"...when you've got Robert Mitchum telling you a story with eye contact,
ya don't just get up and walk away."
~ Lance Kerwin ~
Lance Kerwin was doing movies in the 80s and 90s, but it was the 70s that was his 'Golden Buzzer." Great made-for-TV movies like Stephen King's “Salem's Lot” and Michael Landon's heartbreaking “The Loneliest Runner” were both perfect vehicles for Lance's unusually sensitive awareness. The camera loved Lance Kerwin. And it was always cool seeing him appear in various TV shows and Afterschool Specials. He was young, smart and could pull off sincerity and empathy like nobody's business. Plus, he had the look. He could play funny when necessary, but television wanted him for the drama. The emotion. And no role is more fondly remembered than his portrayal of James in the iconic TV series..."James At 15." (1977-78)
“James At 15” was a quiet show about a nice ordinary school-aged goof. Just an average kid with average friends trying to deal with their problems. Large and small. Sometimes tackling sensitive subjects like pregnancy, cults, virginity, alcoholism, and STDs. Topics like these might not seem so daring today, but in the 70s, quite a few parents were freaking out. Lance Kerwin was just a confused 15-year-old...playing a confused 15-year-old. Think about that a moment. This wasn't the heaviest show on television, but it wasn't your typical light-weight fare either. It walked a little closer to teenage reality and was far more grounded. Not always with happy endings. So yeah...for many young people of the 70s...and watchers of reruns, like myself...Lance Kerwin left a mark. Go get you some.
Lance Kerwin Interview -- October 2019
Casey Chambers: Well, you've been involved in a lot of different projects, so I'm just going to cherry-pick a few. It's the 40th anniversary of one of the scariest TV movies ever made. The Stephen King vampire mini-series..."Salem's Lot." (1979) What a great vampire flick that is. And you were smack-dab in the middle of it.
Lance Kerwin: 40 years. Is it really? Wow!
Casey Chambers: Had you the opportunity to read the novel at the time that you landed the role?
Lance Kerwin: Sure did, yeah. One of the first things I learned when I was studying acting was not to try to imagine how you're going to do a line or how you're going to stand, or even work on your character. The first thing you want to do is get to know the story. You get to know the story and then you get to know where your character falls into it. So I was reading the book and the script and I was having nightmares. (laughs) "Salem's Lot" was scary. We met Stephen King and the guy who wrote the screenplay. Most of the horror shows at that time were really playing on the red herrings. The scary stuff where ya walk in, turn around and bump into something. And not so much the suspense. That foreboding feeling of what's going to happen next type of stuff. So it was really a different approach to horror films from what was prevailing at that time. And it was high budget too for television.
Tobe Hooper had also directed "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) and was on a whole different level than most directors I had worked with. His mind worked really quick. He would say, 'You know what I want in this scene? I want'em to be, I want'em to be, I want'em to be,' Talking really fast. And I tried to guess what he was saying. 'Uh, Scared!' He said, 'Yeah, yeah, you're scared. But, also, what I'm looking for is a feeling of, a feeling of...' I'd guess, 'Fear!' He'd be like, 'Oh, yes that too.' And I was telling my parents, 'How do I get going as fast as him to try to guess what it is he's thinking?' And my parents were like, 'Well, why don't you just shut up and then he'll tell you what he's thinking.' (laughs) He was really something to work with.
One scene that was pretty interesting was the bedroom scene when the vampire boy, I think it was Danny Glick, comes to the window saying, 'Let me in. Let me in.' For that entire scene, the film was running backward in the camera. We started at the end and walked backward all the way to the beginning where I'm in bed and I open my eyes. That's the reason it seems like there's something different...something weird about it. The smoke is flowing differently because of the way that scene was shot.
Casey Chambers: Always one of my favorite scenes from the movie. Some scary shit right there.
Window Scene - "Salem's Lot" (1979)
Lance Kerwin: Yeah, it was very cool. "Salem's Lot" was also the first show I was a part of where they weren't in a rush to get it done. In television, you're on a tight schedule. Time is money. If you get the scene close enough, they're like, 'Good enough. Let's move on. Check the gate. Cut print. Let's move on. Let's get to the next scene.' But with "Salem's Lot," they were like, 'Hmm, do you think we could do it better? Could we do it differently? Do you have any ideas? Let's try it again.'
Casey Chambers: You have more of an opportunity to step back and think about what you're doing.
Lance Kerwin: Well, certainly. As an actor, you like it because you can...you can risk a little bit more. You can try this. You can try that. And Tobe Hooper, he encouraged thinking outside the box. One of the reasons they liked me for the role was that when I came in, I had ideas. I didn't really have to audition, but I would come in and meet with them. And we'd talk about the character and talk about the film. And I had, you know, opinions. When we originally shot it, we did two versions,. We did the mini-series, but at the same time, we shot a feature film version. It was a little more graphic and it was like R rated and of course too much for regular TV. But in Europe, it was pretty big as a feature film. It was the highest-grossing film in Paris in...I think it was '81 or '80. So yeah, it's been 40 years.
Casey Chambers: The movie's a lot of fun. I just picked up another copy of "Salem's Lot." This time on Blu-Ray and it looks better than ever.
Lance Kerwin: Oh, did you? Which version? How long is it?
Casey Chambers: It's the full-length version. It's over three hours. And this Halloween is gonna be the perfect time to give that film another taste.
Lance Kerwin: Yeah, that's cool. Oh, you know that house? The exterior of that house...
Casey Chambers: The creepy old Marsten house. Sure.
Lance Kerwin: Yeah, right. The exterior of that house...we filmed in Ferndale, California...it was put up all in one night. It's a facade built around a little shed or something there on the corner of that hill. (laughs) So that first morning when we showed up like at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to begin our production, they had just finished the house that night. Aged it all down and made it look like it had been there forever. And I remember this guy stopping his car and getting out and looking at it and kind of scratching his head. Looked like maybe he was just getting home from the bar or something. I was like, 'What's up?' And he said, 'I've lived here 20 years. I just don't remember that place. What is going on?' (laughs) And in the interior of that set were pieces of sets from other horror film houses throughout the years. They got the walls from the "Psycho" house. They got stairs from "The Maltese Falcon." It was all bits and pieces of old sets.
Casey Chambers: That's one of the things I like about Hollywood. Old sets never die...they just show up in another movie. And it's fun when you catch it. (laughs)
Lance Kerwin: Yeah, man. And Tobe Hooper...he also did trippy stuff that nobody knew about. Like painting resin on the back of the wall and letting it ooze through so that the walls kind of looked like they were moving. There were a lot of subtle, subtle things that cost them a lot of money that most people wouldn't have messed with. But they went that extra length. What a trip! I think I still have some pieces of the set. You always try to save a little something.
Casey Chambers: How could you not take a piece of memory like that with you? I'm totally jealous! (laughs) I grew up watching reruns of "James At 15" when I was just a little younger than James...The show often tackled sensitive subjects as witnessed through a young teenage boy's life. And it pushed the boundaries of what was fair game in 70s primetime. And it was quiet in the telling. The show really meant a lot to me. How did "James At 15" happen for you?
Lance Kerwin: Let's see. So, the writer...Dan Wakefield...wrote this coming of age screenplay and I think they had just seen "The Loneliest Runner." (1976) A TV movie I did for Michael Landon. And I went in and met with them. The story is that there were hundreds of kids auditioning for it, but I learned later that I was the only one they really wanted for the role. What was cool about it was James was really the only real teenager on TV at that time. You had "Welcome Back, Kotter" which was all adults portraying teenagers. You had "Happy Days" which...all of those guys were 18 to 25. John Travolta and Ron Howard. They were all adults portraying teenagers. But James...now I was 15 or 16. So I was really portraying a character who was more, ya know, real.
"James At 15" - Opening (1977)
James was a good photographer and he had certain qualities, but he also had that Walter Mitty thing going on where he'd fantasize about being Mr. Wonderful and then he'd come back to reality stumbling all over himself. (laughs) So I could relate to him. A lot of the roles I played were things I had gone through in life. "The Loneliest Runner"...about a kid who wet the bed. I had wet the bed. "Children Of Divorce." (1980) Another movie of the week. My parents had been divorced. The alcoholic one with Scott Baio called, "The Boy Who Drank Too Much." (1980) The only difference in that one was Scott Baio played the alcoholic and I played the good kid whose life was all affected by his friend's drinking problem. And it's funny because Scott had never had a drink. (laughs) Scott was the good kid and I, at that age, was a major pothead. But I played the good kid, so that was a little switch. (laughs) I remember one time telling Scott, 'Hey, in the scene where you're drunk, you should probably like...take a swig of some booze or something so you can get a little buzz and see what it's like.' His parents were telling the producers, 'Could you keep Lance away from Scott? He's being a bad influence.' (laughs) I learned later on that it was easier to act drunk than for a drunk to act, right? But I loved that there were some parts of my life in these shows that I could relate to.
Casey Chambers: Many of us have been right there with ya, no doubt. Are there any episodes of "James At 15" that stand out for you?
Lance Kerwin: Well, I loved it when James finally lost his virginity, right? ("The Gift" - 1978) And then the first episode after he lost his virginity. He was feeling guilt and fear and flipping out 'cause he thought he had contracted an STD. That was so fun. ("Listless Fever" - 1978) There was an episode where I'm getting to be with Wolfman Jack and he's giving me an Academy Award or a Tony. An Emmy. Something like that. I'm getting to drive Porsches. I got to work with a deaf kid who was an actor in one of the episodes. And I got to spend some time with him and learned sign language. I always liked photography, but photography is expensive, right? Well, when we were filming the show, my parents are like, 'Why don't you call Nikon and see if they want James to use a Nikon in the show?' So I called Nikon and said, 'Hey, I'm doing this show where the character's a photographer. Would you like him to use a Nikon?' They said, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'Well I'm going to need some equipment for the show and then I probably need some equipment for myself too...so I can learn how to do it myself.' And they're like, 'Make a list of what you want.' So we wrote up a list of all these different cameras and lenses and power packs and filters. And we figured they'll say no to some and yes to some. But they gave us everything.
"James At 16" - Opening (1978)
So I had all this wonderful Nikon equipment. 20th Century Fox would give me the film. NBC would develop it for me. So I took thousands and thousands of pictures throughout the time I was working on "James At 15." Even when I'd go to like..."Battle Of The Network Stars" I would take pictures. So I was taking pictures of Cheryl Tiegs and Cindy Crawford and Victoria Principal and I loved doing that. But specific episodes...the memories all kind of blend together.
Casey Chambers: I've got to go and get myself a good camera. (laughs) As a young actor of the 70s, you had the opportunity to work with a lot of heavy legends of Hollywood.
Lance Kerwin: I had a great opportunity as a kid to work with a lot of old-timers. I got to work with Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. And my very first TV series was with Glenn Ford. And Michael Landon certainly was up in that category of people you'd want to work with. James Mason was interesting. He had a real sense of humor and he would tell jokes, but everybody was so in awe of him, they'd be afraid to laugh. (laughs) They'd be like, 'Did James Mason just tell a joke?' These guys were professionals, but they were real people.
I did a show with Robert Mitchum. It was called, "A Killer In The Family." (1983) Eric Stoltz and James Spader were both in it, too. And those guys were all pros. I remember one time Robert Mitchum telling me a story about...I don't know...some gal he had got with in the '50s, and he's telling me this story and they're like, 'Mr. Mitchum, we're ready for you on the set. Come on, Lance, we're ready for you on the set.' But when you've got Robert Mitchum telling you a story with eye contact, ya don't just get up and walk away. And he would keep telling his story and then they'd say, 'Mr. Mitchum, the camera's rolling.' And he'd go on with his story and then they'd say, 'Mr. Mitchum, ready for action.' And he'd kinda go like...' Okay, hang on a second.' And he'd walk over and stand on his mark and say his lines, and then he came back and finished his story. (laughs) Like...the story was more important than doing the scene. 'Mr. Mitchum, did you want to do it again?' And he'd say, 'I didn't want to do it the first time.' (laughs) He was not one of those actors who's...' What's my motivation?' He'd just stand up, say his lines and go. And by the way, he had his lines all memorized. Probably for the whole show when we started. Working with Mitchum was super cool. He liked me. We'd sit and tell stories.
"A Killer In The Family" - Trailer (1983)
The film was based on a true story about some kids in the late '70s who broke their father out of prison at Florence State Penitentiary because they thought he was innocent. They were the Tison family. The kids were on death row in Arizona when we shot the film. And we went to the prison to meet them. We were trying to project them as total victims in the film. Turns out they maybe weren't quite as innocent as we thought. The prison let them watch the film. And we asked them if they liked it. They were like, 'Oh yeah, but we got one question. One thing really bothers us...'Where'd y'all get them hats?' (laughs) I don't think I'd ever done a story like that where you got to meet the actual people you were portraying.
Casey Chambers: That's a creepy little 'meet and greet!'
Lance Kerwin: Yeah, it was weird. (laughs)
James Spader and Lance Kerwin
Casey Chambers: You mentioned your first TV series was with Glenn Ford. The "Blackboard Jungle" cat. Not too shab.
Lance Kerwin: Working with Glenn Ford on "The Family Holvak" was a great experience. Glenn was super professional and he expected the same from even the child actors on the set. He gave you everything as if you were an adult. If it was your close up, he gave his best performance when he was off-camera. And he expected you to do the same. I remember getting slapped by him one time because I got distracted watching somebody. I was off-camera. It was his close up. I think the script supervisor and makeup girl were playing footsies or something. And I got distracted and missed my cue to give him a cue and he whacked me. He said, 'Listen, I'm there for you. I expect you to be there for me. Be professional. Pay attention.' I wanted to be a professional actor. And I was fortunate to be able to work with people who expected that and helped teach me that. For a kid in the 70s who loved TV and loved movies, I had the awesome opportunity to work with all the stars.
Casey Chambers: Let me jump to "Enemy Mine." (1985) I know this was a smaller role, but I always enjoyed that little sci-fi movie. And it was cool seeing you in it. What was that experience like for you?
Lance Kerwin: It was Wolfgang Petersen who was the director and he had done "Das Boot" and "The Neverending Story." And I don't know if you're familiar with Wolfgang Petersen.
Casey Chambers: He did "Air Force One" too, didn't he?
Lance Kerwin: Yeah, and he also did "The Perfect Storm." He's quite a director. And I wanted to work with him. I had been in Germany and Austria working on another film called "The Mysterious Stranger." (1982) It was a Mark Twain story and we filmed it in a castle in Austria. It was with Christopher Makepeace. Interesting fact. There was a kid working on the film with us. It was the first time he'd ever done anything. He could barely speak English. His name was Christoph Waltz. Well, he went on to win an Academy Award. I think he was in "Inglourious Basterds" (2009)
Anyway, while I was working on that film, I met a girl there. I'd visit her in Germany. She'd visit me in California. And she had called and said, 'Hey, you know, they're making this film here. It's a 20th Century Fox film and there's a couple of parts that maybe you could play.' So I called my agent and my agent was like, 'Nope, don't want to mess with it. They're just hiring people from Germany. They've switched directors and they've switched actors and it's been a year that they've been working on it. They're not gonna want to pay. They're just not gonna hire.' When I said that there was a girl I was seeing in Germany who I could stay with while I worked on the film...my agent still told me, 'Nope, don't want to do it. If you wanna do it, you can do it yourself. I don't want to be a part of it.' So I contacted the director myself and sent him a clip of a couple of my shows and said, 'I would be living in Germany at that time. Would he consider hiring me as a local actor?' And to my surprise, they called and said, 'Yeah, come on.' So I got the part as a German local, not as a U.S. actor.
Lance Kerwin and Dennis Quaid - "Enemy Mine" (1985)
When we filmed it, there were a lot of flashbacks throughout the entire film of Dennis Quaid and me. A lot of backstory. Why the humans hated the Dracs. But the way it ended up, it was just the death scene for me pretty much, right? (laughs) If you're getting popcorn, you missed me. (laughs) 'Tell my girl I love her.' 'Don't worry, I'll get that Drac.' (laughs) And then he dies. But I was in Germany for probably eight or nine months filming that movie and went back several times to film it. And working with Wolfgang Petersen was incredible. Except he wanted me to die quicker. He was like, 'Die already, Lance, die. You keep coming back with one more thing. How long you gonna drag this out?' Interestingly enough, I did another show for him in '94 called, "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. It was the exact same part. I'm the first one to die. Once again, if you're getting popcorn...(laughs) 'Tell my girl I love her.' And then I die.' (laughs)
Casey Chambers: No more popcorn, I'm stuffed! (laughs)
Lance Kerwin: (laughs) But it was so cool, man...being in Germany. I got to drive on the Autobahn where you can drive as fast as you want. I asked the producers if I could borrow a car for the weekend and to my surprise, they said, 'Yeah.' And I was thinking, 'Wow, what are they gonna give me? A Porsche? BMW? A Mercedes? I don't know.' So I went and I got myself the gloves and the goggles and I was imagining myself going a hundred miles an hour on the Autobahn. Friday when I got the keys, they gave me a VW Bus. (laughs) But they did let me borrow a car and I loved being in Germany. But I'm pretty much a television actor, Casey. I've done about 130 shows. It was pretty much episodic Movies of the Week. Afterschool Specials. So any chance I had to work on a feature film, I liked it because the focus was on doing it well as opposed to doing it fast. And because this one was filmed in Europe, you don't have to pay taxes on a certain portion of it. And the residuals have been so good from "Enemy Mine." Gosh, I ended up making a lot of money on that film over the years. So yeah, that was a super cool experience.
Casey Chambers: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Lance Kerwin: Music has always been a big part of my life. My brothers and my parents were all musicians. And my hero...one of my older brothers...my late brother...he played the harmonica. He was listening to Little Walter. Junior Wells. Magic Sam. B.B. King. Albert King. And in the '60s, he left Newport Beach, loaded up his car and drove to Chicago and ended up living with Little Walter and learning to play the blues. When he came back to California, I would always go to his concerts. My other brother played guitar. My stepdad played music. Everybody played music. I took up flute and piccolo in school and I ended up playing that on "James..." and a couple of other shows. But my stepdad didn't like rock and roll or blues. So as a kid, I was only able to listen to jazz and standards unless it was the blues my brother was playing. I've always had a special place in my heart for blues. And now that I live in Hawaii, I like listening to contemporary Hawaiian.
"Walter's Blues" (live) - Little Walter, Hound Dog Taylor, Odie Payne (Feb. 1968)
Casey Chambers: You mentioned that you played the flute in a few shows. I bet you didn't see that coming!
Lance Kerwin: There were several times I got to play instruments in a show. But I also learned early on not to pretend to know something you don't. We were doing an episode of "Wonder Woman" and Roy Rogers was playing my dad. It was about some kids on a ranch and whatever. And when I went to the audition, they were asking everyone, 'Do you know how to ride a horse?' And most all the kids would lie and say, 'Oh yeah, I know how to ride a horse. I know how to ride a horse.' But my stepdad told me, you know, you tell him, 'Nope. I don't, but I'm teachable.' (laughs) Right? Now I had ridden a horse, 'cause we were from the country. But I didn't pretend to be better than I was. So, because I was that humble, they introduced me to the wranglers who showed me how. How to get on the horse. Which side to get on. How to sit in the saddle. How to keep my heels down. And they gave me the best horse. All these other kids who said they knew how to ride one, they put them on a horse and the horse is bucking them off and they just looked like idiots. (laughs) Early on, I learned to say...' I don't know how, but I'm teachable.'
One of the neat things about being an actor is that you get to learn all these different things and be people that you weren't. (laughs) I got to do a part where my character was a prodigy guitar player. So they brought in Earl Klugh to teach me the song. And I got to play the harmonica. I got to play flute. The cello. The piano. And I got to be with some really, really incredible musicians that would teach me. And I still know the songs today. I still remember some of my dialogue. Poems that I had to read. Whether it was music or shooting guns or playing a sport, it was no different. When we did that show..."The Boy Who Drank Too Much," it was hockey. Scott Baio and I had to learn how to ice skate for the show and they had us training with the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.
Casey Chambers: That's a wicked cool trump card to have in your backpack. Me, I think I took lessons from Large Marge, the truck driver. The U.S. Olympic Team is much cooler. (laughs)
Lance Kerwin: Right? (laughs) My experience as a child actor was a positive one. My education was better. The traveling. The work ethic I learned. The exposure to different cultures. It was a wonderful, wonderful childhood. And it was a great career. Probably 20...25 years of doing it. And the shows I was a part of and the people I worked with...I carry it to this day. Raising five kids, ya know, my life's on a different trip now. And in fact, just yesterday my wife and I celebrated our anniversary of 19 years. But I have a fan base that's super, super loyal. People that were affected by the shows or liked them, or just appreciated me. That's a whole aspect of it I never counted on. I wanted to act. But there was a whole other blessing that came with it. That's pretty cool.
Casey Chambers: Absolutely. And count me being one of them. I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. It's been a real pleasure.
Lance Kerwin: Thanks, I appreciate that. It was a great time in my life. And I enjoyed reflecting on it. So thanks very much.
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