Unless you’re well up on your cult movies, Billy Drago’s name might not be familiar, but you’ll recognise the face. Thirty years in films have seen him kill Sean Connery and be killed by Clint Eastwood.
He’s probably still best known as Frank Nitti, thrown off a roof by Kevin Costner in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, but his sinister persona has seen him most often employed in horror movies. His most recent gig was for Rob Zombie, playing Judge Samuel Mather in the upcoming The Lords of Salem. He seems rarely to have been interviewed at length, which is a shame, because he’s a repository of brilliant stories. This interview was conducted for a UK film magazine, but as is often the case, there was only room for a few hundred words, whereas the full transcript ran to thousands. Here then, is the director’s cut…
Drago could talk for England, so it’s a shame he’s never been here…
England is one of the few countries of the world I haven’t had a chance to work in. I’ve flown through it so many times on the way to someplace. Sometime I’ll have a layover to look at London and all the tourist things.
Where do you most enjoy working?
I’ve shot a lot of pictures in Asia: for whatever reason they like me there a lot! But I only finally got to shoot in Japan relatively recently, with Takashi Miike for the Masters of Horror series. It never played in the States. It was going to, but whoever figures these things out looked at it and said ‘We love it, it’s fantastic, but it’s just too unsettling…’ Why hire Takashi Miike to direct your picture if you don’t want it to be unsettling? It only came out in the States on DVD, but it was a great experience. Takashi doesn’t really speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, but we spoke Film, in a sense; we understood what we were going to do. And we got to shoot kind of off the beaten track. When you think Japan you basically think Tokyo, and you don’t think about the mountains and the rural areas… There are so many islands and each one’s a little different, so we saw swamps and mountains… That was a great experience.
What got you started in movies?
I was a disc jockey for a number of years and I eventually ended up with a syndicated radio show that played 300 radio stations around the country, playing late night blues and jazz. Every now and again I’d go around to some radio station and make nice with the sponsors, and one of them in Kansas was a big theatre company. I’d always wanted to be an actor, but I come from such a little town that I didn’t have any idea how you would go about doing it, so just for the hell of it I asked if I could stand on the stage and audition for a part, just so I could say in my head one time I had a real try-out for a professional acting gig. And I did it and went back to the radio station. And the next day they called up and said if I really wanted it, the job was mine, and they were leaving for Denver on Monday, to tour Canada for six months! It was like the gods of fate saying there’s your opportunity, take it or leave it! I called my attorney and told him to sell the house, sell the show, sell everything, because on Monday I’m going to go be an actor! I’m outta here! And when the tour was finished I got a train ticket to New York, which was a two-week trip, and gradually got plays at Lincoln centre and bits and pieces. And after a while I took the bus from New York to LA, and that’s how I ended up in movies!
Pale Rider was one of your first movies…
It was. I had long hair at the time, because I’d just finished my first movie, The Windwalker, with Trevor Howard, which was set in the 1600s. I’d gotten a job on MASH, and the Pale Rider people were deciding whether they wanted me to have long hair, and the MASH people were telling me to cut it, since I was supposed to be in the army. I said ‘I can’t!’ It didn’t matter, because it became this classic MASH episode called POV, where you never see my character; it’s shot entirely from my point of view. So I kept my long hair, and I got to do Pale Rider!
You can’t get much better than being killed by Clint Eastwood in a Western. I’ve killed great people and been killed by great people!
Is it really Eastwood that shoots you though? It’s just a hand coming out of a horse trough: is it not just a stunt-hand?
No, it really is Eastwood! It’s not a stunt hand! He’s right there, hiding in the trough. I almost got blown up because of that shot. They glued a dime to my neck and then put the plastic explosive on the dime, and then they wired it and made it up so you couldn’t see it. And the wires went down my pants leg all the way over to the FX guy. So they set all that up and then we broke for lunch, and in the meantime, out there in the desert which was so hot, the plastic explosive started to melt and a little bit slipped off the dime onto my neck without me realising. So I’m there and this gun comes up and BOOM, all of a sudden I realised, that’s not stage blood! That’s really me!
Eastwood is like two different people. There’s this kind of middle-aged director in a stalking hat and a big coat, behind the camera, and then he would step away from the camera, and he’d take off the big coat and his costume would be underneath, and he’d put on the hat, and after about ninety seconds, there would be Clint Eastwood! He’s a wonderful jazz musician too. We were up in the mountains staying at this ski lodge, and I went into the bar and someone was playing the piano really beautifully. And I sat down to listen, and looked over, and it was Clint, just casually playing the piano in the hotel bar.
I have really fond memories of that film. John Russell who played the lead bad guy came up to me the first day of shooting and put his arm around me and said ‘Son, this movie’s gonna pay off for you like a slot machine!’ And he was right. The residuals from late night TV and DVD… Whenever there’s an Eastwood box set or a Western box set it’s in there… Those residuals are still very nice.
And from Pale Rider you went straight to The Untouchables…
That was one of those films where even the things that went wrong went right. It was a difficult shoot in that it was period and we were actually shooting in the city so you have to periodise all those blocks. It was huge. And the studio didn’t know it was going to be a hit, and they actually called De Palma and shut it down. They said “okay we’ve seen the footage, you’ve got enough, we don’t want to spend any more money, that’s it, after the weekend you’re home”, and there were a whole load more scenes we were supposed to shoot.
That’s when they went and shot the Odessa Steps sequence in the train station, with a load of raw film stock that De Palma had stored up. That wasn’t even in the script. We were supposed to shoot at the race track and a lot of other stuff, and he said ‘We can’t shoot any of that stuff, so everybody pack up, but in the meantime I’m going to shoot my version of the Battleship Potemkin scene with all this film I’ve stolen’…
The first scene we shot was where the little kid gets blown up. So I’m outside waiting on the street where they’re lighting, and some older woman comes up with a little boy and asks for a picture, so I put my arm around the little boy and all that. And the next day in the newspaper I found that the picture was there! And the little boy was like Nitti’s great great grandson.
The guy who was my stand-in was the great grandson of a guy who’d had a Nitti contract out on him! And his grandfather had hidden out in the middle of Illinois until Nitti had died, and survived the hit. But even after that, he got ill and he was in the hospital, and the nurses complained about him because he was sleeping with a pistol under his pillow, because he was convinced he was still gonna get whacked!
I got to know the Nitti family. They still live in the Chicago area and they have grocery stores and businesses: regular businesses; they’re not mob connected anymore! They called the hotel where I was staying, which was the actual hotel that had been owned by Capone and Nitti during that period (in fact the very phone booth where Machine Gun Jack McGill was killed was right outside my door). I was down in the lobby and the concierge came over to say that the Nitti family would be by to pick me up at 8 o’clock. Nobody asked if I actually wanted to go… It was an offer I couldn’t refuse! But it would have been too interesting an adventure to turn down anyway. So at eight o’clock I’m down in the lobby and a limousine pulls up and a guy gets out and introduces himself as someone who works for the Nitti family, and we drove around every blues club in Chicago, and at every one it was like royalty had arrived. ‘The Nitti family is here!’ It was great fun but they were making me a little nervous because they gradually started treating me like I really was Frank Nitti. They made sure my back was to the wall so I could see everybody, and all the young Italian turks would come by to pay their respects, and they’d all say “Sooooo, playin’ Uncle Frank huh? Lookin’ good, lookin’ good…” It gave me a bit of an insight into what it would have been like and what had gone on…
They didn’t mind Frank being portrayed as such a villain; the legend is so big. They had to move Nitty’s grave several times because people kept digging it up to make sure he really was dead; they were so scared of him. Only the family knew where his grave was for a while. I wore a white suit in the movie because we thought of him as the angel of death. I talked to a very elderly gentleman once who’d been a policeman undercover, and he said that Nitti had found him out, and tied him up in a basement and put a gun in his mouth and waited to see if he would sweat. Nitti had a very famous saying: ‘I never killed a man who wasn’t afraid to die’. So if he’d sweated he would’ve been killed, but he didn’t so Nitti said ‘oh okay, he’s not afraid’ so he let him go.
My mother never quite forgave me for killing Sean Connery. Mom, I had to! They paid me!
You’ve made more horror movies than any other genre. Do you have a particular love of horror, or do those roles just find you?
I like horror. I like to be scared. I grew up in a rural area with a very limited number of movie theatres, so my parents would drive 20 or 30 miles occasionally to the bigger neighbouring town, and drop me off at the movies while they went about their business. It was a movie theatre that had really gone to seed. The city had declared the building dangerous and they were getting ready to close it down, but they were still showing every one of the old classics, so I got to see Phantom of the Opera and Dracula and Frankenstein and the Mummy. I became a big fan of Vincent Price because they showed all his old films. And it was great to see William Castle come on the screen and say ‘Take your insurance so you won’t die from fear!’ They weren’t reruns from my point of view: it was the first time, in this scary old theatre.
But I didn’t think of it as horror so much. Just movies. So that’s stayed with me. I tend not to think ‘Oh, this is another scary movie’. I just look for interesting roles. The only real exception to that was The Hills Have Eyes. I’d seen and loved the original when it came out, and I actually called them up for that one and asked if they could find something for me to do! I didn’t care what the part was. I just wanted to be in it, to complete that circle of being there at the beginning then being in the new version.
The design sketches for The Hills Have Eyes show your character, Papa Jupe, with a Siamese twin. We don’t see that in the film. Did it go any further than the drawings?
I don’t appear to have a mutation in it, but that’s really because it didn’t end up on screen. A lot of the scenes that we shot were about Papa Jupe’s family, and the executives were getting a little worried and they were saying ‘Y’know, they seem too sympathetic, they seem like a real family!’ So we had to edit it so they didn’t seem so family-like. So some of those scenes got cut out.
It was a great cast though, and we got to go to Morocco to shoot. Of course, I couldn’t go to Morocco and not go to Marrakech, but I got stranded. Somebody asked me if I wanted to go, and we hopped in the car and drove there, but he lost all his money in the casino, and the next thing I knew I was in Marrakech for three days with no money and no passport! And I didn’t have the phone number of the hotel because I hadn’t thought to take it. Finally, at about 6am on the last morning I walked past some nightclub and the musicians had finished their gig and were coming out, and they happened to know me from the movies, and they asked what I was doing and I said I was stuck there! So they told me not to worry and they took me to a hotel lobby and sat me down and talked to the hotel people and fed me; I hadn’t eaten for three days! And the hotel people found some little eleven-year-old boy who had relatives in the town we were filming, which was hours and hours away through the mountains, and they gave him a car and the keys, and said ‘He’ll drive you home!’ So then we got in the car and he drove through the mountains. And we were filming during what they call the wedding season, so there were all these wedding celebrations happening in all these Moroccan mountain villages, incredible parties all night long, and he knew all of them. So on the way back we’d drive through the mountains and stop in some little village and there’d be musicians and we’d party there for an hour or two, and then we’d get back in the car and drive to another little village… And finally we made it back. It was completely insane, but most movies are, in that sense…
Speaking of insane, what about Vamp, with Grace Jones?
Vamp was a really interesting picture. For me it’s always interesting who’s involved in the project. Grace Jones is such a legend, so to not only get to hang out with her but work with her… We’d shoot from sundown to sun up, and then she’d always invite everyone over to some place she’d rented for a party, and the crew and everybody would be over there and there’d be champagne in the bathtub. And then she’d just disappear, like she really was a vampire and couldn’t be out in the light. Everyone would keep on partying at her place until they got tired and fell asleep, and then they’d wake up and go and shoot again. If I wasn’t going to her place I’d have to drive back to my house from downtown LA. It’d be really early in the morning and I’d just rush out from the studio without taking off the albino make-up so I didn’t get stuck in the rush hour traffic. And I’d be wanting a cup of coffee so I’d stop at a little Chinese supermarket and forget that they’d bleached my hair and my eyebrows and my eyelashes… I got some really alarmed looks!
There’s a film on your CV that we couldn’t get hold of, called Revamped. Is that connected to Vamp?
It isn’t. I wanted to make sure they weren’t somehow ripping that film off, so I made sure to get a good look at the script before I said yes. But the title is just coincidence. That was one of a big batch immediately after The Hills Have Eyes. It just happened that a lot of my friends had projects going suddenly at the same time and they were saying ‘Billy! Come and do this!’ That was my chance to do my version of Dracula. The cast was all American character actors that have been working for thirty years, and so it was a great chance for all of us to get together, because we’d all worked with one another at one time or another, but we’d never worked all together! The director just called every character actor he could think of to make this kind of scary-with-a-sense-of-humour film. My favourite line was “Just because I’m immortal doesn’t mean I have all the time in the world!” I made that up and they let me keep it in.
Getting to play classic monsters is great. I’ve done my Dracula, and I got to play the classic mad scientist in a movie called Zombie Hunter that Peter Maris directed. He’d been up into northern California near the Cicoya national forest and bought an abandoned winery – this big spooky abandoned old building – that he’d turned into a studio and wanted to use to get some projects going. I said okay, just so I could play the mad scientist!
Do you have a favourite role, of the more-than-a-hundred you’ve played?
I like the weird ones. I made a film called Moving McAllister where I played a gangster called The Lady, and nobody ever mentions why he’s dressed like he is. He runs a gambling place where they have people fighting almost to the death in a ring, and he plays the piano, but I’m in a very beautiful sort of purple outfit, and we never go into why this deadly gangster is like this! He was a real interesting character…
I also did this picture based on a Spanish comic book called El Muerto, The Dead One. And in that one I play an eighty-year-old woman! Like, I’m not playing a guy in drag, I’m actually playing an eighty-year-old woman. There’s a lot of physical activity because it turns out this old woman is this bad demon spirit character. I have fight scenes, and the director looked at a lot of eighty-year-old actresses, but none of them could have done it, and it wouldn’t have looked right to have them fighting with a 22-year-old. So he said ‘I know! I’ll get Billy!’ It’s based on the Spanish celebration of the Day of the Dead. I did that and then went right into playing The Lady. I was like ‘Hmmm, maybe it’s a new career path’. My career path is to always say yes!
Billy Drago is currently filming Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem.