By PATRICK McCRAY
"You know what keeps me coming back? The air. Smell that? Just like lemons. This is real air. Nature’s air.”
Those were not the words I was expecting to hear from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the misunderstood title character from Jack Arnold’s smear campaign. I resisted mentioning fish out of water. He was bitter about the film at one time. But now...?
That smile of his says everything. It’s a real smile. Nature’s smile.
“Come in. Patrick, right? Can I get you some tea?”
|Herb Gillman, during his Hollywood years.|
“I’ll open it back up to the public in a bit. But for now? It’s my little slice of Zen.”
The green tea is hot. I know I’ll have to enjoy it while the air is still chill, before the California sun begins to slow roast all of us. I’m intrigued by Herb’s remark about Zen. Not exactly Tao.
“Zen, Tao, Scientology. It’s all connected and connections. But I don’t know from religions, kid. I’m just a cranky old dentist who made it big. I’d trade it all for beautiful sunset and a beautiful woman who flossed.”
“So, you’re not dating now?”
“Oh, I’m never not dating. But a man reaches a certain age, and his priorities change. It’s not like it was. But it never was like it was.”
He hisses wistfully and glances at a painting of a beguiling woman with decadent, bee-stung lips and endless eyes. He looks down at his cup.
“Pretty,” I remark.
“One of mine.”
“The model or the art?”
“Yes to both and no to both.”
A cat rubs its nose against the trousers of Herb’s white, linen suit. He smiles. I know that I can push the issue.
“Seriously, who was she?”
“Oh, the actress! She’s great. I loved her in THE FURY and LISTZOMANIA and INNERSPACE. She’s like Diana Rigg with fizz.”
“Fizz,” Herb chuckles. “I like that that. I’ll tell her you said that. Fiona, not Diana.”
“Very much. There was a time when it was more and there was a time when it was a lot, lot less.”
“How’d you meet?”
“Golfing buddy of mine was shooting a movie of the week of DRACULA. He asked me to come along as ‘technical advisor.’ That’s code for ‘Jack Palance’s dialect coach.’”
“This was the Dan Curtis version... 1974?”
“Well, it was supposed to be ‘73, but Nixon preempted the whole thing for Angew’s resignation. You know, if you rearrange the letters in Spiro Agnew’s name, you get ‘grow a penis’? Emmis. Where was I?”
“I have no idea.”
|Jack Palance as Dracula.|
“Look at the competition. I don’t even count. This Creature is a victim of circumstance.”
He’d slipped into a dead on impression of Curley Howard for the last part.
“That was good. Okay, the rest of your Universal rat pack?”
Herb counts off on his claws.
“What’s the Mummy’s story again? Who cares? It’s basically Dracula’s. Frankenstein’s Monster is the Red Skelton of the lot ... a sad clown trawling for sympathy. I can do that myself. And the Wolfman? Oatmeal north of the eyebrows. He’s just a weird animal or something. When he’s a man, he just talks about wanting to be dead. What kind of character is that?”
“Point taken,” I say. Herb’s on a roll.
“So, that leaves Dracula. He can think. He can plan. He knows what he’s doing. Best character, and they have yet to give him a really good movie.”
“Those are bold words.”
“Yeah, well, I’m too old for anything else. See, the book’s the problem. All of these letters and things. And Vlad’s totally unmotivated to move to Carfax Abbey. The best stuff is in the beginning. I could go on, but Vlad gets the shaft. Dick Matheson did the best he could, adapting it for Dan Curtis.”
“So, how did it break down?”
“Well, you got Jack Palance as Dracula. Inspired casting. And they almost never let him talk after the first reel. When he has a conversation with Nigel Davenport’s Van Helsing, it makes you realize what a sister act we all missed out on with those two. Palance went Method. Savage, feral performance. He went there. I mean, he wasn’t sleeping in a coffin, but he got into the part. Very intense. And if there was one guy who didn’t need to get more intense off-camera, it was Palance. That explains the walking.”
“The what?” Herb’s got me.
“Walking. Dracula’s always walking in the picture. It’s like he spends half the movie walking. I would have liked some more action, but it calmed Palance down. Between us, I think Dan was just filming it on a golf course. And then he did some day-for-night to disguise it all. But what do I know?”
“Does it follow the book? Maybe Dracula walks a lot in the book....”
“What is he? Dr. Detroit? No, he walks in this version more than he does anything else. Or he uses dogs. Lotta dogs in the movie. Scary as hell. I hate dogs. Dan? Loved ‘em. He’d yell, ‘It’s not spooky enough! I want more dogs, goddammit!’ And he got them.
|Jonathan Frid in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, 1970.|
“That was Dan Curtis?”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t Stoker. Nah, Dan invented that with Barnabas Collins. And every vampire story after it just ripped it off. With his version of DRACULA, at least he’s refining his own source material.”
“So, it has highlights?”
“Tons. The sets were all very modern. You know, Dracula’s a regular guy. Why would he be wandering around in a dump like we see him in every other movie when he could be in a palace. And that’s what we found. Great art design because it really was authentic, 1897 decadence. And such great acting. Simon Ward. I thought he was great as Buckingham in Dick Lester’s MUSKETEERS movies....”
“Not to mention, Supergirl’s dad,” I say, jumping in.
“You beat me to the punch. He’s great in SUPERGIRL. Most authentic Kryptonian dialect ever. Better than Sarah Douglas’ accent, and she’s also in the movie as one of Dracula’s brides. Sheesh. Don’t leave home without her. But back to Simon. In DRACULA, he nails it as Arthur Holmwood, who’s just a bunch of those suitors from the book rolled into one guy.
|Sarah Douglas, kicking Superman's ass in 1980.|
I smile. What else could you say?
“Paddy, me lad, I have no idea what we were supposed to talk about. But,” he checks his watch and stands, “I am about to be late for rehearsal.”
“You’re back in the game?”
“Never left it. LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. James Tyrone, at last! God bless the Pasadena Playhouse for letting this cranky old fish stick on the boards. We open in three weeks. How do they expect me to remember all of those lines in that time? Crazy.”
“It’s a crazy business.”
“Ain’t it, though? But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
We part as warm friends.
It was only later that I remember. LONG DAY’S JOURNEY was written by Eugene O’Neill. In whose home we’d spent the morning.
“It’s all connected and connections,” Herb had said.
Patrick McCray is a comic book author residing in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.