The first thing you recognize about Tony Todd is that deep, gravelly voice that sounds like it rises straight from the depths of Hell through his lips. If you’re a horror fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The man who made Candyman famous and has been working as an actor for a quarter-century is much, much more than just the man with the hook. And if you doubt that, simply take a look at his work on Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Stepping into Duane Jones’ shoes to play the role of Ben is no easy task and, yet, Tony Todd makes it look like just another day at the office.
On the heels of the intended October 9 release date for Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray of Night of the Living Dead*, FEARnet sat down with the actor to discuss stepping into Ben’s legendary shoes, what it really means to be Candyman, and his iconic voice.
*All 3,000 units sold out in the pre-order window – a first for Twilight Time.
FEARNET: Can you believe it’s been two decades since you made Night of the Living Dead and almost a half-century since the original film was released? Did you ever expect this kind of lasting response?
TONY TODD: No, I remember when I saw the original at a Drive-In. I was in college. I saw it in a double feature with Rosemary’s Baby and it really made a huge impact on me because of the black and white nature of the documentary style and the realism of the zombies at that time. You know, I’ve been blessed with a pretty good career and time flies. Had that been the only movie I ever made the time in between would have been terminable, but I pinch myself that not only had Night of the Living Dead been around for twenty-three or so years, but also that I’ve had a career for twenty-five years. I find that amazing.
FEARNET: How did you end up getting the role?
TT: I was in Pittsburgh working on a film for HBO called Criminal Justice with Anthony LaPaglia and Forest Whitaker and I got wind of this. It was a Saturday so I found out where the production office was and I went strolling over there. When I got there, I said, “You know, I think I bear a fleeting resemblance to Duane Jones, who played the original Ben. You gotta read me.” I’m here. I love the movie. I want to do it. And I was told that the sessions were over and they were very close to casting. So I refused to leave. (Laughs) And somehow Tom came through and saw me so I cornered him and said, “You gotta give me a shot.” Thanks to his humanity and patience he allowed me to intrude on his Saturday. Next thing I know, I get a call on Monday saying that the role was mine. It was one of those huckster moments. It was one of those times where artists stand up for themselves and the consequences are accurate.
FEARNET: That’s a great story.
TT: Oh, yeah. There may have been hands placed on lapels. (Laughs)
FEARNET: You’re a pretty intimidating guy, so I can see why it worked out like that. (Laughs)
TT: (Laughs) There was something in my fortitude that I think he wanted for the role.
FEARNET: Ben is this very iconic character not just for the horror genre, but also for cinemas as a whole. Did you feel an immense amount of pressure stepping into those shoes?
TT: I didn’t feel pressure. I felt responsibility and I felt a great sense of heritage being passed on. I loved what Duane Jones did in the original. When I was in college, I was always a theater major and when I saw Duane Jones performance it confirmed to me that, yes, I’m not doing this on a lark and possibly there is a future for me as an African American actor. One of the things that I think is overlooked with George Romero’s contribution to that progress is that he always placed an African American as a central figure in his “…Dead” movies. He has said that it wasn’t intentional necessarily, but I tend to disagree. I think it was an important move and a step towards current deeper understanding between the races that make up all of America.
FEARNET: I think it’s an important film for the legitimacy he gave that character, absolutely. I think it’s great.
TT: Yeah, and I didn’t want to say, but a lot of times when you have an African American sidekick he’s forced to do the comedy stuff or somehow underline the fact that he’s African American. And with Ben, I played him as a human being. I happen to be African American, but I played him as the person who was stuck in that situation and has to deal with those consequences – a reluctant hero.
FEARNET: You play it so straight and I believe that’s also the way George wanted Duane to play it, which is what makes it so powerful.
TT: Yeah. When they did the original, that was in the sixties and there was a lot of stuff going on between the assassinations politically between all the great rock stars – the 27 Club – between civil unrest. There was all that. And none of that is mentioned in the film, but it’s there. So thank you, Mr. Romero.
FEARNET: Night of the Living Dead also marked Tom Savini’s feature film directing debut. Tell me a little bit about working with Tom and how you think his work in makeup and effects translated to the director’s chair.
TT: Well, Tom was obviously well known as a special effects genius before that. I was on board with Tom’s train because he gave me the part. (Laughs) That was easy and I like him. I count Tom as one of my best friends in the business. He had a sense of fun on the set. Tom studies magic and I do too so we have a reference with that. He made it easy. I remember some of the difficulties we had. Tom had a very detailed, involved storybook and very specific things that he wanted to do. Unfortunately, I think we accomplished about sixty percent of that. Had we had the time and the budget to that other forty percent, I think the film would have been even more impactful. A lot of times at appearances people will come up to me and that product moves. They tell me that, for a lot of people, it was their first introduction to horror or that they actually like it more than the original. Whenever they say that I just say, “Stop. No. Without the original, we wouldn’t be here.” But just recently somebody in their mid-twenties said, “No, you don’t understand. Because it was in color, it appealed to my generation.” That was the first time I heard that part and yet it wasn’t a cheesy remake, so I think both are valid and Tom is a magnificent human being.
FEARNET: Did you get to work with George as well? I know he spent a lot of time on the set with Tom and the crew.
TT: Yeah, George was definitely there. I was honored and it was great to meet him. He didn’t really say much to me and I was taught that if it’s not said, then it’s working. I’m not the type of actor who goes begging for approval. He would just give me pep talks like, “Keep at it. Keep trying.” There’s a little bit of fatigue that comes when you’re working six weeks nights. Days bleed together after a while. For me, he was instrumental in keeping the focus. My son was born also during that time period – just before we started the film – so I would literally rush home at seven or eight o’clock in the morning and, after dealing with zombies all night, spend a couple hours watching cartoons with him.
FEARNET: So you were kind of a zombie yourself when you got to set at night.
TT: Definitely. (Laughs) He would say, “What does Daddy do?” And I’d say, “I’m an actor, but right now I’m killing zombies.” (Laughs)
FEARNET: Patricia Tallman is so badass in this movie. Somebody should call her and get her in this upcoming Female Expendables they’re assembling.
TT: Yeah, I totally agree with that. You know, Patty had a stuntwoman background and this was a big chance and opportunity for her, and I think she seized it completely. Her and I had a great chemistry and camaraderie. Everybody wanted this to succeed and that even extended to the zombies. When word out got out we were doing the film, the casting and production office were inundated with people that just wanted to walk with a limp and chase after the people in the house. (Laughs) We had over 3,000 people to choose from and they did a very good job in selecting character faces. One of my favorites is the guy that breaks through the window – the skinny gentleman. We shot that within the first week and, for me, he solidified the reality of what a zombie could be.
FEARNET: This is kind of your breakout role in the generation and that led to classic roles in films like Candyman, The Crow, and Final Destination. How much of that genre awareness do you feel like you owe to Night of the Living Dead?
TT: Night of the Living Dead was my first lead role and I always give homage to that. However, I’ve got to give props to my training. I have an undergraduate degree and I have a master’s degree in theater, and that’s what I attribute everything to. I had wonderful, fantastic teachers that took time and allowed me the room to fail. Part of graduate school in the theater field is doing all kinds of things that you would never do again in life. Walking on the trapeze and not being afraid to fail, as long as you try. It’s because of that I was able to have the huckster in me to challenge Tom into considering me for casting and in subsequent roles that I’ve done. I never really looked at a link between Night of the Living Dead and the rest of this stuff. With Candyman, it wasn’t Night of the Living Dead; it was a film I did in Africa that caught Bernard Rose’s attention. I guess fans would see things differently though. A lot of people say it was because of Star Trek. I don’t know. I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to make some kind of contribution to contemporary culture. I’m proud of it and I’m happy that it’s not over yet.
FEARNET: This signature voice of yours has been really good to you over the years; even landing you voice roles on things like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Is it true that this is the voice that you came out of the womb with?
TT: (Laughs) Nah, I don’t think so. I was raised by a single woman – my Aunt – and I learned early on that I was the only man in the house so maybe I was forced to man-up at age six. (Laughs) I heard tales that I had a big vocal and height change between sophomore and junior years in high school. Wherever it came from, I’m happy for it. I’m in the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops II video game. I’m a gamer so it’s exciting that that will be my singular biggest exposure. And I’m not just doing voice for it. I actually did motion capture for it as well, so it’s my image in the game. We have thirty-five missions and people that do love it are already raving about it, so I’m really looking forward to that.
FEARNET: Do you feel like Candyman is the film that people recognize you from the most?
TT: Unfortunately, yeah. I mean, I say that with love and respect, but I hate being pigeonholed. The worst comment that I hate is when I’m bothered at a supermarket and they say, “You’re the guy from Candyman. Are you still working?” If you look at my IMDB page, I work constantly and, for some reason, people galvanize around that part. I respect it, but I’m also resentful of that obscurity. And I understand a little bit of what Boris Karloff felt.
FEARNET: I can understand that. One of my favorite episodes of “Criminal Minds” is your episode. People don’t understand that you’ve been around and doing this so long since Candyman even.
TT: Well, I’m a chameleon, you know? I was trained that you don’t put personality first. You discover the character and you take a step back. That’s the way I would do it. Although, I do have a film coming out in January that may be a game-changer. I think it’s some of my best work. It’s called Sushi Girl.
FEARNET: I was going to ask you about that. The cast is amazing.
TT: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a theatrical release and hopefully that will change things a little. But even at some of the screenings of that – we did a convention in Montreal. We came out. We sold out. There were 800 people in the audience. We walk out and all people were chanting is “Luke Skywalker! Candyman! Atreyu!” This is 2012. (Laughs) And I talked to Mark [Hamill] and other people who have been identified as iconic stuff like him, and I had the pleasure of working with Christopher Reeve, and they said that you just have to embrace it. For good or worse, whatever it is that you’re identified with helped solidify you in pop culture. So as long as you don’t get stuck in that and you know that you’re continuing to work, that’s all that matters. Let people have their joy in whatever they identify you with.
FEARNET: That’s actually one of the things I’m most excited about for Sushi Girl is the fact that you took all these people from different areas – like you and Mark Hamill and Noah Hathaway – that were so known for these specific roles and now we get to see you guys do something a little different.
TT: Yeah, collectively. Yeah. It’s a great script and great production company. I executive produced it so we’re really proud of it. Comes out January 4th. So far, all the reviews have been ninety percent positive. Mark Hamill turns in a performance like nobody has ever seen before.
FEARNET: I won’t harp on Candyman then and ask too many questions about it, but I have to ask this one. You did go on to star in two more Candyman films and I can only imagine it’s just a matter of time until Hollywood “reboots” the series somehow. Would you step into that role again if they wanted you to do that?
TT: Nah, it’s not something that I dream about. There was a time when I wondered why they didn’t do more like they did with Freddy [Krueger] or Leprechaun. I also wanted to redo the third one. You know, it depends. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on the script. You have no idea some of the ideas that have been tossed out. At one point they wanted the Candyman dressed as a Leprechaun. I said, “Not with me.” The joke now is Candyman versus Honey Boo Boo. Absolutely not. (Laughs)
FEARNET: You have no interest in making a mockery of it.
TT: No, no. Not at all.
FEARNET: I mean, as much as it’s kind of gotten you stuck in that role, it is still an amazing film.
TT: Absolutely! I have no contention against that at all. It’s just that, personally, I don’t ever want to be pigeonholed. However, there are people like Vietnam vets know that my first film ever was Platoon and that’s amazing. It’s just that most of the time it’s about Candyman. Forever and ever. Whatever. I’m working hard to change that. My first love is theater. So if you ever get a chance to catch me in live theater, then you’ll know where I’m at.
You can see the Tony Todd as “Ben” in Night of the Living Dead (1990). The Limited Edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time sold out of all 3,000 units during the pre-order window so your best bet at this point might be finding one on eBay.