This interview dates back to around 2012.
Michael Berryman is one of the most recognisable faces in horror films. This is due to several reasons, not least because he was born in the right part of America to become part of the film industry but also because he was born at the right time. We were quite definitely in a different age to which Tod Browning could produce a film which was essentially no further detached than the freakshow it depicted (1932’s ‘Freaks’) – attitudes had changed but not strictly in the sense that Berryman’s appearance had no bearing as to whether he was cast – more that there was inherent freedom to become an actor, the opportunity to act was rarely greater with the American film and TV industry churning out material at an incredible rate.
Away from hypothesising and scrutinising the use of actors whose appearance differed from the norm, it is interesting to see it from the actor’s perspective [NB. Berryman’s appearance is due to a genetic problem he was born with]:
Daz: What can you tell us about Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, in particular how it specifically affected you? Did having a father who was a neurosurgeon help?
Michael Berryman: My father was Sloan Berryman, a neurologist/surgeon. He assisted during my craniectomy operation. My skull was fused and some of my facial bones were underdeveloped. I was born before my sweat glands, hair and teeth were finished being formed. This condition required a haircut and surgery on a Saturday morning that I would have preferred to spend at home. I awoke, blind and secured to my hospital bed, so as not to move my healing skull. The doctors literally built me a finished skull. Bones were chipped from my hips, to build bridges for the skull grafts. I remember my parents visiting me daily. The first time I could use my eyes, I saw my Mom and Dad’s faces as they handed me a small box of cowboys and Indians and horses. My vision was a circular area with gold light around the edge and I could only focus on the centre. I would move items across this field to see them. I rested a lot. The day came when I could go home. I thank God for my excellent vision and balance, but it was later on, in my teens, that I realised I had no ability to sweat. Heatstroke was always close at hand and I have dealt with prevention and treatment often. This condition kept me out of being a candidate for Officer’s Candidate School (U.S. Army). I was in R.O.T.C. [Reserve Officer’s Training Corps] at college when I had a dangerous event and a temperature of 103. So much for an officer’s commission.
Daz: Growing up is hard enough at the best of times – how were you treated in your formative years and how did you deal with, presumably, widespread ignorance of your condition?
MB: I went to a Catholic grammar school and high school. This was the doing of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. My mother had to agree to this or she could not be married in a Church. She was Catholic and my father was Presbyterian. High school was when I really learned about ignorance and prejudice and cruelty. Kids learn from society and parents. I was teased a lot. I was more concerned about a close friend, Billy, he wore leg braces and dealt with the effects of polio. When people teased him or stole his crutches, I would defend him and angrily confront the teachers for not protecting him. He died in a car wreck on his senior prom night. He was a kind and wonderful young man. He had a heart of Gold. In public, when some kid would tease me, I would tell the bully, “You are a coward, and if we could switch bodies, you would have the chance to grow a soul and join ‘Humanity’. I pity your small-hearted life.”
Daz: Where was life taking you before you were discovered by George Pal? [NB. Pal had been a pretty big-time Hollywood producer since the 40s: ‘The Time Machine’ and ‘War of the Worlds’ were both his].
MB: Before I was discovered by George Pal, I had thought in my mind, that life could be great if I lived in Canada or Alaska. I wanted to be near nature and the natural world. I read a lot and respected “The PeaceMakers” and all who “Did no harm”. I did learn from ‘The Good Book’ when I was an altar boy at Saint Martin of Tours in Los Angeles (the same school for the Hilton family, the [Peter] Lawfords, the Red Skelton family) I learned the ‘dirty little secrets’ that the bishops and popes have ignored for centuries. I am a survivor. I have no use for Religion. It enslaves the masses. I respect and appreciate real Spirituality and Humanity. “We are our Brother’s keeper”.
George Pal walked into my art/plant store in Venice Beach one day and we had a chat. He invited me to be in his movie (‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze”, 1975). The rest is history! Thank you, George.
Daz: Being thrust into the film world unexpectedly, how did you approach your early roles in ‘Doc Savage’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’? From whom did you draw inspiration, both in terms of acting and also beyond?
MB: The film world was very new to me. However, I was on the set of [‘One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest’ for 127 days. I asked a lot of questions and I learned from the best. Thank you, Saul and Milos. I have a minor in Art History, so the art of storytelling became my friend. I know my looks opened the door to film. However, I worked very hard, even on days off, I went to the set so I could learn everyone’s job and why it was important. I found my new family. It is the family of the storytellers and shamans and artists that share and explore the breadth and depth of humanity. I found acceptance and a space to create and support myself. Again, thank you George Pal, “You discovered me and trusted me to perform my role.” My hard work and study landed me more work. Looks were just a category at first. Soon directors learned I could do comedy and drama and much more.
Daz: ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ must have been a brilliant opportunity to vent your frustration and learn your craft at the same time?
MB: ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ was a lot of fun. The work was hot in the day and cold at night. Peter [Locke, producer] and Wes [Craven, director] were young then too. We busted our nut to make a real-to-life film with honest parallel families. I felt the script was wicked-smart. I easily found Wes to be a very talented friend with a vicious artistic approach to his work. I enjoy social commentary in my roles. Remember, films reflect life and sometimes entertain and teach. I learn every day.
Daz: You don’t take the easy route… working in the desert and later in environments like jungles must have been gruelling?
MB: One day Peter Locke told me that because I was not a complainer during our difficult shoot, that I had created a character (Pluto), and I even did my fight scenes after returning to the desert right after having surgery on my arms and never complained.
Daz: At what point did you realise you were going to be the centrepiece of the poster? Was it then you realised you had a bona-fide new career?
MB: It was Peter’s thought to put me on the poster. I was jazzed! I knew it would bring exposure and more work. Of course, I was aware that my face and difference would be out there for the whole world to see, but this was a career where I could work around my medical issues. There are fans and air-conditioning and trailers to chill out in. I felt appreciated. I studied my work and found that I did bring the roles to life. It felt great! People started to tell me in public that they liked my work too! Well, I thank all my fans and directors for letting me have the opportunity to join in the dance! Let’s do another movie, OK?
Daz: Did ‘Hills Have Eyes 2’ look a lot better on paper? If you could have had personal control over casting, plot, etc, how would you have envisioned the film?
MB: ‘The Hills Have Eyes 2’ …well I did like the dog flashback a lot. The film looked sharp, but the acting was so very weak, it was a disappointment. I would have left out ‘The Reaper’ role [essentially the main baddie]. The script needed a complete re-write.
Daz: ‘Cut & Run’ – working with Ruggero Deodato is often considered more than a little hard work; what do you remember of his directing techniques? You must have been aware of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ – did his use of animal cruelty taint your view of him?
MB: Deodato likes to capture his actors and give them freedom, I like this. The exotic locations are a real treat. The work was very physical and demanding, but I was in terrific shape. I was aware of his animal cruelty. I have discussed the subject with Ruggero. We have our differences. I choose to be polite. However, I will say that I love working with the Italians! At the end of a day’s work, we get home to the hotel, clean up and all sit together and have a long dinner with wine and laughter… they are my extended family. Ciao!!
Daz: You’ve appeared in two massive franchises; ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The X-Files’, bringing you to the attention of a brand new audience. Generally speaking, you’ve played bad guys or the outcast – is this something you’re happy with, or do you yearn for a different kind of role [‘The X-Files’ certainly hinted that this was more than within your capabilities]? Are there parts you consider too degrading to take?
MB: I have turned down roles that were demeaning or prurient and exploitative. I revelled at the audition with Chris Carter for the ‘X-Files’. I got the concept right away, for the ‘Owen Jarvis’ role. I told Chris and the director, David Nutter, that I was the actor they needed. I read and they said: “See you in Vancouver”. It was the role that changed my image in ‘Hollywood’. I had gone from a ‘monster’ to an ‘angel’. The ‘typecast’ had been defeated and I knew it!
‘Star Trek’ was a no-brainer for my look and talent. I have always known that sci-fi writers are future thinkers. They address very important issues. They give us a chance to appraise our humanity. I met Rod Serling one night in Brentwood, California. I was fourteen. He spoke with me for about twenty minutes. I told him how important his writing was to me. He smiled, took a drag from his cigarette, thanked me and said he had a new series in the works [which, of course, turned out to be ‘Twilight Zone’]. How often do artists get the roles that entertain and make a difference? Not very often. Most broadcast TV is pure crap.
Daz: Historically or contemporarily, is there another actor you identify with?
MB: I don’t have any one actor to say: ‘That is who I emulate’. I am only “Just Me’. Give me a good script, a great crew, and a director and producer who have the fire in their gut!! In all, take care of one another, get some popcorn and go to a movie! Life should be better after that!
So, the phone will ring and I will read and study and hope we have a real good ‘Craft Service’!! Yeah!
You can buy Michael Berryman’s memoirs here