William Kennedy: Gentleman, Scholar, and Cinephile of Cinephiles

Bill in his natural habitat (a movie theater lobby). Photo by Cris Munson.

by Tony Kay

The passing of William Kennedy—gentleman, scholar, longtime Scarecrow patron, and one of Seattle’s most dedicated cineastes—represents an irreplaceable loss to Seattle’s film scene.

Bill’s presence during indie theater screenings was as ubiquitous as it was welcome. With his bright eyes, genial smile, professorial wardrobe, and a different book seemingly surgically attached to his hand every time I saw him, he felt (in his own humbly low-key way) damn near iconic to me. He was also my friend, and I miss him sorely.

We first met in the spring of 2011, not surprisingly in a movie theater. Over the run of that year’s Seattle International Film Festival, he would be in the audience for at least 95% of the screenings I also attended, and we gradually became friendly thanks to those chance encounters and a few mutual pals (Bill, it seems, knew everybody). Before too long, we’d bonded over a mutual love of horror movies, and an undiminished adoration for the power and sheer joy of film.

Bill boasted an impressive collection of physical media and was an enthusiastic, card-carrying Scarecrow member, but watching a film on a big screen remained the ideal viewing experience for him. And though he probably would have put his dislike more elegantly, as far as he was concerned streaming could screw itself and the horse it rode in on.

Bill didn’t talk much to me about his childhood, but we both grew up in small Washington towns (he in Chehalis, me in Spanaway). Movies provided adventure, escape, and a glimpse of the world beyond suburbia for both of us smalltown expats very early in life. That shared experience made him feel like a kindred spirit, and a kindly but incredibly insightful mentor in cinema scholarship.

Over the last decade, Bill became a cherished presence in my existence and a loyal friend. He anointed most of my film writing links with Likes on Facebook at a time when I was unsure about my own work. When the impending demolition of my 105-year-old apartment building forced me into a hasty move a few years ago, in typical Bill fashion he was literally the first person to respond to my desperate social media call for a helping hand. A few times, as I made my way home on foot from a club show or film screening, he’d pull up in his car and give me a ride home. On occasion we ended up at a bar or eatery instead, the conversation over food and drink invariably turning to cinema.

But the inside of a movie theater was where we hung out the most. When we weren’t accidentally bumping into each other at screenings, he periodically took me to several, and I occasionally returned the favor. Bill’s unpretentious, laid-back demeanor ensured that he never bragged about anything, but the more I talked to him, the more it became clear that he represented a through line comprising at least four decades of Seattle’s evolution as a movie town. He was a walking, talking archive for SIFF, having logged in more hours at the Festival than anyone I knew. And his vivid, specific accounts of significant Festival screenings since the late ‘70s were catnip to every cinephile within earshot.

Most film fans view the theatrical experience as something sacred, and that applied in spades to Bill. If Cinema is a Temple, he was one of its Shaolin Monks—gentle-natured but tireless; sage Shaolin Master and endlessly curious pupil in one endearingly avuncular package. The vastness of his film knowledge, and his incredible insight on the medium in general, inspired awe. But there was never a hint of the gatekeeper about him. He was the kind of guy who embraced grubby exploitation fare like I Drink Your Blood as readily as he did Fellini’s Amarcord. And you could bet on him being in the auditorium of a Seattle indie theater for screenings of both.

His career as a longtime cataloguer for the Seattle Public Library meant that he was surrounded by literature, film, and music (a dream job for a culture junkie like Bill). And he never hesitated to gleefully share as much of what he discovered to as many people as possible, often via social media.

All of Bill’s social media pals received his periodic “The World Meets” Facebook missives, in which he’d post a screen grab of some established actor in their (usually incredibly obscure) debut film or TV appearance. He’d also lend his curatorial genius to daily Facebook musical posts, particularly his Last Song of the Day, where he’d link an immaculately curated YouTube video of a track that, more often than not, fit right into the soundtrack of your own life at that moment. The outpouring of tributes, observances, and words of love from his myriad friends (and from every independent theater in the greater Seattle area) is heartwarming but not in the least surprising.

I’ll miss those generous moments Bill gave all of his friends online. I’ll miss his way with a story, his stealthily wry sense of humor, his smile, his incredibly fertile mind, and his genuine kindness. But most of all, I’ll miss sitting in a theater with him as we both worshipped at the Altar of FIlm.

If there’s an afterlife, here’s hoping he’s sitting in the best theater the Hereafter can fabricate, shoving popcorn in his mouth and washing it down with a cold Cheerwine soda as Giulietta Masina peers flirtatiously over her shoulder from the largest of big screens. And here’s hoping that when it’s my time, he’ll be saving an extra seat for me.


Tony Kay currently covers film and music at theSunBreak.com and ArtistHome.org. He also obsesses about the filmography of Bruno Mattei far more than is psychologically healthy. 

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