Though largely ignored by mainstream film buffs, and sorely underappreciated by trash genre devotees, William Girdler Sr. remains one of Hollywood history's most prolific directors.
Born Oct. 22, 1947 in Jefferson County, KY, William Brent Girdler's movie career dawned with the 1972 release of Asylum of Satan. His contributions to the film industry spanned six years and included nine movies, six screenplays, and several music scores. A tragic helicopter crash ended his life at the tender age of 30. Girdler died while scouting locations in the Philippines for his next film, making him a true martyr for his craft.
He's probably best known for Grizzly, a bleak Jaws knockoff starring a giant fuzzy bear. Grizzly is a true mainstay of late-night television, along with the Eco-sensitive Day of the Animals and the Tony Curtis tour de force The Manitou.
Bill Girdler hailed from a rather prominent Louisville family and his passion for cinema was cultivated at an early age. After serving in the Air Force, he formed "Studio One" with best friend and brother-in-law J. Patrick Kelly, who remained Bill's business partner throughout his career. The company initially focused on TV commercials, but it soon shifted its attention to cinematic pursuits via Asylum of Satan. The company later changed its name to "Mid-America Pictures" when Girdler's films began to reap impressive box-office receipts.
Friends and colleagues agree that Girdler's love affair with filmmaking reached obsessive proportions. Although he fostered no illusions in respect to the quality of his own films, he thrilled at seeing his efforts hit the big screen. Bill put everything he had into his movies, even when times were bleak and trying.
His body of work embraces a wide variety of genre themes, including blaxploitation, slasher, political suspense, and supernatural horror. While all of Girdler's movies are memorable, they range in quality from hypnotically mediocre to fabulously ham-handed on an Edward D. Wood scale. His films always feature a brand-name star, with a list of leading players that includes Pam Grier, Leslie Nielsen, William Marshall, and Christopher George.
Girdler's plots were simple and gimmicky, similar to Twilight Zone episodes only stretched out to feature lengths. To his credit, Girdler often based his own stories on a scrap of odd trivia or some eccentric news tidbit. When all else failed, he'd just take a huge horror hit of the time and mold it into his own unique vision of entertainment; a vision that was a bit dated even by seventies' standards. No matter what the subject or genre, Girdler's distinct approach to filmmaking is recognizable throughout all of his movies. Some insist this approach is just plain bad. Others say his approach is charming, as it is fueled by a heartfelt passion for classic filmmaking.
Friends allege that his "make 'em fast and cheap" directorial style stemmed from Girdler's premonition that he'd die by the age of 30. The morbid claim is validated by statements Girdler gave to local newspapers. Associates say Bill's preoccupation with his own death was so acute, he often made comments indicating he was in a race against time to build his film repertoire.
Girdler shot five of his nine movies on-location in his hometown of Louisville, KY, which was no small feat considering the Hollywood-centric nature of his chosen profession. Even when he was granted the opportunity to film his efforts elsewhere, he always brought his Kentucky comrades with him. It is frequently said that Girdler never forgot a friend or a favor.
Following his death, the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville dedicated a film collection in honor of William Girdler. The collection that bears his name features cinematic luminaries such as Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith. None of Girdler's own movies are included in the collection.