With at least a dozen feature films under his belt, along with several episodic TV guest spots and many off-Broadway stage roles, Tracey Walter is one of the most colorful character actors in the business. And like his good friend William Sanderson, he is also one of the finest. From his bitter cameo in HARDCORE ("Take back your goddamn fifty cents," he tells George C. Scott in the porno bookstore, "I don't want it!") to his hilarious recurring role as Frog on the sitcom BEST OF THE WEST to his great job as the philosophical REPO MAN (which won him the Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films), Tracey Walter has shown a broad range of work in all three major categories of acting. Most recently he was seen on the first episode of the second season of AMAZING STORIES, as the long-haired member of the gang in the excellent feature AT CLOSE RANGE, and as the manager of the liquor store in the new SOMETHING WILD.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Tracey Walter on June 24th, 1986, in his southern California home. Tracey is a very warm and friendly guy who happily gave me much of his time. We began our talk while watching the actor's dialogue scene under the bridge with Emilio Estevez from REPO MAN.
TRACEY WALTER: There's an old saying that Jack Fisk, who directed RAGGEDY MAN, said to me: Masters make movies, but close-ups make stars. In the right kind of scenes the master plays beautifully, like in this scene. And visually it's a beautiful scene. Alex Cox directed the picture. He set up a situation where it was very easy to be creative like that.
[The clip ends, and we look at the actor's Saturn Award, which is cracked]
My daughter dropped it and broke it.
KRIS GILPIN: Where were you raised and how'd you start in the film business?
WALTER: I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and raised on the east coast. I've been acting for about 16, 17 years. After about [the last] 10 years everything sort of blends into "a while ago." But I can pretty much remember the films and a lot of the people who were in them. I'd gotten out of high school and, up until that time, you either worked or you were a bum. There was no alternative. But in the '60s there was an alternative, because now you could not work but be called a "hippie." That was another alternative. I came from a working class family -- my father was a truck driver. I was out of high school, I wanted to get a car, I wanted to work, I wanted to have some money in my pocket. So, I wasn't gonna be a hippie, I wasn't gonna be a bum, I was gonna work. And you get out there and you start to work and you see that you come to work on Monday and people can't wait until Friday. So I just thought to myself, there's got to be something else. So I simply went out on a date one night and, as an alternative to the movies and the drive-in, I went to see a play called SCUBA DUBA. Bruce Jay Friedman wrote it, Judd Hirsch was in it, in this little off-Broadway theater in New York City. And if you recall the movies back then, in the late '50s, were a lot different. They were very fantasy-like. Everybody lived in a penthouse, people hung around the house all day in suits and ties, they all drove new cars, nobody ever said "fuck" or talked realistically. So I go to see this play and there are real-looking people in the play, they sounded like real people, they didn't look like Rock Hudson, and I said, "This is fantastic!" Acting looked like a good thing to do, and that's how I sort of got interested in it. And that's how I started out, in New York in the '60s. One of the things I certainly enjoyed about the idea of acting is when you're working, you're committed to it for whatever time it is you're doing the play or movie, and when you're off, you're off -- you're free. That kind of economy of time... If you have any inclination to order in your life, that appeals to you. I mean, it certainly appeals to me. I like that aspect of it. One big, big drawback is, you don't go to school and study to be an attorney or doctor or almost anything and, after being in the business for 10 to 15 years, you don't have somebody walk in with absolutely zero experience walk in and get hired over you. This is not quite true but, every time I go in for a job, I kinda think that I'm starting all over again. I still gotta sell myself. And somebody could get hired who's never acted before, so that's a big drawback. Also, and this is really killer for most actors, you realistically don't have a job. You're out of work between jobs. You're totally out of work.
KG: You started out on stage...
WALTER: Yeah, I did plenty of plays in New York. My favorite was called THE TIME TRIAL at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Tommy Lee Jones was in it. I played a character called Carlton "Slime" Pine. They called him "Slime." It was a play about dreams, and hope. I played one of the kind of parts I play a lot now: a sidekick. He was sort of the hero of the play.
KG: What was your first film?
WALTER: The first picture I ever did was THE HOSPITAL, with George C. Scott. I played an extra, in New York. But my first real part was GOIN' SOUTH, which Jack Nicholson starred in and directed. To give you an idea of Jack Nicholson... I'd never been in a movie before, we were going to Mexico - and I'd never been to Mexico - I mean, I'd have done it for nothing. My agents negotiated me a contract which was, I think, a thousand dollars a week for eight weeks. Nicholson finds out about it and he says "It's not enough!" So he gave me $1,250 a week. The gesture was fantastic. I met Jack at Paramount and, coincidentally, his GOIN' SOUTH office at Paramount would, a number of years later, be the same office they used for BEST OF THE WEST. Jack is the friendliest, most charming guy I've met in the business. We talked for about an hour and the thought never occurred to me that I could get the part. I was just happy to meet him. He leaned over the desk and he said, "Trace, I like ya, I like your face," aAnd three weeks later I got a call and they wanted me to do it. The picture still plays a lot. Mary Steenburgen made her debut in it, Danny Devito was in it, Christopher Lloyd, John Belushi, Ed Begley Jr., Veronica Cartwright, on and on and on. I played part of the ex-Moon [Nicholson's] gang. It was me, DeVito, Jeff Morris and Veronica Cartwright.
KG: What was working with Belushi like?
WALTER: Belushi was one of those guys who always looked out for his friends, certainly to the extent of work. He was a very good guy and there was no doubt in my mind that we’d work together again if it weren’t for his untimely death. He was very much into helping out his friends. It sounds like a cliché but everybody on the film was fantastic, not only talented people but nice people. There’re many people I’ve worked with who – I run into them often and they’re very cold. It’s as if they don’t even know me, not to mention had ever worked with me. I don’t consciously try to do this but I somehow come up with at least one friend out of each job I work that I keep in touch with for years and years.
KG: Where were you in HARDCORE?
WALTER: It’s a fantastic scene. George C. Scott comes into my porno bookstore, he’s looking for his daughter and I say, “I don’t know anybody, man. You wanna find somebody, look in the phone book.” The thing about that scene is… There are so many reasons to accept [acting] jobs, it doesn’t always have to be the role or the money, because you never know how things are gonna turn out once you start to film. One thing I like is a director who’s confident and relaxed enough to allow you to make suggestions, because ultimately you make the director look good. I always like to work music into my pictures if I can, like in AT CLOSE RANGE.
Sean Penn and his girlfriend are sitting around the table being introduced to the guys in Christopher Walken’s gang. It was the perfect opportunity for me to work this in – I’d always wanted to work it in [a film]. I lean over the table and look at Mary Stuart Masterson and softly sing, “You look in her eyes the music begins to play/hopeless romantics, here we go again.” Walked loved it, everybody loved it. But the producer said, “That’s from the Hotel California album by The Eagles! It’ll cost me $50,000 for the rights!” But the idea is to set up a situation where you feel comfortable enough to make suggestions. And with HARDCORE I suggested to Paul Schrader, “Look, here’s Scott coming in this porno shop. He’s a Mormon from the Midwest, he’s never seen Playboy, and he’s looking at this very blatant stuff. And on top of that his daughter’s missing. What a perfect situation for me to have my tape recorder playing ‘Helpless’ by Neil Young. ‘Leave us helpless, helpless…’” And Schrader said, “No, what if I can’t get the rights…” Well, sure enough, when the picture opened the scene comes on and he’s got that playing in the background. He put it in there later on.
KG: How’d you feel winning the Saturn award for REPO MAN?
WALTER: Anytime you get a pat on the back it’s a nice feeling. I think anybody appreciates somebody saying you did a good job. That film especially. People continually stop me on the street and say, “I’ve seen that picture many times!” And they genuinely love it. You can see it in their eyes when you meet them on the street. For somebody to stop you on the street – it takes guts, and it’s nice. And you can see the award up there – my daughter broke it, but they’re gonna send me a new one. It cost $250, you know.
KG: Was making that film as much fun as it looks like it was to make?
WALTER: First of all, I love the opportunity to work in Los Angeles, because of certain persons in my life. I love locations too, but it was done in Los Angeles, so it was extremely pleasant for me to be working in town. Also a lot of it was done at night which has always had an appeal to me. It was not only unique – I’d never seen anything quite like that script, and haven’t since. Pauline Kael, in her review of the film in the New Yorker, said, “It’s a movie about the part of Los Angeles you don’t see all the time. It’s the Los Angeles you see driving in from L.A. International Airport.” Very unique. By the way, that speech I give under the bridge was not in the script. Alex Cox just simply wrote that for the hell of it. He had no intention of using it in the picture. I read it and said, “Alex, you can’t be serious about not using that!” Number one, it was so creative. That monologue – acting teachers have called my agent requesting a copy of it for their students to use in acting class. Not only was the dialogue unique, but certain dialogue fits the mouth of certain actors better than other dialogue. Some people say, “How in the fuck did you know how to make heads or tails of it?!” But to me it meant something. Most actors, I think, in addition to wanting to be real, they…usually try to play against the grain.
KG: You’re old friends with Bill Sanderson.
WALTER: I’ve known Bill for at least 10 years, I’d say.
KG: What was it like making RAGGEDY MAN with him?
WALTER: It’s one of my favorite films. It’s a real film. I mean, it’s a movie that’s about a serious subject. It’s an attempt at an artistic movie. Because Bill and I’ve known each other for years, there’re things below the surface we were able to draw on as brothers, and that certainly shows tremendously in the picture. And because of how great our relationship was as brothers in that picture, and how great that material was, and how wonderful the director Jack Fisk and of course his wife Sissy were to work with, there have been chances for me and Bill to do other things together, but they’ve never been good enough to match the quality of that. And I don’t think we can throw something away. It’s got to be something really good for us to get back together again.
KG: Where were you in RUMBLE FISH?
WALTER: I played a very small part. There’s a scene where Matt Dillon gets mugged by a black guy and a white guy [Tracey] in an alley, and Dillon rises out of his body. That I did, obviously, because I wanted to work with Coppola. They’d hired two stunt guys to do that scene and, when they got down there, they decided they wanted to get an actor in the part. It was Coppola, and an interesting project. Sure, why not!
KG: Was he very intense to work with?
WALTER: No, total opposite. He does a lot of takes. That scene took us about three weeks, working nights. It was a tiny part but it was pleasant. And there’re pictures like Clint Eastwood’s HONKYTONK MAN, where I played a local mechanic in Arkansas, a relatively small part but it was complete in that it had a nice beginning, middle and end to it. It was a nice little character. I was in Mexico City doing CONAN 2 sitting in an outside café and some young Mexican kid comes up to me, says hello and starts reciting the lines from HONKYTONK MAN.
KG: What was Eastwood like to work for?
WALTER: Very loose. A very relaxed type of guy. He knows exactly what he wants. He works really fast. I would definitely like to work for him again. He uses a lot of the same people over and over again. He loved HONKYTONK MAN. He loved that picture.
KG: Do you like horror and science fiction films?
WALTER: Love ‘em. I like good horror pictures that are done well. A guy I worked with many years ago, Jack Sholder, directed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2, and that’s a combination of scary, gory and well-put together. I presented an award at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films last month, a Saturn award. What they call the George Pal award went to Vincent Price, and he was saying, the “big” Academy has never give the Best Picture to a SF/horror film, yet these are the ones that make money, that will be long remembered after a lot of those other things have gone by. I love everything from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to the more sophisticated horror pictures, like some of the ones Vincent Price did in the past, to THE FLY. I’d like to do one of these horror pictures. There’s an audience for them and they’re entertaining.
KG: I just saw you in a truck in ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” video.
WALTER: I would love to do more [music videos]. I got that because they’d seen REPO MAN. But again, as a character actor you can get into these other things. And there are commercials. I also did a “Where’s the-Beef?” [Wendy’s commercial], which I made no money from, by the way.
KG: How come?
WALTER: Because they showed it and [Clara Peller's] contract was up and she wanted more money, and they dropped her. That was the last “Where’s the Beef?” she did. The scenario was a Southern political meeting, and they were up there arguing about what hamburger has the best this-and-that, and she blurts out something from the audience.
KG: You were in the audience?
WALTER: I was behind her, making faces. Again, it’s something that character actors can do, and some of the commercial directors are very creative and really know their work. They treat you right and you get a good time. You do it in a day or so and they can be fun. I’ve done two commercials, and the videos are fun, too.
KG: How long did it take you to do that ZZ Top video?
WALTER: That was three 15-hour days, just about, filmed up north in Big Bear. Very, very long hours. Those things don’t have the pay scale down right. The Screen Actors Guild can sometimes be overbearing but you need to have some kind of line about hours and pay and this and that. That particular one, they should’ve had more time. They needed five days for that, evident by the fact they did it in three days. Very long hours, but it was fun and it looked pretty good. They keep you a little bit busy in addition to movies and television. Videos can be very creative and the commercials are okay, too, but I don’t see myself doing too many commercials. They paid me for that Wendy’s commercial – I just meant I didn’t make anything, really.
KG: What do you play in the CBS Movie of the Week TIMESTALKERS?
WALTER: I play a gunslinger who has a showdown with Klaus Kinski, who plays the Timestalker. And then I did the first episode of this season’s AMAZING STORIES, which Danny DeVito directed. That was really fun to do. I’ve also done the “Mummy Daddy” episode from the first season. Bill Dear directed that one and he’d also done TIMERIDER, which we did.
A lot of my parts have been – I don’t want to say bad guys, but they’ve been characters which have been on the other side of the tracks, so to speak. I did another film for DeVito, which he directed, called THE RATINGS GAME, where I wore a nice suit. The point is, I love to play those characters on the other side of the tracks – seedy characters, as in AT CLOSE RANGE and RAGGEDY MAN.
KG: So you do enjoy playing the bad guys more than the good ones.
WALTER: Well, it’s not even a matter of what I enjoy more. These things are very right on. It’s easy to see me playing these things. I’ve got a reputation playing these parts – REPO MAN, that kind of off-the-wall character. But certain directors, like DeVito and Jonathan Demme, see me in more different parts. They’re a little more daring to cast me in those other parts.
KG: Do you get much fan mail?
WALTER: Yes, and it’s always amazing to me how they get my address. I get a lot of nice fan letters. REPO MAN’s gonna be around for a long time, RAGGEDY MAN plays a lot, even GOIN’ SOUTH. I appreciate these people who take a strong interest in it, and say how much they like the stuff. You mean something to me.
[Originally published in Draculina #5, 1987]