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The impact of a killer role

Times Staff Writer

There have long been parts whose talismanic potency has shaped the lives of the actors who’ve inhabited them. Bela Lugosi was never bigger than as Dracula; Christopher Reeve was forever marked by his association with Superman, Man of Steel.

Almost 30 years after he starred in the original 1976 miniseries “Helter Skelter,” actor Steve Railsback wonders if playing mass murderer Charles Manson ruined his career.

Over half of the American households watching TV saw Railsback, then an unknown, inhabit the role of the cult leader who convinced his followers -- known as “the family” -- to savagely stab and murder Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and several others.

Today, that miniseries, still the highest-rated two-parter of all time, looks like a bedraggled artifact from the ‘70s, part Perry Mason, part low-budget horror film, but the low-tech theatrics and bad ‘70s wardrobe somehow burnish its air of truthfulness, but at its center is a riveting performance by Railsback. He’s a sexy, clever Manson, charismatic but with a chilly remoteness that flickers and repels; he’s evil incarnate, but without the usual Hollywood scenery-chewing that somehow always ends up softening the horror.

It’s the kind of naturalistic performance that threatens to swallow a performer, and the inadvertent documentary nature of the miniseries just heightens the air of realism.

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The high point is Manson’s courtroom testimony, an addled cri de coeur delivered with raw but controlled rage. His hair a mass of black tendrils, an X carved between his brows, Railsback evokes odd sympathy for the psychopath as he rails against the society that jettisoned its children. “These children, everything they done, they done for love of brother,” he says. “Is that a conspiracy?”

Today Railsback, now 55, hardly looks malevolent, or even vaguely Manson-like, as he’s hunched over a table in a casually chic restaurant on Sunset Plaza Drive. His face isn’t broad or his eyes twitchy and hypnotic. He’s simply a smallish middle-aged man, in a black leather jacket, with wide-open eyes and a healthy thatch of thick brown hair.

“So many people saw me, but it’s been a dual-edged sword,” he admits.

It was the days before cable, and Railsback says an estimated 50 million-plus people tuned in both nights to see the original “Helter Skelter,” roughly the same numbers for the recent “Friends” finale.

For years after the miniseries played, people -- when they learned he’d played Manson -- would remark on their physical similarities, but it’s clear that the real Steve Railsback looks nothing like Manson.

“They had a wig on me. Also they laid a beard on me every day. His beard would change every week or so during the trial. He would shorten it, do different things,” he explains, his voice still carrying a hint of his native Texas twang, although he’s lived in Los Angeles pretty much ever since “Helter Skelter.” “They put things in here to make my cheeks look more sunk in, and they shot it a certain way. He’s four inches shorter than I am. There were all these tall guys around me.” He pauses, ruminates, though without self-pity. “I don’t know. I was the one picked to play him. That’s life.”

He was offered the part during the audition, in which he performed Manson’s testimony speech. “I had such incredible confidence about myself. It blew [the director] away,” recalls Railsback. At the time, he was just a New York actor, playing primarily theater. He’d studied with Method guru Lee Strasberg, and made his film debut playing alongside a young James Woods in Elia Kazan’s “The Visitors.”

He turned down the role because he was afraid of getting typecast. A little while later, he got a call seemingly out of the blue from Kazan, who was in Los Angeles casting “The Last Tycoon.” They chatted, and the famous director talked him into taking the part. Weeks later, Railsback learned that Kazan was a longtime friend of “Helter Skelter” director Tom Gries.

Going on location

Railsback chose not to meet Manson, although he could have. “I didn’t want him to manipulate me -- I didn’t want to be swayed by him in the playing,” says the actor, who studied the Vincent Bugliosi book and a documentary on Manson, and used his imagination. They shot the telefilm at some of the real locations -- such as the LaBianca house, where Rosemary LaBianca had been stabbed so many times the detectives couldn’t count, and her husband had been found with an ivory-handled carving fork stuck in his stomach. The film team got ominous crank calls during production, a fake bomb threat.

Some days in his trailer, Railsback would while away the time discussing the murders with Truman Capote, the celebrated author who’d followed the case and was making “Murder by Death” in a nearby sound stage on the Warners lot. “I remember Capote saying this to me: ‘It’s not difficult to figure out how he got them to follow him.’ These were 16-year-old kids who’d been thrown out of their homes and were looking for a father figure. In 1967, it was kind of cool to meet someone who’d come out of prison. He told them what they needed to hear.” At the end of each day’s work, he’d come home and crawl into the closet for 15 minutes and shut the door, “to get the feeling of solitude” that trailed Manson, who’d been in and out of correctional institutions ever since he was 11. “I had to play this character as if he’s right. Nobody thinks they’re wrong, they always think they’re right.”

Ironically enough, as Railsback picks at a salad, the DVD of the original “Helter Skelter,” which also played as a theatrical film in Europe, is arriving in stores. There’s no commentary from Railsback, but it’s clear the producers want to capitalize on the remake of “Helter Skelter” that premieres tonight at 8 on CBS.

It is almost 35 years after the murders that rocked L.A., but CBS hopes Manson remains big business. “To be candid, commercialism obviously is a big factor,” says Bugliosi, the onetime Tate-LaBianca case prosecutor, author of the book “Helter Skelter” and professional Manson expert. He’s a producer on the remake, although he mostly describes his role as one of vetting the script for accuracy. “CBS thought they could get a huge audience.”

Bugliosi notes there’s an ongoing cult of Manson, whose death sentence was commuted in 1972. He gets more mail than any other inmate in “the history of the U.S. prison system. Who are these people who are writing? I can assume, because they also write to me, they’re young kids. Young American kids who are impressionistic and for some curious reason they look up to Manson as being some kind of anti-establishment hero or glorious outlaw type. I’ve gotten letters saying, ‘How can I get in touch with Manson?’ They really don’t know who Manson is, that he places no value on human life.”

Director John Gray, best known for the recent TV remake of another ‘70s icon, “Brian’s Song,” says that although the first “Helter Skelter” detailed the haphazard investigation and trial, the new film focuses on how Manson mesmerized his followers, turning them into addled acolytes willing to kill at his behest. “It’s almost a prequel, how he got them together, how he kept them together. Often Manson is portrayed as a wild-eyed lunatic spouting gibberish, but he’s very smart, manipulative, and charismatic,” says Gray, who adds the new version also fleshes out the victims, such as the beautiful Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, as well as the real families of the murderers.

Manson used various techniques for control, such as drugs and relentless sermonizing. Bugliosi notes that “he also tried to subvert their sexuality, induce [a girl] to have sex with another girl, or a boy with a boy, and break down their ego and pride.” This was discussed in testimony in the first version, but Gray says is now “alluded to in the film.” Indeed, given the current indecency clampdown, CBS head Leslie Moonves viewed the first cut of the new version and asked the filmmakers to tone down the violence, the presentation of the brutal slayings that Bugliosi says involved “169 stab wounds.”

Although Railsback was reluctant to assume the mantle of America’s most reviled mass murderer, the new Manson -- Jeremy Davies -- appeared eager for the challenge.

Davies, 34, isn’t a total unknown; the wraithlike, pale-faced actor has left an indelible herky-jerky, nervous screen presence in such films as “Saving Private Ryan,” where he played a soldier racked by cowardice, and “Spanking the Monkey,” in which he played a distressed adolescent who has sex with his mother.

Davies was unavailable for comment, as he was in Europe filming, but Gray explains, “Jeremy found us. He had been cast in an independent feature that never ended up getting made. He had done six months worth of research, and taped himself in extensive rehearsals. When our movie surfaced, Jeremy’s agent sent us three rehearsal tapes. We were blown away.

“Jeremy really had Manson’s body language, his voice and that very seductive and magnetic quality.”

Gray insists the TV film can only affect Davies’ career “in the most positive way. He’s always had a reputation as a brilliant actor. There’s no chance of him getting locked into this particular role and performance.”

“Manson knew a tiny bit about everything so he could make you believe he knew a whole lot about it,” Railsback says. He’s remembering all the idiosyncrasies that made Manson such a fascinating character to inhabit.

“I wanted to play him. I wanted to do it,” he says. “I really mean this. I wish nothing but the best for the actor who’s playing him. I hope he dives into the ocean and does his thing.”

‘You can get pigeonholed’

All these years later, Manson is still in prison, as are the members of his family, though most of his followers have renounced him and express remorse, particularly at the time of their parole hearings. According to the Bugliosi book, at least two, Susan Atkins and Tex Watson, have become born-again Christians behind bars.

Railsback is still an actor for hire.

After “Helter Skelter,” he was offered every psychopathic killer that Hollywood could drag out from under a rock. “This town is a town in which you can get pigeonholed. They say, ‘He can do craziness.’ I didn’t do it. I turned them all down. This town figures, he must not be able to do anything else, which is a load of crap. I’m an actor.”

“It was one of those parts,” remembers Harry Ufland, Railsback and Martin Scorsese’s onetime agent, who’s now a producer. “There was such negativity around Manson that the actor might suffer with it.” Before “Helter Skelter” actually premiered, however, Railsback landed one more significant role, as a fugitive rube-turned-stunt man tangling with a demented but charming movie director (Peter O’Toole) in Richard Rush’s cult classic “The Stunt Man.” He recalls with pleasure the lines around the block in Westwood of fans eager to see the film.

In two decades following, he played small parts on TV and in such forgettable fare as the Pamela Anderson misfire “Barb Wire.” There were potential career-openers that he turned down, such as the villain in the first “Lethal Weapon,” and a major role in another prominent miniseries, “The Thornbirds.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to do some wonderful things and bad choices came along with it, but I don’t resent it. I don’t blame anybody. It’s me. I made these choices,” he says philosophically. More recently, he’s segued into producing (the well-received Robert Duvall picture “The Stars Fell on Henrietta”) and plans on directing an independent film, starring Dwight Yoakam, written by his brother.

As America prepares for another onslaught of cinematic Manson mayhem, Railsback takes solace in the fact that no one ever took his Manson too seriously. After “Helter Skelter” played, Squeaky Fromme, a Manson family member who was later incarcerated for attempting to kill President Ford, was interviewed for her reaction. “She said, ‘I wouldn’t follow him for 10 minutes,” says Railsback with a deep chuckle. “And I said, ‘Yeah!’ I’ll never forget that.”


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