December 22, 2014

The Topanga A* List

 

PHOTO BY ANTHONY VEREBES MESSENGER 2013 ©

The Topanga A* List

Actor John Kassir speaks about his long career as a voice actor and playing the “Crypt Keeper” for all those years. He now plays the ‘small head’ of the giant in Jack the Giant Slayer opening on March 26.

Comic, character actor, mime, voice actor; there are few performers as driven and paradoxical as John Kassir. Best known as the ghoulish voice of the wise-cracking crypt keeper in the HBO horror anthology series, “Tales from the Crypt” that ran from 1989 to 1996, John got his big break in an earlier network TV debut. In 1983 he became the first comedy champion of “Star Search,” edging out Sinbad in the final round.

­­Beneath hand-hewn wooden beams that support the open framework of his two-story Topanga home, John Kassir spoke animatedly about his diverse career both past and present. Sporting a collection of eclectic objets d'art, the house exudes a machismo both comforting and charismatic. From a pair of leather gaucho chaps hung on the wall, a set of antique Meerschaum pipes, to an array of silver crucifixes juxtaposed against a collection of contemporary Japanese romantic lithographs, the décor reflects the adventures of a modern day merchant traveler.

On March 26, 2013, Kassir has a date with the red carpet when Bryan Singer's new film, Jack the Giant Slayer premieres in Hollywood. The fantasy/adventure film based on both the “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairy tales, features Kassir and Bill Nighy as the two-headed leader of the giants. Kassir plays the small head while Nighy plays the big head.

How did you become a contestant on “Star Search”?

After I graduated from Towsen College, [Maryland] I moved to New York and started doing USO tours performing for military all over the world. So, I had some of those skills but I had never done stand-up comedy. I auditioned for a show called Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down, which was a musical comedy with only three actors, about stand-up comics. I played a suicidal Zen-Catholic. While doing the play a talent scout saw me from a show called “Star Search.” They said we want you to be on the very first show. I told them I’m not really a stand-up comedian - I’m an actor playing the part of a stand-up comedian. They said you could win $100,000 and I said, “Did I tell you about my stand-up career?”

What were your performances like on “Star Search”?

Since I wasn’t really a stand-up comedian a lot of my act was doing characters and voices. I would do The Wizard of Oz, the entire movie, in two-and-a-half-minutes, all the characters, the Munchkins, the whole thing. They kept bringing me back and in the semi-finals I beat an up-and-coming comedienne named Rosie O'Donnell and in the finals I beat an up-and-coming comedian named Sinbad.

Where did your material come from?

A lot of my humor and material was based on the pop culture that we grew up with through television. I re-wrote it into an hour-and-a-half show called “Confessions of a TV Junkie.” Meanwhile, I did a number of sit-coms, I did a series for seven years on HBO called “First and Ten” where I played a Bulgarian field goal kicker. OJ Simpson played the general manager, Delta Burke was the owner of the team, Chris Maloney from “Homicide SVU” played a quarterback and there were some actual football players on the show. This is when I really started to establish myself as a bona fide character actor.

The Topanga A* List

How did you become the voice of the Crypt Keeper in “Tales from the Crypt”?

I got a call from my agent to come down and audition for “Tales from the Crypt.” I collected those comic books as a kid, I loved that. They said you’re going to go down to Kevin Yager’s studio, he’s the creature-maker who created Chuckie and created the modern look for Freddy Krueger. He’s a great director and wonderfully creative guy. He was working on the Crypt Keeper so I got to see what he looked like. They gave me some copy that I improvised with. The copy included all these goofy puns. Here were all these great stand-up comics, voice-over actors looking at it going, “Oh man, this copy’s terrible.” I’m thinking, these guys don’t get it, this character loves saying this stuff. I’m looking at the Crypt Keeper and thinking, he’s got holes in his throat, this cackling bag of bones, and he has rotten teeth and he’s saying, [in the voice of the Crypt Keeper] “Be careful what you ax for, you may get it, hee hee hee.”

The next day I did the voice for Joel Silver and Richard Donner in this little office on the set and they said, that’s great kid we love it. See you on the set. I thought they were pulling my chain and then my agent called and said, yeah, you got it.

“Tales from the Crypt” still popular today, 26 years after it began on TV?

There’s even more of an audience for the show now, because these kids who first saw “Tales from the Crypt,” it was their first introduction to horror the way “The Twilight Zone” was for us. They’re rabid for it. If I go to a horror convention I sign more autographs and get more appreciation from fans than ever.

What is your role in the soon-to-be- released Warner Brothers film, Jack the Giant Slayer?

Bryan Singer knew my work from “Tales from the Crypt.” Next thing you know I’m getting a call. My agent said Bryan Singer’s people called and want you to do this movie in London. I said, “Yes I’ll do it.” I didn’t even know what I was going to play. It turns out they were casting the main bad-guy, the giant who has two heads. Bill Nighy was cast as the big head and for the small head they thought of me. Why they thought of me, I have no idea. [laughing] I actually do have an idea. Bryan [Singer] is a huge fan of “Tales from the Crypt” and has a “Tales from the Crypt” pinball machine in his house. This is how most of your work comes as you get older as an actor—from the relationships you’ve made and the reputation you’ve been able to hone.

How do they put two heads on the giant character?

I literally had to mirror Bill Nighy physically with my head and right arm.

He was just a gem to work with —generous about including me and letting me do my thing. We became a vaudeville team by the time we were done; as a result, the performance didn’t just end up being scary or creepy or ferocious, it was funny, touching at times—all those things came through in this character. These guys are geniuses. It’s like you’re shooting in front of NASA.

­­­You’re in this big gray room with all these people on computers. The two guys who did Golem for Lord of the Rings worked on my face. It’s like giving me the luxury as an actor to have an extra genius put onto my performance. With motion capture you are physically acting out the whole part, it’s not just voice over, you’re making everything happen that they wind up using. They are shooting you visually, virtually and digitally all at the same time.

I want to be able to sit down at the premiere on March 26, at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and enjoy that thing that character actors don’t get to enjoy that much: Walking the red carpet and people calling your name and taking your picture.

That’s the kind of thing that’s usually for the people with the fancy goin-to-meetin’ clothes.

What brought you to Topanga?

I wanted that rural feeling of a place similar to where I grew up. I wanted nature, fresh air, parkland. I wanted solitude, privacy, and that’s why I picked Topanga. It’s just a beautiful place to live. There are some oddballs up here, but that’s what gives Topanga its color.