Actor David Early passed away last month at the age of 74. The born-and-raised-Pittsburgh performer never became a movie star, but his small roles impacted genre film history in a major way.
Among horror fans, Early may be best known for playing Mr. Berman in the opening minutes of Dawn Of The Dead (1978), directed by George Romero. Following some experience in live theatre, this was Early’s first film role.
In the chaotic television studio sequence, Early does much to establish the somber tone Dawn Of The Dead will have for the next two hours. He immediately communicates to the audience that the zombie crisis is to be taken seriously, instead of laughed off as b-movie shenanigans. Without a single zombie or image of violence on screen, the scene informs us that we’re watching something grave, grim, and scary. Romero relies heavily on Early to convey these critical truths about the narrative as the film gets its momentum up. Early handles it perfectly. If a lesser actor had played his part, Dawn Of The Dead may not have started off on such sure footing. It is Early’s only scene in the movie.
Early pops up again as Bleoboris in Romero’s next film, Knightriders (1981), about a traveling troupe that performs stunts and jousting tournaments on motorcycles. Like Dawn Of The Dead, Knightriders may have seemed somewhat silly on the page. It was up to the entire cast to play it as emotional, often intense drama. They succeeded, making Knightriders an underrated standout in George Romero’s filmography.
I absolutely love David Early’s performance as the irreverent Mr. White in the "They're Creeping Up On You" segment of Creepshow (1982), again directed by George Romero. This time, acting opposite the renowned E.G. Marshall, Early delivers a bravura, over-the-top performance - fitting perfectly into Romero’s boisterous EC Comics-styled film. Early makes a grand impression in this film - even though the audience never even sees his face in its entirety.
Early continued to work in film as well as television, while also writing and teaching. (He even appeared in an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.) Never straying far from the horror genre, he can be glimpsed in Romero’s Monkey Shines (1988), Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992), and, again for Romero, in The Dark Half (1993). While his filmography is saturated with bit parts - with character names like “Deputy #2” and “Crack Addict” - David Early made a notable contribution to horror cinema, having expertly turned small roles into characters who captivate.
Actors working their way up in the biz may want to take note of David Early’s accomplishments. Certainly, nabbing bigger roles - eventually lead parts - is the goal, but the small roles can be impactful too… if you’re good enough to make them memorable.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze