Carnett: Private moments with the Master of Menace

Most of the characters he portrayed died screaming.

His demeanor and manner of speaking gave one the distinct impression that he was an upper-crust Englishman — the accent was formal and his voice richly, even creepily, sonorous.

In actuality, his upbringing was far more plebeian. He was raised in St. Louis and, though he sounded Shakespearean, was more Huck Finn than Richard III.

No child of poverty, his grandfather secured the family's fortune by inventing Dr. Price's Baking Powder. His father was president of a candy company.

The young Missourian graduated from Yale, attended the University of London and began his acting career on a London stage in 1935.

He was the first Hollywood star I ever met.

I'm speaking of horror film virtuoso Vincent Price. Price, a much beloved performer despite his decidedly macabre theatrical pursuits, died 20 years ago this week, six days before Halloween. He was 82.

During a long and storied career, Price was an actor, writer and gourmet. He was also a collector of fine art. A prolific and in-demand player, he starred in a host of successful Hollywood horror flicks.

Though innately extroverted and affable, Vincent was frequently referred to as the Master of Menace. Yet he had an uncanny ability to inject humor into his sinister characters. Price was considered somewhat eccentric because he frequently engaged in histrionics while discussing his favorite topics, cooking and poetry.

During the spring semester of 1963, I was an 18-year-old Orange Coast College freshman. I took a radio-broadcasting course that semester, taught by theater department Chairman John Ford.

One of our class assignments was to tape record and edit a 10-minute radio interview. I elected to interview Mr. Menace himself.

Price was to visit our campus that semester as part of the college's Distinguished Speakers' Series. He was familiar with OCC; he'd been on campus nine years earlier to narrate — for no fee — a 20-minute recruiting film for the college. His distinctive voice was used to inform high school students of the benefits of attending the college.

Several weeks before his arrival on campus that year, I contacted Price's agent to see if I might be allowed to interview him backstage before his lecture. Price graciously consented.

At the time, Price was enjoying remarkable professional success. The trajectory of his career soared right into the stratosphere. The 52-year-old actor was a Hollywood phenomenon.

His most recent films at the time were: "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "Tales of Terror" (1962), "The Comedy of Terrors" (1963), "The Raven" (1963) and "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964). He was one busy actor.

Forty-five minutes before the lecture I met with Mr. Price backstage. I was a nervous wreck. My palms were sweating and my hands trembling, but the lanky 6-foot, 4-inch actor — with his trademark pencil-thin mustache — greeted me with a smile and handshake and immediately dispelled my jitters.

I took out my sheet of prepared questions and fumbled with my tape recorder. Finally, I asked my first question. It had something to do with how he'd landed a career in acting.

We chatted for the next 20 minutes or so, and there was no further need to ask a canned question. The conversation flowed.

Finally, someone interrupted the interview by saying that Price needed a few minutes to prepare for his lecture.

Price smiled, shook my hand and wished me well on my class project. What a nice guy! No Hollywood horror he.

At the time of his death 30 years later, Price suffered from emphysema and Parkinson's disease. His Parkinson's became so severe during the filming of his last significant film, Tim Burton's 1990 hit, "Edward Scissorhands," that his part had to be scaled back.

Price died Oct. 25, 1993, of emphysema and lung cancer.

Every time I watch one of his classic films, I think back to that 1963 backstage interview.

Vincent Price generously stepped away from a teeming schedule to give this kid two priceless gifts: his valuable time and wise counsel.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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