Zanita MacMillan was the most beautiful girl in the sixth grade. Like most of the other boys on the playground, I had a crush on her. Zanita would visit me in my dreams and my preadolescent fantasies. Eventually she showed up as the heroine in my recurring Cold War nightmare. The nightmare always ended with my head cradled in Zanita’s lap, a thin trickle of blood at the corner of my mouth, and hordes of North Korean Communists replete with long winter jackets, combat boots, and army-issue hats, earflaps up, emblazoned with a single red star in the center, overrunning the playground. In the nightmare, I had fought to the end and was wounded and dying. The enemy soldiers swarmed over the school fences, commandeered the elementary school rooftops, and slowly advanced on Zanita and me as we huddled against the handball court. This was either the product of too many war movies or too many drop-and-cover drills. It recurred for years. And years. And years.
STEPHANIE WAS THE BELLE OF THE BALL, the most popular girl in my junior high school. She was pretty, and sweet, and I had a tiny bit of a crush on her, so when I found out she was involved with a semiprofessional children’s theater in the San Fernando Valley called the Teenage Drama Workshop, I was intrigued. If acting was cool to the cutest eighth-grade girl in the Valley, that was good enough for me, so when she invited me to check out a show, I couldn’t refuse.
Turned out this Teenage Drama Workshop was a big deal, more than just some rinky-dink community theater, and featured child actors from all over the country, some of whom ultimately became professionals. The first time I went to see Stephanie perform, for instance, I was struck dumb by her young, brunette costar, Sharon Hugueny. Sharon, who, come the early 1960s, became a teen heartthrob and appeared in films and on television with the likes of Troy Donahue, Sandra Dee, and Peter Fonda, was a knockout, and I was smitten. If I could meet girls like Stephanie and Sharon while hanging around this theater workshop, well, the stage sounded like the place to be.
The following summer, I offered the Workshop my services, such as they were; having never acted before, I figured I’d start out at the bottom of the totem pole, maybe work as an usher, or a behind-the-scenes, backstage helper. Although they didn’t need me to do the grunt work, they did let me audition. As it turned out, I landed most of the male leads. I’d never taken a single acting class, and there I was, in the Valley, fronting an entire cast, getting boiled as Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, and experiencing for the first time the application of special effects makeup as Pinocchio. (Who knew this would be the first of thousands of makeup sessions I would endure over the years?) However, Pinocchio’s elongated nose was far easier to apply, not to mention it was infinitely less itchy than Freddy Krueger’s prolonged makeup process.
I went to the Workshop hoping to meet girls, and despite having zero stage experience, I won role after role after role. But I shouldn’t have been surprised that I took to it so quickly. Where I grew up, movies and movie people were everywhere; we’d even see Clark Gable in the local grocery store. As a kid I stood transfixed, watching cowboy stuntmen do horse falls on the RKO backlot behind my house. My uncles were television editors and allowed me to visit the sets of the hit shows they were working on. It was, as they say, in my blood.
MY MOM AND DAD weren’t stage parents by any means; they themselves had nothing to do with the film industry. My father, Kent, was an executive at Lockheed Aircraft; it wasn’t the most glamorous job in California, but he loved it. Before Lockheed, my father had worked for Hughes Aircraft. One morning, well before the sun had even risen, Dad went to work at Burbank Airfield. One of the hangar doors was wide-open, and parked in front of the hangar was a luxurious roadster. The car door had been left open, so Dad glanced in and was treated to a view of a gorgeous woman in a cocktail dress, curled up in the back, happily snoring away. Nonplussed, he walked into the hangar and there was Howard Hughes, one of the richest men in the world, sitting in the cockpit of one of his planes messing around with the wing-flap controls, a goofy smile plastered on his face, looking like a little kid playing with a new toy. (Personally, if I were Howard, I’d have been more interested in messing around with the girl in the limo, but that’s just me.)
My mother, Janis, was a stay-at-home mom, but she’d previously led quite the adventurous life. She met Dad in Rio de Janeiro during World War II while they were both teaching the Brazilian air force how to fly their new aircraft. Mom grew up in the same neighborhood with the Little Rascals and King Kong’s girlfriend, Fay Wray, and roomed with future film starlets in college. She wasn’t in the movie industry, but she was definitely surrounded by it.
Mom loved good books, Dad loved jazz, and they both loved going to the movies, exploring the California coast, and making yearly trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Every other week, the movie theater near our house in Encino ran preview screenings of upcoming films, so twice a month Mom and Dad took me to see the latest and greatest movies that Hollywood had to offer, some of which became classics (e.g., On the Waterfront, Guns of Navarone, and Anatomy of a Murder), and some of which didn’t (e.g., I don’t remember the titles, because, well, they were stinkers). My parents would drag me along whether or not the content was “appropriate” for little Robbie Englund—some of this grown-up fare intrigued, frightened, or confused the shit out of me, frankly, which undoubtedly played a role in my eventual appreciation for dark material.
Some might say I fell for acting so hard because I’m an only child, and only children crave constant attention, and what better way to get noticed than on the stage or the screen. Having known my fair share of actors who don’t have siblings, I can agree that, yes, some of these people are spoiled attention-seekers; however, I’ve met just as many kids socially damaged by the popularity of an older brother or sister.
We had a happy home, and I was always surrounded by friends and family, always busy, always sleeping over at somebody’s house, always encouraged to take advantage of everything life had to offer, always loved. (If Freddy Krueger had been brought up like me, there wouldn’t have been any nightmares on Elm Street.) My family’s only major issue was that for a few years before his retirement, Dad tended to work too many hours, and my mother got lonely and downed a few too many martinis; it was a very minor-league version of Revolutionary Road. Considering the kind of crap I saw happening to some of our family’s friends, I couldn’t complain.
MY YOUNG LIFE WAS good, but it improved dramatically when I suddenly acquired an older sister. Okay, she wasn’t exactly a sister, but I claimed her as my own.
I was almost thirteen when my parents’ goddaughter Gail’s parents passed away; good godparents that they were, Mom and Dad insisted Gail come and live with us. There was understandably a palpable sense of sadness when she moved in, but as badly as I felt for Gail, I was thrilled to have her around. Gail was lovely, poised, and graceful, and even a finalist in the Miss California pageant. She treated me like a little brother and actually enjoyed it when I tagged along with her on her adventures.
One night each week, Gail taught swimming classes at the Beverly Hills High School indoor swimming pool, the same one that opens beneath Jimmy Stewart’s feet in It’s a Wonderful Life, and she used to take me along with her in her Chevrolet convertible. After class, we’d go to a drive-in restaurant and have hamburgers and shakes. There I was, in a canary yellow Chevy, sitting next to my beautiful semi-sister, feeling like I was just about the coolest thirteen-year-old in Los Angeles. (All that said, sometimes being in such close proximity to Gail was a bit of a challenge. Her bedroom was right next to mine, and when she’d come out of the shower wearing one of her silky baby-doll nightgowns, things got a little intense for a certain hormone-raging adolescent.)
Some nights after swim class, Gail would let me come over to her boyfriend’s apartment, where the two of them would abandon me on the couch in front of the TV. These were vital formative moments for me, not because I overheard my pseudo-sister fooling around with her baseball-player, beatnik boyfriend, but rather because I was introduced to the world of late-night TV talk shows. I discovered Jack Paar, Lenny Bruce, Johnny Carson, and Don Rickles, but my late-night idol was Steve Allen … whom I had the good fortune to meet … and who, it turned out, kinda liked me.
One of Steve’s friend’s daughters was a member of the ensemble in that infamous Teenage Drama Workshop production of Pinocchio. After our highly successful opening-night performance, Mr. Allen came backstage to pay his respects. Naturally most everybody in the cast and crew surrounded him, peppering the poor guy with questions and autograph requests. He good-naturedly schmoozed with everybody, then eventually called out, “Okay, where’s Pinocchio?”
I shyly raised my hand. “Over here.”
He said, “Come with me,” then took me by the elbow, pulled me back behind the scenery, and said, “Listen, fella, you’re funny as hell. You’re special. Keep it up.”
I stared at his slicked-back hair and those big glasses and mumbled a thank-you, realizing how amazing it was to get professional approval from somebody as accomplished as Steve Allen. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. I’m not seeing David Letterman wander backstage at a junior high production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, seek out the kid who played Linus, and tell him he’s doing great work. Steve Allen said I was special, but in fact he was the special one.
I must’ve been doing something right during Pinocchio because Steve Allen wasn’t the only guy who singled me out for notice. Each night during the curtain call, two of the taller sixteen-year-old actors had to carry me out onstage on their shoulders so the audience could see me and give me the ovation they apparently thought I deserved. One evening early in the run, with the applause washing over me, one of the guys pinched my lederhosen-covered leg and said, “They love you, Robbie. You’re pretty good at this.” That this older guy, whom I idolized almost as much as I did Steve Allen, hinted I had a chance to do this for real further solidified my resolve to stick with acting for a little while.
LATER THAT YEAR, I had an aha! moment that convinced me that the world of theater was where I belonged.
Back in school, in my much hated algebra class, I looked up from the empty answer column of the test that I was probably flunking and glanced out the open door. The room was adjacent to the gym field, and, stumped by a particularly difficult equation, I craned my neck so I could see what was going on outside and was treated to a vision of the senior girls, clad in their sexy gym shorts, busy at their archery drills. Their targets were posted on bales of hay wet from a recent rain, and the scent of wet hay reminded me of the scene-paint odor that permeated the backstage area at the Teenage Drama Workshop. It made me pine for everything about the theater: the rehearsals, the performances, the applause, the making out with the girls who played the harem in Aladdin. I wasn’t even fourteen, and I knew what I was going to do. There was no turning back. The decision was made for me. Everybody should be so lucky.
Throughout both junior high and high school, I took as many drama classes as possible. We were allowed to take drama electives as a replacement for English electives, which appealed to me because the stage was far more enjoyable than the classroom. I studied the history of playwriting, from the Greek comedies and tragedies, to Shakespeare, to contemporary theater. I did well enough that a couple of my teachers told me I qualified to be a teacher’s assistant for credits, including a wonderful high school teacher, the character actor James Rawley, who played the mad scientist in the 1956 creepy cult classic The Creature Walks Among Us. (Considering my future in horror, it was ironic that I became the mad scientist’s assistant. Hey, where’s my hunchback?) But truthfully, the motives behind my desire to act weren’t entirely pure. I had learned even in high school that it’s far easier to meet girls when you’re an actor.
Now, in those days, most boys didn’t consider acting to be particularly cool—for that matter, the majority of the guys in my school thought we actors were sissies, believing if you didn’t want to be a football player or an engineer, something was wrong with you—however, that meant the girl-to-guy ratio at your average drama party was about five to one, which was great news for yours truly.
I went to one of my first drama-class cast parties during my sophomore year. The hostess’s parents were out of town, but even though we had the run of her house, we didn’t have the typical get-as-drunk-as-you-possibly-can get-together because this wasn’t the kind of girl who would throw a kegger; she was a “thespian.” We’re talking mixed drinks, and sophisticated older kids, including an openly gay bartender, with Cal Tjader albums spinning on the turntable. At this classy affair, nary an inebriated linebacker or puking shot-putter was to be seen. (A quick side note: I was also a surfer and a baseball player at the time, and the girl-to-guy ratio at the jock parties was about one to five.)
By the time I showed up, this very adult party was in full swing. The girls had blond hair, parted in the middle, ironed straight, Cleopatra eye makeup, and natural pre-pilates thin figures. They were wearing bikinis, floating in the shallow end of the pool, and sipping on drinks garnished with little umbrellas and slices of fresh fruit. I smiled and thought, These drama kids sure know how to throw a party.
I never told my surfing and baseball-playing pals the specifics about the bikinis and frou-frou drinks because I wanted to keep the whole thing to myself. Nonetheless, they were intrigued with what I was up to and sometimes showed up at my performances. Despite being thoroughly confused by our Nazi-centric version of Julius Caesar, some of my delinquent buddies realized that theater looked like fun and actually enrolled in a couple of drama classes on their own. So I guess I can take credit for saving a handful of young minds … which will hopefully make up for the legions of young fans I’ve terrorized over the years.
These parties were amusing diversions, but the acting came first. I was game to try anything. I’ve always desired to stretch on the stage or in front of the camera—horror, comedy, drama, whatever; as long as it’s interesting, I’m interested. During my freshman year, I was asked to wear a pigeon costume and do some filler shtick during a junior girls’ fashion show, which seemed like a plan because, as we all know, one of the ways to a young lady’s heart is through her funny bone. Aside from the two zit-faced tech crew geeks up in the rafters—both of whom are now probably wealthy business associates of Bill Gates Jr.— I was the only male in the production, so again, the odds of meeting a girl were in my favor. So there I was, hanging out backstage, sneaking looks at twenty-six wannabe models from the junior class bouncing around in their matching Maiden-form bras and panties in between outfit changes … the whole time hidden inside that fucking pigeon get-up.
About a third of the way through the evening, it dawned on me that I could play the pigeon horny, which, considering what I was watching backstage, wasn’t that much of a stretch. So I started chasing the girls around the stage, flapping my wings, humping their legs, and pretending to pigeon poop on a papiermâché fountain. The sillier I got, the more the crowd cracked up; and the more the crowd laughed, the further I pushed it. A kind of rock-star power comes from making people laugh—or, as I found out a few decades later, making them scream with fright—that’s indescribable. It’s an ephemeral thing, and it’s addictive, getting the perfect laugh or scream at the right moment. It was like a drug, even more seductive than a mai tai–clutching senior actress.
After the show, I sat in the dressing room—trying to be cool and not gawk at the girls in their underwear—thinking, My God, how did I get here, how did this happen? This is like a dream. Ahh, show business.