As Freddy Krueger, the fiendish dream stalker in the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, he brandishes a glove with razor-sharp finger knives and dispatches his young victims with demonic glee: “This is it, Jennifer,” he croons to an aspiring young actress before smashing her head into a television set, “your big break in TV.”
But Robert Englund, the actor behind the Freddy makeup--a gruesome mass of scar tissue--didn’t have cinematic murder and mayhem on his mind this pleasant Sunday afternoon in Laguna Beach as he and his wife, set decorator Nancy Booth, walked their dog down Agate Street to the beach.
“That’s where I surf,” Englund said, standing at the edge of a cliff and pointing down to a rock jutting out of the water. “And see that big boulder over there? That’s called Three Prong. That’s where the really hot guys surf.”
At 41, Englund may not be one of the “hot” local surfers, but there’s no question that he’s the undisputed king of contemporary horror movies.
A “vision of loathsomeness” is how one critic described Englund’s Freddy, whose 1984 debut in the low-budget “A Nightmare on Elm Street” generated an unexpected box office bonanza and four sequels--a popular culture phenomenon that accounts for all the masked-and-gloved little Freddys on our doorsteps the last several Halloweens.
Out of makeup, Englund is not recognized by everyone who sees him in Laguna, but the local surfers and the “thrasher skateboard kids"--as he calls them--know who he is.
“They paddle up to me in the water and stuff and say, ‘Hey, Englund! Hey, dude, saw you on “Arsenio Hall” last night, man.’ So I get a lot of that,” the actor said, sipping a mug of coffee at his kitchen table earlier in the day.
If you’re expecting demented glances and maniacal cackles during a visit with Robert Englund at home, you’re in for a disappointment.
The man who portrays America’s most unlikely pop-culture icon is a one-time Shakespearean actor who paid his Hollywood dues in the ‘70s and early ‘80s playing supporting roles in movies and “bad guy No. 2" in a string of TV shows. He’s a talkative yet laid-back Los Angeles native, whose fondest childhood memories are of family vacations in Laguna.
As Booth says of her husband of 16 months: “He’s the polar opposite of Freddy, of course. He’s just charming and sweet and intelligent.”
Booth, a UC Irvine art history graduate, met Englund in 1987 on a horror film he was directing, “976-Evil.” Englund, who was married briefly in his early 20s, said he couldn’t believe Booth, the film’s attractive 26-year-old set decorator, was not married and “I used every excuse I could to hang around the art department.”
The couple still own a home in the Hollywood Hills, but when they began looking for a “getaway place” a year ago, they naturally gravitated to Laguna.
“I had spent just about every summer in the 1950s down here and then an awful lot of time in the last 10 years coming down to surf and just staying in bed and breakfasts because I love it so much,” Englund said .
Their 1929, three-bedroom bungalow on a corner lot above South Coast Highway retains the casual flavor of a bygone Southern California, with hardwood floors, porcelain door knobs, a brick fireplace with beach-rock inlay and a back yard overgrown with bougainvilleas. Englund’s yellow Hobie surfboard, which had been used earlier in the morning, was propped up against a bench on the wooden deck.
It’s the kind of homey, unpretentious place where, he said, you can put your feet up.
“It was real funny because Nancy said she wanted a koi pond and a lemon tree, which was more of a joke than anything. But as you can see, we have a goldfish pond and a little teeny lemon tree,” he said, glancing out a large, wood-pained window and grinning: “This cut on my forehead is from last week’s attempt at pruning the lemon tree.”
Englund retains vivid memories of his childhood summers in Laguna, recalling the old boardwalk on Main Beach, being sent out to get hot dogs and Delaware Punch for lunch, and learning to body surf.
“My mom was like a beatnik in those days,” he recalled. “She’d go off to South Laguna to a place called Frankenstein’s. It was like out of some weird movie with bongos and Bob Denver goatees.”
Englund seems to have inherited his mother’s nonconformist bent, with his hair pulled into a tiny pony tail, a stubby beard left over from his role as a music industry hit man in the upcoming summer movie “Ford Fairlane,” and his typical at-home costume of huaraches, shorts and a blue-denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
Retaining what he calls a “ ‘60s sensibility,” Englund speaks passionately about the need to curtail growth. Last November, he joined 7,000 marchers on Laguna Canyon Road to protest plans for the development of more than 3,000 houses and a golf course in pristine Laguna Canyon.
“There’s only X-amount of those canyons left in California and we all realize how wonderful they were,” he said. “I guess it’s I don’t want to feel old. I’m going on 42, and to see the rapidity of change now is frightening to me a little bit. I think one of the reasons I came to Laguna is to remember my summers and to remember my mother’s ghost, which is probably beating bongos around here somewhere.”
The son of a Lockheed executive, Englund traces his interest in acting back to age 12 when he accompanied a young family friend to a summer children’s theater where he wound up landing most of the male leads--from Peter Pan and Hansel to Pinocchio and Aladdin.
Looking back, he said, it was less a budding passion for the art of the theater than rampaging “teen-age hormones” that made him fall in love with acting.
“I remember sitting in the girl’s bathroom at Cal State Northridge and these 15- and 16-year-old girls were teaching me how to blow smoke rings and we were listening to rock ‘n’ roll. The girls were wearing brassieres and they were gluing glitter on their brassieres because they were playing the harem girls in ‘Aladin and His Wonderful Lamp.’ I had my hair real long for another part and they were putting in these spooly curlers in my hair to make it look ‘period.’ ”
Englund grinned at the image: “To this day, I can remember the perfume and the girls teaching me how to blow smoke rings and seeing these glitter-covered Maidenform bras and thinking, ‘Right: Actors. Sissies . . . I’m not telling anybody what a racket this is.’ ”
Englund received most of his training with the American branch of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at Oakland University outside Detroit and in regional theater.
After a decade of TV and movie-supporting roles, his acting career took a dramatic upswing when he was cast as Willie, “the good alien,” in the hit 1983 TV mini-series “V,” which became a short-lived NBC series the following season.
It was primarily because it fit into his TV schedule--and a chance to work with gore-maestro film director Wes Craven--that he took the role of Freddy, a high school custodian with a penchant for kidnaping and murdering teen-agers.
Tried for his crimes but released on a technicality, Freddy was tracked down to his boiler room and burned to death by his victims’ parents whose surviving children he comes back to haunt in their dreams.
No one involved in the movie had any idea that the tale of this “suburban psychopath” would become a grass-roots hit that would lead to Freddy Krueger being the No. 1 best-selling poster. There have also been Freddy books, a record album, a board game, the ubiquitous Freddy Halloween masks and claws, and even a Freddy doll.
“Mr. Krueger,” as Englund says, has also afforded him the opportunity to direct features and several episodes of “Freddy’s Nightmares,” a syndicated TV series which he hosts and occasionally appears in. He also has been in demand for personal appearances. His first indication of the Freddy phenomenon came while appearing at a sci-fi convention for his role in “V” and a hard-core horror fan asked him to sign his girlfriend’s cleavage: “Die now, Love Freddy.”
The question Englund is most frequently asked is: How long does it take to put his Freddy makeup on?
In the first film, it took nearly four hours to apply a series of 11 porous foam Latex pieces sculpted from a mold of his face. “It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. But they’ve got it down to only six pieces and it now takes about 2 1/2 hours.
Because he was asked so many questions about horror movies after the “Nightmare” films hit big, he said, “I went out and rediscovered a lot of classic horror.”
And what scares “Freddy?”
It’s the real-life horror in such films as “The Boston Strangler” and “In Cold Blood” that Englund finds most disturbing.
“I can’t sit through ‘In Cold Blood,’ ” he said. “I think it’s a brilliant piece of film-making, but that’s reality-based and I think a reality-based catharsis is a lot more frightening because of the society we live in than the boogie man, which is what Freddy essentially is.”
As Englund sees it, audiences are able to keep an “aesthetic distance” while watching the fantasy-based “A Nightmare on Elm Street” films.
“ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ takes place in a dream, so you have this wonderful gimmick that detaches everybody from it and although they can be shocked and manipulated by the cinematography and the film-making, we’re not sucking them into that reality scare. It’s always a fantasy and they always have that ‘out.’ ”
Englund thinks part of the reason that the “Nightmare” movies have been so popular is because dreams are a common denominator.
“Everybody’s had nightmares,” he said. “And Freddy’s such an easy logo. There’s a certain strange vanity and arrogance and cockiness to Freddy that people are attracted to. I think probably my contribution has been in the sense of humor and the kind of weird cracks that Freddy has made that are kind of pop culture and of the moment and yet they have sort of universality to them.” (In one film, Freddy literally transforms one teen-age victim into a pizza face, then devours him: “Mmmm, soul food!”).
“And there’s a snide sort of cat-and-mouse thing he does with his victims. I think the real key to Freddy is that Freddy isn’t some sort of mindless guy that stabs people in the face. If you’re afraid of bugs, Freddy turns you into a cockroach. If you’re a girl that’s suffering from anorexia, Freddy stuffs you to death. If you’re a kid that makes puppets, Freddy turns you into a puppet--with your own tendons as the strings.
“So Freddy is exploiting the personality, the weakness, of whichever character he’s after and the audience loves to kind of second-guess how Freddy is going to do that.”
Although the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies carry “R” ratings, the age of Freddy’s fans has gotten progressively younger since the films have been released on videocassette.
As for criticism that the films are too violent and too gory for children, Englund maintains that “if there has been any problem, I would surmise that it has been with not enough monitoring of the home-viewing audience. You go below 10 years of age and I think there’s really got to be some discretionary supervision by the adult in the home.”
On the other hand, he said, “I read my fan mail and I talk to the 12-year-old kids, and I know that 12-year-olds can certainly handle these movies and, in fact, watch them with their tongue in cheek.”
Englund grinned. “You’ve got to kind of remember what it was like. I mean they told me I was going to have hair growing on my palms for reading Mad magazine,” he said, examining his palm and laughing: “I don’t think I do.”
While last year’s fifth “Nightmare” outing was not as big a box-office hit as Freddy’s previous incarnations, Englund said there is talk of doing No. 6.
Meantime, Englund, who played the title role in a 1989 adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” will soon begin filming the “Phantom” sequel. He also has signed to host “The Horror Hall of Fame,” a two-hour television special that will air each Halloween beginning this year.
Englund said he would like to move beyond horror movie roles. But, like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price before him, his name always will be irrevocably linked with horror--and with “Mr. Krueger.”
“I certainly don’t mind,” said Englund. “I’m proud of it and it’s been very lucrative.”
Having seen such actor pals as Gary Busey and Mark Hamill ride “the roller coaster of fame” in the late ‘70s, Englund said his notoriety as Freddy came late enough in life that he’s having a good time with it.
“It’s my 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol said. I mean, it’s been fun and I promised myself I’d enjoy it,” he said.
He especially enjoys the Freddy Krueger connection on Halloween when he is in demand for guest appearances.
Englund wasn’t home in Laguna to greet all the little Freddys who were out in force last Oct. 31. He was in New York, “hitting the nightclubs as a guest.” But when the Englunds returned home, they found that one fan had left a calling card: a Freddy claw scrawled in wax on their front step.
Otherwise, Englund’s Laguna neighbors seem to take their actor-in-residence in stride.
“I think they’re just happy Robert Englund keeps his leaves raked,” he said.