Gerrit Graham talks about roles in “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Used Cars”

New York born, Gerrit Graham grew up in the Midwest and began his acting career at the age of eight in a stage production of “Winnie the Pooh.” He was the manager of the Columbia Players at Columbia University and it was while he attended school that he began his association with filmmaker Brian De Palma.

Among his best known roles are Beef in “Phantom of the Paradise” (recently released on Blu-ray), the overly superstitious Jeff in the classic comedy “Used Cars” and Franklin on the animated hit “The Critic.”

As he prepared for his recent appearance at this years Chiller Theater Expo Mr. Graham took some time out to answer some questions about his long and continuing career.

Mike Smith: You began your film career by appearing in three early Brian De Palma films. How did that relationship come about?
Gerrit Graham: I was a sophomore at Columbia University in NY, and was the head of the Columbia players, the college theatre company. One day I got a phone call from a guy who said that he had been the former head when he was there, and he was trying to make a film and he was hoping that the players could give him some help for rehearsal space, wardrobe, etc. He also mentioned that he was looking for two or three experienced actors, preferably in comedy. He had hoped to find someone in the Fine Arts Department. He gave me an address and said to send any interested actors to see him. I asked his name and he said “Mr. Brian De Palma”. Instead of sharing the address, I went down myself to see him. I spent the next three or four afternoons in the producer’s apartment, his name was Chuck Hirsch. I met with a variety of actors and eventually got the role, which was for the film “Greetings,” De Palma’s first feature film. It got a real release and ended up being a hit. A year later I got a call from Brian saying that he was making a sequel to “Greetings,” which was “Home Movies.” He offered me a role, which I of course accepted. We continued working together for many years because we trusted each other.

MS: How did you come to be cast as Beef in “Phantom of the Paradise?” My understanding is that you were originally slated to play Winslow?
GG: No, I was originally hired to play Swan. Then Paul Williams, who would become an Oscar winner and at the time was a very popular songwriter in LA had a agreed to play the Phantom in exchange for doing the music score. Paul then decided that he didn’t want to play the Phantom and instead wanted to play the villain. This meant that William Finley, a good friend of Brian De Palma’s, could play the Phantom, which was written by Brian for Finley. This meant I couldn’t play Swan anymore and Brian said he had another role; a character called “Capt. Beef”. I asked Brian what this character was like, and he said “a rock and roll star”. So that sounded like a lot of fun to me. A Sha-Na-Na type character was something that sounded like fun to me. It turned out that was not what he wanted. He flew me out from NY to meet with Paul Williams and the two of them kept making this Beef character seem more like Little Richard. “What do you want,” I said? They said “flamboyant”, which at the time in Hollywood meant “gay”. So I did a few lines in the Beef accent and lisp, and they loved it, burst into laughter and said, “that’s it!” That’s how the character was born.

MS: Are you as superstitious as Jeff, your character in “Used Cars?”
GG: No. I have a few superstitions that I do, like not walking under ladders, but that’s just common sense because you don’t want anything to fall on your head from the ladder.

MS: I’ve read that you actually did shoot the cars during the television commercial. Is that true? What kind of precautions did you have to take? (NOTE: In the film, Mr. Graham’s character films a car dealer commercial in which he takes a shotgun to the high prices posted on the windshields. The scene ends when he exclaims “Is this a 1974 Mercedes 450SL for $24,000? That’s too fucking high!” He then pushes a plunger and blows the car to pieces.)
GG: I did the shooting with blanks in the shot gun, then they brought in a stunt double who was a trained guns man. He did the scene shooting real shells at the car. I was standing there watching him, and all the other scenes were me.

MS: When’s the last time you were in a red car?
GG: I actually had a red car when I was about 22 years old. I had a red Saab Station Wagon. It was a good car! Since then I may have rented a red car or two, but nothing bad has ever happened.

MS: You’ve done both comedy and drama. Do you have a preference?
GG: No, not really. They are two different arrows in my quiver. Each are enjoyable in their own ways and have their own rewards. It just happens that I’ve done more comedy, but that wasn’t by choice. It just happened!

MS: Same question, film versus television. Preference?
GG: TV is just another arrow in my quiver as well. It depends on what kind of TV show it is. A half hour comedy or an hour long drama are a bit different. An hour long TV show is more like a film, because you shoot out of sequence. A half hour TV show is nice because you shoot in sequence from beginning to end. Other than the fact that they spend a lot more money making a film than a TV show, the work is pretty much the same. The end result is just a question of how good it turned out.

MS: You have a couple of Disney writing credits. How did that come about?
GG: I had a writing partner, and we just decided to try to write stuff to see if we could sell anything. I had made films with a producer named Phil DeGuere. He had done a number of shows, including the new “Twilight Zone” series. My partner and I pitched Phil stuff that we wrote, and we ended up writing three episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” At that point, my brother had joined as a third writer, and we continued to write. I honestly can’t remember how we got connected to Disney. We contributed extra material to “The Little Mermaid” and some other Disney films. We also wrote “Prince and the Pauper,” which was Mickey Mouse’s first feature in a great number of years.

MS: You’ve done a lot of animated voice work. Is that type of performing easier or harder than actually being on screen?
GG: It’s easier, because you don’t have to shave! There’s no make up, and you can do endless takes if necessary, without cutting, stopping, or changing scenery or wardrobe. My best known animated work is played Franklin on “The Critic.” That was a lot of fun! I got to work with a lot of really funny people and some microphones. We struggled with trying to keep each other from cracking up during recordings.

MS: What are you working on next?
GG: I’m working on finding work! Preferably, voice over work.

Blu-ray Review “Phantom of the Paradise”

Starring: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Robin Mattson
Director: Brian De Palma
Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Shout! Factory
Release Date: August 5, 2014
Run Time: 92 minutes

Film: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Blu-ray: 4 out of 5 stars
Extras: 5 out of 5 stars

When I first discovered “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the early 90’s, I set out to find what else was like that film. In my searching I came across the 1974 cult classic “Phantom of the Paradise”, which is Brian de Palma’s take on “The Phantom of the Opera” mashed-up with “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Faust”. All of the film’s songs were written and performed by legendary singer/songwriter Paul Williams. The music is always such a blast to review for this film. I got for years without hearing and I can pick it up and continue like I last here it yesterday. Finally, this horror/thriller classic is getting a great treatment on Blu-ray thanks to Shout Factory!

Official Premise: Brian De Palma’s glam rock version of the famous Phantom of the Opera story stars singer-songwriter Paul Williams as Swan, a music business tycoon who steals the work of talented composer Winslow Leach (Finley), along with his girlfriend Phoenix (Harper). Leach plans to get revenge, but his plans soon go horribly wrong and he ends up with a terrible facial disfigurement. Assuming a mask to hide his injuries and his identity, Leach’s next move is to sign a pact with a Swan to write a rock opera version of ‘Faust’.

“Phantom of the Paradise” looks stunning on Blu-ray for film that is literally 40 years old. This film has received several European Blu-ray releases in the past and this one is definitely the best one of the bunch. Shout! has delivered a solid 1080p transfer that is deserving of this epic film. They also includes two audio tracks inclduing a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and also 2.0 track. The music really benefits from the 5.1 track and honestly is a no contest when compared to the 2.0 track.

Shout! Factory is releasing this Collector’s Edition as a combo pack with Blu-ray and DVD. They really have given this release the works and added tons of great special features on both disks. “Brian De Palma Backstage at the Paradise” is a great brand new interview with the director reflecting on the film. “Paul Williams Soul Inspiration” is another great brand new interview with the man behind the film’s music. “Behind the Mask with Tom Burman” is yet another brand new interview with the film’s special effects supervisor on the Phantom.

There is a solid brand new audio commentary with Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham and the Juicy Fruits (consisting of Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Harold Oblong aka Peter Eibling). This is a quite entertaining trip down memory lane for the group. There is also another brand new audio commentary with Production Designer Jack Fisk. It is a bit more technical and not as exciting but still a nice addition. There is an interesting look at 11 alternate takes and are shown in split screen with the final version. Lastly there is a stills gallery includes as well as outtake footage from “Swan Song” and the story behind it from the film.

Normally, I would have been happy with just those extras but Shout! decided to go ahead and include a another slew of special features on the DVD as well. There is an awesome documentary called “Paradise Regained” with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. There is an awesome interview with Paul Williams that is moderated by Guillermo del Toro. There is a 2004 interview with Costume Designer Rosanna Norton. An Interview with Producer Edward R. Pressman and another with Drummer Gary Malaber. “Alvin’s Art and Technique: A Look at the Neon Poster” is a cool piece on poster designer John Alvin. Lastly is “Phantom of the Paradise Biography by Gerrit Graham”, “William Finley and Toy” & some promotional materials.

Film Review “Paradise”

Directed and Written by: Diablo Cody
Starring: Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman and Holly Hunter
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributed by: RLJ Entertainment
Running Time: 86 minutes

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

After watching “Young Adult”, I realized that I am simply not a fan of “Academy Award®-winner” Diablo Cody. “Juno” was an interesting film but since then I have not been a huge big fan of her work. “Paradise” marks her feature directorial debut which also comes from her own original screenplay. I was curious about this film due to its cast, which stars Julianne Hough (“Rock of Ages”, “Footloose”), Russell Brand (“Get Him to the Greek”), Octavia Spencer (Academy Award-winner for “The Help”). Great performances but unfortunately besides that I didn’t really find paradise here.

The film follows a sheltered young woman (Julianne Hough) named Lamb Mannerheim, who loses her faith after a plane crash, leaves her small town of Blakesley, Montana and decides to go to Las Vegas to let loose and experience everything that she has missed in her life. On her journey, she meets a nightclub singer Loray (Octavia Spencer) and bartender William (Russell Brand) who end up taking her under their wing and assist her in finding herself.

I  love Julianne Hough in this film (or any film actually). I think she does a great job (and even manages to sing a little). Russell Brand gives a mature performance and is quite likable. He is funny yet very sweet at the same time. Octavia Spencer is just amazing and really has such a great presence. The film gets off to a rough start but surprising picks up some in the last 30 minutes, where it gets some heart. I am a sucker for anything to do with Las Vegas, especially since I have been dying to get back there. I would call this a one-timer, worth checking out for the cast performances but otherwise nothing too memorable here.

3D Blu-ray Review “A Turtle’s Tale 2: Sammy’s Escape from Paradise”

Voices: Carlos McCullers, Pat Carroll, Cinda Adams, Chris Andrew Ciulla, Dino Andrade, Isabelle Fuhrman and Wesley Johnny
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Vivendi Entertainment
DVD Release Date: July 9, 2013
Run Time: 92 minutes

Film: 3.5 out of 5 stars
3D: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Extras: N/A

“A Turtle’s Tale 2: Sammy’s Escape from Paradise” is the sequel to the very cute animated “Sammy’s Adventures: The Secret Passage” (aka “A Turtle’s Tale: The Adventures of Sammy”).  The film is not perfect but it was fun.  Same applies for the sequel.  At least Vivendi Entertainment is releasing this combo pack including a DVD, Blu-Ray and (hooray) 3D Blu-Ray. The first film was not released on 3D Blu-ray.  The 3D really adds a nice topping to this film and kids should definitely enjoy it. A lot of great in-your-face moments and family fun to be had here.

When Sammy and Ray find themselves trapped in The Tank, an underwater restaurant/aquarium, they must hatch a plan to escape and reunite with their grandkids Ricky and Ella. But they’ll have to get past Big D and his dopey thugs first. With the help of some unlikely friends, Sammy and Ray find that when you work together anything is possible!

The 1080p transfer is really clear and sharp. The colors are really vibrant and definitely stand out.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sounds great, especially with the music. Daris Rucker delivers the tunes and they are some fun songs.  There are no additional special features included with this release.  But to be completely honest, I would rather trade a few measly special features to have the 3D Blu-ray option. It is really worth the price of the Blu-ray, no question.