DONALD PLEASENCE IS NOT A MADMAN
Jamie Lee Curtis stands by her man, the original mad psychiatrist out to correct his own mistakes---Donald Pleasence's Loomis.
Well on his way to becoming the British John Carradine,
the venerable actor shares some pet peeves and insights.
INTERVIEW BY MARC SHAPIRO
Donald Pleasence is a pretty decisive man, except when it comes to the particulars of his massive body of horror film work.
"Oh, what the hell was that film called?" he grumbles. "It may have gone under a different title in Italy, I'm not sure; a lot of horror films are that way. But then, I've made so many of them that I really can't be expected to remember them all."
Pleasence, rapidly closing in on his 70th birthday, experiences this memory lapse in a trailer on the Salt Lake City set of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. The veteran actor, once again portraying the driven Dr. Loomis, has had a good day at the card table during a day-long jaunt to Las Vegas, which keeps him in good spirits as he waits for the makeup artist to transform him into Loomis for another night in pursuit of Michael. Pleasence in a good mood is not that much different from the image he projects on screen---a gentle but furtive manner that hints at menace, and beady eyes that form a hard stare even when cracking a low-key joke. And under it all lies a traditional, very English resolve to do things his way.
This resolve surfaces often during the course of conversation. Pushing for distinctive memories of particular films often results in "I don't remember"; probing for something a touch sensitive leads him to shut down the line of questioning. Still, the veteran of more than 100 films is not above being candid about the genre he's most associated with.
"I don't like horror films," confesses Pleasence. "I'm interested in them, but if there were three kinds of film playing across the road at my local cinema, the horror film would not be the one I would go to see. I do a lot of horror films because I'm asked to do them, and I need to make money all the time, so..."
Pleasence's need for the green and his ability to add chills to chillers have resulted in his lending support to a ton of horror and fantasy-tinged titles. Tales That Witness Madness, Death Line, From Beyond the Grave, The Devil Within Her and The Monster Club spring to mind. So do Dracula ('79), The Uncanny, Alone in the Dark, Specters and Circus of Horrors. He's worked with such acclaimed directors as Roman Polanski (Cul-De-Sac), George Lucas (THX-1138), Don Siegel (Telefon) and Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon). When Dario Argento needed what he described as a "great character actor" for the 1985 film Creepers (a.k.a. Phenomena), he rang up Pleasence. Ditto John Carpenter, who has made Pleasence the closest thing to private property in Escape From New York, the first two Halloween films and, most recently, Prince of Darkness.
"Donald is an excellent actor," praised Carpenter during the filming of Prince of Darkness last year. "I always enjoy casting him against type, as the psychiatrist in Halloween and as the U.S. President in Escape From New York, rather than as a villain."
Pleasence has been grateful for Carpenter's faith in him and sees red when your reporter hints that his career has been tied to "crazy person" roles. "Being typed as the one who constantly plays the crazy, mixed-up character is something I vehemently deny," he defends. "I love playing the heavies, like Blofeld in You Only Live Twice; they're usually larger than life and are the characters that most people remember. But as my career has progressed, more and more I'm the good guy chasing after the crazy, mixed-up people. I'm rarely the crazed monster anymore. If the truth be known, I prefer being the pursuer. If the crazed killer was the only role I was being offered, I don't know what I might do to myself."
The actor feels no danger of doing himself damage as long as the diversity of recent roles, largely due to his association with Carpenter, continues to come his way. "John Carpenter is the best director I've ever worked with," declares Pleasence. "One of the main reasons is his bravery in the way he's cast me in his films. By casting me as the president in Escape From New York and as the essentially good Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween, he gave me the opportunities that might have been missed had I stayed a stereotypical madman.
"That casting against type is what made Prince of Darkness such a lovely bit of business for me," he goes on. "People were walking into the theaters expecting me to be bad, and I ended up representing all the good in the universe."
Pleasence is far from "all the good" in his third turn as Dr. Loomis in Halloween 4. "The part of Loomis has remained rather consistent," he assesses. "He's 10 years older and 10 years madder, that's all. The script is good, and it puts Loomis in a bit more of a sympathetic light, which I enjoy."
With hindsight, Pleasence is not surprised that he was called back for Halloween 4. "I know it sounds egotistical and arrogant of me, but I truly believe at this point they could not do a Michael Myers Halloween film without me," he shrugs.
In a story related in Fango #79, Pleasence recounted how he found out there would be a Halloween II. But he recalls being the most shocked of all when, through the magic of moneymaking sequels, he found his character alive and kicking for the current project.
"After Halloween II, I did not see another Halloween in my future," he explains. "I felt they might do another one but that it could not possibly involve me because my death was so definite---I had basically been blown up. But when the producers told me I had only been partially burned, I was happy to play Loomis again."
As the only continual thread in the Shape saga, Pleasence is quick to point out the yin and yang of the trio. "The original Halloween was the best horror film I've been involved in," he states flatly. "The horror and the suspense were very real. I found Halloween II a little too violent for my taste. The current one has a lot of the first film's suspense and there's a surprise ending [which by now we all know about] that will certainly shatter people. If you discount Halloween III, which to my way of thinking was an exploitive and greed-inspired mistake, the series is still of a high enough quality that I would do another, if asked."
Your reporter takes a second shot at getting some historical perspective on Pleasence's genre career. The actor cites dim memories and numerous title changes as an excuse for not being able to fill in the holes on such epics as Great Britain's Circus of Horrors and the Peter Cushing vehicle Land of the Minotaur. He makes a funny face at the mention of The Monster Club, a humorous anthology which co-starred Vincent Price and John Carradine. "There are many films that, after the fact, I wished I had not done," sighs Pleasence, "but I won't tell you which ones."
One that does strike the veteran thespian's fancy is the mismarketed and grossly underappreciated period film The Flesh and the Fiends (a.k.a. Mania), released in 1960. "George Rose and myself were perfectly horrible grave robbers," grins Pleasence. "As I recall, that film had some rather bloody scenes in it which, in 1960, was a rare occurrence in horror films. That was a really atmospheric film, and it portrayed the poverty of 19th-century Europe realistically.
"Let me see now," he continues. "I rather liked Death Line (a.k.a. Raw Meat). The idea of my playing an eccentric detective who can't solve the mystery of all these bodies in the English subway was a different turn for me, as was a film I made in Italy called Nothing Underneath. I played another detective chasing down a killer who was murdering models. I don't know if it ever reached the U.S. but it's a bit of a cult film in Italy."
Fantastic Voyage, in which Pleasence plays a Russian agent planted in a team of miniaturized scientists injected into a human body, was not so much a horror film as a fantasy film, but it still impressed the actor. "I remember being amazed the first day I walked onto the shoot and saw these outsize sets that simulated the human body," he muses. "I enjoyed that film because, even though my character was the villain, I got to play him as a much gentler person. Of course, he richly deserved to be swallowed by the antibodies at the end."
Donald Pleasence was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England, in 1919. After a misspent youth shuffling in and out of schools and living by his wits, he left the halls of moderately higher learning as a teenager and joined what passed for a war movement at the time by enlisting in the Royal Air Force during World War II. "As an aviator, I was rather successful, right up to the point I was shot down," snickers Pleasence, whose cinematic war sagas include The Great Escape, Hanna's War and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Pleasence spent a year in a German POW camp before returning to civilian life in 1944, his mind set on an acting career and his noggin, at age 25, already bald as an egg. "For a while, I wore a toupee because I thought it would help me get work," says the actor of his struggling, scant work days on British television. "But it didn't, so eventually I threw it away and said, 'They'll have to take me the way I am.'"
They did. In short order, the suddenly more sinister thespian [it's funny what tossing a rug can do for a career] found himself on the receiving end of rave notices for his performances in the London theater production of The Caretaker. Film work followed and, over the years, Pleasence has found himself in a widely contrasting array of major and minor efforts---all of which, he asserts, received his undivided attention.
"I treat all film roles one way: very seriously," exclaims Pleasence. "I never play anything tongue-in-cheek, though at times it might appear that way. I'm a professional actor who has no particular approach to acting. I get the part, I read the script. If I decide to do it, I learn the lines. People expecting a longwinded explanation on my approach will be disappointed. I have no theory about acting. There is no method, there is no way. I just do it."
And much of what Pleasence has done in the horror arena has found favor with audiences fully 50 years his junior. It is a fact not lost on the actor. "All kids love horror films," he reasons. "Films of that nature are especially attractive to teenagers for the simple reason that they don't want to sit home with Mom and Dad and watch game shows. Give them a film that's scary, violent and a little bit funny and they'll be out of the house and into the theaters like a shot."
And the chances are good that Pleasence, in one menacing form or another, will be staring down from the screen at them. At a time in life when most actors might consider cutting back on their output, Pleasence's workload has seemingly doubled. Just about every Italian exploitation movie today features his presence. Halloween 4 is the actor's fourth film appearance of 1988, and he says he might easily double that number by year's end.
"I don't know if I'm the first actor people think of when it comes to horror films," he offers, "but I do seem to get those calls pretty regularly. I work all the time, and it's by choice. I've got homes in Spain and France, and I do tend to have, shall we say, extravagant ways. It's nice to know that, at some point, I'll have a month off to work in my garden or to be with my grandchildren. But it's equally good to know that a call might come that would take me halfway around the world to make a film."
Pleasence, despite a stunt double to do the more dangerous falls and tumbles, concedes that Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers has been "an exhausting film for me." And the prospect of yet another long night of shooting renders him a tad impatient with yet another journalist's probing of his psyche. His razor-sharp mind spots a repeated query asked 30 minutes previously and he snaps, "I've already answered that question." His eyes begin to wander around the trailer's cramped confines, looking, perhaps, for an escape hatch to crawl through. Finally, when all else seems to fail, Pleasence turns from the half-profile he has shown this reporter throughout the interview, looks me straight in the eye and says: "OK?"
His intention does not come completely across, and your correspondent is about to ask another question until I do another take on the actor's face. It's suddenly the face from The Flesh and the Fiends, a visage straight out of The Devonsville Terror, a steely stare like something in The Mutations. Donald Pleasence is telling FANGORIA, "Your time is up."
OK, we can take a hint.
Interview submitted by Tom Ericksen
Interview from the February 1989 edition of FANGORIA (#80).
Interview © 1989 FANGORIA. All Rights Reserved.
Photo courtesy of Tom Ericksen
Photo © 1981 UNIVERSAL PICTURES and DINO DE LAURENTIIS CORP.
Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport
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