA photography club at age 8, was a film projectionist in grade school, played guitar in local bands, graduated from Bowen High School and was a journalism student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He worked with writer/director Haskell Wexler on 1969’s highly acclaimed “Medium Cool,” which focused in an unconventional fashion on a television news reporter deeply involved in the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention here.

He moved to San Francisco and then Los Angeles, where he worked as a cinematographer on television commercials and documentaries. When he retired home, he put together “Stone Island”.

“We raised very little money,” he says. “Actually, we were all working for nothing.”

With a budget of $300,000, the film was shot over 30 crazy days, with 12 of those days devoted to shooting live music. “Looking back at the film, I’m satisfied,” Davis says. “We were all kids then, and now I have to ask myself: ‘How did we do this?

One reason for this is the talent Davis is able to draw on; This includes young Dennis Franz in his film debut, before Franz rose to fame through film roles and TV as Detective Andy Sipowicz on the ABC television series “NYPD Blue.” The cast also included Davis’ father, the esteemed Oscar Brown Jr., a host of talented musicians, future star Rae Dawn Chong and Susanna Hoffs. Hoffs was the daughter of Davis’ co-writer and co-producer Tamar Hoffs, who would go on to form the successful rock band the Bangles.

The film tells the story of a group of young musicians trying to form a band, largely based on the life of younger brother Richie. In his three-star review, Roger Ebert called the film “a laid-back, cheerful urban movie about a group of kids who start a rock band” and wrote that it “captures the city spirit with a refreshing sarcasm.”

It holds up well, capturing a city rough around the edges, a real city. It also touches on local politics; It covers the funeral of Richard J. Daley in 1976; rain-soaked sidewalks and the kind of encouraging racial harmony Richie knew firsthand growing up as one of the few white kids in an all-black neighborhood.

When interviewed years later for Studs Terkel’s book “Race,” Richie said: “The amazing thing is that kids haven’t learned to hate yet… I’m ten, eleven, twelve years old, and I’m starting to assimilate into black culture. ”

Richie would go on to form the successful band Chicago Catz, which is still active in real life. Davis is still in the filmmaking business.

Their parents died. Their sister Jo lives in California and is healthy. Andy and Adrianne have children and grandchildren in Massachusetts and California. While he’s here, Andy will probably wander around, looking at the city and the movies that remain in his heart and mind.

“Of course, some things change,” he says. “This is no longer the city of my youth. But the memories are still there. Richie and I may be a couple of old bald men now, but we can still remember the energy and dreams we had.

“Stony Island” Nov. 17 at 8 p.m., Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; tickets are $13 at 312-846-2085 and www.siskelfilmcenter.org

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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