If you’re an actor best known for playing monsters, madmen or maniacal killers, how do you cope with a career image that’s so mired in the dark side of life?
Well, it’s interesting how many different solutions to that problem have been found by actors dealing with that particular dilemma. Here are some reactions to the problem from five famous actors known for their terrifying portrayals on screen — as reported in the new book You Ain‘t Heard Nothin‘ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era:
Boris Karloff, who came to fame in the 1931 Frankenstein, playing a monster built out of body parts stolen from corpses, then jolted to life by lightning bolts put to use by the notorious Dr. Frankenstein. Karloff began by not seeing the character he was playing as a monster, but rather as a bewildered creature, struggling to understand how he fit into the world around him once Dr. Frankenstein had brought him to life.
“He was like a newborn baby, taking his first look at the world,” Karloff explained. “He wasn’t a monster then.”
Karloff refused to think of himself as a “monster actor’, saying “ I was never really a ‘horror’ actor because horror implies revulsion and my films were never gory or ugly. They were exciting, thrillers. I felt Frankenstein was more like a legend or a fairy tale.
Karloff was aware other actors felt sorry for him for being typecast as a horror movie star, but he had no regrets himself. The reason: He almost always had his name above the title in all his films after Frankenstein.
“I realized I was typed as a monster after the first film, but I’ve never minded,” Karloff said. “In fact, I’ve always been rather grateful to the Monster for it. Any actor who becomes typed is very fortunate.”
In contrast, Lon Chaney Jr. grumbled about the type-casting that ensued once he reluctantly turned to horror roles at Universal Pictures with Man-Made Monster in 1941 after winning great acclaim as a character actor for his 1939 portrayal of the dim-witted Lenny in Of Mice and Men.
Chaney especially resisted being pushed into horror roles just because his famous father, Lon Chaney Sr., had been the greatest performer of grotesque characters during the silent era. He disliked the long makeup sessions he had to endure to become his most famous monster, The Wolf Man, the werewolf he played in five films between 1941-48.
“I had to go in early in the morning and sit through four hours in the makeup chair for the scenes where I turned into a werewolf in stages,” said Chaney, “and those scenes only lasted a minute on the screen!”
And he wasn’t happy with the physical burden of playing Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1942 Ghost of Frankenstein.
“That Frankenstein outfit weighed 80 pounds“, said Chaney, “so it was worse to have to keep it on so long and work wearing it.”
And he also scoffed at the silly ways his Wolf Man character kept being brought back to life for sequel after sequel.
Said Chaney, “It got pretty ridiculous after awhile. They would figure out some tricky way to kill me in one film and then have to think of something even more elaborate to bring me back to life in the next one.”
Still, like Karloff, Chaney was able to keep working steadily in such films, though he preferred to play straight character roles like the ones he played in non-horror classics of the 1950s like High Noon, Not As A Stranger and The Defiant Ones.
“I knew the only thing to do was to refuse all horror roles and go broke, “ Chaney said, “ I didn’t like the idea of starving, though.”
Yet another “horror actor” who had been a busy character actor in supporting roles until he began to get leading roles as monsters was John Carradine, who specialized in mad scientists, but also had his shot at playing the vampire Dracula on several occasions. He continued to play such roles in order to help finance his own Shakespearean stage company in Los Angeles, but he did have considerable regrets about some of the roles he played.
“There are pictures I wish I hadn’t done“, said Carradine. “One of them was Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). I was broke and needed the money. Finally, I started turning down the bad ones. My conscience took over and I’d say I won’t read lines and vomit at the same time.”
Though his career was studded with great supporting roles, like the itinerant preacher in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Carradine believed it also was a real challenge for an actor to bring some kind of dignity to the kinds of horror roles he often played in poverty row productions.
Carradine explained: “I would say it’s the most difficult thing to do and do well. A bad actor would over-do them.”
As for a horror role Carradine remembered proudly, it was the serial killer of women he played in Bluebeard (1944).
“I had a chance to play a fully-developed character and even play some rather romantic scenes,” said Carradine. “ It was also the first film in which I got single star billing. It was the biggest part I ever had in a picture and certainly not the easiest to play.
Carradine also remembered with a smile the fact that it was the only film in which he not only wound up with the girl, but several of them, “Except that I killed them all.”
In his real life, Price was a collector of fine art, a gourmet cook and a very elegant and literate man. He also had no time for horror movies when he wasn’t making them.
“I never watch horror movies myself, if I can help it,” he said. “Too scary for me.”
Price managed to keep his tongue in cheek through most of his horror roles and liked to remember the good times he had with fellow actors, including several who also were known for spooky characters.
“We got Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre for a merry threesome in The Raven (1963) and the last masterwork had Boris, Basil Rathbone, Peter and I in Comedy of Terrors (1963) and it was the biggest hit of all.”
Probably the least typical of the five actors interviewed was Anthony Perkins, who began his movie career as a young leading man, but was propelled to cinema immortality when he played the maniacal killer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho and followed it up with three sequels, including one he directed himself — Psycho III.
Perkins admitted it was a bit of a struggle to find something to identify with in Norman Bates.
“Norman and I really have a great deal NOT in common,” Perkins said. “Although I have to admit there are times when I feel that Norman directed the movie [Psycho III] while I enacted the role of Norman. And somehow we shared the responsibility.”
Perkins ultimately decided to focus on the more human side of Norman, which he finally found playing Norman after he‘d undergone psychological rehabilitation in the subsequent films.
“He’s essentially likeable,” said Perkins. “He’s optimistic and he doesn’t succumb to his own vices, his own weaknesses. He’s constantly trying to find alternative ways of living and being with other people.”
–James Bawden and Ron Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Retired journalists James Bawden and Ron Miller are the authors of You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, and Conversations with Classic Film Stars, two astonishing collections of rare interviews with the greatest celebrities of Hollywood’s golden age. Conducted over the course of more than fifty years, they recount intimate conversations with some of the most famous leading men and women of the era, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson, Joan Fontaine, Loretta Young, Kirk Douglas, and many more.
You can purchase the books on amazon by clicking here: