Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown loves movies.
“The only thing that rivals the movies for me would be football,” Brown told me. “Baseball, basketball, tennis, golf — I see all of those things. But the movies represent the best for me.”
And, well, the movies love him back. The politician — who served as the city’s mayor from 1996 to 2004, and speaker of the California Assembly from 1980 to 1995 — has appeared, usually as himself, in films such as “The Godfather: Part III” (1990), “George of the Jungle” (1997), “The Wedding Planner” (2001), “The Princess Diaries” (2001) and most recently the “Nash Bridges” TV movie.
Approaching his 88th birthday on Sunday, March 20, Brown doesn’t seem tired of showbiz just yet. To commemorate his milestone day, I talked by phone to Brown in his car traveling back from Sacramento about his lifelong love of film.
Q: First of all, have you gone back to movie theaters yet?
A: No, I have not. I think I’ve seen maybe three or four at most since the pandemic. I’m frankly fearful of sitting in the movie house next to people who may or may not be vaccinated, or may or may not wear a mask. So I have clearly given up the joy of my life as a result of this.
Q: At what point do you think you’d feel safe?
A: I have now figured out: I will put in (an ask) to be allowed to be seated at those handicapped spaces. (laughs) They have nothing on either side of them. I think that might work. If that works, I’ll start going back.
Q: How long have you been a movie lover?
A: All of my life. Even when I lived in Mineola, Texas, which is where I’m from. In Mineola, you’d go on Fridays and Saturdays, and it used to be a nickel. Then it was a dime, then it was a quarter. And you saw Buster Crabbe, and all those Westerns that they did, and I did that every weekend — every weekend.
Q: That’s what you were drawn to as a young person — things like Buster Crabbe, and Westerns?
A: Yes. “The Lone Ranger” … I can’t remember them now, but I knew the names of all the horses!
Q: When you did your Chronicle column, for years you used to review movies. How did that come about?
A: Well, (the Chronicle editors) started telling me that, “All we want you to do is write about what you do, who you are, who you talk to, where you go, etc.” And movies are a big deal for me. They’d ask, “Did you see movies?” Yes, I saw movies. “What did you see?” That’s how I started writing about it.
Q: By the way, did you know that when New York City’s Ed Koch stopped being mayor, he started reviewing movies on YouTube?
A: No, I didn’t know that.
Q: Is this like a mayor thing?
A: Obviously, it’s a disease! They think they’re movie critics.
Q: But you’ve actually been in movies.
A: I’ve been in several movies, and I’ve enjoyed that a lot. I always thought I could act, let’s start with that. (laughs) Some people would say, “Yeah, you were mayor and you were an act.” But I always thought I had some entertainment ability.
I couldn’t sing — they wouldn’t let me sing in the choir in church in Mineola, I could only be an usher. I couldn’t play any instrument. But acting in the movies, that started from acting in plays in high school and college and beyond.
When I got to be a legislator, I ended up appointing people to the state Film Commission. In that capacity I met people who were making movies, and with regularity they’d say, “You could do a walk-on.” I became friendly with Joan Collins, with George Hamilton, and I knew Francis (Ford Coppola) really well. I became friendly with Sam Jackson, and they were always trying to drag me in. The guy that insisted that I do this was Don Johnson. He absolutely said, “There’s a role for you.”
Q: You’re talking about the recent one in “Nash Bridges” where — spoiler alert — you’re buying pot in a marijuana store?
A: (laughs) Yeah. Did you see that?
Q: That was really funny. Have you ever turned down anything because you thought it was inappropriate?
A: I was never offered. But I clearly would not participate in any movie that involved any sexual stuff. I would not participate in any movie that killed people. The killing of people in a brutal fashion, I couldn’t pull it off.
Q: San Francisco has had other mayors — though Mayor London Breed was recently in “The Matrix: Resurrections.” But I never saw Art Agnos in a movie.
A: (laughs) I’m going to tell Art; I’m going to see him for lunch.
Q: I’ve heard about your famous lunches. But who’s your favorite person to go to the movies with?
A: You know, guys would call me up and try to go to the movies with me, and no way. I wouldn’t take anybody with me. I don’t want anyone talking to me as the movie’s talking to me.
The one person I went to the movies with, and I only did it one or two times — Herb (Caen) wanted to go to the movies with me. He knew kind of my social schedule, and he’d go to the movie and it was funny, because if he didn’t like the movie, he would leave halfway through the movie! There’s no movie that I paid for that I’m not going to see to the end, even if it’s terrible. I want my money’s worth.
Q: But sometimes you’re paying to get tortured. You realize that, right?
A: That’s right. But I’m so eager that if I’m going to criticize it, I want to do it with accuracy!