Rewind: May 1, 2021
THE LEGEND OF ADIRONDACK FRED
by Eloise O’Neil
Fred Sullivan was passionate about the woods and rivers in the Adirondacks. By creating, directing and producing movies, he attempted to educate and share his love and way of living in Saranac Lake.
Since he was a kid at St. Mary’s Academy in Glens Falls, movie -making was a very strong ambition for Fred. He and his friend, Bob Wood, financed their film company, Sulli-Wood Studios, from their paper route savings. Bob carried the camera, and Fred created and acted out their adventures as they roamed backyards and city parks.
For his degree thesis from Boston University’s Publishing and Communications school, the Glens Falls native, produced a documentary, titled, “Of Rivers and Men”. This 1973 film captured not only beautiful Adirondack scenery but the reasons behind environmental laws that were needed to protect the Adirondack Park. “Of Rivers and Men” was instrumental in the passage of state legislation regulating development in the Adirondack Park.
Fred and his wife, Polly, moved to Saranac Lake, a “wilderness” compared to Glens Falls and raised a family there. In 1978, Sullivan began to work on his first feature wilderness epic, “Cold River,” which was independently financed by friends, a local accountant and a retired investment banker. The movie was filmed near his home and is the story of a young boy and girl, on their own after the death of their father, stranded in the mountains in a bitterly cold winter. The experience of being an independent movie mogul had its pros & cons, as Fred would discover. Working with frozen cameras and frost-bitten feet was nothing compared to the nightmare of promoting and distributing the movie. Eventually, the film was in movie houses across the country. Although it lost 1.5 million at the box office, Fred recovered financially, somewhat, from other sources by distribution through HBO and foreign television. Critics were not kind. The Baltimore Sun described it as “the worst wilderness film of the year”.
Fred was consumed by his filmmaking ambitions. He was a man of passion and perseverance even though Polly needed money for diapers, and the station wagon needed brakes, and his dream of becoming the auteur of the Adirondacks needed more bucks.
He decided, with Polly’s reluctant blessing, to make another film … this time with less overhead. The film was about making movies and raising a family. It was about feeding the kids, changing diapers, paying bills, drinking Bud. Family, friends,and locals were the characters. Fred portrayed himself as a “wood-chuck Woody Allen”, as he moved about his crazy household and yet fantasized that he was a kind of wilderness hero, called “Adirondack Fred”, stalking the woods in a flapping loin cloth. The pull of his dreams and the reality of his family life created one of the most sophisticated and zany home movies ever made.
At first, Fred named the movie, “Sullivan’s Pavillon”, which was a real place on Glen Lake. His depiction of family life was similar to this diverse and festive summer locale. Sadly, the movie bombed in the local area but Fred was determined not to let distribution outlets ruin his efforts again. He changed the name to, “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking” and personally traveled to movie houses to show the film. It won positive reviews in the major newspapers around the country and earned a two-page spread in “People Magazine”. At the 1987 Sundance Film Festival, Fred was awarded a special recognition for “originality, independent spirit, and for doing it his own damn way”.
After his film’s success, Fred continued to write and talk movies. He was working on a sequel to the beer drinking guide when he joined Paul Smith’s College in 1992, and was instrumental with bringing four-year programs on board. As Director of Development, he was in charge of the College’s communications and fund-raising strategies. A perfect fit. Adirondack Fred was a man of hope and perseverance, a believer. And he was a very funny guy.
On April 18, 1996, while playing a pick-up basketball game at the college, Fred collapsed and died.
He was only 50 years old.
Pull up your chair, pop open a Bud, and enjoy a clip of Adirondack Fred at PBS.
Or see the movie on Vimeo