Angus Scrimm dies at 89; cult horror icon starred in 'Phantasm' movies

Cast an actor for a movie, and you never know what you might summon up.

That came home to director Don Coscarelli when he first dropped by the makeup table to check on Angus Scrimm.

Coscarelli was about to direct what would become the cult classic horror movie "Phantasm." Up till then, he knew his lead actor chiefly as a kindly journalist who loved classical music and small, fuzzy dogs.

But now he found a new, ominous Scrimm examining his makeup in the mirror. As Coscarelli watched from behind, Scrimm contemplated his own reflected visage — pale face, strange hair. Then he lifted an eyebrow.

Coscarelli recalled his involuntary start. "I took a step back," he said. The Tall Man had come to life.

The character capable of scaring even the director who created him would soon make Angus Scrimm famous, in his way.

Called one of the greatest horror icons of all time, Angus Scrimm's dyspeptic Tall Man — a supernatural mortician, naturally up to no good — would go on to anchor four sequels of the influential "Phantasm" franchise. (The fifth movie is scheduled to be released this year.)

"Phantasm's" popularity would propel Scrimm, a writer of notes on record albums, to late success in the horror and exploitation genre.

It was not exactly the kind of fame he had signed up for.

But he accepted it graciously enough. At conventions, "thousands of people would come to stand in line, and have their picture taken with him and talk to him," Coscarelli said. "He gave each five minutes of his time."

Scrimm died Jan. 9 in a hospital in Tarzana of natural causes, said Coscarelli, longtime friend and collaborator of the actor. He was 89.

Born Lawrence Rory Guy in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 19, 1926, the son of Alfred David and Pearl Guy, Scrimm learned to love movies while a teenage usher in a local theater, Coscarelli said. He studied drama at the University of Southern California. But acting was relegated to a hobby as he pursued a writing career.

He wrote for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and TV Guide, and was an editor at Cinema magazine. For years, he had a day job at Capitol Records, writing notes for classical music albums.

He penned the notes on the famous "Meet the Beatles" American album, whose back cover describes the four as having "pudding basin" haircuts. And he won a Grammy for best notes on a classical album in 1974, for "Korngold: The Classic Erich Wolfgang Korngold."

But Scrimm never entirely gave up his leading-man dreams. He imagined himself starring in "sophisticated, witty drawing-room comedies," he later said.

He was genteel, urban, proper, and, yes, tall — more than 6-foot-4 — but that never seemed the point. He acted in local theater productions and waited for that elusive elegant-wit role to come.

Instead, he got entangled in a youthful lark. He answered a casting call, and landed a role in an independent movie cooked up by two teenagers with parents' money. One was Coscarelli, then 18.

The pair were a little intimidated by Scrimm — this grown-up performer who endured their youthful missteps. Their movie, "Jim, the World's Greatest" was a successful drama, as these things go.

But for Coscarelli, something about the asymmetry stayed with him — he, the raw kid director, running around Scrimm, the middle-aged actor.

It got scrambled in his head, and came out as the story of a raw kid being run around by a middle-aged funeral director. He wrote the role with Scrimm in mind.

"Phantasm" (1979) is now looked upon as both a cult classic and bellwether, one of a handful of independent horror movies in the 1970s that rebooted the genre. With its insidious, unsettling eeriness, "Phantasm" helped press the point that horror films could be artistically legitimate. A flood of later big-budget horror began in that early trickle of arty-creepy cult films.

At first, Scrimm said, he delighted in the incongruity. The Tall Man represented "a complete departure from my previous endeavors," he told The Times.

Later, though, he chafed at being typecast; he was never again fully able to break free of the Tall Man. He once told The Times that he adopted the stage name Angus Scrimm so that his old USC professors wouldn't know what he was doing.

But while the Tall Man had it in for youthful spunk, the real Scrimm humored it. He indulged others as he had Coscarelli. "Even in later years, he would get offers from young fans to star in their movies, and he would do it," the director said.

Much could be conjectured about his cult popularity among fans at conventions. The same man who had terrified them as children was irresistible to them as adults. For some reason, they seemed to need to hug him.

He was similarly gracious when strangers in public asked him to perform his trademark spiteful utterance: "boy-yyyy!" But after a while, he drew the line at making appearances in the mortician costume.

He did not marry and had no children, Coscarelli said. In private, Scrimm was warm, considerate and devoted to friends. A passionate dog lover, he kept a West Highland terrier and various shelter dogs, walking them in his Valley neighborhood. His last was a white furry dog he called "Sweetheart."

jill.leovy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 14, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "ANGUS SCRIMM, 1926 - 2016 - Horror icon starred in `Phantasm' movies" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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