For over five decades, Samantha Eggar has forged an impressive career across nearly every performing medium: film, stage, television, voice and radio.
Whether it's her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a terrified art student held hostage in William Wyler's The Collector (1965), or starring roles in such classics as Walk Don't Run (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), or The Molly Maguires (1970), Eggar is always a captivating presence.
If she wasn't working alongside Academy Award-recognized directors like Martin Ritt, Herbert Ross, J. Lee Thompson, Anatole Litvak, or Charles Walters, she was co-starring onscreen with such luminaries as Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, Patricia Neal, Gregory Peck, Dirk Bogarde, Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Bud Cort, David Hemmings, Robert Duvall, or Oliver Reed.
Eggar is also well remembered for her genre work, including the Italian giallo The Dead Are Alive (1972), the psychedelic-possession flick A Name for Evil (1973), the murder-thriller Return from the Ashes (1965), the crime-drama Dr. Crippen (1963), the horror omnibus The Uncanny (1977), the gritty vigilante vehicle The Exterminator (1980), the outlandish Demonoid (1981), the troubled slasher Curtains (1983) -- and of course her unforgettably volcanic performance in David Cronenberg's early masterpiece The Brood (1979).
Then there's television. She co-starred with Yul Brynner in Anna and the King (1972), starred in the live PBS production The Hemingway Play (1976), co-starred with Stacy Keach in Shaw's Man of Destiny (1973), and appeared in classic episodes of Baretta (1976), Colombo (1977), Fantasy Island (1978), Hawaii Five-O (1978), The Love Boat (1979), The Saint (1963), Starsky & Hutch (1977), Darkroom (1982), Murder, She Wrote (1984), Tales of the Unexpected (1985), Matlock (1990), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990), and on and on.
Eggar continues to work these days, as a 25-year member of California Artists Radio Theatre, as well as voicework and television appearances on The Nine Lives of Chloe King (2011), and recurring roles on recent series such as Commander in Chief (2006) and Mental (2009).
We were honored to speak with Eggar and discuss her memories: as actress, as woman, as mother. It's not often we get to sit down with a pro whose career has displayed such diversity of color and breadth of scope.
The Terror Trap: Samantha, we're so excited to be speaking with you.
Samantha Eggar: My pleasure. I’m happy we could make it work.
TT: Just before we began, you mentioned your garden. Are you an avid gardener?
SE: Well, I weed every day. Does that count as being avid?
The house I lived in previously for about 32 years on Mulholland Drive here in Los Angeles had almost an acre of land. And the way the land lay…it faced all sides: north, south, east, west. In those years, with my family being professional gardeners as it were (back in England obviously), I learned a lot.
But gardening is very self-taught, because nature really is in control. You learn by watching, and listening, and touching, and seeing, and moving. And adhering to what the land and the air and the sun and spirits give to you.
So to ask if I’m avid…no. I don’t plan. I don’t landscape the garden. I choose plants I love. I like scented plants. But here in southern California, we have an enormous water shortage so one has to be aware of all sorts of other aspects of gardening out here.
TT: Do you have an early memory of knowing you wanted to act?
SE: Oh, no. No, no. Nothing like that at all.
TT: Your mother wanted you to go into art. Is that correct?
SE: Well, she probably thought that because at one point she was at a total loss of what to do with me.
I was in a boarding school for about eleven years. It was the way a large number of children in England were educated at that time. Especially if you were born during World War II, because it was a safe place for the children to be. For them to be out of the major cities.
Both my parents served [in the war] so I didn’t see them for about six years. Nor did any of the other children see their parents.
TT: Your father was a Brigadier General in the British Army, yes?
SE: Yes, he was. And luckily, I was kept in England during the war. A lot of the other children got sent to Australia or Canada or other countries that had been colonized by England and were safe.
So I suppose they saw something in me at school that put me in plays. I loved piano because I could be by myself and they would allow you to just be at the top of the house and practice and play for hours at a time. And I loved school.
Truly, I don’t know what my mother was thinking.
TT: So off you went to art school.
SE: I did. Two years at an art school. And I felt it was an enormous blessing to be sent there. I loved it. I loved the classes. I loved the friends. In fact, it was the polar opposite to convent life. Except for the sort of decorous passion for what we all did. The discipline of school and the discipline of being an artist was the same, and so I just segued into it.
And then after that, through a friend of my mother’s, I got a job as what’s called a fashion artist. That’s not a fashion designer because I was hopeless at math. I would have had the hems sort of at the wrong length, probably. But I loved drawing, loved sketching.
TT: What does a fashion artist do?
SE: They go to the shows and they do the drawings, and those were the drawings you'd see in the ads in The New York Times. That’s the job I got at [Norman] Hartnell’s, who was the Queen’s designer.
I got that job and then one day a cousin of mine literally put me in his car and drove me to a drama school and said, “Do those bits you’ve done. You’ve got your own version of Ophelia. And you’ve got some poems you've learned.” And I said, “What??”
He said, "Here’s the door…get in there. Go and do it!"
So I did. And the next thing I know, I’m accepted at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
TT: Interesting. From convent to art school to drama school.
SE: It was a complete surprise. But obviously, I loved it.
I loved FENCING, actually.
TT: Fencing? Really?
SE: Loved it. I’d done lots of sports at school, actually.
There again, the drama school was an enormous change from convent life. Not a single Catholic, obviously…neither at the art school or the drama school. Having lived such a controlled Catholic life, it was as if I had been thrown to the wolves. It was sort of a test as to how I would hold my Catholicity.
TT: Once you were there, was there a moment when you were working on a role where it clicked, a moment that stood out for you as something that felt good in terms of acting?
SE: (Matter-of-factly.) No.
TT: It was just something that was happening in your life…
Remember, you’re talking about someone who was born during the war. And England at that time had just come out of another war only a handful of years previously.
If you think of 20 years, it’s like the mid-nineties to now. If you imagine there had been a war in America in the mid-nineties, and now there’s another war that has started…well, it would be unimaginable. It would be so close.
This was a condition of life due to the brief time span [between World War I and World War II]. The attitude in England was an attitude of: a) you survive at any cost, b) you never complain, and c) you just get on with life and be grateful for whatever you have.
There was no television in England…so those people who say, “Oh, at seven, I wanted to be an actress.” No, no. It was nothing like that for me. I was an English child. Lucky to be alive, really. Grateful that I had survived bombing by the Germans.
So, whatever one came across, if you weren’t a scholar and hadn't ended up at Oxford or Cambridge, what were you going to do in terms of work?
This is a refreshing take, because we’ve spoken to many actors and most of them say they did have that “moment” at a young age when they realized what they wanted to do -- acting.
SE: Well, I live in the town of Hollywood…in quotes: “Hollywood.” The glorious years of this industry were when these incredible visionary people in all trades came out to Los Angeles from Europe, eastern Europe, New York, what have you. And together, they built the studios from the ground up: MGM, Paramount, Universal. These were people who really, really respected film as a medium.
Today, the respect is for money and greed.
TT: Couldn’t agree more. And it shows in the products.
SE: The only survivors are the independent filmmakers and documentarians. For this form of media, they are the only truth tellers left.
TT: What did you do after attending Webber Douglas?
SE: I did two years of repertory, and then I did another two years on the stage before I did a movie.
TT: Tell us how you got into film.
SE: Well, I never thought of myself in that way -- I certainly never thought of myself as pretty. In England, we did have a film business, obviously. It had been very productive during the war. The English were the major filmmakers. But as an actor, one was never encouraged unless you were a starlet or someone who had a very pretty face. You became a “rank starlet.” That was the term.
I was farthest away from that, so having been at drama school, the route after that was to go into a repertory company and do a play per week and another at night so you get so many plays under your belt. And then to hopefully get a play in a London theatre.
TT: Do you recall the first play you did?
SE: Yes. It was Landscape with Figures, written and designed by Cecil Beaton. We opened that in Brighton, at the Theatre Royal. It was about the life of Thomas Gainsborough, the painter, so you can imagine what we all looked like on stage.
We were dressed as Gainsborough portraits, as if we had stepped right off his canvases. So it was just glorious-looking. Sir Donald Wolfit played Gainsborough, and Mona Washbourne played his wife. I played Lady Hamilton, a part written in by Cecil. We played that particular one all around: at Bath, at Nottingham, we went to Dublin Theatre Festival with it.
After that, I auditioned and got accepted at Oxford Repertory.
TT: And what was your first piece at Oxford Rep?
SE: It was Taming of the Shrew with Siân Phillips, Peter O’Toole’s wife. Following that, there were other plays and I was lucky enough to live in London and audition for Tony Richardson and George Devine at the Royal Court.
I got the part of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with some terrific people including Lynn Redgrave, Rita Tushingham and Nicol Williamson. Tony took a chance with us all. None of us had much experience at that point, but that's precisely what he wanted -- he wanted a very young cast.
From there, we did Twelfth Night and other Shakespeare works. It was actually in that Royal Court theatre where Betty Box and Ralph Thomas, who were the biggest producers at that time, happened to be and saw me…and then I was offered the part in The Wild and the Willing (1962) with Ian McShane and John Hurt. That was my first film experience.
TT: Tell us about that.
SE: Well…I think because it was all our first film -- mine, Ian McShane, John Hurt -- it was rather like going to college on the first day. “Don’t trip over these wires.” “Oh. And these guys are called the 'grips'.” “Please remember to shake hands with the director of photography before you go home at night.”
We were educated into the decorum of being on a film set. And Betty was like a mother hen. She was absolutely adorable. When we were shooting all night up in Lincoln, in below freezing cold weather, like the true mother she was, she went and bought us all skiwear. Both she and Ralph were so kind and enthusiastic.
It was fun and just a grand experience. We were like puppies, really.
TT: And the next year you would go on to do several more films, including Doctor in Distress and Dr. Crippen.
Can we talk about the latter a bit? Dr. Crippen was with Donald Pleasence and Coral Browne. Based on a true crime, Pleasence played the notorious Dr. Crippen who murdered his overbearing wife (Browne), buried her body in the cellar, and then tries to flee the country with his new lover (played by you).
SE: Yes. What I remember about Dr. Crippen was that Donald was one of the sweetest -- and nuttiest -- people I had ever met.
Of course, we had Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now) on that one, a brilliant director of photography. The walls of the Old Bailey were made out of cardboard and Nicolas made them look as if they were carved of antique wood. He photographed me amazingly.
We shot Dr. Crippen in probably under a month, and it probably cost about 2 and sixpence…the whole thing.
TT: Donald sounds like he was fun to work with.
SE: Oh, Donald was amazing! A jokester, a sweet human being in his heart. Brilliantly talented, and funny. A very funny man.
TT: And of course you worked with Coral Browne there, Vincent Price’s wife.
SE: Oh, Coral was brilliant. Coral told me the whole story of her being in Russia. That famous story of her meeting the “Cambridge Spy” Guy Burgess. I think they were doing Hamlet over there and there was a knock on Coral's dressing room door. It was the traitor Burgess, who asked her to come to his apartment. She did and he wanted her to get him a pair of shoes.
Watch her documentary. It's called Caviar for the General (1989). Have you ever seen it?
TT: We haven't.
SE: You’ll see this incredible experience she had. She told us the story and of course at that time, she hadn’t made the documentary. Things weren’t technologically as they are today. It was amazing and she was obviously scared, too. If you think Russia is grey now, it was greyer then.
TT: She probably didn’t know what to expect.
SE: Oh no, not at all. I asked her if she went with anybody to that drab, concrete edifice and she said no. He told her to come alone. I thought…good Lord, Coral was brave.
TT: Let's talk a bit about Psyche 59 (1964). Such a well-acted psychological drama.
In particular, you and Patricia Neal have such a believable chemistry as two sisters both in love with Curt Jurgens. Thoughts on working with Neal?
SE: I had a true friendship with Pat. She was the most loving busybody ever. A busybody and bossy boots. But she was my immediate mother. Our relationship lasted until she died. She was...sensational.
TT: That ending scene where Neal has regained her sight and for the first time "sees" her own sister and husband betray her...so twisted and intense...memories on filming that?
SE: One of two things happen in heavy dramatic moments like that, as actors. You either put the bit between your teeth and do it. Or you realize how totally dotty being an actor is. By that, I mean you've got actors crawling through bushes, on all fours, chasing bad guys...basically playing five-year-olds. Feigning fear, or courage. It's the Peter Pan syndrome, never got past the age of five.
But regardless, we actors love the life we were gifted with. It's full-on adrenaline, covering every emotion, and we love every minute of it.
TT: Was it enjoyable to play such a deliciously wicked character in Psyche 59?
SE: Oh yes, of course it was. Absolutely. But there again, you have what I was just speaking about. Play acting as five-year-olds, and then realizing, "Oh, I'm getting paid for this...incredible. What fun!"
TT: Any other memories of working on Psyche 59?
SE: I remember Pat and I laughing so hard because we nearly fell off the horse. She was extremely scared of riding that horse. So she was gripping me very, very hard. And I kept saying, "Don't hold so tight! We're both going to fall off!" We were heaving with laughter.
We had some lovely locations on Psyche 59. I remember beautiful weather during shooting, which is unusual for England. And I also remember the cast and crew on that one -- truly interesting people, outside of their art form. So, in our time off, I remember some full-bodied conversations.
TT: We’d like to segue into what was a standout film so early in your career: William Wyler’s The Collector (1965).
An amazing piece of work, The Collector won a Palme d'Or at Cannes. You were nominated for an Academy Award -- and won both a Best Actress Golden Globe and Best Actress at Cannes.
How did The Collector come your way?
SE: I think I was filming Psyche 59, actually. I can’t recall if I auditioned or not. I was very busy during that time, doing a lot of television…live plays and such.
It’s funny but I would always be doing something at Christmastime. It seems as if I was never at home on Christmas Day! Life was very busy then. I had done a couple of comedies...Doctor in Distress with Dirk Bogarde, for example. Adorable Dirk.
For The Collector, I literally might have been whisked into a car during lunch to meet Wyler and the next thing I knew, I got the part.
Terence Stamp was cast as Frederick and we started rehearsing. It was basically just the two of us and we rehearsed it like a play.
TT: You began filming in England, correct?
SE: Yes. The opening sequence was shot in Hampstead, where he captures me. And the exteriors of the house were shot in Kent. We also shot an entire sequence with Kenneth Moore, which was cut out of the film. His storyline in the book.
TT: Can you give us some details about that?
SE: Basically, in my opinion, the reason that Miranda survived her imprisonment, her incarceration for so long...was because she had learned about love.
When she’s captured, it’s LOVE keeping her alive. She’s an art student and she has an affair with the character played by Kenneth. And she’s in the middle of the affair. Mind you, I haven’t see The Collector in years but I gather there’s a scene in a pub…
TT: Right, the opening scene.
SE: You see the back of Kenny’s head and me sitting there and suddenly sort of lowering my head because he’s saying to me that he can’t see me anymore. Terence comes in and is standing by the bar and as I walk out, he then gets into the truck and that’s the end of me.
TT: Kenneth ended up being uncredited.
SE: Yes. I guess if you show the back of someone’s head, they can’t sue you.
TT: Makes sense.
SE: And that’s where The Collector starts. Or how they edited it in Hollywood.
TT: Some of The Collector was shot in the United States, correct?
SE: That's right. I never thought we were going to go to America. I thought the film was going to be made entirely in England. When we ended up in America, that was quite a surprise for me.
We actually ended up shooting much more of it at Columbia Studios in Hollywood. And everything was indoors, because the set was now Frederick's cellar. They copied the exterior of the house in Kent, but the set was basically all the cellar, where all the action took place.
TT: What can you tell us about William Wyler as a director? Here was a seminal director who had made such classic Bette Davis films as The Letter and The Little Foxes...
SE: I was a bit backwards with that. As to what I said earlier, we had no knowledge, really, of the history of film…and being in a convent, I wasn't even allowed to go to a cinema until I was about 18. And even then we had to watch Henry V and all those very nationalistic British films.
TT: No bad influences for you!
SE: Exactly. So my feelings about Willie came in retrospect when, through the beauty and glory of Turner Classic Movies, one is able to see all of William Wyler’s films.
And being the most Oscar-decorated director in existence, I then sit there and I’m completely taken aback that I was even in a film of his at the age of 25.
That experience of working with this maestro, not so much on the set because to me at that time, he was just another director…I was very ignorant of the position that he held as a Hollywood icon.
TT: So in retrospect, you were now realizing how important he was as an iconic director…
SE: Yes, hugely. And then with many of the actors that I subsequently worked with, all of whom were stellar people -- from Cary Grant to Gregory Peck to John Huston -- and the directors and DPs that I worked for…they were on in age, actually.
TT: What are you thoughts on working with Terence Stamp?
SE: Well, it was really as you saw in the film, on screen. That was our relationship behind the scenes on The Collector.
SE: Terence was at Webber Douglas with me. So we knew each other then. But for the sake of the movie, we never spoke throughout the whole film. He really was that character, both off camera and on.
My biggest relationship on set was with William Wyler. And Kathleen Freeman, a brilliant, brilliant woman, who really got me through The Collector, because it was not...an easy film to make. It was tough.
TT: So that tension was real.
SE: Oh, yes. And if the tension wasn't there -- if I didn’t exude precisely what he wanted -- well, Willie just poured cold water over me.
SE: Well, you remember I was tied up by black leather?
SE: Well, use your imagination and go from there! What you see onscreen was really taking place on set.
Did you know John Fowles’ novel was based on a true story?
TT: No, we didn’t realize that.
SE: Yes. It happened in England with a young shop girl. Over there, we have what’s called the Football Pools each week. You get a sheet and you can bet on all your teams. If you win, say the majority of them, you win some money. So everybody plays the Pools.
Stamp’s character won the Pools and it was the biggest amount, like winning the lottery today. He was a bank clerk, not high up in the bank. Just a clerk.
And so in the real story, yes this person did work in the bank, won the Pools, and had an obsession with this shop girl.
One day, he actually went to her house, knocked on the door, the mother answered, and he asked her if he could take out her daughter.
He had a brand new motorcycle in the driveway. The mother said, “Well, you have to ask my daughter." The daughter had already turned him down four or five times. But when he came yet again to the door, the mother pushed and said “Oh, go out with him…he’s nice. Look how NICE he dresses.”
And so the daughter went out with him and was never seen again.
Later on, they found her. Buried in a plot of land with a corrugated iron cover on top of her. It was about four feet by six feet. She was infested with maggots and all sorts of creepy crawlies from being interred in this place.
TT: Did they ever catch him?
SE: Yes. I believe he got two years in jail. And she ended up in a mental institution.
SE: That’s where Fowles took the story from.
TT: Were you aware of this when you were making the film?
SE: Absolutely not. Someone brought it to my attention many years later. I actually have the cuttings…the newspaper articles of that horrendous act.
TT: Even though you weren’t aware of it, there must have been some specter of that horrific crime in Fowles’ work.
SE: Well…everybody takes something from somebody else, now don’t they?
TT: They do. Let's talk about the nihilistic ending of The Collector.
SE: Well, rumour had it that the censor passed that ending by accident.
SE: In those days, a censor would watch the film and make suggested edits, subject to approval of the film. But the story goes that this censor who was assigned to The Collector was quite elderly, and had recently married a much younger wife. He was apparently so tired, he fell asleep during the ending, didn't realize Miranda had died, much less that Terence has gotten away with it and is already stalking another victim.
Let's move on to Return from the Ashes (1965).
SE: Yes, well that was a film I did around the same time as The Collector. It was with Maximilian Schell and Herbert Lom and Ingrid Thulin.
TT: It's a saucy little Eurothriller. Without giving too much away, it stars Schell as a man who plots to kill his former lover (Thulin, who has returned from a German concentration camp) and his new love (who also happens to be his stepdaughter) in order to gain the family inheritance. And you're the stepdaughter.
SE: Yes, that's right.
TT: And there are a few plot twists and surprises in the spirit of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic Diabolique (1955).
SE: Well, J. Lee Thompson was obviously a very revered English director.
I think Return from the Ashes is a very tight film, very well-directed. It moves, it's quick-paced, and J. Lee managed to combine the evil with the saga of the story very well.
TT: Working with Schell?
SE: Oh, he was hugely professional. And as I say, my memory of it all was how workmanlike it all was, well-prepared and well-planned. So, kudos to the director for all the pre-prep.
Recently, I saw Return from the Ashes when TCM so graciously honored me. All these years, I’d never seen the film before. I thought it was a very good film. And I was quite surprised by my "badness" in it!
Also, you had the juxtaposition of two different sets of actors: two British and two Europeans. Herbert Lom and myself, and then Schell and Ingrid. So I think that lends it a unique flavor.
TT: What can you tell us about working with the legend that was Cary Grant in Walk, Don’t Run (1966)?
SE: Well…Walk, Don’t Run...nineteen days previously, I had my son Nicolas. And we had to fly to Tokyo. I couldn’t take my son with me because in those days, doctors would certainly not allow mothers to take newborn babies to another country.
I remember the first scene we shot in Tokyo was the scene where I'm running down the street. In that beautiful white Dior dress. Having had Nicolas barely two weeks prior, I remember the Japanese very kindly bound me up so that I could actually run down those streets, in high heels.
But I was deeply, deeply sad during filming on Walk, Don’t Run. Discombobulated, depressed…but saved, really, by the actor John Standing.
I could relate to John because he was British. But also because he and his wife were great friends of mine.
TT: Sounds like a tough shoot.
SE: It was a difficult time. As I say, just having given birth. However, Cary himself was absolutely splendid and gracious. A very generous man. And all business.
I’ve recently seen the film, which I hadn’t seen in forever. And there’s a scene where we’re talking about who’s going to use the bathroom.
TT: Yes, that’s a great scene with good comic timing.
SE: Well, that was all ad-libbed. There was a sort of a skeleton sketched out on paper, but it was nowhere near as intricate, and as it turns out, quite funny.
If you watch that scene back, you can see we're taking each other off guard with a couple of things. He’s sort of mystified at something I said, and vice versa…and well, it’s rather cute, actually.
Walk, Don't Run was a chance to go to Tokyo, of course.
I never saw Mt. Fuji the whole time I was there. But on the very last day, I opened the shutters at the Okura Hotel, and there was this magnificent mountain. I didn't learn until years later that you hardly ever see Mt. Fuji in Tokyo, because there's usually an oppressive haze that covers it.
Legend goes that if one actually gets to see Mt. Fuji, they should count themselves as very lucky and blessed.
As with all films, we are so amazingly lucky that we travel all over the world, paid for by the studio. We get to see and meet different people and experience different countries. That’s extraordinary.
TT: How long were you away from your son Nicolas?
SE: Maybe three weeks, at least? Physically and mentally, it was certainly a trial. But as they say, let’s get on with it. You’re a professional. You bite the bullet.
TT: You were probably glad to be home when it was over.
SE: Well, of course!
TT: Let's talk about Doctor Dolittle (1967). We just want to throw out there that we love your singing in it.
SE: Thank you. I think about 78% of that was me and there are bits where it isn't, where I was dubbed. Though, the singer they used for those parts was a very nice woman. She takes over at some points. Certainly doesn’t sound like me.
TT: Oh, heavens…it wasn’t Marni Nixon, was it?
SE: It was a Marni Nixon lookalike!
TT: We believe it was Diana Lee who filled in for you.
So you enjoyed making Doctor Dolittle?
SE: Well. Who wouldn't want to star in a musical alongside Rex Harrison?
TT: It was a good experience for you.
SE: I loved it. Absolutely LOVED it. It took a year to make and then I was pregnant again with my delicious daughter Jenna Louise. We filmed Dolittle in three different locations. I was able to spend the whole time with Anthony Newley, Herb Ross and Nora Kaye, who became godparents to my daughter.
I danced and I sang. That was bliss. Even Rex Harrison. I got on terribly well with Rex. I mean, Rex could be a monster. He had a wicked, wicked sense of humour. He made me laugh on so many occasions.
But he did have a notorious reputation for being cruel...and he WAS cruel, apparently, to a lot of people.
TT: But not to you.
SE: No, not to me. I think there were a couple of incidences here and there where we had a few fluff-ups. But nothing major.
The thing about Rex is that nobody has done My Fair Lady any better. Just as nobody has bettered Cary Grant, John Wayne or Elizabeth Taylor…or Paul Newman.
Those people were so iconic. They were STARS. They were made to be stars and they became stars. Today, you could sort of lump everyone together. They’re actors.
TT: The film won an Academy Award for Best Song for Leslie Bricusse's "Talk to the Animals."
SE: We recorded those songs at Capitol Records. I was sitting on Frank Sinatra's stool during the recording sessions. And I saw this bottle across the room -- Newley pointed it out and said, "That's Frank's booze. Don't touch it." And I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I mean, Sinatra! It was just incredible, otherworldly. I loved making Doctor Dolittle.
TT: What can you tell us about the 1972 Italian horror film The Dead Are Alive?
SE: The shooting of that was a wonderful experience, actually.
I remember eating delicious fettuccine vongole every day. Just existing in Rome with these glorious-looking men. Such a beautiful environment. Not that The Dead Are Alive is a very good film, mind you. (Laughs.)
TT: You worked with director Armando Crispino on that one, who would go on to helm another genre outing, Autopsy (1974). And you worked with Alex Cord and John Marley, both hardworking actors in their own right.
SE: Yes. And to spend two months in Italy was simply amazing.
TT: What do you recall about making A Name For Evil (1973) with Robert Culp?
SE: A disaster film. But saved by the actors. And the location…I remember it was just wonderful and magical. We would be taken up in a seaplane from Vancouver to this island, one of many that dotted the waterways around Vancouver.
There was this log cabin there that had been built for the Kaiser. In fact, if Germany had lost the war and they captured the Kaiser, they had pre-built this full log cabin on this island. It was now in deep disrepair and that’s where we shot.
As the plane landed and we got out on a rickety walkway onto the land, there were two white grand pianos just sitting in this crystal clear water.
TT: How surreal.
SE: Yes, it was.
Again, as often happens in these cases, the script for A Name For Evil was ridiculous. But the actors’ life around the work proved to be much more fun.
In fact, that set was a place that I took my daughter Jenna. I was never one of those actors who ever brought my children to the set, as a rule. I tried my darndest to discourage them from going into this business -- and totally failed, by the way.
We filmed A Name For Evil during the holidays and I suppose Nicolas was off at a baseball camp somewhere. I thought I would bring Jenna up and she could see the life of mummy. I’d get her up at a quarter past five and say, “Come on, we’re off. We’re going to makeup!”
I remember she was this adorable sleepy-headed redhead, and they’d put her on a big beanbag and she’d go off to sleep. I’d go into makeup. I wanted her to see what my life was like because my children had no idea.
I always lucked out with accommodations and in the evening, I would have all the actors come to my suite and then I made Jenna the bartender. Kids always love doing things, you know. We would watch the beautiful sunset. That hotel is still there in Vancouver.
I also recall that I’d come home so tired from shooting and I’d be lying in a bath and Jenna would come and hear my lines for me.
TT: That must have been fun for her.
SE: It was. Cut to years later when I was doing the soap opera All My Children in New York, Jenna came and helped me enormously…having to learn 20 pages of dialogue, which you never do in a film. You get into the routine of it as you begin to do it but when you just start right off, it’s jarring.
Jenna had just graduated from NYU and I was living on the West Side, which I just loved. I loved living in New York. She directed me and was a great help. I have to tell you, when your child shares in your life that you’ve been lucky enough to make your living at, there are no words for it. It’s magic.
TT: And she’s in the business now.
SE: Yes, she is. And so is her husband, Brennan Brown. Both damn good actors.
TT: How was your experience making All the Kind Strangers with Stacy Keach in 1974?
SE: Stacy and I worked many times together. That was shot down in Tennessee with all the ticks and chiggers. We were given instructions like “you may shower together so that you may examine each other’s backs for ticks and chigger bites.”
TT: Oh? So you're saying you showered with Stacy Keach?
SE: No, I did not! (Laughs.)
TT: Seriously though, All the Kind Strangers is a wonderfully quirky film -- one of those mid '70s anti-genre films that is hard to classify. Sort of a thriller. But it’s also a drama. You’re very good in it. So is Stacey. And a young Robby Benson is in it, too.
SE: Yes, yes. Absolutely. Robby was a sweetheart.
TT: Let's jump forward a couple years to 1977. Here you were reunited once again with Donald Pleasence for the horror anthology The Uncanny directed by Denis Héroux.
SE: Oh, yes.
TT: The segment you’re in with Donald -- "Hollywood 1936" -- is quite whimsical. Hollywood actor Pleasance replaces the blade of a fake pendulum to kill his wife and give his young mistress -- you -- a chance at an acting career.
SE: It was so totally ridiculous but being with Donald, it just was perfect.
TT: And in The Uncanny, you worked with John Vernon as well, who you would work with again a few years later in Curtains.
SE: Yes, that's right. And thinking back on Donald, I recall a funny story when we were working on Dr. Crippen some years before.
TT: Tell us.
SE: Well, I remember we went once to a restaurant to eat and Donald ordered absolutely everything on the menu. Intentionally. All these dishes kept coming, and coming, and coming, and we were like…what are you doing? I mean, 25 dishes came to the table. We didn't know what to do with it all!
TT: Let's get your thoughts on Jim Glickenhaus' The Exterminator (1980), which was filmed in '79.
SE: Well, we shot that one in New York and believe it or not, that was a WONDERFUL experience. Written and directed by Jim, yes.
In fact, I have a story to tell you. I’m sorry, I realize I'm not talking at all about the films but rather what went on outside of the movies we were making.
TT: That’s quite alright!
SE: Jim’s family's background was in finance so he had a lot of opportunities on location. I was playing a doctor and we had a location in a hospital...it could have been in the Bronx?
TT: That’s right, it was. In fact, there’s a shot of you walking on E. 149th Street just outside Lincoln Hospital a few blocks from where one of us (Dan) grew up and was living at the time.
SE: Interesting. Part of that hospital was not being used and we were filming in there with a small crew. James was very young and very energetic, and his crew were wonderful.
Suddenly, we heard the Pope is coming. The Pope! Pope John Paul II. And he was being driven through the Bronx.
TT: To Yankee Stadium.
SE: That must have been where he was going. So I ran downstairs, and of course typical Jim, he says, “Bring the camera!” And we ran to the street and the hospital was situated that the Popemobile had to slow down to turn a corner. We were dressed in doctors’ outfits.
And so the Pope looked right at us and thought…"bless those great doctors." And he blessed us!
We ran back upstairs and Jim said, “Did you get that? Did you get it? We can use that somewhere.”
TT: You fooled the Pope!
SE: Yes, but we got blessed. That was a very fun experience. Shooting in New York and doing night scenes in the park. Very glamourous and lovely. Mind you, a gruesome story. The last scene is a guy being put through a wood chipper.
TT: There was a brief vogue of those revenge films being made at the time.
SE: Yes. Now it seems to all be supernatural stuff.