HQ Cover

 

 

Brad Dourif

written by clint mcelroy

BRAD DOURIF, THE BEST ACTOR TO EVER COME OUT OF HUNTINGTON, IS RIDING HIGH WITH AN UPCOMING WESTERN SERIES ON HBO AND A CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED ROLE IN THE HIT MOVIE LORD OF THE RINGS

He has been nominated for an Academy Award and a Screen Actors Guild award. He has won a Golden Globe and many other show business accolades. He has appeared in almost 100 motion pictures, working alongside actors like Jack Nicholson, James Earl Jones, Faye Dunaway and world-renowned directors like John Huston and David Lynch. He has appeared in almost as many television shows, including “The X-Files,” “Murder She Wrote,” and “Miami Vice.” He’s had a string of stage successes, including a very impressive stint with the highly respected Circle Repertory Company.

And, he’s from Huntington.

Meet Brad Dourif, the most successful Huntington-born actor…that you probably don’t know.

Ask ten people if they know who Brad Dourif is and nine of them will tell you: “I have no idea.” But the tenth person will probably say: “Isn’t he the guy who was in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers?’”

Lord of the Rings

Go online and visit the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), type in “Brad Dourif” and the screen will start scrolling past movie after movie, TV show after TV show. In anyone’s book, it is an impressive resume. You would think, after a 30-year career in show business, with his many accomplishments, Dourif would have been the guest of honor at a parade through downtown Huntington, or would have had a street named after him, or at least would have a spot on the Huntington Wall of Fame. None of that has happened. Why not?

“I’m a hermit,” laughs Dourif.

He was born in Huntington on March 18, 1950. He grew up on Staunton Road right next to the Ohio River.

“It was great,” he says. “I got to see the last steam paddleboat race on the Ohio.”

His father owned a dye factory in town, and though he died when Dourif was only three years old, he definitely had an influence on a son who would later go on to star in some of the creepiest movies ever filmed. “He was very much into the macabre. He would always have macabre stuff around the house like fake skeletons and stuff like that,” Dourif said.

After his father’s death, Dourif’s mother, Joan, married Bill Campbell, one of the world’s leading amateur golfers and a well-known Huntington businessman. As a step-dad, says Dourif, Campbell did a good job: “He was a little tough, but you know, I was a bit of a space cadet and this was alien territory to him.”

When it came to vocation, though, it was Joan who had the biggest influence on him. His mother was very active in community theatre and that was his main inspiration to go into acting.

“If I trace back to the beginnings of my desire to be an actor, I can remember one specific incident,” he recalls. “It was when I saw her in rehearsal doing ‘Anastasia’ and she was so extraordinary in rehearsal, I knew I wanted to act from then on.”

Act he did, becoming heavily involved with the Community Players and other groups, himself. He even had the privilege of sharing the stage with his mother in a Community Players production of “The Lion in Winter.”

Eventually, he attended Marshall University, pursuing the academic side of acting, while still staying very involved in community productions. Dr. Elaine Novak was one of his professors and she remembers Dourif’s remarkable turn as Romeo in a classroom production of “Romeo and Juliet.” “He was terrific,” remembers Dr. Novak. “Even then you could tell there was something very special about him.”

Brad Dourif

“I was just talking about that the other day,” recalls Dourif. He and his girlfriend were baby-sitting the children of some friends and as one of them pulled out her homework, Brad saw she was studying “Romeo and Juliet.” He says it jogged memories of that presentation: “I did that with a girl by the name of Nancy Polino, and we nailed it pretty good, if I remember correctly.”

One of the productions Dourif participated in at Marshall was a political review, “kind of a take-off of ‘Firesign Theater’,” he says. Afterwards another Marshall student approached him and asked him: “What are you doing here?”

“I told her: Wasting my life. What’s it look like? I’m going to college.” The young woman said: “You should come to New York.”
There began Dourif’s long-time friendship with Conchata Ferrel, who has an impressive resume of her own, with over 100 film and television appearances, most recently in the TV series “Push, Nevada” and in the Adam Sandler film “Mr. Deeds.”

In 1969, Dourif left Marshall University and headed for New York City. In many ways it was the stereotypical story of a young man with stars in his eyes, heading to the Big Apple to make it big on the New York stage. Most of those stories end with the young man (or woman) parking cars or waiting tables until they can save enough money for a bus ticket home.

But not this time.

When Dourif first moved to New York, he became roommates with Ferrel, “Chatty” as he calls her. “Me and Chatty started out in this apartment on 58th Street between 10th and somewhere really, really west. It was a pretty tough neighborhood and a long way from the theater.” That long commute was probably a problem since he found himself working, a lot, with the respected Circle Repertory Company.

“It was hard. I didn’t have a day off for three years. I had just enough money to get by. I could live, as long as I didn’t go out or anything like that.”

One of the productions in which he worked was “When You Comin’ Back, Red Rider.” Sitting in the audience was film director Milos Forman who was putting together the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Dourif’s performance that night prompted Forman to offer him the part of ‘Billy Bibbit.’

“They were actually in negotiations with someone else at the time,” Dourif remembers. “Then he saw me and decided I was who he wanted. I had the part at that point…I just didn’t know it.”

Myst

It was a defining moment in Dourif’s career. The role put him on screen with heavyweights like Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. To say “he held his own” is a huge understatement, since his performance as the stuttering, emotionally-fragile Billy earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But, when asked about memories of the production he remembers the preparation for the part: “I worked with some speech therapists. I even had a textbook on how to stutter. It was very, very strange.”

In addition to the Oscar nomination, Dourif won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination and many other honors for the role. As is usually the case, that led to many more screen offers. But, Dourif walked away from them. “Cuckoo’s Nest” brought about a lot of changes in my life and I think I was a little too young for it. For me it was a little too soon.” He returned to New York and theater, acting and teaching acting and directing classes at Columbia University.

Eventually though, in 1988, he moved to Hollywood and began racking up that impressive list of movie and television appearances mentioned earlier. Believe it or not, he has a hard time watching his own work. He only recently watched ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ on video, and even then didn’t make it all the way through. “I can’t stand looking at myself.”

Mississippi Burning

Obviously, someone out there enjoyed watching him. He had major roles in “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” “Ragtime” and “Mississippi Burning.” He worked with some of the most admired directors in film history, including David Lynch (who directed him in both “Blue Velvet” and “Dune” and John Huston (who directed him in “Wise Blood” in 1979).

“David’s wonderful, the kind of guy you’d give your right arm to,” says Dourif. “He was one of the most fun directors I ever worked with.”

Huston may not have been quite as much fun, but was just as impressive. “He would pretty much decide that a movie was either there or it wasn’t. Of all the people I’ve worked with, he was the most economical. We were finished by 3:30 in the afternoon almost everyday.”

Currently, Brad finds himself working with one of today’s most successful directors – Peter Jackson – who cast him as Grima Wormtongue in the second and third parts of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“I auditioned several times and it looked like I was going to get it, but then I didn’t get it,” he recalls. The role went to someone else, who ended up turning it down. Jackson immediately went to Dourif. “I struggled with it a bit at the very beginning because the English accent turned out to be a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. By the time we started shooting, though, I was able to get to the point where I could do it easily.”

Wormtongue

The part of Wormtongue has become one of his favorite roles, since the serpentine Grima is one of the few evil humans in the trilogy. “One of my favorite scenes (in “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”) was the scene with Miranda Otto.” In that scene, Wormtongue uses his powers of persuasion to try and seduce the princess Eowyn, played by Otto. “I love that scene because the language was so beautiful and because it’s such an interesting character exploration of both parts.”

He enjoys working with director Jackson as well, because once an actor is cast, Jackson has the writers write “to” the character. “You would go in and meet with them (the writers) and they would write dialogue based on your take on the character.”

Wormtongue will also appear in the conclusion of the film trilogy: “The Return of the King,” although he doesn’t know to what extent. “I may have to go back to New Zealand for reshoots, but I don’t think I can shave my eyebrows. And I’m supposed to have a mustache for a new TV series.”

That new TV series is called “Deadwood,” set to premiere on HBO in 2003. It’s a western with a twist, as you might expect, set in the real town of Deadwood, South Dakota. “The series starts with the day Wild Bill Hickok rode into town. He was dead ten days later. So the series is really about the town.” Dourif plays the town doctor, and since it’s a Brad Dourif part, this doctor has a few idiosyncrasies: “He’s very interested in dissection. He likes to cut up dead bodies. He’s an interesting character.”

Brad Dourif knows a thing or two about “interesting characters.” Many of his film roles have been in some of the most successful horror and thriller movies of the last 30 years. Which is ironic since he says: “I couldn’t sit through a scary movie myself to save my life. When I was young, I really loved Halloween and I loved to tell spooky stories, but that didn’t last.” He remembers as a teenager going to see the movie “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.”

“I was under the seat for that one. I couldn’t handle it.”

Adding to the irony is the fact that Brad Dourif provides the voice of one of the screen’s scariest monsters, Chucky, the murderous doll from the “Child’s Play” series of movies.

“He’s a lot of fun,” says Brad. “He really enjoys his work.” Dourif says even though Chucky is a wildly fantastic character, he has a real aspect to him as well, which makes him appealing to the actor. “At this point, he’s pretty easy for me to do.”

Like most actors, Dourif says his background shapes a lot of his performances. Even as far back as his childhood in Huntington.

“I was in Huntington a few years ago and drove out to Staunton Road. I didn’t go in the house or knock on the door or anything. But hey, it’s where I grew up, of course it’s been an influence on me.”

He does return to the old stomping grounds occasionally, and will be returning for a family reunion in the next few months. So if anyone plans on organizing that parade, or that street re-naming, go ahead and start working on it. You might even consider a film festival of his best-known movies.

Just don’t expect him to sit through them… especially the scary ones.


 

Home | Subscribe | Advertising | Back Issues | Send us E-mail
Reader's Letters | Huntington Images

 

Post Office Box 384 • Huntington, WV 25708-0384 
Telephone: 304.529.6158 • Fax: 304.529.6142
E-Mail: [email protected]

©1999 Huntington Quarterly Magazine