FILM Issue: On Location with Conrad Bachmann
The question is, what hasn’t Bachmann done? A self-described utility actor, “Connie,” a former Air Force showman, is known nationwide for his role in “Tremors” (thus placing him squarely within Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), and for serving as Bing Crosby’s stunt double. Noticed by a casting director while parking cars in Beverly Hills, Bachmann is old-school Hollywood — a living reminder of an era when actors and actresses served more as totems of artistic credibility, and less like flash-photo freakshows. He likes “The Amazing Race,” and counts “Dr. Zhivago” among his favorite films of all time.
He was born in Louisville in 1932.
LEO: Your thoughts on the death of Sydney Pollack? What will be his legacy?
Conrad Bachmann: The man was brilliant — there’s no question about it. He came out of television. About everything he did was right on. He was an incredible man. I only met him a couple of times, but I know that everything I ever heard about him was always positive.
LEO: I’ve read that some of your most enjoyable roles were playing Jim, The Doctor in “Tremors” and Secretary of Defense Wyatt in “Rules of Engagement.” What about those roles stuck out in your mind?
CB: I guess everybody has something in their career that sticks. No matter where I go, out of everything, I get “Tremors.” It was an absolute hoot to do. When I first read for that film, I was sick as a dog. I had gone in, and they’d been casting for sometime. When I read (my character) was being sucked underground. The producer had a headache and she says, “If you could do anything at all, please don’t scream.” I went through the whole scene and started to look like I was gonna scream. I held my breath, mouthed the words, “The casting director said not to scream she has a headache.” We did about 17 takes on that scene. The first time we did it, they dug a deep hole in the ground, probably around nine feet. At the bottom, they had an inflatable bag. I stepped on that and the bag would drop, and I would drop with it. The very first time we did it, I hit the mark, and the dirt came crashing in around me. (The crew) were scrambling like hell. I was coughing and wheezing.
LEO: What was it like touring Korea and Japan as a featured tap dancer and singer, and producing shows for the military?
CB: The Army was breathing down my ass. “OK, you’re next in line bud.” John Hillerich was one my sponsors when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I had gotten a hold of him, and he wrote a letter to the commanding general of the Air Force suggesting that I get into special services, which was the entertainment branch. I went into basic training and came out as a bypass specialist. All I did was shows for four years as a dancer and singer with a show called “Tops in Blue.” They sent us all to Okinawa specifically to do entertainment though. We got to do private bookings, make extra money. We would get paid $10 for a show. They decided we should learn how to fight, and they assigned us to a 50-caliber machine gun. Here’s a singer, dancer, magician, piano player and a drummer in a machine gun crew. Here we are playing war games. We’re looking out and here’s all this landing craft, and we’re discussing what next month’s show’s gonna be about when, all of a sudden, this thing pops into our nest area. It was a grenade, and we were dead.
LEO: Was elevating morale the reason behind those shows?
CB: Yeah, definitely. Morale, and also giving the troops something to do on the base. We did full-scale productions. We did musicals like “Good News.” My mother took me to movies all the time. My mom wanted to be a singer, but her mother would never let her do that. I said it’s still one of the best musicals ever made. We had the biggest response of any show we did just because the morale factor — it was song and dance. That was sort of my launch pad. “That’s it, I know exactly what I wanna do.” I came out here and parking cars at Trader Vic’s and at the Beverly Hills Hotel. A casting director thought it was remarkable that I could remember where her car was. That’s how I got my first series, “Doby Gillis.”
LEO: What was Hollywood like back then?
CB: It was still Hollywood. You could just feel the stars in the air. Every time I go to MGM, I’d just stand there and look at those sets and look at those streets. You really felt like an actor when you went to the gate. You could feel the presence of all those major stars, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. You could just feel them, their enormous sets, palatial sets, and huge, huge soundstages. I thought that I had missed Hollywood, but I got there at the early part of it as the television camera was coming in. They said, “That little box will never get us.” Well, it did. We’re in that transitional phase again.
LEO: Do you think the Oscars are still relevant?
CB: I have a problem with awards shows: It pits actors against one another. You work for the love of the craft, not for the recognition. When people get up and say, “I’d like to thank my agent, my manager” — you’re the one who did the work! You’re the one who got to where you are. The Oscars is a moneymaking show. It’s done for profit. The real, true awards show is the People’s Choice Awards, because it’s done by people who go to the movies. To me, the belly of the beast is in the flyover states. Those are the people who buy the popcorn and Coke. I’d like to go out in Middle America, go see them and say, “Tell me which one you like best.” And that’s it. Not have ads in every newspaper.
LEO: We hear there could be a possible actors’ strike on the horizon, as early as July. What are the tangible short-term and long-term effects the recent strike is having on Hollywood right now?
CB: Strikes are not good for anybody, but sometimes you have to stick your head up. It’s really all based on getting paid for DVDs and on the Internet. Actors just wanna get paid for their work. Actors should get a fair share of that growing market. A lot of actors are not making it because they’re not making enough money. When I would do a commercial, I would work for one day, I could make $100,000. You can’t do that today, because the residuals aren’t there. (Actors) are looking at residual payments. The amount of product that’s gonna go into the Internet is gonna be huge. We don’t just have ABC, NBC and CBS anymore. Everybody and his brother can get into the Internet. The next thing you know, there’ll probably be YouTube awards.
LEO: Are we looking at a future where more actors, screenwriters and producers take their careers into their own hands, and are less dependent on major studios?
CB: That’s an interesting question. I have to agree with you. I don’t know what benefits I really get. It’s not hard to join SAG. I had to have a letter from the producer. It cost $200. Now, it’s $1,500-$1,700. The union keeps growing bigger and bigger. I’ve heard more people complain … about the union. What is it really doing for us? They tried this once before. A lot of people join AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). With two vouchers, you can join as an extra. I thought we really diluted ourselves when we let the extras join SAG. But I don’t know if an actor could ever leave the union.
LEO: This year, the Kentucky General Assembly took no action on a House bill that would help create tax incentives to attract film crews to shoot more features in Kentucky. Are legislatures the most significant barriers to films being shot in any state, not just Kentucky?
CB: I don’t understand it. They’re getting eaten up all around them: North Carolina, Michigan, Louisiana. What is holding Kentucky up, I haven’t the foggiest idea. My heart’s in Kentucky. I have a film I want to shoot up in Carrollton. They just make it very difficult. The huge number of actors who are from Kentucky alone — I don’t know whether it’s the limestone or the grass, but there’s a huge number of actors from Kentucky, directors and producers and writers from Kentucky. It just seems like a natural place to create films. (The General Assembly) needs to wake up. You’ve got people like Linda and Jerry Bruckheimer and William Shatner — you’ve got major stars that could bring major product here. —Interview by Mat Herron