By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Daniel Roebuck has a resume any working character actor would kill for. From his haunting role as a teenage killer in the critically acclaimed 1986 drama River’s Edge to his uncanny portrayal of talk show giant Jay Leno in The Late Shift, the 58 year-old actor, writer, and director has proved his versatility time and again in film and on television. Horror fans, however, will no doubt know Roebuck as a member of Rob Zombie‘s ensemble of regulars. Appearing as talk show host and Marx Brothers expert Morris Green in The Devil’s Rejects, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and 3 From Hell, and Rabbit in Red owner Big Lou Martini in the shock rocker’s Halloween and Halloween II, Roebuck has been an essential, but thus far underused part of Zombie’s cinematic universe. That’s about to change.
As announced via social media this past October, Daniel Roebuck will be donning the cape of Grandpa in Zombie’s upcoming big screen reboot of the beloved 1960s sitcom, THE MUNSTERS. Rounding out the principal cast are Zombie regulars Jeff Daniel Phillips as Herman Munster and Sheri Moon Zombie as Lily Munster. For Roebuck, a lifelong fan of the classic TV comedy and an avowed “monster kid,” stepping into the role made famous by the irascible Al Lewis is a dream come true and surprisingly, something he’s prepared for since he was a horror movie-obsessed fan growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s.
Rue Morgue recently caught up with Roebuck to get the scoop on THE MUNSTERS redux. Sworn to secrecy by the man he lovingly refers to as “Mr. Zombie,” an ecstatic Roebuck could reveal precious few details about the eagerly awaited movie or his characterization of Grandpa Sam Dracula. Nevertheless, he did share his thoughts about his ongoing love of classic horror and how Grandpa and THE MUNSTERS brings his life and career full circle.
Let’s talk about THE MUNSTERS. Obviously, you’re a big fan of the original show. How did you become a MUNSTERS fan and what does the original series mean to you?
Early on, I became obsessed with the Universal Monsters. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that, at some point, I figured out that they were actors in makeup. You know that old saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know?” At some point, I didn’t know it and then I knew it. I started making the connections—now wait a minute, that’s the same guy that played Ygor, but he’s Dracula. Now he’s Frankenstein, but he’s also Dr. Niemann! When we had the Universal movies in rotation, we also had Man of a Thousand Faces [the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic starring James Cagney] and that reminded you that these monsters were actually actors. The offshoot of that was THE MUNSTERS. I was intrigued by the makeup. I was intrigued by the monsters. Then, there’s THE MUNSTERS. I was drawn to them because they were monsters, and you can’t take your eyes off of them because they’re perfect!
How did you react when Rob Zombie offered you the role of Grandpa?
Unfortunately, I was driving. I almost drove into a tree! We were driving to a wedding. My wife was wearing a Lily Munster shirt, ironically. Rob Zombie’s name comes up on the rented car’s phone display. I really did say, “Are you punking me?” I was afraid that this was some kind of horrible joke to play on a character actor—dangling the part I’d love to play the most and then saying, “We’re not making THE MUNSTERS!” I was thrilled! Thrilled more because I know what a good director he is and I know what a good actress Sheri is and I know what a good actor Jeff is. So, when I was told I was part of that cast, I was just blown away.
Do you have any reservations about playing such an iconic and beloved character?
It’s a good question. I didn’t have any reservations about playing Jay Leno, and I didn’t have any reservations about playing Gary Marshall [in the 2005 TV movie Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy], and a lot of other real, live people that I’ve played over the years. I played Alexander Graham Bell, who I personally turned into a raging jerk in my GEICO ad…
I loved THE MUNSTERS. Luckily for me, Al Lewis was so perfect as Grandpa, I’ve got an excellent jumping off point. It’s just like playing Jay Leno or Gary Marshall. Now, I don’t really have to play Al Lewis. That’s not what you do when you reboot something; you respectfully pay an homage to it as best you can. I don’t have to do Al, but Al and I are not dissimilar. We’re the same size. I know we’re the same size because they auctioned off one of his jackets at Heritage Auctions. They let me put the coat on and it fit me exactly as it should!
How do you make Grandpa your own while still honoring what Al Lewis did so famously in the part?
I have to defer that question until the movie comes out! Working with Rob, you know, I respect his “Willy Wonka-ness.” He likes to be the informer of people, and I respect that. So, if I tell you too much about my interpretation, it might inform people a little too much about his take on the movie. I would just say I’m going to do the best I can, and we’re all going to do the best we can and it’s going to be great!
We’ve seen the set pictures from Hungary and the photo of you, Sheri and Jeff in costume. Can you tell me where you are in the production process?
It’s a good, long process. Rob wants to get it right, obviously. It’s an ongoing film experience.
What can you tell us about the production so far?
Don’t hate me that I can’t tell you! I really want to!
No problem, Dan! I had a feeling that you might have to keep everything under wraps at this point. Let’s talk about your long journey to THE MUNSTERS then…
I was obsessed with being a vampire when I was a child. Well not a real vampire, a movie vampire. We weren’t Goth kids. That’s all hip and cool now, but, believe me, when I was walking around in my Dracula cape at 11 years-old, the other kids thought I was nuts! My sainted father thought I was nuts! My mother loved me because that’s what mothers do. “Even if he’s a vampire, I love him!”
I joined a circus when I was 12. It’s like in Big Fish. All these crazy stories really did happen to me. In the circus, I was so obsessed with vampires, when I had to create my clown character, I made myself a vampire clown, and I was named The Count. When Rob said, “I’m sending you the script, the character’s name is The Count,” I just thought, well, “God is good.” That’s just how it’s meant to be. Somehow, this was on my docket 45 years later. I had to learn to be funny as a vampire, so when this finally came up, I could be funny as a vampire.
What movie really hooked you in as a kid and started your obsession with monsters?
I can say that I’ve always loved The Bride of Frankenstein. I would say that that’s the best-acted Frankenstein monster film. I always liked that. The Creature From the Black Lagoon, I always loved. The Wolfman, I always loved. I was drawn to the Dracula stuff. When we were kids, it wasn’t just Lugosi, of course, it was Christopher Lee, as well…I was just obsessed with all of it.
What popped me into becoming an actor was James Whitmore in Give ’em Hell, Harry. It’s a one man show. [Whitmore] plays Harry Truman. He got nominated for an Oscar. Talk about a tour de force! I think he lost to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I saw that at 13 years-old. I did impressions. I was a ventriloquist. I was a clown. I knew I could get on TV one way or another, but once I saw that, I was like, “I want to do that!” I watch it twice a year just like I do Bride of Frankenstein.
You actually met and worked with some of the original MUNSTERS cast, specifically Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis. Tell me about those experiences.
I worked for two glorious months with Fred Gwynne on a movie called Disorganized Crime. We spent two months in Montana. It was an ensemble comedy with me and Ed O’Neill chasing Reuben Blades, Fred Gwynne, Lou Diamond Phillips, and William Russ. We didn’t shoot together, but we were all together on the set. We hung out together. We did everything together that we could because we all really did enjoy each other. Fred was like Tommy Lee Jones in that he was generally the smartest guy in any room he stepped into. In the first place, you knew that you couldn’t meet Fred on an intellectual level—he was one step ahead of you. As an actor, I knew I couldn’t meet him on an ability level. I would try on a humorous level, but, generally, he would beat me there, too! Wherever I was, he was there 30 years before I got there. He was such a funny guy.
[I met Al Lewis] through a guy named Kevin Burns, who was the biggest MUNSTERS fan in Hollywood, second only to Rob Zombie. Kevin passed away, sadly, a year ago. Our normal Saturday morning when we could pull it off was I would go to the store and get boxes of Captain Crunch and every cereal we ate as children and we would eat cereal and watch THE MUNSTERS. He found Fred Gwynne on the Danny Kaye Show and THE MUNSTERS Marineland Special which had been lost for 40 years and he tracked it down. We would have these amazing mornings where we would watch THE MUNSTERS. Around 1993 or ’94, they did the Famous Monsters convention here in Los Angeles and Al was set up there and Kevin was helping him. So we got to meet Al and his lovely wife Karen and spend a little time together. I can’t say Al was a friend, but he certainly was an acquaintance whom I respected. There was no one like him. Al was a one of a kind personality. He wound up running for governor of New York and was into politics. He was always being an actor and always having some sense of chicanery about him because he was always fibbing about his age. His wife wrote a very good book about him called I Married a Munster! My Life With “Grandpa” Al Lewis, and she speaks to all of that. It’s a great read. I keep it handy while we’re shooting.
For a time, Fred Gwynne was reluctant to speak about THE MUNSTERS because he felt he’d been typecast as Herman and that the role had been detrimental to his career. As a MUNSTERS fan, were you reluctant to speak to him about the show?
I think Fred and Al and Yvonne De Carlo, certainly, as well as everyone on the show, Butch Patrick and Pat Priest, they didn’t share in the ongoing revenue of this series. The series was made before actors made much in residuals for syndicated television. I think, at first, Fred was bothered because he had been typecast but he wasn’t typecast forever. I remember right after we did Disorganized Crime, Ed O’Neill did the John Milius movie Flight of the Intruder. At the preview, Ed came in and the audience started laughing because he was so recognized as Al Bundy from Married With Children. They had to cut him out of the movie. He was quite distraught over it as any actor would be. But Ed O’Neill’s had five TV series. He certainly overcame Al Bundy and Fred Gwynne overcame Herman Munster by the end of his career with movies like The Cotton Club, My Cousin Vinny, Disorganized Crime, and Pet Semetary. Those are four completely different characters.
Fred was very candid about THE MUNSTERS. He even signed my Herman Munster doll! I think I have the only doll he signed because I’m the only one who had the courage to ask him! Fred was the kind of guy who would say, “Oh, Dan. You know comedy. I don’t know comedy.” Obviously, I didn’t know anything remotely about comedy compared to his gargantuan talent. I was just always pleased any day that he was on the set. He was always funny and always very acerbic. You could not be thin-skinned around Fred Gwynne!
Like many classic monster movie fans, you’ve also been an avid collector of horror memorabilia. Tell us a bit about your collection.
I got to the point where I collected a little too well. Like Forry Ackerman and Bob Burns, people were coming from all over the country and, sometimes, all over the world to see the collection that I had. Now, that’s great. I was proud of myself. I liked that. And one very unique day, my son is 13 years old and he’s playing football and I’m at the game and I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to leave.” My wife at the time says, “Where are you going?” These people are coming in from out of town to see the toys. So I’m driving home and I’m thinking, “My son’s 13. I’ve got a collection filled with toys from when I was 13, and, instead of witnessing my son’s life, I’m going backwards and trying to recreate my own life.” And it was a real epiphany. I thought, “It’s taken over too much of my time.” So I started selling a lot of it. I kept what I like the most. You can see the collection in its halcyon days in the documentary I directed called Dr. Shocker’s Vault of Horrors. We really made it a museum. For one brief moment there was a place called Camelot! [Laughs]
As a collector, I have a little less, but I have what I like the most.
What would you consider your prized piece?
Well, certainly that Herman Munster doll signed by Fred is the key element of the collection. I collect a lot of stuff. Remember when you were a kid, that great Imagineering stuff? Vampire Blood and all that?
Yes! Scar Stuff! I was obsessed with that as a child. I have a lot of that Imagineering stuff. The stuff that’s unique to me. Imagineering makeup, the Dick Smith Makeup kit I still have from when I was a kid. I have stuff from the Universal Studios Tour—some original artwork. I love that.
As a huge fan of monsters and monster makeup, did you ever consider becoming a makeup or special effects artist yourself?
I did! Oh, absolutely! When I got out to LA, I went and talked to a makeup artist on a movie I was an extra in. He had done makeup for Star Trek. He said, “Go to this makeup school and tell them you’re my friend.” And I did. It’s funny how things work out and I went the acting route. Imagine, a kid, an extra, coming up and saying, “I like monster makeup. Can you give me any advice?” And he didn’t say, “Why aren’t you sitting with the extras?” He made a point of giving me advice. Now, there are many makeup schools, but back then, there weren’t many.
Back then, if you seriously wanted to learn effects makeup on your own, your only real option was Dick Smith’s mail order makeup course.
Dick Smith, man, that guy was one of a kind! I was playing a Romulan character in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doug Drexler and Jill Rockow are making me up, they’re saying, “Dick’s coming today.” I’m like, “Dick? Dick who? Wait, Dick Smith is coming and I’m wearing makeup!?” When [he] came in, I was like, “Dick Smith! I put cornmeal on my face when I was kid!” And he goes, “Why would you do that?” “Because it was in your book!” Then he remembered, “Oh, yes, in the makeup book.” Like there was this nonsensical idiot child gluing oatmeal to his face because a man in upstate New York told me to.
You’ve worked with Rob Zombie several times now, what does he bring out of you as an actor and why do you enjoy working with him so much?
The guy’s a real auteur, in the first place. I’m astounded at the consistent attention to detail. I’m a director, too, but I don’t have that attention to detail. Rob knows the art. He knows the set. He knows how to make it all come together on whatever movie, whether it’s a movie of his own fevered imagination or reworking Halloween, the world that you’re in is so deep and so realistic. You can see that again in 3 From Hell, my God! When you’re working with a director with that sense of confidence, you have an opportunity to really work well together.
He has a good sense of humor, too! When he asked me to be the Devil in the video for “The Life and Times of a Teenage Rock God,” I was like “Aww, come on! I HATE the Devil! I don’t want to be the Devil!” I asked, “Can we emasculate him? Can I do him like Paul Lynde?” He said yes! The thing about Rob and Sheri is they’re both fans of cinema and TV. Like me, they watch a lot of it. You learn a heck of a lot from watching it.
How do two rabid horror fans like you and Rob Zombie get anything done on the set? It must be hard to buck the temptation to talk about monsters all day.
Well, that’s a good question! Luckily, there are people around us who keep us focused and on track. But that is the joy, isn’t it? That you can have a shorthand with a director like that. It’s good with Mr. Zombie. We have the same childhood. We’re nearly identical in age.
Let’s say THE MUNSTERS is a huge success. Are you down to return as The Count for a sequel or multiple sequels?
Let’s say it! Yes! Let’s have more. Let’s do it again and again and again! Let’s spend the rest of my life playing Grandpa. Fine! For an actor, of an age, to get into a thing where there’s more than one of it, is a very good thing. We like being in TV series. I liked being Cody Banks’ dad and then being in another movie. I liked being in both Fugitive movies. There’s talk of another Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order game. That would be great.
I think people are going to love THE MUNSTERS. Really, It’s Rob’s story to tell. I think there’s not a better guy in Hollywood to tell it.
THE MUNSTERS is currently in production.