Doc maker, movie/TV writer Mike Gray to speak at May 13 fund-raiser for Chicago Film Archives

Just three days before the 1968 Democratic National Convention was to convene in Chicago, a riotous Viet Nam war protest erupted at Grant Park.

Mike Gray, then a spot producer, shot 7,000 feet of film over three days that resulted in shot the provocative documentary, “American Revolution II” and changed his life.

Gray’s “Revolution” and equally important “The Death of Fred Hampton,” are part of the Chicago Film Archives collection of 5,000 16mm films.

Producer Nancy Watrous saved the collection of profound historical value being discarded by the Chicago Public Library in 2003.

Gray, Haskel Wexler and others will discuss ?60s filmmaking at the CFA fundraiser Friday, May 13 at the Cultural Center, 6-9:30 p.m. to help preserve and catalog the 60-year old collection.

Gray, a former adman and partner in The Film Group, the top spot house at the time, moved to L.A. in 1972 with “the expectation of spending two years there and moving back to Chicago,” he said.

His objective was to write “a significant screenplay. Rather than write a bunch of them, I’d write one until I got it right,” he said.

He spent the next five years on the one he got right: The screenplay was the eerily prophetic “The China Syndrome” (a meltdown so hot it would reach all the way to China). The thriller about the dangers of nuclear politics starred Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon.

“Syndrome” wended its way from Jane Fonda’s company, seeking a script about nuclear power, into the hands of Michael Douglas, whose immense success as producer of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had made him Columbia’s golden boy.

“He could do any film he wanted, and he wanted to make mine,” Gray said.

They met in Douglas’ office that formerly belonged to director Billy Wilder. “Mike was seated on a couch behind a coffee table and I was on the opposite side,” Gray recalled.

“He told me he was interested, but the script needed some rewrites. Was I amenable to changes? The script was on the coffee table and I slid it off into the waste basket as my response.”

Columbia and Fonda, who was at the peak of her career, balked at the untried Gray as director. He graciously stepped aside and James Bridges, of “The Paper Chase,” directed. Gray rewrote the script to accommodate a larger part for Fonda.

Less than two weeks after the movie’s release, Gray’s years of research on the dangers of nuclear power were confirmed by the Three Mile Island accident, which propelled “China Syndrome” into the national spotlight and growing audiences.

“Sydrome” garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay for Gray.

Gray’s career accelerated. He conceived the TV series, “Starman,” writing/producing the pilot and three episodes, and was a writer-producer on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Gray was second unit director for fellow Chicagoan director Andrew Davis on “The Fugitive,” which filmed in Chicago, and rewrote Davis’ “Chain Reaction.”

Others discussing ?60s filmmaking are The Reader’s film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, jazz musician and record producer Edward Bland, and film archivist and writer Richard Prelinger.

Tickets, $100, may be purchased by calling 773/478-3799 or info@chicagofilmarchives.org.

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