The Popdose Interview: Robert Carradine
You might think that Robert Carradine, an actor whose filmography is far more formidable than the average moviegoer would ever imagine (keep reading and find yourself astonished by at least one or two of his past co-stars), would view a motion picture like Revenge of the Nerds as an albatross, one of those projects that you can’t make people forget no matter how hard you try. Carradine, however, views the role of Lewis Skolnick in the 1984 comedy – and its sequels, lest we forget – as more of a godsend, something that became far bigger than anyone ever could have anticipated. Plus, c’mon, who would’ve thought 29 years ago that nerds would end up being so hip as to warrant a prime-time television series? Or, as is the case now, a reality-competition series on TBS? That’s right: get ready for King of the Nerds. Popdose spoke with Carradine about this project, along with some of the other projects he’s worked on over the years, including – true story – Django Unchained.
Popdose: The most astonishing thing about King of the Nerds may be the fact that, rather than being something that TBS pitched to you, you actually pitched it to them.
Robert Carradine: We did! It was my wife’s idea. She said, “Remember five years ago when we tried to launch a reality show?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “I think maybe we should try to do it again.” So I gave a call to Curtis (Armstrong) and said, “Are you up for this?” And he said, “Yeah, absolutely!” So I called my agent, Gordon MacDonald, and it turns out he was friends with Jimmy Fox of Electus, which is one of the production-studio components to the show. And they got very excited about a meeting, so we took the meeting, and afterward I found out from Jimmy, who’s their head of production, that he called my agent and said, “Please don’t let the guys go anywhere else. Just give me two weeks, okay? We love the idea!” So we were met with no resistance, total open arms, by the production entity. And that’s how it started.
A lot of people would think, “Oh, man, he’s dragging himself back into the Nerds thing again,” but you seem to be embracing it and making the most of it.
Well, it never really went away. As you know, the film had an incredible following, it spawned three sequels, and it doesn’t seem to let up in terms of its cult status. With everything going on right now, how modern advertising and television and print always seems to feature a nerd character, I just think we’re really well-positioned for this show, King of the Nerds, to work.
Despite your familiarity with nerds, this is still kind of an outside-the-box gig for you, in that you’ve never really been a host before.
Nope, never hosted before. Luckily for me, though, Curtis is a very loquacious individual. [Laughs.] So he was able to do some of the heavy lifting in terms of…y’know, we have to explain to the contestants exactly what the next event is going to be, and it was kind of a Mutt and Jeff relationship in terms of the two hosts, and he was very good at that. So it helps the show balance out.
How is it to work behind the scenes as well as be in front of the camera?
Well, the thing we would do, Curtis and I would go into the control room, where we’re following at any given moment eight or ten different cameras that are following the contestants as they work their way through their off-camera lives. It’s not really off-camera, of course, because they’re all living together in a house that we’ve dubbed Nerdvana. [Laughs.] So we would watch our crews work their way through the various meetings and pitches for the teams who are trying how to beat the other teams, along with private moments where contestants are trying to get to know each other. It was very entertaining. Of course, all of those elements, when they come together in the show, we’ve culled the best ones.
I wanted to ask you about some of your back catalog, as it were. If I’ve got this right, your first on-camera appearance was on an episode of Bonanza.
Correct. Well, no, actually, my first on-camera appearance was in The Cowboys, with John Wayne.
Oh, okay. So, what, you filmed The Cowboys first, but the episode of Bonanza just happened to air before The Cowboys actually hit theaters…?
Yeah, that’s what it was.
Got it. So did you always know that you were going to get into acting? You certainly came from the right family for it, but…
I didn’t, actually. I always had a passion to be a race car driver, and that’s what I thought I was going to do, and at some penultimate moment…I think I was sitting with my brother David when The Cowboys was being cast, and they were interested in David as the bad guy, and he didn’t want to be the guy that shot John Wayne in the back. But he said, “You know, it is called The Cowboys, and they’re meeting all these young guys. Why don’t you go in?” I said, “Well, I’m not really that into it.” And he said, “Well, you’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.” So I went in and met Mark Rydell, and I was able to convey pretty accurately a nervous 17-year-old in front of John Wayne. [Laughs.] That was really the first scene: they let you meet the cowboys. So there wasn’t exactly a lot of acting going on at that exact moment. So, anyway, the heavens parted and I got that job.
You also had the rare career advantage of having your first film spun off into a TV series.
That’s right. We ran for 13 episodes. I’m not sure why it didn’t go on. I guess because John Wayne wasn’t in it. [Laughs.] But I was told by other people in the past that the reason it didn’t go on was because it was a half-hour show. You can’t really do a drama in half an hour. We really needed an hour. So that’s probably what led to the demise of the TV series.
Once you decided that you were going to be an actor, did you have an active desire to go for a television role versus film work, or did you have a preference?
I would just go for whatever opportunity existed. Because back then it seemed like generally my agent…he was an old-time Hollywood agent, Meyer Mishkin, and he would solicit offers, and there were very few meetings involved. I remember one really important meeting. It was for Breaking Away, and I would’ve loved to have been in that film, but he had the audacity to tell the director when he called up – who simply wanted to meet me – “Make me an offer,” and hung up the phone. I think things would’ve turned out a little differently had I been allowed to meet on Breaking Away, because that was a movie I really loved. Dennis Quaid ultimately got the role, so you see what it did for him…and what it could’ve done for me!
You did, however, turn up in a few places that a lot of people may not realize. You were in Mean Streets, for instance.
Yeah, again, that was because of my brother David. He was friends with Martin Scorsese, they had done Boxcar Bertha, and Marty said, “How’d you guys like to come in and do a day?” So they cast David as the town drunk, and they cast me as a young hood who wanted to make his mark by rubbing out the town drunk. So that’s how that happened.
Was it David who led you into working in the Roger Corman camp?
Well, the Corman camp…yeah, David did several films for them, and Roger, being the entrepreneur that he is, figured that if you had one Carradine, two would be better. [Laughs.]
How was it working with Paul Bartel on Cannonball?
Paul was cool! He would let things happen on the set, let us explore, and if he liked what he saw, he’d say, “Let’s shoot that!” You know, he wasn’t really tied to his script.
You also got to work with Sam Fuller on The Big Red One.
Yeah. One of the high points of my career.
No doubt. It was obviously in his later years, but it’s still a formidable film even now.
Well, also, he knew absolutely what he wanted, and if you made it through a take, it was, “Cut, print, next set-up!” And we’d never worked like that before, my co-stars and I. We always had at least several takes during a set-up. And we had an unwritten competition to see who could get the most takes. I think (Mark) Hamill won. [Laughs.] He actually managed to get eight takes out of Sam. But Sam was larger than life and unstoppable. He was like the Energizer Bunny from dawn ‘til dusk, just cranking.
I don’t know it was intended a gimmick or if it was a specific casting choice – I tend to lean toward the latter – but either way I love the brother-fest that is the cast of The Long Riders.
No, it wasn’t intended as a gimmick. It was to try to grab the reality of the fact that there are brother outlaw gangs and combine it with brother acting gangs. And we all knew each other, so there was no reason why one group of brothers wouldn’t be able to hold up to the other set of brothers. In fact, we pursued the Bridges, and Jeff didn’t want to be the guy that shot Jesse James in the back, so we luckily found the Guest brothers. Christopher Guest was wonderful as Bob Ford, and his brother Nicholas was a great Ford brother as well. So, yeah, the brother thing…it came off in print, anyway, as gimmicky, but once you saw the film, you saw that it really worked.
You’d think there’d be some competitiveness on a set like that, though, not only between the groups of brothers but within the groups of brothers.
Yeah, there was an unwritten competition on that film as well. [Laughs.] To see who could be the earliest to the bus to get to location. And that was pretty funny, because David had a reputation for living on his own time zone, so he was almost always the first guy there.
When you did Orca, were you as conscious as everyone else about how much of a Jaws rip-off it was?
Well, I didn’t really care, because the locations were so beautiful. I mean, we were in Malta, which, y’know, you wouldn’t think Malta would be a destination location, but it had some beautiful coastlines, and we had some downtime, so that was really great. And we also got to go to Newfoundland, Canada, and its remoteness and sea village and just the people up there… You know, the experience of making Orca sort of transcended the finished product, let’s say. [Laughs.]
I’d think that would be the case with lots of projects over the years. For anybody.
Yeah, it is. But then, like, you take Revenge of the Nerds, where weren’t expected to deliver the goods, and we went way beyond what they expected, and it became the runaway hit that it is.
You also managed to find a new generation of fans when you scored the role of Lizzy’s dad on Lizzy McGuire.
Yeah, that was such a godsend. I remember when I first went in on that interview. I didn’t really think that they were going to go for somebody of my style and type as Lizzy’s father. And then I found out after the fact that they’d written this guy to be kind of loose and devil-may-care, which I am. [Laughs.] And that seemed to fit the Lizzy McGuire mode.
And have you found that you’re recognized by young girls around the world as a result of that role?
Yes, part of this press tour, I’ve had a few people come up to me and say, “Our daughter can’t believe that Lizzy McGuire’s dad is hosting King of the Nerds!” [Laughs.] So that’s pretty good.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but thanks to the glory of Netflix Instant Streaming, the world at large can now watch Number One with a Bullet anytime they wish.
Oh, yeah. “He should’ve froze. It’s not like we didn’t tell him, right?” [Laughs.] One of my favorite moments in the movie. When the bad guy gets hits by the car. With Billy Dee Williams!
Is it weird to look back and think of yourself as an action star? Or was it weird even then?
Well, I really dug it! And I would’ve liked to have done some more of it, but…I don’t think Number One with a Bullet got the promotional push that it should’ve. I think it could’ve struck a wave if they’d’ve really gotten behind it. But Cannon at the time was kind of a smaller house, and I think if we were doing Number One with a Bullet today, with the social media P.R. engine, it could’ve found an audience.
Do you have a project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
Probably The Long Riders. Because The Long Riders came out right about the same time Michael Cimino was trying to get his western going. What was the name of that western again. Heaven’s Gate, that’s right. [Laughs.] And he actually dropped the studio! I mean, he brought UA to their knees. And as a result, they didn’t really have the wherewithal to promote The Long Riders. And, also, they didn’t want The Long Riders to transcend Heaven’s Gate, ‘cause then how could they sell Heaven’s Gate if a littler film came along and undid them?
How did you find your way into Django Unchained? Did Quentin Taratinto call you?
He did, actually. What happened was, my wife had a photograph of me looking very furry in the summer of 2011. [Laughs.] She said, “You know, maybe we ought to just send the photograph.” So my wife tracked down the casting director, and we sent the photograph to the casting director, she showed it to Quentin, and he called me up and said, “Hey, I think you should play one of my trackers.” And he got into a whole rap. He had me on the phone for 45 minutes about how I was gonna be one of the trackers, and I’d be a hunchback. You know, whenever you talk to Quentin, it’s kind of a stream-of-consciousness conversation. He goes to a lot of places at the same time. But he’s a very brilliant man.
You’ve also worked with John Carpenter a couple of times. You were Skinhead in Escape from L.A., and then you were in Ghosts of Mars as well.
And also Body Bags. I did three films with John.
I know Carpenter likes to use actors on repeat occasions, but how did you find your way into his camp in the first place?
Well, I’m friends with a very well known character actor, Peter Chasen, who’s very good friends with John Carpenter, and he said, “Hey, there’s a great part coming up, you ought to check it out.” But…I’m not sure if Peter had a hand in Body Bags or not. Because Ghosts of Mars and Escape from L.A., both those films, I think, if you look at the filmography, they came out after Body Bags. So Body Bags was just…I guess I was who he was looking for. [Laughs.]
I’m in the home stretch here, but to add to the list of iconic directors you’ve worked with, you were also in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home.
Yeah, and Hal had a relationship with my brother, David. I’m not sure what Hal was referring to when he thought of me as the young Bill Munson, but when I read it, I thought, “Here’s an opportunity to really go into being a Vietnam vet, an unseen side of the trauma.” Because, you know, it’s not physical trauma, it’s also mental trauma, as you see in Coming Home. I really liked it. We had a doctor on set for the suicide scene to tell me how to react to shooting air in your veins. It was…really cool.
And intense, I would think.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]
As far as working with your brother David, you worked with him on both versions of Kung Fu over the years, but you also worked with him as a director at least once, on the film You and Me.
Yeah, he actually directed me on a couple of occasions, in Americana and also A Country Mile.
How was it to work with him within that dynamic?
Well, what was so great was that he’d be so busy directing the film that he didn’t have time to pay any special attention to me. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to get dressed down in front of the crew, so I definitely brought my A-game when I worked on those.
Did you enjoy the experience of doing a Stephen King adaptation with The Tommyknockers?
Oh, it was so great. They came down two days before I had to travel, I guess they had a director change down there, and the new director had it in his head that he needed me for that film. So we had to travel very quickly, but as it turned out, my wife had just begun her eighth month of pregnancy, so she went with me to New Zealand, and as a result, my son is a New Zealand citizen. [Laughs.] Which is kind of cool.
Because of your instant recognition as the star of Revenge of the Nerds, do you find it’s hindered your ability to get other roles? Or do you just kind of embrace the success it’s provided you, as you’re doing with King of the Nerds?
Well, there are a few opportunities that come along where they want the tie-in to the Nerd persona. But then, also, like I said, if I grow my hair out and let it look a little wild and get some facial hair going, I can really look very different. I think that’s what’s led to the diversity of the characters that I’ve been fortunate enough to play.
Lastly, you’ve obviously got this new series to keep you busy for the moment, but would you be interested in returning to TV as an actor?
I’d love to. Preferrably something where I could play a policeman. It’s always fun playing cops, y’know? [Laughs.] “Freeze!”