Christopher Lloyd on playing a vampire, a taxi driver, a toon, and more
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Christopher Lloyd had a formidable theater background before beginning his film career with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and he made his name in television by playing Reverend Jim Ignatowski on Taxi. Since then, Lloyd has been a staple of both TV and movies, most notably as Dr. Emmett Brown in the Back To Future trilogy. His latest role finds him playing an elderly vampire on the season première of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, which airs on October 13.
R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour (2012)—“Gramps”
Christopher Lloyd: I got the script, and it’s sort of a send-up of the whole vampire genre, but it had a twist on it. It’s a retirement community, but all of the retirees are vampires, and they hold an auction one night a week, a bingo game, to see who wins the next victim, so to speak. And I liked the part of Gramps because he’s a vampire, so he has all of those impulses and cravings that vampires have, and yet he’s visited by his grandniece and his son and daughter, and he has the cravings to victimize them, but he can’t do it. They’re his family—his blood, so to speak—so he’s conflicted. But he does do all he can not to let himself give in to his cravings for blood, and he protects them. In fact, he has to protect them against this entire community of vampires who are dying, so to speak, to get their teeth into their sweet little throats. [Laughs.] I feel that there’s a lot of kind of sly humor [in] the script, and at the same time there’s a sense of dread and scariness that works. It’s not so scary that children can’t watch it, and it’s a fun family film, so I just thought, “Why not?” Basically, I just liked the whole concept of the character of Gramps. It touched a nerve, and I thought, “I want to do this.”
Amazing Stories (1986)—“Professor B.O. Beanes”
The A.V. Club: This seems to follow the same kind of family-friendly scariness as that great episode of Amazing Stories you did, “Go To The Head Of The Class.”
CL: Oh, yeah! Yeah, this is definitely along those lines. It’s watchable for kids, but it’s got enough of a horror factor to give them a little scare. Yeah, I loved doing that Amazing Stories. That was just so outrageous.
AVC: You reteamed with Robert Zemeckis for that.
CL: I did. This was after the first Back To The Future, and he said he’d liked for me to play it. You know, I love working with Bob Zemeckis. I think he’s amazing and wonderful to work with. And it was such a crazy character to play. There was no question in my mind that I would do it.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)—“Taber”
AVC: Taber was one of your earliest film roles.
CL: It was the earliest.
AVC: You’re listed as having had an uncredited appearance in Airport on IMDB. Is that true?
CL: You know, I’ve heard that, although I couldn’t remember if they said I was in Airport 1 or Airport 2, but either way I have no recollection of it. [Laughs.] And I’m sure I would remember if I was! So I think that’s just some sort of misprint somewhere.
AVC: In that case, given that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was your first film, how did you find your way into the cast? It was certainly a high-profile way to begin your movie career.
CL: Yeah, there were auditions in New York. Michael Douglas and Martin Fink, the producers—and Milos Forman, of course—all came to New York. And at the auditions, Milos Forman would take maybe five, six, seven actors into a room. It was arranged very much like the meetings in the film. He would be Nurse Ratched, he’d have us in kind of a ring, and he’d shoot questions to us and try to provoke feelings and issues among the group. And that was the nature of the audition. I did that a couple of times, and two or three weeks after I did it the last time, I got the notice that I’d been cast. So I was absolutely thrilled. It was my first film, and I was going to be with Jack Nicholson, who was already an idol for me with all the work he’d done up to that point. I didn’t really know anybody else in the cast, but to be working with Milos Forman and Jack Nicholson was so exciting for me.
Goin’ South (1978)—“Deputy Towfield”
AVC: Was it the Jack Nicholson connection that helped you find your way into Goin’ South?
CL: [Laughs.] Well, that happened in a rather interesting way. I was doing a Broadway musical called Happy End, a Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill collaboration, and [Nicholson] was looking for a leading lady, a new actress, to be in Goin’ South, which he was directing. So he came to see Happy End not knowing I was in it but, rather, to see Meryl Streep, who was my co-star. And I remember after the play, the stage manager said that Jack Nicholson was going to be coming back to my dressing room to say hello. And Meryl Streep was there, and he said that there was a script that he’d like for me to see, that he’d like for me to do a part in it. And the film was Goin’ South, and I did it. And ultimately he found Mary Steenburgen to play the role that he was trying to cast. But it was just fortuitous that he came by that night.
AVC: What are your recollections of working with John Belushi?
CL: I remember him well. John Belushi was doing Saturday Night Live at the time, which he had to be in New York to do, and we were shooting Goin’ South in Durango, Mexico, which meant that for three or four weeks he had to do Saturday Night Live, fly to Durango—which was fairly complicated, because you had to go to Mexico City and then up to Durango—shoot for a couple of days, and then fly back to New York to do Saturday Night Live again. [Laughs.] But he was wonderful to work with. I mean, he was absolutely right for the part. He had a lot of energy, of course. He was great. We had a good routine together. It was cool.
Taxi (1978-1983)—“Reverend Jim Ignatowski”
AVC: It seems like Danny DeVito was your good-luck charm during the early years of your career: He was in Cuckoo’s Nest, Goin’ South, and then you co-starred with him on Taxi as well.
CL: That’s right! People have speculated whether he said anything or had anything to do with influencing having me come in for Reverend Jim. I do not know whether it’s just all coincidence or whether he had anything to do with any of that. We’ve never talked about it. [Laughs.] I’ve never asked him, so it remains a mystery.
AVC: Taxi was your first full-time series role. Given how much theater you’d done and the gradual build of your film career, did you have any hesitation about doing a TV series?
CL: Yes, I did. Because I was in New York, and I’d spent years there doing theater. I had kind of an attitude, which was not uncommon in New York. Theater people who went to Hollywood to do sitcoms were selling out. That was the attitude. And I didn’t really relish the idea of being cast in a sitcom, because I shared that attitude. [Laughs.] At least to an extent. And I told my agent, Bob Gersh, of the Phil Gersh Agency, I said, “I don’t want to do sitcoms.” And over time he would send me up to meet people to do sitcoms, and he’d say, “Just go meet them, because you never know: Down the line, it might be something that might be important.” And then he sent me the script for Taxi, and I got really into getting ready for the part. I’d picked out all of the costume pieces, which eventually I wore when we shot the series. I just got into it. And then I came and saw rehearsal with the cast—Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, etc.—and I just thought, “My God, these people are terrific!” So I ventured into a world of sitcom, and I have no regrets. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I loved the role, I loved the people I was working with, a great team of writers… It was a wonderful experience. And they’re hard to come by, a series that actually works and has a good run.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)—“Kruge”
CL: Ah! [Laughs.] To this day, I don’t know why they cast me, because I hadn’t done anything that I can recall that bore any resemblance to the character of Captain Kruge. They just played a hunch, I guess. And I loved doing that. I mean, he epitomizes somebody with absolutely no moral conscience. He even blows up his so-called girlfriend in another spaceship. They have a short conversation at the beginning, and he doesn’t even apologize. She’s amenable because… well, it’s for whatever political reasons. But, yeah, he’s just evil. [Laughs.] He’s demonic. There’s no conscience in place at any point, and he has no apologies for any of his actions. He just goes out and destroys and kills and creates havoc until he gets what he wants. And that was fun to play. I loved all the makeup and the clothes, the whole Klingon look. It was a joy. And Leonard Nimoy directed!
AVC: And John Larroquette was one of your henchmen.
CL: That’s right! Yeah, he was there when I had my big fight with Kirk, with Bill Shatner, at the end. I mean, I had to do that film. It was like, “What the hell, you only live once.”
The Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure (2012)—“Lero Sombrero”
CL: Oh! [Laughs.] I just saw that very recently. You know, I read it and I thought, “Well, this isn’t something I’ve played before.” And I managed to work out the bongo playing so that it worked. I felt I looked pretty convincing at that, even though I’d never played bongos before in my life. And I enjoyed working with the actor who was my counterpart. I don’t talk, and then I have the one line about their “big balloon adventure” or something like that. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I have fun doing what I do, and I had fun doing that.
AVC: But did you have any idea what was going on?
CL: Well, I, uh, read the script. [Laughs.] In fact, I think they’d talked about… They were at first thinking about me [playing the character] Bobby Wobbly, which, when I saw it, I wouldn’t have enjoyed doing that. That was a tough role to do. I give credit to the actor who played it [Cary Elwes], wobbling through the whole thing. That would’ve been more than I could handle. But I really enjoyed playing the role I did.
Clue (1985)—“Professor Plum”
CL: I wish I could break things up and say, “Oh, I had an awful time, I hated the people, the director didn’t know what he was doing” [Laughs.] But I can’t! What a cast. I mean, what an ensemble. I can’t recite the names of everybody, but it was just a wonderful group of people. The script was a lot of fun. The director [Jonathan Lynn] was very good. And it was still one of my earlier films. That was a great experience. Sorry, I loved doing that, too! And it’s got a cult following. A lot of people are really into it. Everyone’s got their favorite of the different endings.
Back To The Future (1985) / Back To The Future Part II (1989) / Back To The Future Part III (1990)—“Dr. Emmett Brown”
CL: I was shooting a film in Mexico City that I’m not sure ever came out. [Laughs.] But it was shooting in Mexico City, and I was kind of implanted there, focusing on that, when my agent sent me the script for Back To The Future. I scanned it, but I wasn’t terribly impressed, mostly because I’d been offered the chance to go back East and do a play at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. I’d be playing Hans Christian Andersen—I grew up with Danny Kaye. [Kaye played the title role in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen. —Ed.]
And Colleen Dewhurst, an amazing, wonderful actress, was going to be my mother in it, and I just thought, “I need to go back to my roots.” So I just dismissed the Back To The Future script. And then a friend who was with me at the time said, “My mantra has always been to never leave any stone unturned.” In other words, whenever someone has an interest in you, whatever it is, at least check it out. So based on that, I flew back to Los Angeles, met Bob Zemeckis, and the rest is history. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there a particular point when you realized that the film was really turning into a big deal?
CL: I’m slow to pick things up. Everybody always seems to know more than I do. [Laughs.] I think that, for months, everyone just hoped that it would have a good opening and a good run. I certainly did not foresee that we would have had the 25th-anniversary celebration a few years ago. It’s so amazing, because generation after generation has seen this film, and it just keeps rolling along. Aside from it being a fun cinematic adventure, I’ve had so many people who saw it when they were very young who were profoundly affected by it, making career choices and so forth. It really had a deep meaning for them. And I think that’s great. I’m fortunate to have been a part of something that had that much of an impact on so many people.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)—“Judge Doom”
CL: That was somewhat like playing Captain Kruge, actually. Here was another guy who, okay, he was a toon, but he was also just so evil. So evil. I mean, dipping the little shoes and other little toons into the dip? He was just nasty. [Laughs.] And, of course, I loved the makeup. That outfit I wore, the glasses, the whole look of it. It was a lot of fun to play. Yeah, that was great. And working with Bob Hoskins and, again, Bob Zemeckis. I’ve been lucky.
Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)—“Pieces”
AVC: Is there any project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
CL: Hmmm. Well, I feel that way sometimes about Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead. I feel like… There are people who love it, and that’s another one that has sort of a cult following, but I would’ve liked to have seen that make a bigger imprint on the audience. It’s another one I loved doing, but I just thought it was a uniquely written, performed, and directed film. Strange, yes. [Laughs.] But I liked it a lot.