John Harrison: Tell us a little bit about your background and upbringing – where were you born and raised? What initially drew you to acting?
Rex Sikes: I was born in the Midwest and moved to Los Angeles first chance I got. My parents put me in dancing and acrobatic classes as a three year old. Acting classes by four or five and I loved performing. I made movies with friends as early teenagers. I travelled and performed as a “mindreader” from about the age of 8. Around 18 or 19 I joined the Screen Actors Guild after some years working non-union features. I think I was drawn to acting because I so loved early movies and I glamorized the show business of the 30’s and 40s. Loved the mavericks of the 50’s like Dean, Brando, and Clift and was in love with the idea of being a film start. I liked the craft, I liked the movies, and I like the idea of Hollywood glamour. I think mostly I figured I would get more girls as an actor – only I learned I should have been a rock star instead. Even the dingy bar bands seemed to meet more girls than actors ever did especially in Hollywood where everyone is an “actor”. I hope this is honest enough. I believed I would get benefits I wouldn’t in any other way by being in the film business and it was a business I did love anyway.
JH: How did the part in Massacre at Central High come about? Was it an open audition, or did you get recommended for the part? Was Rodney the role that you originally went for?
RS: Massacre at Central High came about by an interview. My agent called one day and told me to go on audition at a director’s home in the Hollywood hills for some movie. I got there and waited quite a while as the director Rene Daalder was busy with some actress. Turned out that actress was Kimberly Beck. I was lucky enough to sit with the man who was the cinematographer Bert Von Munster (later of Cops, The Great Race and more) who looked over my acting portfolio. Rene eventually freed himself from his task and met me. He said “hello, talk to me” I said “I like your view” he again said talk to me. I again gave the same reply. I think my agent told me I was going up for some tough guy part — so I acted a little brusque during the interview. A practice that was not a good one to have been utilizing. In an interview with George Lucas for Star Wars I pretty much told him he was full of s**t and when he got his s**t together they could call me. Needless to say the call never came in. I had to learn how to be better and nicer the hard way apparently – and to not BE the bad guy when my agent told me I might be playing a bad guy. Oh well live and learn. Readers who might be interested in a career – listen to this advice – be charming, charismatic, engaging and save the “character stuff” for the reading. Don’t live it – act it when called upon to actually act or audition. Anyway, Bert kept telling Rene how photogenic I was and showing him different photos of mine. He was a fast ally from the start. Rene dismissed me. I drove home only to arrive about 40 minutes later to a call telling me to return to the director’s home. I got there an hour or more later because it was now dinner rush hour. It was winter I believe because I believe it was dark. What I remember was him sending me into another room to read lines for Rodney and to come out when I was ready. I did and when ready he and I read together. I don’t think I read anything else. He may have had me read more than once I don’t recall but sometime after our couple read throughs he looked at me and said “You have the part”. I’m sure I said thanks and must have left shortly after that. For some reason I drove down into Studio City from Laurel Canyon stopped at the landmark now no longer there Tiny Naylor’s Coffee Shop and phoned my agent to tell him the news. There were no cells phones then – we survived by plugging these strange devices mounted on walls with dimes and then eventually quarters – I think they were called “pay phones” haha – pay phones and answering machines or answering services made up a large portion of an actor’s life. Getting off the freeway to call your machine or service or agent. Spending your life behind the wheel of your car or by bus getting to interviews and then stopping somewhere to call and report or check your service. I digress. I phoned my agent said “I got the part” and he said “we will see” Often times in Hollywood everyone says yes because they don’t want to be the one who told you know (in case you become a big star) so they say yes and you only learn later that for some unforeseen reason the gig fell through. Elation for a little while and then disappointment. That is why so many, including myself become jaded or a nicer term to describe is “cautiously optimistic”. Anyway at some point my agent confirmed it with me in the following weeks. Eventually we all met at offices on Sunset Blvd for cast and crew meeting prior to first days of shooting. Jeffrey Winner was cast on that Saturday. The rest of the cast and I that were conversing at that time felt awful for the actors. A few come in for the same role and all leave without it save one – and that was Jeff who played Oscar.
JH: To me, Rodney was always one of the more interesting characters in the movie. Initially, you empathize with him because he is being put down by the ruling school bullies, then you feel happy for him when David kind of takes him under his wing, befriends him and helps him fix up his car, then eventually you come to despise him when you realize that he is just as manipulative and power-crazed as all the other kids at the school. It was a good transition and you played the part really well, conveying in turns both sympathy and loathing.
RS: I agree that I thought Rodney as one of the “picked on students” had the most interesting character and story arc. Yet, oddly enough he is one that is frequently left out of reviews. The focus of course is on what transpires between David’s character and the bullies – rather than what transpires between David and the “pick on students”. Looking back on the movie I do think it was cast perfectly for what it was/is. Everyone brought something and all seem right in their roles, at least to me. It was a privilege then to make this “little low budget movie” and work with cast and crew. It is disappointing that so many like the movie and that it has trouble in getting a new release. There are plenty of fans but for some reason the company that made it sits on it. Strange indeed. Anyway, Rodney was an interesting character and I hoped that people would feel for him, empathize with him and then get upset or be disappointed when he changes and thirsts for power. After all he was such a dweeb, but an innocent dweeb at first.
JH: Do you recall the locations you used throughout the shooting of the film? How long did you work on the production?
RS: The production was either 4 or 5 weeks (I am sure at least under 6 weeks) and I worked either 3 or 4. Don’t actually remember. I can’t even remember the first day of shooting or the last. I just have memory snippets of pieced together moments though I am very clear about when I got my nose broken during rehearsal prior to shooting the scene poolside where I describe how I found the body in the empty pool. But other than a few set moments and a few dinners after the days shoot ended my memory is not that clear. We shot at a variety of places. We shot “at the beach” of course, Mulholland Drive atop Hollywood for much of the road way shots. Griffith Park provided the parking lot and school grounds and some driving scenes. An abandoned Catholic High School we used for some interiors – the food fight outside I believe, Rodney’s car getting trashed by the bullies, Hollywood High School provided the library and a Jewish Community Center provided the pool. There was the garage somewhere and I think that was it.
JH: What was life like on the set? Were you still studying at that point in your life? Massacre at Central High had such a strong ensemble cast of young actors. What cast-mates did you feel most connected to?
RS: I think life on the set was fine. Everyone seemed to get along as I recall. We worked together. I made many friends, sadly many whom I have lost tough with, and some whom I remain in touch with. I still speak w Derrell Maury (David) and with Tom Logan (Harvey) and Andrew Stevens (Mark) and Kimberly Beck (Theresa). I would love to say hello to Robert Carradine and Steve Bond and Jeffrey Winner and Dennis Kort – because it has been to long without at least a hello. I saw Damon Douglas shortly before he died and I was shocked to discover he had when I called his home to speak with him nearly two years later. Sad, very sad. Ray Underwood died and I found out years later from a fan of the film. I had briefly reconnected with Lani O’Grady shortly before she died and was saddened to learn about Rainbeaux (Cheryl) passing well after the event. I have reconnected with Rene, would like to connect with Bert again and others from the crew I have not seen or spoken to in so long. I think for that short while, we became a little family, and some of those connections remained. That frequently happens on film shoots because if you are involved in a significant way as cast or crew you work intently with others for a period of time – you go out, blow off steam together, gripe or praise together. Must be tough to be a TV series for a number of years and then one day not have to show up and everyone goes elsewhere to different separate projects. Anyway life on set was good as I recall and we all hung out quite a bit during the shoot at least. I was probably closet long term to Tom Logan. We did quite a bit together after we finished Massacre. And I would see the others around. I enjoyed spending time with Rainbeaux. I would see Kimberly on shoots at Universal, Lani went on to Eight is Enough and I would see her there. Derrel I saw some, Damon and Andrew, Bobby and I spoke or saw each other at times. Again we all kind of drifted but they were all good people (and are still good people) and important in my life to me. I like speaking with Rene these days and wish we could again work together I think that would be an incredible amount of fun. We got together at his home within the last year or two and he has gone on and done some incredible things. What I have learned in retrospect is keep your friends and associates close. I have lost and forgotten more people in my life than I remember. In some cases I have reconnected but in many cases we have moved on, you know having families changes everything too. And people move from L.A. I am fortunate to have reconnected with another director friend Robert M Carroll who directed “Sonny Boy” after many years. We did a film called Pale Horse, Pale Rider with Charlene Tilton that his wife Dalene Young wrote from the short story. The girl who doubled for Charlene I have lost contact with – here boyfriend at the time as Darwin Joston starred in Assault on Precinct Thirteen as Wison. Fortunately, I have reconnected with Austin Stoker who starred in it as Bishop. In some ways the longer you are in this business the more opportunity to reconnect with others you might have met or known along the way – because as big of an industry as it is – it is also a small pond. It is a very strange or odd kind of thing I can not quite explain myself.
JH: What was your opinion of the finished film, both at the time of its release and in retrospect?
RS: Well at the time I was hoping for a “rebel without a cause reception” I think I truly hoped it would be far better received than it was and that it would have had an impressive run. I don’t think any of those hopes were based in reality just wishes for being in a hot property. You know if it makes a splash producers, directors, casting directors and all the rest may see it and you can get known from it. But if not, you are constantly re-selling yourself – which you do have to do anyway even if the film comes out big. But show biz really is a lot about visibility. You raise the ladder the more visible you are and become. That is why if you do an imdb search for most “stars” they have quite a film or TV history prior to the public knowing who they are as a talent, but they may get known inside the industry. Some people have done scores of TV pilots that never sell, like George Clooney, and or even series, before the public gets to know who they are. SO yes I was hoping it would come out big. AND I am surprised by the fans and the loyalty to our little movie through the years especially since it disappeared thanks to how the producers manage it. Yet people like it and it used to play on cable all of the time. There are things I enjoy and things I cringe about watching it then and now. They had a showing in L.A. I had hoped to make this past year, I couldn’t go at the last minute but Derrell did and he said it was well received by the audience. Of course they were probably fans who hadn’t seen it in years so… who actually knows. I do think it speaks to the kind of mentality of high schoolers – we all think we are so grown up and so cool at a relatively early age and only as we grow older do we sometimes, if we are lucky, realize we aren’t so cool and we don’t know as much as we thought we did. I think Rene struck gold when he scripted the dialogue for his characters. As kids we try to act tough and cool and I think the dialogue now shows that off brilliantly but it is a subtle point for most film goers of that genre. I am not certain the look at it as such and may think of it as merely schlock. Which it is – but that is too often how we behave, making ourselves more important that we are, the mini Gestapo running the school yard – the nerds etc. So I think he was spot on whether by design or by accident. And the subtle social messages conveyed in all of it stand out now after having lived longer than when I was young and making it. At the time I think we thought it was about a number of deaths at a high schooler – not how the peons will struggle to rise to power when their oppressors are removed. But that too is part of Massacre at Central High’s charm. You can find messages and meaning in this little low budget exploitation film. Given with what happened in film with the rise of the slasher film and graphic violence I am a little surprised that new viewers don’t find it disappointingly un-violent. In retrospect I think it should be viewed more today – especially since people say it predicted punk and foreshadowed things like Columbine because people should really see the futility of violence. David’s demise is because he cared about someone. His twisted form of justice is what the wackos who do such disgusting and inane things think will bring about change. It doesn’t it just hurts people, devastates people horribly and then life goes on. David is twisted stating “since I couldn’t bring them back I had to do in the others” or whatever the words were – but in the end he decides someone is worth saving… hell everyone is worth saving. So people should probably watch it today (as other than an exploitation film or allegory to power abuse) as what a waste of time to be violent. People should find more constructive ways to make changes in their world. Right, but them I am being optimistic and MACH was just a movie after all. Entertainment is what it is all about and selling tickets and products and making money. Had Massacre at Central High made a FORTUNE it would have had a bigger shelf life. Still it is interesting to see the acclaim it got from critics including Roger Ebert. I have been lucky enough to appear in films that get yanked because of the changing political climate. I have been in a few that you may never see because they are not and have not been politically correct to show these days. Hopefully, nothing like what happens in “Hostel” will ever actually happen in a hostel. It is only entertainment – but because sickos exist we fear (sometimes realistically) that they may copy things they see or read – and the fact is they often do. BUT this is a BIG discussion about the responsibility of the creator of art and commercial product… so I have to let the readers and viewers address these issues for themselves. It is complicated. I can’t let my children watch a lot of the films I am doing these days because they are violent or gory. I wouldn’t let them because sadly they will encounter those elements soon enough growing up – through media. And hopefully the viewers will only use it as horror movie escapism and not as a model for how to behave in their future.
JH: Writer/director Rene Daalder is something of an enigma, and his output, at least in feature film terms, has been sporadic at best. What kind of a director was he to work with?
RS: Working with Rene was fine. It was fun, frustrating at times but I think that is true of working with any director. You have to place yourself in their hands – it is their visual vision of a work they are creating and you and they may not agree. And as an actor you need to realize your place in the production – what you are hired to do. Too often I think we get a role and we think it is all about “me” when it is truly all about the production. Depending on frames of mind people can have quite a lot of disputes. As for Rene I think we got along well. There were moments we disagreed but we never argued over anything. Others may or may not have had that experience with him but I can not say. As stated I would be happy to work with him again after all these years if there was something we could both work on together. And as I have stated I think it is time for a Massacre at Central High reunion of surviving members and for the obligatory remake. Heck they have remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, King Kong, Friday the 13th, Assault on Precinct 13. Maybe that is how we get the original re-released – by having someone come along and remake it.
JH: While it seemed to do reasonably well at the drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas upon its initial release, the film seemed to disappear for a few years, before home video and a write-up in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies Volume 2 led to a reappraisal of the film. When did you first discover that the movie had developed something of a cult following?
RS: I was told by video store owners right after it’s video release sometime in the 70’s I guess that it had become a top rented video – so I knew early on that it had a life, plus it was always on HBO, Cinemax, TBS, TNT, USA for quite sometime. Then, it vanished and some claim the Columbine tragedy for that – but I think it has something else to do with the producers and I am not sure what. That is only my opinion and have nothing to base it on other than – people seem to be clamouring in whatever small way for it and if it could make money – you would think they would be making money from it – so why aren’t they? But since that time – it has been more recent – with the past 5 years or so that people as me to do interviews or write to me about it and I became aware of the “cult” following. It is nice to be a part of something people enjoy and want more of. Wish someone could give it to them.
JH: The same year you made Massacre at Central High, you also appeared in Larry Buchanan’s Marilyn Monroe bio-pic Goodbye, Norma Jean, starring Misty Rowe. Any memories of working on that film?
RS: Actually I think I made Goodbye Norma Jean in early part of year (Jan or Feb.) of 1975. It was sometime before Massacre at Central High although it may have come out later. I don’t recall the premier if there was one – which there must have been I don’t remember parties or anything other than Frank Curio who was the producer’s son got me either an audition or meeting for the movie. I owe him for that and lost touch with him years ago. Misty Rowe was very nice and I used to see her afterwards at Paramount on the TV series When Things Were Rotten I believe it was about Robin Hood and she played Maid Marion. When we shot our scene she mentioned that some actor in a scene they shot previous to ours had gotten carried away and roughed her up – and she was happy that I was professional. They cut my hair (long hair was in back then), 1940’s hair cut which embarrassed me to know end until it grew back. I’d go to the Rainbow Bar and Grill or the Roxie or bars and apologize to the women I met telling them I normally had long hair. I was silly and vain but it bothered me for a long time that I was un-fashionable out on the Strip when I should have been thinking how lucky I was that I got to portray a 1940’s masher guy in a movie. Live and learn right.
JH: Despite its cult following, Massacre at Central High remains frustratingly hard to find on DVD. The few times it has surfaced on disc has been in a very grainy, washed out print that looks to have been sourced from an old VHS tape. At one point back around 2005 it was announced by Cult Epics as part of their ‘Rene Daalder Collection’ but it never eventuated. Do you have any insight into why this film remains so unavailable? Is it a rights issue?
RS: I think I answered this previously to the best of my limited ability 🙂 check back with me on this sometime.
JH: Tell us about the work you are doing at the moment. You seem to be quite a busy fellow these days.
RS: Currently, I continue to act in projects and produce and direct. I am working on two currently – finishing up The Spade County Massacre which has yet to go into complete post production but people can find info at website http://spadecounty.com I co-star as Sheriff Stone Williams. I am also co-starring as Steve a brilliant think tank group leader in a sci-fi feature shooting through winter and spring called “Broken Orbit” http://brokenorbit.com/. I am excited and hopeful about both of these. I played Dr. Roberts in the horror feature “Horrid” which is in post but has played in some horror festivals and can be found at http://www.sixfoothamsterfilms.com. Plus I am in numerous other projects. I am helping produce a TV pilot and another feature both of which we hope to shoot early 2010 or at least into the spring. I continue to fight to get movies made in the Midwest where I now reside. Working with and against politicians whenever necessary to keep us film friendly. I run a free resource for filmmakers and fans called Rex Sikes’ Movie Beat which is a web site dedicated to all things film and television. I host an internet radio show on my website that interviews professional Hollywood filmmakers – directors, producers, writers everyone behind the scenes on above and below line crew as well as cast and celebrity actors. It is for filmmakers and fans. You can visit the website at http://www.rexsikes.com or search it on google. I have hosted a number of film festivals and am always open to participating in that way in the future. Only recently someone made an initial contact about having me participate in one of these large fan based collector type festivals that many actors do. I would love to do this and meet with fans of Massacre at Central High. I am raising my children in the Midwest and both of them are interested in video and video editing, composing music on the computer and creating YouTube like videos. So I encourage and discourage appropriately I hope but it is fun to watch these little Sikes kids pursue something that interests their father. I love the movies and I love making movies and while it was all about acting for me as a kid I love being behind camera too – I really do. Producing, directing, heck even pulling cables it is fun being part of an active movie set. I am not concerned that my kids pursue that lifestyle they may make their own choices at the appropriate times but it is for them AND for me as they currently explore movie making, screenwriting and all the rest. I return to Hollywood whenever I can for visit or work and I am always willing to discuss projects with old and new people. I can be reached through my website. I would love to work a whole lot more in Hollywood – In fact the more reasons to travel ANYWHERE to make movies the better it is – so come on filmmakers you can hire this older guy. In fact, I think there are an awful lot of Australian filmmakers who should investigate how to make this happen. I love Australia I have been there a number of times but not in some while -sooooo. The strangest moment came for me when someone asked me to play the father of an adult child a number of years ago. But face it Rodney – had he survived – is grown up. Now if they ever remake Massacre at Central High I want a cameo (even though there were no adults) I do think an exception can be made. I am waiting but I won’t hold my breath. Thank you! And thanks to everyone I have met, stayed in contact with, and lost along this fascinating journey.”
Interview by John Harrison/The Graveyard Tramp