William "Bill" Kennedy, who died on June 10 at the age of 61, loved movies more than anyone I ever met. He had many interests, and movies were hardly the only thing we ever talked about. We also talked about books, politics, family, food, cats—you name it. I would have wanted to be his friend, even if we didn’t have movie love in common, but I probably wouldn't have met him otherwise, and I'm incredibly grateful that I did. I'm also heartbroken, because he was my best friend for over 15 years, and now he's gone.
For accuracy’s sake, I should note that I don’t think Bill necessarily considered me his best friend, but rather one of them, because he had several, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to rank relationships. Nonetheless, he had friendships that ran deeper than ours, because they went back a lot further and encompassed more significant events, from lost loves to the deaths of his parents (like me, he was an only child). While I’ve drifted away from friends over the years, Bill made fast friends, and he held on to them. It’s a remarkable feat. Having gotten the opportunity to get to know some of his closest friends, especially once his heath started to decline in 2019, I can see how lucky he was. How lucky we were.
Bill was an avid social media user. Once Covid hit, it was our primary means of communication, though we continued to exchange emails from time to time. He tended to “like” everything I posted—and probably everything other friends posted, as well. It made me feel as if there was at least one person in the world who shared—or at least appreciated—my more arcane interests, even when nobody else did.
After he was hospitalized in late April, he continued to check in on friends and relatives through Facebook and Twitter. On May 7, I tweeted that I had made a bunch of pasta, ate a bowl, took a nap, dreamed about pasta the whole time, and woke up to eat the rest, knowing that it would probably make me sleepy all over again (tryptophan and all). “I could use some,” he responded. I couldn’t think of anything to say, though I felt like I should, so I simply “liked” his tweet. It was the last time I ever heard from him. Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I’d said “I could make you some,” and then followed through with the offer. Up until late May, Bill was still eating solid food, though he needed assistance. His friend, Michelle, warned me that once he could no longer do so, he would go quickly, and in early June, that’s exactly what happened.
But Bill was also one of the funniest people I knew. He wasn’t a comedian per se. Non-professional funny people can be a drag, unless they’re really good at it. Bill didn’t go out of his way to make people laugh, it just came to him naturally, and we were amused by a lot of the same things. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than laughing with friends, and I shared a lot of laughs with Bill.
As the end was getting near, I checked his Twitter feed to see the last thing he tweeted, and I was delighted to find a joke shared with Jim Gabriel, a friend of 37 years, on May 12. Of course, it was about movies. Jim, a former Seattleite with a movie-biz background, now lives in Chicago. He and Bill never lost touch, and they enjoyed a reunion visit just a few years ago. Jim tweeted a picture of the nerdy-looking actor Arnold Stang in answer to this question from the official Letterboxd account, “Who should be the next cast member announced for Knives Out 2?” Of course, Bill would know exactly who Arnold Stang was. “Stop trying to make Arnold Stang happen, Jim,” he quipped. In a follow-up tweet, he added, “Arnold Stang's Starting to Happen is my favorite Lemonheads song” (a play on “Alison’s Starting to Happen”).
By this point, Bill’s vision and mobility were severely compromised, so reading and responding must have been incredibly difficult. He was hospitalized for much of the time between late April and late May, moving from facility to facility as his condition worsened. I wasn’t able to arrange a visit due to Covid and other concerns. We didn’t reconnect in person until May 28, but by then he was too heavily sedated to communicate clearly. Nonetheless, he was talking about movies, because of course he was.
In the pre-Covid days, whenever we would drop by The Grand Illusion, he would get a bottle of Cheerwine soda. Bill was a creature of habit. He had an annual membership, and he would get me in for free on “member mooch” nights. There were times when my finances were limited at best, and I greatly appreciated the gesture. Bill wasn’t rich, but he was financially secure. He worked at Seattle Public Library for 40 years. He loved his job, and it served his interests in every way you can imagine. The last movie we saw at The Grand Illusion was the absolutely horrifying antiwar film Come and See. I had this feeling of doom the entire time—the kid in the film was witnessing one atrocity after another, my friend was critically ill, and a deadly virus was making the rounds. The entire city shut down shortly afterward.
For my first visit to Bill once he returned home for hospice care, I tried to find a bottle of Cheerwine, but didn’t have any luck. I let him know, but I referred to it as “Cheerywine.” He was barely conscious. “It’s Cheerwine,” he corrected. He was bedridden, and I don’t think he could see me, but his voice and personality remained fully intact. I wish we could have had more meaningful conversations at the end, but it just wasn’t possible. I never told him how much he meant to me, but I think—I hope—he knew.
Bill chose not to make any public announcements about his cancer diagnosis, and friends respected that, but he dropped clues through his Facebook posts. It’s clear that he was going through his effects as he shared photos and anecdotes. Some people knew what was going on, some didn’t. From time to time, he would share details with me about his condition, but not everything. For instance, he never told me that his cancer was terminal, and nor did he tell me how much time he was given. Near as I can figure, he lived about a year longer than what his doctors estimated. He was very healthy, and that may have helped. He had a car, but he walked a lot, and he never seemed to tire. When I lived downtown, he lived on Capitol Hill. When I moved to South Lake Union, he moved to Lower Queen Anne (we got pushed or priced-out of longtime living situations). It was coincidental, not intentional, but served our purposes well as we walked up and down hills to movies, shows, and readings, talking up a storm the entire time.
Once we’d all been vaccinated and things were starting to open up, I looked forward to seeing another movie or two with Bill; maybe more. I knew his time was limited. This was before the tumor returned in April. In late December, he had sent a message informing me that his MRI came back clear. I knew the tumor would return, because our friend, Kate, a nurse, told me that that’s what happens with this kind of cancer, but at that point, I figured he might have a little more time. Bill had no interest in streaming, so it saddens me to think that he wasn’t watching movies or attending virtual film festivals, like many other locked-down movie lovers. He had a large collection, though, and he enjoyed revisiting favorites, so he may have been watching videos. He also checked out videos from the library on a regular basis.
But that was the problem, of course: Bill wasn’t like other people. It’s easy to romanticize friends, relatives, and even public figures after they’re gone, especially if they meant a great deal to you, but I’m pretty sure anyone who knew Bill would agree. It wasn’t just that he had an insatiable love for movies of every kind—no matter the genre, language, length—but he valued the theatrical experience above all. The very experience that’s been dying, that major corporations have been trying to kill: Bill resisted it with every fiber of his being. He supported The Seattle International Film Festival, The Northwest Film Forum, The Grand Illusion, and The Beacon Cinema (which he absolutely adored), in every way he possibly could. They all knew him, and they loved him, and I hope they will find ways to recognize him so that other movie lovers will know about him, too.
At his bedside, he mentioned a few theaters I’d never even heard of before, and I’ve lived in Seattle for over 30 years. He saw movies in every single one of them.
If it wasn’t for SIFF, I might never have met Bill. In 2006, I made plans to see the documentary Big City Dick, because I was familiar, by reputation, with street musician Richard Peterson, but I didn’t know much about him, other than that he was known for playing his trumpet outside the Kingdome and that he had released several records. He was a bit of a mystery to me, even if he was one of Seattle’s most recognizable figures, both then and now. I may be misremembering a few details, but I recall that I ran into or had planned to see the film with my friend, Gillian Gaar, a music writer (long before I met Gillian, I read her work religiously in The Rocket). So, I sat with Gillian and this friendly guy named Bill, who I recognized from countless screenings over the years. I realize now that I’ve neglected to mention his appearance.
Bill was a bald, compact guy who wore glasses and an ever-present, vintage-looking blazer. I assumed he was a teacher, because I’d often see him at screenings with author and UW professor Steven Shaviro, who now teaches at Wayne State in Detroit. When he wasn’t working, he’d have on some cool t-shirt he got at a music or film event. He bounced when he walked, and he tended to move quickly. If music was playing anywhere in his vicinity, I can guarantee that he was bobbing his head to the beat, probably unconsciously. That is how I first noticed him, and how I’ll always remember him: someone full of energy, who felt music in his bones, and who went to as many concerts as he did movies.
As we were chatting afterward, he said, “I grew up with Richard in Chehalis.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. As it turns out, few people knew Richard, “Dickie” to his oldest friends, as well as Bill, who would give him rides to and from Chehalis, where Bill had property, every few weeks for years on end. Filmmakers Scott Milam, Ken Harder, and Todd Pottinger, who were at the screening, did an amazing job at rounding up entertainment figures that were meaningful to Richard, like crooner Johnny Mathis. Richard was also obsessed with the theme to the Lloyd Bridges aquatic adventure series Sea Hunt, on which his teenaged sons, Jeff and Beau, would sometimes appear. Lloyd passed in 1998, so Jeff, who is currently undergoing treatment for lymphoma, showed up to represent his father.
When Richard was critically ill earlier this year, Bill put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone could contact Johnny Mathis on his behalf. He didn’t identify Richard by name, but the reference to Mathis provided a substantial clue. Our friend, Pat Thomas, a music writer and producer, answered the call, and Richard was able to connect with his hero again. He would recover, though his health remains precarious.
It wasn’t like Bill to ask for help, but his friends were there for him when he needed it. It was like Bill to ask for help for a friend at a time when his own health was declining. That was the essence of Bill Kennedy. He wasn’t famous, and yet in a way he was, and I realize now that I’ve also neglected to mention his friendship with Lynn Shelton, who passed away suddenly last May of a previously undiagnosed illness (now identified as acute myeloid leukemia). He knew her from the local theater scene, and he put me in touch with Lynn in 2008 when I mentioned that I wanted to interview her for Seattle Sound. He appears in her lovely feature-film debut, We Go Way Back, as a stand-in for Richard Hamilton Wright. When she invited him to her karaoke party at the Baranof later that year, he invited me to go with him. I was thrilled.
It’s hard to believe those days are over. We’ve lost a lot of incredible people over the past year, but I feel certain Bill won’t be forgotten. He made innumerable friends, and I doubt any of us will ever stop talking about him. So many things remind me of Bill, like the Japanese Pierrot le Fou poster over my TV or the handmade Isley Brothers postcard over my computer. I look at them daily. I can’t imagine a day will go by that I don’t think about him, and my life won’t be the same. We’ll keep his memory alive, which is hardly insignificant, but it’s no replacement for having him here. It doesn’t seem fair, but he was surrounded by love and laughter at the end. I hope he could hear it, but more importantly, I hope he could feel it.
I’ll start going to the movies again someday soon, but it’ll be hard to shake the feeling that something is missing. The movies won’t change, not intrinsically, but rather the experience of watching them with a treasured friend, because Bill never found a movie, any movie, to be a waste of time. I’m not sure I ever heard him pull out that old canard, “Well, that was two hours of my life I’ll never get back.” It was all fodder for contemplation and conversation. I may not have been as close to Bill as the friends he met in college, but I feel like we couldn’t have shared more through the films we watched together, the way they affected us, and the observations we shared with each other. We were sharing who we were, using film as the mechanism, even if we didn’t know it at the time. In that sense, I never shared more of myself with another person, and I never got to know another person as well. And what a hell of a person he was.