Oscar-award winning filmmaker Gray Frederickson loomed large in both the Oklahoma film industry and in Hollywood for decades until his passing in late 2022. Prairie Surf co-CEO Matt Payne pays tribute to what he meant to him, and by proxy, what he meant to the Oklahoma film industry community.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Gray Frederickson was the thing of legends.
He was a larger-than-life, ultra-successful and untouchable iconoclast who originated in Oklahoma City but had somehow managed to carve his way into Hollywood royalty, complete with a Beverly Hills home, an Oscar and a reputation for excellence. He’d not only won an Oscar; the Frederickson-produced “The Godfather” — according to the American Film Institute — was the third best movie of all time. Not far behind on the list were films “The Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now.” Then there was “The Outsiders,” “The Godfather III” … And the list goes on. Periodically, Gray would come to town and there would be “sightings,” and to a 12-year-old who struggled with identity and dreamed of someday telling stories for a living, the idea that someone from Oklahoma could achieve such greatness meant that maybe I could too.
In 2000, I was 21 years old and a semester away from failing out of the University of Oklahoma. When I learned that Gray Frederickson was returning to Oklahoma, not just to visit for Christmas but to teach a three-week course at Oklahoma City Community College, my heart leapt. For context, a man like Gray teaching a three-week film intensive was the sports version of a month-long basketball intensive lead by Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls or music camp with The Beatles. At best, I thought, he’d likely pop in to launch the program, and I figured that like most figureheads, he’d disappear and leave it to the teachers for the remainder of the class. That, however, was not the case.
When I entered the classroom at OCCC, I still recall seeing him at a desk in the front of the class. A room full of other film lovers and social misfits all lingered at a distance as he visited with fellow instructor Fritz Kirsch. Neither I nor any one of my fellow dreamers had ever been in such proximity to an Oscar winner. Finally, I decided to approach him. As I approached the desk and his eyes turned towards me, suddenly, I felt like Ralphie from A Christmas Story about to ask for a BB gun.
Finally I mustered strength. “I’m Matt,” I said.
He gave a big smile. There was a light in his eye. “I’m Gray.”
“Cool,” I said, tongue-tied and now awkward.
“Glad you’re here,” he said back.
“Me too,” I said.
“Okay,” said Gray before looking to his partner Fritz. “Maybe we should start?”
“Okay,” I agreed, and with that my life changed.
By the end of the day, I’d changed. I called my parents on my way home, my voice pulsing with a driving sense of purpose. By the end of the first week, my path was clear. By the end of the second week, I’d befriended Frederickson enough to ask for an internship. My future business partner Rachel Cannon had secured the same position. The workshop ended, and the following Monday, a new Matt Payne reported to my internship at Gray’s new office at Ackerman and McQueen.
As an intern, I’d walk in and Gray would smile. “Matt, my boy,” he’d say, “I’ve got a script for you to read.” Other times, he’d invite me to sit in on meetings where he’d discuss projects with ambitious Oklahoma filmmakers, and at the end of the day, he’d blow our minds with stories about Eastwood and Brando, Coppola and Spielberg. Somehow, he’d brought Hollywood to Oklahoma … Almost. As graduation rolled around, there simply wasn’t work in film, and while I’d found a new identity in film, my fate was clear. Los Angeles was where I’d have to move. Crushed, I loaded up in my car and left behind my new mentor for a decade and a half of the muck that is Hollywood.
Even in L.A., Gray made me – as he made everyone – feel important. Life as a new production assistant is rough.
One evening after a particularly miserable day as a production assistant on the show “24,” Frederickson was in town and invited me to dinner. I arrived at an Italian restaurant and there was Gray. With him was Dwight Yoakum, Bridget Fonda, Al Ruddy and Dennis Haysbert, who played President Palmer on the show “24,” where I’d just wrapped my day. When I arrived at the table of movie stars, Gray introduced me to his celebrity friends as the guy who would take over Hollywood. Never in my life had I felt so big. From then on, anytime I saw Dennis at work, he’d give me a high five and called me “Oklahoma.” To someone new to the industry, these little acknowledgements mattered so much and they happened because of Gray.
He had such a way of making you feel important. He saw each person no matter their age, gender or economic background. As my career grew, so too did the film program at Oklahoma City Community College. Every time I came home, I’d go to see Gray, excited to share with him all I’d been up to, but more and more, what excited me was how he was transforming Oklahoma film. With him, I’d visit classroom after classroom. I’d look out over them and in each of them, see a little bit of myself – dreamers whose dreams were being activated because Gray believed in them.
When I moved back to Oklahoma, I did so with a downtrodden spirit, and my first call was to Gray. Immediately, he had things for me to do. He had people for me to speak to, and when he introduced me to people, he did so with pride. He made me believe in myself again, as he’d done many years before; he had this effect on everyone.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been blessed to play a key role in the Oklahoma film industry, and what I know is this: there is no one in Oklahoma film whose life hasn’t been profoundly impacted by the work, and more so by the words of Gray Frederickson. The year before he died, Prairie Surf Media in partnership with his program at Oklahoma City Community College had won a Regents partnership award. At the ceremony I sat next to Gray. I knew he’d been sick but thought he was on the mend.
“You look great,” I said. His eyes lit up as always. “Thanks!” he said. “But the cancer’s everywhere.” My heart sank. I knew it wouldn’t be good. “How about this award? Can you believe it? What’s going on at the studio?” He asked without missing a beat. Film, his students and the state of Oklahoma. Those were his passions. Who was I to sulk?
“We landed ‘Tulsa King,’” I said, steering the conversation in a different direction. He began to glow.
“Outstanding! Is that Stallone?” He asked.
“It is,” I said.
“I used to know him! Great guy …”
Of course he did, I thought to myself, and of course that’s how you thought about him.
And with that, the ceremony began.