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updated: 2/14/2017 6:01 AM

Highland Park 'Fist Fight' filmmaker inspired by the late John Hughes

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  • "Fist Fight" director Richie Keen grew up In Highland Park. His first feature film comes out Friday.

    "Fist Fight" director Richie Keen grew up In Highland Park. His first feature film comes out Friday.

  • Comedian and movie director Richie Keen sometimes stays at his parents' Highland Park home where everything still looks just as it did when he attended Highland Park High School.

    Comedian and movie director Richie Keen sometimes stays at his parents' Highland Park home where everything still looks just as it did when he attended Highland Park High School.

  • Video: "Fist Fight" trailer

 

Put Richie Keen and Charlie Day together and they act like two high school kids who've skipped class.

They're old pals who've worked together many times, mostly on the FX comedy series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

The two joined comic forces to create "Fist Fight," opening at theaters Friday. It's the first feature film Keen has directed. Day stars.

"I've worked with Richie for years and I knew he had the potential to do this," Day burbled as he launched into a passionate sports metaphor praising his friend.

"I knew he was ready to get into the fight! He's a guy who's been slugging it out for years. He's been training in his gym, ready! The second he got into the ring, he threw his best punch and he knocked out the champ!"

Keen grew up in Highland Park and graduated from Highland Park High School. Day hails from New England.

So, the Suburbs to Showbiz news team had to reluctantly inform Day that Keen, being a former suburbanite, would be doing most of the heavy lifting for this profile.

A puzzled look came over Day's face, followed by an expression of relief. Keen seemed amused.

"I've always felt that I came from a very arts-forward community," Keen said.

"Every two years, the high school would cancel classes for a couple of days and they would bring in artists. That had a real impact on me. That and John Hughes, who was making all these movies in town. ... It occurred to me that the arts are a way for people to make a living."

Director Richie Keen, left, confers with stars Ice Cube and Charlie Day while making "Fist Fight." The comedy hits theaters Friday.
Director Richie Keen, left, confers with stars Ice Cube and Charlie Day while making "Fist Fight." The comedy hits theaters Friday. -

Keen, who graduated in 1992, cited two Highland Park teachers as key inspirations for his showbiz career: Scott Shallenbarger, who encouraged him to pursue comedy and acting, and the late Tim Conway (not related to Carol Burnett's TV sidekick), who told Keen he would make a fine producer or director.

The Highland Park kid grew up to become those and more.

After graduating from Northwestern University, Keen moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a standup comic and actor appearing in sitcoms and TV commercials.

He evolved into a respected coach for both acting and comedy before branching out into directing.

Keen also wrote pilot shows for CBS, Fox and NBC, making him an impressive jack of many showbiz trades.

He met "Devious Maids" and "General Hospital" star Brianna Brown through a friend. They are now planning a May wedding.

His parents still live in the Highland Park house where the comedian grew up.

"I go back home and I wake up feeling like Michael J. Fox in 'Back to the Future,'" Keen said.

"Same bedroom. Same wallpaper. It takes me a minute to realize that I'm not back in high school."

Keen's "Fist Fight" stars Day as a put-upon high school teacher who runs afoul of another, more menacing teacher (the perpetually growly Ice Cube) and gets challenged to an old-fashioned after-school slugfest to settle their differences.

"To me, I really related to 'Fist Fight' as a movie because it's the story about a guy who's an underdog," Keen said. "It's a very Chicago story about a guy who probably shouldn't win, but he's going for it."

Day, acting as Keen's interview PR wingman, agreed.

He turned to Keen. "I think you achieved your goal of making a modern-day John Hughes movie! That's an inspiring thing to see."

Keen praised the late Chicago filmmaker as being in the same ranks with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

"I think he did amazing things," Keen said of Hughes. "He spoke in a voice that was authentic and funny at the same time. Because of him, I have a dream of shooting a movie here in Chicago."

-- Dann Gire

On directing a Fremd grad in 'Teachers'

One of the many projects that Highland Park High School grad Richie Keen helped launch was the pilot for the irreverent TV Land comedy series "Teachers." It stars Caitlin Barlow, a graduate of Palatine's Fremd High School.

"I am so proud of it," Keen said of the series. "It's so hard to get a television show on the air with unknown actors. I believed in them so much. I was so proud to stick my neck out for them and help them shape that program, then watch it become successful."

You can read Barlow's Suburbs-to-Showbiz profile at bit.ly/2kyA9hL.

• Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire are looking for suburbanites in showbiz who'd make good columns. Know someone? Contact them at jsotonoff@dailyherald.com and dgire@dailyherald.com.

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