An interview by James H. Burns
I wanted to play the part of Dick Halloran before I even knew that they were going to make the movie,” says Scatman Crothers, the amiable, charismatic actor who portrays the Overlook Hotel’s presciently endowed cook in Stanley (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon) Kubrick’s The Shining. “I was playing golf in a tournament down in Houston when some guy said to me, ‘Scatman, I read a book called The Shining and the author [Stephen King] must have had you in mind for one of the characters. ‘I went out and bought the book. I loved the novel and thought that if they ever did a film of it, it would be a good showcase for me; it would be something different.”
Different is but one adjective to describe Kubrick’s treatment of The Shining‘s ghostly terror, eerily orchestrated through the disturbed psyche of Jack Torrance. The film represents yet another teaming up of Crothers and Jack Nicholson, who portrays Torrance.
“Jack Nicholson and I have been friends ever since we met while doing The King of Marvin Gardens. After we had finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack said to me, ‘Old buddy. I might have something else for you in about another year or so.’ Then my agents got in touch with Stanley Kubrick’s people and that’s how it happened. The Shining is my fourth picture with Jack Nicholson or,” Scatman laughs, “as he says, our fourth ‘classic.’ ”
Stanley Kubrick‘s casting of Crothers wasn’t due solely to the actor’s friendship with Nicholson, however. The 70-years-young thespian has proved himself to be an extremely capable and versatile performer in such movies as Meet Me at the Fair, Hello, Dolly, The Great White Hope, Lady Sings the Blues, Silver Streak, The Shootist, The Cheap Detective and Mean Dog Blues and on numerous television series, including Ironside, Mannix, Get Smart, Kojak, Sanford and Son, McMillan and Wife and Adam 12. Crothers began entertaining audiences at the age of 14. In 1924, when he learned to sing and taught himself to play the drums and guitar in the local speakeasies of his birthplace, Terra Haute, Indiana. Even though he’s “kept busy” during the ensuing 50 years, Crother’s major public exposure didn’t come until his co-starring role as “Louie the Garbageman” on NBC’s erstwhile Chico and the Man.
How did the unpretentious entertainer react to the potentially heady experience of making a film with Stanley Kubrick, one of the “cinema’s finest auteurs?”
“I’m not a moviegoer, so I had never heard of the guy,” says Crothers, flashing his patented toothy smile. “I told my friend Henry Harrison, who works in the editing department at NBC, that I was going to London for the first time to do a movie. Henry didn’t ask me what the name of the film was, but, rather, who was directing it. I started to say. ‘Some guy named Stanley…’ Henry wouldn’t let me finish. He said, ‘Kubrick? Scatman, you’re going to be working with one of the greatest directors of all time!’ To be honest. I looked at The Shining as just doing another movie.”
“As soon as Stanley and I met, though, I dug him,” Crothers continues. “I took one look at his eyes and I thought to myself: this guy is a dedicated moviemaker. Stanley’s almost obsessed.”
Kubrick’s nearly psychotic drive to instill his movies with technical perfection is legendary in the film industry. The dazzling special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the breathtaking cinematography of Barry London, the startling tracking shots of The Shining are all testimony to Kubrick’s mechanical mastery of the medium. To achieve these precise illusions, the director’s been known to shoot a single camera set-up as many as twenty times.
“Twenty takes!?” Scatman bursts. “That’s being modest. Stanley shot 87 takes of the scene in the ballroom with all of the cast. Even the part where I get out of the Sno-Cat and walk to the hotel door—a scene that has no dialogue—took 40 takes. Around the 39th take, I asked Stanley. “How do you want me to do it?” He answered. ‘Walk a little bit to your left.’ So I said. ‘Look, show me how you want me to walk, give me the rhythm,’ and then we got the shot.”
Kubrick’s insistence that every minor detail of a scene—from its lighting to the way an actor’s hair is parted—has been known to frustrate his casts. Many Kubrick production veterans feel that their acting abilities take a back seat to the director’s technique.
“From my experience,” Crothers counters, “Stanley’s excellent at working with actors. His attention to technical details didn’t bother me at all. But after I did my first scene where everyone’s meeting, Stanley said to us, ‘Okay, let’s go watch that on videotape.’ He shot the scene simultaneously on videotape so that we could get an immediate playback of what we had done, instead of waiting for the dailies. I asked. ‘Stanley, is that compulsory?’ He said. ‘No. Why?’ ‘Because I don’t want to see it.’ I really don’t enjoy watching myself perform. That’s why I usually don’t go to see my movies.”
“The Shining was also the first film I’ve ever worked in where you didn’t have a stand-in to set up a shot for you when the director’s trying to get the lighting right Stanley wants you there. He wants everything realistic, which makes it harder work.”
But didn’t a stunt man double for Crothers when Halloran is brutally murdered with an ax by Jack Torrance?
“Oh no. I did that myself. They had some kind of plastic bag filled with artificial blood attached to my chest. When we were getting ready to shoot the scene, I told Jack, ‘Now look, old buddy, don’t go crazy.’ Then I asked the special-effects cat, ‘Are you sure that this ax won’t go through this thing?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Scatman, We’ll take good care of you.’ I said, ‘I certainly hope so, because I don’t want Jack to overact and I don’t want you to underestimate your ax.”
“That scene took 25 takes. The funny thing is that I turned 68 while we were in London. Jack told me before we started shooting that Stanley was worried about my falling during that scene, but Jack had said to him. ‘Don’t worry. Stanley. My man can fall.’ But I didn’t have any idea that I was going to have to fall that many times on that hard floor. That’s why I’ve told some of the press that doing The Shining was a very interesting experience: artistically, mentally and physically.”
Due to Nicholson’s and Crother’s camaraderie and Crother’s famous sense of humor, one would imagine that there must have been many mirthful moments during The Shining’s production.
“There really wasn’t that much kidding around,” the actor remembers, “because when Stanley’s on the set, he’s god; you could have heard a pin drop People are in awe of him. In fact, Jana Sheldon, who plays the stewardess on the plane, said to me: ‘Scatman. I don’t have a big part in this movie. I merely took it to get the credit of having worked with Stanley Kubrick.’ So. you see. Stanley’s a powerful man.”
Despite the lack of levity on The Shining set. Stanley Kubrick’s directorial skill inspired Scatman to not only give a quality performance, but to unleash his talent into another creative outlet as well.
“I was on the set one day,” explains Crothers, “and I asked Stanley. ‘Would you mind if I wrote a tune about you?’ because he’s kind of a shy guy. He said. ‘No, Scat. I’d be delighted.’ I said, ‘Thank you, because I’ve already written one.’ Stanley kind of laughed and said. ‘Yeah? What’s the title?’ I said. ‘Well, the title of the song that I’ve written for you is, ‘Stanley (Does it All).’ He asked me if he could hear a few bars of it. So I took him over to the mahogany table in the Overlook lobby and I said. ‘Okay, here we go’:
There’s a man,
Lives in London town.
He’s world renown.
Yes. he’s really got the fame.
Stanley Kubrick is his name.
He does it all.
He does it all.
I’m telling you all.
Stanley does it all.
Now he’s a writer.
He produces his projects.
He’s the man behind the lens.
And Stanley always wins.
(Now he might work you days and days. You find out he surely pays.
A perfectionist you know.
It’s gotta be right before you go.
I know whereas of I speak.
Worked with him for many a week.
It’s amazing what he can do.
That’s why I’m telling you:
(It was not a silver lining,
Wait until you see The Shining.
A revelation to behold.
That will thrill the young and old.
* Lyrics to “Stanley Does It All” 1980 Scatman Crothers
While The Shining is a fantasy film, It wasn’t too long ago that Crothers had to deal with a real life horror when Freddie Prinze, his co-star on Chico and the Man, committed suicide.
“The day Freddie killed himself was a Thursday and we were camera blocking an episode of Chico.” Scatman reveals quietly “Freddie and I were very, very close on the set in the studio. He walked up to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘Scat, I think I’m gonna kill myself.’ I said, ‘Don’t talk that way, son. you’re but 22 You’re just beginning to live. You’re getting ready to make it big. son. Can’t you talk to your wife?’ He said. ‘No, I can’t talk to her.’ so I said. ‘Well, listen, son. Think of yourself, because self-preservation is the first law of nature.’
“That night. Freddie killed himself. Now. my blood won’t be required at his hands because I talked to him. If Freddie had forced me not to say anything by telling me. ‘Hey. Scat. I don’t want to hear that,’ I would have felt bad, but I told the kid right from wrong, so my conscience is clear There’s just a certain point where you’ve done all that you can do and then it’s up to the individual, but it’s still the saddest thing in the world when it happens.”
Crothers was faced with the true evil during the mid-1930s when he formed his own band and traveled throughout the Midwest, playing in some places where a black man had never been seen before
“We never really met with any prejudice.” contradicts Crothers. “After the people found out that I had such a clean-cut band—well dressed, intelligent, young men—they would say. ‘Hey, this Scatman’s band is nice.’ We’d wind up getting booked into places for three or four months.”
Unfortunately, modem motion-picture audiences haven’t responded as well to The Shining.
“I think a lot of people are disappointed because my character, Dick Halloran, gets killed.” says Scatman. “Halloran takes all those chances—he flies to Colorado), rents the Sno-Cat—and then, out of nowhere, he gets killed, and he has the shining. It really doesn’t make any sense, unless you want to compare, the character to Jesus Christ. I think it especially bothers people who read Stephen King’s novel, because in the book Halloran saves the kid and his mother.
“I like the film. I just wish that they had kept the original ending. The strange thing is that even Stanley’s screenplay has Halloran saving them. In fact, when I first arrived in London, in May of 1978 (we didn’t start shooting until about the second week of May), Jack Nicholson introduced me to his friends and said, ‘My man’s the hero of the movie.’ I just don’t understand what happened. Kubrick shot things all kinds of ways, but he never shot a version of the ending like in his script or the book I still don’t know why Stanley changed the story. I never asked him why he did it. I just wanted to do my job.”
Albeit many members of the press have disliked The Shining, Crother’s prediction that the film would be a good showcase for him has proved apt. But while the critics are unanimous in their praise of Crother’s performance, some reviewers feel that The Shining‘s portrayal of Dick Halloran is racist.
“The awful suspicion pops into the mind,” wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, “that since we don’t want to see Danny (Danny Lloyd) or Wendy (Shelly Duvall) hurt and there’s nobody else alive around for Jack to get at, he’s given the black man… Something doesn’t sit right about the way the movie ascribes the gift of the shining to the good black man and the innocent child (the insulted and the injured?), and having Halloran’s Florida apartment decorated with big pictures of proud, sexy, black women…”
“Why do they think it’s prejudiced—because I got part?” questions Crothers annoyedly. “I don’t know why Stanley put those paintings in Halloran’s bedroom. Perhaps the critics are just reading into something that really isn’t there.”
Scatman is currently in another box-office hit, the fantasy-tinged Clint Eastwood film, Bronco Billy, about the misadventures of the owner of a traveling Wild West show and his “misfit” assistants.
“Working with Clint Eastwood (who also directed Bronco Billy), was beautiful,” says Crothers. “We were suppose to shoot in Boise, Idaho for 10 weeks and I think we finished in six. That only happens when everybody likes each other. We were one big happy family.”
Were there any major differences between making The Shining and acting in Bronco Billy?
“Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood are two different individuals altogether,” says Crothers. “Clint’s much more of an easy going director Clint would do a shot once or twice and I’d ask him, ‘Is that alright?’ and he’d say. ‘Yeah’ Then I’d say. ‘Are you sure?’ Clint would answer, ‘Well sure. Scat.’ I’d say. ‘Okay, man!’ because after working with Stanley for so long, I was used to doing anywhere from 15 to 30 takes.”
The underlying message of Bronco Billy is that if you want to be happy, you should pursue your dreams by going out into the world and becoming what you want to be.
“That philosophy’s always played an important part in my life,” he confesses. “Keep that love in your heart for the human race, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you and you cannot miss.”
And whether you’re a Scatman Crothers, Stanley Kubrick, honor, Clint Eastwood or comedy enthusiast—whatever genre you’re a fan of—those are words to live by.
Fangoria #8, October 1980