The actor: Charles Napier is the ultimate tough-guy character actor. In his 40 years in the business, he’s been a stock member of Russ Meyer and Jonathan Demme’s repertory companies, the eccentric boss on The Critic, the Blues Brothers’ rival, Rambo’s arch-nemesis, The Incredible Hulk’s growl, and a hippie on Star Trek. But that was all just a warm-up to his most challenging role to date: a victim of Ron Jeremy’s evil sentient killer penis in the new horror-comedy One Eyed Monster, which has just been released on DVD.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970)—“Baxter Wolfe”
Charles Napier: I was associate producer on that. They brought me, Ebert, and Russ Meyer over to 20th Century Fox because Daryl Zanuck saw this movie we were making, and they wanted a part of it. So we did the movie, they released it. It made lots of money, and it kind of went away for 15 years, ’cause the country club where the producers all went didn’t want to be associated with an X-rated movie. Anyway, they finally re-released it again. It was a very successful hit. It was Russ’ big time at a major studio. He was very pleased with it. Of course, it was my fun too until the day they walked in and took our names off the door and said “Get off the lot.” Everything you did with Russ Meyer was a nightmare, everything was a total fucking catastrophe. It had to be done the Army way, it had to be done his way. Which is all right. I was merely—I did a picture, are you familiar with Cherry, Harry & Raquel?
Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1970)—“Harry”
CN: That was the first one, and the other one was Supervixens. This is how we made those first movies: we camped, we stayed outside, we cooked outside. No permits, nothing. We took two cameras, he handheld both of them, edited all of them, and I did all the stunts, I did all the car driving, I did all the makeup and that shit. It occurred to me later that we shot in the desert so the women couldn’t run away from the shoot. It’s hard to run away from Death Valley on your own. Anyway, that’s just a little background about the Russ Meyer movies. Supervixens became a gigantic hit, and would still be today, if it wasn’t tied up in a trust fund. ’Cause Russ left no relatives, and it’s in a trust run by a couple of people, and they just dribble it out when they need some money, and reduce it. No one’s been able to do anything with it, because we all had pieces of the movies—me, Roger Ebert, about 10 of us, and some of the girls. But I talked a Beverly Hills lawyer, and he said, “It’s too late to do anything about it now.” I go “What about the attorney who was handling Russ’ affairs for all those 30 years?” Well, he doesn’t want to talk about it, he just wants to let it drop. Anyway, that’s why I don’t get more kickback from all the Russ Meyer films. They should be out there, in my opinion, as that was real filmmaking, and it was the best.
AVC: How did you meet Meyer?
CN: I was dating some stripper, and she told me about a movie this guy wanted her to make, and she was scared to go in and talk to the guy. But I went along, and at that time, he was out in Santa Monica someplace, and I walked in, and he basically said “What the hell are you doing here?” And I said “Well, she doesn’t feel comfortable around you.” And he said, “Do you feel comfortable around me?” And I said, “About as far as I can fuckin’ throw ya.” And I wound up in a movie. He said, “Have you been in the military?” I go “Yeah,” and he goes, “Okay, I want you to play this role.” And that’s how I got in the movie with him.
AVC: The role was Harry in Cherry, Harry & Raquel?
CN: That came up first. I’d done a couple of low-low-low-low-budget Westerns that I’ve never seen again and nobody else has, just to get started. Before that, I worked at the Shakespeare Festival in San Diego, if you can believe that. I did a season there, breaking in. But my life’s goal was never to be an actor. It was to be a basketball coach. When I came back and went to college on the GI Bill, that fizzled out. I finally got one job, and then Vietnam came along and screwed that up, because the guy I replaced, I had to let him have his job back. So after that—we’re going over a lot of ground here—I was married and had a young son, I went to Florida to teach art. I’m also a watercolor artist. And I couldn’t hack that; I just basically quit.
I started hanging out in different ports—Key West, Miami, New Orleans, wherever I could make a living off street playing, and I can sing a little bit. That’s how I lived for three or four years. I got involved in a theater group in Clearwater, Florida, as a janitor, to live in the theater. And I thought, “Well shit, I can do this, if these guys can do this.” And that’s basically where I got started. And then I went with another guy to a thing called The Cross And Sword, which is an outdoor drama they have every year in Florida about the Spaniards and the Indians and all that. After I finished that, I had no job. I went to New York; nothing happened there except losing whatever else I had. I’d gone back to college for a summer session, and while I was there, we did Othello. I played Iago; I managed to get through that without them booing me off the stage. I picked up the paper one day, and there was casting in San Diego. I made my way to California for the first time and auditioned, and I got in. We did three seasons of repertory there.
After I moved to Hollywood, I started looking for jobs—parking cars, whatever I could do. It suddenly occurred to me that if I hung around bars where actors hung out, I might get a break. During those times before Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson hit it on Easy Rider, I used to hang around them and Harry Dean Stanton. They’re probably responsible for getting me an agent, just to get rid of me. Anyway, I got an agent, I got my first commercial. Then I met Meyer, and I went on and made Moonfire with Sonny Liston and Richard Egan, and then I started doing episodic television, and I had a pretty good career going. I quit that to become a writer for Overdrive, which is a trucking magazine. I was the only writer for the magazine, because it had never had one. The editor had this idea to do this film about trucking, and I was sort of the epitome of a truck driver, so he put me and Sonny Liston in the movie with an older actor named Richard Egan. We finally finished it off, and I got a dream idea, I said, “Mike, I want to go out and do stories on trucks.” He said “Well, nobody’s ever done that before.” I said, “Just give me a camera, man, call General Motors, call anybody, they’ll give you a car to do that.” And that’s what I did for two years.
In the meantime, I stopped to do Supervixens, the only movie I did for almost two years. The market for those movies was normally just smuthouses in New York and San Francisco. And all of the sudden, United picked up Cherry, Harry & Raquel, and there I am all over the screen in 2,000 theaters. That created a little space. Anyway, the Teamster, the writing deal—Hunter S. Thompson and I were buddies, we did a lot wild shit, a lot of stories together. We got busted up really bad during a Teamsters truck strike.
So now I’m 40 years old and I’m back living on the streets of Hollywood in a parking lot under Russ Meyer, who owned the parking lot. And I said “It’s over, man. I have no agent, I have no phone, I have no address, I have no nothing.” I had a little unemployment to go. And one day some guy came down the street with a megaphone asking my name, and I’m sitting there with the rest of the winos. I go “Yeah, what’s up, that’s me.” I hadn’t had a haircut in two months, or a shave, or whatever. He says, “They want to see you at Universal.” I go, “What for?” He goes, “You’ll find out when you get there, you want to go or not?” I go, “I’m assuming if I don’t go, your ass is gonna be in a lot of trouble, is that correct?” He goes, “That’s correct.” And we go straight to the lot in the back of the limo, straight to the office of Alfred Hitchcock. They said, “Don’t say a damn word to him, don’t even look at him. He’s gonna be 10 feet away, and he’s gonna spin around a chair in a dramatic way. He’s gonna say ‘Go away,’ or he’s gonna say ‘Sign him.’” So Hitchcock is looking at the guy standing beside him, and he says “Tell him to turn around.” So I turned around, and Hitchcock said, “Sign him.” And that was the end of it. I worked from then on, because I worked for Alfred Hitchcock. He owned a big percentage of Universal.
So now I don’t have to beg for shows, they’re ordering me to do shows—Starsky And Hutch, The Rockford Files, all those shows. They put me in a series called Black Sheep Squadron, they put me in a series called Oregon Trail. And now from nonexistence, I’ve been working ever since. Then I met Jonathan Demme somehow, who had seen me in an X-rated movie when he was in the Army. And he eventually found me, and Landis found me out of the Russ Meyer movies. All this came out of Russ Meyer, quite frankly.
AVC: Making Dolls for the studio had to be a much different experience than making Harry independently.
CN: Well, of course it was civilized, number one. We had a place to eat, we had a place to sleep. Meyer had a little trouble with all the people that unions hired at the time. He used to work with three people. So he had trouble—he wanted to be on the boom microphone. There’s a guy on the boom that’s won an Oscar, and there’s some problem with him, so Meyer says, “Get down, you’re fired.” That kind of shit went on. Then he fell in love with Edie Williams during the shoot, and she became the starlet, and that turned into almighty hell. But it was fun. We had offices for a while, six months or so. That might be the main difference. Meyer was the rugged filmmaker that did it on his own, and he felt kind of cramped by all this. Anyway, I told you how the movie ended and made a lot of money, and we made The Seven Minutes there too, the Irving Wallace novel.
AVC: That was a big change of pace for Russ Meyer.
CN: Totally. This guy was a combat photographer. He knew how to shoot movies. He knew how to direct. He knew what he was doing. He was more interested, of course, in the erotic, dangerous stuff he could pull off than anything else. I look back when I was doing Cherry, Harry & Raquel, and the leading lady left in the middle of the shoot, left us in the middle of the desert with a half-finished movie. So I said “Now what?” He goes “Well, we’re gonna put a picture of her on the mountain and we’re gonna blow her to fucking bits, that’s what we’re gonna do.” I said, “That changes the whole storyline.” He says, “No it doesn’t, it gives us another version. We have a bad one, now we have a good version.” And to this day, nobody’s ever mentioned that. Why would somebody blow somebody up in the middle of a movie and have no answer for it? The mean girl becomes a nice, sweet little thing, and I become more evil, of course. And then I realized Meyer had a love-hate relationship with women. He admitted it, or I wouldn’t be telling it to you. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, and all this shit. He basically said, “I want to think everything we can think of to hurt womanhood in general.” He loved his mother, and she rolled into town because she was senile and she thought he was a doctor. So in looking back, he let me have the freedom to make up lines on the spot. Years later, I realized I was his alter ego, taking it out, in a military fashion, on women. I guess that’s the savagery of it. People still talk about the movie to this day.
AVC: With The Seven Minutes, did you think it was a mistake for Russ Meyer to do a movie that didn’t have the sexual element that his other films did?
CN: I didn’t think about it. I knew we were on Fox, it was a great day for us. We just took the money and all the gratis we could get, and went ahead and slugged our way through it. I met John Carradine and Yvonne De Carlo, a lot of good actors. Harold Stone, I forget these people now. He went from totally sex-violence to just making the best he could out of a couple of novels, you know? I don’t think that movie ever made any money, but they were respectably and decently and honestly done. He did try to cut it short. He took every day professionally, and so did we. You never worked a day with Russ Meyer that there’s any goof-off time, let me tell you, man. From when the sun came up in the morning until it went down at night, that’s when we shut down. There were no rules, there were no camera rules, there were no restrictions. Go for it, go for broke. If you die in a car crash, tough shit, I’ll leave you out here in the desert. I said “Okay, I don’t give a fuck, I’ll do it.”
Funny thing about him and machines, he couldn’t stand machinery of any kind, except cameras. We had some cars up there, a brand new Cadillac on one shoot. When the shoot was over, he said, “I want you to take every one of these cars and roll ’em down a cliff and wreck ’em, I never want to see ’em again.” They’re probably still there to this day—don’t tell the park service. I’ve seen him so frustrated he literally would rip the gear out of a Porsche when he’s driving down Hollywood Boulevard, because he couldn’t figure out how to change gears on it. But cameras were his first love. His mother told me about his first camera.
I’m sure you’ve heard this quote, that she breast-fed him until he was 5. I don’t know how that got out, or how true that is. Whatever. Women: He couldn’t live with them. I have no right to say this, ’cause I don’t know what his feelings were, but all I know is what I saw. He died alone with Alzheimer’s. When we were sitting around in the yard, maybe a year before he died, he looked at me with this crazy look and he said, “Who are you?” It sent a chill up my spine like I’d never had before. Ebert had warned me, “I think he’s getting Alzheimer’s.” And then he got up and left, and the servants said, “You need to leave now.” And he was literally going to find a gun to kill me, probably. They had taken all the weapons away from him. I just got up, I walked out, got in my car, and went and cried for a while and wondered what had happened to my friend for 30 years. ’Cause we had shared it all—the hardships, the explosions, the anger, the animosity, the toughest work ever put in my life was with him.
One-Eyed Monster (2008)—Mohtz
If I may be so bold to say, the hardest role I ever did—have you seen One Eyed Monster? There’s a scene where I come in there, and I got to thinking about this. It’s a strange movie, but it’ll do well if it gets the right release. And they told me that Showtime may have just picked it up. I’ve got to come in and tell a bunch of kids that a dick is on the loose, and it’s Ron Jeremy’s dick, and it’s nine and a half inches long, and it’s a killer dick. Now I’ve got to do the whole fuckin’ speech and make that believable, that is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I think I did it. I’m playing an old mountain man that’s lived up there for a long time, and this thing has followed me all the way from Vietnam. This is a crazy, wacky story. The young couple up there wants to make a porno movie; of course, they never get started, because the dick attacks us. Eventually, you’ll see it, it kills me in a horrendous fight in the kitchen. It’s just that kind of a movie. It’s the hardest thing I ever tried to pull off. I went to them and I said “Look, I gotta change some of these words around. Do you realize I’m gonna get laughed off the screen if I screw up one second? One second, it’s gonna drop the whole thing.” And they go “Well, you know, we wrote that.” I said, “I don’t care what you wrote. I don’t want to be an asshole about it, but this is my ass on the line, man. If you even allow me to drop one hint that it’s a joke, I’m dead. The whole movie’s dead.”
AVC: It has to be completely deadpan.
AVC: Any further memories of Meyer?
CN: People forget that ever since the first movie he made, Meyer had the money to do any fantasy he realized without having to ask anybody. I think that was the secret to his big success. If you wanted to film a fucking lamp pole in France, he would go do it. We flew to London one time to film a fireplug. I go, “Why?” He goes, “Because Ernest Hemingway and I got laid up here in this house during World War II.” In other words, he could just write a check for it, take two cameras and a sound guy and people, and off he went. And I think people miss that a lot in Russ. His financial freedom gave him the creativity to become also what he was, because he never made a loser after Lorna. The first one made $5 million on a $50,000 investment, so he never looked back. And then he made that transition from a place where money didn’t matter anymore to where he’s in a position at a studio. It didn’t seem that odd for him—I don’t think he paid that much attention to it, if that makes any sense with what I’m telling you.
Even at Fox, he really had nobody bothering him too much. He never went over budget on anything that wasn’t his own. I think one of the things that people miss in Russ is that he was just like a kid with a camera, who could go out and film anything he wanted, put it in a movie, and see if it would work. And it shocked a lot of people. It went far beyond its time, what was going on, if that makes any sense to you. I just thought I’d throw that in, man.
AVC: Part of the Russ Meyer lore is that he lost his virginity when Ernest Hemingway took him to a whorehouse and paid for him. Does that sound like something that might actually have happened?
CN: Yeah, pretty much. He grew up during the war, fighting on the front lines with a camera in his hands. That gave him the excitement he never lost. The first time he ever probably shot through a camera during manhood was in open warfare, so you got to remember that kind of roughness went inside that too, that kind of intensity, that kind of emotion, that kind of raw power, and just fucking screaming and yelling “Get it done,” because bullets were flying everywhere. He was really shooting that stuff, you know.
AVC: Apparently he was one of the people who landed at Normandy with a camera. Some of the stock footage in Saving Private Ryan may have been shot by Russ Meyer.
CN: There’s still stuff out there that’s gone forever, that’ll never be seen, that he shot too—a lot of those guys never probably turned in [their footage], and it’s floating around in somebody’s safe. I remember asking one time, I think in Berlin or some place, I came around a corner one day and ran into a German officer. He saw that I had a camera in my hand, and he had a Luger in his. I pulled out my .45, and he pulled his Luger out, and we both looked at each other and laughed and split in different directions. Russ said that’s what it was like at the end of World War II. I remember also seeing him on a plane one time coming back from London and he’d been reading some book. He had underlined somewhere someone had written, “Never will there be any more important times than World War II.” He told me one time, “I’m the only guy who hated to see the war end.”
AVC: What did Meyer do with his life when he stopped making movies? Was he working on films? Did projects just fall through?
CN: In my opinion, and it’s only my opinion, he ran out of steam. He used up every possible thing. He couldn’t go porno. He couldn’t go any deeper than what he went. He couldn’t go any more brutal than what he got. He would get into these deep depressions, like, “It’s over for me, it’s over for me.” I said, “What are you talking about? You’ve never made a loser in your life. You’ve made 27 films; they’re all successful.” “I know, but I have to do something with every day of my life, or it doesn’t count.” And he’d get this idea about writing this book about himself, which turned into 9 million volumes. He worked on that for 10 years, spent millions of dollars on it. It never went anywhere, of course. That was just to say that he could go in and work every day there in the office and take photos and shoot crazy stuff and get on a plane and go to Europe, film stuff—still photography—and come back, work on his book, and then go to a restaurant every night and eat dinner. And that was it.
AVC: And the book, he self-published it and sold it for $200 a copy online.
CN: I think it was more than that. I think John Landis said he paid him 600 bucks or something for it, and never got his book. I’ve got I think five copies of it. They’re like an inch thick. And then it became a thing of printing on the best paper he could buy, and it went on forever. It went before the computer age, into the computer age, and beyond. It was driving everybody nuts. Anyway, that was sort of the way it ended. His career sort of wound down that way. I think we really topped it all out with Supervixens, because I was pure, raw animal man. Hatred and revenge and anger and everything he could throw at a woman was going into that movie via me. I didn’t realize at the time. I was just out there doing the dirty work for him. That’s all. I must admit, it’s the most exciting movie ever made, because you never knew what was going to happen one minute to the next. We could shoot like 200 setups in a half day, the way he shot.
AVC: Is that your favorite of the films he made?
CN: I don’t really have a favorite of any of the pictures I did for him. There’s some stuff in there that scares the shit out of me, frankly, like the frontal nudity in Cherry, Harry & Raquel where I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this shit.” All it does is show me and whatever her name is galloping toward the camera, me in a cowboy hat and boots and nude. Years later he asked me—we were in a theater, actually, at the Paramount—and he said, “Charlie, are you ever sorry you did that?” And I go, “No, but my mother is.” [Laughs.] There was nothing about Meyer you could really say, about any time or place that didn’t bring out some outstanding moment. I gave him a wolf named Harry, after the character, and he kept Harry for 15 years. When Harry died, we had a funeral for him, the whole nine yards. He wasn’t bullshitting, man. He kept the wolf on a log chain in the living room of his house—one of his houses. You just name anything, man. If you pick up on it, there’s something there about him. I’m sure you’ve heard the story about him hauling his mom around in an ambulance for days after she was dead—
AVC: No, what’s the story there?
CN: He rented a station wagon and had his mom delivered to the back in a wooden coffin, and they took off together, and where they went? I don’t know. I asked him, and he goes, “We just went to some places we used to go to. That’s all.”
AVC: It seems like with Russ Meyer, definitely with his movies, his whole aesthetic was “going too far,” testing the limits.
CN: Yeah, I guess. He didn’t really give a shit. He was like the Hugh Hefner times 10. Those were the ’50s; when things happened, they really happened in a big, big way. Now I think they’re more subtle. They’re quicker now, but more subtle. From back then, when Elvis Presley jumped on the scene, just wiped everything out, to Russ Meyer films… Those were advances in music. Those were advances in film. Just about everything you could think of, and it came from nowhere. Elvis Presley was the same age as me, maybe… But anyway, I was in the Army before he was. I remember this guy came onscreen, and we almost went nuts, we hated him so much. He wasn’t in the Army. We were. And he was our age. But that’s how quick rock ’n’ roll came in, the Stones and all that bunch. They came into power during that time. Hefner came in with Playboy, and then Russ Meyer came in with the Russ Meyer films.
Of course, one of the biggest partners he had was Eve Meyer, his partner. They were married and later divorced, but she contributed to movies when they first got started. So she was a big part of it too. She was killed in the Netherlands when two Boeing 747s crashed on some island. We flew all the way to Alabama one night, sneaked into the cemetery where that woman is buried, me and him, and he had a bronze sign stuck on her tombstone. “Once, always a lady.” Something like that. And sneaked out during the night. I don’t know what that was all about, but we flew all the way to Alabama to do it, sneaked into the cemetery at night. I don’t know whether it’s still there or not. “Once, twice, always a lady.” Could be a song or something.
Handle With Care (1977)—“Chrome Angel”
CN: Was that the truck-driving movie? It was a great experience. It was Paramount. It was first-class. It had great actors—Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, as I recall, Ed Begley Jr. It was based on the CB radio at the time. They had plenty of money to do this film. We did this film in California. I play a cattle hauler. I’ve got a wife that lives in New York, I’ve got one that lives in L.A., and I’ve got a girlfriend in between. And they all catch me, of course. I’m involved in this horrendous triangle of cheating. The funny thing about it—it wasn’t funny at the time—Chuck Norris came out and was nothing and did a cheap-ass thing called Breaker Breaker. And they got into theaters before we did. It was a $100,000 movie, ours was probably like $10 million, and they got it in there before we did, and it killed our market.
The movie never went anywhere, but a producer saw it and it led me into a series of my own called Big Bob Johnson And His Fantastic Speed Circus with Maud Adams. We only did the pilot. After that, things just kept coming. I never really looked for them. I kept agents. I did a lot of commercials, too, in those times. I even had three commercials on the Super Bowl one time. I imagine that people got their ass busted for letting that happen. This year, I was supposed to be in one for cars.com, and I finished this big huge epic commercial, and they ran out of money, of course. I think that’s the last thing I’ve done, except the strangest movie, the one I’m doing now. Shit, I can’t remember names anymore. It’s called The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. James Brolin, Jeremy Piven. That’s in general release, comes out Paramount August 14th. I play this old guy who has Alzheimer’s and works at a shitty car lot that James Brolin runs. Brolin has decided they can’t fire me, because if they do, I’ll just kill them. We really went out on a limb for this, but I saw a copy of it not too long ago. [Director] Neal Brennan did Chappelle’s Show, and he goes, “You know what, you’re from the old school, I’m the young school.” He says, “I want you to pull out anything, as bizarre as you can say, anything you want to, because you got Alzheimer’s.” There’s some pretty funny shit in there. I saw it at a screening at Paramount with the executives. I’m on everybody—Jews, queers, you name it. I’m just this old senile person. I’ve got fights in it, I do my own stunts. So that’s the last thing I’ve got going.
The Blues Brothers (1980)—“Tucker McElroy”
CN: That’s several months of my life I don’t remember. Hanging out with Belushi, he was a pal, he and I were buddies. We just got away with absolute murder on that, and they blamed it all on the actors. Actually it was all on the singers. Singers don’t show up every day at 8:00 in the morning. Ray Charles doesn’t show up, James Brown didn’t show up when he was supposed to. So we sit there all day waiting for Aretha Franklin to fly in. So it went way, way over budget, but it made them a fortune, of course, so they loved us after that. Belushi was a great friend. Anything you wanted to try, he would do that. Landis let me have a lot of freedom. John was good to me, and he was a good director. He’s been having a hard time getting work, so I hear.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)—“Marshall Murdock”
CN: It all started from years ago, when I did a starring role with Stallone. He was the only actor that ever said, “If I ever make it, man, I’ll help you.” And he did. And Lee Marvin was a pal of mine, and when that role came up, Lee was supposed to do it, but he was in Australia. He said, “You can have it, tell them to pay me off.” And that’s how I got that role. So they sent me down to Acapulco a month early to gain 20 pounds, because they didn’t want me to have a gut or anything. It was beautiful, we were on the beach every day for three months. We were on a helicopter every morning to fly off to a jungle, and we’d come back every night, and there were thousands of women waiting to meet these famous actors. So it was great fun. I’ve made 30 films out of the country that nobody will ever see, with Menahem Golan, and I can’t even remember the names of ’em. I made them in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Bulgaria, Russia, Argentina, Panama, you name it.
AVC: Do any movies you made with Menahem Golan stand out in your mind?
CN: Menahem was a great guy. He must have been in his late 70s when I was working with him. We used to go to these Eastern Bloc countries where you could literally carry your money around in suitcases and buy your way day by day. And this old guy was ready to do that. We hit up a relationship. Golan-Globus fell apart. He wanted me to come back to Belarus one last time, and I said, “Menahem, I can’t take Belarus anymore, man.” He goes, “That’s okay, Charlie, I still love ya.” He also loved Oliver Reed for some reason. We were his two favorite actors, I guess. Anyway, traveling around the world like that on your own, the Philippines, all these places, you’re wondering. I worked in a park in Johannesburg before that, I worked in Capetown. I was sponsored by the Johannesburg people, I worked for the Italians out of Italy, Cinecittà.
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)—Lt. Boyle
I just walked on there and I said, “What do you want me to do, kill or be killed?” [Director Jonathan Demme] said, “I don’t want Lecter to kill you. You guys work it out among yourselves.” You know, the other night, my daughter said, “Dad, you were just on television in the seventh scariest movie of all time.” The percentage of women who went to that movie were like 70 percent, so I don’t know what that tells you about women. When they look at me and they realize that I am the guy, they just freak totally out. They can’t handle it. And it comes and goes in cycles. Rambo’s on right now, it’s cycling around, and Blues Brothers is cycling around. People don’t forget those, you know. They come back to you 30 years later, and hopefully I’m going to have something coming out this spring that’s going to keep me going, you know. There’s always hopefully going to be parts for older guys. The older guys are gone.
Anyone can be a director now, as you well know. There’s no union, basically, per se anymore. They say it is, but these kids are going out and making… I just did a Western for some guy’s grandson up in Oregon, who is a timber baron, and he put up 200 grand for it. I did a film in Miami for a car dealer who wanted his daughter to be onscreen. And they never go anywhere. They just lay around on shelves. Somebody ought to wise up and figure out how to sell those movies at Wal-Mart, you know? But people have that kind of money, or they used to. It’s tough times now for all of us. Everybody’s scared to death. Nobody knows what’s going to happen now. I get along day by day, and that’s about the way it goes, and I always look forward to tomorrow. I’m as excited about doing the next one as I am the first one, and the energy is still there. Of course, my memory’s not as good as it used to be, so what the hell. Marlon Brando never learned a line in his life, so I don’t feel too bad, you know.
The Critic (1994-1995)—“Duke Phillips”
CN: I’d been doing The Critic for a couple of years with Jon [Lovitz], and we were making good money, and he goes, “I don’t want to be a cartoon for the rest of my life.” And I go, “Come on, Jon, let’s run this out a little while longer.” And I’ve had a couple more cartoons—Men In Black. I do Superman occasionally. I’m on [the ’80s animated series] Dukes Of Hazzard.
AVC: Duke Phillips seemed to owe a lot to Ted Turner. Did that inform your performance at all?
CN: The deal behind that was that… Well, I never talked to him personally. My agent saw it and said, “Do you want to do this thing with Ted Turner?” And I go, “Well, yeah. If it’s all legit, why not?” So I think I did five or six of them, and I go, “That’s enough, man. My ass is going to be in deep trouble.” So that ended that. And just remember, in voiceovers, they can make you sound like anything. They don’t really need my voice. They don’t really need anybody’s voice. They can create voices now in computers. You can shoot a whole epic in a green room now. It’s just all changed. Put everybody in deep shot, everybody—from makeup to Teamsters on down, you know?
AVC: Except you have a very distinctive voice, and when people hire you, there’s a whole history that goes along with it.
CN: What’s funny is, I’ve done maybe 15 auditions for voiceovers in the last month, and I haven’t gotten a bite on any of it. And I don’t know what the reason for that is, because normally I usually get my share. Like I said, cars.com bought a million-dollar spot on the Super Bowl, and was making an epic movie—I knew it was going to happen. “The guy’s spending too much money on this 30-second spot.” Little did I know that they had a cheaper one that they could stick in there anyway to save face; they stuck it on there, so I wasn’t in the Super Bowl. So I lost all that. I lost a whole year’s worth of work that was [a contract role], all the video, everything. Cars.com, and I still don’t really know what they do, except sell cars.
Star Trek (1969)—“Adam”
CN: I stood in line. I didn’t even have an agent. This was back in the hippie days. I stood in line with a bandana on. I could only play three chords on a guitar, which I bought down at Sears and Roebuck. When it came my turn after sweltering in the hot sun for three hours, I went in. For some reason, there were like eight people in the room. I jumped up on the coffee table, and the only song I knew was “The House Of The Rising Sun,” and before I could even get through with that they go, “Stop, stop! We want you, we want you!” And that has never, ever again happened in my life, and that was my first guest-starring role.
AVC: You played kind of a space hippie. Was that—
CN: Well, yeah. It’s what makes it so wacky. It’s because the writer was 65 years old. What did he know about hippies, right? And Shatner and all of them were upset about it, and of course I didn’t know any difference. I still get letters about that today. In fact, I just got one yesterday. Thirty years later, they wanted me to come back and do a Deep Space 9 and I just—not to be an a-hole about it—I just said, “Look, I don’t want to wear that silly shirt again. If you can write a role where I’m a general of an army base…” They wanted me to complete this 30-year span of Gene Roddenberry stuff, which I did. It’s okay. That was my ending of Star Trek. I still get a lot of mail from it.
AVC: Of the films you’ve done with Jonathan Demme, which stands out?
CN: Handle With Care. That was the funniest role of them all to do. The easiest one was Silence Of The Lambs. Most of my stuff got cut out of Philadelphia; I played the judge from Philly. I went to the screening, and Jonathan goes, “We cut that shit out.” “You’re kidding me,” I said. “Why didn’t someone fucking tell me before I got here, man? I wouldn’t have even showed up.”
AVC: You wouldn’t have shown up if you had known you were cutting cut out?
CN: Well no. My major scenes were with Denzel Washington and [Tom] Hanks, and there were five Academy Award winners in the room I had to work with. What got cut was all my material. I never did find out the real reason, whether I was just a bad actor, or somebody didn’t like it, or what. But yeah, that was my role. Even Demme said so. When we had a press conference afterward, he apologized, and he said I’d probably have been nominated for it if he’d let it stay in. I finally pieced it back together, but I don’t know where it is anymore.
The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982)—“Hulk’s Voice”
CN: Rod Taylor and I were doing Oregon Trail. He hired a young marine by the name of Nick Corea, who became a writer on Oregon Trail, and later on became the producer of The Incredible Hulk, and that’s how Charles Napier became the voice of the Hulk. Ted Cassidy did the first six, the big, tall, giant guy. The reason I got it was that I could hold my breath longer than everyone else, because you would have to yell for 15 to 20 seconds a take, without a break. That was one of those lucky jobs that comes down and hits you on the head. Old Jack Starrett used to say, “When Jesus brings you luck, he usually brings it in big suitcases.” That was one of those times. I did a couple guest spots on there.
Nick and I worked on a couple of other things. Jim Carrey was interesting to work with. Ben Stiller. I didn’t have that much to do in Cable Guy. That’s an interesting movie. Stiller is really a brilliant, brilliant actor. That guy really scares the shit out of you when he wants to get serious. He was kind of shy around me. He wasn’t like you’d think Jim Carrey would be, jumping around and acting crazy. I used to bullshit him a lot. We accidentally busted Matthew Broderick’s nose on the desk, because I went to arrest him, and he didn’t turn his head sideways, and I smashed his head on the table. Of course, Carrey loved that. Matthew didn’t feel too good about it. Nothing was ever said about it.
AVC: Do you think you intimidate people?
CN: I’ve never been to a prison, whether it’s Folsom or Sing-Sing, where every prisoner didn’t have respect for me. I don’t know where it comes from, whether it’s playing bad guys or good guys. The cops get along with me great, the FBI, and the worst prisons in the world. We did a thing in Folsom called Outlaws. The warden said, “You can’t go down there with a guard.” He’s pointing down in the yard, at 300, 400 guys yelling and screaming.
We weren’t supposed to go down there, and I said, “These guys are gonna riot if you don’t send me down there.” So I went down there and said, “Give me the head leaders: The Aryan Brotherhood, whoever wants in on this shit can get in on it. You’ve gotta stick by me while I’m on camera, make sure I don’t get fucking killed, and that way you’ll be on film, as long as you stand by me.” That’s how we pulled it off all week.
I’ve done a lot of interesting things, from horses to motorcycles to—not too many airplanes. A lot of action. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve had more fun than any human being should be allowed to have, in the movies I’ve done for the last 40 years.
Life has allowed me to go out and just play. Play like you did when you were a kid, you know, “You be the good guy today, and I’ll be the bad guy.” That’s a simplistic way of looking at it, but that’s how I see it. When I’m riding in a first-class seat to some fantastic island to film something that someone else is paying for, I figure I’m ahead of the game. Not a bad life.
I’m not saying it’s been an easy life. I haven’t won any awards. Waiting for that’s like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa, but I’ve made a living at it. I’ve done my share. I draw my pension. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down but one or two roles, because I was always scared I’d never work again.
AVC: What do you remember turning down?
CN: A black chick, a black movie. Candace Brown or something
AVC: Foxy Brown?
CN: Yeah. It wasn’t a racial insult or anything. I just felt I didn’t need to be doing it. I’ve done great stuff, like Hell Comes To Frogtown. That’s probably one of the worst movies ever made. I played a cop, I recall. It was me, Lou Ferrigno, Roddy Piper might have been it. It was just about the greatest collection of bad actors in Hollywood, including Dan Haggerty. Don Stroud was in that piece of shit with us. But we got it made! I don’t think I was ever in one we didn’t finish. No, I take that back. One time, the Hell’s Angels shut down a picture called The Goldmine or something, with Bruce Dern. I’ve been all over the world meeting people. I’ve done movies with Shaq O’Neal and Sonny Liston and Fred Williamson, the Hammer, Jim Brown. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, those were all people I worked with.
AVC: What did you do with Marvin Hagler?
CN: Shit. I don’t know. Look at the list. A lot of time, I show up for those things, one day, I just do it and leave. ’Cause that’s how quick we’d turn it over, and that’s how badly they need product. It used to be that if you made a bad picture, it came back to bite you in the ass. Not so today.