The Ice Cream King
BY G. NOEL GROSS | November 29, 2004
Clint Howard has been in front of a camera since before he can even remember. To lifelong fans of The Andy Griffith Show, such as yours truly, he's little Leon -- the cap-pistol packing pad'nah always ready to offer Deputy Fife a peanut butter sandwich at the least opportune moment. In the 40 sum years since, he's steadily become one of mainstream Hollywood's hardest working, most recognizable and talented character actors. In tandem, Clint's also ascended to no less than B-royalty among genre fans thanks to gobs of oddball turns in such low-budget gems as Evilspeak, Rock 'n' Roll High School, The Wraith, Carnosaur, The Dentist 2 and the egregiously unsung Ice Cream Man!
In this exclusive interview, Mr. Howard serves scoops of tasty insights on this kiddo chiller's twisted turn down a rocky road, how Edward Penishands auteur Norman Apstein (a.k.a. Paul Norman) nearly went legit and the unspoken kinship between B-movies and their more uppity ilk ...
- For me, this is truly a "Happy, happy, happy day!" because I'm a huge Ice Cream Man fan. One of the few, apparently.
[Laughs.] Well, Norman and I had our tongue firmly planted in our cheek when we were making this picture. I know, in retrospect, Norman realizes his plan was flawed. To make sort of a "kids" horror movie. Norman's not a dumb guy. He was hoping to hit two genres! But once the picture was finished, he saw that it was neither a really good horror picture or a kids movie. But the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the picture was obviously by design. In the few brief conversations I've had with him since, he probably would've liked to have gone back and done a full-blown, straight-ahead horror picture.
Moviemaking isn't a perfect science where you can guarantee yourself a return on your money or guarantee yourself a certain kind of picture if you make it a certain way. The wonderful thing about moviemaking is that you give it a shot and let the chips fall where they may.
- Wasn't this sort of Norman's bid for legitimacy?
Yeah, he'd grown tired. He'd made a really nice living doing blue movies, but he was getting older and he had kids. So, yes, he kind of wanted to legitimize himself. He's a smart guy. When he started out as a young college guy, he didn't want to make porn. Listen, a lot of people that end up in that industry start out as young independent filmmakers. Young guys and girls working on little low-budget pictures who end up, just out of financial necessity, landing in that world and then can't turn away from a living.
It's not all just screwing. It's a huge, huge business. There's probably 10 or 15 little companies shooting blue movies in the San Fernando Valley right now. Moral judgment aside, those blue movies have a sound man, they've got a couple camera operators, they have set people, they have makeup and hair people. On Ice Cream Man, almost the entire crew had worked for Norman.
- You even had a scene with his then wife -- porn siren Tori Welles.
Yes, although that's her stage name. She was a nice woman. At first I was naive, it took awhile for me to find out Norman had done porn, but it's not something one really advertises. He didn't run from it. He didn't hide from it. Man, if you look his name up on the Internet Movie Database there's like thousands of titles! He's prodigious. Anyway, Norman took a whack at the mainstream and then when back to the well. Pardon the pun.
- Are you ever recognized as the Ice Cream Man?
It's amazing to me! I hear it at the oddest places. I was grand marshall of a little parade down in Orange County last Fourth of July. I'm riding along through this little neighborhood and a guy sticks his head out of his trailer: "ICE CREAM MAN!!!" In a trailer park! I got a kick out of that. It's fun. People like the movie for what it is.
- Tell me about Marty, your neighborhood ice cream man.
How do you know that!?! My memories of Marty were as a caricature. Marty was the crustiest, oldest human being I had ever seen. Marty had glasses thick as Coke bottles. He had this scrunched up face. He had one of those moneychangers underneath his potbelly. Marty also had a weird little ice cream truck in the '60s that had to have been from the '40s. It was a throwback of throwbacks. When he'd drive down Cordova Street we used to all run out and get ice cream. People also used to give Marty a lot of grief. I heard stories of guys on skateboards hanging onto the back of his truck. But Marty's truck could only go about 20 miles an hour.
- If Marty didn't influence your characterization, where did the stoop and gravelly voice come from?
The gravelly voice was in the script. I asked Norman, "Do you really want me to do this in the gravelly voice?" He said, "Yeah." And that was the end of that conversation. [Laughs.] So, on my way to work everyday, I would scream as loud as I could while driving along and by the time I got to the set my voice was kind of hoarse. Listen, an actor and his tools: If my voice is a little hoarse I can [speaking as the Ice Cream Man] bring it down into a lower thing -- a sort of a style and sound that I create.
But I honestly don't recall the thought process I had behind doing the guy. I knew from the script that he was really messed up as a kid. He got winged on the head and he was missing many cards from his deck. So, I do the voice. I find the walk. I find the stoop. It was just a fun character to create. You know, they'd actually hired somebody else before me.
- You're kidding!
No! They'd actually committed to another actor, but my agent had a conversation with the casting director regarding another client and, on a lark, threw my name out there. They hadn't thought of me. "Wow!," they said. "That's a really good idea, do you think he'd do it?"
This is not the pat answer -- this is the truth -- I love working in the low-budget world! I get a hoot out of it. I'd rather catch a gig that may be kind of funky, but do it and have some laughs, get some experience and get a few bucks in my bank account. It's even just psychological. I've learned through my dad: "Work begets work." If I'm working on something, it's just a vibe I carry to the next audition or meeting.
- Your career puts you in a better position to answer this than most: What is the real disparity between so-called A and B pictures? Is it budget. Is it mindset?
You'd have to define B-movie for me. Budget has a lot to do with it. But, in my mind, the major studios make a lot of B-pictures. Movies that I personally find repulsive. Not morally, but the way they're conceived, cast and presented to the public. Popcorn pictures. Studios throw a lot of money at movies they know there's a certain kind of market for.
Also, there are these little companies that make genre-specific movies. Horror or whatever. They're always looking to find really interesting material that will surprise the public or a script that will elevate the genre. But, meanwhile, they have to keep fueling their machine.
There's a lot of market out there for B-movies. Especially, with foreign audiences. If a company puts together the right little package and can make a movie for the right price -- it doesn't have to be great, because it'll sell in 20 different international markets and may even get some cable TV play. Plus, it helps if they can encourage an actor that has foreign juice to be in it. Then we all get to go off and make a fun little movie!
I also don't think too many people start out knowing they're just going to make a piece of shit. In the back of the minds of 99-percent of filmmakers, they believe they know a way to make their project a surprise. To make it good. To make it better than average.
Listen, making movies is hard. For a movie to go right, it's as if the movie gods have to come down and kiss it. Casting. Timing of the release. The music. Actors that click with the material. Directors that click with the actors. A good crew. Good weather. A good assistant director who can keep the company moving and give the director an opportunity not to race through every day of filming. There's so many things that can go wrong. A pretty decent concept for a movie, even with a good roster of personnel to make that movie, can just not quite click. Then it goes to the B-movie pile.
- You just touched on the benefits of casting. How did Ice Cream Man arrive at such an eclectic cast?
Norman just hired guys that he could get cheap. There was a limit. Nobody made more than scale. He found it amazing that he could get Olivia Hussey to work for scale. God, at one point in time, Jan-Michael Vincent was on the short list of young movie stars!
- Oh, he's certainly one of my faves. Wasn't that a particularly rough time for him?
Jan was not very settled. He was not giving it his full attention. There's been periods in Jan's life where things weren't clicking too well. That happened to be one of them. Lee Majors Jr. was really a nice guy. And David Warner who played the minister! Norman was amazed. Like a lot of actors, if David Warner's available and he hasn't been working in awhile, well sure, he'll grab a couple of days of employment.
I don't know who came up with getting Steve Garvey. He's great. Steve spent more time signing autographs than he did acting. I'm a big baseball fan, but that may have been the only day I had off, so by then I didn't care if it was Steve Garvey. I wasn't going to come to the set. I needed to stay home and sleep!
- Was it a quick shoot?
I don't recall. Somewhere I have the original script and I'm sure the shooting schedule is with it. It wasn't super-super fast. We probably shot for about 24 days. There's a certain limit to how much you can shoot when you've got kids.
- You'd certainly know a thing or two about child stars. I dug your interaction with Small Paul.
They were all really good! But I felt like Norman probably wasn't quite prepared, as a director, to work with juvenile actors. It's really hard! You really need to have time and you also need to cover yourself really well shotwise [additional takes or cutaways]. Those are lessons I've learned in my limited experience and, being so close to my brother Ron, I've learned a lot about directing by just watching him. The more coverage you have the more you can protect performances. That's not just for children, but all actors.
You'd be surprised how much coverage Ron does on movie stars. For instance, I just worked a day with Jim Carrey on Fun with Dick and Jane. And, of course, I got to work with him on The Grinch. That man is frighteningly brilliant as a comedian! But a good director knows that, to make Jim's performance extra special, you have to protect for the weak moments. What may feel organic and work on the set may not be as strong in the editing room. You have to be able to cut around that and be able to pick and choose.
Kids don't have control of their acting tools quite like veteran pros. Kids can be natural and really fascinating. But you can't expect them to repeat stuff too much and, for every wonderful moment a child actor has, there's something flat or something that feels mechanical. If you're a good director you can cut around it and help the kid's performance. The last time I saw Ice Cream Man, I can remember thinking, "Ooo-boy, Norman could've used a little more coverage on the kids."
- He had plenty of coverage on your puppetry of the severed heads!
Oh, man, that was a blast! Mark Garbarino, who has gone on and become a very successful special effects makeup artist in Hollywood, did the heads and all the special effects. He did the ice cream cone with David Naughton's head on it. And, as you said, he did the severed heads of the two cops that I did the puppet show with. Garbarino was also one of the makeup guys on The Grinch. Well, Rick Baker used just about every top-notch makeup person in Hollywood. With 30 or 40 artists, he probably had four or five Academy Award winners just working as journeymen! My makeup man was Christien Tinsley who later did Jim Caviezel's makeup in The Passion of the Christ. Anyway, Garbarino's a neighbor of mine. I see him from time to time and we have big laughs. I think he still has the giant waffle cone from Ice Cream Man.
- That begs the question: Where's the Naughton noggin!?!
I'm not sure where the severed heads are, but Garbarino's got the cone. I actually see David Naughton a lot too. He's a good guy. Listen, it's not like every time we see each other we talk about Ice Cream Man. [Laughs.] That's one of those pictures we're all a tad embarrassed by, but we smile because we all had a great time doing it. You know, fuck the people who don't like it. [Laughs.] That's what I say. Fuck 'em! I had a good time doing it and I know there are people who genuinely enjoyed the hoot and the holler of it all.
- I'm certainly one of those and can't think of a more fitting note to end on. Thanks for the time, Clint!
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.