Emma Voit, a petite 12th-grader at Maryvale High School, sat attentively in the auditorium Friday afternoon as actor William Fichtner fielded questions from the cast and crew of the school's annual musical production.
Voit, cast in a lead role in the school's production of "The Little Mermaid," listened to Fichtner as he described film after film of his successful career that in part was inspired by a guidance counselor at Maryvale.
"Dream big," he told Voit and the other students. "There's absolutely no reason not to. When you start to imagine things that you would like to come your way, that's the beginning of having them come your way."
Fichtner, who graduated from Maryvale in 1974, visited the high school to accept an award for distinguished alumni. During the ceremony, the auditorium was officially dedicated to Fichtner.
Laughter came often during an hourlong session that featured Fichtner sitting on a tall chair in front of about 50- to-60 middle and high school students who were released early from classes to attend the first part of the ceremony.
"What film was your biggest challenge?" asked Charles Wysocki, a seventh-grader.
"The 'Perfect Storm,' " Fichtner answered. "We were put in creative storms on a sound stage but it was incredibly difficult physical conditions. I'm crazy cold, the water was cold and I hung on in a 100-mile-an-hour fan-made wind that was banging my head against the side of the boat."
The actor drew often from his film "Lone Ranger" while talking with the students, who appeared transfixed by the lanky actor with the down-home charm.
"I was in makeup for four (hours) every day," he said, "Everybody was in at 6 a.m., and I got there at 2:30. It was just me and Mike, the hair and makeup guy, and I couldn't stand his music."
Fichtner told the students he started out studying criminal justice at SUNY Farmingdale before transferring to SUNY Brockport. He eventually would study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he moved at age 21.
"But I really didn't audition for four to five years," he said. "I waited a lot of tables. I'm telling you, living in New York and grinding it out and trying to be an actor, there were moments along the way I thought about quitting – for about four minutes."
Fichtner landed his first role when he was 36.
As a Maryvale student in the early 70s, Fichtner excelled in wrestling, gymnastics and soccer, according to his yearbook.
On Friday, a handcrafted sign bearing Fichtner's name and made by wood shop students hung above the entryway to the auditorium. The plaque designating Fichtner distinguished alumnus carried the inscription "Proud Maryvale Graduate." Students from the school's Hospitality and Tourism Academy planned the Buffalo-themed reception that followed the question-and-answer session and ceremony.
Fichtner, who visited Maryvale after an invitation from superintendent Joseph D'Angelo, credited a high school guidance counselor at Maryvale for sparking his desire to attend college.
"I went to this school," he told the students. "I graduated from the school I have four beautiful sisters who all graduated from Maryvale. We are a Maryvale family. I walked through these halls."