The Bronx on the big—and small—screen

Bronx Ink takes a look at how the borough’s tough iconic image has penetrated pop culture through the years, from movies about gangs, like “A Bronx Tale,” to the wise guy voice of Bugs Bunny.

By Olivia Damavandi

Off the top of your head, you can probably list at least three movies or television series that have been filmed in Manhattan. But quite a few have used the Bronx as their backdrop—probably more than you think. The borough’s trademark characteristics include its tough neighborhoods and its accent, used most notably in the voice of Bugs Bunny, both of which are well known around the world.

Some Bronx natives say the widespread urban decay in the Bronx in the early 1980s made it an idea production setting for several crime dramas. Fires ripped throughout the borough in the 1970s, devastating its infrastructure and causing a plummet in its population. At that point, the Bronx became an international image of urban decay and social chaos.

“Most of the movies set in the Bronx portray it as dangerous,” Bronx native Bernard L. Stein, a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said. “That’s a popular image of the borough: The Bronx is the ultimate example of urban disorder and decay on the world.”

Stein says the media has helped seal that image in the minds of people all over the globe.

“I had some Dutch students in my class visiting and I asked them what they thought of the Bronx and the answer was dirty rough and dangerous.”

He also recalls the last time he visited a post office in France and an employee watched him fill out his address.

“A guy saw me writing Bronx and he said, ‘You are not afraid to live in the Bronx?’”

Here’s a list of movies, some better known than others, which have used the Bronx as their backdrops.

Marty (1955)

This four-time Oscar winner stars Ernest Borgnine as the title role as a lonely and lovelorn Bronx butcher.

The Wanderers (1979)

This film, based on the novel with the same title by Richard Price, is about a group of youths growing up in the gang-filled Bronx during the 1960s. The film was shot in several Bronx neighborhoods as well as the armed forces recruiting center on the Fordham Road overpass above the Grand Concourse, and Krum’s ice cream parlor (a then-landmark) located on the Grand Concourse.

The Warriors (1979)

The gang meeting scene in this movie is widely believed to be shot in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, but it was actually shot in Riverside Park. In 2005 this film was made into a video game that featured levels called Pelham, Tremont and Gunhill, named after streets and neighborhoods in the Bronx.

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

Starring Paul Newman, this movie, titled after the nickname for the 41st precinct and filmed on location in South Bronx, depicts the area as extremely dilapidated and gritty.

“Newman and the cast promised that at beginning of the movie they would have disclaimer saying that not everywhere in the Bronx is like what is depicted in the movie,” Bronx historian and author Lloyd Ultan said. “But the movie was so shocking that I doubt anyone remembered the disclaimer.”

Wolfen (1981)

The urban-decayed South Bronx was home to the werewolf type creatures in this horror movie, based on the 1978 novel “The Wolfen” by Whitley Strieber. Many scenes were shot at the intersection of Louis Nine Boulevard and Boston Road. The church in the opening scene of the movie was located at the intersection of East 172nd and Seabury Place. The New York Times reported that the church was built (and burned) especially for the film. Today, this community contains mostly suburban-style privately owned houses.

True Love (1989)

Bronx native Nancy Savoca’s “True Love” is the realistic love story of an Italian-American couple that lives in the Bronx before they get married. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival.

Awakenings (1990)

Nominated for several Oscars, this film, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, is based on psychiatric patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx in 1973.

A Bronx Tale (1993)

This story, set in the 1960s, is about an Italian father (Robert De Niro) who becomes worried when a local gangster befriends his son.

I Like It Like That (1994)

This comedy-drama tells the story of a young Puerto Rican couple’s tumultuous relationship in poverty-stricken South Bronx.

Summer of Sam (1999)

Directed and produced by Spike Lee, this crime-drama is based on the Son of Sam serial murders. It was filmed mostly in the Country Club, Morris Park and Throggs Neck sections of the Bronx. Marie’s Beauty Lounge, the salon where Vincent works, is a real salon located on Morris Park Avenue, between Williamsbridge Road and Bronxdale Avenue.

Finding Forrester (2000)

Bronx housing projects from the 1990s were used as stock footage for different segments of this film. It stars Sean Connery and Rob Brown, who plays a 16-year-old gifted basketball player and aspiring writer from the Bronx.

Knights of the South Bronx (2005)

This television movie tells the true story of teacher David MacEnulty (played by Ted Danson) who taught under privileged, inner-city children at Bronx Community Elementary School 70 in South Bronx to play chess at competition level, eventually winning New York City and the New York State Chess Championships.

Doughboys (2008)

A family bakery established in 1921 is the fixture in the Bronx neighborhood of Morris Park, where this movie takes place. It is run by two brothers, Frank and Lou, who are in danger of losing the bakery due to Lou’s gambling problem.

Television Shows and Cartoon Characters

Becker (1998-2004)

This CBS television sitcom portrays the everyday life of a small businessman in the Bronx. It centers on the life of Dr. John Becker, played by Ted Danson, who runs a small practice and serves run-down parts of the Bronx.

Bugs Bunny

Mel Blanc, who created the voice of Bugs along with those of several other Looney Tunes characters, appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in the late 80s and revealed where the famous wise-cracking bunny’s accent originated.

“They show me a picture of the character, and then they show me a storyboard which shows what the character is going to do in the cartoon. From this I have to create the voice,” he responded. “Like, Bugs. They said was a ‘tough little stinker.’ So I thought, ‘Which is the toughest voice in this country? The Brooklyn or the Bronx?’ [speaking in Bugs Bunny voice] So I, uh, put the two of them together, and that’s how I got the voice of Bugs, doc!”

Editors note: The story previously reported in error that that the gang confab scene in the Warriors was shot in Van Cortlandt Park. It was actually shot in Riverside Park in Manhattan.

2 Responses to “The Bronx on the big—and small—screen”

  1. avatar Ian Thomson says:

    Nice to see you’re keeping up the good work on the site from last year!

    The gang meeting in The Warriors, though supposedly set in Van Cortlandt Park, was actually filmed in Riverside Park just north of 96th Street. But Woodlawn Cemetery was used for the next scene when the gang regroups.

  2. avatar Lisa says:

    Great post! I’ll definitely have to do a movie night with these.


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