I, Wolf Man
Earlier this year, I pitched an idea for a sitcom to ABC. It was an autobiographical family comedy and, to my astonishment, the network ordered a pilot, surprising me further by acceding to my request that I star in the show, bravely taking on the role of “Me”.
Producing a pilot that you are also starring in is a time-consuming business, which is why, when a friend called to ask whether I’d take a role in the short film he was making, I declined. Putting on my “soft-but-firm” voice, I explained that I’d been given a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I owed it to myself to give it my all. Throwing his trump card, my director friend started in on the role he had in mind for me, and three minutes later I was in my pilot’s production office rearranging the shooting schedule. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are nice, to be sure, but I’d just been asked to play the Wolf Man.
The Wolf Man had always been my favorite monster. Most preteen boys have a favorite monster. It comes after you’ve picked a favorite superhero, but before you’re old enough to have a favorite band. As an aside, I’d like to stop here and applaud the genius of the rock band KISS. Gene Simmons and company, intentionally or by accident, engineered a perfect bridge between these two phases. KISS was, if nothing else, a rock band made up of monsters. Except for Peter Criss, who, inexplicably, was a giant kitty cat. Perhaps he figured nothing screamed “Rock 'n' Roll!” like whiskers and a dainty nose.
My friend Paul had a favorite monster. Now a successful architect, Paul derived endless joy from Godzilla’s love of mindless destruction. Ryan, a public-radio producer, speaks wistfully of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and how he related to its sense of hurt and isolation. Apparently, this meant a lot to Ryan, at least until he was old enough to get into The Smiths. But I loved the Wolf Man. Poor, cursed, Larry Talbot, in all his growling glory.
“I’m going to warn you up front,” said my director friend, “we’re doing the werewolf transformation old school. It’ll be six or seven hours, so get ready.”
“Old school” meant no computers. The transformation scene would be shot the same way it was done back in the 1940s. I would start the scene looking like myself, then be put into the makeup chair for the first stages of the makeup, after which I’d be re-set into exact, and I mean exact, position, shot for a little bit more, back into the chair, on and on, repeat until furry.
The short, entitled United Monster Talent Agency, marks the directorial debut of Greg Nicotero, an award-winning makeup artist ( Inglourious Bastards, The Pacific, and the new AMC series The Walking Dead), and is a loving tribute to the Universal Studios monsters of the '30s and '40s. In addition to yours truly, the films features a roster of genre directors and actors, including Frank Darabont, Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, and Jeffrey “ Re-Animator” Combs. (You can view it through this embedded video, or on the big screen at the Egyptian in Los Angeles on Thursday night as part of “ An Evening With Bela Lugosi.”)
As for the daylong transformation sequence, I wasn’t worried. In fact, I’m well suited for that kind of work. As far as I’m concerned, being tortured in the makeup chair is half the fun. If that makes sense to you, the Wolf Man was probably your favorite monster, too. You see, the Wolf Man, unlike Godzilla or Frankenstein, isn’t about anarchy or emo sensitivity. He’s about guilt. Shame and guilt. And I can relate. On the one hand, I was raised a Catholic. On the other hand, well, you can imagine what was happening in the other hand, hence all the shame and guilt.
Larry Talbot’s remorse and self-pity came more from the actor playing him than anything in the script. Lon Chaney, Jr. was Larry Talbot, imbuing him with enough hand-wringing intensity to power a small fleet of Kate Winslets.
Lon, Jr. was born Creighton Tull Chaney, the son of Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era. Not wanting to be anywhere near his father’s shadow, much less actually in it, Creighton didn’t start acting until Lon, Sr. was safe in the grave. The name “junior” didn’t come until studio heads convinced him that Lon Jr. would get work where Creighton would not. He took the name and never forgave himself.
Despite scoring a big win as the simpleton Lennie in 1939’s Of Mice and Men, Lon, Jr. spent his early career giving uninspired performances in uninspired Westerns. Unlike his father, a theatrical artiste, Lon fancied himself a regular Joe, a “ham-n’-egger” who liked nothing more than drinking, wrasslin’, drinking and drinking. This might not have helped his liver much, but it gave his Larry Talbot a sense of emotional heft that towered over any other performance he would ever give. Larry knew that when the moon was full, he was powerless over his actions and would wake up the next morning in disheveled clothes not knowing what he did or where he’d been. For Lon, who waged a life-long battle with very real, liquid demons, the roll fit like a beer koozie.
Now of course, as a little kid, this nuance was lost on me. But I was, at that age, brimming with anxiety. I have a photo of myself from around this time. I’m standing on my porch, hands thrust into my pockets, face grim, jaw clenched, brow knit. I look like I’m about to send young men off to war. I’m 6. It’s no surprise that Larry Talbot, more angst than man, rang my bell.
The Wolf Man, unlike Godzilla or Frankenstein, isn’t about anarchy or emo sensitivity. He’s about guilt. And I can relate.
My middle daughter is now the same age as the kid in that photo, but personality-wise, they couldn’t be further apart. A grinning, gangly, wisp of a kid, my daughter breezes through life with a carefree self-assurance I still have a hard time faking. Not surprisingly, she has little use for monsters. With Halloween approaching, I thought I’d show her one of my childhood favorites, the so-bad-its-awesome, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. She squirmed through it, unimpressed. The only thing she liked was Peter Criss.
Dana Gould is a comedian, writer and (sometimes) actor living in Los Angeles. He appears regularly on Real Time With Bill Maher and was a longtime producer on The Simpsons . You can follow him on Twitter.