Robert Englund knows that the words "Here lies Freddy Krueger" will go on his tombstone. But the nightmare-haunting boogeyman has a whole career beyond Elm Street — a career that's profiled in the new documentary Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story. Premiering June 6 on Screambox and other VOD services, Gary Smart and Christopher Griffiths's expansive retrospective paints a portrait of a serious thespian who accidentally became a horror icon.
"I didn't set out to be a road company Vincent Price or whatever I am," Englund, now 75, confirms to Yahoo Entertainment with a hearty laugh. At the same time, though, his Hollywood-adjacent childhood carried hints of his ultimate fate. "I was a huge fan of horror films as a child," he remembers, listing Lon "The Man of a Thousand Faces" Chaney, James Whitmore from Them! and Patty McCormack from The Bad Seed as some of his early screen favorites.
Watch our full Role Recall with Robert Englund on YouTube:
"Seeing The Bad Seed was a mistake," Englund confesses now. "I was there with a bunch of kids, and we were supposed to see a cowboy movie with Anthony Quinn. But they changed the evening performance to one that was at three in the afternoon and the next thing I know, I'm seeing this little girl beating a little boy's fingers on the edge of the pier at summer camp with her tap shoes! That movie terrified me."
Fortunately, McCormack didn't scare the young Englund away from pursuing an actor's life. Studying drama in high school and university led to a career in regional theater and, eventually, an entry into Hollywood where he had a prolific film and television career before (and after) Freddy Krueger came knocking at his door. Englund provided us with a Nightmare-by-Nightmare rundown in 2014, so our second Role Recall with the actor focuses on some of his most memorable non-horror roles. Although it's safe to say that nearly shooting Burt Reynolds and getting decked by Kris Kristofferson rank as pretty frightening experiences.
Buster and Billie (1974)
There are plenty of examples of '70s and '80s movies that Hollywood wouldn't make anymore — think Porky's or Big. And Englund's first feature is definitely a film that no major studio would touch today. Released by Columbia Pictures, Buster and Billie stars Jan-Michael Vincent as a high school jock who falls for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks... until she's raped and murdered by his best friends, including Englund playing an albino teen named Whitey. A frank depiction of small town prejudices and sexual mores, the long out of print movie is difficult to find today, but looms large in Englund's memory.
"I was going through a divorce, stopped working in theater and had come back to Hollywood," he says of where he was in his life when he scored his first film gig. "At the time, Jan-Michael Vincent was one of the top stars in America. He was huge."
As an unknown actor looking for a break, Englund had no issues submitting to the makeover required to play Whitey — which foreshadowed some of the transformations he'd made later in his career. "I dyed my hair black with shoe polish, but they wanted me to have a period hairdo," he recalls. "I wound up going to the the number one toupee gal in Los Angeles, and she had everyone's hair — John Wayne's hair and Jimmy Stewarts hair. I ended up wearing the hairpiece that Alan Arkin had worn in Catch-22 because it was dark and stood up like a crew cut."
Englund was also asked to wear pink-tinged contact lenses for the role, and that became the first instance where he found the courage to say no. "They were like putting on coffee cup saucers in your eyes," he says now. "On the first day of shooting, I told the director ... 'All I can think about are these goddamn things in my eyes and they're making me cry!' He said, 'Take them out. The eyes are the windows of the soul.' That moment gave me so much confidence, because I knew that I was being listened to and respected."
Speaking of toupees, Englund inadvertently exposed Burt Reynolds's hairpiece on the set of Hustle, a Robert Aldrich-directed crime movie where he had a small role as a gunman who takes a fatal shot at an LAPD detective played by the Deliverance star. And Englund really did fire his sidearm at Reynolds on set, shooting out a blank that passed over the top of the actor's dome, knocking his toupee back.
"There was a quarter-load or half-load of blank in the gun," he remembers. "Burt got behind the camera for me as a gentleman and a movie star, and I was standing just off-lens. There was enough of a load in the gun that it hit him — it looked like he had dandruff on his shoulders! And the front of his hairpiece went up just a little bit."
In that moment, Englund was convinced his Hollywood career had gone up in (gun) smoke. "I thought, 'I'm never working again! I've seen Burt without his hairpiece.'" It didn't help that Reynolds summoned the young actor to his dressing room while the crew set up for the next shot. Englund approached that meeting with extreme caution, no doubt expecting Reynolds intended to take a shot at him in return... with his fists.
Instead, the movie star gave the novice actor a shot of whiskey and a whole lot of encouragement. "Burt told me, 'When we get back out there, I want you to be as mean and nasty as you can be. I'm going to die now, and it's a random killing. You're random evil.' He made me feel so comfortable, and I had a sip of the of the whiskey he gave me to calm me down. I drank that well into the '80s.
"Burt could have said, 'This kid will never work in this town again,'" Englund continues, paying tribute to the Smokey and the Bandit icon, who died in 2018. "But he knew it wasn't my fault. Aldrich glared at me afterwards, but I did exactly what he told me to do. I was the guy that pulled the trigger!"
A Star Is Born (1976)
Reynolds may have graciously passed on taking a swing at Englund, but Kris Kristofferson knocked the actor flat during a carefully choreographed on-camera rumble in the vintage '70s version of the oft-told romance between an aging rocker and an up-and-coming female star, played by Barbra Streisand. But Englund makes it clear that he's not holding any grudges about that errant punch.
"Kris got me good," he says with no small amount of admiration for the singer-actor. "We rehearsed that scene with [stunt coordinator] Hal Needham, who also worked with Burt Reynolds. He choreographed that fight and we took a long time with it because Kris was still just known as a musician then."
Looking back now, Englund thinks that it was Kristofferson's inexperience with feature filmmaking that led him to confuse another actor for a stunt performer. "He thought I was a stuntman, and that he was allowed to get a little closer to where he might actually hit me. But it wouldn't matter, because you're a stunt guy and that's what you're there for."
After getting knocked down, Englund got back up again, and received another dressing room invite for a private chat with the movie's star. "They sent me to Kris's trailer, because he felt so terrible," he says, laughing. "So I got to hang out with Kris and his band and drink some beer. Then we went back to set and did the coverage."
Kristofferson isn't the only star who left a mark on Englund's face. Years later, Richard Gere connected with his nose during a fight scene for the 1978 film, Bloodbrothers. "That could have been my fault, because I might have turned into [the punch]," Englund admits. "But I think Richard actually knocked my nose back in line! It's been broken by the best."
Stay Hungry (1976)
Before he was the Governator or even the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an Austrian bodybuilder looking to flex his acting muscles in major motion pictures. He got that chance in Bob Rafelson's comedy about a wealthy layabout (played by Jeff Bridges) who becomes invested — both financially and otherwise — in the world of gym rats like Schwarzenegger's Joe Santo and Englund's Franklin.
Despite his impressive physique, Englund says that young Arnold possessed a naïveté that made everyone on set a little concerned for his welfare in big, bad Hollywood. "We all fell in love with him," he says now. "He was the nicest guy, and we all wanted to help him."
But it soon became clear that Schwarzenegger was ahead of the game. "I lived in Santa Monica at the time, where the old Ocean Park pier used to be," Englund says. "And we realized that Arnold owned half the real estate in that area! He'd done so well with his investments from all of his endorsements in body building that he already owned half of Santa Monica by then. He could have taught us a thing or two about being successful."
Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land (1983)
Being a working actor in Hollywood means that you'll inevitably have to book "money jobs" to pay the bills. And one of Englund's wildest "money jobs" was a made-for-television disaster movie about a high-flying hypersonic airplane that ends up trapped at the edge of space. In the tradition of big screen blockbusters like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, Starflight featured an all-star cast of famous TV faces, including Lee Majors, Lauren Hutton and Hal Linden.
"I played a cameraman in a scene featuring an arrogant news reporter, played by the great Robert Webber," Englund remembers of his small part in this incredible slice of '80s cheese. "Robert had one of the best lines in the movie, 12 Angry Men, and was also in Blake Edwards's team of reparatory players. He was a huge foodie, and turned me on to great places in Europe to go eat. I also remember having Thai food with Lauren Hutton a couple of times and just trying not to look at her because she's so beautiful."
For Englund, those off-camera hang-out sessions made "money jobs" like Starflight more rewarding than anything that he did onscreen. "Jocelyn Brando — Marlon Brando's sister — was also on that movie, and she told me stories about him and Henry Fonda, because they both came from the same neighborhood. So I got great stuff about about early '50s Hollywood straight from horse's mouth."
The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990)
Once Englund hit the financial jackpot with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, he could become more selective about which "money jobs" he wanted to bank for a rainy day. But Joel Silver and Renny Harlin made him an offer he couldn't refuse when they asked him to replace rock star Billy Idol as Smiley — a punk hitman who takes aim at Andrew Dice Clay's self-styled rock 'n roll detective in the controversial comedian's Beverly Hills Cop-inspired action comedy.
"I got a phone call from Joel and Renny and they said that Billy had crashed his Harley in Laurel Canyon, and broke his wrists and arm so couldn't do the part," Englund recalls. Despite being exhausted from a demanding television project, the opportunity to do his own version of Idol proved too tempting for the actor to pass up. "I'm thinking about Billy, and I'm thinking that Smiley is a roadie who came over to America in the '60s or the '70s with some super group from England and fell in love with the palm trees, swimming pools and blondes and stayed."
As befitting a stage-trained actor, Englund got seriously Method with Smiley, even hanging out in Sunset Boulevard pubs to absorb the seedy atmosphere that his roadie-turned-hitman thrived on. "I'd meet all these English roadies who had stayed in America, but they still had their accents blended with California idioms. I have a decent English accent, but I knew if I threw in enough curse words that would support it."
Even though he wasn't the star of Ford Fairlane, Englund did have a movie star experience that made him realize just how far he'd traveled since his early days as a bit player opposite Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. "I had a stunt double on that film that looked just like me," he remembers with a laugh. "In fact, he would sign autographs for me at the craft service table! Everybody knew Freddy by then."
Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story premieres Tuesday, June 6 on Screambox and other VOD services.