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FOG! Chats With Jeffrey Combs

Interview conducted by Greg Espinoza

Jeffrey Combs came to iconic prominence in 1985 with his role as Dr. Herbert West in director Stuart Gordon’s (From Beyond, Dagon) Lovecraftian horror classic, Re-Animator. Since that time, Jeffrey has been very busy in a variety of genre film and television endeavors onscreen, and has voice-acted in animation. He has made notable appearances in the Star Trek universe, and re-teamed in 2007 with his Re-Animator director, Gordon on the Showtime Masters Of Horror episode, The Black Cat. From that, sprang the inspiration (with Gordon) to launch Comb’s popular one-man show, Nevermore in 2009, which is being revived at the Sleepy Hollow international Film Festival at the Tarrytown Music Hall, New York on October 12th. Jeffrey will also appear in the live reading of Plan 9 From Outer Space on October 11th at Sleepy Hollow. Combs will also be appearing in the new Creepshow series on Shudder.

* * * * *

FOG!: I just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed your work. Your films with Stuart Gordon. the characters Weyoun and Shran on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek Enterprise. I loved your voice-work as The Question on Justice League Unlimited, and I fondly remember your bit as Dr. Jones in The Man With Two Brains.

Jeffrey Combs: One of my very early film forays, there. I think it was, maybe, the second day on a movie set ever for me. I got to work with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner. And Kathleen Turner, who never said a word to me.  (She) just laid there and didn’t even acknowledge that we were all around. Maybe she didn’t like the scene or didn’t want to be a prop in a scene. Whatever. Well, she could have been, like, “Hi. How are you. Nice to meet you.”

Uh-huh.

Nothing.

Well, that’s unfortunate.

Well, I remember thinking, “well, it’s just sort of embarrassing.” You feel over the years she wouldn’t be cruel about it, but apparently, not. (laughs).

That was right before you did Re-Animator, right?

Uh, if you say so. It gets to be a bit of a blur. I did Re-Animator in late ’84. And I don’t know when, Man With Two Brains was, ’81 or ’82?

Definitely earlier. Okay. Jumping right in, you’ll be reprising your role as Edgar Allan Poe in your one-man show, Nevermore at the Sleepy Hollow International Film Festival at the Tarrytown Music Hall in New York, on October 12th?

Yes.

I just recently watched you play Edgar in the Masters Of Horror episode, The Black Cat (2007).

That’s where it kind of all began, not quite. When I had mentioned to Stuart that I had read a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, I said, “How come nobody’s sat down and made a movie about him?” His life. God, It’s just fraught with drama, pathos. Highs and lows.

Well, it’s such an amazing examination of an artist’s process, too.

You know, it was a lovely cross-pollinization of telling one of Poe’s stories, which was written in the first-person. I did this. I went there. I thought this. That cat did this to me. And blending, making Poe the main character, the narrative driver that allowed the ability to interweave biographical details of his own life. I always thought that was a really clever device. It’s beautifully shot. It’s the last time I remember working with film. Working with film…a lost art.

That performance, as you mention, led to you reteaming with Gordon and Dennis Paoli in 2009 for Nevermore. It was quite successful from what I’ve read. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about?

Well yeah. We were on set of the Black Cat and Stuart kept saying, “Man, I feel like I’m in the presence of Poe. You should do a one-man show. I was like, “Get out of here. Ah, no, I’m lazy. That’s a lot of work, I couldn’t do that.”

And I’d never done a solo show before. But I was resistant to it. But Stuart kept gently, Yoda-like, pushing me. And finally, maybe after a year, a year-and-a-half, I kind of went, what would that be like? And we started creating a framework, and picking pieces that we would like to have on a string of pearls and figure that.

Then Dennis Paoli came in and started researching. And I don’t know if you know that Dennis is a professor of gothic literature at Hunter College in New York. So he’s quite knowledgable about all things Poe and proceeded to do a bunch of research and found all these lovely quotes from writing letters and critiques that Poe wrote which are voluminous. And, added all this sort of sinew and tumult that connected all these. And Stuart called me one day and said, “I’ve got us a theater for a four-week run.”

And that four-week run, turned into, well, over two years of a long run, then a hiatus, then coming back, then I started touring it around the country, being asked to do it in Baltimore for Poe’s Bicentennial, and…Oh my god. Nashville, Austin, Montreal, New York, Boston, San Diego, Las Vegas, and now…Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Wow! Have you kept track of the sheer number of shows you’ve done?

No. No, I haven’t. I don’t know. I’ve probably done it, ah, well, I used to do three (shows) a weekend. When it was in L.A. for the long run. You know, 3 times 4 is 12. I dunno, maybe I’ve done it 200 times at this point.

Were you a Poe fan prior to, or I guess after you did the Black Cat? Did this ignite a passion Within you for Poe?

Well, you know, like most American kids you’re introduced to Poe, for me it was ninth grade. I remember in my English class, and finding it incredibly, of all the things we were reading, it jumped at me. And it was very…exciting…and clear, and stirring, and vivid. And so, I do remember reading Tell-Tale Heart, and I remember reading Annabelle Lee when I was in 9th grade. And I wasn’t really like I gotta read everything else about this guy. That was my first real introduction to him. I didn’t really think about it much more.

Then I was looking around for an historical character to maybe play. Sort of an unformed idea, but maybe in a movie, a period piece, somebody in history, and I wasn’t really finding anything. And I reluctantly picked up a biography of Poe, thinking this could be a little close to horror for me, and that’s kind of one of the things I wanted to sort of spread my wings a little bit and kinda try something else.

But he was so captivating. Such a rich, interesting, inspiring, and also shocking and annoying character. I mean, he really could be… he was a handful. He could be his own worst enemy. That’s the richness of life. Who knows where genius springs from, or what comes along with the gift? You know what I mean?

Yeah, He seems to have greatly resonated with you. And while he was recognized and acclaimed for his talent in his lifetime, he died tragically young at 40 and was destitute.

39.

Oh, he was 39?

Yeah. He was younger. Yeah. In fact, I think he died October 9th, and his birthday was January 19th. He was almost 40. A couple of months away. Life was hard in those days. He lived mostly in poverty. He lost his wife, who he adored, to tuberculosis a year earlier. He never had much money. He had a little bit of fame, but not nearly as much as he should have in his lifetime. There were other authors who were more successful than him, and yet we don’t know their names now. It just shows you what is considered popular…and artistic.

Look at Van Gogh. Publishers labeled Poe a little like that, America’s Van Gogh. Troubled genius. Exacerbating, but stands the test of time, and the tragedy of just never having the the kind of space and lack of stress in his life to really enjoy it all. People died younger then, and living to 40 wasn’t considered dying young. Here we are today, still marveling that he’s one of the pre-eminent writers of all time. He was just a genius. A lot of his stories were written very quickly. Had to fill space. He was an editor for magazines, “oh, we’re gonna need a story? I’ll think of something.” And that’s just remarkable to me.

And he was paid a pittance for that work.

He made $11 dollars for The Raven.

Wow!

$11 dollars. which in those days was probably like, $250 bucks? $300 bucks? But still, it’s the Raven. in those days, you got paid once, and it got printed. Every other newspaper and magazine in the country could just print it. “You got paid, didn’t you? What’s your problem?”

My play takes place in a recital. It’s an imagined recital, but kind of based on an actual recital at a particular time after his wife’s death of tuberculosis. We take theatrical license, but you know, we kind of have to. I’ll try to bring all the colors of Poe; his wit, his tragedy, his pathos, his soaring poetry. I read a story, just trying to give a real cross-section of his scope.

I’d read you were working with Mark Redfield on a Poe Audio Biography called Alone. Can you talk about the status of that project at all?

I don’t know. I agreed with Mark to voice Poe once he got it all organized. you know, it’s been a bit of a challenge for him to get everything squared away. But I haven’t had any updates in a while.

Yeah, it looks like he was crowdfunding it.

Yes, he was. I don’t think that he reached his goal, and so he kind of took a short hiatus, turned around and re-launched with a new plan.

Well, I hope you can get it going. it sounds like a fascinating project.

Mark is very knowledgeable about Poe. He’s portrayed Poe himself, and he’s a friend of mine.

It sounds like it’s been a great ride for you. Are there any other Poe-centric products in the future you can talk about?

We’ve always been trying to maybe capture it in a film. but in this day and age of superhero movies being pre-eminent, holding forth with supremacy. You know, one of the things I’ve learned is that unfortunately, literature in not a big draw. I find it really curious that, for instance, anything Lovecraft gets far more (positive) kind of response from the public enthusiasm. Because of it’s, sort of, pop culture kind of status. But then, when you go, “Poe,” they go, “oh. yeah. okay.”

I don’t really understand that. Because Poe is, you know, a powerhouse of a writer.  And images, and thoughts, and ideas. And Lovecraft, he just idolized Poe. So, I don’t really understand the difference. it does exist. I’ve come to find that. We had a Kickstarter campaign once, and I said to Stuart, “if this were Lovecraft that we were doing, people would be all over this.” It’s like Poe, and not so much. Interesting.

This is true. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?

No. I just hope people can make it to the Sleepy Hollow international Film Festival in October. it’s their maiden voyage, and I’m really honored to be a part of it. it’s a beautiful venue, and I know you and I are out on the Best coast. I’m sorry, West coast, no I’m not sorry.

You’re not wrong. (laughs)

So, its kinda hard for anybody out here to make that journey. But if they’re so inclined, I don’t think they’d be disappointed.

Well, you know, if you’re ever doing the performance up here in San Francisco, I would happily come and see it.

Well, you know, I would love to come and do that. But in this business, you know, you have to be asked to dance. But, I get that a lot on Twitter and Facebook, “how come you don’t bring it to…Denver?” Well, because in my position, I don’t say, “hey, I’m going to Denver.” It doesn’t work quite that way. <laughs>  So…yeah. I hope you can catch it sometime. I hope people come to see the Sleepy Hollow Film Festival, and my show.

Definitely. I that should do it. And thanks very much for your time, and good luck at Sleepy Hollow. I hope you fill the room.

Well, I thank you. Thank you so much. We’re doing what we can to make that happen. It has been. it’s been a real pleasure to talk with you. And you just make sure, Greg, that you give my best to the Bay area, okay?

Tickets to Neverwhere and Plan 9 From Outer Space are available at
SleepyHollowFilmFest.com

Greg Espinoza has worked in Comics, gaming, animation, and illustration for more than 40 years, most recently writing retrospective articles for Famous Monsters Of Filmland, and contributing art to The Thing 35th Anniversary Art Book, from Printed In Blood.

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