By TOM WEAVER
"I remember one critic, who
used to write for a magazine in New York, who said that
I played the most likable villains that he'd ever seen
in the movies," smiles actor Michael Pate.
"Well, what may have accounted
for it was the fact that I always played my villains
as if I was the hero and all the others were the villains!"
The veteran performer, who played
many a Western tough guy, Indian chief and European
meanie in Hollywood A and B films from the '50s and
'60s was actually born in Drummoyne, a suburb of Sydney,
Australia, and got his career start as an interviewer
on the government's radio network. He also worked on
the Australian stage and in movies there before relocating
to the U.S. in the early '50s and establishing himself
as a solid character actor specializing in villainous
portrayals. The evil glint in those narrow eyes made
him a natural for horror pics, and Pate has racked up
an imposing list of fright film credits, from the Gothic
adventures of The Strange Door and The Black
Castle (both with Boris Karloff) to The Maze,
United Artists' Tower of London and Beauty
and the Beast and -- most notably -- the horror/western
Curse of the Undead, in which he played the screen's
first six-shootin' vampire. That "evil glint,"of
course, is missing outside of his screen roles; relaxing
on the sun deck of his home on a warm (autumn) March
day in Sydney, actor/screenwriter/producer/ director/author
Pate is most affable as he reminisces about a bright
career built on dark deeds.
You got one of your biggest roles playing the vampire
gunslinger in Curse of the Undead.
Michael Pate: That film's been called a poor
attempt to translate Transylvania to Wyoming, but
they missed the point. Joe Gershenson was the producer
of that film and he was a very talented and perceptive
man, though perhaps just a little bit bewildered or
bemused by [director] Eddie Dein. Not that that was
any surprise--Eddie was an amazing character. He lived
up in the hills just above Laurel Canyon with his
wife Mildred, who was a real sweetheart, in an old
castle with a moat and a drawbridge that you drove
over to get inside the entrance courtyard. He had
loads of talent. He used to make the greatest copies
of Jackson Pollock paintings -- you'd think they were
originals. And he made some very imaginative movies;
as a matter of fact, the original title of Curse
of the Undead was Eat Me Gently, but Universal
wasn't about to use that title, naturally! I got along
tremendously well with Eddie; there was no bullshit
about him, and we got through the filming pretty fast.
Did you enjoy your role?
Michael: Yes, very much. The film went well,
for what it was. It was stylized, it had good set
design, very good lighting, it was photographed well.
Eddie was a dynamic, if sometimes seemingly rough-mannered
kind of man. Eric Fleming, on the other hand, had
a few "questioning" sessions with him, but
then, Eric had a tendency to do that at times. Eric
was a very well-meaning actor and person and worked
very hard, but he was inclined to be a little dour.
Tragically, he lost his life in South America a few
years after Rawhide finished, when a stunt
went wrong and he was washed over the falls in a canoe.
And your opinion of the film?
Michael: It didn't have a lot of money spent
on it and perhaps there were many things that could
have been done with it. There were some scenes that
were shockingly corny, no question about that and
one or two sets that looked as bare as a baby's bottom.
But overall there were many very, very good scenes
in it. I loved my role and I just liked being in the
picture. In 1959, going through Honolulu on my way
to Australia, everyone was suddenly pointing at me
and whispering, and I didn't realize what it was all
about. Then, driving through the streets on my way
to the airport, I saw Curse of the Undead advertised
outside one of the theaters in Honolulu! It made quite
an impression, I guess!
Q: You weren't a
bad guy in The Maze, but your sinister performance
added to the atmosphere.
Michael: The old butler wasn't a villain,
he just looked after the monster of the manor -- the
enormous frog. My silver hairdo and the all-black
outfit were [director] William Cameron Menzies' idea.
All the people in The Maze were so pleasant
to work with. Of course, Richard Carlson was always
an excellent actor. He had played in so many top films,
and now he found himself in a B film like The Maze,
but he was so relaxed and 100 percent charming. It
was a very pleasant two and a half weeks making that
Any specific memories of Menzies? Richard Carlson
said he "wasn't an ideal director."
Michael: I found him to be an erudite, marvelous
little man, just great to be with. He may not have
been an ideal director for Dick Carlson, but that's
only his opinion. Bill directed a lot of films and
had been around in the movies for a long time as an
about the finale where the man-sized frog runs amok?
Michael: Who could forget it? It was pretty
awful, a bit outlandish -- but, after all, they had
to finish the picture. I don't know what they expected
fans to swallow in those days: still, there were a
lot worse pictures made than The Maze.
Any memories of Karloff with whom you appeared in The
Strange Door and The Black Castle?
Michael: Boris was one of the loveliest people
I'd ever come across. We had many a chat on the set
over a cup of coffee, a cigarette or a pipe. I'd seen
his work in any number of things, but I had no idea
what kind of a man he was. He turned out to be such
a charming, laid-back, relaxed Englishman, just a marvelous
person. He was always considerate, always charming;
he had a nice attitude toward being Boris Karloff. Generally
speaking, he was just a little tired of playing "the
Boris Karloff part," but he never showed it very
much. He just went about his work, did his business
as it was expected of him in the style that people had
become accustomed to. That's a professional attitude.
He was in a situation where you take the money and run,
and somewhere in the back of his mind he figured that
that was the most secure way to do his work, and continue
to live as comfortably as he'd always liked to.
Do you enjoy playing villainous roles?
Michael: Everyone enjoys playing that kind of
role; it's always fun to do a really good villain, a
chance to show another side of your "actor's personality."
And it's challenging to think up ways of being loved
at the same time!
Career-wise, have you attained most of the goals that
you might have set for yourself?
Michael: I didn't set any specific goals when I
first got into acting. I thought, how nice it would be if
I could simply continue to act, whether in the theater,
films or whatever. I had to make a career for myself, and
I was very fortunate to have had enough talent to do so
-- to become a professional actor. I wasn't dead set on
being a "big star." I saw too many unhappy people
being "big stars." I just wanted to be well thought
of in the profession. I wanted to be successful in the sense
that I was in demand. But otherwise I was very happy just
being in the profession. Enjoy is the key word. If you don't,
you shouldn't get into the business in the first place.
So my advice to any aspiring actor is enjoy, and try to
Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and
Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie
Makers and many others available from McFarland