He was born in 1933 in rural Columbia, Missouri on a cattle ranch. That background served him very well during the many Westerns he was to appear in later. The first big surprise I got in examining his background was how early his film career started. He appeared as a child actor in 1942’s “The Ghost of Frankenstein” as the boy who befriends the Monster portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr.
Bill was not even 10 years old when he had that role and he would steadily find work in Hollywood from 1942 to 2009. You can name on one hand all the actors who had a career that long. As a kid, he also popped up in “The Song of Bernadette” and “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”. All during this period, he was a phenomenal student and a great athlete. He had a great aptitude for language…not only English, but Russian, German, French, and Serbo-Croatian.
Smith served in the United States Air Force. He won the 200 pound (91 kg) arm-wrestling championship of the world multiple times and also won the United States Air Force weightlifting championship. A lifelong bodybuilder, Smith is a record holder for reverse-curling his own body weight. His trademark arms measured as much as 19½ inches. Smith held a 31-1 record as an amateur boxer.
During the Korean War he was a Russian Intercept Interrogator and flew secret ferret missions over the Russian SFSR. He had both CIA and NSA clearance and intended to enter a classified position with the U.S. government, but while he was working on his doctorate studies he landed an acting contract with MGM.
He was a regular on the 1961 ABC television series The Asphalt Jungle, portraying police Sergeant Danny Keller. One of his earliest leading roles was as Joe Riley, a Texas Ranger on the NBC western series Laredo (1965–1967).
Smith was cast as John Richard Parker, brother of Cynthia Ann Parker, both taken hostage in Texas by the Comanche, in the 1969 episode “The Understanding” of the syndicated television series Death Valley Days, which was hosted by Robert Taylor. In the story line, Parker contracts the plague, is left for dead by his fellow Comanche warriors, and is rescued by his future Mexican wife, Yolanda (Emily Banks).
He played the outlaw turned temporary sheriff Hendry Brown in the 1969 episode “The Restless Man”. In that story line, Brown takes the job of sheriff to tame a lawless town, begins to court a young woman (again played by Emily Banks), but soon returns to his deadly outlaw ways in search of bigger thrills.
Smith got a great leading role in the movie “Run, Angel, Run (1969)”, where he played title character Angel, a tough outlaw biker who gets paid big money to reveal the secrets of his club. But when the other bikers find out, Angel and his girl have to go on the run while trying to find an honest life. This film, directed by action movie veteran Jack Starrett, has been somewhat forgotten over the years but it was a huge hit the year it was released and it gave Bill the first of many biker roles.
In 1970, Smith became the star of several cult movies from the early seventies. Smith appeared as heavy Terry Bartell in Darker Than Amber (1970). Also that year, Smith was also featured in two biker flicks The Losers/Nam’s Angels (1970) co-starring Bernie Hamilton. It seemed Smith never got off a motorcycle. He was in “C.C. & Company (1970)”. In this last movie, he plays “Moon”, leader of the biker gang “The Heads” (which also includes Sid Haig in a Mongolian war helmet) who winds up being the nemesis of none other than Joe Namath. Fresh off an upset Superbowl win, Hollywood was trying to turn Namath into an action movie star. “Trying” being the key word.
“C.C. and Company” was a bit lighter in tone than Smith’s other biker films and starred cutie Ann-Margaret as the girl that Moon and C.C. go to war over. The film got terrible reviews but it’s very entertaining in a modest way and is probably Smith’s most well known biker part.
On Gunsmoke, Smith appeared in Hostage! (TV Episode 1972), his character beats and rapes Amanda Blake’s character Miss Kitty Russell and shoots her twice in the back. Smith has been described as the “greatest bad-guy character actor of our time”.
Outlaw gang leader Jude Bonner seeks to force Matt to try and keep his condemned brother from hanging by kidnapping Kitty, brutally abusing and threatening to kill her.
By now, Smith was in constant demand as an actor and between TV and film, he was always in front of a camera. One of his most interesting roles was in Grave of the Vampire (1972), where played James Eastman, a half-vampire who is hunting down his evil vampire father, played by Michael Pataki. Pataki’s character Caleb Croft raped Eastman’s mother, resulting in his birth. Some effective scenes show Eastman’s deranged mother feeding baby James with bottles of blood. Years later, James finds his father teaching a class on the occult at a college, leading to a showdown. This is quite a creepy film and the ending is rather unpleasant.
“The Deadly Trackers (1973)” was a grim and bloody Western where he played the mentally addled but bloodthirsty “Schoolboy” alongside his good friend Rod Taylor and another villainous character actor, Neville Brand. “The Last American Hero” was the real life story of NASCAR pioneer Junior Johnson, played by Jeff Bridges. But probably the most iconic role Smith playe was secret agent Neil Agar in the sci-fi sex spoof “Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)”, which was a drive-in standard for 10 years.
In the movie, Smith’s character Agar is sent to the scandalously named town of Peckham, California to investigate the mysterious death of a scientist working at a top secret research facility. It seems the scientist died of “sexual exhaustion”…meaning he was screwed to death. Nor is he the only one. An epidemic of deaths brought on by too much sex is plaguing Peckham. Agar learns that coldly beautiful scientist Julie Zorn seems to be involved with the murders. In fact, she is using bizarre treatments to turn women into “bee girls”…sexual predators with insectile minds. These bee girls are plenty hot and enough to maybe tempt even Dr. Mality into a fling.
The movie was the first written by Nicholas Meyer and it’s become an enduring cult favorite not only due to the titillating subject matter but the surprising cleverness of the script and top notch performances of the cast. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it gives Bill a rare starring role as a good guy.
Black Samson (1974), is arguably his best performance out of the lot of them. Smith is the personification of demented in this movie playing the thoroughly, and frighteningly unpredictable Johnny Nappa. The film itself isn’t all that well known or discussed among black action enthusiasts, but Smith’s performance all by itself carries the picture. He’s so sadistic, it borders on parody; yet as purely evil as Nappa is, the viewer is anxious to see what nasty bit of business he’ll do next in between scenes. Tarkington comes off as a believable foil, and the villains comeuppance is satisfying.
The Swinging Barmaids (1975) (starring Ms. Saylor, Bruce Watson and Laura Hippe, and directed by Gus Trikonis). He also appeared in two popular Blaxploitation films, Hammer (1972) and the controversially titled Boss Nigger (1974), both with Fred Williamson. 1975 brought him another iconic role in the post-apocalyptic thriller The Ultimate Warrior (1975). This movie sank pretty quickly upon its release but it was really a precursor of the “Road Warrior” style movies of a few years later.
Set in the far future year of 2012, the movie takes place a few years after a global epidemic has killed hundreds of millions and rendered the soil infertile. In a ruined New York city, a man called The Baron has set up a small enclave of survivors in a protected zone. But many bands of starving marauders are hoping to break into the enclave and take the food stockpiled by the Baron. The most vicious of the marauders are led by a man named Carrot, played by Smith.
A scientist working for the Baron has come up a kind of seed that can grow food in contaminated soil. The Baron knows that Carrot and his men will eventually overrun the enclave. He hires a grim mercenary named Carson to not only protect his people but lead them to a safer place.
This was actually a fairly high class film despite its budget and subject matter. Carson, the “ultimate warrior” of the title, is played by Yul Brynner with steely determination while the Baron is portrayed by none other than Max von Sydow. Carrot is another one of Smith’s great villains, much in the mode of his evil bikers but even more ruthless. The final confrontation between Carson and Carrot is intense and bloody.
In the 1976 television miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (TV Mini-Series 1976), he portrayed Anthony Falconetti, nemesis of the Jordache family, and reprised the role in the sequel Rich Man, Poor Man Book II. Other 1970s TV appearances included the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode “The Energy Eater“, as an Indian medicine man who advises Kolchak, and an early Six Million Dollar Man episode “Survival of the Fittest” as Commander Maxwell. He also appeared in the 1979 miniseries The Rebels as John Waverly, and in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard as Jason Steele, a bounty hunter hired by Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane to frame the Duke Boys into jail.
Smith joined the cast of the final season of Hawaii Five-O (as Detective James “Kimo” Carew). He had previously appeared with Jack Lord in Lord’s prior series Stoney Burke. Smith starred in one episode each of the Adam West Batman TV series (in the episode “Minerva, Mayhem and Millionaires” as Adonis, one of the minions of the title guest villainess portrayed by Zsa Zsa Gabor), I Dream of Jeannie (in the episode “Operation: First Couple on the Moon” as Turk Parker), Kung Fu, and as The Treybor, a ruthless warlord, in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode “Buck’s Duel to the Death”. Smith also made guest appearances opposite James Garner in the 1974 two-hour pilot for The Rockford Files (titled “Backlash of the Hunter” and also featuring Lindsay Wagner and Bill Mumy), and George Peppard in The A-Team (in two appearances as different characters, in the first season’s “Pros and Cons” and the fourth season’s “The A-Team Is Coming, The A-Team Is Coming”).
One of Bill’s most fascinating movies he starred in is Hollywood Man (1976) a film about William Smith as a director making a William Smith film (well, the type of film he would make). Jammed packed with in-jokes and violence, lots of stunt guys and pals of Smith are in it. Coincidentally it’s an extreme case of art imitating life in that, much like the movie Bill is financing onscreen, was financed by gangsters offscreen!
Cash-strapped actor/director Rafe Stoker (Smith) reluctantly agrees to put up almost all of his personal fortune as collateral to shady investors in order to complete production on his action film. In turn, they hire Harvey (Girardin), an unstable biker, to sabotage the production so that they can collect on Stoker’s pledge. Harvey and his gang engage in escalating acts of violence against Stoker’s film crew and other random people while Stoker desperately attempts to complete his film shoot amidst other production delays. After completing the movie Stoker and his girlfriend are gunned by thugs hired by his backers.
In Blood & Guts (1978), Smith is “Dandy” Dan O’Neil, “The Wild Irish Rose”, a wrestler past his prime, heavy on the drinking side, who’s trying to whip a young babyface into shape. Still a hard bastard, Smith has some run-ins with bar bullies, his girlfriends crazy ex-husband, and ruthless promoters. Not a straightforward action, nor wrestling film, but a drama about the dark side of the wrestling industry. One of, if not Bill Smith’s best acting role in terms of the range he gives in this one. Words to live by: If you see Bill in a bar, the last thing you want to do is shove him and say, “Come on, faggot.”
A young athlete becomes the unlikely star of an itinerant wrestling troupe, and a rival promoter will go to any length to steal him away.
After that, he played a vindictive sergeant in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) with an all-star cast headed by Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark, a drag-racing legend in Fast Company (1979) also co-starring Claudia Jennings and John Saxon. Smith punched and brawled his way through one of his most well-known roles as Clint Eastwood’s honorable opponent Jack Wilson in the road comedy “Any Which Way You Can (1980)”. Smith’s bareknuckled fight with Eastwood’s eccentric trucker Philo Beddoe was one of the longest and most intense in Hollywood history and Bill’s great conditioning and boxing background were a huge help in making the fight believable. The main character’s father in Conan the Barbarian (1982) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, bad guy Matt Diggs in The Frisco Kid (1979) opposite Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, and a top villainous role of the Soviet commander in the hit Red Dawn (1984). In 1983, Smith appeared in two films from Francis Ford Coppola, in The Outsiders (1983) as a store clerk and in Rumble Fish (1983) as a police officer. Smith landed the starring role of Brodie Hollister in the Disney mini-series Wildside (TV Series 1985), created by writer-producer Tom Greene, and another role as the bookmaker’s enforcer known as “Panama Hat” in director Richard Brooks’s final movie, Fever Pitch (1985) opposite Ryan O’Neal.
The VHS boom created a new kind of grindhouse product that Smith could capitalize on. Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988). This whacky sci-fi tale took place in an irradiated future when the number of fertile men and women is virtually non-existent. When a group of renegade frog-like mutants capture a harem of fertile females to use as sex slaves, the dangerous wandering mercenary Sam Hell is called upon to rescue them from “Frogtown”. Sam is played by none other than wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper and his commanding officer is Smith’s character Captain Devlin. Sam sets out on an odyssey to rescue the ladies accompanied by two warrior females (Sandahl Bergman and Cec Verrell). Unknown to Sam, though, Devlin is also the mysterious villain Count Sodom, who is manipulating events for his own benefit. Also along for the ride are Rory Calhoun as “Looney Tunes” and genre mainstay Nicholas Worth as “Bull” Frog.
Among Bill’s other memorable 80’s roles was as a hard-nosed police captain in William Lustig’s horror-action film Maniac Cop (1988). Then came the insanely bizarre rural slasher film Memorial Valley Massacre (1989) where his character General Mintz had a very memorable death.
William Smith Interview
Mr. Smith, according to your biography, you are fluent in Russian, German, French and Serbo-Croatian languages. On screen you’ve played many Russian characters, and earlier even taught Russian at the UCLA University… Where did you learn the language? Have you ever been in a Russian-speaking country?
William Smith: I learned the Russian language at Syracuse University while I was in the National Security Agency, during the Cold War. I have not been to Russia.
You are an honorary member of a Motion Pictures Stuntmen Association. Looking back now, which of the many stunts you did, was the most difficult, maybe the most dangerous?
William Smith: One stunt that comes to mind is when I was attacked by the War Dogs in the film “Conan the Barbarian.” Even though I was heavily padded, I could feel the Rottweillers, starting to bite down thru the padding. Once the dogs got started they didn’t want to stop. It wasn’t easy for the trainers to call them off. Another dangerous stunt was on the film “Piranha, Piranha” which was shot down in South America. I did a stunt with a very large Anaconda in the water. The local snake wrangler, who did not have the experience to handle this snake, had a hard time and the snake almost crushed me to death.
One of your earliest roles was as a young boy in the 1944 Universal classic The Ghost of Frankenstein. You were old enough, however, that I imagine you must have clear memories of the experience…
William Smith: Actually, yes, I do remember it fondly. There was a day on the set of Ghost of Frankenstein when we kids had just finished our schooling for the day and were sitting around a table. Lon Chaney Jr., in full Monster makeup and costume, snuck up behind us and yelled “Aaaaahhh!” He almost scared us to death, because we had not yet seen him dressed as the Monster. He was huge and seemed to be 7 feet tall. He knew he scared the dickens out of us, but he made up for it by giving us all ice cream. He was a nice guy.
Was being a child actor a positive experience? Many who get into the business so young don’t thrive as much as adults—though you certainly did.
William Smith: It was a different era when I was growing up in Hollywood; there weren’t the drugs and temptations that young people are exposed to today. I was fortunate to have a very tight-knit, loving family who were always very supportive of each other. My parents always made sure my childhood was very normal; my mother was never a Hollywood stage mother. As a matter of fact, there was a day when I said I no longer wanted to work as an extra, and that was the day I stopped. There was never any pressure from my parents.
You ended up appearing in almost every golden-age TV show of note, but it was a different time for television, with a different professional climate. Did you have to audition, or did one show just lead to the next?
William Smith: No, I didn’t have to audition. Back then, as now, I had enough of a body of work and a reputation that directors and producers would call my agent when they had roles for me. I worked so frequently on different series that it was almost like having a weekly job. I stayed out of the politics of TV. I would get my script, learn my lines, deliver them on set and go home.
I remember when you were on HAWAII FIVE-O (1979-1980).
William Smith: Yeah, I replaced James MacArthur, who quit the show because Jack Lord wouldn’t let him have a dressing room. He had to change in the prop truck for eleven years. Bless his soul, though – Jack, he died, but he was not a nice man. I don’t know what was the matter with him. He had the world by the tail, but he didn’t get along with anybody. Everybody on the show would come to work saying “Another shitty day in paradise!” (Laughs) He would throw a luau at the end of each month at this big huge restaurant right on the main boulevard in Honolulu, and he would have one room for the white folks and another room for the Samoans and the Tahitians. It was totally separated, racially separated! All the Teamsters were Samoan guys, and the Samoans are all over six foot and all over 300 pounds, y’know? The Teamster captain was a guy named Earl Miller, and I asked Earl one day, “Why do you put up with that separation bullshit?” And he said “I don’t step on my wallet, brah!” (Laughing) They call everyone brah. But that was the third longest running show of all time – GUNSMOKE, BONANZA, and HAWAII FIVE-O, in that order. I did the last GUNSMOKE ever done [“Hard Labor,” 1975).
And you were in the first ROCKFORD FILES.
William Smith: Yeah, the pilot. James Garner went on Johnny Carson and said they sold the pilot because of the character played in that – and I never worked on THE ROCKFORD FILES again. But when Jimmy did MAVERICK, he hired all us old cowboys. Doug McClure, Bobby Fuller, Leo Gordon… I think I was onscreen in that for about 45 seconds, and I worked on it for eight weeks! But James Garner’s a hell of a guy, and Dick Donner was great – James Coburn was great – Mel Gibson was great. It was a lot of fun.
After two years on the western series LAREDO (1965-1967), you traded in your horse for a motorcycle.
William Smith: That’s very well put. Yeah, I must’ve done about six or seven of those outlaw motorcycle movies. The first one was RUN, ANGEL, RUN. We shot that movie in 13 days, I think it was $85,000. 13 days we shot that whole goddamn thing. Jack Starrett was a good director, though. For the amount of money he had on that and everything, I think he did a hell of a job. And that was his wife, Valerie Starrett, who played my wife in the movie. Then we did THE LOSERS. That was the only other one I did with him.
In THE LOSERS where John Garwood is showing Houston Savage how to use a machine gun. Houston Savage was a Green Beret in real life!
William Smith: Yes, he was. That was funny. Yeah, Garwood’s a nice guy, I did a movie for him called THE BEAST, over in the Philippines again. He changed the title to A TASTE OF HELL. It was a pretty good little movie.
You did one biker movie with Joe Namath C.C. & Company (1970) and another one with Marvin Gaye Chrome and Hot Leather (1971) Great casting!
William Smith: Y’know, all Marvin Gaye wanted to do was be a football player. He didn’t want to sing, he just wanted to play football. We had to throw him the football all day long on the set, that’s all he wanted to do. He wasn’t coordinated, he couldn’t catch, he couldn’t run – but boy, could he sing!
Did you have any run-ins with Hell’s Angels because of the biker movies?
William Smith: No, I had a run-in with the Satan’s Slaves, a bike club down in Santa Monica, when we were shooting RUN, ANGEL, RUN. There was a guy named Gene Cornelius, who was one of the guys after me (in the movie), and we got into a hassle. The Slaves really owned the town at that time. We went into an outdoor hamburger joint — I’ve forgotten what the name of our club was in the movie – but these guys thought we were real guys, y’know? We tried to explain it, but we got into a fight with three or four of them. (Pause) They weren’t as tough as they thought.
Jack Starrett helped you shoot an audition film for KUNG FU.
William Smith: We shot about a six minute movie that was unbelievable, man. Even David Carradine saw it – I showed it to him when I was doing a KUNG FU [“The Chalice,” 1973], and he said “God, you shoulda gotten that role, Bill.” It really was a fantastic piece of film. I wrote the thing, and Jack directed it. We shot it as if this guy was working on building railroads, because that’s what most of the Chinese did in those days. It was a terrific thing, and they really liked it, but I don’t know — for whatever reason, they went for David. I was really working out a lot, and Jack had me in this…almost like a Judo suit, but with no sleeves on it. David said he thought my arms were too big. People out here seem to have the idea that if you have 18-inch arms, you’re a dummy or something, y’know? And I got my Masters cum laude from UCLA, so I think that makes it sort of irrelevant.
But you know martial arts, don’t you?
William Smith: Well, I studied kung fu for eight years. As a matter of fact, Bruce Lee flew all the way down to Charlotte, North Carolina – was doing THE LAST AMERICAN HERO down there with Jeff Bridges — and he flew down there and interviewed me for the role that John Saxon played in ENTER THE DRAGON. He was going to take me, but then I went over two weeks and couldn’t do it, so John got it.
That’s interesting, because I know you worked with Robert Clouse a few times.
William Smith: Yeah, I loved Robert. We did DARKER THAN AMBER and THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR.
Darker Than Amber (1970) was a crazy role for you. That fight with Rod Taylor…
William Smith: A lot of stunt guys think that’s the best fight ever done. The version that comes on television doesn’t have the whole fight in it, mean, it was really a bloody fight. I broke Rod’s nose, he broke three of my ribs – it was a lot of fun. My kind of movie!
I always liked the ending of Black Samson (1974), where all that furniture and junk is raining down on you, and you’re fighting Rockne Tarkington.
William Smith: Oh, yeah, that was a good one! That was dangerous as hell, too. Most of those people were black, and they were trying to hit the white guys, throwing bedsprings on ’em – fuck – but Rockne’s a hell of a nice guy.
What about Fred Williamson? You were in two movies with him, Hammer (1972) and Boss Nigger (1974)
William Smith: He’s a terrific guy, too. Really a great guy. I’ll tell you a story about HAMMER. When I was doing THE LAST AMERICAN HERO down in Charlotte, I hadn’t seen the movie yet, and it came out down there. Charlotte, North Carolina is about 65% black, and we went to this theatre to see it – I went with a makeup lady-and there was nobody in the theatre but black people. And in that movie I kill eight different black guys. About halfway through– pardon my French–they start yellin’ “Goddamn motherfucker!-Cut-his-dick-off-and-shove-it up-his-motherfuckin-ass, man, kill-that motherfucker!” They were really gettin’ upset.
One of the most discussed topics of your fans seems to be your onscreen fights with different actors, from Rod Taylor to Clint Eastwood. Which one of them all, you yourself consider the best? Which one was the most difficult to stage?
William Smith: The fight in “Any Which Way you Can,” with Clint Eastwood, was the longest two-man fight scene on screen, at the time. It was very well choreographed. It was a very mobile fight in the fact that it moved from one area to the next. Clint was great to work with. He was quite an accomplished on-screen fighter. The classic fight between Rod Taylor and I in “Darker Than Amber.” That was a different story. Fight choreography and staging went out the window when Rod decided to really hit me. And so the fight was on. That was a real fight with real blood and real broken bones. Rod is a skilled fighter, and, at the same time a real scrapper. Now that was a good fight!
How long did that fight with Clint take to film?
William Smith: We shot that fight scene in a day and a quarter. Clint doesn’t mess around. We finished that movie five days early. The only thing about it was I smoked then, and we shot that in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was 8200 feet, and I started running out of wind every now and then. Clint was nice to work for too.
What did your friends think of all the Hollywood glamour?
William Smith: My friends all thought it was great that I got to work in movies, but most of all that I didn’t have to go to a traditional school all the time.
Grave of the Vampire (1972) was ahead of its time in many respects. Do you recall much about making it, or was it simply another role?
William Smith: Ah yes, Grave of the Vampire. That was a low-budget feature with a very short shooting schedule. I can tell you one thing I remember: The vampire teeth I wore in that film didn’t fit, and they kept falling out of my mouth when I moved! It’s not a good thing when you’re playing a vampire and your fangs keep falling out (laughs). But I recall enjoying working with John Hayes; I felt he was a good director. And Mike Pataki was really good too as my vampire dad, Caleb Croft. I’ve known Mike for years, and he was a terrific guy. Mike was very physically strong, too, despite the fact that he didn’t work out much like I did.
Grave is a cult film, beloved by horror buffs of a certain age who grew up watching it. Have you met many fans of it over the years?
William Smith: Oh, sure; it’s absolutely a favorite among the horror crowd. I have a varied fan base because of the wide range of genres I’ve appeared in, but it seems as though Grave of the Vampire is one movie that all the fans appreciate—including Western fans.
You did another movie with Pataki …
William Smith: SWEET JESUS, PREACHER MAN, with Roger E. Mosley, who is also a very nice guy. Roger and I had good parts playing prison guards in an episode of LONGSTREET (“The Shape of Nightmares,” 1971). I never did a MAGNUM P.I, though, and he did that for years. I just saw him in a movie on television called LEADBELLY, about that singer/guitarist, and he was terrific in it.
Any recollections on Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
William Smith: Oh my God! (Laughing) That was the weirdest idea…but it was great, all these broads running around naked, shit, that part of it was nice. But them bee girls were somethin’ bad, weren’t they? One day on the set they had so many bees in there, the trainer had all this equipment on him to keep from getting stung. They had this girl, and they had whip cream and sugar all over her and there were like 300,000 bees on her eating the sugar! And the trainer got bitten fifteen times, and they had to bring an ambulance and take him to the hospital. They couldn’t get the bees out of there, man! It was in one of those labs, in the college where we were shooting. I thank God I wasn’t in that scene. I did another low-budgeter that was kind of weird I can’t think of the title.
Well, Dr. Minx (1975) was kind of a strange movie. That was with Edy Williams.
William Smith: Yeah. What a trial she was, Jesus… Why did they think she could act at all? Everytime she said a line, it looked like the first time she read it, like she was five years old or something. A real singsong. And the guy who directed that (Hikmet Avedis) also directed a movie I did called SCORCHY, with Connie Stevens. She was very nice.
Hollywood Man (1976), I think it’s a pretty good movie.
William Smith: Oh, right! How could I forget that disaster. That was originally a script I wrote called STOKER, and we got the financing because ran into this guy, and his brother put up the money – and they were Mafia guys.
But that’s the plot of the movie!
William Smith: Exactly! The guy who gave us the money for that film had done eight years hard time for some Mafia guy, for a murder he didn’t commit. But they rewarded him. They gave him two discotheques in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a steamship line of three ships — and you know what they carried? Cement. I am not kidding you. I had a lot of good friends on it: Don Stroud, Clay Tanner, Tom Simcox, Jennifer Billingsley, Mary Woronov — people I knew for years. And the stunt guys were all buddies of mine: Paul Nuckles, Bud Davis. Ray Girardin played Harvey, he was really good. In fact, he and I wrote STOKER together. The actors on it were great, and they were worked very hard – but it was the doggone producers, the friggin’ Mafia guys up your ass every day.
You also acted for a young David Cronenberg on his only early non-horror film, Fast Company (1979)
William Smith: David was a very intelligent filmmaker who definitely knew what he wanted, and I enjoyed working with him most because he impressed me as a director who really likes actors. That’s rare.
You starred in a now cult “Conan The Barbarian” with Arnold Schwarzenegger back in 1982. What was it like working on that film? Since you and Arnold were both bodybuilders, what can you say about his bodybuilding achievements from a professional point of view?
William Smith: It was a pleasure to work with Arnold. We enjoyed each others sense of humor. The film, “Conan the Barbarian” was the beginning of a big movie career for Arnold, which led to his governorship of California. In Arnold’s day, he had the best physic around. That he proved by his winning the Mr. Olympia contest numerous time. And of course it was great working with John Milius, who I worked with again on “Red Dawn,” as well as my friends and fellow cast members, Franco Columbu, Sven-Ole Thorsen and Ben Davidson.
Presumably your fan base for Conan the Barbarian is healthy as well…
William Smith: Oh yeah, I hear from Conan fans on a regular basis too, especially via the Internet and Facebook. It’s always nice to hear from the fans. Speaking of Conan, in the scene where I was attacked by the rottweilers, the female almost killed me. She dragged me about 50 feet and refused to let go. I could feel her teeth through the padding, and the trainers had a hard time getting her off of me. I later found out she was pregnant. Lesson learned: Never mess with a pregnant female!
Milius must be an interesting director to work for.
William Smith: He’s a real rifleman, he belongs to the NRA and all that. On CONAN THE BARBARIAN, he wanted to shoot a Dall sheep while we were there. We were at 9000 feet, and it was cold as hell. John would go out and try to shoot a Dall sheep, and he would get to work about eleven! And when Dino De Laurentiis found out about this, he came out to straighten things up. Dino’s a short little guy, and he was married to one of my favorite actresses, Silvana Mangano. She did BITTER RICE when I was a kid, and I thought she was the greatest woman I’d ever seen. We had lunch and dinner in this big tent with marvelous food, and I got to sit next to her for two days – and they were the best two days I ever had on any film in my life. She spoke fluent French, and so do I. It was just great. I had her laughing, and Dino and John were well, John was sitting across from Dino, who was sitting on the other side of his wife-they’re screaming, and we’re laughing!
I heard that you arm wrestled Arnold Schwarzeneggar on the set of Conan.
William Smith: No, I arm wrestled him the day after he got here from Europe – and I beat him. He weighed two-eighty, and I was the two hundred pound arm wrestling champion of the world three years in a row at that time. And then I got some good reviews on CONAN. One review – I forgot where it was said the movie got bad when I quit talking. I work out in a World Gym now, which Arnold owns with Joe Gold. Arnold’s never hired me again, and Joe said “It’s not because of the review, it’s because you beat him arm wrestling!” Yeah, he was not at all pleased with that. He spoke hardly any English at the time. After I beat him, he left he was so wide, he could hardly get out the front door of this house I lived in Laurel Canyon – but he turned around and said [in German] “I will be a movie star.” And he is.
I have to ask you about some of the other directors you worked for, like Robert Aldrich, Francis Ford Coppola…
William Smith: Well, one of the best directors worked for was Bill Bixby. He did one of the RICH MAN, POOR MAN episodes, and he was a terrific director. And Robert Aldrich was a hell of a guy, man, I really enjoyed working for him. I did a small role in TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, and then he gave me a nice part in THE FRISCO KID. Coppola, in a lot of ways, was kind of — well, he didn’t come on the set. He had this thing called the Silverfish — he had about twenty TVs inside it, and he actually directed from in there, maybe two hundred yards away. He had all of us come up a week early to rehearse, and when we finished rehearsing I asked him “How do you see this Patterson guy, Mr. Coppola?” He said “You know what a spectre is?” I said “Yeah, it’s a dark, ghostlike figure.” He said “Be a spectre.”(Laughing) And as far as acting was concerned, he never said another word to me. But every Tuesday and Thursday night he cooked for us. He’s a magnificent Italian chef.
You had already worked with Coppola on THE OUTSIDERS, right?
William Smith: No, I wasn’t even supposed to be in that movie. They’d already shot that. They had shot a scene in a convenience store, and they had used the guy who ran the store, but it didn’t work out. I was getting ready to get on the airplane to go home after RUMBLE FISH. and Coppola came to my room – “Bill, would you be kind enough to stay about two hours longer and do that scene for me?” I played the guy Matt Dillon holds up in the convenience store.
You’ve had the opportunity to speak Russian in a few movies, like BULLETPROOF and RED DAWN.
William Smith: John Milius had written me a great scene in RED DAWN, and I translated it into Russian. He lit up the whole valley, set up the scene for three or four days…and Ron O’Neal, who played the Cuban – I don’t know what he was doing, but he was a little messed up. I was a colonel and he was a major, and if you speak Russian, you say “mister” before the colonel’s name. All he had to say when he first walks up to me was (speaks Russian], which means “Mister Colonel.” But Ron was- I don’t know, a little crazy that night. He walked up to me and said “(speaking Russian), motherfucker!” Well, Milius just went out of his mind, ’cause he had taken so long to set this thing up, and Ron was kind of staggering a little bit. So he cut the whole scene out.
Among your many appearances as an onscreen villain, which one of your evil characters did you yourself like the most and why?
William Smith: My favorite TV screen villain would be “Falconetti” from the “Rich Man Poor Man” Miniseries and “Rich Man Poor Man Book II.” I really enjoyed working with Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss. The fight scenes with Nick and I were good ones. Playing Falconetti in RICH MAN, POOR MAN, I got shot at twice, a woman hit me with a Coke bottle because I killed Tom Jordache (Nick Nolte). I got shot at onstage in South Africa! We were doing THE PETRIFIED FOREST, and I was playing Duke Mantee, the role that Humphrey Bogart played. At the end of the movie the cops come – and we had in the play the cops shooting from outside, onto the stage, and we used squibbed windows, They had wax bullets that would go through the window, and the glass would obviously come in toward me. So I had a couple of lines. howling at the cops, and all of a sudden I hear a bang – I assumed it was one of our bangs – but a bullet went about three inches past my head and out the other way of the window! And I looked out in the audience and there’s a guy out there, way in the back of the audience – there were already flashlights on him and he fired another shot! In South Africa they have tons of security for everyone who’s over there, and they grabbed the guy. It was a Saturday we did two shows on Saturday — and they wanted me to come down to the police station between shows. So I went down there, and said “What the hell’s the matter with you, man?” He said “You killed Tom Jordache!” I said “You fuckin’ asshole, it’s a TV show, for Christ’s sake!” “You killed Tom Jordache!” I said “He pulled out my eye! An eye for an eye, you idiot!” (Laughing) I don’t know what they finally did with him, I know they put him in jail. But I went back to do the second show, and I was so terrified I never looked at the people was acting with — I just kept looking at the audience to see if there was another guy out there gonna shoot me that night, man. Scared the shit out of me!