Stefan Arngrim Interview:
From Land of the Giants to Class of 1984!
by Lee Sobel (8/31/20)
Stefan Arngrim has had a long career in movies and television, going back to the 60's where he starred in one of my personal favorite TV series, Land of the Giants (1968-70) produced by Irwin Allen and then later made the 1982 exploitation classic, Class of 1984 directed by Mark L. Lester. Stefan's parents were both in the acting game, and his sister Alison starred in the TV series Little House On the Prairie.
Lee Sobel: Being a child star must have been a world unto itself. What are the good and bad things about becoming famous at such a young age and did you ever experience any child actors that behaved outrageously?
Stefan Arngrim: I never thought of myself as a “child star”’ neither did my parents or my agents. I started around 6 years old on what at the time was mostly live TV in New York and some theatre. After some folks at MGM and Screen Gems took an interest in my work, my father and I were flown out to L.A. for screen tests and such. MGM won, and I was cast as Dominique in “The Singing Nun” with Debbie Reynolds. I went back to New York and worked while
With actress Deanna Lund in Land of the Giants
waiting for the picture to start. One year later, I was sent for. I shot on MGM’s back lot for three days, crowd scenes around the “Quebecois Orphanage," (which had likely been a thousand European streets in as many films). On the fourth day, a big black limo pulled onto set, and several auspicious “suits” poured out, forming an entrance for Debbie Reynolds. One of the Assistant directors had been sent over to get me and introduce me to Ms. Reynolds. I walked up, extended my hand as we looked each other right in the eyes. You see, I had been cast a year earlier, and I had a way like most boys of eight, of growing, quickly. Debbie was “petite”, and now we stood face to face. This was going to be an issue if she were to carry me around like the little orphan, both
history and the film record. The “Suits” went white. I heard air slowly escaping lungs, including my dad and my agent who were witnessing the whole thing. Then Debbie started to laugh. I started to laugh. She gave me a a big hug, and as she did, the Suits started to chuckle. My dad and my agent smiled with relief. Hushed and hurried orders from producers about replacing me immediately were uttered.
As a result, MGM put me and family up at The Chateau Marmont until they found another picture for me; which turned out to be “The Way West” as Kirk Douglas’s son, which really opened up a whole new chapter for me. I started working in L.A. and we moved there. My mom was also getting a lot of voice over work in L.A. She was the voice of Casper, Gumby, Sweet Polly Purebread, (of Underdog fame) and Davey of Davey and Goliath. So things were always interesting in the sixties in L.A. My agent there sold me as “a
With Heather Young in Land of the Giants
serious, dramatic New York actor, who happens to be nine years old.” He was a terrific agent named Lew Sherrell, and I believe one of his first clients was Eddie Cantor, (google now). Lew didn’t handle any other kids but me. I’ve done only three commercials, all before I was five. Never did a sitcom. Rarely even worked with other kids. Played a lot of orphans, terminally ill kids, disturbed kids, and mostly ‘foreign’ kids. I was told constantly I just didn’t look American. Too pale, too dark, too intense. Fine with me. Would much rather be an actor than a star anyway.
Fame is an occupational hazard. It’s great at first. Good tables at restaurants, everyone knows your name, people give you things. It’s like a surprise party…that just keeps going on and on and on…and after about two weeks...you just don’t care anymore. “Enough of me, for Gawds sake!”
I’m not sure if youth has much to do with it, except for maybe being a little less gullible and less subject to fawn over oneself than the older self’s ego. Three weeks after the first airing of Land of The Giants, my press agent, Joe Hoenig, came by my family's house with an armload of magazines with me in them. He
announced, “Well, kid, you’re famous!” I got up, went to the front door, opened it and looked out…no one…nothing. I let it go at that. As far as child actors behaving outrageously, that’s pretty subjective. I’ve certainly had my outrageous moments, but I believe I know what you mean specifically. An egocentric “spoiled” moment. I honestly cannot recall any such incidents with any of my contemporaries. It’s just not behavior anyone will tolerate in this business. Kids especially must maintain respect and a professional decorum or they just won’t call you back. Does this mean none of ‘us’ ever behaved badly? Nope. We were kids. My parents, and with few exceptions, all the parents of kids I knew or worked with, were very realistic and grounded with their kids. You really have to be.
People ask me about their kids a lot. Should they consider putting
them in the business? I always say two things, first: if your kid wants to do this, they will let you know and there is nothing you will be able to do to stop them; second: just because you have a wonderful child does not mean you have to sell them.
Lee Sobel: Land of the Giants was a show I loved as a kid. I loved all the sci-fi TV shows Irwin Allen produced. I’ve heard a lot of amusing stories about him – do you any memories of him you could share with me or anything that comes to mind as a funny incident during the making of the show?
Stefan Arngrim: There’s no doubt that Irwin was a genius at what he did and how he did it. He wasn’t going for high art, and maybe wasn’t always tasteful or sophisticated, but he knew how to entertain his audience. He had his finger firmly on an
eleven-year-old’s pulse and read it innately. Aside from his feature forays in the forties and fifties, and then the virtual lock he had on sci fi fun on TV in the sixties at Fox (“Voyage” – “Lost in Space” – “Time Tunnel” & “Land of the Giants”), he then went on to Warner’s and created the disaster movie!
From what I understand, Irwin was not sold on me at all for Barry Lockridge. Apparently I had some champion at ABC, I had done some considerable guests on a lot of one hour episodic TV. Frankly, I wasn’t sold on doing the show myself, but my dad suggested I find out what 11 year old boys were getting on a series these days, find out about billing, then call my agent and double it all! That way, if they say; “forget it,” I’m off the hook. If they say "Okay”, it’s worth it. I did, they did, so I did.
Of course, once I got there, I was glad I did. It was an amazing show to do, with a great cast, and a first rate 20th Century Fox crew. Funny incident? There were many. This is about Irwin, so we’ll stay on topic. We were filming the “Deadly Pawn” episode where I play chess with a giant. We were all on a huge chessboard on a larger tabletop, 60 feet wide, 40 feet deep, and about 12 feet high. For some effect, we had big Ritter fans, with 6 foot blades, around the set to create a windstorm effect. Irwin was obsessed with hair. Everyone’s hair. All seven of the cast were called on the carpet at least once about Irwin’s dissatisfaction with our hair. At the same time, Irwin wore a rather obvious rug of the breaded veal cutlet variety. High tech fifties, and it was sort of orange, (Irwin’s favorite color, btw). On this day of shooting on the giant chessboard, came Irwin, down to his set with several execs from some exec place. He always loved
coming down to ‘his’ sets. He was very proud of his shows and very much in command when “on the bridge.” Just before a giant wind machine take, it was suggested by a grip and an asst. director that he and guests might like to move to the other side where they could see better, and wouldn’t be standing right in front of a giant fan about to blow. Irwin rebuffed this and gave the go ahead to start shooting. I think everyone knew what was going to happen, but what could we do? This was Irwin, he was the boss, it was his set, his show. Everyone moved in slow motion as the fans came up to full power. Before I even heard “action”, a spinning red furball sailed by all of us on the chessboard and smacked into the back wall. An assistant ran dutifully, fetched the crumpled hair piece and ran to replace it on Irwin’s shiny, (brilliant), head. He was fairly flustered by now however, and in an embarrassed rage stormed off the set with his executive cohorts in tow. It was never mentioned again.
Lee Sobel: Class of 1984 is an awesome movie in which you play a punk rock junkie. What was that like for you – did you hang out in the punk scene at all?
With Deanna Young and Gary Conway in Land of the Giants
Stefan Arngrim: I am fortunate to have had many friends in the U.K., so in 1976, when ‘punk’ first started happening in London, I was kept up to date with records, clothes, assorted paraphernalia. I was in or worked with a bunch of bands on the L.A. punk scene in the late seventies. Hung out and played in places like The Masque, Madame Wong’s, Atomic Café, the whole scene. When 1980-81 rolled around and Mark L. Lester asked me to do Class of 1984, the first surge of punk was behind me, and I had no idea punk would move across North America the way it did. Originally, the first script I saw was titled “Guerilla High”, and they told me there was this character named Drugstore, who they needed to be a real bad seed, but really didn’t have anything on paper. So I was invited to wear whatever I wanted, look and act pretty much the way I wanted and say pretty much whatever I liked. So yes, those are mostly my clothes I am wearing, some even from Sex on the Kings Road, (Vivian Westwood’s shop, where the Sex Pistols came to be), and during the shoot, I got well immersed in the local Toronto punk scene, which just made the film more fun. Which is important. “Class” was not an easy film to make. The big high point for me was the chance to work with Roddy McDowall. I had known Roddy since I first arrived in Hollywood, he lived at the
Chateau Marmont. Roddy had been a kid actor and he was a real mentor to me, whether he knew it or not. The chance to work with Roddy, and the opportunity to develop somewhat of a rep as “trouble-shooter-fix-it-guy” with any character you knew you had to have but didn’t know quite how, hire Arngrim and he’ll figure something watchable out, made “The Class of 1984” worth every fourteen hour day. By the way, it was Perry King who came up with the title “The Class of 1984”. We’d all been trying to come up with a title besides “Guerilla High” between takes at Central Tech High. It hit him like a thunderbolt and he ran to tell Mark, who smiled and said something like "Yeah, okay, we’ll talk about it later."
Lee Sobel: As a musician, what kinds of funny things have you experienced in the music business?
Stefan Arngrim: This makes me think of the late great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s quote; “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.”
I’ve been making records since I was twelve. In the late sixties, if you were a cute boy with an interesting haircut and were on TV more than three weeks in a row, and you could fog a mirror; you could make a record. The cool part was that I actually wanted to make records and was already writing songs. My deals were straightforward; you exploit me, I get to exploit you. This gave me an unheard-of education. Working in some of the great studios, with some of the great players, engineers and producers. I was very lucky and I took full advantage of it. Still do.
Most of the “funny” stories I know of in the music biz, are so dark and tinged with inevitable tragedy, that they just don’t transfer well to print. The kinds of stories you tell a friend at four in the morning after too much cognac or coffee. Whispering conspiratorially, you try to hide your laughter out of some
kind of decency, but cannot.
So, that being said. I will tell you the silliest music biz story I know, (I’ll save the rest for a book, a dirty book).
I had a record coming out - this is about 1975, so we’re talking a vinyl forty-five RPM single, with A & B sides. My band at the time was called The Wild Boys, (inspired by the works of William S. Burroughs – google now), and the tunes on this single were pushing the envelope at the time. There were a lot of label meetings regarding the imagery of sex, guns, drugs and aliens. Eventually all was settled and my father and I awaited delivery from the pressing plant of the first five hundred copies of the single, that we received for promo
Stefan Arngrim second from left in Mark L. Lester's Class of 1984
Stefan Arngrim starred in the 1981 horror movie Fear No Evil
purposes. The bulk of the pressing was being shipped to stores and radio stations across the country. The boxes arrived. I think there were fifty in a box, ten boxes. We cracked one immediately and laughed, admiring the labels, as we rushed to the turntable to put it on. The smell of new vinyl, a crackle on the speakers, and then….the orchestra kicked into gear as Robert Goulet began to sing.
We just stared at each other for a second. Other people were assembling, I don’t even remember who, as we pulled another from its
sleeve and put the needle down. Bob again. We start tearing open the boxes as we are becoming fully aware of what is happening. We start to laugh.
We try maybe 7 or 8 more copies, but they are all the same. My labels. Goulet’s record. Wow.
Then suddenly, we realize. If we have all Goulet’s new single with my label, shipped across the country, blah blah blah. Then Robert Goulet’s new single, also being shipped to stores and stations and promo people, is his label with my record. This will be far more confusing, offensive and disturbing for Bob’s gang than mine.
We called the label. Explained the situation. They responded quickly with a
On an episode of 60's TV series The Virginian
With Kurt Kasznar in Land of the Giants
sense of panicked desperation that was admirable from a record label, and picked up the shipment from us, and I would think Bob as well, and set things right, in a week or two.
I cannot report on the reaction of Robert Goulet or any of his representatives, although he is a fellow Canadian and he and my folks did know each other from Toronto. If he ever put that together, it’s no wonder we never heard.
Lee Sobel: Have you had any weird experiences with fans?
Stefan Arngrim: For the most part, I consider myself extremely lucky to have generally interesting, intelligent and knowledgeable ‘fans’. I’ve never been fond of that term, being that it would mean that admirers of
my work were ‘fanatics’. When Warren Zevon and I were hanging out in L.A. writing some tunes together for his ‘Transverse City’ album, we decided on a far more flattering terminology for both our audiences and ourselves: ‘clients’. We have clients. Not fans, clients.
Now, once again, having said this; I will tell you that if one plays some of the roles I have played…well, simply put, if you play the devil in a movie, (and you’re any good at all), expect trouble. There are apparently a couple of sisters in Australia who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am in fact, the risen Lucifer, hiding in plain sight, (as a result of “Fear No Evil”). Hiding for some 35 years apparently. No matter. The sisters feel I must be destroyed, and were kind enough to let me in on all the gory details of satanic warfare. They are far away, and must be up in years now. Nonetheless, I keep an eye out for the sisters.
There is also the gentleman in Germany, who was so moved by my vampire portrayals in a couple of shows, he just knew he had to drive a stake through my heart, cut off my head and burn my corpse. Fortunately, he decided to write me and let me know, with a return address. He was
With Kurt Kasznar in Land of the Giants
spoken to and retreated from his position.
There is a girl somewhere down south, who sent my agent a shoebox with an eviscerated squirrel in it. Complete with old Polaroids, (google now), of herself with blood streaming down her chin. She says she loves me. That we are married in fact. I think she said we had kids. We called the FBI. They keep an eye on her.
When I was a kid, doing LOTG, this man in his forties used to write me fan mail constantly. It got stranger and stranger. One day, on my way to work at Fox, my dad driving. I looked back and noticed a dark sedan with two guys in suits following us. I pointed this out to my dad. He just said that we would talk about it later, but that these men were protecting me and there was nothing to worry about. A few weeks later, I entered my family's living room to see the two ‘protectors’ and my mom and dad conferring. They turned as I came into the room, where it was explained to me that these guys were FBI agents and that my ‘fan’ had written a letter I had not been allowed to see, in which he detailed his plans to save me from the satanic influences
of Hollywood, by cutting me up in little pieces. He had finally been captured asleep in his car, three blocks from our house. In the trunk of his car, a reciprocating saw, couple of hack saws, sledge-hammer, rolls of plastic, some rope and rolls upon rolls of duct tape.
These are just a few particularly stand out cases in my own experience. I know of weirder and equally threatening cases of this kind of thing. Much worse. People knowing who and where you are is tricky, and if you do something that allows them to project their fantasies upon you, it can turn out very badly. All in all though, I stand by where this started, I consider myself exceedingly lucky to attract a really special kind of person to my work. Smart, thoughtful,
Yikes! Stefan Arngrim in the 2004 remake of The Fog
informed, but with a willingness to allow themselves a childlike curiosity and imagination. That’s really what my work, and really all art or entertainment, is all about.
Lee Sobel: What can you tell me about this photo I found of you where your face is decomposing like a zombie.
Stefan Arngrim: I gather you are referring to a still of me in full leper ghost makeup for the 2004 re-boot of The Fog....which was a lot of fun as I had auditioned for John Carpenter on nearly every one of his 70's-80's pictures, but for one reason or another (scheduling, distributor approval....or I just wasn't right for the part).....but John always swore he would get me in something. Nice guy, John. So when he started Revolution Films and started to exec produce re-boots of his hits, he called my agent. When I arrived on set, in my dressing room was a gift basket of all sorts of goodies and a note from John saying, "Well, I finally got you.....John Carpenter." Charming. This photo was taken in my dressing room between set-ups.
Thank you for an enjoyable time travel experience and stimulating conversation. We must do it again some time.