January 13, 2014 Interview – John Kassir of Tales from the Crypt
During the 1980’s horror film were booming with mainstream success and memorable characters. The era was also the formidable years of cable networks such as HBO, bringing viewers original series that allowed for freedom of censorship opposed to broadcast television. With this freedom Tales from the Crypt was brought to life from the cult classic 1950’s EC Comic to a weekly HBO series. Having aired 7 seasons, the show has become iconic and ranks as one of the greatest horror-themed television series in history. One of the most endearing memorable character associated with Tales from the Crypt is the morbid joke-cracking corpse known as The Crypt Keeper. Each episode was introduced and wrapped up by this beloved little fiend, compounding the success of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. The man of many voices and talents, John Kassir, is the personality behind The Crypt Keeper. Do viewers know the man behind the voice? Recently we sat down with John Kassir for a in depth retrospective about his humble beginnings as an actor, the success behind Tales from the Crypt, his extensive list of other works, horror movies, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in entertainment for the better part of 3 decades now. You have done everything from Stand-up comedy, to Broadway early on, to television, and voices later on. What was it like coming up in the entertainment industry in the 1980’s?
John Kassir – It was a tough one. It is not easy breaking into the entertainment industry now a days because there are so many people involved in the media who are not really entertainers or acts which are just famous for other weird things (laughs). Back in the 1980’s it was a bit different, not that it’s that long ago. The cream rose to the top so to speak, but you had to find your way into a very exclusive industry. That happened through working your way and finding your path. For me I had thought I’d start out in the theater as a theater actor and got my degree at Towson University. I moved to NY to do my first off Broadway show in 1980. As these things go, it was a limited run and closed after 3 weeks. I found myself with no job in one of the most expensive cities in the world having to support myself. I wanted to try and support myself as a performer in any way that I could. I had no agent, I had no real connections. I started performing in the clubs with my comedy group, called Animal Crackers, which we started in Baltimore when we were together in college. I had that route, but I really didn’t get paid for that. That was more of showcase work. I supported myself by street performing in front of the Metropolitan museum in New York. Of course when the weather wasn’t good I had to get a job with one of my friend’s painting business or a clothing store. That didn’t last very long because I really didn’t want to do it.
I started to work my way up and landed a few roles here and there in theater. I finally landed a role after 5-6 years of roughing it in NY. I got my role in an off Broadway show called Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down (1985), which was a musical about stand-up comics. Starring myself, along Scott Bakula and the writer Jerry Colker, it was a hit off Broadway and a lot of people came and saw it. I started meeting people like Lorne Michaels, and one day I was approached by some talent scouts that were casting for a new show called Star Search. They asked if I’d come on the show as a standup comic. I said well I am not really a standup comic; it’s just a part I play in the show. They said well you can win $100,000, so I said fuck I’ll do it (laughs). Having come from sketch comedy and street performing, I had some sense of what I would do if given the opportunity. I started putting together some bits. I’d do The Wizard of Oz (1939) in two minutes; my act was based on a guy who was addicted to television. I did a lot of satire on growing up through television and some of the things that formed our society through television. I could flip my own channels type of thing. To my surprise I starting winning so I had to keep coming up with new bits each week. I was doing Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down in NY and I was flying back and forth. I kept winning and found myself in the semi-finals after a half a dozen times. I went up against a comedian named Rosie O’Donnell and beat her in the semi-finals. Then I came up against Sinbad in the finals and beat Sinbad in the finals. We were all unknown acts at the time. I started to make a name for myself in theater with the popularity of Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down, but nobody knew my name in LA at all. I won $100,000 on Star Search, launched my career in Los Angeles, and next thing I knew I was auditioning for TV shows and doing stand-up comedy. My agent started booking me on the road opening for The Temptations, Four Tops, Lou Rawls, and I opened for Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Belzer. I had no act, but I had to create an act. After Star Search I only had the bit I created for the show. I started doing Stand-up comedy and that started to round out my television career on sitcoms.
My first series on HBO was called 1st & Ten where I played a Bulgarian field goal kicker on a football team. It was HBO’s first series and it had of course a formula of sports, comedy, and sex. I was one of the comic reliefs on the show. Of course there were a lot of real football players on the show, including OJ Simpson as the general manager. We played this fictitious NFL team called the California Bulls and I could kick 60 yard field goals. A few years later while I was on the series I continued to do some network pilots and continued to build my career. One day I got a call from my agent saying HBO wants you to audition for this show called Tales from the Crypt. I said oh I used to collect that comic book, that has to be cool. I figured a cult classic, but I didn’t think it would become what it had become. They said go on down to Kevin Yagher’s studio. I said the guy who made Chucky, Freddy Krueger’s look, and the amazing effects guy? They said yes, go on down to his studio, he is making The Crypt Keeper; they want you to audition for the voice. I went down to his studio and he had different versions of the puppet he was making. I did my version of the voice. There were a few other actors. It was really an exclusive group they called in. I remember auditioning and watching the other actors look at the copy and reading “Be careful what you axe for, you just might get it”, saying this is terrible. I was sitting there with a smile on my face knowing The Crypt Keeper loves saying this stuff, that’s the secret to selling it. So coming up with the right voice and right laugh and knowing how to sell it, and I did it for Kevin and he said that’s great, that’s it. The next day he had me doing it for Joel Silver and Richard Donner in their office and the rest was history as far as Tales from the Crypt.
CrypticRock.com – That is a pretty interesting story. As Tales from the Crypt goes, the show aired for 7 seasons on HBO and is perhaps one of the best horror series of all time. As the show went on, the character of The Crypt Keeper developed. Did you have autonomy to develop the character as you wished over the length of the series?
John Kassir – Obviously they had great writers. You are talking about some of the biggest producers in Hollywood had this show; Joel Silver, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, David Giler, and Richard Donner. They could get a lot of favors, they had great stars on the show, great directors, and all the stories were based on the comic books. They were always writing great stuff for The Crypt Keeper in terms of that. Of course I was creating the personality of The Crypt Keeper off of the writing they gave me. That developed as years went by. I found more and more sublets to The Crypt Keeper, so to speak.
The puppeteers, you have to give props to. It takes like 5 guys to make that Crypt Keeper come to life. I’d go into the studio with Kevin and pretend to do the voice so they can get a sense of what the character was. These guys would choreograph to what I did; they were pretty brilliant at it. We got to the point where we could do live interviews. I could talk and they could follow. I am off camera talking, they are on camera as the puppeteers of The Crypt Keeper, and they are following what I am doing and making him come to life the same time I am talking. It was pretty amazing (laughs). We did the Horror Hall Of Fame Awards that way, which was televised back then at Universal Studios. That was pretty incredible. When we first started, The Crypt Keeper didn’t have as many motors in his head. They didn’t give you as much of a budget when you first start a series. Once it’s a hit you get more money to pump into effects and that sort of thing. The Crypt Keeper’s mouth didn’t move very quickly. If you listen to the first season, “The Crypt Keeper talks more slowly and more ominously ha ha (In Crypt Keeper voice)”. I auditioned with what you hear now a day with the comic delivery. It was a little bit of a darker and creepier edge to it when we first started out. Of course we always wanted him to be a very gleeful and funny guy, very similar to Alfred Hitchcock as the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I would improvise in the room and make these guys laugh and it would wind up being a bit next time. I remember sitting there going “I love a girl who gives you head, and then lets you keep it eh eh ha ha ha (In Crypt Keeper voice)”. Of course they wound up using it in a piece where The Crypt Keeper was in bed with this corpse and he puts his arm around her and her head falls in his lap and he says that line, it was hysterical. I never thought they’d use it but there it was. With HBO it’s you do what you want and say what you want kind of thing.
Obviously I had to do a lot of press for the show as The Crypt Keeper. We would launch a new season and I would spend a week in the morning doing 50 or 60 radio interviews as The Crypt Keeper. I would naturally have to improvise all of that. I would have some bullet points and all that to talk about when the show was coming on. You know he’d sit there and talk. “How are you Frank? ha ha ha (In Crypt Keeper voice)”. I would eventually, in my head, create a history for him and all these different things. These things helped develop The Crypt Keeper as we went along as well too. It was an acting gig like any other gig, and of course as you own it, it becomes more you. Your personality pumps more and more into it as years went by.
CrypticRock.com – That was absolutely evident. As the seasons went by the inflections in the voice and everything came to life. You not only had the opportunity to do The Crypt Keeper for the television show Tales from the Crypt but you did narration for Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas (1994) and Monsters of Metal (2000). What was that experience like?
John Kassir – That was a blast. Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas is maybe my favorite thing outside the show that they did. They had all the instrumental tracks put down and they just put me in the studio and cut me loose. I had a great time, we did rap, Caribbean music, all with a Christmas theme. Of course we stayed away from the Christian songs (laughs); we didn’t think that would be right for The Crypt Keeper. I think that was one of the best things we put out, it was just awesome. They sold that out in the first printing and never printed another edition, I thought that was crazy. Everybody loved that album and no one re-printed it. If you can find a copy, it’s not cheap (laughs). You can find it on eBay, it’s great to have. I have met doctors who play it in the operating room when they are performing surgery around Christmas (laughs).
The Monsters of Metal was me introducing some of the best heavy metal bands on one album, which was great. We also had a rap song called “The Crypt Jam” that was put out on an album which had a lot of different other musicians which did music for the show. “The Crypt Jam” was written by Chuckii Booker and it was awesome, it was really well received. Kevin Yagher directed a video that was hysterical, along the line of a “Thriller” theme video. Every time I do it for someone, even now they think it’s fresh.
I remember being interviewed by Howard Stern on the radio about “The Crypt Jam”. He said first off I hate The Crypt Keeper. I said, “Come on Howard I am just like you, I love to be hated ha ha (In Crypt Keeper voice)”. He started cracking up and within the first couple of minutes I had him laughing. He said, “It’s the puppet which freaks me out, I love your voice it is great”. If you can win over Howard Stern you can win over anyone.
We had a good time making those sorts of things. Nobody knows what is going to mesh in these situations. They happened to have someone who had a background in singing and musical theater which had done Broadway, off Broadway Theater, and stand-up comedy; which is all infused into The Crypt Keeper because it’s infused in me. I was really happy they were open to expanding The Crypt Keeper to having all these different qualities.
CrypticRock.com – It was a really special time for that show. In more recent years you have remained active in film and recently did the voice and motion capture of the right side of the two headed giant Fallon in Jack the Giant Slayer (2013).. What was it like working on this project?
John Kassir – It was actually kind of cool to physically have to act as the head and right arm of this character that the other head and the rest of the body was acted by Bill Nighy, which we all know from all his wonderful films. We had a blast, it’s hard work doing that kind of stuff, it’s very physical. You have all those dots all over your face every day and you’re in those PVC suits with sensors all over them. I had to mirror Bill while he acted, and I had to act separately with my head and right arm. They then connect you in post production and add the creepy flesh, crooked teeth, and make your eyes look better digitally later. It’s kind of cool, you go back and look at it and say wow that guy is ugly but you can see it’s me if you look at it. It’s pretty cool stuff.
Doing motion capture is kind of like acting for NASA. There are all these guys with computers, you get all suited up in this thing, and you are wearing this helmet with 4 cameras which are picking up the 4 quadrants of your face so when they add the effects it doesn’t lose the sublets of what you do with your face. It was pretty incredible work, not all of it organic in terms of acting. It was great working opposite of all these great British actors and having a great time. We didn’t get to do a lot of big locations because this stuff all transposes onto the locations. The other actors would go onto the locations and play off giant versions of ourselves. When we were playing in the studio there would be a small version of Stanley on the floor to look at (laughs). He’d be standing right across playing to us but he’d be looking up at a pole with a version of our two heads on the end of a 25 foot pole. It’s a very interesting process. I spent 4 months in London shooting it and had an amazing time.
CrypticRock.com – The film was done well and very entertaining. Horror has been going through a kind of drought over the past decade or so in my opinion. There have been so many remakes and rehashed ideas. What is your opinion about the state of the horror genre in 2014?
John Kassir – Well you know there is some really great stuff, and then there is some really eh stuff. It’s great that something like Walking Dead would be transposed into the most popular shows on television, where it’s not just a horror genre show; it’s a show for everybody. That makes it kind of sad that Tales from the Crypt is not back on the air, but they no longer have the rights to it. It was a very expensive show to do, so it’s kind of a hard show to put back on the air in the form we did it in. Whether it does or not I don’t know. I know somebody else has the rights and they may do something different, like maybe American Horror Story style, which I love. You have to remember it’s subjective like anything else. Comedy is subjective and horror is very subjective, meaning certain people are going to like certain things.
I’ve never been a zombie fan. I loved going to see Night of The Living Dead (1968) because it was so visceral, even though it was done so cheaply with people walking around with guts in their hands. The sound effects were perfect with the little girl stabbing someone with a trowel. Now people are jaded, they want it to be scary; they want it to be good. They want the make-up to be good, effects to be good, and the acting to be good. Historically horror films have bad acting in them (laughs), until they started getting actors like Jamie Lee Curtis.
Something like The Exorcist (1973) was such an amazing film and ground breaking with religious undertones and demonic feel to it. I enjoy ones that are like that now a day because they truly scare me deeply, they are psychologically frightening. There are others which are just like a candy bar or roller-coaster ride, if you treat them as anything different you are going to be disappointed because they are just meant to be that. They certainly can do better quality. The one thing I am happy about is that horror films still have great artists that do special effects make-up like Kevin Yagher, it’s not all computer generated. You still can’t make a better version of the Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1941), or The Mummy (1932) as the original Universal Horror Films. I’m sorry, I don’t care what kind of effects you put into it, you can have computer generated mummies coming up out of the sand and how Robert De Niro played Frankenstein, but you still are not going to come up with better than Boris Karloff as Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi as Dracula. It’s just not the same. They just knew how to tell those tales. I like seeing when they do something along those lines these days.
The vampire thing is way overdone. Even True Blood, which was good when it started, has become campy and funny because they have nothing left. There is just so long you make people afraid of the same characters, once they know them they are not afraid of them anymore. I can’t believe they came out with another Dracula series. Horror will be around a long time. It’s something we all like to have happen to us, as long as they can find ways to scare us.
The horror genre has changed throughout the years depending on what’s going on in the world. A lot of feminists will say the slasher films where women were being butchered were, in some ways, because women were becoming emancipated. They think killing women was a reaction to that, but a lot of times the women, in the end, were the heroes and the only one who lived so it had a feminist edge there. Then when we were all afraid of nuclear weapons there were all these films with Sci-Fi edge things that had been created out of nuclear waste. Who knows, they will always find something that is scary that is relevant to what we are going through. The resurgence of the Mummy came around when the gulf war was going on because people have always found the Middle East kind of mysterious. I think society can breathe “death”, as The Crypt Keeper would say, into horror. If you look at what’s going on around you it would make sense a Frankenstein scene would be around now a days. We are re-generating people using stem cells. It’s just a matter of time before they do it with organs, it’s pretty cool stuff. Are these movies successful…? Of course not, when you have so much of it, most of it is going to be bad and the cream is going to rise to the top. By trying to make stuff for everybody you are usually going to fail because you wind up pleasing nobody. When you are trying to make things for people who want the best of whatever you are producing, that’s why the cable series are so popular. They try and make a show for people who will look outside the network to see it. Rather than watch The Biggest Loser they are watching Breaking Bad. Hopefully that will continue as the cream comes to the top and gravitates towards that, it will bring up the level of entertainment. People are tired of everything made dumbed down because they think everybody will like it that way. People are not dumb; they want it to be good.
CrypticRock.com – It’s very interesting what you are saying because it’s very true that society reflects what is going on in horror or any genre of film. All these pieces you are naming are television series, and with that said, it seems like the quality of television has surpassed the majority of Hollywood movies.
John Kassir – Yes. Hollywood films are trying real hard to make something that makes a lot of money fast and move on. Television is trying making something that lasts. All these cable networks are trying to make something different that will attract people to their networks. With AMC making these great shows, Netflix’s House Of Cards, HBO with Game of Thrones, and all these great shows on Showtime. I like what I am seeing on television. I watch a lot more television than I have in a long time because there are good shows. Those of us who want superior television are gravitating towards it. I think films will follow suit.
CrypticRock.com – Tales from the Crypt was one of the beginnings of the quality of cable series on HBO back in the 80’s.
John Kassir – Tales from the Crypt was great because it was cutting edge when it was a comic book in the 50’s and 60’s and it’s still cutting edge. I have more fans now for Tales from the Crypt then I ever had. Kids grew up watching Tales from the Crypt. I am finding parents let their kids watch it because they liked the quality of it and they thought it was good. They felt if they were enjoying it they let their kids watch it. They didn’t care about the fact that there was bad content in it; they understood there was a sense of humor behind it. Either that or they snuck down to watch it, or they talked their grandparents into letting them watch it (laughs). I have a bunch of 20 to 30 year olds, and some even younger and older, coming to these horror conventions. I’m signing more autographs and shaking more hands of fans then there has ever been. I hope the future of the property gets treated well. I know that there are others who have the rights to Tales from the Crypt. The Crypt Keeper will still be around because he is autonomous with the Tales from the Crypt show. They will be running them on FEARnet in 2014 again.