I’m backstage in a vaguely familiar old theater. A Shakespearean tragedy is being performed onstage under the lights …. I’ve forgotten my lines…. I feel pressure in my chest, a shortness of breath, I am pacing back and forth in the wings and looking for something I’ve lost…. I can’t find a script I’ve hidden that contains my dialogue…. I hear my cue from onstage…. I search every where for the script and can’t find it…. Then the dream starts all over again, repeats itself…. I have this nightmare once a year, without fail, and, man, does it suck.
JAN BEGAN WRITING AND PERFORMING WITH AN improvisational comedy group in L.A., and before long they got good, real good, so good that they started making regular appearances on NBC’s Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, a pre-MTV promotional-rock-video-clip variety show that came on right after Saturday Night Live. Her comedy group, the Village Idiots, was loaded with talent, and one of their go-to guys was an energetic kid with a quick wit and a receding hairline named Michael Douglas. Not wanting to compete with that Michael Douglas, he changed his name to Michael Keaton and, within two years, was one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws. (Attention sci-fifans: when Michael left, he was replaced by Peter Jurasik, who later went on to star in Babylon 5.) When the Village Idiots gigged at the local comedy clubs, we’d run into unknown, hilarious performers such as Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, and Comedy Store emcee David Letterman, who introduced Jan to her eventual favorite cocktail, J.B. on the rocks.
Horny-pigeon performances notwithstanding, I wasn’t trained as an improvisational actor, and I picked up a lot about making people laugh just by being a fly on the wall during the freewheeling sessions in those late-night clubs, watching a generation of new talent incubate on those stages in the wee hours. It also nudged me closer to being an official cog in the New Hollywood machine. For better or worse, the stage, my classical training, and Lee Strasberg’s class were becoming a somewhat distant, albeit beloved, memory.
Whether I knew it—or admitted it—Jan’s gang affected my acting. Despite my “Stay casual, Barlow” moment during Big Wednesday, I generally stuck to what was written on the page, but Michael’s, Jan’s, and Peter’s ease with improv—and their joy when they came up with stuff on the spot that worked— gave me the confidence to play with my scripts a little, both on the set and at auditions. I realized that some TV-audition material wasn’t exactly Shakespeare; it wasn’t written in stone. Plus I’d done enough solid work, and I had a good enough reputation, that I wasn’t concerned about getting fired for saying, “Hey, fella, the 1950s called, and they want their leather jacket back,” rather than “That outfit isn’t exactly your best look.” When I was at ADA, it was drilled into us: The text is sacred. Anything you need, you can find in the text. Serve the writer, then the director, then yourself. The play’s the thing. I don’t think Robin Williams always played by those rules and he did okay, so if a little improv was good enough for Mork, it was good enough for me.
IN 1983, I MET Gregory Harrison of Trapper John, M.D. fame while costarring on a TV movie called The Fighter. Greg, who was also a stage actor, had just finished a sold-out run in downtown L.A. in a play called The Hasty Heart and was able to parlay that success into producing the play Journey’s End, which ended up being filmed by a fledgling entertainment company called Home Box Office. I hadn’t done any stage work for a while, so Jan dared me to audition for it. I was asked to do a part and I’m glad I did because I had the opportunity to work alongside an improvisational comedic genius named George Wendt. George had replaced John Belushi at Second City back in Chicago, and acting with him made me feel as though I was six degrees of separation from the original SNL cast. The play was a huge hit and attracted a whole flock of agents, producers, and casting directors to our postage-stamp–size stage adjacent to Paramount Studios.
(A side note: during the run of Journey’s End, George auditioned for the television show that would all but define his career, Cheers. When he was told the part of Norm was his for the taking, he was on the fence between accepting that role or another pilot he had been offered. When, over a couple of beers, he asked me my opinion, I said, “You know what? I loved Ted Danson in that movie The Onion Field. I think you oughta do that Cheers show.” The rest is television history.)
KENNETH JOHNSON HAD BEEN working on TV dramas since the late 1960s, and was best known for producing and writing many episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, and creating its spin-off, The Bionic Woman. At that moment, his main task was executive-producing the show he’d created in 1978, The Incredible Hulk. He clearly had an affinity for one-hour science-fiction-oriented dramas, and he graduated to the long-form miniseries with a script about a bunch of aliens who come to Earth looking and acting like the nicest human beings you’d ever want to meet. Unfortunately for the population of our fine planet, these aliens are actually evil lizards that want to pillage Earth for its natural resources (humans!) to help resuscitate their dying home planet. In the midst of this mayhem, we meet a kind, lovable alien named Willie, the show’s comic relief, who becomes a hero of sorts—the perfect part for a kind, lovable guy such as me. The miniseries was called V.
Thanks to my casting friends at Warner Bros., I was asked to read for the role, and going in, I found that my recent exposure to improv comedy, combined with six months of stage work in Journey’s End, helped loosen me up for my audition. The reading was held on the Warner’s backlot, and by that time I’d done so much work at Warner Bros. that I didn’t even have to show my ID to the studio security guard. After I parked, I went up to Ken Johnson’s office. After a few minutes of small talk, I asked if he had any specific notes as to how I should play Willie. He thought for a moment, then looked up, scratched his beard, and said, “Okay. Two words. Gene Wilder.”
I consider Gene Wilder one of the great comic actors of his generation. I’d idolized him since 1967, when I saw him steal a scene from Warren Beatty from the backseat of Clyde Barrow’s getaway car in Bonnie and Clyde, and of course he was brilliant in The Producers, not to mention that Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies. So when Ken suggested that I play this shy, sweet, confused alien-cum-lizard-cum-human with a dash of Wilder thrown in, not only was I thrilled that Ken and I shared a comic hero, but I knew exactly what he was looking for. He wanted awkward pauses, a sense of surprise, and offbeat comedy timing. I channeled Gene. And it worked.
A property of NBC, V was a big-budget project, the kind of budget that would make Roger Corman weep with envy. (Actually, if Roger ever got V money, he’d have used it to make twenty-eight films and build a new studio, and he’d still have enough money left over to spend a month at a château in the south of France.) Thus plenty of money was around to afford me state-of-the-art Hollywood-studio makeup special effects, circa 1983. But that art was not very advanced.
For example, in one scene Willie’s face had to look as if it were burned by ice, so the makeup crew got a bunch of green grapes, cut them in half, laid me on my back, affixed the fruit to my cheeks, nose, and forehead, then dripped melted paraffin all over my face. Now the only thing I knew about paraffin was that back in my younger days I would grab a handful of it, toss it into a pot, heat it over the stove, then drip the hot liquid wax on the deck of my surfboard so I’d have better traction in the surf; I had no idea the stuff could serve any cinematic purpose. But the makeup crew knew what they were doing. My face looked blistered and frozen. Their low-tech recipe worked. For the first time—but certainly not the last—I felt like a modern-day Lon Chaney.
However, that wasn’t the toughest makeup application I had to endure as Willie. In a later chapter of V, Willie had to undergo what could only be described as an alien allergy test, and to display his lizard scales in their full glory, I had to be fitted with a big, bulky back piece. One weekend, on a day off from shooting, I went to the makeup lab on the Warner Bros. lot—which wasn’t anywhere near as sophisticated as it would become a few years later, when artists such as Rick Baker of Men in Black and The Nutty Professor fame would rule the makeup special effects world.
The old-school makeup technicians, who were all dressed in white lab coats and resembled the researchers from those old Volkswagen commercials, ordered me to lie facedown on a cold stainless-steel table. All these guys were older and jaded, except for one of the apprentices, a young man with long hair, headphones, and a positive, eager attitude. If not for his joking with me through the process, I might’ve jumped off that coroner’s slab, grabbed Jan and my surfboard, and gone to the beach.
KEN JOHNSON HAD CONCEIVED V as an allegory for the occupation of Europe and the survival of the Jews in the ghettos during World War II. The alien’s logo had a Nazi-like vibe, and the uniforms and sunglasses had a storm-trooper ethos about them, plus many of the actors who were cast as the aliens had a Germanic, Teutonic look, so the message wasn’t exactly subtle, but it gave the whole project some gravitas.
The actress who played our Anne Frank was Dominique Dunne, the daughter of journalist and author Dominick Dunne, and sister of actor Griffin Dunne. Dominique had played the teenage daughter in Poltergeist, a superb horror thriller directed by my old pal Tobe Hooper. Soon after Poltergeist, she met an up-and-coming chef named John Thomas Sweeney. She and Sweeney fell in love and moved in together, and almost immediately John regularly abused the hell out of her. Dominique dumped Sweeney, and after she refused to reconcile, he strangled her in her own driveway. She went into a coma and died five days later. Sweeney served a grand total of two and a half years. (Nice penal system, right?) Dominique’s senseless death saddened all who knew and worked with her on V, and the tragedy brought the entire production team closer together. You’ve probably heard actors say time and again that “everybody on this movie became just like a family,” and most of the time that’s just lip service. In our case, we did support one another both professionally and personally, just as a real family would. We all believed in the project and wanted it to be the best it could be, so we soldiered on through our grief and produced what everybody felt was some pretty good work.
The ad campaign for V was the most imaginative and subversive since Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, fifteen years earlier. For that campaign, the studio had hired an army of people to stencil baby carriages on the sidewalks of busy city intersections, and in front of movie theaters. They also put up billboards that said PRAY FOR ROSEMARY’S BABY, without explaining who Rosemary was, and why we should talk to God about her brat. Rosemary’s Baby is a certified classic now and would probably have made its mark strictly on its merits, but that alternative campaign pushed it over the edge.
Somebody in the NBC advertising department must’ve paid attention. They blanketed the country with billboards that looked as if graffiti artists had defaced them; all you saw was a giant, spray-painted red V. The general reaction to the billboards was “What the fuck is that?” which is just about the best publicity one could hope for. NBC also came up with a terrific batch of commercials that made your television screen get all fuzzy and staticky, as if the station had gone off the air. Then, as if it suddenly had a mind of its own, the picture would click back on and the screen filled with the warning THE VISITORS ARE COMING. (V, as people were starting to realize, was an abbreviation for “Visitors.”) The hype was imaginative and pervasive, and with only three major networks back then, it entered the collective consciousness of the nation’s TV viewers—especially sci-fi-starved fans—which boded well for heavy media coverage and big ratings.
It worked. V became a cultural phenomenon, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. It was one of the highest rated miniseries in television history, so almost overnight I started getting recognized on the street. None of the films or TV movies I’d appeared in before had had anywhere near the visibility that V did, and suddenly I was on the pop-culture radar. I immediately learned that in terms of recognition, television makes far more of an impact than film. TV fans don’t have to pay to see you, plus you’re right there in their living rooms night after night, week after week, which means that it’s all but guaranteed that at some point during the run of your series, somebody will ask you for an autograph while you’re shaking off at a urinal.
MY LIFE AS A semi-anonymous character actor ceased to exist. It was my first bout with national celebrity, and it made those fallen nuns back in Cleveland who tracked me down backstage at Godspell, or the little kids who wanted Pinocchio’s autograph at the Teenage Drama Workshop, seem like another lifetime. People bought me drinks at bars, and meals at restaurants, and I was constantly signing pictures of America’s new favorite alien. Science fiction and horror fans are an intense, knowledgeable, loyal crowd, so I was besieged by fans with arcane questions about Willie, and his ability to straddle two worlds. My feeble answer was along the lines of “Uh … you should probably write to Ken Johnson. He’ll know.”
For the first time, I was getting fan mail … and lots of it, more than I could handle. As I discovered, it was more than Warner Bros./NBC TV could handle too. One afternoon during a break from shooting V, I went across the lot to visit a friend of mine who was guest-starring on the prime-time soap Hotel. The main set was the lobby of a grand hotel, complete with cubbyholes behind the reception desk, where the concierge could leave mail or messages for the guests. My friend pointed to the cubbies, which were filled with assorted envelopes, and said, “See that? They have to put prop letters in there, and the prop guys are using studio fan mail they found in the trash. A lot of it was addressed to Willie.” (So if you wrote me a letter during my V years and I didn’t answer it, you can blame the Warner Bros./NBC publicity department.)
For me, the timing of this show couldn’t have been better. In the early eighties, few science fiction shows were on American network television; hard-core sci-finuts were watching either syndicated reruns of Star Trek on their local stations, or flipping over to PBS for Doctor Who marathons. This was a neglected demographic that we happily catered to. Sure, V was a fine show, and I’m still proud of it, but the mammoth size of our audience wasn’t only about quality; it was also a happy synergy of timing and marketing. V filled a void, and luckily for me, Willie—a malaprop-spewing alien who is all about peace, love, and understanding—became one of the viewers’ favorites. I too filled a void and became a sort of de facto Dr. Spock for the post–boomer generation.
I was invited to a number of science fiction festivals, and I had no idea what the hell they were about, although I suspected it was going to be a bunch of nerdy Trekkies. Would it involve simply signing autographs, or Q&A sessions, or would I have to do a few Willie impersonations? I quickly learned that the sci-fisubculture was evolving from isolated underground fanboys to hundreds of thousands of hard-core followers valued by the industry, and attention must be paid. The crossover popularity of Comic-Con was still several years away, but I had a front-row seat for the genesis. (Many of those aforementioned nerdy Trekkies now rule the world. They’re game programmers and softwear designers and comic- book artists, and, of course, film and television executives. They embraced their Trekkie origins and unashamedly let their geek flag fly, and look where it got them.)
The miniseries was such a phenomenon, it was only logical that V became a full-blown weekly series. In the fine print of my contract, it read that V could be construed as either a mini-series or a TV movie, and if it was deemed to be a TV movie, it could also be construed as a pilot for a weekly series. Rather than dive into a weekly show, the network opted to do a longer miniseries—it would run ten hours rather than four—which sounded fine to me. My agent negotiated a deal that everybody was happy with, so when V: The Final Battle went into production in 1984, I’d be there.
But first came a hiatus, during which plenty of casting people contacted me. In one instance, I was up for literally every male role in National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, probably the first serial-killer spoof in film history. National Lampoon had proved they could make a classic comedy with Animal House, so I wanted in. I was up for the killer, the hero, the jock, the nerd, every-fucking-body, and after half a dozen callbacks, I was certain I was going to attend that Class Reunion. Well, I was wrong. I got nothing. Nada. Zero. Bubkes. All those callbacks must have canceled each other out and done more harm than good, and after that I decided that it would take a hell of a lot to get me to ever go on a callback again.
I think the Class Reunion casting director, Annette Benson, might have felt funny about having me come back so many times to audition for so many parts and then end up empty-handed, so she called my agent, Joe Rice, and asked him if I’d consider a horror movie.
I had fond memories from Eaten Alive with Tobe Hooper, and Galaxy of Terror with Roger Corman, so I told Joe, “I had fun working on them in the past. I’d definitely consider it.” Plus, I was beginning to feel a little typecast as Lizard Boy on V, and this might be an opportunity to remind audiences I had a darker side.
Joe said, “Terrific. Annette might just have something for you. There’s a director she wants you to meet. Today.”
So that afternoon, I hopped into my 1968, powder-blue Datsun 2000 convertible—she wasn’t cherry but was a great car to zoom around L.A. in—and drove across town to speak with Annette about a little project called A Nightmare on Elm Street, written and directed by Wes Craven.
* * *
WES’S FIRST MOVIE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, was released in 1972, right when I moved back to California. A cross between Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring and a contemporary, no-holds-barred horror movie, Last House on the Left was about a couple of hot girls, a rock band called Bloodlust, some psychotic escaped prisoners, sex, rape, and, most disconcertingly, a blow job gone awry. (At the time of its release, I was on my rediscovering-classic-America-cinema kick, so it wasn’t really on my radar.) Five years later, Wes made his second feature, another horror flick, called The Hills Have Eyes, for a grand total of $230,000. It made money hand over fist and achieved cult status. Wes could put asses in theater seats, scare the shit out of you, and turn a pretty penny, so it was little surprise that he’d become a legitimate Hollywood player.
My contemporaries and I saw Wes as more of a David Lynch type. I was a huge Lynch fan, in part because one of my favorite new wave/ska bars in L.A. played a loop of scenes from David’s 1977 weird-a-thon Eraserhead for hours at a time on their tiny black-and-white television behind the bar. When the bartender got tired of hearing Jack Nance’s wailing mutant baby, he would fire up bootleg videos of The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left. After a couple of Bushmills, all three movies fused together in my subconscious. I wasn’t exactly frightened—I looked at these movies less as horror films and more as art-house cinema—but I was creeped out nonetheless.
All those bizarre movie images were running through my mind as I parked in the lot of the building where the production office was located. So I sat in my little Datsun convertible for a minute, gathering my thoughts. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw my tanned face staring back at me, not exactly the kind of face that would scare your average moviegoer. When I pushed back my long blond hair and noticed that my forehead wasn’t as dark as the rest of my face, I came up with an idea.
I hopped out of the car, opened up the hood, pulled out the oil dipstick, touched it with my finger, then used the oil to slick my curly hair straight back. Then, remembering that my buddy Demetre habitually left his cigarette butts in my ashtray, I slid back into the front seat, licked my finger, poked around in the ashtray, and gently dabbed some ash under my eyes. Again, I checked myself out in the mirror; with a greased-back receding hairline and dark circles under my eyes, I no longer looked like a sun-kissed California surfer. Feeling far scarier, I headed to the audition.
I had no idea what Wes Craven looked like. Considering his movies and his thematically appropriate last name, I guessed he might be some kind of arty Goth guy, with pale skin, long hair, and dressed head to toe in black. I walked in the room and was introduced to a tall, slender gentleman with an articulate, charming demeanor, and a sartorial style that would make Ralph Lauren proud. Wes was one class act.
Now I tend to be a motormouth, but I consider myself a pretty good communicator, so I went into that office, shook hands with Wes, sat down, and prepared to launch into what I hoped would be a fascinating dissertation on the horror genre. But before I could utter a single syllable, Wes began speaking. Thank God I kept my big mouth shut, because the guy is a hypnotic storyteller, a mesmerizing raconteur with a wonderful sense of humor, and I was spellbound. In the midst of his story, when I was about to interrupt with what I thought might be a relevant observation, a bell went off in my head: Robert, zip it and just listen. And look scary.
How did I accomplish that? Simple: I didn’t blink. I stared at Wes and did everything I could to keep my eyelids frozen, as if I were trying to win a staring contest. I’m not sure he noticed, because he kept right on talking, waxing poetically about how the concept for A Nightmare on Elm Street originated.
It all started back when he was a kid. Wes and his brother were home alone. When they were getting ready for bed, as Wes went to close the curtain in their bedroom, he glanced out the window and noticed a man walking slowly down the sidewalk, alone, wearing a misshapen hat. From Wes’s perspective, the guy looked kinda dirty; he might’ve been a hobo. The man passed beneath a streetlight, stopped, snapped his head up, and stared directly at little Wes in the window. It scared the shit out of him, so he violently jerked the curtains shut and told his brother what he’d seen. A few minutes later, they gathered their courage to peek through the curtains again. The bum was still there, staring up at the window. They shut the curtains, then, after a while, tiptoed down the stairs and peered through the front-door peephole. The man was standing on the Cravens’ front walkway, and the brothers were scarred for life. The seed for one of the most successful, iconic horror franchises in showbiz history had been planted.
Wes gave me a quick rundown of the film’s plot, stressing that it would be a surreal, dark, suburban fairy tale, a contemporary myth, an urban legend in the spirit of an uncensored Brothers Grimm story. The horror would be embodied not by Rumpelstiltskin, but by a disfigured bogeyman who haunts the dreams of his victims. This nightmare-dwelling specter: Fred Krueger.
Whoever played Freddy was going to be stuck wearing a ton of special effects makeup, and Wes asked me if I thought I could handle it. I told him that between the theater and V, getting into the makeup chair was second nature to me. (I was only fibbing a bit.) As the interview drew to a close, I continued trying to stare at Wes without blinking, not wanting to break character. I really wanted the part now, but didn’t think I was going to get it; hearing Wes describe Freddy in depth, I assumed that they wanted a big stunt guy for the role. And honestly, that’s how I envisioned Freddy too; I didn’t really believe a blond-haired surfer who was just over five feet ten could portray this dream stalker.
But apparently Wes Craven believed. Two days later, a message was on my answering machine: the role was mine. Robert Englund was going to be Freddy Krueger. They hadn’t given me a single line of dialogue to read, so I don’t know what cinched it for me. It might’ve been the whole not-blinking thing. It might’ve been that Annette went to bat for me because she felt bad for making me audition for every fucking part in National Lampoon’s Class Reunion. It might’ve been the hair plastered to my skull and my dark, sunken eyes. It might’ve been that they thought my thin face, when covered with layers of FX makeup, would still look like a normal-size head. Or it might just be that Wes saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed.
After we worked out all the legalities, it dawned on me what I might be in for. I liked Wes, but I was a little concerned. Despite the Ralph Lauren attire and professorial attitude, this was the guy who’d bloodied the screen with Last House on the Left, and somebody with that dark of an imagination might not be right in the head. I also knew that the makeup could be a challenge. But I embraced it, because a little bit of the Teenage Drama Workshop–era Robbie Englund was still in me, the kid who liked to put on false beards and fake noses, the fan who liked to leaf through the Life magazine coffee-table books with pictures of Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, in all his silent film FX makeup incarnations. Even though I was in my midthirties, I understood that Nightmare might be a chance to rediscover the imagination of my childhood, to plug into that creative innocence. Also, I remembered that Laurence Olivier liked to change his look with every role—e.g., experiment with makeup, wear a humpback, or walk with a limp—so I figured if it was good enough for Sir Larry, it was good enough for me.
A COUPLE WEEKS BEFORE we were to start shooting, I drove way out in the Valley, to the home studio of one David Miller. David was a young FX makeup artist who’d only been in the business a few years, but had already made a significant splash with his work on the ultimate music video, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” David’s job that day was to make a cast of my head with liquid latex so he could use it to begin creating the mold to sculpt Freddy’s face. To prep me for the day’s work, he showed me some preliminary sketches of Freddy, and some medical textbooks with photos of burn victims. Ironically, I got nightmares from those graphic images.
Getting my head cast was just about as much fun as getting whacked in the nuts with a pool cue. First, they jammed straws up my nose. Next, my skin was lathered with Vaseline, then they basted my head, neck, and shoulders with a cold goop called alginate. As the goop began to solidify, the makeup crew covered it with strips of wet plaster bandages to form a helmet. (I thought I was playing Freddy Krueger, not the fucking Mummy.) As the goop hardened it got hotter and hotter, trapping me in my own hellish sauna. Then, blind and practically deaf, hyperventilating through straws, I heard the muffled whine of a chain saw. (First the Mummy, now Leatherface? What was I getting into?) After they surgically sawed the helmet in half, David told me to lean forward, wrinkle my face, and gently retract my head from the mold. And there, imprinted in the plaster shell, was a perfect negative of my facial features. This would now be used as a mold to cast a bust of me that David would transform into Freddy Krueger.
Wes and Bob Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, who was producing A Nightmare on Elm Street, joined me on my second trip to David’s place to check the progress of the makeup. The fourteen pieces of the Freddy face needed to be colored (they were still in their pale pink powdered-latex condition) and assembled on my neck, ears, nose, lips, cheeks, forehead, and all the way down to my chest. It was like a huge Freddy Krueger puzzle. Once all the pieces were glued to my face with medical adhesive—the stuff used for colostomy bags—the cohesive mask needed to be painted. When the coloring was complete, Freddy emerged. As a finishing touch, David rubbed K-Y jelly onto the makeup so Freddy would seem to be covered with oozing, suppurating, pus-filled burn wounds. Mmm, yummy, lunchtime.
Wes and Bob wanted Freddy to have thin flaps of translucent flesh peeling from his face. Wes knew it would be difficult for continuity—think about how hard it would be to replicate a penny-size piece of skin hanging from my chin day after day—but he loved the image and gave it a try. He quickly realized that wrangling little pieces of latex flesh consumed too much time and opened a can of continuity worms. So, much to Bob’s disappointment, the idea was bagged.
The first time I had the finished version of the Freddy makeup on—which took over three hours to apply—I realized that to activate the mask, to bring Freddy to life, I’d need to animate my own face more than I had in any other acting job before … well, except for maybe when I mugged my way through that Molière play in Detroit. To make the Krueger grimace work, and to allow my discolored teeth to be visible, I had to exaggerate. We also concluded that it would be effective if I kept the face passive sometimes and just exploited my eyes; if shot from the right angle, a fixed stare, a slow blink, or a malicious glare could be just as frightening as animated anger.
Wes had a concept for wardrobe, but was happy to turn its execution over to Team Nightmare. In the original script, he described Freddy’s claw glove in great detail, and a mechanical special effects designer named Jim Doyle, and his assistant, Lou Carlucci, realized Wes’s vision. (Initially, the claw was unwieldy and difficult to maneuver, and I used to wear it around the set so I could practice moving it naturally. My favorite thing to do was go over to the craft services table and spear a cocktail weenie or a cheese puff, then eat it right off the razor.)
Remembering the lesson I’d learned about sensible shoes during the filming of Bloodbrothers, I wore comfortable, broken-in work boots with thick heels, to give myself some extra height. Freddy’s pants were described simply as work pants, and Wes decided that it would be appropriate for Freddy to wear neutral brown slacks covered with oil stains. After a week of greasy thighs at the end of each day, I put the kibosh on the daily lube job by the wardrobe girls.
Freddy’s red-and-green-striped sweater was pure Wes; my contribution was the suggestion to fray it around the collar and the wrists. I asked that it not be as baggy as Wes had initially wanted because a tighter fit made for a stronger, more recognizable silhouette for Freddy. Wes never explained why he chose the colors red and green; my guess was that those two colors strobe on-screen, which is kind of nauseating, like the effect from 3-D glasses. It certainly had nothing to do with Christmas.
Then there was the hat, Freddy’s venerable fedora. The day before shooting, I was in full makeup standing in a tiny room at the studio while David applied final touch-ups. Wes and Bob were in the room with us, parked on a cheap futon, throwing in their two cents’ worth, making sure that Freddy was Just Right. Bob was still arguing for the flaps of flesh on Freddy’s face, and our director of photography, Jacques Haitkin, was in Bob’s camp, and Wes, ever the pragmatist, was reminding them that continuity would be a bitch. I was hot and tired, so I didn’t give a shit.
On the floor of the small room sat a huge box of hats that I figured the wardrobe people had stuck in there just to get out of everybody’s way. That wasn’t the case: with shooting only one day away, everybody was panicked and had started second-guessing the hat choice for Freddy. So Bob and Wes made me plow through this entire box and try on hat after hat after hat, the worst of which was a 1930s-era hat that made me look as though I should be selling newspapers on a street corner during the Depression. I told them, “I swear if you guys make me wear this one, I’m getting on camera and saying, ‘Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The villain from A Nightmare on Elm Street is wearing a stupid fucking hat!’”
I remembered my albino contact lens debacle from Buster and Billie, so I said, “Wes, the fedora was in the original script. I like it, and you dreamed it up, so why change it? And besides, it kind of reminds me of Lamont Cranston’s slouch hat in The Shadow.‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Freddy Krueger knows.’ Y’know?” Then I put on the fedora and tipped my hat to them a couple of times, demonstrating to Bob, Wes, and Jacques the advantage of the hat with different lighting, how it could hide Freddy’s face and also reveal his scarred baldness in all its glorious naked horror. Then I put the hat on and pointed to my shadow on the wall: “Check out that silhouette.” I believed in the hat, so I fought for it and, fortunately, won the battle. The fedora would become integral to Freddy’s signature look.
A COUPLE WEEKS PRIOR, way deep down, on a gut level—while I was sitting in that fucking barber’s chair in David Miller’s garage studio, the kind of chair that I’d eventually spend hundreds of hours in—I knew that we’d come up with something special, something more than just a mere monster, and that even though I’d never done anything like this in my career, I’d be able to physicalize this character to a T and make it work. I didn’t know that the child killer whom Wes, David, and I brought to life would become a pop-culture icon and survive for twenty-five years, but if you’d told me that would be the case, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised.
After David tweaked the makeup to his satisfaction, I stared in the mirror and started messing around with different voices for Freddy; I could’ve tried to figure out something on my own, but it was far easier when I could stare at the Krueger face. I came up with a combination of guttural attack and mocking attitude. Later on, in postproduction, Wes and his sound mixers slowed down the voice track a tad, which gave Freddy’s voice more bass and resonance. We were among the first films to control the pitch of a character’s voice using some hardware called Varispeed, but they couldn’t quite nail the process down, and at times the sound guys dialed it down too low and Freddy sounded distorted and lethargic, like an android that was running out of juice. However, some believe that the extra scootch of slow-down added to the creepiness factor and worked in our favor. (In later Nightmare movies, I spoke even deeper and a bit faster during the takes, so after the editors worked their magic, the pitch and cadence would sound more natural. Such as, if I said, “Welcometoprimetimebitch” at warp speed in front of the camera, it could come out sounding like “Welcome … to … prime … time … bitch …” after the final mix. There was a lot of trial and error, but we eventually solved it.)
And then, the shoot.
In one of those weird juxtapositions that makes Hollywood such a wonderful place to work, A Nightmare on Elm Street was shot at the old Desilu Studios, the very same Desilu Studios named for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, the very same Desilu Studios that was home to I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. The irony of our horror flick being housed under the very same roof where television’s classic comedy sitcoms originated wasn’t lost on any of us. This same soundstage was also where The Andy Griffith Show was filmed. I shudder to think what Freddy would have done to little Opie.
Since most of the cast was young and inexperienced, I was only familiar with a few of the actors, but there was one person in particular I was looking forward to working with: John Saxon, who was playing the heroine Nancy’s father, Lieutenant Don Thompson. John had been starring in movies since 1954 and had worked with Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, and Robert Redford in War Hunt and Electric Horseman, and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, and, most impressively to me, Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa. (One of my most prized possessions is my Appaloosa lobby card, which John autographed and hangs in a place of honor in my little Santa Fe adobe.)
Ronee Blakley, who played Nancy’s mother, was no slouch either. She was nominated for an Oscar for her vulnerable performance in one of the seminal movies of the 1970s, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and she’d dated the brilliant German director Wim Wenders, so, with one foot in the independent-film camp, and one in Euro-cinema, I thought she was the height of cool. She was flattered when, on one of the first days of shooting while we were sitting next to each other in makeup, I mentioned to her that soon after I wrapped The Last of the Cowboys, one of the actresses from that film and I trekked out to the venerable Palomino, a country-and-western bar deep in the Valley to hear her perform some of the songs from Nashville. I don’t know how Ronee felt about having Freddy Krueger as a county-western fan; maybe she would’ve been more at home if I’d worn a cowboy hat instead of my fedora.
I was almost always the first actor at the studio because I had to endure the three-hour makeup application. On the third morning of the shoot, I was trying to get comfortable in one of the old Desilu makeup chairs, as David once again cold-glued the Freddy puzzle pieces to my mug, when in walked our star, our Nancy, the lovely Heather Langenkamp. Heather was twenty, and looked like a petite version of Brooke Shields. A bright, delightful girl and talented newcomer, her biggest role to date had been an appearance in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders; unfortunately, her work had been left on the cutting-room floor.
A few minutes later, Johnny Depp strolled in. Johnny was a baby-faced twenty-one-year-old who, in the right light, could’ve passed for sixteen—which probably helped him land the lead in John Waters’ Cry-Baby six years later. He was still three years away from becoming a TV star thanks to 21 Jump Street and was clinging to his rockabilly roots. He’d had a band back in Florida, and with his slicked-back hair, long sideburns, pointy-toed boots, and fifties shirts he certainly looked as if he should be fronting a rock group. He was a bit shy and polite, and everybody on the set took to him instantly, especially the ladies.
So there I am getting glued and painted by David Miller, once again getting basted with that damn K-Y jelly so I’ll appear nice and shiny under the lights, just like a pervert who’d been burned alive by a bunch of pissed-off vigilante parents.
I nodded hello to Heather and Johnny, then stared back at myself in the mirror. I was unrecognizable. I didn’t see Robert Englund, a thirty-six-year-old veteran of a score of films and dozens of TV shows. All I saw was some guy whose face was buried under mounds of crap, parked between two of the most attractive young actors I’d ever seen, wondering if I’d made the right decision in taking this part. Here I was approaching forty, playing a monster who had barely any dialogue … and feeling completely envious of these kids. Heather and Johnny had their entire careers, their whole journey through Hollywood, ahead of them. And there I sat, cooking like a soft-boiled egg, and itching under that foam latex shit, while Heather and Johnny had little, personal electric fans keeping them cool and perspiration-free as they were gently powdered and pampered. As if they even needed any makeup.
I realized I could use this envy. No, Freddy could use it.
I could take my jealousy and resentment of their youth, beauty, and potential and give it to my character. During the more gruesome scenes and difficult special FX sequences, that envy would be the perfect Lee Strasberg sense-memory substitute to call upon. In my new interpretation, Freddy hated kids because they represent the future, something he’d never have. This could help me understand why Freddy was the way he was, why he was compelled to torture and murder children. I didn’t need to feel sympathy with Freddy to play him, just a modicum of empathy. This realization unlocked a door for me to understand the character Fred Krueger. I had the key now. This was an approach I could sink my claws into.
In fact, both Heather and Johnny were consummate professionals, whose company I enjoyed, and vice versa. Despite the gap in our ages, Johnny and I hit it off, and once in a while he would confide in me. One night after we wrapped at the same time, we went out for a beer, and he shared a story about his rockabilly band. They weren’t scoring many gigs, so Johnny decided to make a few exploratory trips out to California and give acting a try. He told me, “I knew it was time to move for good when I realized it was March and my Christmas tree was still up in my apartment.” I flashed on an image of Johnny, with his Elvis hair, wearing a leather jacket, tight black jeans, and rockabilly boots, smoking a cigarette, staring sadly at a pile of brown pine needles on his apartment floor, sighing, “Time to move on. Yep. Time to move on.”
IT BECAME SO MATTER-OF-FACT for everyone to see me in the Freddy makeup on the set every day that people started having a blasé attitude toward the character. They weren’t scared of him, because it was my personality behind the mask between takes, and I’m not a scary guy. Still, I was committed to the role, but not to the degree that I’d run around the set slashing my fellow actors with my claw blades; I just wanted to keep them a little on edge, keep them wondering if maybe I was a bit wrong in the head. One thing I did to keep Heather off-balance was regale her with off-color jokes in the makeup room. I cadged fresh material each morning from the Teamsters over breakfast burritos. When I ran out of jokes, I playfully teased her until she either laughed or blushed or glared at me and said, “Knock it off, Robert, I mean it!” I wanted her to be at ease with me because we had several fight scenes and stunts together, and she needed to trust me and know that I’d zig when she zagged, and I’d zag when she zigged. If the trust wasn’t there, she wouldn’t be able to go all out, and the scene wouldn’t work, so I was careful never to cross the line with Heather or make her feel uncomfortable. Over the years, however, I am sure I left enough thumbprint-size bruises on her that she probably qualified for extra stunt pay. I hope she’ll forgive me.
As is the case on many movie sets, the catering on Nightmare sucked, so one sunny afternoon during meal break, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, and I wandered over to the Thai restaurant across the street from the studio for a late lunch. We were seated in a booth in the back of the restaurant, and the kitchen had swinging double doors. I was facing the kitchen, so each time one of those doors opened, the fluorescent kitchen light spilled out onto our booth. Right after the server took our order, an elderly Asian waiter pushed backward through the doors from the kitchen, carrying a tray loaded with food and drinks. He turned in to the dining room, took one horrified look at my face illuminated in the harsh light, and stopped cold—oh, did I forget to mention I was still decked out in complete Freddy drag?—then the swinging door smacked him on the ass, and he dropped the tray. In a clatter of plates and glassware, a three-course lunch special hit the deck. He looked scared, ashamed, and then he scurried back into the kitchen. He wasn’t seen for the rest of our meal, and I felt terrible. I was genuinely concerned that I’d scared the old guy to death or maybe got the poor SOB fired. I thought it might be a good idea to limit Freddy to the soundstage from then on. But my resolve was weak, and Mr. Krueger would still be making unscheduled public appearances.
During one of our night shoots, I had a lot of time to kill, so, again in full Freddy regalia, I went on a little drive with a couple of friends who’d come to visit me on the set. Right after we turned onto Sunset Boulevard, we passed a couple of hookers. My pal who was driving gave the girls a once-over, then broke into a freaky smile.
He threw the car in reverse, backed up, opened his window, and motioned one of the girls over to the car. She teetered over in her stilettos; she had teased, distinctly 1980s big hair, a black leather miniskirt, and an acid-washed denim jacket with nothing on underneath. She seductively bent over and asked my friend, “Can I help you boys?”
He leered at her and said, “Yeah. We have a buddy here, and he served in ’Nam, and he got burned pretty bad there. We were wondering how much it would cost to, um, service him.”
She said, “Where is he?”
My friend cocked his thumb at me in the backseat. “Right here.”
When she leaned in the car to check me out, I let rip the biggest, ballsiest Freddy laugh I could muster, then lunged at the window.
The hooker screamed, ran down the block as fast as her five-inch heels would allow, tits bouncing, wig askew, stumbling back to her posse of pros.
I found ways to amuse myself on promotional tours as well. Once in Chicago, after a mob scene at an in-store signing session in the Midwest’s oldest mom-and-pop video store, we escaped in a limo and found ourselves lost in an adjacent working-class neighborhood. We ran into a bunch of kids playing street hockey, and stopped to ask them for directions. After they cleared out of the street to let us through, I sprung up through the limo’s sunroof—still in full makeup—and roared, “You’re all my children now!” One of the kids yelled, “Yo, Freddy, you wanna get in on the game? We got some extra sticks.” Not exactly the reaction I was shooting for.
Late one afternoon, after I’d finished shooting all my scenes, I tore off my makeup in a rush and headed to NBC in beautiful downtown Burbank for a TV Guide photo shoot to promote the television series V, which was going to commence shooting almost immediately after Nightmare wrapped. It had never been my dream to appear in TV Guide, but now that it was happening, I had to admit to myself that I was kind of excited.
As I sped through the winding canyon that links Hollywood to the Valley, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror: my entire face was pink and swollen. I realized that in my haste, over David Miller’s vociferous objections, I’d removed the Freddy prosthetics too roughly. When I posed that afternoon with the cast of the V series—which included a young actor named Jeff Yagher, whose brother I’d soon come to know very, very well—I looked like a test pilot for Clearasil sporting a Welcome Back, Kotter Juan Epstein Jew-fro. To this day, that ugly vintage TV Guide publicity photo haunts me at film festivals and sci-fi/horror/fantasy conventions around the world.
* * *
THE LAST WEEK OF shooting, we did a scene in which I drag Amanda Wyss, the sexy, blond actress who played Tina, across the ceiling of her bedroom, a sequence that ultimately became one of the most visceral from the entire Nightmare franchise. Tina’s bedroom was constructed as a revolving set, and before Tina and Freddy did their dance of death, Wes did a few POV shots of Nick Corri (aka Rod) staring at the ceiling in disbelief, then we flipped the room, and the floor became the ceiling and the ceiling became the floor, and Amanda and I went to work.
As was almost always the case when Freddy was chasing after a nubile young girl possessed by her nightmare, Amanda was clad only in her baby-doll nightie. Wes had a creative camera angle planned that he wanted to try, a POV shot from between Amanda’s legs. Amanda, however, wasn’t in the cameramen’s union and wouldn’t legally be allowed to operate the camera for the shot. Fortunately, Amy Haitkin, our director of photography’s wife, was our film’s focus puller and a gifted camera operator in her own right. Being a good sport, she peeled off her jeans and volunteered to stand in for Amanda. The makeup crew dabbed some fake blood onto her thighs, she lay down on the ground, Jacques handed her the camera, I grabbed her ankles, and Wes called, “Action.”
After I dragged Amy across the floor/ceiling, I spontaneously blew her a kiss with my blood-covered claw; the fake blood on my blades was viscous, so that when I blew her my kiss of death, the blood webbed between my blades formed a bubble, a happy cinematic accident. The image of her pale, slender, blood-covered legs, Freddy looming over her, straddling the supine adolescent girl, knife fingers dripping, was surreal, erotic, and made for one of the most sexually charged shots of the movie. Unfortunately it got left on the cutting-room floor. If Wes had left it in, the MPAA—who always seemed to have it out for Mr. Craven—would definitely have tagged us with an X rating. You win some, you lose some.
Subscribing to the Roger Corman school of getting the most bang for your buck, the revolving room was to be redressed and reused for Johnny Depp’s death scene, the scene in which the Artist Soon to Be Known as Edward Scissorhands is swallowed, then regurgitated by his bed, accompanied by plenty of blood and guts. To get the effect right, the room had to slowly revolve so that gravity would cause the FX blood and guts to explode from Johnny’s bed. To capture the sequence on film, Wes and Jacques had to be strapped into bucket seats that had been welded to the ceiling so that they and the camera would remain in a fixed position while the room rotated. I wasn’t in the scene, but it was going to be one of the cooler moments of the shoot from a technical standpoint, so I hung out. This was can’t-miss stuff.
I was standing off to the side backstage, barefoot, wearing a wifebeater T-shirt, jeans, with about half of my Freddy makeup removed; right next to me stood Heather, in those cute little pajamas she had on for most of the shoot. Wes called action, and the effects team spun the house clockwise. Unfortunately, they were supposed to have turned it counterclockwise, so a torrent of fake blood poured from the bed and began to fill the revolving room. The blood flood then overflowed through the door and windows of the set and all over the soundstage. Wes and Jacques got covered with the stuff, and we were afraid they might drown. But the more immediate problem was that like every film soundstage, the entire floor was littered with all kinds of electrical wiring and power boxes, which started hissing and sparking. Heather and I stared at the bloodbath, looked at each other, and then, like the big pussies that we were, hightailed it off the set, toward the exit. It was every monster for himself. I just hoped I wouldn’t step on a nail and wind up with tetanus.
Freddy’s climactic scene, when Nancy torches the monster, was the first fire stunt I’d ever been involved in. My stunt double, Tony Cecere—who, earlier that year, played the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters—was going to do all the fire work, but I had to be on the set for close-ups of me before and after Freddy got burned. It was to be one of the lengthiest interior fire stunts ever attempted, and I learned pretty quickly that even if the effects team is prepared to the max, indoor fire gags can be problematic. Any high school student who shows up for science class can tell you that fire eats up oxygen. So if you don’t open up the stage door to let in oxygen while shooting a fire, stuntpeople can get a little loopy. And believe me, you don’t want to be hanging out with a loopy stuntperson.
Everybody on the project worked around the clock and was happy to do so because we all believed in Wes, and our movie. Even near the end of the shoot, when we found out that New Line was running out of money and we might have trouble completing the film, we stuck with it, despite the pressure from the studio to hurry the fuck up, and the possibility of a bounced paycheck. To finish the movie, New Line had to sacrifice and sell off Nightmare’s potentially lucrative video rights, an expensive decision about which I’m certain they’re eternally bittersweet.
In the end, Bob Shaye might have been the only studio boss who could’ve brought the Nightmare franchise to fruition. When I first met him, I thought, This is a producer I can relate to. He was young, good-looking, long-haired, and charismatic, far from your typical suit. I don’t know what went on behind closed doors, but my dealings with him were genial and professional, and when we nearly ran out of money, I was practically the last person on the set to find out about our budget problems because I think Bob was trying to protect me.
Eventually, we got Nightmare in the can. After some good ol’ R&R, it was back to V for me. Now that I was a pop-culture phenomenon, I decided to embrace it; so much for the classically trained Anglophile.
THERE MIGHT NOT HAVE been any Oscars in my future, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be other awards. The Italian TV guide magazine called Telegatto—which, loosely translated, means “television cat”—nominated me for Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries for Willie in V. They flew me out to Milan first-class and expected the nominees and their dates to dress black tie for the award show. My girlfriend, Roxanne, forgot to pack anything formal for the event, so our hosts whisked her off to the Armani flagship store in the shadow of Milan’s duomo, where she was given a beautiful navy blue silk dress. Me, I’d packed a rented tux, so I was good to go.
When we arrived in the piazza adjacent to La Scala opera house for the event, our limo was instantly surrounded by rabid Italian fans. I was pulled from the car, separated from Rox, and lifted above the crowd. Like a rock star in some giant mosh pit, I crowd-surfed to the entrance of the venue, where that evening I would beat out Richard Chamberlain for my first acting award ever. The cherry on the gelato would come later that night when Roxanne and I were seated between Catherine Deneuve and The French Connection’s Fernando Rey for the postawards reception dinner. Pretty good company for a supporting alien. And if I ever find the Italian voice actor who dubbed my dialogue on V, I’ll give him joint custody of my Telegatto award.
WHAT WITH ALL THE domestic and international success, NBC wisely offered Ken Johnson a weekly series, and Ken accepted. The network committed to twenty-two shows, and since my character Willie had attracted so much attention in the miniseries, my role was bulked up for the weekly show. While shooting an early episode, I was doing a stunt sequence with my costar Michael Ironside. We were driving in a van with the side door open, and in the scene we were supposed to haul a stuntman dressed as one of the storm-trooper aliens into the van, slam the door shut, and peel away. Sounds simple. And it was.
On the first take, I nailed it. Second take, nailed it again. Third take, ditto. On the fourth take, Oooooooh shit.
I don’t know why we needed to do it a fourth time because the first three felt perfect. But we were pros, and if Ken Johnson’s people wanted a fourth take, then Ken Johnson’s people would get a fourth take, and we wouldn’t complain. And that take was a problem from the get-go. Maybe the stunt driver was a little burned-out, because he pulled in noticeably faster and with a little more gusto than he had in the earlier takes, then he braked and we all slid across the van floor and crashed into the back of the front seat. Michael and the stunt-man hung on to the front seat, but I couldn’t get a grip, and when the stunt driver shifted into gear and floored it, the van lurched forward and I slid back toward the rear of the van. My head hit the unlocked back door, making contact with the door handle at a perfect angle—the perfect angle, that is, if I were trying to open the door with my face. The doors flew open, and I crashed onto the street.
Surprisingly, I was more or less okay, aside from a huge gash on my forehead. Michael stared at my face, pointed at the nasty scar on his cheek, and said, “You see this? I got this up in Canada. They took me to some Eskimo hack who sewed me up with a whalebone or something. Let’s not mess around here. If you don’t get this fixed now, and get this fixed right, you’re going to have a big scar forever right on that forehead of yours. We’re getting you to a plastic surgeon immediately.” (Michael was absolutely right. Plastic surgeons stitch you up differently from the doctors at the emergency room so that you heal with minimal scarring. This is excellent advice for anybody who doesn’t want a permanent scar on their precious kid’s face.)
We’d been filming in the foothills near the Santa Anita Race Track, in San Marino, just east of Pasadena, right by where the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot. Fortunately, it was an upscale area, and upscale areas in Los Angeles tend to be filled with plastic surgeons, so within minutes after the accident, thanks to Michael, I was sitting in the waiting room of a famous plastic surgeon, about to get my gash repaired. Once I learned that this doctor was the same plastic surgeon who had worked on Michael Jackson after his hair caught on fire during the filming of that Pepsi commercial, I knew I was in good hands. If he fixed the King of Pop, he could fix Willie the alien lizard, no problem.
The doctor took us into his office and explained the procedure, which sounded fine to me. He then pulled out a bottle of Scotch, poured me two fingers, gave me a local anesthetic, and went about the business of making me beautiful again.
The surgery took place on Friday evening. By Sunday morning, my forehead was so black-and-blue and ballooned up that I thought I’d never get offered a role for the rest of my life. I looked like Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I had a meltdown and yelled at Roxanne, “I’ll never act again! I’ll have to become a director. Or, God forbid, a writer!” I was whining like a big baby. But as the week progressed, the swelling gradually went down. The surgeon had given me some vitamin E, and a couple of my hippie friends had given me some aloe vera plants to rub on the wound, and by the following Sunday, it was mostly gone. Thirty-seven stitches, and only the faintest trace of a scar. (So now the misshapen nose that both Kris Kristofferson and Richard Gere had contributed to was accompanied by that faint thread of a scar over my left eyebrow. I was beginning to look like a punch-drunk welterweight.) Thanks, Doc, thank you vitamin E oil, thank you aloe vera juice, and thank you, thank you, thank you, Michael Ironside.
A week later, the phone rang: “Is this Mr. Englund?”
“The Robert Englund who was injured on the set of V?”
“Um, who is this?”
“Don’t worry about who this is. The only thing you should worry about is suing Warner Bros.”
“Why would I sue Warner Bros.?”
“Negligence. You shouldn’t have been anywhere near that van. You’re not a stuntman. You’re an actor. Warners didn’t look out for you. They don’t look out for any of their actors. I’ll help you put together a case. You initiate a suit, and I’ll cut you a check for a million dollars.”
“Who is this?”
“Don’t worry about who this is. You in or not?”
“Not.” I’d developed a great working relationship with Warner Bros. over the years, and I had no interest in suing them, especially since my injury had all but disappeared. I slammed down the phone.
The next week, he called again, and I didn’t let him get three sentences into his pitch before I hung up. I never heard from him again, but I have a suspicion of who he was. The scandal and litigation over the Twilight Zone: The Movie tragedy—in which actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed—still permeated the industry. I think some ambulance chasers were trying to get me to be part of a class-action suit against Warners. Hollywood had always been good to me, so it didn’t occur to me to sue; besides, I didn’t want to bite the hand that was feeding me.
* * *
THE STAR OF V, Faye Grant, was one of the most savvy TV actresses I’ve worked with, something that some of the actors would get a little frustrated with. For example, in a scene, Faye would occasionally avoid eye contact, sometimes turning her back to the camera and busying herself with props. It was almost as if she were trying to hide from the prying lens. I didn’t know what the hell she was up to and didn’t bother asking, because I figured it was her business and she probably wouldn’t want to discuss it.
I was just as confused as the other cast members, until I started paying close attention to her performance when I watched our show every Friday night at home. I realized that Faye was cherry-picking “moments.” She wished to highlight certain lines of dialogue, but instead of emphasizing those lines, she would underplay or throw away her other dialogue. Then when she had a moment she wanted to pop, she would look up for the camera, and letting her light hit her face and her eyes just right, she would literally own the moment. Faye was so in control of what she was doing that when it came time for the editors to piece together the show, they had no choice but to use the takes and angles that she’d silently dictated. It wasn’t about a lack of generosity; it was about protecting her work and making it rise above standard television acting. This wasn’t the kind of thing that was taught at ADA, or anywhere else for that matter. Faye’s TV technique helped me understand that I still had plenty to learn.
A couple of years later, I saw Faye performing on Broadway in an excellent production of Singing in the Rain, which was directed by the great choreographer Twyla Tharp. Faye played the silent-screen star whose shrill, irritating voice would prevent her from making the transition to talkies. She was a completely different physical presence onstage than the actress I had worked with on TV. Her comedy work was deft, and her vocal transformation astounding—truly a versatile turn.
After the show, I went backstage and waited in the hall by her dressing room, right next to Andy Warhol and Leonard Bernstein. When Faye finally came out, I gave her a big hug and told her how impressed I was. Then I confided in her: “I learned so much about film acting from watching you work on V.” (Faye hasn’t stopped doing great work. In 2002, she again exhibited her versatility when she essayed a flamboyant Auntie Mame–type character, Tattie McKee, on the underrated cable series State of Grace.)
THE WEEK BEFORE A Nightmare on Elm Street was released nationwide, I was invited to my first science-fiction convention; this one was held in New York City at the old Roosevelt Hotel on Madison and Forty-fifth, near the Diamond District. At that time, Nightmare barely registered on my radar; the V series was such a success that it was taking up all of my time and energy.
The convention organizers—who had paid me a generous fee to appear—set up a table in the lobby, where I could sign autographs, memorabilia, and shoot the shit with the fans. The line of people who wanted to chat with Willie snaked through the lobby, went out the door, and around the block. It was a miserably rainy day, but that hadn’t stopped the diehards, who’d waited in line since dawn to spend a couple of minutes with me. I’d known V was big, but seeing such a sizable crowd turn out in the Big Apple really brought it home for me. The first hour, fans politely gave me V-oriented merchandise to sign, asked a question or two, and went on their merry way. But then things got a little strange and the line began to evolve.
My fans were no longer wearing homemade V costumes or sci-finerd gear. They had on Ramones T-shirts, ripped jeans, spiked collars around their necks, with multiple facial piercings. There were girls with magenta hair, and guys with eight-inch-high Mohawks. They were rock ‘n’ roll. They were heavy metal. They were punk.
And they all loved Freddy Krueger.
In the midst of all this, who wanders over but Bob Shaye from New Line, who was there to take me out for a late lunch. Bob took one look at the long line, and a huge smile broke out on his face. “Shit, the movie hasn’t even opened wide.”
“Yeah, Bob, it’s great.” Then, politely, I added, “But I have to tell you that most of the fans are here because of V.”
He either didn’t hear me or chose to ignore it. “Yep. Nightmare’s a hit.”
“I think they’re here for V, Bob.”
I glanced across the lobby and out into the rain, and sure enough, Bob was right. An army clad in wet black leather was huddled under awnings and stretching down the street waiting to meet Freddy.
I was pleased about my expanding fan base from the punk/ heavy-metal contingent, but my mind was still in V-land. The TV series was a bona fide smash, and I was making good money. I didn’t earn much on Nightmare, and in terms of box office, it could still go either way. New York City was the punk/heavy-metal capital of the world, but how would Freddy play in Peoria? And what about those secondary markets such as Miami and Dallas, where there weren’t as many movie theaters? Did people still care about horror movies there? I knew Nightmare was a good little flick, but I couldn’t share Bob’s over-the-top optimism, not because I didn’t believe in the movie, but rather because I’d never been part of a major horror project and couldn’t venture a guess as to how the genre’s fans would react.
The next week, I went to see everybody’s favorite comic magic team, Penn and Teller, perform off-Broadway, and in the middle of the second act they cracked a Freddy Krueger joke. (I don’t know if they knew I was out in the audience, but even if they did, how could they recognize me without the claw?) It was another sign that A Nightmare on Elm Street was beginning to enter the zeitgeist. Something was brewing, and it wasn’t just in Freddy’s boiler room.
What had begun as Wes Craven’s frightening memory of a childhood encounter with a menacing man and cost a piddling $1.8 million to make, ended up grossing a whopping $26.5 million in domestic box office and launched a horror empire. Wes had created a monster. He was my Dr. Frankenstein, and I liked it. I thought, Hey, I just might stick with this scary shit for a while.