While summering at the seashore with my parents, I wandered into a late-afternoon double-bill matinee at the local movie house. The first half was a kiddie flick, but the second feature was a World War II movie, The Naked and the Dead, based on the famous novel by Norman Mailer. This gritty, adult war drama captivated me until a sequence when a young GI grunt is bitten by a poisonous, lime green snake and dies horribly. The soldier writhed in pain, and the snake’s poison bubbled and foamed from his mouth, nose, and eyes. After he died, one of his buddies found the giant green reptile and hacked it to pieces. For the rest of the summer, I checked under the bed in our rented beach house for snakes. And for the next ten years, I played host to the violent images from that film enhanced by my own imagination in the nightmares I suffered as a result of that summer day in a dark, dark, dark movie theater.
AFTER CRASHING WITH MY PARENTS FOR A couple of days, I put a deposit on a one-room bungalow managed by one Cliff Coleman. When I found out that Cliff was one of Sam Peckinpah’s longtime assistant directors, I knew I was officially home— after all, in Hollywood, everybody’s in the industry.
The tiny cottage was right on the sand by the Santa Monica Pier, a charming little joint I thought would be a perfect place for Betsy and me to recharge our marriage. We spent much of the summer enjoying the beach, surfing, catching up with old friends, collecting unemployment, and resting and recuperating. Along with some actor friends who followed me out from Michigan, I took weekly three-hour acting classes with an actor/director/concentration-camp survivor named Jack Garfein, figuring at the very least I’d meet some professional, working actors who could help me get a gig or two. I also needed to get back into the Hollywood loop; after being immersed in the classics, I felt I could do with an infusion of contemporary showbiz.
Before long, Betsy and I realized that things weren’t working out. We’d married too young, and we’d grown too far apart to repair and rebuild our relationship, so we agreed to separate; then, a few months later, we got a do-it-yourself divorce. We ended on good terms. No lasting damage. We just changed. That’s sometimes the way it goes.
I soon learned that my New York friends Jan and Gary had also moved back home, to a place in the Hollywood foothills across the street from Frank Lloyd Wright’s son’s Batcave-looking house. They were huge film fanatics, and we all spent a lot of time at cheap movie matinees or in front of the television, checking out old and new films of all genres. With every movie, my respect for the medium grew.
Gary had registered as a conscientious objector and was forced to serve, in effect, community service for the government. The government sent him up to the NASA test center in the Bay Area, where, as an experiment, he had to remain in bed for six months. I’m not sure how watching an actor lie around for half a year helped the good old USA, but what do I know? Thank God it wasn’t me. It could’ve been a nightmare on Skylab.
WITHOUT GARY, IT BECAME difficult for Jan and their other roommate to foot the rent, so they asked me to move in. Their friends all seemed to be in the industry: actors, cameramen, choreographers, and future film critics, and it further immersed me in the culture of Hollywood. This entire crowd ate, drank, and slept movies, but couldn’t afford to see new films, so we did what many enterprising, young starving artists did in the early 1970s: we crashed studio screenings. And we were so slick that we never got caught.
Over the next year, I rediscovered and again fell in love with American cinema and spent many an evening at the local revival theater, watching a Billy Wilder double feature, or a couple of Hitchcock films, or back-to-back film noirs. A revival schedule was always tacked up on the wall by the telephone, with all the titles we wanted to see over the next several weeks highlighted in red.
Considering our dovetailing tastes, our proximity to one another, and that Gary and Jan had been having problems before he was sent to San Francisco, it was all but inevitable that Jan and I would fall into a relationship. Even though it was wrong on a certain level, we couldn’t not fall into each other’s arms. Sometimes these things are meant to happen. You can’t help it, and you can’t fight it. Gary and Jan eventually officially broke up, and Jan and I officially became an item.
I went on my first real Hollywood audition in early 1973 for a film called Buster and Billie, starring Jan-Michael Vincent, who was one of Hollywood’s true rising stars at the time, having come off of the hit Charles Bronson movie The Mechanic, as well as the Disney classic The World’s Greatest Athlete. He was being groomed as the next James Dean/Steve McQueen, and if I managed to land a job in this movie—a movie that was going to be in the tradition of Peter Bogdanovich’s recent successful period piece, The Last Picture Show—it would be huge.
I read for the role of Whitey, the classic sidekick, an albino southerner, and the third male lead. And I got it, beating out Gary Busey. (Gary was young and calm then; if I’d taken a part from him at any point after, say, 1983, who knows what would’ve happened?) My salary: about $5,000. Not exactly Freddy Krueger money, but at the time that paycheck was damn welcome.
Not only was Whitey an albino, but he was a self-conscious albino who so despised his affliction that he dyed his hair with black shoe polish. A few weeks before the shoot kicked off, I went to see the makeup man, and more than anything else, he was concerned about my hair. He took me to see the studio wig expert, a little Russian lady who had a cluster of Emmy Awards on her mantel. At the back of her ranch house—which, from the inside, looked like a Russian Orthodox church—was a room with dozens of wigheads topped with toupees. Since she was the best in town, rugs of every variety were on display, some of which had been worn by the likes of John Wayne and Rip Torn. She took one look at my blond surfer ringlets and decided that dye wouldn’t work, so she ducked into an annex and came back with a jet-black crew-cut toupee, plopped it on my head, and said, “Perfect!”
She was right. It looked great. But it had an odd smell about it. “Has somebody worn this recently?”
“No,” she said. “The last time it was used was four years ago. Alan Arkin wore it in Catch-22.”
Now that was cool. Smelly, but cool.
BUSTER AND BILLIE WAS shot in Allman Brothers country, outside a tiny Georgia town called Statesboro. On our first day there we went to a pancake breakfast held by the local Rotarians, who ran the town. It was a can’t-miss event— especially for the big star Jan-Michael—because we needed to butter up the townsfolk to get cheaper rates for our film locations. This was my first lesson on how to stretch your film dollar, which prepared me for the myriad budget restrictions on the early Nightmare movies, as well as the tight budgets on movies I would later direct.
A few days before we’d left for Georgia, I’d been shuttled over to the studio-appointed optometrist in Beverly Hills, who was going to measure me for a pair of albino-like pink contact lenses. The lenses arrived in town right after the Rotary Club breakfast, and I had to try them on immediately because shooting started that afternoon. The contacts were kind of big, so big that it felt as if teacup saucers were under my eyelids, and I immediately started tearing up. Another problem: the lenses were red, which would theoretically make my eyes look pink. Unfortunately, my eyes are light green, and when you mix red and green, you get brown. When I got to the set, despite being scared shitless I’d get thrown off the movie if I complained about anything, I told our director, Daniel Petrie— an A-lister who’d directed A Raisin in the Sun—that the lenses were causing problems. “I can’t act in these. I just can’t. Maybe you can’t see it, but I feel like I’m crying all the time. What can we do, Dan?”
Without hesitation he said, “Take ’em out. The eyes are the windows of the soul, and I want the audience to see your eyes, not some contact lenses. Nobody’s going to care if you don’t have pink eyes.” So I immediately took ’em out, and, man, was I grateful. I’d learned a valuable lesson: stick to your guns. Dan smiled, went back behind the camera, shouted, “Action,” and away we went.
Our female lead, Pamela Sue Martin, was one of the most gorgeous creatures in creation: porcelain skin, a willowy body, and large, expressive eyes. That she was talented made her that much more desirable. During the shoot, she caught a brutal cold, but even with a runny nose and red, swollen eyes she was still one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. (Even if I had developed a crush on Pamela—which I didn’t—I wouldn’t have made a move because (a) I had a girlfriend, and (b) said girlfriend had come on location with me.)
Statesboro was a dry town, and the only place we could get a drink was at the local American Legion. And it wasn’t as if we could get beer or wine; all they had to offer us was homemade moonshine. And that was some quality moonshine—come 2002, that same stuff would bring $10 a shot in a high-end New York City cocktail lounge.
If we had a taste for something other than ‘shine, we had to find a way to get to the next county. One night, Jan-Michael had a craving for Cuervo Gold, so he stole one of the film’s 1940s-era prop cars and hauled ass across the county line to the nearest package-liquor store, justifying his behavior by saying, “This is what my character would do.” That sounded good to me, so I went along for the wild ride, which took us right across the local college football field. Somehow we managed not to get arrested. Talk about Method acting. Lee Strasberg would’ve been thrilled.
MY PERFORMANCE IN BUSTER AND BILLIE got great reviews—Time magazine said, “Buster and Billie contains some good acting, especially by a boy named Robert Englund, who plays Buster’s best friend”—and its success helped me get a number of prestigious auditions, most notably one for the role of Telly Savalas’s sidekick in the series Kojak. (Apparently I had a sidekick look about me.) After about a half-dozen callbacks, I was told I didn’t get it, which got me to thinking about the entire Hollywood audition process.
I realized that sometimes you’ve won or lost the part before you utter a single word of dialogue. Your blond hair might land you the role, while your height (or lack thereof) might help that tall guy you rode up in the elevator with get the part. I also realized that getting called back is a triumph itself, and even if I didn’t get a certain part, I should still feel good that somebody in the casting office, or several somebodies, liked me well enough to give me a second, or third, or even a tenth shot. You have to turn the negative into a positive and take what you can out of the experience, and that could be something as small as a good acting tip, or something as big as getting the producer’s contact number. At the very least, staying positive helps you stay sane.
It also dawned on me that there are two kinds of film roles: those you do for the money and the work, and those you do for artistic fulfillment. But every once in a while, something comes along that could be both lucrative and fulfilling, such as the film I auditioned for in 1973 called The Last Detail, which starred Jack Nicholson. I was in the running for the part of the young sailor that Jack and his navy buddy were escorting to the brig, a meaty, possibly career-making role. The role went to Randy Quaid—an actor I admire and who did a brilliant job in the film—but losing it still haunts me. (A few years later, a gentleman wandered over to me in a movie-theater lobby and told me how much he liked my work in Buster and Billie and Stay Hungry. This was Darryl Ponicsan, the guy who wrote both the novel and the screenplay for The Last Detail. All I could think was Why weren’t you at one of my auditions?!)
What somewhat softened the blow was that the following year I landed a small but crucial part in Hustle, a contemporary film noir with an all-star cast featuring Catherine Deneuve, Ernest Borgnine, and the man who at that time was arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, Burt Reynolds. This was a top-notch project—pancake breakfasts with the locals wouldn’t be required—but the coolest aspect was that I was to play the guy who kills Burt Reynolds.
The day of Burt’s impending death, we were on location at a liquor store in Pasadena. The prop man handed me the gun, and I was suddenly nervous because, even though I had my stage combat down cold, I’d never before fired a gun in a movie. Making matters more difficult, the camera angle was strange, an extreme close-up of the gun barrel pointing at Burt’s head, and I knew that if the shot was going to work, I’d need to point the gun just slightly away from his face. No problem. Unfortunately, the prop man made a mistake that almost cost Burt his face, and me my career.
When I went to plug Burt, I had no idea that the gun was packed with twice as much load as necessary, so when the director shouted, “Action,” and I pulled the trigger, Burt’s toupee flapped in the breeze from the discharge—thank God it didn’t blow off completely. The disintegrated paper from the blank charge went all over him and his wardrobe; it looked like he’d had a massive attack of dandruff. I felt like the biggest weenie on the set. I wondered if I’d ever work in this town again.
Burt wiped all the crap off his face, put his arm around my shoulders, and pulled me off to the side. “Look, kid,” he said, “don’t feel bad.”
“I don’t feel bad. I feel terrible.”
“These things happen. No big deal. I’m okay. Listen, when we do it again, I want you to get vicious and look psychotic. This is my big death scene. The nastier you are, the more the audience will care about me.” The second take, everything went off without a hitch, and Mr. Reynolds was dead. I’ve killed plenty of people in my film career, but Burt was my first movie star.
(A side note: even though the scene ended up fine, I was still a bit down after work, so on the way home I stopped at a bar for a quick one … or two … I couldn’t decide what to order, but I remembered that throughout Hustle, Burt’s character drinks an Irish whiskey called Old Bushmills. I’d never tasted it, but it was love at first sip. For the next twenty-five years, it was my poison of choice.)
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, I went up to Bellingham, Washington, a blue-collar town north of Seattle, to film Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy, a TV movie about Joseph Kennedy Jr. I had a featured role, which afforded me plenty of downtime, most of which was passed hiding from the constant rain inside the one decent bar in town. The bar was always filled with young women flying solo because all of their husbands were up in the far north working on the Alaskan Pipeline. They were lonely, flush with their absent hubby’s money, and we were bored, horny actors with time to kill, so naturally the party was on.
On our first Friday night in Washington, the party moved from the bar to one of our cast member’s suites and soon got wild. To set the mood, I grabbed some shirts off the floor and tossed them over the lampshades, which I hoped would create some mellow party lighting, then jacked up the stereo and made sure that everybody in the room had some tequila. Always the gracious host.
So everybody’s drinking and making out and having a good old time, and there, in the center of the scrum, one of our actors was dancing with one of the local gals. They were grinding closer and closer, and it was getting hotter and hotter, and all of a sudden, right there, in the middle of the party, the guy gave her a very healthy backhand and everything went silent, except for the horrible disco tune pumping from the speakers.
A couple of the other cast members ran over to restrain their actor friend before things could get further out of hand. At that moment the gal stepped up to the actor and nailed him with a roundhouse punch. The actor slowly smiled. Then the gal, with her bloody split lip, grinned right back at him. He planted a kiss on her, a passionate, sexy, bloody kiss. They disappeared into the fluorescent-lit bathroom and closed the door behind them. They weren’t seen for the rest of the weekend, and they remained a couple until the shoot was over. A match made in hell. I was growing up fast.
A couple of months later, I auditioned for a costarring role in another big movie with an all-star cast—Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Scatman Crothers, among others—called Stay Hungry. For the first time in my career, I went to the interview in character, which basically meant resurrecting the southern accent I’d used in Buster and Billie. Several callbacks later, I was offered the part, beating out Sylvester Stallone and, for the second time in four years, Gary Busey. (Probably because of our early typecasting as southerners, Gary and I went up for the same roles a lot back in the seventies. Some of them he got, some of them I got, and I have no hard feelings whatsoever because I love his work. I have no idea how he feels about mine, and frankly, I don’t want to find out.)
Originally, I was only scheduled to shoot in Alabama for six weeks on Stay Hungry. But the director, Bob Rafelson, was working his magic, and magic is sometimes slow in coming, so I wound up on location for almost three months, with pockets full of per diem and many unscheduled hours to fill in the Deep South.
Scatman was my next-door neighbor at the motel, and one dull night I was awakened by a whole lot of banging on his door. I peeked my head into the hallway and saw three huge policemen, pounding away. As a Californian and the child of liberal parents, I imagined the worst: in 1977, southern cops plus a black man wouldn’t likely add up to anything good.
After shooting several films below the Mason-Dixon line, I’ve come to love the South and southerners—the hospitality, the sultry nights, the food, and the music are all unique, and I have also realized that down there, whites and blacks probably have more positive daily interaction than they do up north. Still, back at that motel in Alabama, I figured that nothing good would come of the police action next door. I just hoped that Scatman didn’t have any weed.
A few minutes later the cops pulled out their billy clubs, kicked the door in, and rushed into the room. As I listened to the ruckus next door, I remembered that Scatman had wrapped the day before and was probably at home back in Los Angeles. I peeked out my window and saw Alabama’s finest dragging two rednecks out the door. Ironically, it turned out the only people the local police force was prejudiced against were criminals. Chalk one up for white guilt.
Working with Sally Field was a joy. Not only was she a fine actress, but she was cute; and who would’ve guessed that the Flying Nun had such a hot, sexy little body. Sally and I used to ride from the hotel to the set in these enormous station wagons, the kind of car that every other suburban family owned, circa 1975. Sally loved pop music—strictly AM radio; FM wasn’t quite on her radar—and she knew the lyrics to every tune on the Top 40. So every morning, without fail, we’d get into the car, Sally would ask me to hold her coffee while she tuned the radio to her favorite local station, and then she’d sing along with damn near everything. When some actors want to get into the zone, they meditate or do breathing exercises. When Sally wanted to get into the zone, she belted out “Sugar, Sugar.”
Not only did I have a good ol’ time during filming, but I learned a lot on the set. One of the things I’m proudest of is my one-take five-bank pool shot filmed in the master. Today, that would be the kind of thing that would most likely be CGI’ed in postproduction, but back then, I had to learn how to make that shot, and learn it quickly, because I didn’t want to be the guy who added another costly day to the shooting schedule.
For some fans, the highlight may have been the fight in the gym scene when I took a pool cue in the balls. I think that was the second greatest nut-shot in cinema history, number one being when Paul Newman booted one of his gang in the groin in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That one you could feel all the way in the balcony.
Schwarzenegger had brought in seemingly every bodybuilder in the world to appear in the film’s last scenes, featuring a weight-lifting contest. These guys were ripped, and my lasting image of that location was dozens of these magnificent physical specimens diving into our motel’s pool from the third-story roof. Now that was a wrap party!
SOON AFTER STAY HUNGRY wrapped, thanks to the money I’d saved up from my film work, Jan and I finally moved into our own place in the foothills above Studio City, a beautiful apartment building that had been designed by master architect Rudolph Schindler. We continued to socialize with our coterie of film geeks, one of whom introduced us to a funny young actor whom we liked so much we practically adopted him. His name was Mark Hamill.
Mark, who was an eye blink away from becoming Luke Skywalker, became a fixture in our Schindler apartment, and even though he was only a few years younger than Jan and me, he was a lot more attuned to contemporary pop culture. He introduced me to Monty Python, as well as a bunch of little-known sci-fi and horror movies. (Mark was a serious horror fanatic, complete with a subscription to Famous Monsters magazine.) He was a die-hard fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he loved his Heineken. Mark clued me in to quality TV, and introduced me to the delights of watching old Marx Brothers movies in the middle of the afternoon. Simply put, he helped me to lighten up.
My agent sent me up to read for the part of the surfer in Apocalypse Now. I wore an old khaki, thrift-store army shirt, faded green Levi’s, and work boots to the audition in an effort to look military, because going to auditions in character was working for me. They took one look at me and decided I was too old. (Truth be told, I was more interested in the part of the cook that Frederic Forrest eventually played, but I was too young for that one.) “But,” one of the casting people suggested, “you might want to poke your head into the door across the hall. They’re working on something you might be right for.”
And that something was Star Wars.
But again my age was a factor; I was too young to play Han Solo. I left the building, went to the Formosa, my favorite watering hole across the street from the studio, tossed back a shot of Old Bushmills, and tried to figure out a way to come off as older. Or younger. Or taller. Oh well.
After Mark came home from filming Star Wars, he entertained Jan and me with stories about how privileged he felt to work with Alec Guinness, how funny Carrie Fisher was, what an adventure it was to shoot in the Tunisian desert, and how to “fight” with a light saber. (I learned from Mark just how far special effects had come since the days of our favorite FX pioneer, Ray Harryhausen.) As a science fiction fanboy himself, Mark was one of the few people in the world who, early on, predicted that Star Wars was going to be an international smash.
By then, I was living by the adage that actors should act. I’d seen too many of my New York and Academy of Dramatic Art friends—many of whom were far more talented than me—fall through the cracks and fail because they refused to take roles that required them to leave Manhattan, or that they considered to be beneath them. I’m not saying I accepted each and every job that came my way, but I was probably somewhat less discerning than my East Coast friends and old pals from the ADA. It’s great to be recognized, but the fact is I’m just a character actor, a working stiff, and the majority of the time, if somebody wants to hire me, I’m there.
IN 1976, I WENT up for the second male lead, a roadie named Bobbie Ritchie, in the remake of the classic film A Star Is Born. My main competition for the part was, you guessed it, Gary Busey. Gary’s a real musician, so he logically got the role, and I had no problem with that. But the casting people liked me well enough that they threw me a bone in the form of a small but memorable part. I played the obnoxious redneck fan of the film’s costar, Kris Kristofferson. During my big scene, my character pestered Kris’s character to give me an autograph while the female lead, Barbra Streisand, was trying to sing a pretty little song. Kris refused, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer, so the whole thing turned into a big old fight, but, unlike my fight scene in Stay Hungry, I didn’t get whacked in the balls.
The morning of my scene, I sauntered over to a backstage mirror to check my hair—I was going for a white-trash rockabilly look—and picked up one of the fancy hairbrushes by the mirror. While I was trying to get my do to curl over my forehead just right, I noticed in the mirror one of the makeup girls staring at me with alarm. I felt a presence behind me; I turned around, and there she was, in all her superstar glory, Ms. Streisand herself, a sly smile on her face. Turned out I was grooming myself with La Streisand’s personal on-set antique makeup kit. Thank God I hadn’t used the brush yet. I gently placed it back on its tray and skulked away.
We filmed in Pasadena, and my portion of the shoot was going smoothly … more or less. Kristofferson had just gotten into acting, and he was working hard to make his character as realistic as possible, the result being that in our fight scene, he actually fought.During one of the takes, he clipped me on the nose pretty good, and I actually saw stars. He felt awful about it and apologized profusely. I think Kris thought I was a stunt-man, and he was allowed to make full contact with stuntmen. Wrong. I was a working stiff, and working stiffs don’t like knuckle sandwiches. (Getting punched by big stars turned out to be a theme in my early career. At the same studio, two years later, I’d get poked in the nose by Richard Gere during the filming of a drama called Bloodbrothers. I was wearing some disco platform boots, and when Richard knocked me backward, I aggravated an old ankle injury, which taught me that regardless of what the director or costume designer says, forsake vanity and accuracy and always wear sensible shoes.)
The budget for A Star Is Born was close to $6 million, which, in 1976, was exorbitant. For the first time I had a trailer dressing room all to myself, complete with my very own color television. The catering was gourmet, and I haven’t eaten as well on a movie since. I’d arrived.
Now, who would be the most logical person to work with after the incomparable Barbra Streisand? Maybe Robert Redford? Nah. Possibly Dustin Hoffman? No way. How about the guy who directed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?
Hell, yeah. Now we’re talking.
IN 1974, A THIRTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD director named Tobe Hooper released his second film, a graphic slasher movie called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The title pretty much sums it up—a bunch of Texas teenagers get tormented by a chain-saw-wielding hitchhiker and his merry band of murderers— and it became an immediate cult classic, so much so that it both informed the style of and established genre elements that would be ripped off by generations of future filmmakers. Three years later came Tobe’s follow-up, Death Watch, which was eventually renamed Eaten Alive, and what a crazy cast: Oscar nominees Carolyn Jones and Stuart Whitman; Audrey Hepburn’s husband, Mel Ferrer; veteran TV and film character actor Neville Brand; a Brian De Palma regular named William Finley; and former Teenage Drama Workshop stalwart Robert Englund.
The first time I walked on the soundstage, I was blown away by the set: an old Victorian farmhouse surrounded by tumble-weeds, cacti, ominous dead trees, frantic caged animals, and an old convertible Caddy El Dorado parked by the veranda, all enveloped by a low-hanging Hollywood fog. Truly a frightening atmosphere. In the midst of all this sat my long-haired, shaggy-bearded director, Mr. Hooper. I love Tobe, in part because he’s an original. He’s an intellectual with a professor’s vocabulary, which he growls at you with his bark of a voice. He was never without a thin brown Sherman cigarette in his hand and was always excited to converse about anything at length: history, literature, movies, rock and roll, you name it.
Having never done a horror film, I had no idea what to expect; I certainly didn’t anticipate its being so much fun. (Okay, wrestling a rubber alligator in freezing water wasn’t a blast, but what’re you gonna do?) And for the record, in the Japanese version of the film, that is not my penis.
Working with Tobe whetted my appetite for more horror flicks, but first, it was time to try out for a western, albeit a contemporary one. The film: The Last of the Cowboys. The stars: Henry Fonda and Susan Sarandon. I needed to beat out Michael Sacks, the Golden Globe–nominated star of Slaughterhouse-Five, for the role of Beebo Crozier.
The auditions were at a dingy little office out in North Hollywood. I went in for my final callback, and who walks in while I’m sitting on the floor in the waiting room? Ms. Saran-don, with her Bette Davis eyes. She smiled at me, said hello, then leaned over and gave me a tender kiss on the cheek. I knew right then she was in my corner, and I had a legitimate chance at getting the part. I aced my final audition and was almost in. I only had one more obstacle: Henry Fonda. Since most of Henry’s scenes were with Beebo, he had final approval of who got the role.
The next morning, I was sent to Henry’s estate in Bel-Air. The 1920s Spanish hacienda had polished tile floors and an impressive collection of art hanging on the walls. I followed his wife, Shirlee, down a long hall to a study in the back, where on the table sat a pitcher of fresh lemonade, and a copy of the Cowboys script marked up in different-colored pencils. Then in walks the man himself, the great Henry Fonda, wearing a beekeeper’s outfit. He took off the mesh bonnet, put some fresh honey on the table, then started to gently grill me. After about an hour, he smiled, stuck out his hand, and said, “Robert, I look forward to working with you.” I don’t even remember retracing my steps through the corridors of the great actor’s home; I was just so relieved to have won him over.
Despite the high-powered cast, this was an independent movie with a low budget, so it was back to sharing a small Winnebago with two other people. Fortunately, those people were Henry and Shirlee Fonda. Since I’d recently become a classic-film buff, all I wanted to do was quiz Henry in depth about his illustrious career in Hollywood. Tell me about the making of The Grapes of Wrath…. What was it like shooting with Hitchcock on The Wrong Man ? … Was it fun working on The Lady Eve, that screwball comedy where you play a geeky guy, and I need to know because that’s my favorite movie of yours…. But I bit my tongue and reined myself in. He was carrying the entire film, and since he’d just had an operation, I figured he needed his energy, so I gave him his space and permitted myself only one pestering question per day. Well, maybe two.
One afternoon, I was passionately prattling on and on about a play I’d done back at the Meadow Brook Theatre, and at that moment Henry—who considered himself first and foremost a man of the theater—totally warmed up to me. Then the flood-gates opened. He told me about the first time he met Jimmy Stewart, and how charismatic a young Bette Davis was, and how when Barbara Stanwyck started filming a movie, she made it a point to learn everybody’s name in the cast and crew. It was a steady diet of Old Hollywood tales, and I devoured every word of it. Hollywood history from the horse’s mouth.
Henry liked to bitch about the truck situation. His character drove an eighteen-wheeler throughout most of the movie, so several weeks before shooting began, he took about a dozen lessons. Turned out that for insurance reasons, the producers wouldn’t let him drive the truck. He was serious about preparing for a role, so when he realized he’d wasted all that time in truck-driving class, it pissed him off.
This movie was a turning point in my career. Knowing I was accepted by the likes of Susan Sarandon and Henry Fonda gave me another shot of confidence that would fuel me through the countless interviews, auditions, and rejections that lay ahead.
SOON AFTER THE LAST OF THE COWBOYS wrapped, Jan and I moved out of our Schindler apartment, and we rented our own place by the beach in Santa Monica, smack in the middle of what the surfers and skateboarders referred to as Dogtown. Our upstairs neighbor was comic actor Andy Kaufman, and he was every bit as eccentric as you might imagine.
Most every Saturday night, Jan and I invited friends over for pizza, beer, a little weed, and some Saturday Night Live. (This was during the show’s early glory days, when people’s weekend plans revolved around staying home to watch SNL.) Andy had been on the first episode in 1975, and to us he was synonymous with the show. One night in 1976, we were hooting and hollering at a particularly funny sketch, after which, during a commercial break, we heard a knock at the door. I opened up, and there stood Andy. He spoke in the timid, foreign voice that was one of the signature shticks of his act: “Excuse me, please, could you not be making so much noise, please? Tenk you veddy much.” We all knew that Andy was from Long Island, and the voice was a put-on. Funny guy, still in character.
I said, “Andy! Come in! We love you!” I didn’t think the pervasive scent of marijuana would bother him too much.
He shook his head. “Please to just keep it down. Tenk you veddy much.” To this day, I don’t know if he was messing with us, or if he was practicing. Maybe he had an audition the next day and he was annoyed that we’d awakened him. Or maybe he was testing his “foreign man” character on a captive audience. Or maybe Andy Kaufman was just a strange, strange guy.
Several months later, I was auditioning for a little television show called Taxi. I was up for the role of Bobby, the vain actor who drives a cab to supplement his income while he tries to make it in New York City. I had a couple of callbacks, and the casting people decided I wasn’t right for Bobby, but they saw something in me and asked me to read for the role of Latka, the sweet mechanic from a country of unknown origin. After a quick skim of the script, I asked, “So what do you guys want here, an Andy Kaufman impression?”
They collectively shrugged and asked, “Who?” I don’t think they knew who Andy Kaufman was. I gave it my best shot. Next thing I knew, Andy had the part. Me and my big mouth.
IN 1977, MY FRIENDLY nemesis Gary Busey and I both auditioned for a surfing movie called Big Wednesday; this time, however, we weren’t up for the same part. Fortunately for Gary, he got the role he’d tried out for. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t, which stung, because I was an honest-to-goodness surfer. But as was the case with A Star Is Born, again the casting folks at Warner Bros. threw me a bone. It turned out to be a lucrative bone because even though I only had a featured part, the production went over schedule, so I ended up taking home more money for this small role than I had for any of my starring roles to date. Plus I got to hang out on location at one of the most beautiful beaches in all of California. All things considered, there was nothing to complain about. (There’s that famous saying in the theater, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” In Hollywood, that axiom could be changed to “There are sometimes small roles that lead to big paychecks.”)
Our director, John Milius, also wrote the movie, and the rule on the set was that you shouldn’t fuck with a single word or change even a comma in the script if you knew what was good for you. I could respect that because Milius had written one of my favorite flicks, The Wind and the Lion, as well as Dirty Harry, and Robert Shaw’s monologue about the torpedoed USS Indianapolis shark-feeding frenzy in Jaws, so who was I to start improvising?
But I did.
Near the end of the film, in a scene where one of the leads, played by The Greatest American Hero, William Katt, is headed off to fight in Vietnam, I improvised the line “Stay casual, Barlow,” which was my interpretation of how a surfer would say “Keep your head down.” Milius didn’t flip out; for that matter he left it in, and it became one of the most memorable, oft-quoted lines in the movie. To this day surfers still shout “Stay casual!” when they see me at the beach.
TV Movies of the Week often get a bad rap—we’ve all suffered through a disease-of-the-moment chick flick—but I’ve appeared in over a dozen MOWs, most of which were quality fare with stellar casts. In 1979, I did one for CBS called Mind over Murder,directed by Ivan Nagy, a Hungarian director whose name turned up some fifteen-odd years later in the Heidi Fleiss scandal. One of the stars of the movie, Andrew Prine, played a serial killer who was pursued by detectives through a dreamlike ESP connection. Andrew had shaved his head for the role, giving him a distinctive, haunting look. (Sound familiar?) Andrew was so effective in that dark little TV movie that I believe I subconsciously drew on his work when I began my own filmic killing spree five years later.
But before I drew first blood as Freddy, I had to endure a Galaxy of Terror.
* * *
CUT TO 1981. WITH an impending actors’ strike, I was taking any job I could get: bit parts on Charlie’s Angels, Alice, CHiPS, and a low-budget horror film called Dead and Buried, anything to gather myself some acorns for what might turn out to be a long winter.
At that moment, for us actors, timing was everything. If a film or television show went into production before the strike, it wouldn’t have to shut down, but if a project hadn’t started shooting, regardless of how far along in preproduction it was, it had to be shelved until an agreement was reached.
Fortunately, an old inspiration, and one of the busiest producers in Hollywood, came to my rescue with a role.
For his movie Galaxy of Terror, B-movie impresario Roger Corman assembled one of the most eccentric ensembles I’ve ever worked with. We’re talking Ray Walston (Judge Bone from Picket Fences); Erin Moran (Joanie from Happy Days); Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer from Twin Peaks, Mrs. Ross from Seinfeld, and Lois from Big Love); Zalman King (writer of Nine ½ Weeks, and creator of Red Shoe Diaries); and yours truly.
It was certainly great to be working for Corman from a creative perspective, but—how do I put this politely?—well, let’s just say, Roger’s a bit of a tightwad. We’re talking killer hours, and catering that consisted of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My dressing room was fashioned from two bookended canvas flats, furnished with a white plastic chair, and a single bent nail to hang my clothes on. It’s not the most glamorous way to make a movie, but you have to give the guy credit: as of this writing, he’s been making films for fifty-five years and has executive-produced and/or produced and/or directed and/or written something like four hundred movies. Roger also has a remarkable eye for talent; he was an early supporter of such stars-to-be as Jack Nicholson, Barbara Hershey, and Francis Ford Coppola, just to name a few. Point being, if you ever have the opportunity to appear in a Roger Corman movie, jump on it no matter how shitty your salary might be, because that is one man in Hollywood who knows what the hell he’s doing.
I also wanted to work with Roger for another reason: Boxcar Bertha, the Scorsese-helmed movie Roger produced, was what helped inspire me to leave the theater for the movies in the first place. I’d come full circle. The gig was meant to be.
We shot at Roger’s new studio/backlot in Venice Beach, a once dicey area that was just beginning to gentrify; out with the hippies, in with the yuppies. My first day on set, I was really impressed. We had zero budget, but the production design looked as if it cost a million bucks. I noticed that the art director’s office was right across the hall from my lean-to dressing room, so I wandered over and saw a guy with a long blond ponytail sitting on the floor, surrounded by rough blueprints and really cool drawings of the monster who would be terrorizing our cast over the next couple of weeks.
A few days later I stole one of the crumpled illustrations from the art department floor and pinned it up in my dressing room. I later learned the name of the young ponytailed guy on the floor: James Cameron. Considering what James went on to direct—Titanic, The Terminator, True Lies—I wish I’d kept those discarded drawings.
James wasn’t even thirty years old and was already a genius. For the spaceship that flew all around the infamous galaxy of terror, he took his buck-ninety-nine budget (or however little Roger gave him to work with) and turned the spacecraft’s hexagon-shaped corridor into a set worthy of something from 2001: A Space Odyssey using only milk crates and Styrofoam take-out containers that began their lives as the home of a McDonald’s Big Mac. The crates were hanging from the ceiling, and the light shone through the grates, creating an eerie dappled effect. The hamburger boxes were stapled open on the walls, completing the design. It’s not an exaggeration to say that dozens of movies had budgets fifty times greater than ours that didn’t look nearly as good.
During the shoot, a rumor started going around that Roger had rented out the set to a German watch company for a commercial shoot and they paid him enough to make back the entire budget of Galaxy of Terror and then some. We never found out if that was true, but if it wasn’t, it should’ve been, because that is Roger Corman in a nutshell.
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, IT was off to the Philippines for a Vietnam movie with the awkward title of Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder. This was my first time shooting outside the USA, and my first trip to the Far East, so a couple weeks before I was scheduled to catch my plane, I went to see the studio-appointed doctor so I could schedule my series of malaria inoculations. (If Roger Corman did a movie over in Asia, I’m pretty certain he would’ve made us pay for our own shots.) I was then flown to Manila and put up in a five-star hotel for a whole two weeks before filming started, so I could get acclimated to the time change, the punishing humidity, and the culture shock.
We soon shifted locations to an air force base in a province up north. I reluctantly checked out of my fancy Manila digs and naively hoped my next lodging would be as plush. The military folks had reserved a few rooms for us near the officers’ quarters on the base, and they were homey, clean, safe, and comfortable. Unfortunately, there was only enough housing for the director and the two stars. We costarring types were bivouacked at a brothel off-base.
The rooms at our cathouse were spartan—especially compared to where we’d just come from—but on the plus side, a twenty-four-hour restaurant/bar was on the premises, and we were surrounded by jungle and roaming bison. Each room was furnished with a simple bed, a chair, a lizard on the wall, a portable black-and-white TV, and a prostitute. And you couldn’t refuse. She was part of the deal. You get a room, you get a whore.
My fellow costar James Whitmore Jr. was staying across the hall. Our first night there, he knocked on my door. I let him in, and he glanced at my hooker and whispered, “I need a favor.”
“Switch girls with me.”
“I like yours. We hit it off in the bar last night. Come on, take mine. She’s cute.”
I wasn’t intending to avail myself of my hooker’s services anyway, so I said, “Sure. But you have to tell them it was your idea. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings here.”
Everywhere I went—which wasn’t too far; I didn’t stray much farther than a three-block radius of the whorehouse— my prostitute came with me. She was a nice enough girl, but she had one strange quirk: whenever we were in the bar, she ordered several double screwdrivers but never got drunk. I had to pay for them out of my per diem, and, man, were those things expensive.
I mentioned it to James, and he whispered, “She’s not ordering screwdrivers. That’s just orange juice.”
“That’s a hell of a lot of orange juice.”
“She’s not drinking it. Watch her carefully. She just pretends to drink it, then she hides the glass under the table and pours it into a baby bottle. She’s taking it home for her kids.” That broke my heart. After I found that out, I was happy to let her tag along with me, to buy her a meal or two, as well as all the OJ she wanted. I had become an accidental ambassador of American goodwill at a house of ill repute far from home.
None of my recent locales—Oakland, Michigan; New York City; Statesboro, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; or, for that matter, Hollywood—had prepared me for my overseas adventures in the Philippines. Now I was a seasoned veteran of exotic foreign locations ready for anything that show business could throw my way.