Interview – Elizabeth Shepherd

Interview – Elizabeth Shepherd

elizabeth-shepherd-04Often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the four decade period between the late 1920s and mid 1960s produced some of the most classic films in cinema history. Full of thoroughly trained theater actors, one aspiring actress out of London, England was Elizabeth Shepherd. Taking roles in a variety of television series early in her career, many may forget Shepherd was in fact cast as the original Emma Peel in the 1961 television series, The Avengers. Distinguished and eloquent, Shepherd moved forward, starring in many films, and perhaps one of her most pronounced roles at the time came in 1964 when she co-starred with Vincent Price in Horror gem The Tomb of Ligeia. Going on to take roles in countless other films and series, including 1978’s Damien: Omen II and 1999’s Poltergeist: The Legacy series, Shepherd is an accomplished actress with over sixty years of stories to tell. Recently we sat down with the refined-speaking Shepherd for a personal look at her career in film, how the industry has changed, and her continued love for acting.

CrypticRock.com – You began involved in acting for over five decades now with a long list of credits.  Did you know from a young age that acting was a passion and inevitably something you wanted to do?

Elizabeth Shepherd – Absolutely. I am a missionary’s daughter, so my father was a preacher and there is a lot in common with preaching and acting in the theater. In fact, the theater grew out of religion with Mystery plays and reenacting stories of the bibles. An actor, the same as a preacher, wear their hearts on their sleeves in public in order to touch people in a congregation or an audience. I was sort of brought up in that atmosphere and I always enjoyed as a little girl living in Ealing, London, there was always a circus every summer. I would go to the circus and I would act out all of the acts. The first film I saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and went home I acted out all the parts. Pretending to be somebody else was something that came naturally to me.  I think that that was my gift and it was natural for me to become an actor. Though, the profession that I came into 50 years ago bares no relation to the profession now. In the old days theater was it and you could had a very respectable life earning you living for a lifetime as a stage actor. Of course I loved working in all the media, but then when the whole celebrity thing came and the TV Q rating. In the old days you would go to an audition and your agent would get in touch with a producer, there was not a whole line of casting directors between you and the role. You would go to the audition, if you were the best thing that they saw, you would get the part. Now, because of this whole network of celebrity, you cannot even get the audition very often. It is a whole different thing.

I do some theater every year and last year I played Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy in the theater. When I am not acting, I teach Shakespeare at an acting school at the Stella Adler Studio for acting, because I want to keep doing something that requires everything I have to offer. When my students graduate, them, and all over the country there are hundreds and thousands of new actors being turned out into a profession that there is not enough work. There is not nearly enough work for those of us that are already in the profession, and of course with reality television “amateur land,” that also cuts down on our possibilities. It is much tougher. Not just for young people, but older professionals as well, we have to create our own work and promote ourselves. In a way, the profession has been taken over by corporate interests and now with all this animation, they don’t even need live actors anymore. It has changed and in many ways I feel that the profession has betrayed the actor. They are no longer the center of things. That is why these old films, like my film The Tomb of Ligeia with Vincent Price, other Roger Corman’s films, and Damien: The Omen II, the story is carried by the people, by us the actors. Now it’s special effects and all this big action. Now when you go to the movies you sit through all the trailers and one is deafened by all the “bang boom.” Then suddenly a film will come which is about people, and it is such a relief.

Susan (Elizabeth Shepherd, left) and Ruth (Judith Stott) John is going out with Susan and brings Henry along to escort Ruth
Susan (Elizabeth Shepherd, left) and Ruth (Judith Stott) in The Queen’s Guard (1961)

CrypticRock.com – That is very true.  Unfortunately we are living in a culture where it is instant gratification. At least Hollywood would like us to think that people have short attention spans and that they cannot take a long dialogue exchange within a film.

Elizabeth Shepherd  – Well, I think if you buy into that you, know how everybody is tweeting and it’s all sound bites,  then this is extremely bad for our culture. If we lose our vocabulary,  and you do not have a vocabulary of words, then you cannot put your thoughts into words. Therefore you do not think, and this is what is happening. When I teach Shakespeare to my students I tell them that it is up to us to keep language alive.

CrypticRock.com – Yes, there are many people that enjoy stimulating dialogue and the use of words still.

Elizabeth Shepherd – I think they do, and I think they should be encourage too. I read recently that Mark Zuckerberg has started a book club on Facebook, and he is encouraging people to read. I was also recently speaking with a rapper and I said to him, “Rap is what is keeping language alive among young people now because to Rap you have to have vocabulary. You have to very ingeniously think of rhyming the words.” Therefore, Rap is good for language, and although I don’t always like what they are talking about, it is an artistic use words. I approve of that.

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ITV Studios
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American International Pictures

CrypticRock.com – Certainly a very valid point. Most of your early roles were primarily in television, but one of your first feature films was The Tomb of Ligeia in 1964 which you worked alongside the great Vincent Price.  How did that role come about for you?

Elizabeth Shepherd – Roger Corman was casting in England and I don’t know if this is how it came about, but his assistant was a man called Paul Mayersberg,  whom I was acquainted with, and  I think Paul, and my agent, suggested me to Roger. As far as I was concerned I got the part. It was only later that I discovered that he had seen over 200 young woman and because it was a love story apparently Robert Towne had said we must have a younger man and he wanted Richard Chamberlain. Roger said, “No No we have to have Vincent,” and he was about 53 years old, which is not old . Vincent Price was a very handsome man anyway, but they needed a young woman who was not an ingenue.  I was 27 years old at the time, but I had done a lot of theater. Therefore, I was already at a kind of maturity or a leading lady quality, so they felt that would match better with Vincent. They thought the age difference would not be so glaring, I was not just a young girl, I was a young woman.

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Still from The Tomb of Ligeia

My very first movie was The Queen’s Guards (1961) with the famous and infamous Michael Powell of The Red Shoes (1948) fame. In The Queen’s Guards I played the model, so it was an interesting start to work with one of the great directors. Since then, I have made lots of movies.

It was the Golden Age of television where I started in England. At that time all the best writers wrote for television because there were all of these anthology programs, which would now be called movies of the week. There were all the best writers and wonderful roles, and of course the series’ as well. I did do tons of those and I did a lot of the masterpiece theater. What is sad is that many of those tapes from the ’60s and the ’70s were wiped over. It is a terrible shame. Thankfully here are avid collectors that are now discovering the ones that have somehow survived, they have been in touch with me and sending me copies of them. Then there was another series The Corridor People, which was quite bizarre. After I was the first Emma Peel in The Avengers series, they said, “We welcome your ideas.” I emanated them with ideas, but they decided I was too difficult so they got rid of me, but kept the ideas. (laughs) In The Corridor People, I played a Persian adventurer called  Syrie Van Epp and somebody found the four episodes of that and distributed the series. It was a great way to get lots of experience on screen.

CrypticRock.com – It seems that all of these production that you were have been thankfully kept alive by fans which is wonderful to hear.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Yes, and they named it The Golden Age of television because there was such brilliant drama. This thing about attention span, that becomes a self-fulfilling thing. If you continue to give people less and less, it means that they get used to that. If you present them with more, then they will get used to that.

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Elizabeth Shepherd Emma Peel publicity shot
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Elizabeth Shepherd Emma Peel publicity shot

CrypticRock.com – That is very true and hopefully writers will begin to realize that more. We all know Vincent Price for his wonderfully distinctive articulation.  He took a very strong pride in his speech. What was it like working with Vincent?

Elizabeth Shepherd – It was a joy, and always with the biggest film stars that I have worked with such as Vincent and  in William Holden, they welcomed you as a equal. With Vincent, in his daughter Victoria’s book, she revealed that he regarded these Gothic tales in the same way as Shakespeare because it is heightened language, an emotional high, and emotional stakes. I am a trained Shakespeare actress, so he and I got along wonderfully. He was a delightful and very interesting man, a collector of art, a brilliant cook, and very amusing. Later in Los Angeles in the ’70s, I saw him do his one-man theater show about Oscar Wilde, which was brilliant. He was a marvelous actor.

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Still from The Tomb of Ligeia

CrypticRock.com – It is downplayed sometimes how great of an actor Vincent Price was.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Yes. Later, he sent out the whole Horror thing.  I think that people then underestimated him as a very serious artist.

CrypticRock.com – Yes he was a very interesting man and he is definitely a treasure to cinema.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Absolutely, and not only him, but Roger Corman as well. I was very glad that in 2009 The Academy finally gave him an honorary Oscar. He was a brilliant man of the cinema. All the people that he started off. The great directors and actors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jack Nicholson, Roger game them their start.. He would say “here is a not very good script, here is not quite enough money, go and make a movie.” He did it so they would find out how. His company also brought in foreign films to the American audience. People called Roger Corman “The king of the B’s,” as far as I’m concerned he is the king of the whole alphabet.

CrypticRock.com – Very well said. In 1978 you were in the much anticipated follow-up to 1976s’ The Omen, with Damien: The Omen II.  What was that experience like being part of that film?

Elizabeth Shepherd – I had the unique and distinct experience of getting my eyes pecked out. The eyes were saved, but they were real birds. The birds were trained by Ray Berwick who trained the birds for the Hitchcock’s 1963 movie The Birds. I was supposed to wear a fiberglass mask over my face to protect me. The first bird was trained to land on black hair and peck out blue eyes, and for that, I had the mask. I think that was the worst bit actually because the fiberglass was very thin. The bird was a bird of prey and was very strong with a very sharp beak. I was assured that they couldn’t get through, but my eyes were tightly closed inside. That was scary because the force at which it was happening. Mike Hodges, the wonderful British director, was the original director on the movie. He came to me and said, “ Elizabeth with the mask the long-shot is fine, but we cannot shoot closer with the mask. Will you work with the bird without the mask.” There was a third bird, who was trained to land on black hair and peck blue eyes once, so they tied the birds with black thread to my black wig. The name of the bird was called “Big Boy” and I had hamburger in my fingers so that as I am running along I look as if I am trying to get rid of the bird, but actually I had the hamburger in my finger to stop him from eating me. Needless to say, We achieved the effect we needed.

CrypticRock.com – That is unbelievable and is dedication. That type of thing you do not see these days in films because everything is done with computer effects now.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Yes, but we did it for real. The thing about these early films is the story was told through the people, so we were the story tellers. That no longer is true. It is special effects or actors are animated with dots all over them, and then they are made-up like a cartoon. The old days were good for us the actors. Actors are becoming more dispensable now.

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Still from Damien: The Omen II

CrypticRock.com – Yes it is a very different time and hopefully things will change.

Elizabeth Shepherd- I do think that people do respond to the story of people’s lives and it is more eloquent when it is entrusted to us, the real people.

CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. You mentioned about the original director of Mike Hodges of Damien: The Omen II. Why do you think he was replaced by Don Taylor?

Elizabeth Shepherd – Well Mike Hodges was the original director and he had co-written the script. He wanted in the script to really focus on Damien and his mixed feelings about what his destiny was. He wanted to focus on how he had been chosen to house the devil. For instance, in the original script, and in the original reading that we did together, the scene between the two boys when Damien begs his cousin to please come with him on this journey so that he didn’t have to take it alone, and his cousin can’t go there.  As recall it, that scene was heart breaking. That was the kind of human content that Mike Hodges wanted. Fox fired him because he wasn’t getting to the blood and gore quick enough. Don Taylor was brought in who was a friend of William Holden from Stalag 17 (1953), and he carried out Twentieth Century Fox’s wishes and idea. Harvey Bernhard was the producer and I think that he missed an opportunity to make that an even more interesting series. The film is very effective as it is, but I would have like to see the film that Mike Hodges would have made.

CrypticRock.com – Yes it would have been very interesting to see that version of the film. Actually, you speak about story and development of a character I think that it is getting better because you look at series like for instance The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad. These are series that have serious character development.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Right. The interesting development now is if you have a long series, then there is time to develop the story. People get involved with the characters. That is good for us too as actors because it also means that the gig goes on and on.

CrypticRock.com – Yes they may have considered killing off your character, but if the fans love the character, they going to keep you around a lot longer. You have been part of a more recent television series as well when you played Jane Witherspoon in the Poltergeist: The Legacy series.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Yes, I was the head of the San Francisco house dealing with the poltergeist problem. I did end up crucified, which was interesting, but I didn’t come back from the dead which was very disappointing. (Laughs)

CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) That is too bad they did not bring you back. Well you certainly have shown diversity in the roles you chose to play through the years.  Do you have any plans to partake in any new projects in the future?

Elizabeth Sheppard – I hope that it will certainly be in my future, but there is still a mystery as to what it may turn out to be. I have an agent in the USA, Canada, and in England. Surely one of them will come up with something, but I have nothing planned at the moment. I am confident and I am still in the business. As I say, when I am not acting I teach Shakespeare, so I am always working with the material I love.

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Showtime / Sci Fi Channel
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

CrypticRock.com –  Hopefully someone see the vast talents that you have displayed through your career and give you an opportunity to shine again. That is another thing with our culture, everything is so youth based, and we do not respect people who had the experience. Sadly in all walks of life we as a culture do not respect the knowledge of elder people. Sadly, it is almost as if after the age of thirty-five years old our culture treats people as if they are disposable.

Elizabeth Shepherd – They have done that,and many of us are fighting that. If you notice there several of the actresses, like Meryl Streep, who is obviously a fine example and is still cast in films. She is in leading roles in films, and also sexy roles in films. In Europe I would be like Catherine Deneuve, I would be in demand as a beautiful older woman. They like that there. There is something about it, I do not know if it is because this is a young country where youth is in, but you have to remember the fact that the baby boom generation is refusing to be put on the shelf. In many ways the baby boom generation want to see themselves on screen. 2013’s Quartet is great an example; it older love stories between older people, and I hope it will continue.

CrypticRock.com – It is a shame that we live in a culture like that in America. It is not even just with actors, but all entertainers, and professionals.

Elizabeth Shepherd – Yes, it is with writer as well. Many of the film executives run things so corporate now. It does not have that personal touch like the old film studios run by real people who were, in their own way, artistic producers. Now it is just corporate producer. This is why everybody is creating their own work. You cannot rely on the profession. In other cultures such as the Asian cultures, the older generation are revered. Now people are pushed away, and the way that the elderly people are cared for; not enough money is spent. It is a sad situation because all the young people in the world, if they are lucky, will get old. Think of it as in your own interests, pay attention to that.

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Elizabeth Shepherd in Head Office (1985) as Mrs. Issel

CrypticRock.com – Agreed 100%, very true.  It is important that people talk about that. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?

Elizabeth Shepherd – My own (laughs). Quite honestly, I have not been drawn into that genre particularly myself. An awful lot of the Horror films, I don’t go and see, but I would say that I am more interested in the Thriller films. The shlocky and horrible dismemberment of bodies, in some of these films, make them just like Snuff films, and that is horrible. It is interesting, when I start coming to Horror conventions, I notice that the monster films and the films about people who are different are attended by a population of people who are different in some way, who may have felt excluded, and people will not accept them. They feel at home at these conventions, and I find that quite touching actually.  I find this interesting, and I am glad that it is a place of joy, comfort, solace, and friendship, bringing people together in that way. I have now learned about the world of Horror in a way that I never would have sought out.

Original Cinema Exhibitor's Campgain Book - Press Book
20th Century Fox

 

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Frank Malerba
frank@crypticrock.com
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