This is my 2003 interview with actor Ken Foree at Wonderfest. My daughter Christy accompanied on this trip the year before her ATV accident. She is pictured below with Mr. Foree.
Actor Ken Foree is well known to several different groups of moviegoers. To the several thousand people attending “Wonderfest 2003” in Louisville Kentucky, Mr. Foree is known as a horror film actor. Mr. Foree played leading roles in several well-known horror films such as George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” and one of the lessor “Chainsaw Massacre” films: “Leatherface." To my son Blair and millions of Nickelodeon fans, Mr. Foree played Kenan's father on the TV series “Kenan and Kel.” I didn’t put two and two together as I interviewed Mr. Foree, but I had laughed at his antics as I watched the silly “Kenan and Kel” TV movie “Two Heads Are Better Than None.” To tell you the truth, I came to Louisville with one agenda: to do a face to face interview with Ray Harryhausen. Anything else would be icing on the cake. I wish that I had done more background research on Mr. Foree. I wish I had because Mr. Foree was very open and talkative. One of the best interview subjects I’ve come across. The following took place over two days during several lulls in the action at “Wonderfest 2003.”
By way of introduction, I told Mr. Foree that I am an assistant public defender in Memphis.
Ken Foree: I have a cousin in St. Louis who was a public defender. He opened his own office. It’s been about a year. But he paid his dues as a public defender also.
Rusty White: How did you hook up with Stuart Gordon?
KF: “From Beyond.” I auditioned for Stuart and Brian Yuzna in LA. I think it was between me and another guy who used to work a lot. I don’t see him anymore, and I really don’t remember his name, but he did work a lot. Then somebody, I believe Barbara Crampton said ‘Let’s go with Ken Foree.’ That’s how it happened. The next thing I know, I’m cast and on my way to Rome.
RW: How was he to work with?
KF: Stuart. Stuart was a lot of fun. From an actor’s point of view, it was a collaboration. He was willing to listen. He wasn’t a guy who said ‘Hit your mark and say your lines.’ We talked about it. Stuart was, he’s looking at a script that he’s been trying to get some people interested in for a few years called “Pale Dreamer.” From what I understand, he’s looking at me. So, I may be working with him again, I don’t know. I saw him about six months ago. I went to his house and talked to him about it.
RW: What is your background as far as acting is concerned?
KF: Initially, I studied with one of Lee Strasburg’s teachers who branched off and opened his own gallery called ‘The Performance Gallery’ in New York. His name is Michael Schulman. I studied with him. Did a lot of off-Broadway. Then a TV series, a guest starring role in that and then a major motion picture for Universal and I was on my way. It was like an out-of-control train at that point.
RW: Was there some point in your life where you knew you had to be an actor?
KF: I think it was a continual process for me. I was so enamored with film. I think I saw “The Ten Commandments” about 20 times. They ran it at our neighborhood theater. It cost ten-cents to get in, so I went every day. It was this great epic. I watched “Wolfman,” “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” Bela Lugosi. I watched those every Friday night. So I had an early Horror film education and appreciation. Basically, I like good films. Somebody asked me that on the way in: ‘What do you like?’ There are a number “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “Lawrence of Arabia” is one of my favorites. I can’t watch it any more because I watched i9t so many times, I know every line and every scene. “Night of the Living Dead” is one of my favorites.
RW: What did you think of the remake?
KF: I really didn’t see that much of it. I saw parts of it on cable. I think what threw me was the color. I liked the shadows of the original. I didn’t stick with the sequel to finish it. I can’t really say what kind of movie it is.
RW: You were talking about color vs. black and white. Are you a film noir fan?
KF: Well, it was just that film. There are many black and white films that I like.
(My daughter interrupted us at this point to ask about Tom Savini’s psychic ability to guess the color of her underwear.)
A fan comes up and asks Ken about the upcoming remake of “Dawn of the Dead.”
KF: They are coming out with it this year. Ving Rhames is playing the part that I played. Universal is doing it.
FAN: I didn’t know that.
KF: And I need to go see “Night of the Living Dead 2” because Tom Savini directed it. And I’ve got to see it for that reason alone.
Tom Savini at the next table chimes in: You haven’t seen it yet? Jeesz!
RW: Back to your influences.
KF: I guess you have to go back to a lot to the Black and White stuff. I used to like Frank Lovejoy and the detective stuff he used to do. And Robert Taylor and the stuff he used to do.
RW: If you like Black and White movies, maybe you’ll agree with me that Ted Turner needs a stake through the heart for all that colorization.
KF: (laughs) I’d forgotten about that. I’m glad he did some of that, but we still have the originals, so we can enjoy them either way. I’ll tell you another one of my favorites, “Sunset Blvd.”
RW: Billy Wilder was the best.
KF: He’s one of my favorite directors.
RW: I was researching his movies for the obituary I wrote for him. More than two-thirds of his films were nominated for Oscars.
KF: That’s phenomenal. I’ve seen some documentaries on Wilder. He had some monumental failures too. That’s what struck me. That he was human. It’s nice to know that he struggled with his craft. I’ll tell you a story. There is a director in Hollywood. I won’t mention his name, but he is well recognized, Oscar nominated work. Very recognizable. I was Universal’s lot one day and I saw his office and another producer’s office. I said I was going to stop by and see him and bitch to him about how I’m not happy about what’s going on, or how I didn’t get this job…I was just upset and full of self pity. It wasn’t really that bad, but I wanted to vent a little bit. So, I walk in to my friend’s office. He says “Ken, how are you doing?” then he starts in on his problems “I’ve got no control over this, they won’t let me do this, they’re busting my balls over this, I can’t get this…” He went on for a solid 45 minutes about how they were killing him. I stood there with my mouth open. I eventually said “It’s OK, things will work out.” I started to console him and I’m the one who went in to bitch to him. Then a lightning bolt hit me, I though “Hey, everyone has successes and failures. If something bad happens to you, don’t think you’re the only one going through a hard time.”
RW: You probably walked out feeling a lot better than when you went in.
KF: I did, I did! I though, “If they are doing this to him…” and it’s true, trials and successes, we all have them. I had an uncle who had his own vaudeville show. No one knows this, so this is news. He had different acts, with tents. He traveled in the South and the Midwest. He used to say, well, he died before I was born, but my mother would say that he would say about things that happen “It’s all goulash.” And that’s it. If you look at it, in life ‘S’ happens. And that is basically what it is: Shit Happens.
RW: I think what you just touched on, the universality of the human condition, for me is what is at the core of a good film. Whether it is set in outer space, or deals with the undead or just a family in conflict, if you have human characters you can relate to, there is a chance the movie will work. Everyone can relate to Luke Skywalker, or being stuck in a mall with zombies as you were. As long as the characters are real.
KF: Survival of the human spirit. No matter what venue, people can relate to it. Exactly.
RW: If you have a ton of great special effects but no real human characters all you end up with is a demo reel.
KF: That’s what it is. I can’t tell you how many people give me a film and ask me to look at it. I take it home and watch it. It has great special effects, a little blood and guts. But there is no story. You have to care about the characters. If you don’t have that, all you have is a cheap copy of what someone else already done. There is no character development. I watch and say, “What’s it about?” Then they tell you what it’s about and I ask “When did that happen?” (laughs)
RW: Mr. Schulman, your acting teacher, did he develop an off-shoot of Strasberg’s Method acting or was he a strict adherent to the Method.
KF: He was a strict adherent to it. He worked at the Actor’s Studio for years and then he branched out and opened his own studio. He and another guy, I can’t think of his name, but they branched out and opened their own studios. Michael was very successful with his, still is. He did very well.
RW: Did you ever meet Mr. Strasberg?
KF: No, I never did. I was in New York and someone told me that it was between me and another guy to get a full scholarship to the actor’s studio. I said “What?” I took me aback, because I didn’t even apply. I have no idea how my name got thrown in the mix. I just guess someone, word got around that I had some talent, either that or someone was in love with me and wanted me in the Studio! (laughs) I don’t know.
RW: Sounds like one of those mysteries you’ll have to wait for Judgment Day to find out about…I thought Mr. Strasberg’s performance was one of the many wonderful things in “The Godfather Part II.” I’m always amazed at the ‘tick’ in his speech during the scene when he asks Michael Corleone if they have a deal. He speaks, and gasps, speaks and gasps.
KF: Oh yeah (imitates Strasberg). If it’s not in the script, as an actor you looks for little things to bring the character to life. I imagine he knew someone in his past who had heart trouble and made that sound. I don’t know, but I imagine. You do your research for a role and try and discover what little things you can do to bring the character to life. I’m sure anyone who knows someone with a heart condition of aging problems can relate to his performance. It’s just good work.
RW: I just read Peter Fonda’s great autobiography, “Don’t Tell Dad.” There is a story he tells about a man who wanted to have Mr. Fonda produce a movie. Fonda told him he would if the guy would not call ‘Cut’ right after the actor’s finished the written words. Fonda wanted him to let the cameras roll for a few more seconds to give the actors an opportunity to explore their characters beyond the script, you’ll get some interesting stuff. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t follow Peter Fonda’s advice. Do any directors come to mind who provided you that kind of freedom to explore your craft?
KF: I’ve had several directors who have just turned on the camera and said ‘Go for it.’ They know you know what you are doing and they let you do your thing. That’s what they prefer to do, because they prefer not to work to hard! I’ve had some, I can remember one set, s sound stage and they’re getting ready to set up- the scene and I’ve got five or six directors telling me what to do. ‘Just tell me where the set up is and I’ll get it done. I’ve been doing this for a while. I don’t need the 1st AD, 2nd AD, cameraman, producer, script girl and everyone else telling me different things for the same scene. I’ve run into that a few times.
RW: Sounds like they were the novices.
KF: Well, when you are continuously piling out stuff, getting different actors every week, you kind of get used to pushing people around to get things done. You have a time schedule. You have to get it done, get it out, get to the next show.
RW: So you run into that doing TV series work. Kind of an assembly line process.
KF: It is for those who are behind the scenes. Yes.
RW: On a personal fulfillment level, do you prefer the immediacy of the stage or the permanence film work?
KF: I think any actor alive prefers the stage. Well, any New York actor prefers the stage. There is nothing like the give and take with an audience. There’s nothing like the inspiration you get from a live audience, and also, you don’t have any retakes, so whatever happens up there, happens and that’s it for that night. There’s a lot of excitement and I like that. I would love to do another stage play. I haven’t done one in a while. That is my first love.
RW: Do you find a role like yours in “Dawn of the Dead” to be a help or a hindrance…being typecast as a genre actor. Granted, you’ve played numerous types of characters. You’re not like say Peter Mayhew who played Chewbacca in “Star Wars.”
KF: It has done nothing but help. It didn’t do for me what Chewbacca did for Peter Mayhew.
RW: I’m doing a small role in an indie film. It’s my first attempt at acting. When it comes to watching a movie you're appeared in are you ever able to just watch the movie and enjoy it for what it is, or are you always aware that that’s you up on the screen?
KF: Oh boy. Sometimes I can watch a movie and really start to get into it, but then I realize that my scene is coming up. I switch gears and become a director, directing myself. ‘Why didn’t I do that, or I could have done that different.’ It is hard to watch something I’m in and forget that that is me on the screen. Sometimes, with “Dawn of the Dead” for example that enough time has passed so I can just watch it to enjoy the movie. Or course what strikes me about “Dawn of the Dead” is how young I was. I still had hair!
RW: What’s on the horizon for you?
KF: I’m negotiating a deal and if it goes through, I’ll be doing something this summer. I’m also writing a treatment, I should have it finished this week. Like everyone else, I’ve got a treatment. I’m coming back into the business. Basically, I had a business, a restaurant, and I closed it down because my partner died December 21st. You know how those things go. Immediately my right hand is gone. You say “Oh God, how am I going to do this.” I decided after going to some of the conventions that I’ve gone to, to get back into acting. So many people have come up to me asking ‘When are we going to see you again.’ It’s humbling when so many people say you have affected their lives. It was also encouraging. I started back during pilot season. I got a new agent, because my agent had become a casting director because her brother has one of the largest production houses in Los Angeles. Has more shows on television than anyone else. She gave me a list of about eight agencies. I called the first one on her list. Called, the guy said “Ken Foree from ‘Dawn of the Dead!’ of course send him down! I met him that night. Met his partner. Got him a demo tape. That was it. The agency is Amsel, Eisenstadt and Frazier, they are an actor’s agency. I signed with them. I told them I would be ready for pilot season, January and February. The last two weeks of February I said, ‘Send me out.’ I still wasn’t ready, I was still running the business. I had a major government contract was dealing with, I had family issues, but I said ‘send me out anyway,’ because I didn’t want to meet pilot season. So, in two weeks I had four series leads and two movies.
I found Mr. Foree to be a survivor. His humor, intelligence and personality accent his talent as an actor. Not all actors can claim to have a lead role in a classic film. “Dawn of the Dead” is considered by many to be George Romero’s masterpiece. Standing alone as a film, not considering such things as social impact, “Dawn of the Dead” is in many ways superior to it’s predecessor. Ken Foree can be proud to have been a part of such a film. Fans can rejoice that Mr. Foree has decided to leave the world of business behind and return to acting. Here’s hoping Mr. Foree receives as much personal fulfillment from his craft in the future and the joy he has provided others from it in the past.