So your first movie was Grease, right?
Grease was actually my first movie. I started at the top, so I lucked out. I went in and auditioned with a huge crowd of people, a gigantic cattle call. I remember chatting with Randall Kleiser, the director, and Allan Carr the producer. My audition went well, but a few days later my agent called and said they had written the role of Eugene, the one I tried out for, completely out of the movie. I was crushed with disappointment. A day or two later my agent wanted us to go to church and pray. We did, and I remember praying very hard. A day or two later, my agent called and told me they were putting the Eugene character back in the movie and wanted me to play the role. It is one of the smallest roles I have in any movie, but it remains the film I am most known and recognized for.
How was the experience of working on your first movie?
John Travolta was a wonderful guy. Olivia Newton John was great. And I got to see Frankie Avalon work in a movie. I grew up loving those beach party pictures, and there he is doing a song five feet away from me. It was a surreal moment.
You also ended up in Grease 2 a few years later.
Me and Didi Conn are the only ones from the original who were in Grease 2. Maxwell Caufield was the star of that one. John Travolta in the original was a very friendly guy, always coming through the crowd and talking with everyone. When I did my scenes and they’d rough me up, John would come over to make sure I was ok. He called me "buddy." Maxwell Caufield was a lonely, shy guy. He invited me to his trailer and we had tea and cookies together. Pat Birch, the choreographer for Grease, directed Grease 2. She was a terrible director.
What was next?
In my second film, a low budget job called "Laserblast," I had my only death scene. There was a continuity girl, and there was a Happy Birthday scene with a cake. The cake was turned one way in the first shot, and a different way in the second. And the continuity girl says, "ah it doesn’t matter, forget it!" I remember that, and remember having a crush on the script girl, who was very cute.
How did you end up in I Wanna Hold Your Hand?
After getting "Grease" in my credits. I was kind of hot, so I auditioned for "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." When I saw the listing in the trades about an obsessed Beatle fan I thought, "that role is me!" I auditioned nine times. It’s my record. I got along great with Bob Gale the screenwriter. And Robert Zemeckis is the greatest director I ever worked with, he’s like a god to me. I worship the guy.
You had a lot of funny stuff with Wendi Jo Sperber.
I loved Wendie Jo, she was such a doll. There was some talk of us doing a series together on one of the networks, but it never came to pass. I worked with her in 1941 but it wasn’t the same, we were never together. I Wanna Hold Your Hand was her first film, she lied about her age to get into it. Her performance was like lightning in a bottle. Her dying so young is really a tragedy
Did the Beatles themselves ever see the movie?
George Harrison in an interview with Crawdaddy called it a great historical film. I know Paul and Ringo saw it. I heard they liked it, and also heard Ringo didn’t like it. I never heard if John saw it.
You also did 1941, which is Steven Spielberg’s only all-out comedy.
I was at a sports bar a couple of weeks ago and the guy came up to me and said 1941 was his favorite movie. I, myself, think it’s a misfire. It’s got a few good moments.
How was it working with Murray Hamilton in that one?
Murray Hamilton was a very nice guy. We were way up on top of that Ferris Wheel. He had emphysema and he had to routinely come down to get oxygen. I got sick up on the Ferris Wheel and had to come down myself. I got to throw up in Steven Spielberg’s private toilet. Even though I felt awful, the whole time I couldn’t help thinking, "hey, I’m throwing up in Spielberg’s toilet!"
And John Belushi?
At one point it was pretty late at night and John Belushi was told his call for the next morning would be 4:30am. He just said, "ok, I’ll be there" with no complaint. I never forgot that. What a total pro. It really impressed me. I got to go to lunch with John and Steven Spielberg, and during lunch I suddenly realized I didn’t have any money. Fortunately Steven picked up the tab.
So Belushi was good to work with?
Yeah, I didn’t see any of the drug taking that I have since read was going on at the time. By the way, if I hadn’t done 1941 I would have been in Meatballs. I was supposed to play Spaz, but I was on 1941 and couldn’t take the role. I would have loved working with Bill Murray.
What are your memories of Midnight Madness?
Michael J. Fox’s first film and Paul Reubens’ first film before he was Pee Wee Herman. I always felt in my heart he got the Pee Wee idea from me. We were pals in that film, he watched my work, and if you’ll notice in Grease I am dressed exactly like Pee Wee Herman. Paul did say years later to my manager "I got a lot off Eddie." I know it sounds conceited, but I really believe the germ of the Pee Wee idea came from me. Years later I saw him in a deli in L.A. and he was going around town with the script for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I think his parents loaned him the money to get the film financed. He was a great guy, a super nice guy. I saw him at the comedy awards after he had become a huge star. I went up to say "hi" and he was so nice.
Did you get to know Michael J. Fox also?
Michael J. Fox and I would play handball together on the set, and talk about the Twilight Zone because we were both fans of the show. Years later this silver Porsche comes driving up to me on the Universal lot, and it is Michael J. Fox, star of TV’s Family Ties. He saw me on the lot and drove up to say hi and reminisce. A wonderful guy.
WarGames is another popular picture in which you appeared.
When I was on WarGames I worked with Marty Brest, who directed Beverly Hills Cop. He got fired and replaced by John Badham. People keep asking me what it was like to work with Badham, and I never did. I had trouble remembering my lines in that movie, but Marty let me use idiot cards. So if you watch WarGames my whole scene is read off cue cards!
You also did some television work around this time.
I did eight episodes of Punky Brewster. I didn’t like the live audience, because I can not remember lines. And besides that you get rewrites. I had a lot of lines on Magnum P.I. and managed to remember them. But I usually prefer movies to television.
Some of my favorite movies of yours are the ones produced by Fred Olen Ray. Mob Boss and Teenage Exorcist are particular favorites.
One of the highlights of Mob Boss was that scene in the bed with Morgan Fairchild where she kisses me and my glasses fog up. Morgan comes up to me and says, "do you want to rehearse?" I am like "whoa!" She is saying, "should I kiss you like this? how about like this?" Meanwhile my knees are turning to Jello! So I got to make out with Morgan Fairchild several times. She’s a great kisser, by the way.
So Morgan Fairchild is also a great person to work with?
Morgan Fairchild was another shy person. She always stayed in her dressing room, and people thought she was a prima donna. But she invited me in her room to sit and talk, and I found that she was just shy. She told me about her career, how she was in Bonnie and Clyde and Warren Beatty made a pass at her, even though she was only sixteen. Stuff like that. She just wanted to to talk. We talked for like two hours.
How about big Mike Mazurki from Murder My Sweet? He was in Mob Boss as well.
Mike Mazurki was a big guy and I was really intimidating by him. At the end of Mob Boss I had to give a big speech (which I did manage to memorize). Mazurki comes over and says, "You did good, that was a good speech. You did really good." I thanked him, almost crapping in my pants. That’s the only time I talked to him.
Sounds like Mob Boss and Teenage Exorcist were fun movies to do.
I love working with Fred Olen Ray and would love to do a movie with him again. And Brinke is great too, a wonderful lady.
You also were in Million Dollar Mystery, which was sort of a reworking of the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World idea.
Million Dollar Mystery was a bad movie. I saw It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World at Radio City Music Hall when I was a kid, and it was a magical event. I love that movie. Million Dollar Mystery was directed by Richard Fleischer, who is a classic director, but honestly he is the worst director I ever worked with. He couldn’t direct traffic. Everything we’d try to contribute he’d cut down. He was a mean, vindictive little prick.
What is the difference between working on low budget films and working on big studio productions?
With the low budget movies it’s more intimate, a lot of closeness. It’s a very comfortable atmosphere. A bigger budget picture is not so much like that, but is still fun. When I was on Polar Express we got this catered in food, cherries jubilee with whipped cream, it was the greatest food in the world. But that was like a 150 million dollar movie. With the low budget movies you’re sitting on an apple box eating a bologna sandwich and kibitzing.
Your latest film was the motion capture movie Polar Express with Tom Hanks.
There is never a moment when Tom Hanks isn’t a nice guy. We were getting made up once and he sat there and told me how much he liked "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." I was impressed that Tom Hanks actually saw a movie I was in! But my favorite Tom Hanks story is about the day that we were all getting made up. Tom’s makeup man was my makeup man in Grease, so I was sitting in Tom’s chair kibitzing, but I didn’t realize it was his chair. Tom walks in and just joins our conversation. Finally someone says to me, "You’re sitting in Tom’s chair, get up!" I apologized profusely, but he said it was totally ok. Many actors would walk in and say, "get the fuck out of my chair" but Tom just stood there like a gentleman talking with us. It shows what a nice guy he is.
You also do a lot of voice over work for cartoons and commercials.
It’s the best gig in the world. You read, you don’t shave, you don’t have to look good, you just read your lines, and the money is unbelievable! I’ve been doing voice work since the early 90s. I did Pop on the Rice Krispies commercials for five years, and did Lloyd in Space, Kim Possible, and other shows. I still do a lot of that.
So you keep plugging along as an actor, working steadily, and enjoying what you do.
I can’t do anything else. I am so off beat there is probably no other place where I could fit in!