RIP Robert Clarke
The first sci-fi movie hero to battle an invader from space, and one of the first to play a monster himself, actor Robert Clarke (THE MAN FROM PLANET X, THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON and many more) has died.
Movie-crazy right from boyhood, Robert Irby Clarke saw several films a week (admission price: 10 cents) in his native Oklahoma City, sometimes catching a movie first-run at a fancy movie palace and then seeing the same one again weeks later when it played at a small neighborhood house (?I?m sure my folks thought I was a little touched,? he once said). He did some of his first acting in school plays and then, at age 22, moved to Hollywood with hopes of breaking into the movie business. After unsuccessful screen tests at Fox and Columbia, he landed a $100-a-week job as a RKO contract player and made his debut in a B-mystery, THE FALCON IN HOLLYWOOD. Other RKO films included his first horror movies: A GAME OF DEATH (an adaptation of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME), ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY and the Val Lewton chillers THE BODY SNATCHER and BEDLAM with Boris Karloff. Preparing to play a madhouse inmate in the latter, Clarke researched by visiting and observing patients in a Los Angeles mental hospital.
By the early 1950s, Clarke, now freelancing, was taking starring roles in low-budget swashbucklers (he played Robin Hood, a Musketeer and the son of the Count of Monte Cristo) and co-starring in a pair of director Ida Lupino?s highly regarded ?problem pictures.? His sci-fi debut came in 1950 when he played the lead in THE MAN FROM PLANET X, an ultra-economical (just $41,000) sci-fi drama in which American newspaperman Clarke is on hand when a diminutive alien creature, advance scout for an invasion, arrives on an island off the Scottish coast. To keep costs low, most of the movie (even exteriors taking place on the Scottish moors) were shot on a soundstage, filled with fog to keep viewers from noticing that (for instance) the village in the movie is sometimes represented by a painted backdrop.
Low-budget wunderkind Edgar G. Ulmer directed, and Margaret Field and William Schallert co-starred. ?I thought Bob was terrific in it, an ideal leading man,? Schallert told FANGORIA when advised of Clarke?s passing. ?He also had a wonderful sense of humor, which I got to know about more later on when he and I used to make appearances at conventions and autograph shows. He was one of the most down-to-earth, decent people I knew in the business, a gentleman and a really nice guy. And talented. He had had a fair amount of success in the business. Not as much as he would have liked, I?m sure, and neither did I [laughs]. You know how it goes! I admired Bob a lot.?
When the $41,000 MAN FROM PLANET X went on to make $1 million at the box office, its three stars were hustled into another SF film, the weird CAPTIVE WOMEN, set in a bleak futureworld after atomic war has separated the human race into the devil-worshipping ?Norms? and the God-fearing ?Mutates??the latter frequently abducting the Norms? women for purposes of procreation! The weirdness didn?t stop there: Clarke?s additional sci-fi roles included the no-budgeters THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD with John Carradine (?a miserable film and a pretty miserable experience,? according to the actor) and THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER (?pretty awful?). When SHE-MONSTER producer/director Ronnie Ashcroft promised Clarke a small percentage of the profits, the actor thought he wouldn?t get a dime out of it?but eventually received $3,000, many times his original starring salary.
This inspired Clarke to come up with an idea for a film of his own: Thinking back to one of his boyhood favorites, the Fredric March DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, he cooked up the idea for HIDEOUS SUN DEMON, in which he would star as a scientist who, accidentally exposed to a new form of isotope, transforms in the sun?s rays into a rampaging lizard-man. Clarke, who also co-produced and co-directed, lined up a group of USC film department students as his crew and put together a cast of unknowns, including several of his own in-laws (in 1956, he had married Alyce King of the singing group The King Sisters). Many of the players also worked behind the scenes. ?Believe it or not,? Clarke later recalled, ?we started with $10,000 cash??$5,000 put up by Clarke, the other half by USC student Robin Kirkman.
?We all worked hard and it was a blast!? Kirkman tells FANGORIA. ?But perhaps some might question my wisdom in investing in the film. After all, this was Hollywood. Can you trust ?Hollywood people?? Regarding this Hollywood person [Clarke], I will emphatically state, ?Yes!? Until the end of his life, Bob never stopped expressing to me his appreciation for my financial help on the film. And I?ll say this: No investment has ever yielded me anywhere near the satisfaction and just downright good feelings as that investment in Bob?s movie. No experience in my life has been more exciting than working with Bob on THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON. I mean that sincerely.?
Clarke entrusted the finished film to a small distribution company and then proceeded to produce another sci-fi film for them, BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, in which he played an Air Force test pilot whose experimental aircraft passes through a time warp and deposits him (again) in a postapocalyptic futureworld. Again, ingenious money-saving measures were employed: Early scenes were filmed at an up-to-date Texas Air Force base, but scenes that take place after Clarke returns from breaking the time barrier were shot at a nearby, wrecked and abandoned one, to show (at next to no cost) the passage of centuries!
An elaborate and expensive series of TIME BARRIER premieres in the Northeast were set up?but a huge snowstorm struck that part of the country, wrecking all their plans. The distributor went bankrupt, ?and there went THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON and BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER for me.? When the smoke cleared, Clarke made only his actor?s salary on TIME BARRIER?and lost a bundle on SUN DEMON.
In subsequent years, Clarke mostly acted on TV (even soap operas) and was a fixture on the King Family?s TV series and at their public appearances. Later, when acting jobs dried up, he worked at a bank and as a public speaker, reminiscing for audiences about ?The Golden Years of the Movies.? When jobs did come along, they were often in sci-fi or horror movies made by guys who had grown up Robert Clarke fans?Wade Williams (MIDNIGHT MOVIE MASSACRE), Ted Newsom (THE NAKED MONSTER), Gary Don Rhodes (LUGOSI: HOLLYWOOD?S DRACULA) and Fred Olen Ray (ALIENATOR, HAUNTING FEAR). Ray told FANGORIA, ?Robert Clarke was an actor who had stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Clarke Gable, Ida Lupino and Boris Karloff, yet always insisted, modestly, that he was nothing more than a ?working actor.? He knew his craft inside and out and flowed seamlessly into dozens of diverse roles over the span of six decades. He was a precise performer. He was the consummate Hollywood professional.?
Clarke, who had long suffered from diabetes and other medical problems, died in Valley Village, California, on June 11, just days after his 85th birthday. A widower, he is survived by a brother and sister, his stepsons and by his son Cam, a voiceover and cartoon voice actor (He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Leonardo, countless others).
Clarke often battled the feeling that he had let himself down as a professional actor by accepting the number of low-budget pictures he had (especially some of the shoddier sci-fis); he admitted in his 1996 autobiography TO ?B? OR NOT TO ?B? (co-authored by this writer) that among the movies that are his best-remembered (the genre pics) ?are exactly the ones I?d like to forget? But some of these B-films seem to have created a cult hero image for their stars, and have given actors like me a place in film history. This has given me the feeling that all was not for naught.?
You can read interviews with Clarke in FANGORIA #34, #59 and #171, and in STARLOG #219.
Courtesy of Fangoria