*Feature originally ran 3/16/17
Chilling Out is where TrunkSpace talks all things horror and genre with those who work on the projects that give us the thrills and chills to keep coming back for more. This time out we’re chatting with John Kassir, an actor and voice-over talent with a diverse resume that includes turns as Elliot in the recent “Pete’s Dragon” remake and as Meeko in Disney’s “Pocahontas,” but it’s his pun-riddled run as the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s long-running series “Tales from the Crypt” that has cemented him as a pop culture icon.
We sat down with Kassir to discuss how he became the Crypt Keeper, his unexpected involvement (and win) on “Star Search,” and where the voices originated from.
TrunkSpace: How did your career as a voice actor come to be? Was it always in the cards or did it just sort of happen by accident?
Kassir: Well, you know, it’s funny because… I grew up in Baltimore and I always loved performing. I got involved in productions and that kind of stuff as a kid and also I’d do my own little circuses out of the basement for the neighborhood kids. I’d only charge them a penny but I’d charge them five cents for the penny candy, so I made a little.
TrunkSpace: That’s like the movie theaters charging eight bucks for a small coke!
Kassir: I was ahead of the movie curve for sure.
But that was a lot of fun. I used to do a lot of characters and voices and make my friends laugh and that kind of stuff. And then once I got to high school I had a buddy of mine, Fred Smyth… I know that name doesn’t mean anything to you but any of my high school friends would always remember the two of us doing the morning announcements. (Said as a proper English fellow) “The following morning announcement was due to a grant from the Mobile Corporation.” You know, we’d feature impersonations of the teachers and the Beatles and whatever event was going on at the school. And of course we’d wind up getting free tickets to all of the events if we would do the morning announcements and mention, you know, the gymnastic club or whatever.
TrunkSpace: So you were working as a voice actor before you were even working.
Kassir: That kind of started my whole thing with writing little routines and actually doing voices, you know, with a purpose of actually doing them. So it’s something I always did, but it’s not something that I thought would be a major part of my career, so to speak.
TrunkSpace: Did you go to school for acting?
Kassir: I got my degree in Theatre at Towson University, which has a really well known theater department now. When I was at school there were people like Charles Dutton, who a lot of people know as Roc from the TV series and from various great movies and shows. And Eric King, who was on “Dexter.” He played Doakes on “Dexter.” So, there were some really good actors that went to school with me. Dwight Schultz who was Madman Murdock on “The A-Team” and of course was on Broadway in “The Crucifer of Blood” and also starred on one of the “Star Trek” series. And John Glover came from Towson, so I had the opportunity to not only work with my generation of actors through the school but also Dwight and some of these other guys would come back and do shows with us or they would do workshops or that kind of thing.
So, I got my first Off-Broadway show right out of college and moved to New York and it didn’t last very long. I think it closed after three weeks of inner-fighting between the creative team and the producing team, so I got that dose real quick. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Were you making a living as an actor at that time?
Kassir: I was making a living doing street performing in front of the Metropolitan Museum. It’s how I survived. I had decided early on that I wanted to make my living as an actor, whatever way I could do it. One of the jobs I had when I first wound up with no work in New York was doing singing balloonograms and that kind of thing. I was like, “Well, at least I’m performing.” But, for the most part I made most of my living for six years in New York in the early 80s street performing and whatever theater came up would come up. I also worked with a comedy group that came out of Baltimore, which was some of the funny people from my college. We were called Animals Crackers and we were kind of Baltimore’s version of The Second City.
So, in that show… in that group… I would do a bunch of different characters and voices. We would do sketches. We would write a new hour and a half sketch show every month and put it on at one of the local dinner theaters in Baltimore. And we kept a core group of us together when we moved to New York and wound up touring for the USO doing comedy all over the world for the Mediterranean Tour and the South Pacific Tour for service men in different parts of the world.
TrunkSpace: The voice work came back into the spotlight there for you?
Kassir: I guess that was a continuation of doing some of the voice. One of my signature routines was I’d do the “Wizard of Oz” in about 10 minutes… like the entire movie with all of the characters and everything. And when I was in New York trying to make it, I had auditioned and landed the role in an Off-Broadway musical called “3 Guys Naked from the Waist Down,” which I know sounds like a gay review from the Village, but it wasn’t. (Laughter) It was a musical about stand-up comics. Think “Dreamgirls,” but with three male stand-up comics. It starred myself and Scott Bakula and Jerry Colker. Jerry’s main career has been as a writer, be he started out on Broadway in shows like “A Chorus Line” and “Pippin.” We played three different stand-up comics. Scott played the kind of quintessential MC and Jerry played the angry lawyer-turned stand-up comedian trying to make his point. And I played, of course, the very kind of damaged, suicidal, Andy Kaufman-ish type character who really only had a connection to the world through his comedy. So the three of them weren’t very good at life, but the three of them together really clicked and they become a three guy team. In the play we shoot into stardom and we get our own TV series and we play all of the agents and we also played all the newspaper reporters and the whole thing. It was a really fun musical. It was a hit Off-Broadway and while I was doing the show, I was approached by these talent scouts and it was for the very first season of “Star Search.” They approached me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to be on our show.” I’m like, “What, as a singer?” I was doing a musical and I can sing, but I was no Sam Harris, let’s put it that way. He was the guy who was doing so well on “Star Search.” And they were like, “No, we want you to come on as a stand-up comic.” And I said, “Well, you know I’m not really a stand-up comic and it’s just a part I’m playing in the show.” And they go, “Well, you can win a $100,000.” And I went, “Fuck, I’ll do it.” I was like, “Did I tell you about my stand-up career that I’m working on?” And so I had to start coming up with material. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: $100,000 is great motivation to work on a routine!
Kassir: Oh hell yeah! We were making, I think, $650 a week or something Off-Broadway. My first Off-Broadway show I made $175 a week and shared an apartment with four other people, but once I was doing “3 Guys Naked,” I mean, that was it! Probably $650 a week was the most I had made. I may have made more than that on a really good week doing street performing, but this was the first time legitimately I was making more than $500 a week and then these guys are talking about going to win $100,000. So, I’m like, “Okay, how am I going to come up with a routine?”
TrunkSpace: What approach did you take in coming up with a routine?
Kassir: I started going back into some of my solo material that I had been doing while I was with Animal Crackers. We had two and a half minutes so one of the first routines I had to create was taking my 10 minute “Wizard of Oz” and turning it into a two and a half minute version of “Wizard of Oz.” (Laughter) Some of my favorite comedians were Ernie Kovacs and Burns and Schreiber. These are guys that most people don’t even remember… today’s generations of people, but certainly my generation we remember these guys as brilliant comedians that came out and did funny Tim Conway-type routines. Steve Martin would go on and do the Great Flydini. I was doing that stuff, with a third hand kind of bit, before Steve Martin even did that. It was an old clown routine that different comedians would take and turn into almost a Vaudeville act. So I would go out every week and I kept doing all of these different bits and I would do all of these voices and characters in my routine. Basically most of my act was based on a guy who was addicted to television and could change the channels in his head. I’d be doing “Star Trek” and then I’d be doing “Wild Kingdom” and then I’d be doing the “Wizard of Oz” in two and a half minutes and I’d flip through the channels. And I kept winning.
TrunkSpace: That character would be more difficult to pull off today with all of the channels that there are now.
Kassir: (Laughter) I know! At one point I’d start haywiring and I’d go, “I’m hooked up to 158 channels and there’s still fucking nothing on.” Of course, now it’s like 1500 channels.
But, I’d talk about, you know, as a kid there were three channels and UHF, which we don’t really know what that was. There were three channels and I’d get down early in the morning to fight with… we had five kids in my family… and I’d get down and turn on the channel that I wanted to watch and then hide the knob to the TV set. There wasn’t even a remote to fight over, you know? (Laughter) And I would do all of my favorite cartoons as a kid. Felix the Cat. The Jetsons. And I’d do all of these different characters in my act and I wound up going up against Rosie O’Donnell in the semi-finals. She was relatively unknown at that time and I beat her. And then I went up against Sinbad in the final. He was relatively unknown and I beat Sinbad. And all of a sudden I’ve won “Star Search.” I won $100,000. I’ve got to come up with a routine fast. I had the bits that I was doing for the show, but now I had to come up with… the first thing they started doing was booking me opening for The Temptations and the Four Tops on their T’N’T Tour. Lou Rawls. Bobby Vinton. Tom Jones. Tom Jones was a guest on “Star Search” and he said, “I want that kid to open for me in Vegas.” Everybody’s like, “Congratulations,” and I’m like, “How the hell am I going to do that? I’ve got no fucking act!”
So, I started creating this act based on this guy who’s addicted to television. He goes to Tubeaholic meetings and tries not to watch too much TV, but winds up channeling TV through himself and all of the different characters and the voices… the pop culture that we grew up with through television is basically the idea of it. And that’s when people started asking me to audition for their voice-over work. My first series that I landed on HBO was called “1st & Ten.” That was about a football team and starred Delta Burke as the owner of the team and Jason Beghe, who is on “Chicago P.D.” He was a quarterback on the show and Chris Meloni was a quarterback on the show one season. We had a lot of real football players on the show. And I played the Bulgarian field goal kicker that could kick 60-yard field goals. I came from a soccer team in Bulgaria and it was a really funny character. I had a great time doing it. And then I got a call saying HBO wanted me to come audition for another series they were doing called “Tales from the Crypt.” I had grown up with the comic books so I was like, “Oh my god! I can’t believe you’re going to make a show out of this. This is awesome!” They were looking for someone to play the character the Crypt Keeper and I didn’t know what I was going to do when I went down but they had the audition at Kevin Yagher’s studio where he was working on the puppet and was able to get a sense of what he looked like. I saw that he had holes in his throat and rotting teeth. He had all of the fun puns from the comic book, which it was funny to watch some of these other comedians and voice actors that were auditioning for it. They were looking at the script going, “Oh my God, these puns are terrible.” I’m thinking to myself, “They don’t get it.” This guy (the Crypt Keeper) thinks it’s Shakespeare. He loves saying this stuff.
TrunkSpace: It was interesting because as a character the Crypt Keeper seemed to appeal to younger audiences while the show itself was obviously aimed at a more mature crowd. Was that by design?
Kassir: You know, it wasn’t by design but they should have thought of it. We had no idea that kids were watching this show. First of all, HBO was mostly only watched by adults. Secondly, not everybody had HBO the way they do now. A much smaller percentage of television sets had HBO. We knew the show was popular because people started having “Tales from the Crypt” parties at their house and inviting people over who didn’t have HBO. But, I think they probably never would have let go of the rights if they knew that kids grew up with “Tales from the Crypt” and had been watching it. Now of course, I’ve found this out because people started asking me to come to conventions. I was like, “Really? There’s still people that would care about ‘Tales form the Crypt’?” And they were like, “Are you kidding? We grew up with it. It’s the reason we’re into horror. The Crypt Keeper was our favorite horror host.”
TrunkSpace: He was the gateway horror icon.
Kassir: (Laughter) Right. The marijuana of horror. But he was also, for the show, he was the ride up to the top of the peak before the roller coaster dropped you down. But, it makes total sense. When I was a kid, if I saw some creepy puppet on TV, I would certainly want to watch it every week. I loved ventriloquist dummies and stuff like that. If one of those things was on TV, it was like, everything else went away and I was just watching that.
TrunkSpace: Another fascinating thing about the show was that the A-List actors of the time would stop by, which back then, was not a common thing in television.
Kassir: Yeah. Well, definitely having some of the top producers in film as our producers made a huge difference. They were really dedicated. William Gaines was still alive and had given them his baby. He had given them 500 stories from his comic books to license and use. They were really dedicated to trying to make the show into a comic book come to life. You’re talking about Joel Silver and Richard Donner and Walter Hill and Bob Zemeckis and David Giler, who did “Aliens.” These were the top guys in the business and some of them still are. They got the best actors. They got the best directors. They got the best composers to do the music. HBO gave them the platform to do anything they wanted. HBO had a slogan, It’s Not TV, It’s HBO. That was coined while one of the execs was sitting in the audience watching a screening of the first episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” Somebody goes, “Wow, this was really great television.” And somebody goes, “It’s not television, it’s HBO.” And they were like, BING! It became their tagline for I don’t know how many years. (Laughter) Up until then, everything was sports, sex, and comedy, which was working well for them, but here we were having an opportunity to really do something different. They even used the comic books as storyboards so that some of the shots were even set up to look exactly like the frames out of the comic book.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned how the rights were sold away, but if we’re not mistaken, HBO still owns the rights to the character the Crypt Keeper, correct?
Kassir: They retain the rights to that particular Crypt Keeper, but they can’t use him as a crypt keeper because they don’t own the rights to “Tales from the Crypt” anymore.
TrunkSpace: He’s the Pun Keeper now.
Kassir: Exactly. The Pun Keeper. Jack Wahl… I call him the Crypt Keeper’s pimp, but he’s really quite extraordinary and over the years he has found some amazing projects for the Crypt Keeper. He’s always thought of the Crypt Keeper as an actor. He’s always thought of him as me and Kevin’s puppet. It was sometimes hard to book him because it not only involved me, but it also involved four or five brilliant puppeteers to bring him to life. It wasn’t always an easy task to get the Crypt Keeper work as an actor unless you didn’t see his face and it was very easy just to book me, which I think is one of the reasons why I’m so well associated with the Crypt Keeper. If you go to the Hollywood Museum on Hollywood Blvd, they have the Crypt Keeper sitting in a chair. It doesn’t say “The Crypt Keeper,” it says “John Kassir.” (Laughter) I can’t mind that, to be that associated with this character, but at the same time, I don’t look like that! (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: What must be amazing for you is that you have clearly left your mark on pop culture by having played the Crypt Keeper, but at the same time, you’ve been able to still live a somewhat private life and just be John?
Kassir: Totally. You’ve hit your finger on that. Literally I went from obscurity in street performing to walking down the street and being stopped by everybody after winning “Star Search” to not really liking it that much. You know, I enjoyed the celebrity because it got me good work, but I didn’t really enjoy it in terms of loss of privacy. I was a stand-up comic. Let’s face it, I love being in front of an audience and having attention, but at the same time, there was a lot to give up. I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. I didn’t want my career to be one of these quirky comics that came and went.