Thom Mathews Interview: The Star of Return of the Living Dead Is Very Much Alive!
by Lee Sobel (9/2/20)
Although Wikipedia announced his death erroneously in 2007, Thom Mathews who played Freddy in Dan O'Bannon's cult classic that keeps on giving, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), is very much alive. O'Bannon famously wrote the screenplay for the mega successful movie Alien (1979) and was a bit of a wild man who would have actors come to his house to audition where it was not uncommon for them to find guns and nudie magazines lying around. In addition to his long acting career, Thom Mathews is also a very successful contractor who remodels homes for the rich and famous, including Ozzy Osbourne.
Lee Sobel: Return of the Living Dead is so much fun - was it as much fun to make it as to watch it?
Thom Mathews: It was a lot of fun and we had the benefit of rehearsing for a couple of weeks before we started principal photography. That enabled the cast to really gel well together. It looked like we were talking over each other but that was the way we rehearsed it. Once we got on set, Jimmy Karen and I came up with
some stuff that Dan liked so it got added in. It was a real collaboration for me with Dan. We always talked about ideas and he never said no to me.
Lee Sobel: Dan O'Bannon was known for his somewhat eccentric behavior. Do you have any stories about him?
Thom Mathews: Yeah, I went to his house in Santa Monica and he had taken out all the plaster in the walls and replaced it with thick plywood and then put the plaster back because he was worried about earthquakes. He also had a steel frame around his bed in case there was an earthquake at night.
Lee Sobel: Did you get close to any of the other actors when you made Return of the Living Dead?
Thom Mathews: I was a very close friend to Jimmy Karen up until when he passed away in 2018. He had fantastic stories -- he was the Gentleman Caller on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire and he was good friends with Jason Robards who came to visit the set. When we made Return of the Living Dead Part II we discovered that we had the same birthday (November 28) so for years we had birthday dinner together
with our wives.
Lee Sobel: James Karen was really funny in the movie.
Thom Mathews: At first I thought he was hamming it up but it played so well. All the office stuff was great. I didn't realize myself right away that it was a dark comedy. I was a method actor and got really into it -- I got my ear pierced, I shaved my head. My hair was a little bit too short for Dan and that's why I have the baseball cap because he wanted my hair to grow out.
Lee Sobel: Had you done much comedy before Return of the Living Dead?
Thom Mathews: Not a lot. That was my first big part. I had been in The Woman in Red (1984) with Gene Wilder. I got my SAG card on Falcon Crest. For three years I was acting in commercials which sustained me financially. Between all that I was doing construction, which I still do today.
Lee Sobel: Were there any problems during the making of the movie? Beverly Randolph was injured on the stairs in one scene.
Thom Mathews: I was there when that happened. It was planned and she didn't know it. Dan took out the stair because he wanted a real reaction. She was upset about that. During my last scene of the last day I worked on the movie during the scene where I am trying to get to Beverly to eat her brains, I had to push through a door with a two by four that was holding it in place and I had to push really hard to open it and I got hit on the head and had to go to the emergency room. Everything was fine. Unfortunately my mom happened to be there that day, which didn't make it better for me.
Lee Sobel: It was Dan O'Bannon's first movie as director. Did he get along with everybody?
Thom Mathews: I got along with him great. Clu Gulager, I don't think was that
fond of Dan. But in Clu's defense, he came into the movie and didn't get the time to rehearse and he had a lot of dialogue. When an actor is under pressure that way, it can be hard. Clu was a serious actor and he felt the movie was beneath him. I think he took the role for the paycheck, but wanted to do a good job. He's since come to really appreciate the movie and he's glad he made it.
Lee Sobel: I heard you didn't like the director of Return of the Living Dead Part II, Ken Widerhorn. I saw that you called him "a tool" in one interview I read.
Thom Mathews: Yeah, I didn't like the script much and I didn't care for him very much. I'm sure he's a nice guy but
the movie lacked the comedy of the first one. I just felt it didn't have the feel of the first movie.
Lee Sobel: Return had a killer punk rock soundtrack - were you into the punk scene back then?
Thom Mathews: I wasn't really but after I cut my hair I found myself attracted to punk girls and there was a heavy scene on Melrose Avenue with scooters and people with colored mohawks and it was pretty cool. Yeah, the soundtrack is great. I'm lucky to have been in the movie and every once in a while I get to see it again on a big screen at an anniversary or special event, and I really love it.
Lee Sobel: In 1991 you starred as a kickboxer out for vengeance for the murder of your brother in Albert Pyun's Bloodmatch. That was the era of action movies -- did you train for the movie and did you want to become an action movie star?
Thom Mathews: I did train for it -- the motivation for it was to kick my older brother's ass because he would beat me up. So I started to learn karate and kung fu - that was the reason I started to train. It served me well. We shot Bloodmatch in three days.
Lee Sobel: I know you also appeared in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives and Return of the Living Dead II -- were you concerned about getting typecast in horror movies? Did people in the movie business look down at people who were in horror movies back then?
Thom Mathews: I was just happy to have a job. When I was cast in Return of the Living Dead I tested with all these actresses for the part Beverly got. I learned a lot about auditions and how not to be nervous. But sometimes actors can get weird. I did a movie once where these girls in it were really unfriendly to me during the making of the film, until they apologized and explained that they'd seen me in a TV show where I played a cop that beat my wife. But in a way that's a compliment because it was a way of saying I did such a good job that they believed it.