This John Wick is not a hitman

Keanu character's namesake is a Madison man

The blame — no, let’s say the credit — goes to Keanu Reeves.

In early 2013, the star of “The Matrix” movies read a script called “Scorn” and liked it enough that he wanted to play the lead character, a retired hitman who comes out of retirement after some bad guys steal his car and kill his dog.

This was great news for the script’s author, Derek Kolstad, a Madison Edgewood High School graduate who moved to California at 24 to write screenplays.

Having Keanu Reeves “attached” — as they say in the movie business — to a script means the movie will likely get made. Reeves invited Kolstad to his home in the Hollywood hills to talk about the script. Pre-production progressed. One thing Reeves wanted — and, Reeves being Reeves, he got what he wanted — was for the title of the movie to be changed to the name of his character, “John Wick.”

As Kolstad told me five years ago, “Keanu liked the name so much.”

On May 8, 2013, Kolstad sent an email to his grandfather, back in the Madison area: “I thought you’d get a kick out of the news that a screenplay I sold entitled ‘John Wick’ got the green light and goes into production this September. And no, the character is nothing like you. Unless you secretly happen to be a retired hitman.”

Kolstad’s grandfather is John Wick, who founded Wick Building Systems in Mazomanie 65 years ago.

I’ve interviewed Kolstad a couple of times since the first “John Wick” hit. He’s friendly, unpretentious and clearly talented. The first film, a sleeper box office smash, has spawned two Kolstad-written sequels, the latest of which, “John Wick 3 — Parabellum,” opened in May.

But I hadn’t checked in with John Wick, so when John sent me a note recently commenting on the astonishing box office success of “John Wick 3” — $276 million worldwide as of last week according to Forbes — I took the opportunity to ask for an interview. Among other things I was curious how he felt about the reflected celebrity from the movies.

Wick is 93 now, with poor enough hearing that he asked if we could have our chat via email. The hearing issue has also prevented Wick from seeing the films named after him. He’s seen the trailers.

He says he’s had great fun with what he calls his “15 minutes of fame.” Wick has been asked to sign several DVDs of the films and always obliges. A waiter seeing the name on a credit card will mention the movies and then drop his jaw on hearing the man sitting in front of him was the inspiration for the films’ titles.

Even Madison area acquaintances of Wick’s will point out the “coincidence” of the films’ titles and then be surprised to learn it’s a connection, not a coincidence, after Wick explains that screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s mom is John’s daughter, Jane Wick Kolstad.

Family is important to John Wick. His wife, Helen, died in 2016 after nearly 70 years of marriage. “Our family,” John says, “has grown to 57 with children, spouses, grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.”

John and Helen met as freshmen on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus in November 1944. John grew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin, 20 miles south of Superior. With an education in civil engineering and finance, John farmed for a time and then started his construction business. The first Wick building went up on the Mel Bickford farm in Prairie du Sac in 1955.

“One son and two grandsons still work in Wick Buildings,” John says, “while two sons and I are retired but active in the business and community.”

He recalled the day he met Helen, a Wednesday evening, Nov. 1, 1944.

“I was in my sailor blues,” John says, a Navy cadet with a free night due to his participation in the choir. Helen was a nursing student from Neenah.

It was in the UW Memorial Union’s Paul Bunyan Room, near the door, that John and Helen met.

“Nearly 75 years later,” John said, “this Father’s Day, some of our grandchildren organized a family luncheon in the unchanged room.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.        

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