Character actors are the blue collar performers of the acting world. While leads get all the glory, it’s the character actor that can sometimes toil in obscurity, but if they work enough, they can be known to viewers as a recognizable face whose name isn’t readily apparent. So it goes with William Fichtner. The Buffalo native and Farmingdale College alum is currently playing Adam Janikowski, a wheelchair-bound ex-stuntman married to Allison Janney’s Bonnie Plunkett on the CBS hit sitcom Mom. What started out as a guest shot turned into a recurring role that’s going into Fichtner’s fourth season.
“I went on Mom four years ago,” Fichtner recalled. “I was supposed to do a little guest episode arc and the show reached out to me. They said they were really liking it and I said I was really liking it too. This is my fourth full-time year here. It’s been quite a ride.”
Fichtner’s career to this point has found him appearing in numerous big budget films ranging from Heat, Contact and Black Hawk Down to The Dark Knight, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as being a series regular in Fox’s Prison Break and HBO’s Entourage. For the journey he’s traveled so far, the rabid Buffalo sports fan had all intentions of going into the criminal justice field. Acting wasn’t even on his radar. That is, until he was invited to tag along with a friend to go see a live theater production.
“When I was at Farmingdale College, I went with a good friend of mine to see a play in New York. I was working on my lovely criminal justice degree and could care less about anything to do with theater—ever,” he said. “I went to see this Broadway show called I Love My Wife at the Music Box Theater. I’ll never forget it. I was absolutely mesmerized and thought it was the most magical thing I ever saw in my whole life. I still remember the people in the cast. James Naughton and an actor who passed away years ago named Lenny Baker. I actually ran into James Naughton when I was doing a play in Williamstown. He was there and I had a chance to meet him. It was a powerful thing.”
And while Fichtner earned his associate’s degree in criminal justice at Farmingdale and notched his Bachelor’s degree in the same major at SUNY Brockport, an improv class he took to fulfill an arts requirement helped lure him down a creative path.
“I had a teacher named Sally Rubin and she was the improv teacher. I loved her and the class was a lot of fun. I’d never done anything like this in my entire life. A month and a half into the semester, Sally talked to me after class and said, ‘I don’t say this often. I watch you out there and I really think you should do this.’ It was so out of the blue for me to hear that,” he recalled. “I took some of the acting classes there, still not really thinking about shifting gears and going in a different direction. When I came close to graduation at the end of senior year, my then-girlfriend gave me a paperback book called How To Be a Working Actor. I read that book about 10 times throughout the summer after I graduated. I took the police exam that summer in Buffalo. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I wrote to the Academy of Dramatic Arts and signed up for a regional audition in Syracuse. I was nervous as anybody could ever be. I got a letter two or three years later that said I’d been accepted to the Academy of Dramatic Arts. I grew up with my mom and four sisters and I went to my mom and told her that I was going to do this and go to New York.”
Fichtner sold his truck to pay for school, headed down to New York and lived with an aunt in Astoria, waited tables and worked on his craft.
“I did what everybody does who wants to do this did—you threw yourself into it,” Fichtner explained. “It’s a bit different than it even is now. That was before the age of information and everybody looking for their 15 minutes of fame. I just wanted to be good. I attribute that to being a Buffalo trait. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Go get good and see what happens.”
The hard work paid off for Fichtner who also got to fulfill a dream by being the director, co-writer, producer and lead of Cold Brook, a 2019 independent film that was a decade-plus in the making, a love letter to his hometown of Buffalo and a chance to work on a film with two of his best friends—actors Kim Coates and Cain DeVore.
“This was something that was written for a couple of best friends by a couple of best friends,” Fichtner explained. “It’s the trust Cain and Bill put in each other to take this journey, not knowing if we could really do this, get through it all and never give up.”
Shot on location in Buffalo and other Western New York locales, the film featured roles filled by a lot of local talent who weren’t necessarily actors. This project not only proved to be the highlight of Fichtner’s time in the movie industry up to this point, but further deepened the love he has for his hometown.
“I’ve said it a million times. You can take me out of Buffalo, but you can’t take the Buffalo out of me. I love my hometown. They’re super supportive—I love it,” Fichtner said with a grin. “All cities have a name for them—the Windy City, the Queen City. Buffalo is the City of Good Neighbors. I could not have made my film without what that expression means. The people in Buffalo stepped up to the plate for me and came out to help us when we really needed it.”