A New York City based actor since the early 1980s, Matt Mitler’s charisma and humor landed him many memorable roles during New York’s last great era of independent exploitation film, including “Deadtime Stories,” “Basket Case 2,” the slasher favorite “The Mutilator” and several films for b-movie auteurs Tim Kincaid and Brett Piper. Mr. Mitler was kind enough to speak with me about his life and career:
When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
I don’t know if I can really pinpoint that, but what I can say is that – and I actually have a radio program that’s premiering right now – it’s my first radio program since I was a little kid, because I grew up on the radio. My father owned a station, and my mother had a live show that was broadcast from our kitchen in Newport, Rhode Island. That started when I was born, and I was on the air as soon as I could talk. I was on the air with that program for five, six years, and then off and on the radio station until we moved out of Newport, when I was ten. So I had this whole experience with radio. And it was very compelling for me, but I didn’t have any sense of “Yeah, I want to be an actor.” But because of the radio and because my mother’s program was fairly humorous – she was very improvisational, very cutting in a sort of Lenny Bruce type of way – she would improvise with me, a little kid who didn’t really know what he was saying, but it was all impromptu and live so whatever I said she would just kind of riff on. It got me into this world of comedy even before I understood what that was. I would listen to her comedy albums, memorize them and recite them at cocktail parties and then be sent to bed. I’d be doing a Lenny Bruce routine, standing there as a five or six year old, then “Okay, go to bed now!”
So I had some relationship with comedy and I was interested in being a comedian. I studied and watched a lot of comedians of the time, Jerry Lewis specifically but also earlier comics like Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and The Marx Brothers I adored. I was doing some stuff like that, and then in high school I was studying fine art at an early age – sculpture, painting. And in high school, a lot of people in those classes were also doing theater, and they’d say to me “Oh, you should do theater too” and I’d say “Ah, I don’t know about that.” And eventually, they just cajoled me into auditioning, and I got in some plays and I started taking theater. But it was nothing I was really serious about. And actually, Robert Prichard was doing some of that stuff too, we went to the same high school. So I’ve known him since like ’72 or something. I got into theater, I liked improvisation, but I was more interested in art, and art got me into film – and I started experimenting with film, but it was more as a director and animator, not necessarily as an actor.
At some point before I graduated from high school, I got more interested in theater as a medium just by reading plays and seeing more theater. I grew up outside of D.C. and some of us would go up to Baltimore, to the Baltimore Theater Project and see, like, really risky international theater. And that kind of flipped me, that was really the thing. I was verging into philosophy and psychology and seeing this other kind of theater was pretty life-changing, and it was clearly being done by people who were interested in changing their own lives. Somewhere around age 17, 18 I began to have a different attitude toward all this.
When was the first time you got onstage?
I used to like to do theatrical things to get credit for, like English projects and Science projects. So if it was like either writing a paper or dressing up as some historical character and doing a monologue as that character, that’s what I would do. And I was really into making cassette tapes that dealt with anything from the Boston Tea Party to who knows what, and making that my class project, like even in Hebrew school – I’d write some sort of strange play for Captain Hamantaschen or something like that! (Laughs) I didn’t really think of it as theater, but it was totally theatrical.
Were you in any films prior to “The Mutilator”?
The Mutilator was my first lead role, but I’d done some bit stuff, I did some music videos, I had a minuscule part in Diner, you see me a couple times. Also Hair. Extra work, where I’m in soft focus. But I did a film in Colorado which I don’t think ever got released called Freaked Out, and I know people who’ve tried to hunt that down and can’t find it anywhere. I played multiple parts, made costumes and set pieces – I read the script and they said “Who do you want to play?” I said “All these different parts” and they said okay, go ahead. So they kind of made me their Peter Sellers, I created these wacky characters. Who knows where that is!
Was your film extra work in New York City?
No, that was all in D.C., including the music videos – the big music video I did was for Alan Parsons Project, “Prime Time.” I played a mannequin who comes to life and tries to escape.
Were you in New York when you were cast in “The Mutilator”?
Yeah but I hadn’t been there long, I think it had been less than a year. I had a job teaching at one of the performance arts high schools. The funny thing about that film was it was shot in North Carolina, and the director, Buddy Cooper flew up to New York to get “New York actors.” (Laughs) He cast two parts in New York – one was the lead, my part, and the other was the part that Frances Raines ended up playing. On the special features of the newest release, they have my audition tape and I’m opposite Ben Moore, playing Pam – my girlfriend in the film. So there’s Ben Moore going, “I don’t wanna make out tonight.” (Laughs) I look at that now and can’t believe I’m keeping a straight face.
Making the lead character’s father the killer was a strange choice, what did you think of the film’s story?
There’s a lot of weird stuff in Mutilator. It’s funny, because Buddy flew me down to record the commentary track for this release, and I was back where we shot the film, the motel that he owns. I hadn’t watched it since I can’t remember when, and there’s just so much that’s weird about it – the fact his own son plays my character as a young kid, shooting his mother, who was Buddy’s wife at the time? I mean – you don’t want to know. You don’t want to ask, you don’t want to know! (Laughs)
I used to just go crazy on set – The thing that got me the most was the hide-and-go-seek scene, I said, “It’s not dark!” They said it was day-for-night and would look fine, I said “It’s not going to look fine!” I hadn’t done that much film work but I knew it was going to look like us walking around, seeing everything! And they did it. There were so many things – I mean, I won some fights, but the basic premise I’m not going to win on, because that’s what the script was, which was that the kid’s father – he doesn’t figure it out. Part of the thing, also, which I took on was to play a little bit of – maybe I was the killer? So I tried, at least in the early scenes to be nervous and weird, which I think my character would have been if he had a father like that, and he’d killed his own mother. So I tried to play something there, but I don’t think the film really exploited the possibilities.
My favorite thing in the film is at the end, where they finally back the car up and Big Ed is cut in half, and I say – “Jesus Christ, it’s my dad!” (Laughs) I hadn’t figured it out up until then! And I think that was an improvised line.
What are your feelings looking back on the film today?
I loved the experience, it was a great experience – the only time I’ve been excited about getting a part. But the film was a crushing blow to me, I was really disappointed when I saw it – in my own performance, in the film itself – I still don’t get why it’s popular. But I’ve met people through it and gotten other films out of it, so there you go.
When it came out in New York City, you had the old grindhouses, the cinemas on 42nd Street interspersed with the porn cinemas, that would show triple features of low budget horror films. And Mutilator I think ran longer than any other film on The Deuce. I would go and see it, but I’d always come in the middle, and they’d let me in for free – and I just got such a kick out of the audience reactions. It was fabulous. So I enjoyed it when it was in those cinemas.
Could you talk about playing the werewolf in your subsequent film, “Deadtime Stories”?
I was happy with that performance. That was a good script, and I got to create my own characterization of it. Brutal, brutal shoot. (Laughs) It’s the only film I’ve done that I didn’t get paid for. But, you know – that’s over with. The director, Jeffrey Delman, we’re Facebook friends now – I think he did everything he could. He had a terrible deal with his producers. The guy basically took the money and ran. It was a horrible situation.
Was it from seeing you in that film that Brett Piper cast you as his lead in “Battle for the Lost Planet” (aka “Galaxy Destroyer”)?
Yeah, he either called me or sent me a letter, I forget – I didn’t even meet him until I got to New Hampshire. He contacted me and asked if I was interested, then sent me a script and I went, “Great!” (Laughs) He wrote a fun script, just really fun to read. I thought I was going to be really cool, I went out and bought a costume, showed it to Brett, he went – “No.” (Laughs) He ripped a leather jacket off one of his crew members and said, “Put this on.”
What did your original costume for Harry Trent look like?
It was a gray, classic kind of disco-era suit, a thin lapel suit, high-waisted. I had this idea of James Coburn in In Like Flint or something, a very cool guy. Brett was like, “Get rid of that.” I had the overcoat and he ripped off, actually sawed off, a corner of it, for the shoulder pad. But he was great, and I got to improvise insanely on his films. Some people get upset with me for rewriting or improvising but he just let me go to town. He was great to work with, and all the stop-action animation was nice. There’s one version of the film where I play the old guy at the beginning and end, and I don’t know why they scrapped that, I thought it was a fine performance.
It’s a very natural performance, was “Harry Trent” basically modeled on yourself?
Yeah, and I threw in everything that I had – I play harmonica, so let’s put it in there. I got to be funny, I got to be serious, I got to drive recklessly. And Brett would say to me, do you ride horses? Do you ride motorcycles? “Oh, yeah.” And of course I really couldn’t do either. So – (Laughs) when it came time for that, he just kind of went with it, made it goofy.
I had a good time, I really enjoyed the people I was working with, they were all really really fun. The thing about low budget is that it moves – you’re not sitting around waiting, you’re not sitting in a trailer somewhere, you’re working. It’s an 18 hour day but you’re certainly not bored. It was a blast. Flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, no money – there were times when Brett had to leave to take care of something and he’d say, “You want to direct that scene? You want to light that scene?” So I got to learn on the job with him.
Was it around this time you got involved with Tim Kincaid?
Yeah, I did Breeders and I did Maximum Thrust, which was then renamed The Occultist. After that people kind of came after me. I had a meeting with Troma, and – I just didn’t like them. (Laughs)
Was that for “Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2,” since Brett Piper was creating the stop-motion effects?
No, it was before that, it would’ve been for the first Nuke ‘Em High, which Robert did, or before that. It was Toxic Avenger, I think, or Nuke ‘Em High, I can’t remember now. I wasn’t getting paid a lot to be in a film, but they weren’t even offering me that, and I knew the conditions were horrible from everybody who worked on their films, and I just didn’t like them when I met them. They said “you can pick your role,” but…
Tim Kincaid, his scripts were horrendous, but he was really fun. He was fun and his people were fun. The Occultist was stupid, but I liked the character that I played. I got to do an accent. I had this terrifying death scene, but I was being very cavalier about the squibs being put on me, and as it got closer and closer to detonation time – I was getting white, getting sweaty.
You had a squib going off on your crotch, right?
My crotch and my head. And Matt Vogel, who was the pyrotechnics guy, I said, you know, “Did you try this?” “Oh yeah, yeah!” Of course, he hadn’t tried it. (Laughs) There was some footage of me getting ready, making jokes, and then those jokes start to get less funny. Of course, nothing bad happened.
How’d you create the accent for your character?
Oh, I just made it up. I mean, through all this stuff I had been practicing voices because of comedy stuff, so I was doing voices for radio and commercial stuff, puppet theater, and I did improvisation stuff. It wasn’t a voice that was particular to any country.
You did some voice work for “Pokemon” later on, correct?
I wasn’t one of the recurring characters, but I did various characters, monsters and sidekicks and stuff. I did have one episode where I was the romantic lead, “Misty Meets Her Match.”
Any recollections from filming your stomach-melting death in “Breeders”?
It was disgusting. (Laughs) Just sticky and gross, and cold.
How long after you’d made “Battle for the Lost Planet” did you hear back from Brett Piper about making the sequel, “Mutant War”?
Well he sent me scripts right away, he had a script called Spaceman which I adored, I just loved that script, and it’s never been made. There’s like three characters – a man, a woman and a spaceman. And I would’ve played – I mean, I would have played the girl, they’re all great parts. He never did it, but then he was talking about a sequel to Battle, and sent it to me as soon as it was written, and I went, “Great!”
I met Cameron Mitchell – he was a character. He was there for X amount of days to make X amount of money, then boom – he was gone. So I did body doubling for his death scene and then went to the re-recording studio to do looping for him. I could do impressions so I mimicked his voice. We had to redo a lot of him because he would just curse all over the place. He was always ad-libbing “fucks” and “shits” and all sorts of things, that had to go.
Was the making of “Mutant War” similar to “Battle for the Lost Planet”?
I think Brett had gotten better at casting, and setting things up and making things move. In terms of production value I think he was getting better at specific techniques, how to create illusions. Generally speaking I’d say it was a smoother shoot – it might not have had the kind of raw fun of the first. I did get hurt at the end – I flung myself from the second floor of a warehouse to fight a giant creature, and busted up the inside of my knee, basically. Brett said “You want to do another take?” I said “No, I don’t think so.” But I had to do like another six hours of fighting the mutant, then they took me to the hospital.
Have you kept in touch with Kincaid or Piper since then?
No idea what happened with Kincaid. Piper did contact me to do They Bite years later – but I haven’t been in contact since, maybe he’s upset that I didn’t do that, because I was doing a comedy version of Macbeth in nightclubs and stuff, with Robert actually. He produced it.
Any chance for Piper re-releasing your two films together on video?
It’s quite possible. I got contacted by some guy who wanted to do an interview with me who said that he was going to release Battle for the Lost Planet and Mutant War – but then I never heard anything more. This was probably half a year ago. Both films were produced by Arthur Schweitzer, but I guess the rights either went back to Brett or – I have no idea what the story is. But I know Brett is much more savvy now in terms of making his deals.
How did Frank Hennenlotter get in touch with you about Basket Case 2?
I guess my name was out there, he had his casting director call me. His script read like literature, just really fun to read. He would add this extra element to his descriptive sections, like instead of “The man walks into the house” he’d write “Now, you think the man’s going to walk into the house. And he does.” So he would make it like he’s talking to you. There’d be this level of communication that was really sort of snappy and very clever.
I had some ideas that I wanted to do with that part, and he wouldn’t let me – I had a Malcolm X “By Any Means Necessary” t-shirt and I brought that in, and Frank went, “No, this guy’s got to be sort of clean-cut.” The one place where he kind of let me improvise and go to town was the death scene, creating the laughter and that sort of stuff, he let me play around with that. I wanted to do my own stunts, they were not going to have me do any sort of physical stuff, but when they saw what I could do, they went, “Great!”
It was a pretty highly anticipated horror sequel, do you recall the atmosphere on set?
The atmosphere was great, you had these special effects guys who created this whole halfway house of mutants, I liked to just see them work, see the creations they were working on through trial and error. That for me was fascinating. Plus there were some very cool people on the production – Annie Ross, a lot of good people. It was a very professional set, everybody was on a whole other level than what I was used to. It also meant sitting around more, but it was just a very good experience. Frank was just an easygoing, very entertaining guy.
How did you and Robert Prichard start the video production company “Surf Reality”?
We were always kind of hooking up to do stuff together – I went off to Europe in 1977 and was studying and performing, and Robert came and joined me around 1980 in a company I had there, and we were doing kind of physical theater and rituals and stuff like that. We had moved back to New York and in 1985 we did a show at a place called The Pyramid Club, called “Grindhouse”, written and directed by Bennett Thiessen. It was serialized, I produced it and Robert was in it, his wife at the time, Jennifer Babtist was in it and Frances Raines was in it. It was basically this very surreal – we called it “the sleazy surreal serial” or something like that. It all happens in the fraction of a second that a demolition ball crashes into the front facade of the last grindhouse on 42nd Street. And in that moment, a regular Joe walking down the street gets sucked into the world of horror b-movies, while a horror film “Final Girl” gets thrust into the real world. It was a 12 part serial that we did over a period of half a year or something. And it was insanity – there were live special effects, live gore effects that I would create. Then we did it as a one-night-only run of all the episodes, off-Broadway.
So Rob and I did that, and that was a long period of time, and I was doing lots of crazy theater stuff during then. Surf Reality came up because someone came up to me at one point, he had seen my theater work and film work and improvisational stuff I was doing and he said, “Is it possible to improvise a film?” And I said, “Sure.” So he said, “Let’s do it.” So I worked with him, and the idea was to improvise in one day, not a two hour film but like 30, 40 minutes or whatever it was going to be. And we did it together, and the guy was just not a good person to work with. And Robert came on to do some DP work with it and he thought it was really cool, so I said, “We should do this, but not with this other guy.” So Robert created Surf Reality and we continued to do it on our own.
We called it the “Movie of the Month Club” and used actors we were working with all the time in the downtown performance art scene. We did half a dozen, maybe more. The first was Kid Scarface, and then there was Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die, I Was a Teenage Bride of Christ, there was Thrill Kill Video Club, there was Manic-A-Go-Go. The last one I did was Les Enfants Miserables, which was my French surrealist epic. After that, Robert and I did Macbeth, King of Scoutland, and made a video of that.
The credits in “Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die” list you as the film’s “Designer,” what did that involve?
Well that was always my thing – even in theater, I would design the lights, the costumes, the set. So the whole look of the film, the locations, it was all my stamp. The script was written by Jeff Eyres who also played Cosmo the Dealer, and then he played the same role in Cracking Up. We were working on these Movies of the Month to be able to do a feature film, that was the whole thing, to get good so we could do a feature film in a short period of time. Cracking Up was only 18 days.
So your film “Cracking Up” was the culmination of what you’d learned with Surf Reality?
Yeah. We had this huge cast ready to go, there were no auditions. I play kind of a Lenny Bruce type – it’s not me but it’s what I could have been if I’d sort of taken a left turn at some point. When I first moved to New York I did stand-up for a number of years, then I went to doing performance art, and made no money but it was much more fulfilling. With stand-up once I got more successful and started to tour, I really didn’t enjoy that at all – I didn’t like being in a motel room with three other stand-ups, going off to a club where I didn’t know anybody, doing a set, then going back to the motel and then another town.
Where can people find the film?
Cracking Up is not available anywhere yet. It had two different distributors at the time, but it never got released on video or DVD. It had theatrical releases, and I have the film and masters now, I just have to kind of get around to putting it in some format where people can watch it.
What are you currently involved with in New York theater?
My company is Dzieci Theater | Service & Art. We do a show called “Fools Mass” for Christmas, that’s what we’re rehearsing right now. In 2018 it’ll be the 20th anniversary of us doing that show.
Is that a charity show?
For the actors it is! (Laughs) It’s a not-for-profit, we’re actually incorporated as a church. We do the performances in sacred spaces, in churches, all kinds of different places. We have a donation policy, but we’re not turning anyone away.
Every Spring we’re doing A Passion, and every Fall we usually do Makbet, which is a Gypsy version of Macbeth, we have other shows scattered around sometimes, as well as workshops.
Right now every Sunday night at 11pm I have a radio program called Sunday Night Noir, and you can listen to it live at RadioFreeBrooklyn.com – which was started by Robert Prichard – or archived at https://audioboom.com/channel/sundaynightnoir. So, back together again! I serialized a novel I wrote called Kaufman’s Holiday, and I do all the voices. It’s really a full circle for me.
Many thanks to Matt Mitler for this interview!