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January 25, 2013

Angus Scrimm, ‘Phantasm’s’ Tall Man, still a striking presence

Posted in: It's Alive,Movies

angusscrimm1 Angus Scrimm, Phantasms Tall Man, still a striking presence

Angus Scrimm of ‘Phantasm' fame still makes his presence known on and off the screen at 86. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

angusscrimmphantasm Angus Scrimm, Phantasms Tall Man, still a striking presence

Angus Scrimm plays the Tall Man in "Phantasm," the 1979 horror film. (Los Angeles Times archives)

angusscrimm2 Angus Scrimm, Phantasms Tall Man, still a striking presence

Angus Scrimm's portrayal of the Tall Man from the "Phantasm" horror franchise has reached cult status. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

angusscrimm3 Angus Scrimm, Phantasms Tall Man, still a striking presence

"I get lots of hugs and kisses," says Angus Scrimm about the reception from fans at horror conventions. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Angus Scrimm always thought that he would be the star of “sophisticated, witty drawing-room comedies.”

But instead of making people laugh, Scrimm’s been scaring the heck out of audiences as the malevolent “Tall Man” in Don Coscarelli’s 1979 cult horror favorite “Phantasm” and its three popular sequels.

Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the great icons of R-rated horror films. A menacing mortician with a grotesque stare and superhuman strength — he can pick up and throw a casket into the back of a hearse like it’s a paper towel — the Tall Man transforms the dead into zombie dwarfs that do his evil bidding. His weapon of choice is also memorable: a deadly silver sphere that hurls through the air and attaches itself to his victims’ faces.

It’s because of the Tall Man plus his roles in such horror films as “Satan Hates You” and “Satanic” that Scrimm is asked to attend horror conventions such as Monster-Mania in New Jersey and Days of the Dead” in Indianapolis.

Coscarelli said he’s also been surprised at audiences’ reaction to the 86-year-old Scrimm.

Angus Scrimm plays the Tall Man in "Phantasm," the 1979 horror film. (Los Angeles Times archives)

Angus Scrimm plays the Tall Man in “Phantasm,” the 1979 horror film. (Los Angeles Times archives)

“These are people who at a young age were terrified of him,” said Coscarelli. “But when they get up to him, all they want to do is hug and pinch and kiss him. He’s such a very proper and genteel and intelligent man.”

“I get lots of hugs and kisses,” acknowledged Scrimm, smiling, in Hollywood. “Occasionally, a wife will kiss me and then the husband will kiss me.”

Though not quite the 6-foot-4 of his “Phantasm” days — Scrimm admits he’s shrunk over the years — he remains a striking presence. Scrimm possesses an affable sense of humor, warm smile and Walter Huston-eque deep voice.

Scrimm has a small but funny cameo in “John Dies at the End,” which opened Friday. Coscarelli’s dark comedy revolves around two college dropouts (Rob Mayes and Chase Williamson), a weird drug named “Soy Sauce” and an alien invasion. Scrimm plays Father Shellnut, a seemingly angelic priest who has demonic tendencies.

Born Lawrence Rory Guy in Kansas City, Kan., Scrimm would go to the movies several times a week — he decided to become an actor after seeing Gary Cooper in 1929’s “The Virginian” — and fell in love with horror films in 1938 when a double bill of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” came to the local theater.

Scrimm finished high school a year early and came to Los Angeles accompanied by his older sister to study theater at USC under the auspices of actor-director William C. DeMille, brother of Cecil B. Classmates included columnist Art Buchwald, Joe Flynn of “McHale’s Navy” and Sam Peckinpah, who directed Scrimm in a play the actor wrote.

Scrimm struggled for years as an actor. In between theater jobs, he worked as a publicist at KTTV, did the TV logs at TV Guide and wrote book reviews at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Even when “Phantasm” hit, Scrimm kept his job at Capitol Records, where he was one of the label’s most prolific, accomplished writers of liner notes. For 30 years he wrote liner notes for such artists as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and even the Beatles under the byline Rory Guy — winning the Grammy in 1974 for his notes for “Korngold: The Classic Erich Wolfgang Korngold.”

Despite his success at Capitol, Scrimm always perused the trades looking for ads for acting auditions. Because most of them were blind ads, Scrimm didn’t have any idea what the acting job would entail. More often than not when he arrived for the audition “they turned out to be soft-core porn.”

Director Don Coscarelli. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Director Don Coscarelli. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

But when he saw an ad four decades ago for a movie audition at the Century Plaza Hotel, Scrimm thought it was too upscale for porn. At the audition he met a teenage Coscarelli and Craig Mitchell, the writer-directors of the drama “Jim the World’s Greatest,” which Coscarelli’s father funded. After an audition and screen test, Scrimm was hired to play an alcoholic father.

“He is the first adult actor I had ever directed,” said Coscarelli.

But on that first film, Coscarelli said, “we were so out of control logistically. We were filming in this little apartment in Long Beach and Angus would have to drive the hour down to Long Beach [from Los Angeles]. We would be so disorganized that we would put him in the back bedroom and he’d sit back there for eight or nine hours.”

More often than not, Coscarelli would have to tell Scrimm they wouldn’t get to shoot any of his scenes that day. “Don was terrified to tell me,” recalled Scrimm. “He hated it because the looks I would give him would chill his bones.”

Noted Coscarelli: “It was that early Tall Man look where he would raise his eyebrows. I was a bit intimidated by him. When I came around to making a horror film, I thought he would be good and have that kind of presence.”

— Susan King


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