I’ve lived in a number of houses and apartments, and I’ve always had a plan for escape in case of intruders or fire. Since I was an athlete in my youth, I was comfortable that some of these escape routes involved jumping from second stories; I always felt secure and confident that I could save myself and rescue whichever girlfriend I was living with at the time. As the years passed and my old sports and stunt injuries began to take their toll on my body, I felt less sure of my ability to help my partner, or even to save my own sorry ass. These doubts and frustrations of old age have manifested themselves in recent years as a stress nightmare in which my home is invaded by hooded men or a fire has broken out downstairs. I find myself trapped on the roof or unable to hold on to my wife as I try to lower her safely from the eaves. I wake up soaked with night sweat.
THE NIGHTMARE MOVIES WERE UNDENIABLY popular in the United States, but over in Europe the fans couldn’t get enough of Freddy either. I did a lot of publicity in major American cities, and I spent a good chunk of my downtime across the pond, hyping Freddy as well, which didn’t leave much time for interviews and auditions. Pressing the flesh was fun, especially in London, Rome, and Paris, but I itched to act again. Even though I was pooped from the publicity junkets, I missed the set. Then, out of the blue, Renny Harlin called and said he was directing another movie, and he needed an actor who could replace Billy Idol. Billy had been in a motorcycle accident, and would I consider taking over at such short notice? So I replied in my best faux cockney, “Right-o guv’nah. Where do I bloody sign then?”
Renny’s new project was The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, a star vehicle for up-and-coming comic Andrew Dice Clay. Andrew had a broad act—over-the-top vulgarity embodied in the persona of a Long Island stud. (Think Happy Days’ Fonzie crossed with Buddy Love from The Nutty Professor.) Ford Fairlane was a new-wave rock-and-roll-cum-detective flick tailored to capitalize on Andrew’s popular stand-up comedy act. It was a risky idea to exploit his fifteen minutes of fame, but if anybody could pull off this comedy hybrid, it was the tag team of Renny Harlin and Joel Silver.
Figuring that Andrew would have trouble carrying an entire movie, the producers brought together Wayne Newton, Priscilla Presley, Ed O’Neill, Gilbert Gottfried, Morris Day, Sheila E from Prince’s band, and Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil to help out, which nudged the kitsch-o-meter into the red zone. With this bizarre collection of talent, we probably weren’t going to win the SAG Award for Best Comedy Ensemble, but if all the stars aligned properly, I thought this might find an audience beyond Dice’s rabid fan base.
I played a hit man/roadie, which involved some physical work—no fire stunts, thank God—so they found me a stunt double. Now I’ve had a number of stuntmen stand in for me on past movies, but never one before who looked so much like me as my double on Ford Fairlane. The resemblance was so uncanny that people would walk up to him at the craft-services table and ask him for my autograph.
The French stuntman would respond, “Pourquoi?” then grin and regale them with tales of his life as a stuntman/ jazz musician/kickboxer. (He’d been a champion kickboxer, and rumor had it that he had once beaten the crap out of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme in an exhibition.) As a European accustomed to clean air and clear water, he was more than a little reluctant when it came time for him to double me in my big fight scene, which was to be filmed down in San Pedro, a cesspool otherwise known as the Port of Los Angeles. The script called for me to kickbox with the star in a sinking boat, and my stunt double wanted nothing to do with it. Renny was exasperated with the guy and called upon all of his persuasive powers to get him in the water. No go. Stubborn fuckin’ frog.
I knew we were up against the wall time-wise, and they weren’t about to go searching for another Robert Englund look-alike. So to preserve the integrity of my fight scene, I told Renny, “Listen, Pepé Le Pew over there is a great guy, but a bit of a pussy. Me, I’m an old surfer, I’ll get in the goddamn water. Hell, I’ve been in worse.” Turned out, I hadn’t been in worse. Frenchy was right. I should’ve played the pussy card myself because that was the smelliest, most vile, disgusting body of water I’ve ever been in in my life. I saw things floating around me that were X-rated. Thankfully my dip in the harbor didn’t leave me glowing in the dark. I haven’t checked my sperm count.
Ford Fairlane had a decent budget, so we got to work at some great L.A. locations such as Malibu Beach, but my favorite was the iconic Capitol Records building in downtown Hollywood. As much fun as it was to float around in L.A. harbor with Dice Clay and Gilbert Gottfried, hanging out with Wayne Newton and Priscilla Presley in the very building where Frank Sinatra laid down some of the greatest vocal tracks of the twentieth century really appealed to my inner Rat Packer. Wayne Newton’s reputation is that of a schmaltzy lounge singer, but few people know that Wayne has an encyclopedic knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll and is an accomplished guitar player as well. I loved grilling him for stories about Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, old-school Las Vegas, and his friendship with Elvis Presley. His music-industry and showbiz gossip were as compelling as Henry Fonda’s tales of old Hollywood, and a fascinating way to pass the time between takes.
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FAST-FORWARD TO THE FOLLOWING year. My agent, Joe Rice, and I are on the Ford Fairlane press junket, headed off to Las Vegas to attend a roast of Joel Silver, the wildly successful and prolific producer who’s midwifed such movie franchises as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and The Matrix. We were flown to Vegas on a private studio jet—accompanied by my old costars Johnny Depp and Jeff Bridges, along with Winona Ryder, Anjelica Huston, and CEO Barry Diller. If that puddle jumper went down, Hollywood was going to be out some big boxoffice bucks.
When we got to the hotel where we were going to tear Joel a new one, Wayne, Priscilla, and I walked through the casino together, and I had the quintessential showbiz moment. I was flanked by Mr. Las Vegas himself and the wife of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. They were Vegas royalty. The people parted as if we were demigods, some afraid to look Wayne and Priscilla in the eye, and some brave enough to ask one of them for an autograph or to blow on their craps dice for good luck. Between V and Nightmare, and attending dozens of movie premieres, I’d gotten a sense of what it’s like to be a celebrity, but when Wayne Newton cruises through a casino in Vegas, that’s CELEBRITY. It also gave me a curious sense of my place in show-business history at that moment; here I was in Sin City, hyping a contemporary nineties comedy, getting ready to roast a guy who’d played a key role in defining eighties popular cinema, and hanging out with icons from the sixties and seventies. It’s not always easy being a Hollywood monster, but moments like that make all the bullshit worthwhile.
(A final note: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane made over $20 million. Sometime later a controversy occurred between host Andrew Dice Clay and some of the female cast members on Saturday Night Live. It may just have been political correctness run amok, but it took the wind out of Dice’s sails for a while. Since then, Andrew has resumed a successful career touring his stand-up comedy act, and returned to NBC with an ever-so-brief stint on The Celebrity Apprentice; and Ford Fairlane has been rediscovered and become a bona fide cult hit. Fairlane fans often accost me with Dice’s favorite epithet for my character: “Yo, Snapperhead.”)
European filmgoers had taken quite a liking to me, and so too had Menahem Golan. He offered me the lead in a remake of The Phantom of the Opera. One-half of the infamous Golan-Globus production team, Menahem had taken the Roger Corman business plan—use lower budgets to make more movies—to the max. (That said, I was handsomely paid. Corman would’ve committed hara-kiri before he’d sign off on my Phantom salary.) Prior to Phantom, Menahem Golan had produced, executive-produced, or had a hand in writing almost two hundred movies; afterward, he added another forty or so to his filmography. The guy knew how to get movies made.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit musical version of Phantom had opened on the stage in 1986, and, come 1988, Menahem figured it would be a clever business move to make yet another film version. (Lon Chaney did it in 1925, then Claude Raines in 1943, then Herbert Lom in 1962, and Maximilian Schell in 1983. Shit, I thought, I am going to be in good company.) Menahem knew a filmed Phantom would attract fans of the hit Broadway musical, who would instantly recognize the title. Menahem also calculated that if he hired me, he could draw an audience from fans who loved me in Nightmare and were curious to see me in another horror-movie role. He wanted to exploit—and I don’t mean “exploit” in a bad way, necessarily—my Freddy fame and turn me into a Vincent Price/Boris Karloff genre star. Nightmare 5 was still in development, and I had nothing pressing on my docket, so it was off to Hungary.
The Budapest of 1988 was still chaffing under Soviet rule; it wasn’t uncommon to see a fifteen-year-old Russian soldier leaning against a Belle Epoque lamppost and smoking a cigarette, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, flirting with a local girl.
Christine, the female lead, was played by Jill Schoelen, fresh off the nifty little thriller The Stepfather, in which she costarred with Terry O’Quinn, who would eventually go on to fame and fortune as John Locke in Lost. She’d also recently shot a low-budget horror film with Brad Pitt called Cutting Class, as well as the musical Babes in Toyland with Keanu Reeves. (How about that? This old character actor shared a leading lady with two of People magazine’s sexiest men alive.) Bill Nighy, who had yet to cross over from British stage star to international film star—can you say Pirates of the Caribbean?—was also along for the ride. The Phantom got to kill Bill, a classically trained Englishman whose work I’d always loved, in a Turkish steam bath, which was almost as much fun as killing Burt Reynolds.
Before filming began, our director, Dwight Little, and I had several conversations about how I should play the role, and the style of the movie. We decided to think of it as a reimagining, an homage to the classic Hammer Film productions. Hammer was a UK company founded in 1935, which, twenty years later, became one of the leading exporters of fright flicks, e.g., The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. With their rich, saturated color, Hammer films had a distinct look and often featured heavyweights such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Oliver Reed. We wanted to bring a similar sense of class, style, and not-so-subtle sexuality to our version of Phantom. (The Hammer film that had the biggest impact on me was Brides of Dracula, a flick I caught at a drive-in movie. I was on my way to second base with my date, fumbling to unhook her bra, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the big-screen vampire bite a beautiful actress’s neck. Then, as her warm blood coursed down her cleavage, she surrendered in Hollywood ecstasy to her fate. I was so entranced that I actually halted my pursuit of second base and watched the movie because, frankly, it was more of a turn-on.)
I was reunited with Kevin Yagher, my makeup man from Nightmare 2 and Nightmare 3 and 976-EVIL, and as usual he outdid himself. As opposed to the Freddy makeup, which was foam latex prosthetics applied directly to my skin, Kevin’s design here required him to apply makeup on top of makeup, because in our version of Phantom, Erik Destler (aka the Phantom) didn’t use anything as pedestrian as that Broadway musical mask, preferring instead to flay the facial skin from his victims and sew it on top of his own deformed flesh. This enabled him to attend his beloved opera without drawing attention to himself. I suppose you could think of Erik Destler as a less ambitious seamstress than Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs.
When the Phantom was in deformed mode, Kevin made it appear as if the dead skin was rotting off, which could be a bitch for continuity, but Kevin didn’t care. When it came to how my “public” visage would look, patched together from my victims’ faces, Kevin took a different, more subtle tack. He had worked with me so much that he knew what would look best on my face, and rather than turn me into a completely different person, he chose to exaggerate my natural looks. For instance, he gave me a slightly sharper jawline, a little bit more of a brow, and some more definition in my cheekbones; in the right light, I resembled a living bust of Beethoven. In contrast to the mutilated, deformed look, it was a heroic, romantic countenance. Close-ups, however, would reveal the ghoulish nip-and-tuck work of the demented composer Erik Destler. (Kevin, it should be noted, was juggling about six projects, so he didn’t make the trip to Hungary with me, sending Everett Burrell, his right-hand man at the time, and a veteran of Nightmare 3.)
Hair was yet another complication. Freddy was simply bald, so all we needed was a skullcap covered with burn scars and the signature fedora, and we were good to go. Erik the Phantom, however, had a thick mane of hair, so one of Kevin’s assistants constructed a beautiful hairpiece back at Kevin’s lab in California. We couldn’t afford to bring Kevin’s hair-meister with us to Budapest, so the care and feeding of the wig was left up to local hire. Fortunately, the Hungarian hair team was composed of little old ladies who’d toiled for years in the wig department of the world-famous Hungarian State Opera in Budapest. Their expertise was such that Erik’s hairpiece was a cakewalk for these skilled professionals.
We shot Phantom at an old studio outside Budapest. Often on the dawn drive through the countryside we would find ourselves behind nineteenth-century oxcarts lit with swinging lanterns making their way to the village market. It was magical and helped get me in character; we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The underground chamber set that was home to Erik Destler evoked both terror and romance and was carved entirely from Soviet Styrofoam, the Russian counterpart to the spread-open Quarter-Pounder-boxes-and-milk-crate spaceship interiors that James Cameron had created on the cheap for Galaxy of Terror, seven years before. The problem was, in this movie, lit candles were going to be every where on the set, and mixing live fire and Styrofoam is not OSHA-approved. For instance, Erik’s labyrinth beneath the opera house where he composes his music and courts Christine was entirely lit by candles, not to mention that the climax of the movie was to be a fiery conflagration that destroys Erik and his lair. In terms of movie fires, this was simple stuff, but when Styrofoam is involved, the danger is exponentially amped, because when that shit burns, things can get acrid, poisonous, and dangerously drippy. Even more frightening to me was the possibility that my artificial hair would go up in flames—maybe from a candle, or the fire in the finale—and I didn’t know exactly what kind of material Kevin and his crew had used to make my hair, but I was pretty certain it wasn’t fireproof. Since our entire fire-safety department consisted of a brigade of four overweight, chain-smoking Hungarians sharing two Soviet-era fire extinguishers and a single bucket of water, I watched my every step, played it safe, and survived the shoot without any new additions to my collection of Hollywood scars. I’d leave the burn wounds for Mr. Krueger, and as it turned out, he’d need them soon enough.
IN 1988, NEW LINE called me up and asked if I’d like to do a television series featuring Freddy Krueger as a host. Freddy would function as a sort of Rod Serling from Hell, and the show would contain some scary shit. I was initially skeptical about the project because I couldn’t really see Freddy on TV. How much violence would we be able to get away with? What about the sexual subtexts? Would the network censors take kindly to child killing? If it was going to be watered down, what was the point? I was assured that since we were going to be syndicated late at night, we’d be able to push the envelope as far as we possibly could. TV taboos would be broken. Plus—and this was the clincher—I could direct some episodes. That all sounded pretty good, so I was in.
Tobe Hooper shot the pilot, which had a lot of material regarding Freddy’s backstory, serving almost as a prequel to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which audiences had been clamoring for. I felt the pilot script really surpassed the expectations of our legions of fans. Another episode that stands out is “Killer Instinct,” directed by Mick Garris, who became the go-to director for Stephen King adaptations to the screen. I was reunited with Mariska Hargitay for one episode, and halfway through the first season, newcomer Brad Pitt guest starred.
New Line was loyal to their Nightmare film crews, but they could only pay them so much, and as I’ve noted, unless you’re on a big-time shoot, TV money is usually better than movie money. I was able to convince a lot of the Nightmare veterans from Part 4 to segue into the TV series. The Dream Master and Freddy’s Nightmares back-to-back meant a lot of overtime and finally some healthy bank accounts for my hardworking crew.
After a run of thirty-eight episodes, the series was canceled in 1990, and it was time to take stock. I’d been Freddy in four feature-length movies and close to fifty hours of syndicated television. Man, I thought, that’s a lot of Freddy. The fact of the matter was, I was ready to hang up the claw.