James Karen Interview:
with Bill Shaffer
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster
(Note: James Karen's first film, the micro-budgeted cult title Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster arrives today on DVD from Dark Sky / Monsters HD. Shade Rupe of that company let us know that Mr. Karen was available for an interview, and I remembered Bill Shaffer, a Savant correspondent who has been helping with research for years, especially on Spaghetti Western titles. Bill holds Silent Classics screening series in his home state of Kansas and mentioned that he had made friends with Mr. Karen as a guest a few years back.)
Actor James Karen with Bill Shaffer at the 2002 Buster Keaton Celebration. I know Jimmy was telling me something important. Photo by Steve Friedman
One of the most genial and beloved character actors in the entertainment world, James Karen provided me with a great phone interview today. He is somewhat elated by the response he's been getting from the first feature film he ever appeared in - the 1965 "Z-grade" gem, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (due out in a high class DVD edition from Dark Sky Films on May 30th).
This is the same James Karen who appeared in his first Broadway show in 1947 with Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), did his first television work in 1948 with a live broadcast of A Christmas Carol and toured onstage with his friend, the legendary Buster Keaton in Merton of the Movies in the 1950's.
This is also the same James Karen who will be appearing in small parts in the upcoming films Superman Returns, Outlaw Trail and The Pursuit of Happyness (all slated for 2006). In between, Karen has made appearances in over 100 TV shows, over 80 movies, 20 Broadway shows and a record 5000 television commercials.
Q: Regarding the new release of your early film, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, what do you think about the revival of interest in it?
James Karen: I think it's marvelous! I received 25 letters or messages just this week about it. I'm surprised it's getting so much attention.
Q: Being a very early film for you, in fact your first big role in a feature film, do you remember much about it?
JK: I remember everything about it. I'm 82 years old, but I can remember vividly returning from the shoot in Puerto Rico and there being this tremendous storm in New York City and we had to detour and stay in Quebec, Canada where we were stranded with all kinds of people. It was an amazing experience. This was in November or December of 1964.
Q: How was the film produced?
JK: This was a William Morris agency package for very, very low money (for the actors). The producer that I knew, Alan Iselin made the whole picture for $67,000, I believe. The director was Bob Gaffney (Robert Gaffney) who was a film director for the U.S. Department of the Navy and he was very proud of the fact that he was the only seaman that had ever been run over by a submarine and survived. He had an ugly scar on his forearm to prove it. We flew out and filmed all of the exteriors in one week in Puerto Rico and, just to show you how cheap this thing was, we were all put up in a brothel or at least, I think it was a brothel. Several of the girls in the film worked in the brothel to whom I must apologize for the fact that the film was so lousy. I must also apologize to the other girls who worked on the picture (and DID NOT work in the brothel) in case I get the two mixed up.
Q: Tell me a little about the people you worked with on this film.
JK: The girl who played my girlfriend and my assistant in the picture (Nancy Marshall) ... she and I rode on a Vespa motor scooter all over Puerto Rico and they got several lovely shots of us doing that. We went down to San Juan to shoot in the caves there and we almost lost our lives! The water from the ocean began pouring into the caves and the cast had to crawl or swim out of there quick.
When we returned to New York after the storm that detoured us to Quebec, they resumed shooting interiors in the Michael Myerberg studios out in Long Island, New York. Myerberg was an intellectual who owned a studio and did several art films out there. The main set we used at the studio was the interior of the space ship. The production was so cheap (again) that when the spaceship was to crash, they rigged the ceiling to fall in on the actors and never bothered to tell any of them about it. I was not directly involved in this part of the film, but I watched all of the shooting. This was done in another week. I'm sure the whole film was shot in no more than two weeks.
Nancy Marshall and Robert Reilly
There was an excellent actor (Robert Reilly) playing the part of Captain Saunders, the robot I created who turns into Frankenstein. I've since heard that he became a lawyer and Nancy Marshall became a psychologist or a therapist. They were good, fun people to work with. Gaffney did a lot of film and commercial work after that. He tried to involve me in a commercial he was doing and I was unavailable. I must have been on another film at the time.
The make-up man was John Alese and he was excellent. He created a make-up piece that fit over half of Reilly's face and it was a combination of latex and broken watch parts. I think I said something from the script regarding Captain Saunders like "he's malfunctioning" and Nancy Marshall (who was technically my assistant and girlfriend in the film) began taking an unhealthy interest in this creature. I was supposed to be very displeased about that. Of course, the space monster (Mull) almost gets her in the end, too.
Q: Any other thoughts relating to this film?
JK: Yes, I think the moral of this story was that we shouldn't be using live people as probes in outer space - we should be using robotic probes. We shouldn't be using humans which was a response to the spaceship launch disasters of that period. As the scientist in this film, Dr. Adam Steele, I created Saunders and my girlfriend fell for him. Ugghh!
Anyway, my grandson (who's now eight years old) loves the film. There's so much stolen footage in it from space shots and parachute jumps. It was the first and last time I played the lead in a picture.
Q: You returned to the horror genre in Return of the Living Dead in 1985 and were quite impressive in a small part ...
JK: I enjoyed that one very much, too. I thought that was a great part and I helped to write the ending for my character, Frank. It was the deal where he figures out he's becoming a zombie and decides to incinerate himself in the crematorium. He kisses his wedding ring as he goes in. It was a very emotional scene, but it also got me out of being one of the rain-drenched zombies milling around outside the place at the end of the film. I didn't really want to do all that muddy stuff.
Q: And then you appeared in the sequel in 1989 (The Return of the Living Dead Part II) ...
JK: Yes, I did, but that was an even smaller part. I think the Japanese producers just wanted myself and Thom Mathews who played my cohort Freddy in the other film to come back as a different team (as grave robbers) this time.
Q: What's ahead for you in 2006?
JK: I've just finished several pictures - one is Superman Returns. It was a very small part again. I was very impressed with the producers (Gilbert Adler, Jon Peters and Bryan Singer, who was also the director). It's a huge picture with millions of problems and those producers solved every one of them in brisk fashion.
There's also The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith in a Jimmy Stewart part. It's like It's a Wonderful Life for the 21st century. It will be a big picture and Will brought over an Italian director, Gabriele Muccino to do this film. I think it's Will's best work ever. He should get an Oscar nomination for this one.
I've also done Outlaw Trail which is based on the idea that Butch Cassidy survived the Mexican shootout and moved back to the United States. I play Cassidy as an old man in the last part of the picture.
Q: You'll be filling Paul Newman's shoes then?
JK: Actually, I believe they tried to get him for that part ... offered millions to his charities etc, but he turned them down ... and I got it. (laughs)
Bill Shaffer, actor James Karen and his wife Alba Francesca in 1995 at the Buster Keaton Celebration. Photo by John Hageman
Q: There's also a little film you're in called the Trail of the Screaming Forehead and that's about ... ?
JK: You'll just have to see that one. I play Reverend Beak. It's a very, very funny picture. It was directed by Larry Blamire, who did The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra a few years ago which was handled through Sony Pictures by a guy you and I both know, Michael Schlesinger. What a great guy! Anyway, this is another 50's-type sci-fi comedy and it's very good. I'm not sure when it's coming out, but it will be worth seeing.
Q: Jimmy, I couldn't ask for more.
JK: Then this is all you'll get. Thanks, Bill.
Recorded Wednesday - May 24th, 2006
Los Angeles, California
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson