Tom Atkins ("Night of the Creeps") Interview
In the 1980s, while muscle bound lunkheads like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were battling the forces of darkness with lame quips and a minor armory at their disposal, one man was doing it with nothing more a carton of cigarettes and a six-pack of beer. With his blue collar charm and everyman exterior, Tom Atkins became something of a minor league hero in some of the decade's favorite cult movies. He took on ghostly pirates in John Carpenter's The Fog (1980), an occult madman in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and a zombified lawman in Maniac Cop (1988). Sure he looked like somebody's dad, but somehow he still managed to kick ass and get the girl. October 27th sees the long-awaited DVD release of Night of the Creeps and we were lucky enough to sit down with the charming Mr. Atkins and share his thoughts on a versatile career, becoming a cult icon and working alongside some of horror's true masters.
Classic-Horror: Of all the films you've done, you've always said that Night of the Creeps was your favorite...
Tom Atkins: Yeah. It was the most fun film I've ever worked on. It was a pure giggle from beginning to end. The director Fred Dekker was very young and very talented and he went on to do Monster Squad afterwards. I think he wrote a terrific film that was kind of a big put-on of 50s horror. And I had great lines in that movie! Every time I picked up the phone I would say, "Thrill me," and I called the two young leads Spanky and Alfalfa. My favorite scene in that movie was when the girls were waiting for their dates who'd turned into zombies. I looked out the window and then turned to the room of girls and said, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is your dates are here." And one of the girls says [impersonating a teenage girl] "What's the bad news?" "They're dead!" [laughs]. That film was my favorite but it never found an audience and it never found a big release. Only recently have they decided to release it on DVD. For years fans have been relying on bootleg copies.
C-H: Considering the underground success of parts like Detective Cameron in Night of the Creeps, do you feel you've become something of a star of cult cinema?
Atkins: No, I don't think so. I mean one or two of the films I've done have become cult favorites, Night of the Creeps being the main one, but for the most part everything else I've done has been part of the mainstream. It's just I've made a lot of genre films: Halloween III, Creepshow and The Fog. Movies like that. I don't think they're cult.
C-H: But you do have a cult following...
Atkins: Yeah. The fans have been terrific. I do a lot of conventions and people sometimes fly in from all over the place just to say hi. There's a guy from Australia who I see at shows all the time. Maybe he's a stalker [laughs].
C-H: Let's jump back a little bit. How did you get started in acting?
Atkins: It's a long story. I had no interest in being an actor when I was a kid. My dad worked in a Steel Mill in Pennsylvania and I didn't have any hopes but to follow in his footsteps. Then I ended up going to the Navy. I was an enlisted man and I noticed that the officers lived great, but that was only because they had gone to college. So when I got out of the Navy I went to college myself and when I was there I got involved with a girl and her theater group. I was in my 20s already when I got interested in acting and I liked it a lot. I got involved at this extra curricular group at the Ducane University of Pittsburgh and when I graduated I went to New York. I got an agent in my first year there at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and I got the first job I auditioned for. It was a Broadway show called Keep it in the Family - a little kitchen table family kind of play - nothing big. Patrick Macnee was in it.
C-H: Was it always your ambition to act on screen?
Atkins: Well I started with a little theater group so I think it was only natural that I wanted to be a stage actor. After six years in New York - on and off Broadway and all the regional theaters - I figured they really didn't pay you enough. You have to work really hard in the theater so I went to LA to make some money [gives a wry smile].
C-H: Was the theater good preparation for working on screen?
Atkins: Oh yeah! Although if a young person was asking me today I'd say skip the theater and go to LA. Learn to act in front of the camera and make some money right away.
C-H: How is working in front of camera different from acting on stage?
Atkins: Working in front of an audience makes working in front of camera really easy...if anything the performance tends to be a little big, so you have to tone it down for camera, but it's pretty easy.
C-H: And your first movie role was in The Detective with Frank Sinatra. How was that for your first time?
Atkins: It was great! It was intimidating and frightening and scary but Frank was great. He was very easy to work with. He didn't like to do a lot of takes. But then it's not like we were doing Shakespeare.
C-H: You first became know to horror movie fans from your performance in John Carpenter's The Fog. How did you come to be cast in that?
Atkins: I was friends with his wife at the time Adrienne Barbeau. She and my first wife were in Grease together on Broadway. I remember we went to see a screening of Halloween together and at the time she was dating John. My wife was on one side and her friend Jeannie was on the other and they kept hiding behind their hands asking, "Can we look?" At the end of the movie both of the girls said, "We cannot let Adrienne marry this guy. This guy is too weird." But so anyway, he knew me and asked me to be in The Fog and later to star in Halloween III which was directed by his right hand man Tommy Lee Wallace.
C-H: Halloween III: Season of the Witch was such a strange entry into the series, but one that I personally love. How did you feel about the end result?
Atkins: I liked Halloween III. I had a great time doing it and the reason it got done was Carpenter's attempt to make a different Halloween story every other year. But when Halloween III was already in the works a poll came back that said Michael Myers had gone through the roof with fans. So the studio basically said, "Forget this different Halloween crap. Keep making Michael Myers films. We wanna make money, to hell with art!"
C-H: In Halloween III, and indeed in The Fog you bring a likable, everyman quality that kind of reminds me of Glenn Ford. That must have appealed to John Carpenter...
Atkins: I have no idea what appeals to John Carpenter. He's kind of a recluse now. He lives by himself smoking cigarettes and playing videogames. Well, he has a wife...
C-H: What was also fun about those movies was that you always tended to get the girl...
Atkins: Yeah, where the hell did that come from? I never get the girl in real life, but in the movies I was getting em right and left. That's kind of slacked off in my later years. But Jamie [Leigh Curtis's] character in The Fog was really easy wasn't she? Get in my truck and get in my bed - in that order. In Halloween III, Stacy Nelkin was very good. When she came to read for the part I read with her and with four or five other girls. And when she walked in the room I said, "That's it, don't you think?" And everyone said, "Yeah!" I really loved her and had a swell time doing the film. She married Barry Bostwick for about 20 minutes and I never heard anything else about her.
C-H: Another master of the genre you've had a good working relationship with is George A. Romero. You first appeared in his Creepshow and have been working on an off ever since. Was it the fact that you were both Pittsburghers that saw you work together?
Atkins: Yeah, it was the Pittsburgh connection. He knew me as an actor from there. Also I was a big fan of Night of the living Dead. I first saw it on campus at Yale University in New Hampton, and it was full of all these smart ass Yalers who all started laughing at the start - and maybe it is funny early on when you think about it - but then the theater got real quiet and you started to hear "eeps" and "whoops" and I loved that. I thought, "This really works!" So then when he was putting Creepshow together and I met with him out in LA. I always remember walking into the room and him saying, "Hi Tom how're you doing? I'm George, nice to meet you. So what do you think of the script?" And I said, "I would love to play the guy [Jordy Verrill] where the swamp s**t grows up all over him and he dies." But George said, "Stephen King and I wrote this together and Stephen's going to do that role. But would you do me a big favor and play the dad at the beginning and at the end?" So I did. And it was fun and I love working with him.
C-H: Even though you didn't get to play Jordy Verrill...
Atkins: I played the father who gets voodooed to death at the end over my cornflakes [Atkins mimes being killed and dropping dead]. The boy who was nine or ten at the time was played by Stephen King's son Joe. I loved that. And Stephen who was around a lot was very concerned because I had to hit Joe. I had to reassure him that I wouldn't hurt his son...but that it'd look good. And it did and it was fine and his son was terrific. And a couple of years ago I was at a convention and this tall kid - dressed in dark clothes, brown hair, glasses, big brown beard - stood over me and I looked up at him and said, "Is there a Joe King behind all that?" and he said, "Yeah, Tom, it's me." He looks just like his dad and I believe he's a writer now too.
C-H: So after Creepshow you made Two Evil Eyes and Bruiser with Romero. You clearly must have worked together well.
Atkins: Yeah, George is a great guy... a good, old friend. We've worked together professionally and we've been friends a long time. But that doesn't always happen. A lot of the time people think, "My God you worked with Bruce Willis [on 1993's Striking Distance]. You must be best friends and see each other all the time!" But that's not true.
C-H: Bruiser was a wonderful film that never found a wide distribution. It has yet to even be released in any format in the UK...
Atkins: It didn't find much of an audience at all
C-H: How does that affect you as an actor?
Atkins: Well, you make an investment of yourself in it so it's a disappointment if it disappoints. But you can't do anything about that, y'know? A long time ago I used to feel personally responsible for the success of a film or theater production. But then you realize you're only one actor in the whole thing. You can only do your bit and if it works for the film, that's great, and if the film works and sells big, that's great too. If it doesn't, you just go onto the next gig.
C-H: So what gigs have you got lined up for the future?
Atkins: I did a pilot for NBC a while back called Mayor of New York, but they didn't want to put it on their season. Will it ever come out? I don't know. I don't care. I got paid and I'm dead... I mean I got dead in the program. If it ever goes to a series, maybe they'll have my funeral.
C-H: Well, that's it. Thanks, Mr. Atkins, I really enjoyed talking to you.
Atkins: Oh sure. My pleasure, kiddo.
We'd like to thank Tom Atkins for taking the time to discuss his career with us. Night of the Creeps comes out on DVD and Blu-ray disc on October 27, 2009 and will include amongst its supplements a featurette called "Tom Atkins: Man of Action."