ANAHEIM, Calif. — Actor Robert Englund is best known for portraying one of the biggest horror icons of all time, Freddy Krueger, in Wes Craven’s massively popular “A Nightmare on Elm Street” film franchise.
When he was approached by directors Gary Smart and Christopher Griffiths and writer Neil Morris a couple of years ago about being the sole subject of a documentary, he was hesitant at first. While he’s appeared in many horror documentaries, he wasn’t interested in taking a deep dive into his villainous character, but rather sharing how he got to that place and what his life and career have been like since.
Luckily, all parties were in agreement, and they began interviewing Englund about his life on film at his home in Laguna Beach. They also filmed interviews with several peers including his “A Nightmare on Elm Street” co-star Heather Langenkamp, “Candyman” actor Tony Todd, “Insidious” star Lin Shaye, and “Friday the 13th” actor Kane Hodder. “Hatchet” director Adam Green and “Cabin Fever” director Eli Roth also weighed in, as well as Englund’s wife, Nancy, to talk about his impact on the horror genre.
The project, “Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story,” will be available on the Screambox streaming service and digital on June 6.
“I look at this film as being more about an actor’s survival in Hollywood,” Englund said during a Zoom interview from his home earlier this month.
He’s got a jam-packed schedule that has him filming projects and making appearances at horror and sci-fi conventions around the world. He’ll be at Monsterpalooza at the Pasadena Convention Center to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans on June 2-4. He’s also taking part in a panel to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Freddy vs. Jason,” which will feature Englund and Ken Kirzinger, who starred as Jason Voorhees, in discussion with moderator Trevor Shand of “The Boo Crew” podcast at 8 p.m. on June 2.
Man in the makeup
Englund is not shy about discussing Freddy. He says he’s grateful for the role and has embraced the fact that it’s what he’ll be associated with, even joking in the documentary that Freddy will undoubtedly be mentioned in the first line of his obituary.
But he didn’t set out to be a horror icon.
Englund was born in Glendale and his father wanted him to be a lawyer. He broke his father’s heart when at the age of 13 he went off to join a children’s theater program at California State University, Northridge where he played characters like Aladdin, Pinocchio and Peter Pan. He fell in love with the theater and was addicted to making audiences laugh. He took acting seriously and later relocated to Michigan to attend the Cranbrook Theatre School and Oakland University’s Meadow Brook Theatre, which was part of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
He moved back to California and soon landed his first supporting role in the crime film “Buster and Billie” in 1974. It snowballed from there. He acted in small roles opposite some big names: Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve in the 1975 crime-thriller “Hustle”; Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1976 comedy-drama “Stay Hungry”; Henry Fonda in the 1977 comedy “The Great Smokey Roadblock”; and Gary Busey in the 1978 film “Big Wednesday.”
“I never planned to be a genre star or a horror icon — well, I’m not the icon, Freddy Krueger is — but I wanted to be James Dean when I was a kid,” he said. “I wanted to be Marlon Brando and I fell in love with English actors and wanted to be Albert Finney. I wanted to be one of the cool guys like Peter O’Toole and a character actor like Warren Oates and Strother Martin.”
Throughout the ’70s and very early ’80s, Englund was a go-to guy for buddy roles in films, getting hired to play “the sidekick, the best friend, pissant cowboy or the scuzzy little junkie boy,” he said.
Of those early films, he said “Stay Hungry” was his favorite. The movie was directed by the late Bob Rafelson and afforded Englund the opportunity to interact with budding actors that would go on to massive stardom.
“You get to see a really young Jeff Bridges and a very vulnerable Sally Field and it’s really Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting debut and he’s wonderful, a natural and beautiful,” he said. “All over this film there are wonderful, wonderful actors and, of course, yours truly. I had a great fight scene with these amazing, cool shots that I nailed on my second take.”
There were also plenty of parts Englund auditioned for that he didn’t get. He read for the role of Han Solo in George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” which was sort of sprung on him upon leaving an audition for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
He didn’t get a call back for either one. He also auditioned for a part in the 1976 film “Carrie,” but that went to another young and rising star, John Travolta.
At home with horror
In the mid-’80s, Englund got the role that would completely change the course of his career. In 1984, he starred in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a supernatural slasher about a man who murdered children as they were dreaming. The film had a young and relatively unknown cast, and it marked the acting debut of Johnny Depp.
Englund spent hours in the makeup chair to have the prosthetic burn scars and makeup applied to his face and torso each day. He admits to being envious of his “younger, more beautiful” co-stars, who seemingly just waltzed into work. He used some of that envy to get into the Freddy mindset. The movie was a huge success and he reprised his role as Freddy for seven more sequels, last appearing as the character in 2003’s “Freddy vs. Jason,” where his iconic Freddy faces off against another unstoppable killer, Jason Voorhees of the “Friday the 13th” franchise.
Freddy was everywhere. The character was plastered onto lunchboxes and T-shirts and even had his own short-lived television show. Englund made appearances as Freddy on daytime talk shows and showed up in music videos. He had become a pop culture phenomenon and England, a classically trained thespian and self-proclaimed theater snob, resented that for a bit. But with the encouragement of his wife Nancy, who he said would often tell him to just “let it go,” England learned to embrace the icon status.
Life after Freddy
“When the (Freddy) makeup finally came off, I had aged,” Englund said.
Though he continued to get roles in horror films where he donned prosthetics like “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1989, Tobe Hooper’s 1995 film “The Mangler” and Tim Sullivan’s 2005 film, “2001 Maniacs,” work outside of the horror genre had dried up.
“I was still getting carded until I was 33 years old, but when I finally took off that makeup and those makeup roles subsided, I had aged,” he continued. “My face had aged and this old broken nose had gotten longer, my hair had receded and I got nice bags under my eyes. I could grow a beard, finally. But, I sort of stepped into low-budget Vincent Price roles that no one else was doing and that turned out to be a great happy accident in my career, along with ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’”
A new generation of horror fans are also discovering his past movies thanks to his role on the fourth season of the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” He originally tried out for the role of Hawkins’ mayor Larry Kline in season three, but that went to actor Cary Elwes. Englund auditioned again and got the part of Pennhurst Mental Hospital patient Victor Creel. To audition, he filmed himself in his bathroom, wrapped up in a white shirt designed to look like a straight jacket, lying inside the bathtub as he delivered the dialogue.
“I was already a big fan of the show and Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven),” he said. “There were other actors on it I really admired too, like Paul Reiser (Dr. Sam Owens), Matthew Modine, and I was discovering the great work of David Harbour (who plays Jim Hopper). It was a great gift to work with (director) Shawn Levy and (actor) Maya Hawk. The writing is so good and it’s such a terrific show with so many wonderfully talented young people working on it aside from David and Winona Ryder.”
He’s enjoying this new chapter of his career where he’s being cast as “the old priest, the old doctor, the old scientist or the old man that tells the backstory,” he said. He even assumed a role similar to that of actor Robert Stack on “Unsolved Mysteries” when he hosted the Travel Channel’s “True Terror with Robert Englund” series.
“I never would have been allowed those roles had I not stuck with the horror genre,” he said. “And I’m very grateful for that.”