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The familiar face and down-to-earth attitude of actor William Fichtner

Take a stroll with William Fichtner and you’ll see something hilarious.

People have a universal reaction to the lanky, tousle-haired actor. First there’s a flash of recognition, enhanced by a nod or greeting from the down-to-earth Fichtner. Then there is a slight furrowing of the brow, their thought so clear that it’s almost visible: “Where do I know that guy from?”

Try “The Dark Knight,” in which he played a shotgun-wielding banker in the dramatic opening scene. Or it could have been villain Butch Cavendish in “The Lone Ranger” or David “Sully” Sullivan in “The Perfect Storm.” Or it might have been his role as Sanderson in “Black Hawk Down” or his work in “Armageddon,” “Crash,” “Empire Falls” or “The Longest Yard.” And that’s just his film work. His television credits include “Crossing Lines,” “Entourage,” “Prison Break” and “The West Wing.”

Fichtner, who grew up in Cheektowaga, left the area after graduating from Maryvale High School in 1974 to go to college, first at Farmingdale State College, then Brockport. After graduation he left for New York City, where he worked “doing theater, waiting tables, bartending, everything I could do, living the life of an actor and loving it, but it is not easy.” In 1987, he was cast as Rod Landry on “As The World Turns,” then played his first movie role in Steven Soderbergh’s film, “The Underneath.”

He returns to Western New York, where three of his four sisters live – the fourth is in Greenwich, Conn. – and to attend fathers weekend at his younger son’s camp in the Berkshires.

“So outside of summers and a little bit for a winter vacation, I pretty much left in the fall of ’74,” Fichtner said during a visit to The News. “But anybody that knows me knows that I’m a Buffalo guy. … I love my hometown.”

After driving around the area with Tim Clark and Rich Wall of the Buffalo Niagara Film Office and getting a bird’s-eye view of the progress at Canalside, Fichtner said, “It’s very rare that you can go to a place and actually within a period of 12 months see noticeable change. Not only change physically but people talking about it, about the things that are happening in the city of Buffalo – I think that’s pretty exciting.”

When Fichtner looks around the region on this trip, he’s doing more than just sightseeing. He’s considering possibilities for a small independent film he co-wrote, and will produce, direct and co-star in.

Although Fichtner is committed to the project, don’t buy your popcorn just yet. “The process of making an independent film is like building a mini Eiffel Tower with Popsicle sticks – it doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not easy,” he said with a smile. “I’m still three-and-a-half miracles shy of being able to make this.”

The film actually was set in the Finger Lakes region, but Clark, Wall and others have started to change Fichtner’s mind. “It was always meant to be more in Central New York in the Finger Lakes region,” he said. “But because of the support of the film commission here and the mayor in particular, I’ve begin to look at it that this is a project that possibly close to maybe two-thirds or three-quarters of it I could shoot in this area, and I hope that is what comes to be.”

Still, Fichtner is cautious about getting people’s hopes up. “I’m a Buffalo guy in the sense that I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, and the truth is I’m not at the place right now where I’m ready to make the film. But I’m up here doing as much as I can to put the pieces of the puzzle together to hopefully make the film next year.”

The plot, he said, is “about a couple of small-town guys who have an extraordinary experience and ultimately have to do the right thing.” Unlike the big-budget movies in which he has starred, he said, “It’s a very simple little story, there’s no guns or explosions or anything like that.”

The reason for his shift to writer, producer and director, is simple, he said. “I want to tell stories. I think it’s the culmination of whatever my life is. The truth about it is, I’m 57 years old, I’ve done 40 films, a half-dozen series and probably 40 or 50 plays in my life … I’ve learned a lot of things, I find myself at this place right now, the most important thing right now is that I want to tell stories, and the first one I want to tell is this one, and I want this to be the first offshoot of the next part of my life.”

But Fichtner, who has two sons with his wife Kymberly, doesn’t plan to stop acting. Retirement, he said, “is something I’ve never even thought of. Saying, ‘I’m going to hang up my hat today and I’m retiring,’ it’s not a concept for me and it never has been. I figure when I’m 81, I’ll play 81-year-old parts, hopefully.”

His acting journey, as he describes it, has been one in which he always sought to understand the characters he plays. That means that sometimes he’s been picky about parts.

“Oftentimes I’ll read a script where I’m asked to look at one part, and I’ll say to my manager, ‘It’s not really that part, I like this other part.’ So I’m attracted to certain roles, it’s not a bad-guy role, it’s not a good-guy role, sometimes they’re both. But I’m much more interested in overall, does the piece work, and the character – trying to find a real guy, be it a good guy, bad guy, misunderstood, whatever, because then there’s something to play.”

When he was first living in New York and almost everyone he knew had already landed his or her first film role, Fichtner said, he got a call “to audition for this big movie, a big director, by one of the biggest casting directors in New York at the time.” But the role was that of a pedophile, and he told his agent, “It’s a journey for me. And I don’t want to explore that journey. I’m not afraid of it, I’m not going to take it home with me, I just don’t want to play it. I don’t like it.”

When the casting director was told that Fichtner would not try out for the part, he “completely lost it on the phone with my agent: ‘Who does he think he is?’ That casting director never saw me again for as long as I lived in New York for a film. And you know what? So be it. I don’t care.”

Fichtner landed his first movie role as a cop in “Malcolm X,” but, he said, “I got a call the night before and they said, ‘We’re not going to shoot it. We wrote it out of the script.’ So that happened a couple of times in my life. … I didn’t do my first film until I was 36 years old, that’s 15 years after I got off the bus at the Port Authority, and believe me, I wanted it to happen a lot sooner than that.”

Fichtner did play “a small part of a stage manager in the film ‘Quiz Show,’ but I never counted that,” he said. “To me, my first role was ‘The Underneath.’ ”

Although he has played plenty of unforgettable characters, Fichtner said, “I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, the next job I’m going to do, I’m going to find a character like this. It’s never really the process, and certainly not for a guy like me. I am intrigued by things really on a script-by-script basis. It’s how the rhythm of my life has been so far. Believe me, I’d like to know the next 10 things I’m going to do, like some people do.”

Although he often plays villains, his characters have depth, Fichtner said. “I do get the question sometimes, ‘Ahhh, you play these bad guys!’ Believe me, I don’t wear it as a badge of honor. I’ve certainly been offered things for really good money by my own standards that were just super-bad guys with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it, so I don’t do it. I don’t do it.

“I know actors that will absolutely take anything, no judgments, it’s just the way they live, it’s their rhythm, it’s what works for them, God bless them, that’s their journey.”

But for himself, Fichtner said, “The old expression is a jerk doesn’t think he’s a jerk, he doesn’t! It’s just how he lives his life. For me the challenge for an actor is to find out who is that person, who doesn’t think he’s that, what does he think he is? … Why does he do the things that he does? If he does them for no reason whatsoever, I’m not quite sure what I could hold on to, for me personally, I don’t know what I would do with that, and then it kicks in the fear of, well, then I’ll probably be bad.”

Fichtner said he doesn’t seek out critics’ reviews, and in fact, hasn’t even seen some of the films he’s made. “The joy is in the doing,” he said. “I have as much joy and fun preparing for a project as I do in the actual shooting of something. I like the whole journey. At the end of it, you hope that people like it, and people are going to get it, and reviewers are going to respond to it, you hope all of that is going to happen, but I can’t control it, and it isn’t going to affect my Saturday night mood when I’m having a nice dinner with my wife.”

Picking his favorite role is tough, he said. “I have enjoyed all of them. … Off the top of my head, I’m just going to throw out, experiences along with roles, ‘Lone Ranger’ has to be right up there, just an amazing experience more than anything. ‘Perfect Storm,’ ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ‘Go.’ I did a little one called ‘The Amateurs,’ that I love, love. I did a little film that nobody saw called ‘Drive Angry,’ and that’s one of my favorite characters, I played a character called ‘The Accountant.’ I had an awesome time working on that. But you could ask me that in five minutes and I’ll tell you five different things.”