The Crypt Keeper is one of the most iconic characters in the horror genre. The man behind that crazed, sinister, blackly-comedic voice for so many years was John Kassir. Having recently lent his his vocal talents to John Schneider’s horror ensemble Smothered, the veteran actor spoke to us about Tales from the Crypt, the failed live-action Justice League series, the ill-fated Team Knight Rider, voicing superheroes, practical effects, Robin Williams, and a whole host more, including wearing used Batsuits.
Starburst: Starting with Smothered, how did you get involved with that?
John Kassir: John Schneider contacted me knowing that I was in the genre and went to these type of conventions. Obviously the fans know the people, the iconic characters that we’re associated with – of course, me being associated with the Crypt Keeper. It’s not the only horror project that I’ve been on but certainly the most high profile one. He contacted me directly and wanted to include me in it. He had most of his movie in his head how he wanted to do it, which had me, like, “Wow! John Schneider doing a horror movie? I guess he must have a love for it. The guy from The Dukes of Hazzard?” Obviously there’s a comic twist to the whole thing, and he said he was gonna be shooting it in Louisiana, where he now has his production studio set up. I thought it was great and sounded like a lot of fun, and there were other people involved in it that I knew, including Kane Hodder and Bill Moseley and R.A. Mihailoff and Malcolm Danare; all people that I’ve known for a number of years. It sounded like a lot of fun. I was mainly playing a creepier version of myself that winds up handling these guys as an agent, so a lot of the time, in a funny twist, it was just my voice on the phone with a sort of Crypt Keeper-meets-New Orleans accent. So we thought that would be a funny way for it to not be the Crypt Keeper but be me and be a funny twist on the horror genre. I’m not really in the film that much but it was a fun little twist either way.
For long-time horror fans, Smothered is littered with fun nods to pick up on. Overall, it comes across as a fun, collaborative movie. In your time in Louisiana, is that how it was?
Yeah, I was down there for a couple of days, getting to watch them do some stuff that I wasn’t involved in. Of course, because these guys have all been to these conventions and that kind of thing, it definitely had a fun input to it. John had a fun idea of having the horror guys take it up the ass, so to speak, instead of giving it this time. That was a nice twist to be involved in. It’s played at various horror conventions and received some great reviews. John came to my house and showed me a rough cut of what he was doing with it, and it was in a completely different order to what the script was. He just wanted to make it interesting and it makes it really captivating. You can’t tell how an audience is going to react to it as it’s completely subjective, and because you worked on it you know what’s supposed to happen at certain points. But that’s what the director’s job’s for. It was kinda cool and we all had a great time hanging out, doing that, getting involved in it. We had a lot of laughs, knowing what really happens at these conventions – whatever’s the hottest thing happens to be getting all of the attention, and you either benefit from that with a lot more fans being there or it can be that that’s all they came for and you’re all of a sudden not the most popular thing there.
Moving away from Smothered, we do have to talk about the Crypt Keeper. Tales from the Crypt is something that so many people grew up with and it used to scare us but fascinate us with its dark humour. From your point of view, did you ever expect it to become as successful as it was?
It’s funny because, first of all, I loved the comic books as a kid - I was so into the comic books. Of course, there was a lot of bad press about them, people saying they caused juvenile delinquency and that kind of thing. To this day, comic books have rating on them because of the Tales from the Crypt comic books and the other EC comics. So when they were looking to hire somebody to play the Crypt Keeper, I was just wowed that I got asked to do it. I had just won Star Search, which was a big talent competition on television, as a stand-up comedian. I did a lot of voices and characters in my acts, and I was doing another series for HBO where I played a Bulgarian football player who kicked 60-yard field-goals, so they got me in to do it. It was very popular but HBO, at that time, was not in every household the way it is now and, of course, hadn’t yet wound up international. We did end up, though, shooting our seventh season in London with a lot of people who were virtual unknowns in the US and who have now become stars. I don’t think it’s because of Tales from the Crypt but more that they were great actors coming up at that time. If you’d have asked me at that time whether kids were watching the show, I’d have said absolutely not – it’s creepy, it’s got language, it’s got nudity. We did create a cartoon that kids were watching and a game show that kids were watching, but now I’ve found out that people like yourself grew up with it and it’s bigger than it ever was. I go to these conventions now and I have longer lines of fans that are interested in meeting me and hearing about the show and how great it is than I ever had. I have people come up to me with tattoos of the Crypt Keeper, they have me sign the tattoo and then they go and get the signature tattooed – that’s kinda creepy in itself.
We guess it’s really flattering but just a bit creepy…
Yeah, c’mon, I love the Crypt Keeper too. I’m a horror fan, I was hugely into the Universal movies when I was a kid, so this is a big deal to me. Over your career, not everything you do you’d necessarily sit down and watch, but this is something that I’d have been glued to whether I was involved with it or not. The original producers I worked with - the big producers like Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Bob Zemeckis, and Walter Hill – were huge guys in the business so were able to get stars involved and the best practical make-up guys, the best practical effects guys, including Kevin Yagher who developed the Crypt Keeper. I don’t think that they thought it would continue to be as popular, that the popularity would grow. Of course, me being on the ground floor of it and having direct contact with fans, I was trying to impress on them for years that it was becoming more and more popular. But these guys had their hands in so many big projects, they let the rights lapse for Tales from the Crypt.
And is that partly why it ended?
Partly. But it largely ended because they had close to 100 episodes, it was an expensive show to produce, and they had enough to go into syndication. So I think they thought at that time that they wouldn’t make any more. But now, years later, it could be one of the most successful shows on TV if done correctly. I know that the Gaines family still hold the rights to it and want to do something on their own with it. But they don’t hold the rights to the Crypt Keeper that I did because that particular version of him was created for the HBO series that I did. So it’s kind of a sticky wicket, as the British would say, in terms of what its future will be. They have talked about doing another series of Tales from the Crypt, something a little different and involving me as an actor, as an homage in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock would put himself in his own movies, but who knows, it’s hard to say, television is a tricky thing. Getting something on the air, no matter how popular, is always difficult. Will the fans accept something different? I don’t know. I’m convinced that if they came back today with the same version of what we did, with all the new great directors, with new stars and new stories, it would be a huge, huge hit. But the Tales from the Crypt folks that I work with don’t have the rights any longer. We’ll keep our eyes peeled, as something will develop over the next few years, but there are 90-something episodes, and people go back, get the DVD boxsets, start watching it and go, “My God, I don’t remember seeing this episode.” So there’s a lot for them to still see.
Most people know you for the Crypt Keeper but you’ve got a ridiculous amount of credits to your name. How is it as an actor when most people know you for your vocals?
It’s great! I have a lot of on-camera credits but I can walk down the street. Occasionally someone will come up to me and say, “Hey, I saw you in this,” but I like to think of myself as an accessible person. Then you have our poor friend Robin Williams, who back in the day was a friend of mine. It was heartbreaking what happened to him but he was a guy who couldn’t walk down the street, except in his own neighbourhood, without be deluged by adoring fans. Early on, I found that kind of uncomfortable. For me, I’m really proud to have had not only a lucrative career but a colourful career, many great projects, but still be able to fly under the radar. It’s a double-edged sword, though, as sometimes you go for a project and they pick the person who has the higher face-profile than you do. That’s just the way it works. At the same time, the trade-off is worth it to me and I still get to work on big projects. Just from recent memory, I got to work with Bryan Singer on Jack the Giant Slayer. After 30-something years, to still land something like that is really great. But I love voice-over work – I can chill in my pyjamas if I want to.
There’s stuff that we didn’t even realise you were involved in, like CatDog, and then there’s plenty of superheroes and comic characters that you’ve provided the voices for over the years. Out of all the voice work you’ve done, are there any personal favourites?
Well I’m 5’8” and 160 lbs, I’m not a menacing, big guy. To get to play villains and superheroes, things I’d never get to play on camera, I get to play with those. So those are some of the most fun projects I’ve gotten to do, like playing Deadpool or Buster Bunny or the Crypt Keeper or playing a Smurf. It’s very liberating as an actor. I love fantasy, I’ve always loved fantasy – even when I was a stand-up comic I’d do The Wizard of Oz in 2 ½ minutes, with all the characters. So I’ve always loved the opportunity to do that type of fantasy character. I’ve always loved the movies that were big epics and with a lot of fun character parts. I would’ve loved to have been in one of the Hobbit movies. To have a career like an Ian Holm would be great, but at the same time I get to play with some pretty out there stuff.
Like the Justice League TV movie. It was supposed to be a TV series, right? And what were your experiences like on that show, on playing The Atom briefly, and what was the plan for the show?
First of all, to get that part, I was like, “Really, I’m gonna play a superhero?” It was great! If you watch it today, there’s been so many edgy, dark superhero movies made, and it looks dated. But the idea of that particular show that CBS wanted to make at that time was they wanted to make it a show like Friends-meets-superheroes. We were people that you’d walk down the street and not look twice at, but we’d have these powers and we’d do the right thing and save people from what’s going on. The concept was that it was a show that you could sit down on a Friday night and watch with the family. That’s tricky to do these days because everyone has a TV, the kids have a TV, kids watch TV on their phones now. Even back then it was hard to do a show that teenagers, kids, and adults would watch. Their hope was to do that kind of thing. We showed up and there was a big audition process. I was the first person who ever auditioned for the part. I think they went through 600 people or something, and they ended up giving it to the first person who auditioned and I got the part. We had a lot of fun shooting it, but they didn’t want to build new suits for us yet as it was a very expensive suit to produce for television. Even though the effects nowadays would look very pedestrian – you could probably do them yourself on your computer – back then they were pretty cool. We had pieces of Batman suits that we were wearing under the costumes that they gave us for when we turned in to the muscular characters. So I had, like, Chris O’Donnell’s legs and Val Kilmer’s stunt-double’s upper body, and none of it fit me right .
We were surprised when that got dropped as it didn’t seem to be something that would be haemorrhaging money and it seemed like quite a cool concept…
Yeah, it was really, really cool. A pilot is always hard and you always have to put too much in it, but what they did was very, very good and showed a lot of promise for what the series would be. And the network loved it. Now they only do shows for 11 episodes a year, especially when you have people on it like Eddie Izzard, where their availability is only to do, like, 11 episodes a year. That means that you have to have the show on the air for 7 or 8 years before you have enough episodes to put it in syndication and make money on it, as that’s where they make the money. So financially they couldn’t justify it and it ended up being an 11 million dollar TV movie!
One thing that did make it to series, even if it did get mixed reviews, was Team Knight Rider. How was that?
That was a lot of fun! That was a show that was produced on a small budget and I had some friends who were producing that for the network. Of course, Knight Rider was very popular and the idea of making Team Knight Rider felt like a very cool idea. Also, people liked it – it was really big in Germany and the places where Knight Rider was big. None of us got paid much for making it but it was a labour of love and I got to make it with a lot of friends. I had a lot of fun.
Do you think it was maybe a victim of being a few years too late?
Yeah, it’s funny how some things can seem dated out of the gate, especially if they’re just trying to recall something that’s already been done. I saw the new Planet of the Apes, and I was impressed with the last one, but now this new one makes the effects of the last one look archaic. When we were doing Jack the Giant Slayer, they were using the people who had done Avatar, and they were looking at new machines and ways to do things. Then they’d change something in the script and we wouldn’t be able to do it but then somebody would come up with a way to do it. Some of these people who work on these movies are geniuses and could probably work for N.A.S.A, but because they’re creative people then they want to work in the movie industry instead. It’d be interesting to see if they did something different with Tales from the Crypt these days, would the Crypt Keeper be a motion-capture character? I think one of the things that people love about the horror genre is that they still do a lot of practical effects. There’s a lot of people that I meet at conventions, even young people, their dream is to go and study practical effects and do make-up like Kevin Yagher does or Tom Savini does.
As somebody who has worked on the likes of Jack the Giant Slayer, where it’s full of CGI and motion-capture, how different is that to the more practical movies, at least in terms of environment?
In terms of environment, one of them’s a huge financial environment, like a $200 million movie compared to often a $2 million movie. Obviously, you’ve got a different result, you’re making something different like a 3D movie where people are expecting to be transported to somewhere where you couldn’t be transported to on earth. That’s the point. With practical effects, it’s time consuming. On one movie I had an effect where it looked like I had my eye took out by a hammer, and with not a lot of money or with a lot of time we did something that looked great on film. When it comes down to it, it’s a lot of glue, a lot of paste, a lot of rubber, and somebody working in a shop, breathing in a lot of fumes. Then you work on something like Jack the Giant Slayer, where there’s hundreds of cameras capturing you and you’re being captured virtually and digitally all at the same time. It’s literally like performing for N.A.S.A. – you’re creating everything around you in your mind as oppose to everything being there with practical effects. You’re expected to create a spaceship over your heads or giants around you or these kind of things, and there’s a lot of math involved in the bigger budget movies in terms of where to look and how big that should be in relation to that and how many computers is it gonna take, how many technicians is it gonna take, how many days is it gonna take to finish this movie. With practical effects it’s more like, “That guy knows how to do it, let’s just let him turn up with his junk and do it.”
Just wrapping things up, you had previously done some early stand-up work with Robin Williams. Any experiences that you’d like to share with our readers?
I can’t say I ever really knew Robin Williams - I can’t say who really did apart from the people who were really close to him. He was a very private guy, very guarded, and with lots of energy. We met and did some improvisation on stage together back in the day with people like Rick Overton. I remember him one night, we got up on stage, Bruce Willis jumped up on stage, Charlie Fleischer, who was the voice of Roger Rabbit, jumped up on stage… it was a pretty amazing night for the fans, I’m sure. There was a time where I would see Robin a lot, when he was around doing improv, and that’s most of the time I got to spend with him. It wasn’t very long but we were peers. He took me up to San Francisco for my birthday with some mutual friends. He didn’t really know me that well but he included me, and I got to see him perform a benefit performance for Neil Young. He in Waiting for Godot, which they were doing at the Lincoln Centre with Steve Martin, F. Murray Abraham and with Lukas Haas as the little boy. I didn’t get the part but I had known Robin well enough to let him know that I had been auditioning for it and he told me to go and see the performance. They were sold out, but he got a seat for my sister and I to sit up in the catwalk to watch the show. Afterwards I got to go down and hang out with him, Steve Martin and the rest of the cast, in their dressing room below the Lincoln Centre. 20 years later, I landed a show called The Glorious Ones and I was in that same dressing room, performing on that same stage, and there wasn’t a night that I didn’t think of them and Waiting for Godot. He was a generous man and a lot of people have a lot of wonderful things to say and memories about him, including every single person who saw him perform. He made a lot of people laugh and it’s a sad, sad loss to all.
And up next you have a movie called Minkow. We know it’s got Mark Hamill in it, but what else can you tell us about the film?
All I can tell you is that I shot it and it’s got Ving Rhames in it and James Caan and Mark Hamill and some great people in it. It’s based on a true story about a kid who had created a business on his own and it was doing so well that it wound up on the stock exchange. Then he wound up creating fake businesses to keep it going. All of these people were investing in what they thought were real businesses but they turned out to be fake. He wound up going to jail. It’s one of those stories, kinda like Catch Me If You Can. I play his crooked accountant who helped him fiddle the books. Very often you do these movies and you don’t know if they’ve got distribution or when they’ll be out there. Very often you do your job and never hear from these people again . I had fun doing it and there were some great people involved. It’s funny, I’ve been making my living as an actor for 33 years, and very often most of your career is being the best thing in a bad project. Very often you see that you’re in a good project and nobody winds up even seeing it. One of my favourite projects that I ever did was The Three Stooges, which Mel Gibson produced, Michael Chiklis played Curly, and it was really well received as it came out as a TV movie. When we were shooting it, ABC liked it so much that they thought they’d like to release it as a feature film. Mel Gibson thought it wasn’t a good idea as we weren’t thinking of it like that when we filmed it. We put it out on television so that everyone could see it – it will only be there for a short period of time but everyone will see it and it will be appreciated for what we made. It was a great project and very often people still ask me about that. I think it’s on YouTube, maybe you can rent it on Netflix, but it’s one of those things that you wish everyone could see. But that’s the reality of what we do. You’re lucky to have something like Tales from the Crypt that’s lasted all of these years, became so iconic, and has certainly launched other aspects of my career.
Smothered is still awaiting a confirmed release date, although you can find our review here.
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