Early in an actor's career, he or she may make brief appearances in films as part of building a reputation within the industry. After they are already established they may make brief appearances for the enjoyment of working with old friends or to fill their schedules during hiatuses between television shooting seasons. Robert Picardo has a long list of such credits, playing a wide assortment of smaller film and television roles. In this column we explore these roles allowing you, our readers, an opportunity to enjoy the Brief Appearances that he has made.
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Note: This installment has suffered a bit of a technical difficulty. Having just moved, I used an unfamiliar cassette recorder for the interview with Bob, one that has a poorly implemented voice activation feature. Unaware that the feature was turned on, I lost significant portions of the recorded interview. So, if this article seems to have a little less depth than usual, it is not that Bob wasn't his usual, self-disclosing interview subject. I apologize to both the readers and to Bob for losing those entertaining bits of our conversation. Perhaps my tape recorder was trying to tell us something about this movie.
976-EVIL marks the directorial debut of Robert Englund, better known as Freddy Krueger, the blood-lusting dream killer of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. This film was conceived after he had already made a name for himself in the Nightmare films and he got his first deal with a low-budget production company to direct a movie. Bob says that he first met Englund during the filming of an episode of "Alice" and that they had bumped into each other a couple of other times in the intervening years [Note: This is one place where the tape failed and I had to rely on memory (very scary). If I've got it wrong, I'm sure somebody will point it out.] It was based on this intermittent acquaintance that Bob got the offer to work on this film. As Bob put it, "He said that he wanted to cast me in his role in the movie, which was the character Mark Dark." Since Robert had done the pilot for "China Beach" but the series hadn't been picked up yet, he agreed.
The lead character, named Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), a classic wimp, lives with his fanatically religious mother (Sandy Dennis) and his slick cousin Spike (Patrick O'Bryan). Late one evening, Spike phones his "horrorscope," dialing the title number. What he hears is a brooding voice that instructs him on how to handle difficult situations that are surprisingly like those in which he is involved. Soon afterward, Hoax finds a flier advertising the number, dials it himself, and begins acting on the advice of his horrorscope, eventually becoming addicted to the deadly recordings.
Marty Palmer (Jim Metzler), a newspaper reporter, and Angella Martinez (Maria Rubell), the school counselor, decide that somebody needs to find out what's going on with the phone service. Palmer investigates by tracking down the business establishment and visiting. He enters the seedy, ghetto offices to find a small number of operators answering a variety of 900-number calls - one man talking about sports, a drunk pretending to be Santa Claus, and a heavy-set woman doing phone sex, who mouths to him, "Call me," and blows him a kiss. Finally, Palmer meets Robert, looking as rumpled and as seedy as the building itself. When asked if he is Mark Dark, Robert's character equivocates and asks Palmer if he's from the Telephone Standards and Practices Board. When Palmer indicates that he's a reporter, Robert admits to being Mark Dark and introduces himself to Palmer, "We're sort of in the same business, you and me. You tell the people what you want them to hear and the people hear what I want to tell them."
Robert chose to play the character as if he had a cold because the weaker the character appeared to be, the better the surprise ending would work. Mark Dark constantly blows his nose on an extra large handkerchief, squirts medication up his nose, gargles and spits into a chrome bedpan and talks with a hoarse voice. I thought that the character had a quality like a comedic version of Marlon Brando playing the aged Godfather, but Bob said, "I was trying to create someone who had a cold and was mostly congested, kind of weak and with a shuffling affect. But I didn't take any inspiration from Brando or any of the other masters (laughs)." After the introduction, Palmer follows Dark into his office, where he continues the succession of sinus remedies. Palmer looks around, but can't find a place to sit since the only chair has a toupee on a wig block sitting on it. Bob recalled, "That was during a period in my life where, if I wasn't wearing a toupee, I always wanted to have one somewhere in the picture (laughs). For no particular reason!" After a bit of the reporter questioning Dark, they talk about the 976-EVIL number. Dark takes Palmer to an abandoned, dusty, and cobweb-festooned office to show him an automated answering computer that he says that he built himself. "I used to live in Radio Shack when I was in high school," he explains. The mystery deepens when Dark indicates that the 976-EVIL service didn't pan out economically and that he turned it off several months before. The scene ends as Dark says, "I guess nobody's interested in the underworld any more. Just Ewoks and E.T.s, football and phone sex. I hate the heavy breathing crap!"
The film follows the usual course of horror films. Hoax's addiction to the service gets worse, his actions become more violent and he starts to become a disfigured monster with claws. After the obligatory sex scene with most of their clothes on between Spike and the obviously bad girl character and Hoax taking out his revenge on his overbearing mother and the guys at school that used to exploit him, he retires to his room to fully transform into a monster. Of course the ingenue shows up and has to follow the noises upstairs. Hoax comes out, confronts her, skillfully uses his claw to remove her sweater so that she is clad in her camisole, and threatens to take further advantage of her. Spike comes along to save the day by pushing Hoax into the hell-fire pit that opens up in the middle of the house (you knew it would).
The closing scene is back in Dark's office where he is viewing pictures of his clients. You see the shot from over Dark's shoulder as he takes a bite from his jelly donut and the jelly falls out onto the picture of Hoax. Bob explains, "Biting the jelly donut and having the glob of jelly hit the page, of course, was a gag of mine, hoping that it would look like blood." Thus the films ends with Dark being revealed as Satan, taking people's souls over the phone.
If you haven't guessed already, the film seems to be a stream of horror cliches punctuated with silly gags, a somewhat unsuccessful attempt at camp. Bob summarized it, "You can make a pretty good horror film out of a mediocre script and you can take a great horror script and make a mediocre movie out of it. Having said that, it was not a great script. And not a great rendition of a not-great script."
Within that context, Bob explains his approach to the role; "I don't have enough to do in the film to have my full-blown reveal as 'The Devil' be compelling. If it's supposed to be a true surprise, then the only way to execute that surprise is to not have the audience suspect it at all. If I were to play a character that seemed to be insidious or evil in appearance, it would have simply given it away. So, I think that the only route for me, in the context of this show, was to put as much camp in it as possible."
Despite the end product, Bob doesn't regret having done the film. "If I regretted having done anything that didn't turn out well, I would have far too many regrets to live my life." Even if the film as a whole doesn't work, Bob's performance is still worthwhile. "I think what I do in the movie stands up," Bob explains, "I think that it is amusing." Yet, when I asked him what he wanted to tell his Trek fans about the film, he said, "I think what they should know this about the film is: they should avoid it at all costs! Even for the die-hard fans. I appreciate the support of the members of the club, but they can miss this picture and I will still consider them loyal and true."
© 1998 by Chris Powell. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.