Michael Clifford worked on numerous Girdler movies, but his first role was as a police consultant for The Zebra Killer. He appears in the film as Waldo, a homicide investigator. At the time, Clifford was an officer in the Louisville PD, but Bill convinced him that he should take a stab at tinsel town. He did just that.
Since his tenure with Girdler, Michael served as Stephen J. Cannell's Special Effects Director, lending his talents to shows such as 21 Jump Street and Wise Guy. Michael has worked with Leslie Nielson, John Candy, John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Brian Keith, Charleton Heston, and countless other stars. Michael was also the Special Effects Director for the Robin Hood TV series. Most recently, Clifford was the Special Effects Director for USA's Attila miniseries.
Michael Clifford: I am originally from Louisville, all of my family still lives there. I joined the Police Department in 1966 and left in 1977. I've always thought it quite interesting about how Bill and I got together, and have told this story hundreds of times. I tell it every time someone asks how I went from a Policeman to a Special Effects Coordinator. So here it is:
In 1973, I was assigned to the Homicide Squad at LPD. Bill came to HQ and said that he wanted to make a movie about a Homicide Detective, and no one quite believed him. He was very young and really looked like a kid, before he grew his beard. They told him to come back at midnight and talk to the guy on late watch. That was me. This was the time that black movies like Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, and Truck Turner were popular, and Dirty Harry was out. Bill said he wanted to make a black Dirty Harry, movie but he wanted his hero to be more law abiding. He wanted his character to be more true to life and not just shoot everybody that looked at him wrong. He also wanted to know exactly what a Homicide Detective did. We talked for a couple of hours and I got a shooting run. I told him to come along and he could see what I did. After the run he ask me if I would consider being the technical advisor. I wasn't too sure about the prudence or legality of that (remember it was 1973) so I went to, then Chief of Police, John Nevin, and told him what Bill wanted to do. The Chief thought it would be a good Public Relations thing to do, so he told me to help Bill as much as much as I could. That allowed me to get real police cars, which led to me doing stunt driving on the film, and real police for the movie.
All the guys wanted to help the image of the Police as well as appear in a movie. The second or third day of shooting, Bill had hired someone from Actor's Theater to do a scene with the lead actor Austin Stoker, as he arrives at the first homicide scene in the film. The guy had one line to say and Bill just didn't like the way he said it. He asked me to say the line for him and then changed the script and had me meet Austin and describe the scene to him. The scene by the way was a multiple murder of six or seven women, just like the Richard Specht murders in Chicago. After that, every time Austin shows up at a crime scene, I'm there. I never had a script. Bill would tell me to just say whatever I thought of or what I would say if it were a real homicide.
Austin and I became good friends on the film and he would throw in lines that were not in the script, just to see what I would say. He even calls me Waldo in it because he found out my nickname in Homicide was "The Lone Waldo". Bill and I became very close friends and when he came back to do Sheba Baby, he already had a part for me. He didn't tell me until the day before, that I was to be shot in the movie while speeding down the middle of the Ohio River, in a boat. This is the film where I met Gene Grigg, Bill's Special Effects Coordinator. I say it that way because Bill almost always used the same people on his crew. The Asman Brothers were always on the show and John and I ended up sharing a house in L.A.. Loyalty was very important to Bill, and to the people he hired. Getting back to Gene, who has been my best friend since the day we met, he needed some help blowing up a houseboat. He asked Bill if he could use me and we did it. I was hooked. I always thought Policing was pretty exciting until then.
I helped Bill out with some things on Abby but didn't have a part. After that Bill called me to work on Grizzly and Day of the Animals, which were done in Georgia and California. Bill made sure I had a part in the films, but because they can "shoot you out" in a matter of days, he always got me another job on his films. I've done everything in this business except sound. In late 1976 Bill called me to do The Manitou. He convinced me that I could make a living in film, and talked me into taking a leave of absence from LPD, and moving to L.A.. He even got me a job on a George Peppard film which started in Louisiana and traveled to LA, so that I could work and be paid to make the move. After Manitou I worked in Bill's office and was with him and Avis nearly every day and night. I stayed at his house until I found a place to live.
When he started prep on Overlords he had me get a passport so that I could go to the Philippines with him on the scout. The Producers didn't see any reason for that and wouldn't pay my ticket, so he told me I would go when we started shooting. I'll never forget the night we got that phone call.
He was a great friend and one of the most talented people I have met in my career. If not for him and Gene, who I started working for when Bill died, I'm not sure where I would be today. I now live in Lithuania and have a small studio here. I have started yet one more career as a Production Manager/Producer. I owe my last 29 years to Bill.
(WG.com would like to thank Michael Clifford for sharing his wonderful story, and Mitch Gregory for telling Michael about this website.)