Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Ed Wood Wednesdays salute to Gregory Walcott, Plan 9's super-square

Actor Gregory Walcott, who portrayed pilot Jeff Trent in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

"The producer, Reynolds, said Wood is going to use pretty good special effects. I thought that would be the salvation of the film. It looked like they shot the thing in a kitchen. I told my wife when I got home, 'Honey, this has got to be the worst film of all time.' Thirty years later, it's come back to haunt me."
-Gregory Walcott

"Greetings, my friends."

Clint Eastwood and Greg Walcott
Way back in 1957, the self-styled mystic Criswell used those familiar, homey words to welcome viewers to an absurd, no-budget, half-Gothic, half-science-fiction concoction with the unlikely title Plan 9 from Outer Space. A quarter-century hence, that motion picture was dubbed "the worst film of all time." Quite sadly, we lost one of the last-surviving cast members of that classic American film. Actor Gregory Walcott, who portrayed stalwart American Airlines pilot Jeff Trent ("I can't say a word! I'm muzzled by Army brass!"), passed away at the age of 87 on March 20, 2015. With a career which spanned over 40 years, the North Carolina-born Walcott had over a hundred film and television credits to his name. He worked repeatedly with Clint Eastwood in the 1970s on such manly movies as The Eiger Sanction, Joe Kidd, Every Which Way But Loose, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He also appeared in such acclaimed, Oscar-winning films as Norma Rae and Mister Roberts. Steven Spielberg even used him in The Sugarland Express. On the small screen, Greg put in his time on everything from Little House on the Prairie to Murder, She Wrote. Yes, Walcott's resume is truly impressive, attesting to the actor's durability in Hollywood.

But what was in the headline of nearly every obituary? Plan 9 from Outer Space, of course. I'd like to think Gregory Walcott could have had a good chuckle at that. The obituary writers were sympathetic. The Independent called him "the blameless actor who couldn't shake off being a part of the worst movie ever." The Hollywood Reporter likewise called him "the reluctant star of Plan 9 from Outer Space." Unlike actress-turned-screenwriter Joanna Lee, who played the alien Tanna in Plan 9 and forever after denied having anything to do with the movie, Walcott eventually came to accept -- if not precisely embrace -- his weird quasi-fame from having appeared in the infamous motion picture. If nothing else, he was the consummate "good sport" about it, agreeing to be interviewed in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and appearing in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The 'Plan 9' Companion, and even Tim Burton's Ed Wood, in which he portrayed a bemused potential backer who understandably gets cold feet about investing in Bride of the Monster. What else was he to do? People were going to keep asking about it. Might as well have some fun with it, right?

Eighty-seven years is a long time for anyone to live, and Gregory Walcott easily outlasted writer-director Ed Wood as well as just about everyone else associated with Plan 9 from Outer Space, both in front of and behind the camera. Nevertheless, his death means that yet another crucial link to the Wood-ian past has been severed irrevocably. How many Plan 9-ers are still around? Off the top of my head, I can think of only one: Conrad Brooks, who played a characteristically dim policeman. (His immortal pronouncement: "It's tough to find something when you don't know what you're looking for.") Almost everyone else? Long gone. Appropriately, death is a major motif throughout the film. Much of it takes place in a cemetery, after all, and funerals, crypts, tombstones, skeletons, and gravediggers all figure prominently into the plot. The film's ostensible "star," Bela Lugosi, had been in his grave for several years before Plan 9 ever reached audiences. Along with screen wife Mona McKinnon, Gregory Walcott represented the "life force" in Plan 9, the film's bastion of normality and vitality. And now, he, too, is gone from us. I, for one, will miss him. The actor's deeply sincere, profoundly humorless, and unmistakably Southern performance has become one of my favorite things about the movie. My short story, "The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls," is principally intended as a tribute to Walcott. Truth be told, I wanted to hear it read aloud in the actor's Carolina drawl. Guess I never will now.

Programming note: Against all odds, my computer has finally been returned to me in (basically) good working order, but heavy work commitments have prevented me from writing a full-length Ed Wood Wednesdays article this week. I have what I hope will be a darned interesting one in the works, though. Look for that next Wednesday.

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