Cult hero: John Carradine

 

The gaunt, flamboyant, shifty-looking character actor John Carradine (1906-1988) occupies a unique place in Hollywood history and cult heroism: he had showy supporting roles in enduring classics - Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath - and he also starred in some of the very worst films ever made: Voodoo Man, Blood of Ghastly Horror, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Demented Death Farm Massacre.

The sepulchral-voiced and skeletal Carradine was unusual in that he alternated classics and schlock right from the start, displaying no discrimination in the roles he accepted and performing in the feeblest drivel with enormous relish. He gave the same booming, scenery-chewing performances whether he was doing a scene with Henry Fonda in a high-concept big-studio blockbuster, or with Lon Chaney Jr in a low-budget indie shocker.

Just a few years after playing the enigmatic gambler, Hatton, in John Ford's immortal Stagecoach (1939), he was having his brain transplanted into a thawed-out Neanderthal by a gleeful Bela Lugosi in Return of the Ape Man. Shortly after his brilliant performance as Casey, the flawed preacher, in Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, he was to be found activating an army of the undead in Revenge of the Zombies.

In the 1950s, he had good parts in multi-million-dollar epics, such as The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days, and then cheerfully went on to barnstorm in The Unearthly and The Cosmic Man. The 1960s saw him in Cheyenne Autumn and Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance . . . plus Sex Kittens Go To College, Hillbillies in a Haunted House and Astro-Zombies.

The Bard, it seems, was to blame. Carradine, who was extremely eccentric, funded his own touring stage company by appearing in screen dreck, and snootily hoped that he would be remembered as a definitive interpreter of his beloved Shakespeare, rather than as the star of Satan's Cheerleaders (1977) and Vampire Hookers (1979).

There were practical reasons, too. Carradine, amazingly, was granted legal custody of his five sons, three of whom - David, Keith and Robert - went on to become successful film and television actors. There were ex-wives to support, plus a substantial alcohol habit, a love of big yachts and a taste for the high life. He needed the money, and wasn't fussy about how he earned it.

Carradine was a much-loved Los Angeles character, who liked to parade up and down Hollywood Boulevard in a flowing cloak when in his cups, loudly declaiming his favourite Shakespearean speeches. If any passing young one caught his fancy, he tended to propose to her.

In his 70s, he chain-smoked untipped Player's and drank copious quantities of Chivas Regal. He was working right up to his death at 82: one inventive bottom-of-the-barrel horror director used to hire him just for a day here and there to read meaningless scientific gibberish from cue cards for scenes later to be patched into various films in dribs and drabs to justify the billing: "Special Guest Star: John Carradine".

"I missed out on everything," said Carradine in a rare moment of self-awareness. "I wanted to be the pre-eminent Shakespearean actor of my day, and I wasn't. I never made a lot of money . . . maybe $5,000 a week in films."

His son David put it rather more bluntly: "He got the breaks he deserved. He screwed up a lot of his chances through fear and silliness."