Don Calfa, perhaps best known for his role as mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner in 1985’s Return Of The Living Dead, has died. The news was made public on the actor’s Facebook page. He was 76.
According to his biography, the Brooklyn-born Calfa intended to pursue a career in fine arts before deciding on acting. After seeing Rebel Without A Cause, Calfa dropped out of high school to study at Irwin Piscotor’s The Dramatic Workshop. His first credited role is that of “Priest” in Robert Downey, Sr.’s No More Excuses in 1968. Calfa cut his teeth throughout the ‘70s, guest starring on Baretta, Kojak, The Streets Of San Francisco, and Barney Miller. “I have one record to my name,” Calfa revealed in a 2008 interview with Cult Radio A Go Go. “I did more guest appearances on Barney Miller than anyone. Never a recurring character, but a different character every time.”
The actor continued building his resume into the ‘80s, appearing in 1983’s The Star Chamber alongside Michael Douglas and showing up in a 1984 episode of Night Court. In 1985, though, Calfa appeared in Return Of The Living Dead. Very loosely based around a novel by John Russo—who co-wrote Night Of The Living Dead with George Romero—Return Of The Living Dead became an instant cult classic, securing Calfa a spot on the convention scene for years to come for his role as Ernie the embalmer. “We had about two weeks rehearsal. It was very well tuned by the time it was ready to shoot,” Calfa told LITT Magazine in 2009. “It’s nice doing these shows and it’s great being in a cult classic. I’m very proud of it.”
“I did 1941 with Steven Spielberg, I did Nickelodeon with Bogdanovich, New York, New York with Martin Scorsese. I did all of them back to back, they all bombed. They all tanked. They all went right into the dumper. They’re all good; they’re all good movies. Of all of these major players that I’ve worked with it’s this movie, it’s Return that’s the cult hit,” Calfa told LITT.
Calfa, along with Roger Carney, wrote a treatment for a sequel to Return Of The Living Dead titled Revenge Of The Living Dead that was a direct continuation of the original film. Calfa’s vision for a Return sequel never got off the ground, but in 2008 the actor joined forces with filmmaker and artist Gary Smart to complete a 70 page, full color graphic novel that has yet to see an official release. Ironically, Calfa auditioned for 1988’s Return Of The Living Dead, Part II, but didn’t get the role.
Calfa went on to appear in Weekend At Bernie’s as rusty hit man Paulie, as Vice Principal Greege in Twin Peaks, and “got to torture a midget” in Troma’s Chopper Chicks In Zombie Town. He continued showing up on television into the ‘90s, popping up in Boy Meets World, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Doogie Howser, M.D., certifying his “that guy” status. He had just completed a role in the comedy drama Lewisberg. Last year, a documentary on Calfa was the subject of a Kickstarter that unfortunately was not funded.