Movie News & Reviews

Hollywood maverick John Milius is more than mere eccentric, friends say

Writer-director John Milius will receive the Spotlight Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
Writer-director John Milius will receive the Spotlight Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Despite his affinity for guns, war and violent movies, John Milius isn’t really the eccentric character he’s often portrayed to be, say those who know him.

“He knew early on that he’d have to become a little bigger than life to get any kind of traction in Hollywood,” said filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, who worked with Milius on “Big Wednesday.” “All the Hollywood producers really think about is making money. You want to get in their sights and be considered by them, but you have to be memorable. So that’s what he did — he created his own persona.”

Milius, known for his writing contributions to “Apocalypse Now" and "Dirty Harry,” will receive the Spotlight Award at this year’s San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The writer-director, who suffered a stroke in 2010, was not available for an interview with The Tribune.

According to the 2013 documentary “Milius,” Milius wanted to enlist in the Marines and fight in Vietnam but was thwarted due to his chronic asthma. Instead, the future director studied film at USC and befriended a promising group of filmmakers that included George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

A self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist” who later helped create the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Milius gained a reputation in Hollywood for wild, unpredictable behavior — sometimes involving firearms. Those stories famously inspired the character Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski.”

“He studied war and all these military characters and samurai movies,” said friend Denny Aaberg, who wrote “Big Wednesday” with Milius.

Yet, Aaberg said, the young filmmaker was actually more of a mellow surfer than a Sobchak-esque loose cannon.

“He had a genuine soft spot underneath his façade,” he said.

When MacGillivray’s filmmaking partner, Jim Freeman, was killed in a 1976 helicopter crash, MacGillivray said Milius was one of the first to call him and offer condolences.

“He’s a really nice, gentleman kind of guy,” MacGillivray said. “He’s very caring.”

William Katt, one of the “Big Wednesday” stars, said Milius could always engage an audience.

“When John would start telling a story, you’d just have to sit back and relish everything coming out of his mouth because he was just one of the great raconteurs of our time,” Katt said. “If we were not quite ready to do the scene and hadn’t studied as much as we needed to, we’d get John to start telling a story, and we’d know we’d had a good hour so we could learn the dialogue for the next day.”

While Milius’s films are known for macho characters and action-packed plotlines, “Big Wednesday” focused more on his days as a Malibu surfer in the late 1950s and ‘60s.

“He looks at the years that he spent surfing as really kind of the heart of his life — at least that’s the way he talks about it,” MacGillivray said.

But even then, there was a bit of eccentricity.

According to Surfer Magazine’s online Encyclopedia of Surfing, Milius named his surfboards after World War II German battleships.

Surf Nite in SLO

6 p.m. March 12

Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$25, $15 students and film festival society members; $30, $20 students and society members at the door

546-3456 or

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