Sunday, 10 January 2016

interview: Angus Scrimm

At the American Film Market in Los Angeles in October 1998, I was introduced to Angus Scrimm, best known as the Tall Man in the Phantasm films. Angus, who was promoting the new fourth film in the series, turned out to be the most wonderful interview subject. An absolute gentleman, unfailing polite and enthusiastic. And knowledgeable too, about films and music. In fact he actually had a Grammy, which he won for writing the sleeve notes to an Itzaak Perlman album! A short version of this interview appeared in SFX magazine and proved to be the most popular, most commented-on feature I ever wrote for the mag.

In January 2016 came the news that this much-loved actor had passed away, so I dug this out and reposted it as my own humble tribute. Here's a secret no-one knows: when I interviewed Angus Scrimm, I had never actually seen a Phantasm film! (I have the silver sphere set now, of course.) It's a measure of the man that he was able to give me such a great interview when I had so little detailed knowledge to work with. Back in 1998, before I could ask my first question, Angus asked me:

“Whereabouts in England is your magazine based?”

In the town of Bath.
“Bath? Oh, that’s where I fell of a b... No, I fell off a bus in Bournemouth, rode all the way to Bath, was limping, limping, limping, and we went to the local hospital. This was in 1953 - coronation year - I won’t tell you how old I was, I was pretty young. I thought, ‘Well, this is the end of my English trip. God knows what I’ve done to myself. My arm is hurting and it’s going to cost the Earth.’ Well, they took X-rays and said, ‘You have a slight fracture in your ankle and in your elbow, but we’re going to bandage them up for you. Stay off them for about a day or two and then you can continue getting around. And you’ll have no further problem except that when you’re older you may have an ache where that fracture occurred.’

"Then I asked the burning question: ‘How much do I owe you?’ ‘It’s all on the National Health.’ You don’t know what that is when you’re a visitor! I can tell you: I always loved England but I dearly loved England after that. Of course I was there for six months and lived in London for a long time and in Bournemouth for part of the time, travelled over to Paris and back and went to Wales and just had a marvellous, marvellous six months.”

Tell me about Phantasm IV. What’s the basic premise?
“It actually begins at the precise moment that Phantasm III ended, with Reggie the ice cream man suspended from a wall with silver balls all over his body, ready to drill into him. Of course we have to free him from that situation - I won’t tell you how. Then it proceeds from there, unravelling the relationship, that’s always been a mystery, between Michael and the Tall Man: the young leading man and the sinister Tall Man. Just why is the Tall Man constantly in pursuit of him but letting him survive? The Tall Man doesn’t let very many people survive that he comes in contact with. This provides the answer to that and further involves Reggie in a number of unpredictable occurrences. The first film, as you probably know, I understand that it was not widely seen in England initially because it was just on British TV last year for the first time.”

I missed it.
“Did you? It definitely was. Because for a long time I worked for EMI over here and Capital Records, which they own, as an annotator, a writer of notes on the back of LPs and compact disc booklets. In fact, I was at Capital in 1962-3 when you sent over to us a rock group and I was asked to do the notes for the rock group. I got volumes and volumes of press materials from all over England and Europe and out of that wrote a note praising the group, very highly of course, saying that they were going to make a big impact on the United States. I remember my editor came to me and said, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good note. Don’t you want to sign it?’ ‘No way,’ I said. ‘These kids with their crazy haircuts and the strange little suits they wear, they’re never going to make it with clean-cut American kids.’ Well, you know who I’m talking about, I’m sure. And a year later I was listening to the Beatles with great enjoyment myself.”

How, over the course of the four Phantasm films, has the Tall Man developed?
“I’ll tell you. I’ll answer that, but did I answer your other question? I think I side-tracked you. I don’t remember. Something about... Why did I get into EMI? Oh, oh, we were talking about it having been on British television. That’s right, and you didn’t remember it. Friends at EMI - I still have friends there - told me that it made quite an impact. Barry, being an American who works for EMI in London, tells me that his co-workers refused to believe that he actually knew the sinister character of the Phantasm series.

"The Tall Man, to me, is always represented as the Grim Reaper, the personification actually of Death. What I tried to do with him in each film is to try to realise that concept as truly and as deeply as I can while contending with some of the unexpected things that Don Coscarelli the writer/director throws at me. Sometimes it’s a little hard to reconcile the things that occur. But I think we’ve managed to sustain that and I’m still convinced that that is the Tall Man’s essential character. He is certainly an alien figure from another dimension. But to Michael’s eyes I’m sure he represents Death.”

How long is it now since the first Phantasm?
“The first Phantasm came out in the United States - actually Avco-Embassy was the studio which then distributed it and it opened in the Spring in San Francisco and San Antonio. Then they bunny-hopped it around the country in increasingly greater clusters of cities. They sent Don and me on air flights to do press for the openings and that was in ‘79. Then the second one didn’t come out until ‘88, that was Phantasm II. The next was Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead. It became fashionable for the third one to have a descriptive subtitle. That came out in ;93.”

There was big gap between the first two.
“Yes, a very big gap.”

Why was it felt that Phantasm should be brought back after so long a time? It couldn’t be cashing in on the success of the first one.
“Actually there was a great movement for a Phantasm II after the first one, but Don Coscarelli did not want to become too closely identified with the horror genre. So he did a picture called Beastmaster instead which was a sword and sorcery movie, and then went on to do some other films, Survival Quest among them. In '88 there must have been a groundswell based on the horror cycle rejuvenating itself. But in any case he was approached by two or three studios to do a Phantasm II and he went with Universal Pictures.

"The film, I remember, came out in the United States the same week as Roger Rabbit and, I think, Rambo II, and Big with Tom Hanks. It was the greatest week in the history of American motion picture exhibition and Phantasm II was lucky to hold its own in the midst of all those big pictures, but we did and we went on to perform respectably. Not as well, I think, as if we had come out around Halloween. But for reasons of their own Universal was very keen to market it as quickly as possible and thought it would be a big summer hit. Then Phantasm III actually test-marketed here in Baton Rouge and another city and did very well. It outperformed all the pictures that week, but for some reason MCA decided that they didn’t want to invest the additional $7 million it would cost for prints and advertising, and sent it straight to video.

“This picture we’re hoping for a theatrical again of course and I do think it has some of the qualities that could be very compelling at the box office. The second two were really action pictures with comedy and a lot of gore. This pictures goes a little easier on the gore and gets back to the eerie mysticism, the weird, unsettling resonance of the first picture that made it such blockbuster. I think it’s going to be the most successful Phantasm picture since that time, although I think Titanic will probably outperform us!”

Does it help to have the same principal cast and crew working throughout the series?
“It’s certainly helpful for me to go back and see the wonderful, familiar old faces. It’s rejuvenating also to have the new people who come in each time. Don Coscarelli magnetises good people - he simply seems to draw them to him, and most of them have come to him because they are fans of the original Phantasm and want to work on a Phantasm film. Some of them are avid fans.”

I guess you’re starting to get people now who were hardly born when the first one came out?
“That’s true, that’s true. I remember on those aeroplane flights around the country, publicising the first Phantasm, Don and I had long, long periods onboard planes to chat. I remember one of us saying to the other - well, I said in fact - ‘When I was a child, a young kid, I saw Frankenstein and Dracula.’ They were my first horror films and they made an enormous impact and I went through a whole period of wanting to see nothing but horror films after that. I saw everything that came out and was re-released. And I said, ‘There will be youngsters all over the world for whom Phantasm will be their first horror film, and twenty years from now we’ll be meeting them.’ And indeed we have! They come up to me and they say, ‘I saw Phantasm when I was 13 and it scared the H out of me!’”

With the series having gone for so long, and especially with Part IV picking up exactly where Part III left off, is it difficult keeping the continuity going?
“I always go back and watch the previous films, and soak up the feelings that they engender. In actual fact, I continue to do the Tall Man inbetween pictures because I do occasional fan conventions and interviews and I’m invariably asked to say, ‘Boy!’ So he’s very much part of me; in fact he’s so much part of me that it’s getting to be a problem. I feel now that I own him, I forget that he’s Coscarelli’s. I feel that I own him and I’m very protective of him, constantly arguing, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t do this, he wouldn’t do that, this shouldn’t be done.’ I have to fight to distance myself from him; he’s become like another self.”

How good is it for your career in general to be identified with this one character?
“It’s given me much, much more visibility. On the other hand I’m sure there are many, many people who think that’s probably all I can play. That’s a misperception that I have to correct as soon as possible.”

What was your career like leading up to Phantasm?
“I had done a previous Don Coscarelli picture called Jim the World’s Greatest, which was actually Don’s first picture, made when he was a late teenager, which was picked up by Universal and distributed and did rather well. In that, I played the alcoholic father of the hero, played by a young actor named Gregory Harrison. That got me into the Screen Actor’s Guild and got me an agent. Then I did small parts in ongoing TV series, usually just as a bit-player in one episode for a while. I did a small role in Sidney Poitier’s picture, Piece of the Action.

“I did the first film Jim Wynorski actually wrote and directed. Do you know Wynorski’s name in England? Wynorski’s very well known here; he’s done 20, 30 films as far as I know. He’s renowned for doing films under budget and under time. He always gets them in a day or two before he has to, and under budget oft times. He’s a very quick and deft film-maker with a great sense of humour. Anyway, Jim had liked Phantasm and he did a picture called Lost Empire and cast me as his main villain in that. So that was my first large role again. Then I’ve gone on to do a picture called Mindwarp with Bruce Campbell who’s another genre star. Bruce was the hero, I was the first villain. A picture called Transylvania Twist for Jim. Deadfall for Christopher Coppola with his brother Nicholas Cage and Michael Biehn and Peter Fonda. Charlie Sheen, James Coburn - it had a wonderful cast - Michael Constantine. I could go on forever just saying one name after another. I had again a villainous role in that, a wonderfully written part.”

Is there any problem with playing villains all the time? Would you like a nice avuncular role?
“Jim let me play the nice, avuncular father-figure of Vampirella in his version of the famous comic-book. I got bumped off very early in the picture by Roger Daltrey of all people. I got bitten in the neck by Roger Daltrey - there’s not many other fellows that can say that, I’m sure! He played the lead vampire and I was an old gentle vampire who he wanted out of the way. Roger was fun to work with.”

I spoke with John Landis who also had a cameo in that.
“Actually he did. He was an airline pilot who also got bumped off. It was a Showtime premiere here. I think it will be turning up again on the Movie Channel later this year. A lovely actress named Talisa Soto played Vampirella and was just charming to work with also. Just divine; radiantly lovely and gracious.”

What next (a) for Angus Scrimm and (b) for the Tall Man? Will there be a Phantasm V?
Phantasm IV brings the film to a very logical and satisfying conclusion. But of course if it’s an enormous success, I’m sure ways would be found to do a Phantasm V. In the meantime, I still want to do that drawing room comedy. If they ever revive that. Fortunately the other villains I’ve played have all been different. The diamond fence in Deadfall, the megalomaniacal seer in Mindwarp: they’ve all been quite different and challenging from that point of view. So it hasn’t gone stale. The villains always register strongly with the audience, so they’re funny to play. But in Transylvania Twist I got to do comedy for example, and it was lovely to get back to comedy roots.”

Thank you.
“Oh, you were asking about other things I’ve done. I forgot to mention one of the perks of being an actor is getting invited abroad to do a picture. And I went for Full Moon to Romania to do Subspecies. I got to play Vlad of all people. I got bumped off early in that picture of course. Then I was invited to Italy by Al Festa, the famous director of MTV-type musicals who was doing his first picture. He was a Phantasm fan and cast me in Fatal Frames alongside Linnea Quigley and Donald Pleasence and Rosanno Brazzi and Alida Valli and also a wonderful cast of great old Italian actors. With Rick Gianasi, who was an Italian-American actor, playing the leading man, and Stefania Stella who played the leading lady. A very, very charismatic star with all the impact of a Dietrich or a Garbo or a Rita Hayworth.”

RIP Angus Scrimm 1926-2016

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