Throughout the '80s, one of the biggest genre actors was Tom Atkins, who starred in The Fog, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Creepshow, Night of the Creeps, and more. While he might not have been a box office sensation, Atkins and his horror turns made him one of the more beloved performers of the decade, with his films continually being discovered by new audiences, spreading his fandom even further. Luckily for fans, filmmakers who grew up on those films have become filmmakers themselves, leading to him getting more roles recently, including My Bloody Valentine 3D, Drive Angry, and the upcoming Trick.
Not only did Atkins star in a number of compelling films over the course of his career, but he also collaborated with some of the biggest names in the genre. From directors John Carpenter and George Romero to writer Stephen King or actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne Barbeau, the actor was a go-to collaborator of horror royalty.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with the actor to discuss his impressive credits, his response to die-hard fans, and what the future holds.
ComicBook.com: Your first big, starring role in horror came with The Fog, leading to a number of not just genre films, but collaborations with filmmaker John Carpenter. You've spoken before about first meeting him at a screening of Halloween, but when did you first decide to collaborate?
Tom Atkins: We met at that screening, and I went with my wife from California, which we're no longer together, and a friend of hers, they kept leaning over and hiding their eyes, and saying, "Can we look now? Can we look now?" And I would go, "Yeah. Now's a good time. Look." And they looked and screamed and covered their eyes again, and swear at me for making them look.
And I met John that night. And not long thereafter, he invited me to the role of Nick Castle in The Fog. That was kind of it. He knew of my work, and I was good friends with Adrienne, who he was dating at the time. Then they married and had a son of their own. And my first professional meeting with him was on the set of The Fog.
You continued collaborating on projects like Escape from New York and Halloween III, did you just click in a way that inspired you to keep working with him?
Yeah, I think so. He's a terrific director and a terrific guy. And we got along well, and he knows exactly what he wants from a scene, and he gives you the framework to get to it. And we had a great time and a good working relationship. And we did The Fog and Escape from New York. And he and Debra Hill produced Halloween III. And I think of the three of us, Halloween III was great for me, it was a wonderful job and a lot of people come up when it came out, angry that Michael Myers wasn't in it. But we never really cared. It was John's intention to do an anthology of Halloween movies. And the money people said, "No, we just want to keep making Michael Myers movies, and we can make a lot of money on them. But since this Halloween III is already in the chute, you can make that, but don't make any more different ones. We don't like that."
Not only was Halloween III absent of Michael Myers, but the whole plot focuses on killing children, which is much more nihilistic than your standard slasher.
Oh, I know. Not me.
Right, not your character, Conal Cochran of Silver Shamrock. He makes the masks that kills kids and turns their heads into bugs when a commercial comes on, but you manage to save them at the end.
Yeah, he was great to work with too. I think some English guy wrote the first half of that, the first draft, and then left the project. And Tommy Lee Wallace finished it up and directed it. And we kid sometimes about, "So, what do you think, did we save all the kids?" And he said, "Oh my God, yeah, because the alternative is the screaming, agonizing, painful death, excruciating of millions of children. We can't do that." So they got that off the air. That station shut down, and then they were all saved.
So it sounds like you and everyone else were confident enough in the film that you were never really concerned about making a Halloween movie without Michael Myers?
You know, there wasn't. There wasn't any of that. I don't think Michael Myers ever came up in any of our discussions about the film. And I met with Tommy a couple of times. With John, we just got right into it. But Tommy and I had a couple of meetings talking about the film. And he had me come in for him and Debra, and he had me come in with Stacey Nelkin, when they were down to about three young girls to choose from, to play that role. And he said, "Would you come in and read with them?" And I said, "Sure. Hell, yeah."
So I went over and met with the three. And as soon as she walked out of the room, we all said, "Whoa, she's it. There you go." She was just precious. But we never talked about Michael Myers, honestly. We just made the best movie we could from what we had. And I thought it was a terrific story.
What's so frustrating about Halloween III failing to find an audience early on is that it means we missed out on various other Halloween-related projects that Carpenter could have cooked up.
I agree, honestly. I'm sure it was financially rewarding for everybody to do the Michael Myers movies. And they're still doing them now. Jamie Lee's about to start another one soon. But yeah, I would like to have seen different ghost stories. There's so many wonderful ghost stories out there, Halloween stories. And I just finished one up in Newburgh, New York, with Patrick Lussier. It's my third time working with him. I did My Bloody Valentine 3D, and Drive Angry, and now a film called "Trick."
They actually just announced a release date for Trick.
Did they really? When is it? Do you know?
Mid-October. October 18th.
He said he was shooting for this Halloween. That's great. That's wonderful. Good on him. That's terrific. I love Patrick. I love working with him. He's a lot of fun.
You've worked with him a few times, how did that collaboration come about?
That happened, I guess, from The Fog and Halloween III, and Escape, and Creepshow, and the movies that I had done. I lived in the Pittsburgh area, and he called this casting woman, and asked her, "I'm coming to shoot a movie, My Bloody Valentine 3D there, in the Pittsburgh area, and I wondered could you get an interview with Tom Atkins for me?" And she said, "Sure. I'll reach out to him." And she did.
I met him downtown at an old hotel coffee shop and it was just terrific. It was like I had known him all my life. He was so easy to talk to and be around. He had great ideas for this film. And he said, "I want you to play this sheriff, Jimmy Burke, in this film, but when I tell you how you die, you might not want to do it." So I said, "Well, tell me how do I die." And he told me half my lower face would be ripped off by a pickaxe and go flying out over the audience's right shoulder, into the corner of the movie theater. And I said, "Oh, we're on. I'm in. Count me in. That sounds like great fun." And it was great fun. We had a good time doing it here, in the Burgh.
Another genre film that's been getting more love in recent years is Night of the Creeps.
That's my favorite.
There's been so much excitement, you even got your own action figure for that movie.
I know. Can you believe that? I laugh at that every time I see it. It cracks me up.
Who would have thought, 30 years later, you'd get an action figure for the film?
Who would? No one. Almost 35 years after we made the movie, there's me, Detective Ray Cameron with my trench coat and shotgun and revolver and two beers. An Atkins Lite Lager or a Dekker.
It wouldn't be authentic without the beer cans.
Oh, God. I loved making that movie. And [director] Fred [Dekker] has talked about making a sequel with all the same people, except, I guess, Steve Marshall, who got dead. The kid that was on crutches.
We just saw each other out in Chicago at a convention, a Night of the Creeps reunion, a week and a half ago. And it was wonderful seeing all of those jamokes, honest to God. It was just great. And Fred said he's got something in the works, but I'm not sure if it's a Night of the Creeps 2 or "revisited," but it's something he's working on.
Did he tell you to keep your schedule clear for that?
I don't think it's that close to being done. But, yeah. He said, "I'll send it to you, and tell me what you think." So, we'll see.
What's interesting is that Halloween III got a major release, with a small group of viewers loving it while the rest hated it. Night of the Creeps had a lot more positive of a response, but it opened in a much smaller market at the time. How does it feel that these films finally found their audiences?
Well, The Fog was a nice opener and so was Escape from New York, both of those were terrific. But Halloween III and Night of the Creeps were very quiet and small. They did not get a big releases, well, I guess Halloween III did, a little bit, but Night of the Creeps didn't and neither did Fred's other film, Monster Squad, which I think is also a wonderful film. But they have developed an incredible following over the years. And even the studios that own them. Like Night of the Creeps, 10 years ago Sony finally said, "Well, geez, I guess instead of all these bootleg VHSs that are running around, we should make a righteous DVD and release it."
They sent us all down to Austin, and we did a Director's Cut, Fred's Director Cut, and then sat around in a hotel and talked about it and did the extra reel and stuff. And they had a big opening release at the Alamo Drafthouse.
I love that, I'm so appreciative. I tell you, every time I go to a convention or a thing with all the fans, how much they adore the movies as much as I do. I love Night of the Creeps and Halloween III, too. And they're right there with me, and they've grown in number over the years.
How does it feel seeing how devoted fans are after the movies didn't do well in their initial release? Fans showing off tattoos of your films and such?
Oh my God. I was up at Cleveland a couple of years ago, and a guy came up and said, "Look," and he turned his calf, and there's me, holding a shotgun, on his whole calf. Honest to God. And I thought, "Cheese and crackers, you guys are crazy. You're nuts."
You probably never expected that when you were seeing the films' opening box office.
Oh my God, no. Never.
In 1982, you teamed up with a few horror icons for Creepshow, directed by George Romero and written by Stephen King. What can you tell us about that experience, where you were only on set for a few days and filming with King's son?
I met with George and his wife, Christine, who was a producer on it, Romero, out there in L.A. And he said, "Did you like the script?" I said, "Yeah, I love it, it seems like it'll just be a blast to make. A lot of fun. You're going to make it like a comic book, right?" And he said, "Absolutely. Bright colors." And he said, "Anything in there you like particularly?" I said, "Well, yeah, I would love to play that Jordy guy and get eaten by the swamp grass. I would love that." And he said, "I can't. Stephen King wrote it, and he wants to play that. So he's going to play it. But would you do me a favor and do the dad in the wraparound, the beginning and the end?" And I said, "Yeah, sure."
We had a good time. And it was Stephen King's son Joe played my son. He was about nine, then. And, oh my God, it was hysterical. When we shot the scene where I told the kid I don't want him to read that shit anymore, this "horror crap, where do you get this crap?" And I slap him because he talks back to me. Stephen was in the room, worrying that I was going to hurt his son. From the beginning of the scene until we wrapped that scene, I kept trying to reassure him that I would not. And I didn't. And I barely brushed his face with my fingers. But they made it sound really good after, in post-production. It was great being with them.
We went to a gathering at George's house during the making of Creepshow, his apartment at the time. It was me, and John Carpenter was in town because Adrienne was in Creepshow, so there was me and my wife, Adrienne, John, Stephen, George, [makeup artist] Tom Savini. And I thought, "God, if a bomb landed on this apartment, the horror genre would be in deep shit." It was great being in that apartment, that evening, having dinner and drinks and shooting the breeze.
I miss George. I miss him so much. He was a great guy. What a wonderful, wonderful man.
George used to shoot a lot of things up in Pittsburgh.
He did, yeah. He did everything here until Bruiser. And then he went up to Toronto when the money just got too right to be up there and not here.
What do you have coming up that fans should be on the lookout for?
They're going to have a Tom Atkins tribute at the Egyptian theater in L.A. on October 6th. They're going to screen Halloween III and, I think, Night of the Creeps. Two films. I'm really looking forward to it.
And when anyone asks, you always have the perfect response to Michael Myers and Halloween III.
Oh, when somebody comes up and bitches about no Michael Myers? "You don't give a fuck."
We already mentioned Trick is coming out on October 18th, any other films you've got coming up?
Look for Encounter, too, a sci-fi film that I did a couple of years ago. I think it just got a distributor, and about to go with Paul Salamoff, who wrote and directed it. It's called "Encounter." And we're going to make another one down in Augusta, called "Into the Grey," sometime in the fall, later this year. I'm looking forward to Trick now too. I'm happy to hear that, that's it's got a Halloween release.
Trick lands in select theaters and On Demand on October 18th.
Do you have a favorite Tom Atkins film? Let us know in the comments below or hit up @TheWolfman on Twitter to talk all things horror and Star Wars!