‘Saturday Night Fever’ director John Badham hasn’t forgotten his Alabama roots

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LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 08: Director John Badham speaks onstage at the screening of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. 26657_003 (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM)

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December 25 2021 12:00 am

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In a career making timeless movies and working with some of the biggest stars in the world, John Badham never forgot his Alabama roots.

For over 50 years, Badham has directed movies from “Saturday Night Fever” and “WarGames” to TV shows like “Supernatural.” But before his time in Hollywood, Badham was just another boy from Birmingham.

Growing up in ‘The Magic City’

Badham was born in the United Kingdom, where his father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. When the war ended, Badham’s family moved to Birmingham, his father’s hometown. Badham, who was 5 years old at the time, remembered the trip across the Atlantic they took in a B-17 plane.

“You know, the chairs, the seats in there, were all like beach chairs, kind of slung canvas, and it’s okay for a few minutes, but for a long term ride… (not so much),” Badham said. “But not for a kid, not for a five and a half year old.”

In Birmingham, Badham met his three adult brothers for the first time. He later had a sister, Mary, who would play Scout Finch in the film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Growing up in Mountain Brook, Badham spent his childhood taking part in theater, playing baseball, running track and working on cars. On nights out with his friends, he would frequent movie theaters and hang out at drive-ins.

“The movie theaters were a big, big place to go,” said Badham. “I know there were some drive-ins that we loved to go to on the weekends. You know, it’d be just all kinds of cars and people hanging out at these different drive-ins. It was fun as we were just getting old enough to drive and be able to get out of the house.”

‘Learning through Living’

One of Badham’s earliest milestones was in 1953, when he was accepted at Indian Springs School, a specialized school in Shelby County where students could learn at their own pace. Badham found this concept very motivating.

“(Headmaster) Dr. (Louis E.) Armstrong was a huge influence on how that school was set up and run, and using a lot of modern teaching techniques that were quite different from what you would find in the city high schools,” he said. “Ways of teaching history, ways of teaching math, the physics, chemistry, all of this. There was much more hands-on kind of teaching.”

John Badham at an Indian Springs School event in 2010 (Courtesy of Indian Springs School)

It was at Indian Springs where Badham first began to delve into entertainment, performing magic tricks and sketches during school talent shows where they used parachutes from the local army surplus store as curtains.

“I picked up on my genes (from his mother, Mary Iola Badham, who was an English actress) a love of theater and acting, and acted in plays at Indian Springs and even was doing magic for a while, and I liked the performing aspect of it,” he said.

In 1957, Badham graduated from Indian Springs and enrolled at Yale University, where he would receive a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master of fine arts. There, he was involved with the Yale Dramatic Association, where he gained a love for directing. While he also enjoyed acting, he discovered he wasn’t that good at it.

“I don’t think I’m going to be getting any leads on Broadway,” Badham said he was thinking at the time. “But this directing stuff sounds really fun.”

Badham became seriously interested in movies at Yale.

“At school, there’s always some kind of film society that’s running these great black and white movies… that were good excuses to get out of studying, ‘Oh, I think I better go see Citizen Kane or Casablanca, I need to see that again,'” he said.

‘It was tough then, it’s tough now’

After graduating from Yale, Badham went west to Los Angeles in hopes of finding his way into the entertainment business.

Badham said when he got to California, his Yale degrees weren’t particularly useful.

“That wouldn’t buy me a thing,” he said. “You get nowhere.”

The HOLLYWOOD sign on the hillside overlooking Hollywood, Ca., is shown in this 1981 file photo. (AP Photo, FILE)

At first, Badham couldn’t find work in the industry and would spend the next four or five months looking for a job. In 1964, Badham found one in the Universal Studios mailroom.

“I thought ‘This is the dumbest thing ever. You know, how did I wind up here,'” he said. “But, when they said I could come, and I was hired, I was thrilled because I had run out of money, and I know my parents were on me to come and take up, you know, a reasonable job.”

Badham worked in the mailroom for a couple of months before being asked to be a guide on a brand new Universal Studios tour. For him, the mailroom was the best place he could be at the time because it provided advancement opportunities within the industry.

Badham looking through a lens (Courtesy of John Badham)

“I mean, you could hire almost anybody to do it, but they were looking for people that had interest in the business,” he said. “You had to find your own way out and find a department that would take you on, and that was up to you. And if you’d been there for a couple of years and you didn’t do that, they would just send you away.”

Badham was eventually trained as a casting director, working with directors and producers to cast their shows. From there, Badham directed episodes of “Night Gallery” and “The Bold Ones,” even earning a Primetime Emmy nomination.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Badham said when asked how it felt to be nominated for his first major award. “They called me and they went, ‘Oh, guess what?’ I go, ‘No, that can’t be!’ So anyway, it was a real trip because that was only the second show I’d ever done.”

Badham said he wasn’t trying to get recognition. He was simply trying to do the best he could.

“I mean, it certainly does help to have something like an Emmy nomination on record, of course, but you know, nothing succeeds like good work.”

Getting the ‘Fever’

Badham’s breakthrough came after a director and producer had a disagreement over what would become “Saturday Night Fever.” John G. Avildsen, who had directed “Rocky” the year before, was originally signed on to direct the movie, but was replaced one month before filming was to begin.

“He didn’t like that first script and his producer, Robert Stigwood, loved it,” he said. “But he let John come up with another script, which John liked and Robert didn’t like. And it was all Robert’s money when it came down to it.”

John Badham and John Travolta in 1977 (Courtesy of John Badham)

Badham had met with Stigwood to work on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” but ended up getting the directing job for “Saturday Night Fever” instead. One month before filming was set to begin, actor John Travolta took Badham around Brooklyn to get him acquainted with New York.

“And even though being from Birmingham, you know, what do I know about Brooklyn? I understood the characters. I understood the people,” he said. “Yeah. The script was so good. And I mean, it was thrilling to read something that good because mostly what you read is such crap that it’s almost impossible to get through.”

Badham said filming was almost stopped after a fire was spotted outside the disco club where they were shooting. They later discovered a local mafia group was trying to extort “protection” money from the crew.

“And then later in the day, this big old fashioned ’57 Cadillac showed up and these enormous guys got out and went in and met with the producer and their opening line was, ‘Heard you boys had a little barbecue here last night.’ I said, ‘Well, what did they want?’ ‘They wanted money, of course,'” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my god, we’re a low budget picture, how much they want?’ ‘$3,500’ I said, ‘What? That’s all?’ You see, these guys were smart. They knew what to ask for. If they’d asked for $10,000, we would have been squawking like hell, but you know, you go ‘$3,500’… Here, take it.”

John Travolta dances in a disco scene in the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever.” (AP Photo/HO)

A piece of Birmingham ended up making its way into “Saturday Night Fever.” Growing up, Badham’s parents would often take him to The Club on Red Mountain, where there was a dance floor with colored lights underneath. Trying to make the floor in the film’s dance club stand out, Badham got the set designer to recreate The Club’s floor. And the rest is history.

“So if you go up to The Club right now, you’ll find the poster somewhere near the lobby for ‘Saturday Night Fever’ with the very floor nicely featured in it,” he said.

“Saturday Night Fever” became an international success, earning $237 million worldwide and making Travolta a star. The film was later selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

“I mean, we were a very low budget picture and it was very, very raw and kind of quasi-documentary like, you know, and I don’t think any of us thought of it and what it became. It was quite a surprise,” he said. “I think the producer, Robert Stigwood, always believed in it and thought it would be big, but I thought we were making, you know, a really nice, interesting movie.”

A different world

To Badham, directing is about telling a story in the most exciting and interesting way you can think of, as well as collaborating with your crew as creative partners.

“The actors become your creative partner, the DP (director of photography), even the sound mixer, you know, you’re constantly conferring with all of these people,” he said. “You know, it’s a cliché that film is collaboration, but it’s a true cliché.”

John Badham (Courtesy of John Badham)

Badham enjoys that same collaboration at Chapman University, where he teaches film.

“You know, I’ve got ideas of mine with the way I work things, and my students often will have totally different ideas. And don’t, you know, get it. But I see what they’re reaching for and what they’re trying to do. And, I learned from that,” said Badham. “So it’s fun to be able to keep, you know, sharing and not just dogmatically passing along the way. I think it works for me because I know there’s often hundreds of ways to do something.”

For Badham, today’s film world is very different than the one he came up in with more movies being streamed online than screened in the theater.

“It’s been going that way for a long time, even way before the pandemic. That, you know, the barrier… the Great Wall of China that existed between television and movies has been slowly disassembled to now, where it almost doesn’t exist at all.”

Ultimately, Badham believes this trend will be harmful to theaters.

“Streaming has gotten a stranglehold on the movie business and it’s going to be tough to keep those theaters open,” he said. “They’re going to be disappearing, you know, at an even greater rate.”

Keeping close to home

Badham still comes back to Birmingham, where he has family. He also still has ties to Indian Springs School. From 1982 to 2003, Badham served on the school’s Board of Governors. In 1999, the school’s theater was named in his honor.

Plaque at John M. Badham Theater (Courtesy of Indian Springs School)

“I was very honored to have them do that,” he said. “I had worked with the architect on the design of the theater, without knowing that the Board of Governors was going to name it that.”

Badham also set up the General Henry Badham Scholarship program with the intention of giving minority students the opportunity to attend the school and be paid for.

For Badham, his connection to Indian Springs is something that will eternally be a part of him.

“That’s something that I enjoy being able to be around and visit and have a part in. I was on the Board of Governors for, oh gosh, almost 20 years, you know, I have a very strong feeling in my heart for that school.”

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