After playing the crazed Dr. Sam Loomis for 11 years, horror institution Donald Pleasence discovers that he'll miss the guy.
ARTICLE / INTERVIEW BY MARC SHAPIRO
Donald Pleasence prides himself on knowing his way around a dollar. He knows what his appearance can mean to a movie and, consequently, can usually get the eagle to fly his way.
But Pleasence is the first to admit that the eagle flew south when he negotiated the price for playing mad old Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween. "I was offered a choice of a flat salary up front or a percentage of the film's future earnings," sighs Pleasence. "I took the up front money. Nobody twisted my arm, it was my own fault. Nobody, at that time, could have figured what Halloween would ultimately become."
What Halloween has become is something successful enough for Pleasence to be holding court in a Salt Lake City bar whose town is hosting Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. Pleasence, as mild-mannered and accommodating as ever, does not know if his services will be required this night and so is tossing cups of coffee in preparartion for a possible all-nighter.
Pleasence, who alternates sipping java with bitching about the bar's piped-in disco music, is not particularly upset with the uncertainty of the schedule---or for that matter, about anything connected with the latest Halloween epic. The reason may be that this, barring any acts of God or producer, is Pleasence's final Halloween film.
"If that turns out to be the case, I'm definitely going to miss him," admits Pleasence. "It's hard to play a continuing character like Loomis for nearly 11 years and simply wash your hands of him. It seems a pity."
Pity or no, Pleasence agrees that, in Loomis, he has created a continuing horror persona of somewhat legendary proportions. "I've taken some notes as I've gone through the years of playing this character," the actor confides. "While on the surface, Loomis appears to have been the classic nut case, there's been much in the way of justification for his behavior. Loomis has had to live with the fact that he confronted a child who committed murder and then grew up to be a man with the power to walk through walls and kill people, totally invincible. That is a frightening concept to consider.
"Loomis has always felt himself responsible for the fact that he did not stop Michael when he first murdered his sister, and so he's got that guilt to live with," Pleasence goes on. "The guilt has turned him from a thinking psychiatrist into a paranoid who's only anxious to stop this force of evil. Stopping Michael is Loomis' mission in life, and because Michael is out there, Loomis is not a nut case yelling about the boogeyman. It's just that nobody believes Loomis until Michael shows up. And then it's too late."
Pleasence digs deeper into what he's found memorable about the Halloween experience. He recalls the last day of filming on Halloween, when John Carpenter's instructing him to fire a second shot out the window was Pleasence's first indication that there would be a Halloween II. He asserts that each movie has been physically hard work. And in looking back, he dredges up another pet theory as to what has made Loomis a genre favorite.
"I've tended to play Loomis with a light touch---not totally comedic, but in a manner that fit with these films' attention to suspense and tension." he reveals. "To play Loomis totally heavy, the way the director [Dominique Othenin-Girard] on this film is trying to get me to do, seems to be at odds with the way the character was set up. But I have no problem taking their money and dancing their dance," chuckles Pleasence, "as long as I can twist their dance away from them. I'm doing that on this film, right now. They just haven't realized it yet."
The British screen veteran's introduction to Halloween was not the years-in-the-making process we've gotten to know in Hollywood. "John Carpenter liked my work, and he needed some kind of name for the picture," Pleasence shrugs. "The script was good, and I immediately liked John, so I did it.
"John Carpenter created the idea of Halloween, so it comes as no surprise that his vision remains the most focused and intelligently directed of the series," he opines. "The directors that have followed, to a greater or lesser degree, have kept the original intent of the concept. I loved working with Jamie Lee Curtis, and I felt she was a wonderful actress even that early in her career. The little girl [Danielle Harris] whom I've worked with on Halloween 4 and 5 is also quite good, and I can't say enough about how terrific Beau Starr has been on these last two films."
After the conclusion of Halloween, Pleasence attempted to get in on Halloween II's creative act. "John and I had a few meetings about what direction the sequel should take," he discloses. "I made some real insane suggestions. True to what you'd expect, he ignored them all and just picked up Halloween II where the original left off. Ultimately, Halloween II was a little too violent for my tastes. It didn't have the intelligent quality and bloodless suspense of the original. I believe Halloween 4, despite the fact that I wasn't too thrilled with the makeup, was a return to the kind of thing that made the original so good. It's a bit early in the game to be assessing Halloween 5. I do think the story is a bit stupid, and there's a lot more blood. They're obviously going to take the Halloween series in a different direction. I don't know if I'm thrilled with that direction, but I guess it doesn't make any difference, since I won't be around."
Fango changes direction and attempts the always-tricky ploy of attempting to get the actor to remember specifics of previous genre films.
"You know I never remember those kinds of things," grouses Pleasence. "What can I tell you about things like Circus of Horrors except that I get killed by the bear?"
But your reporter is persistent and is rewarded with a snippet or two from the actor's back pages. "I rather liked Death Line [a.k.a. Raw Meat]," he confesses. "All those zombies on the tube train thing was good fun, and it allowed me more of a comic turn than I am usually afforded."
The actor also recalls being in on the groundbreaking low-budget science fiction film THX-1138. "It was an enjoyable film to make," Pleasence nods. "Even at that point, I had a feeling [director] George Lucas would go on to do some wonderful things. Technically he knew everything about the business at a very young age."
On the nongenre side, probing his memories of The Great Escape strikes gold. "That was my first big Hollywood picture, and it struck particularly close to home for me because I had been in the RAF and spent some time in a POW camp in Germany," recounts Pleasence, who also turned up in the TV sequel in a different role. "I had a wonderful part and was delighted. Steve McQueen was a bit difficult during the filming, flying in three separate screenwriters to make sure his character was to his liking. Coming from a theater background, I had a lot of qualms with the way this big-budget movie was being made, but I kept my mouth shut and was ultimately very happy with the experience."
Pleasence is not keeping his mouth shut on the Halloween 5 set. He's been more vocal in disagreeing with the director on how Loomis should be played, and he has made no bones about the fact that the potential of Halloween 4 has not been capitalized on in this film. But the actor does zip his lip when it comes to spilling story specifics.
"Don't ask me about the stranger," laughs Pleasence. "I won't tell you a thing other than he wears a hat, a long coat and boots with silver tips. And I can't tell you a thing about the Shape because I haven't worked with him yet. But I have gotten the feeling that they're trying to make him a more interesting character. Perhaps more interesting than Loomis."
That's doubtful, seeing as how Pleasence's Halloween adventures have made him the darling of young and old (especially young) horror film fans.
"I do have quite a following because of these films," muses the 70-year-old Pleasence. "I consider that quite a compliment. I've always made it a point to play Loomis as very real, no matter how unbelievable the Halloween films have been, which may be an attraction to people. As far as being idolized by teens, I don't know. It must be some sort of father fixation. Or maybe they think I'm just pretty."
Casting directors may not find Donald Pleasence any kind of stand-in for Mel Gibson, but they do find him the perfect adjunct to any number of genre films. Since Halloween 4, Pleasence has made his presence felt in yet another remake of Ten Little Indians with Herbert (Phantom of the Opera) Lom.
He recently completed the adventure films River of Death and Casablanca Express. On the horror front, Pleasence has appeared in two Poe films, Buried Alive and the new version of The Fall of the House of Usher. Harry Alan Towers, who produced Pleasence's Poe duo, lauds the terror pro. "I'm particularly happy that we had dear old Donald Pleasence, who I think is the greatest horror actor in movies today," enthuses Towers. "He adds a special touch to anything he does, and the lovely thing about it is that you can give him a script, and you won't know until the first day of shooting what he's going to do with it, but it's always something distinctive. You can give him any piece of material, and he'll add something."
"It's gotten to the point where it's big news when I don't do a horror film," laughs the busy beaver. "At this point in my career, it doesn't bother me much that I'm probably hopelessly typecast. I like to work, and horror films definitely keep me working."
In all, Pleasence has turned up in 17 movie or TV projects in the last three years. Many film historians now feel Pleasence may be closing in on John Carradine's coveted crown for most lifetime film appearances. Pleasence takes any place he has in the film appearance derby with a grain of salt.
"I don't think I've done anywhere near the number of films John did," he scoffs. "I don't really know how many films I've done, and I don't look at this as a race that I necessarily want to win. Nor is it a race that I want to stop running. I don't know at this point what I'm going to be doing after this film, but it's a safe bet I'll be doing something before long. I just like to work, it's as simple as that."
Pleasence takes a final drag on his coffee, curses the Muzak one more time and prepares to retire to his room and await the phone call that will let him know if he'll don the alter ego of Loomis this night. But before leaving, Pleasence takes one final stab at explaining the myth and mythos of Halloween.
"The idea of dying and coming back is what makes the Halloween films work," he concludes. "Whatever happens in these films always appears to be absolute and final. If somebody dies, they're dead. It's been that way with Michael, and it's been that way with Loomis. They've died and they've been dead---until they were brought back."