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The actor: Towering, mellifluous character actor Tony Todd will forever be best known as the lead character in the moody horror franchise Candyman. The theater veteran made his film debut as part of the future-star-laden supporting cast of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and appeared in small roles in major films like Colors before graduating to a lead role in the 1990 remake of George Romero’s The Night Of The Living Dead. Todd’s towering 6’5” frame, brooding good looks, and velvet voice made him a natural for horror films. In 1993, Todd created an enduring horror icon when he played the title role in Bernard Rose’s Candyman. He’s subsequently won great acclaim for his guest appearances on Star Trek spin-offs, played a general in multiple episodes of 24, appeared in the first three Final Destination movies, and had a memorable guest turn on The X-Files. Most recently, he played a scene-stealing role as a bogus New Orleans witch doctor in Hatchet II, the follow-up to the 2006 home-video favorite. Released without an MPAA rating, Hatchet II recently made news when it was pulled from the AMC chain after playing for less than a week.
Hatchet II (2010)—“Reverend Zombie”
Tony Todd: When I made Hatchet, people asked, “Why are you only in one scene?” I took the role reluctantly. [Writer-director Adam Green] had to talk me into it. He explained to me that in the sequel, my character would have a much more significant role. And John Buechler, who was also an actor in it, and also has a special-effects background, personally lobbied for me to consider it, which I did. Much to my surprise, Adam Green is a very infectious, fun-loving young director who’s got a lot of talent and is gonna go places. And you always want that. You want somebody that’s not jaded. And on the second one, we got to go to New Orleans, and that’s when we go into the swamp. I can actually add that on my list of real-time things to do and not do again. [Laughs.]
AVC: I take it that’s on the “not do again” list.
TT: Unless you like alligators in the morning waiting to eat you if you slip offboard, I don’t think so. Now, New Orleans, I’ve shot down there before, that’s always an interesting time. It was fun to be back there. This is just before the BP spill, yet after Katrina.
AVC: Between tragedies.
TT: Yeah, but with the [Super Bowl] triumph of the Saints. So it’s a very resilient city, a historic city, so it was good to see people embracing life with full joy.
AVC: Hatchet II does a nice job of balancing humor and comedy. Was that tricky?
TT: You walk a fine line. What’s funny about Zombie is his seriousness in the midst of this, because the audience is let in on the fact that he may or may not be a charlatan. I think Reverend Zombie has been doing this sort of thing for so long that it’s not clear whether he is an actual practitioner of black magic. He sort of believes he is.
AVC: Do you feel a sense of solidarity with other horror icons?
TT: Yeah, I know a lot of them very well. I know Kane [Hodder] very well, I know Robert Englund. In between films, a lot of us do the convention circuit, so you get to meet people. I’m a collector too. I’m a big kid at heart, so I’ve got a loft space in downtown L.A. decorated with all kinds of esoteric collecting stuff, posters of my favorite films.
TT: I remember when I got that gig. I had gotten my master’s in theater, taught for a couple of years in Connecticut where I grew up. Went to New York, got my equity card, and for two weeks, worked in a political theater group. Believe it or not, I have a Socialist background. Not afraid to say it. Went out on the road—
AVC: What was the group named?
TT: Modern Times Theater. Our most famous piece when I was with them was called “The Box Shoe,” which was about survivors of the Hiroshima incident. I was an African-American playing a Japanese survivor. So right away, you had that immediate live thing going on. And our audience was usually composed of people from Physicians For Socialist Change And Responsibility, so our audience would just love it. And it was my first time physically traveling America, so to see the differences and yet the similarities. So that was an eye-opening experience in terms of my growth as an artist and as a human being. And then I finished that, became a bartender. Most actors have to find something else to do. Next thing you know, I’m working at a theater bar, and I was doing a one-man show called Johnny Got His Gun.
That was one of the best times in my life. And then Oliver Stone’s people saw it, recommended me, and next thing you know, I’m being summoned to the Mayfair Hotel. I’ll never forget it. I auditioned for him for like four hours. That Monday, we got the call. I remember it was like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain. Phone booths were still around then, so I’m on the phone calling my aunt who raised me, saying “I got a movie.” She said “That’s great! Where?” I said “The Philippines.” She hung up on me. Marcos isn’t even in the country at the time. She said, “I don’t want my baby going there.” I said, “You don’t understand, Clara. This is my opportunity. This is a film.” We didn’t know at the time that Platoon was going to be the success that it was. We just thought it was a film. And when they threw us into the boot camp, hitting the ground running, and six weeks of that, and then right into Oliver Stone’s demented yet very specific, very specific way of listing stuff for his characters. It was a thrill ride.
AVC: And that was kind of before Oliver Stone was Oliver Stone.
TT: Yeah, it was. But I think that was his defining moment. It was before any of us were any of us, except for Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. But that cast has gone on and done, I think pound for pound, it’s one of the best ensemble casts—
AVC: You had people like Johnny Depp in small roles.
TT: Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Corey Glover from Living Colour. And nobody knew. We were just cocky. We were cocky kids from New York.
Colors (1988)—“Vietnam Vet”
TT: Yeah. I always find something that connects to another film, one way or the other. But yeah, I got to work with Dennis Hopper, rest in peace, Sean Penn. It was insane. Robert Duvall was in that. And that was a controversial film too, because when it opened, there were a lot of gang incidents happening in theaters across the country.
TT: That was great. Clint Eastwood, man. Pound for pound, one of the best directors I ever worked with. He was an actor, is an actor. He knew how to talk to people in a way that wasn’t pedantic, it was more coming from “I understand what you’re going through. I just want you to be the best human being at this particular moment.” And that was great. Refreshing. And he’s a true lover of jazz and a true lover of people. For the character of Frog, I based him on Coleman Hawkins, who was a friend of Charlie Parker, played by my friend Forest Whitaker. I did two scenes in that movie. But I remember we had to go through the saxophone training. And I don’t play horn. I love jazz, I love blues, but that’s not me. Although I did have the rights to the Lesser Young story for a couple of years. But that didn’t go anywhere. Hollywood said “Jazz movies aren’t valuable.” In spite of Bird, and in spite of Robert Altman’s, Kansas City. They don’t make money. And if they don’t make money, you got to do more films about teenagers in peril. [Laughs.]
Cop Rock (1990)—“Omar”
TT: That was a glorious failure. Steve Bochco at the time, I think NYPD Blue was already on, but he wanted to do an experiment, and it was the first singing musical weekly cop show.
AVC: First and last.
TT: [Laughs.] Failed to get the numbers. Failed to get the ratings. But boy, was it fun!
AVC: Did you do any singing?
TT: Nah, no singing. Just getting my voice and that bass stuff, and that was it. I didn’t have to do any dance numbers. [Laughs.]
AVC: What did your character Omar do?
TT: What did he do? Besides being an angry Muslim? I sold bean pies and fried fish. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you wear a bowtie?
TT: Yes, I did. But because of that, I ultimately got on NYPD Blue, which was a great time, with Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz.
AVC: If nothing else, there were no other shows like Cop Rock. You weren’t going to be like, “Oh it’s another musical cop show!”
TT: Yeah. I need to track down the footage to that, because it aired so quickly, I don’t remember seeing it.
AVC: I don’t think it’s ever come out on DVD.
TT: No probably not.
AVC: You figure people would, if only for morbid fascination—
TT: Well, if Supernatural is on DVD, then you know—
AVC: If all eight seasons of Mama’s Family are on DVD, there really isn’t any excuse for anything not to be.
TT: Everything’s on DVD. And they don’t pay actors for the DVD box sets.
AVC: It’s another way to screw people over.
TT: We got another union thing coming up, so we don’t want to go down that path again.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990)—“Kurn”
TT: And the fans will never let me forget that. I actually auditioned for those folks at Star Trek, Rick Berman and the great Gene Roddenberry and David Livingston, six times before I got on the show. Around the third time, I knew they were interested, and around the fourth time, I told my agent I didn’t want to go in again, because they needed to make up their minds, but they assured me that they were interested, it was just a matter of finding the right thing. And they were very close to hiring me in the episode before Kurn appeared… Who was the actor that was in Harry And The Hendersons?
AVC: John Lithgow?
TT: No, the monster.
AVC: Kevin Peter Hall?
TT: Thank you. Who passed away. He won the role, whatever it was that we were up for. And then the very next week, they said, “Well why don’t you come in again.” I said, “Again!” And they said, “Yeah, yeah. This one’s significant.” I said, “More significant than the others?” Anyway, it turns out that it’s Worf’s brother. I didn’t know Klingon from a Krumon, okay? I get the script, and I said “All right, he’s Shakespearean, he’s fierce, he’s an alien warrior, and he’s got issues with his brother, growing up as a single kid.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to use some juxtaposition.” Anyway, we audition, I’m literally walking off, throwing my shit, my sides [the audition sheets with his lines], in the trashcan, and I get this call from the balcony, he’s in the Marx brothers building, he says, “Tony! You have to report to wardrobe.” It was one of those magic Hollywood moments. I went in there, and all of a sudden I’m being fitted in this strange plastic armor gear. I didn’t get the significance when we were shooting. Sometimes that works in an actor’s benefit. And then after we did it, I remember my first scene was on the Enterprise, on deck. And there I am… I had watched Star Trek as a kid. I wasn’t rabid. It had a non-hip factor at that point.
AVC: It wasn’t that popular the first time around.
TT: Well, something happened. Next thing you know, it’s on the air, and people really like the character, and I think I played him four times since then.
AVC: And you were in other Star Trek shows as well.
TT: Uh-huh. I got to do all of them except the last one, Enterprise. Which I think only three other actors have done as well. And then the one that was the best was “The Visitor” from Deep Space Nine, where I played Jake as an old man. That won fan-favorite in the top five of all-time episodes. And considering there have been over a thousand episodes, that’s pretty good.
AVC: That is impressive.
TT: You never saw that episode.
AVC: I did not.
TT: That’s the one to watch.
AVC: What was that episode about?
TT: Avery Brooks was the captain at the time, a role I auditioned for. But I played his son as an older man, after witnessing his death, and it was a father-son thing that I think resonated with people. And it’s been said that for people who don’t like Star Trek, that’s the episode they show to them to understand the whole thing about the possibility of humanity. Or something to that effect.
Candyman (1992)—“Candyman/Daniel Robitaille”
TT: Right. [In a hushed tone.] The motion picture. But you’re leaving out the remake of The Night Of The Living Dead. That was just before that.
Night Of The Living Dead (1990)—“Ben”
TT: Night Of The Living Dead was my first starring role. First lead. And I remember I was in Pittsburgh doing something for HBO/Showtime—they were merged at the time, and I remember watching the original at a drive-in, and being really impressed that a) you had a black actor on screen played by Duane Jones, who was carrying the movie, and b) it was genuinely scary. You had the black-and-white, and it looked like a documentary. So I ran into the office—I found the production office—and I grabbed [director] Tom Savini by his lapels, literally, and said, “You got to read me. You got to read me.” He tried to tell me I was close, I said, “You got to read me.” And I just laid it out, and he gave me the job that day. So that was important for me. Later, my son was born too, during that, and that was significant.
AVC: Sounds like a crucial moment in your life.
TT: Then came the motion picture. [Laughs.]
AVC: Then came the motion picture! Candyman.
TT: I had just done a film where I had gone to Africa for the first time, so I was all into that. Then I get a call one day, I was getting a lot of work at this point, a lot of television, we were booking easily twice a month, but I didn’t know I was successful yet, because I was worried about my little baby. Anyway, I get a call from my agent saying “This director wants to see you, wants to just meet you about this movie called Candyman.” I thought he was fucking joking. I mean, what is that? A Sammy Davis thing? What is that? He said, “No no no. They won’t give us the script, but they said it’s a major studio film, and they want to just meet you.” I said, “Okay.” And I met Bernard Rose, who’s a crazy maniacal Englishman who had a habit of twisting his hair between his fingers. He said, “I saw your film that you did in Africa, and you’re my guy. The only problem is, we got to convince the studio.” So I knew I had his blessings, and he slipped me a copy of the script. I read it, and word leaked out to me, it was the whole thing of the urban mythology, and the fact that this was a possibility of an African-American, I don’t know, icon, but a horror figure. ’Cause I was heavy into the whole Dracula, Phantom Of The Opera thing.
I had to do what they call a “Personality Test,” where I had to go to the studio at literally 8 in the morning, in front of a bunch of suits, and display whether I had a personality. So I did my best not to spill the coffee or insult them, and at the end of it, I heard they didn’t think I had a personality. They said, “Well, we don’t know if he has personality, but if you believe that he can do the film… Okay… Are you sure? He said, “Yeah. That’s the guy.” And then the last hurdle was meeting Virginia Madsen, who’s from the Chicago area, and she just had it in her contract that she had to sign off on me. Then we met, went to lunch, and she said “Yes,” and that was it. And I remember we came here to Chicago, and it was my first time in Chicago, we went to the Kingston Mines, me and Bernard, listening to some great blues. Keith Richards stopped by that night, and he was just saying, “This role is going to change your life.” And at the time, I’m going “Okay, I’ve heard this before. I’ve done some things. I’ve had some life interruptions, but change my life? I’m going to do the best I can, but I don’t know if your ego is stating that this is going to change my life.” But in fact, he was right, because not a day goes by, to this day, 17 years later, without people, I mean multiple people, coming up and saying “Candyman!” Which amazes me, because usually film does not have that much of an attention span.
AVC: Does it bother you that when you die, the headline will begin, “Candyman actor Tony Todd…”
TT: Well, it did at a point, but then I said “You can’t change it, so that’s what it is.” I selectively do films that are completely away from that, and then I go back to it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And I embrace it. The only thing that’s changed is that I got to go food shopping after midnight. And sometimes I have to put up with weird questions. But there are perks. I can get in front of any line at any nightclub in the world.
AVC: What do you think resonated with people about the character?
TT: I think that it was genuinely frightening. I think the fact that it came from an urban landscape, something that people could relate to, the housing project, and I also think the message of redemption, and that the violence stemmed from a racist act in the first place, the undeniable love that was denied between Candyman and Virginia Madsen’s character hit a chord with people. And I think Philip Glass’ music, and Tony [Anthony B. Richmond], our DP’s phenomenal cinematography. It just had the elements all there. And then the bees. And the bees have always been creepy. I knew when I read the script, I said “That moment when the bees are first coming around, that’s a memorable moment. That’s a film moment that’s right up there.”
AVC: The second one was directed by Bill Condon?
TT: Yeah, Bill Condon who’s now going to be doing Twilight.
AVC: He won an Academy Award too.
TT: Yeah, for Gods And Monsters, and I think Dreamgirls.
AVC: Given the mania for remaking horror films, it’s surprising that no one has remade Candyman.
TT: They keep saying it’s going to be remade. I keep hearing rumors. At one point, I was actively pursuing it. Once I had gotten past the fact that I can’t get away from it, so, well, let me embrace the brand. So when it came time for me to really get a significant payday if I had done the brand—but of course there’s an entanglement now with who owns it. So even if it was done without me, like three owners own the rights, and they’re so maniacally greedy that they can’t come to an agreement. The last rumor I heard was that they were going to go back to the original source, which took place in England, and use a white actor to do the role, but that didn’t go over too well on the Internet.
AVC: That would be a bold revisionist take.
TT: Well sometimes boldness is what we need, instead of just doing a remake by cookie-cutter.
AVC: Which definitely seems like how things tend to be.
TT: It’s sad.
Final Destination (2000)—“Mr. Bludworth”
TT: Well James Wong and Glen Morgan, I did a pilot for them maybe four years before that, something you’ve never seen that didn’t go anywhere. [Laughs.] But it was fun. I met them. They’re great guys, and they created this role. They brought me in. They wanted me to read. I was younger then, I had a little more ego, and I said, “Read? Didn’t I do a pilot for you? What? This is a mortician.”
AVC: Did they make you do a personality test as well?
TT: Well, the personality part was over. Anyway, they gave me the part. I think I almost didn’t get the part, but something happened. I got the part. I’m getting ready to do the fifth one, literally in two weeks.
AVC: Is it going to be 3-D as well?
TT: Yeah. It’s a $60 million budget, which boggles the mind. Because I’m starting to think about becoming an independent filmmaker myself, and directing, and I’m trying to raise a million to do a film, and just the concept of “Where does this money go? Why is it necessary?” And it is, in their minds. And I’m excited to return to it, because the fourth one, they wanted me to do it, but then somehow they forgot how much they paid me in the second one… Don’t you love when that happens? “You forgot? You lost the records?” That’s the same thing where Batman didn’t make money. And so when we told them, then they said [Gasps.], so then all of a sudden in the fifth one, they came to us and they gave us what we simply deserve. I think this Final Destination script is somewhere between the first and the second, in terms of the quality.
The X-Files (1994)—“Augustus Cole”
TT: The name of the guy, I don’t remember, but I know he’s a Vietnam vet who hadn’t been asleep for 20 years, it was called, “Sleepless,” the episode. What was his name… Preacher!
AVC: How do you prepare to play that character?
TT: I didn’t go to sleep.
TT: [Laughs.] Literally. I had just finished another film and I was on my way to New Orleans, I had just finished Homicide: Life On The Street, and I had this weird hair, because I had curled my hair, and I had to show up for Candyman, in New Orleans, and they called me for X-Files. I didn’t have to audition for that one. And also this connection, this episode was written by Howard Gordon, who went on to do 24. Small world. We had to shoot it in three days, so we literally were working almost 20 hours a day, so that part was easy to tap into. Plus hereditarily, I have dark eyes anyway. And from that, I went right into Candyman II.
AVC: You work such long hours doing television.
TT: Yeah, television’s crazy, man. That was around the time… We finally had an incident in L.A. where a film crew member was killed working 20 hours on the highway, and they passed a law so you’re not supposed to work more than 15 hours anymore.
AVC: Haskell Wexler made a documentary not too long ago about the deplorable labor practices of Hollywood.
TT: Yeah. [Laughs.] Forget Hollywood, try to get away with shooting in Romania.
AVC: Have you shot something in Romania?
TT: I shot Prophecy: Forsaken. It wasn’t a great experience for me. I didn’t like Romania. Are you Romanian?
AVC: No, I just imagine it’s probably pretty surreal filming something in Romania.
TT: It was right after the wall came down, and you got wild dogs roaming the street, and everybody’s a Gypsy. Everybody’s related to Dracula. It was seven weeks there. I just got tired. And I think the whole time, I only saw one other African-American there. Yeah… I was homesick.
Heart Of The Beholder (2005)—“Chuck Berry”
TT: That was just fun. I’m a musicologist, I love blues music. So yeah, that was great. I put on a fright wig and got to channel my ding-a-ling. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you have to learn how to do the duck walk?
TT: Well, it was a stationary shot. They just had me sitting in a Cadillac. But that film was important, because it’s based on the true story about censorship in the video-store industry.
AVC: What was the plot?
TT: It was about censorship and this family that was forbidden from selling a certain product [The Last Temptation Of Christ —ed.], like when the story came out about Blockbuster, and there was censorship, those people could give the public whatever they wanted. It was freedom of speech, and they were condemned, and they were fighting for that. And Chuck Berry happened to be a longtime friend of one of the people there. So it made some news on the political circuit.
24 (2004-2009)—“General Benjamin Juma”
TT: Oh yeah, that was great. That was based on the Howard Gordon connection from before. So he called me in. I got to go to South Africa for my third time. And real quick, I got two films that have just been entered into the Sundance. One’s called Change In The Game, it’s about an urban kid trying to find himself, and then Dreaming In America, which is about immigrants thrown into the L.A. landscape finding their identity. Both of them are at Sundance and are up for consideration.