Instantly recognisable after his role in Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and a key figure in European horror cinema for over two decades, Reggie Nalder had a film career that truly stands alone. Kinoeye presents David Del Valle's interview with this modern horror icon.
One evening during the summer of 1969, I found myself on Hollywood Boulevard en route to the premiere of Fellini Satyricon. As fate would have it, Reggie Nalder walked right past me dressed in a pale blue leather jumpsuit, a brown leather handbag over his shoulder. The assassin from Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much was out for a stroll. I started walking behind him noticing how everyone that passed his way did a double take to make sure they hadn't seen a specter from some half-remembered cinema nightmare. "The face that launched a thousand trips." That was an appropriate counterculture expression in 1969 to describe the impact of Reggie Nalder's visage on the general public.
By 1977, I was a theatrical agent in Beverly Hills. One afternoon at a cocktail party for the Paul Kohner Agency on Sunset Boulevard, I ran into Reggie Nalder again. He was a client of Kohner's, but a dissatisfied one. Paul Kohner was a legend among agents in Hollywood. He represented such émigrés as Billy Wilder, Klaus Kinski and, early in his career, Erich von Stroheim.
By the end of the afternoon I convinced Reggie Nalder to become a client of Del Valle, Franklin & Levine. With that, I would see him on a regular basis for the rest of his life.
In his later years Reggie withdrew from his social circle of artists and bohemians. In August of 1991, I returned from San Francisco to find a message from him on my answering machine saying "Auf Wiedersehen." I thought little of it at the time but later I was shocked to discover my mysterious and enigmatic friend had succumbed to bone cancer on 19 November 1991.
Reggie Nalder was a character actor whose aura of mystery and demonic physiognomy placed him in the forefront of Euro-horror personalities. His real-life drama was worthy of Sax Rohmer with a dash of Edgar Wallace. It is only appropriate that he be remembered in the same breath as Klaus Kinski, Anton Differing and Udo Kier. This interview was done with him in 1989 but never published in his lifetime.
Tell me about your early background as a performer.
Acting was a family tradition. Both my father and my uncle were actors. My mother was a celebrated courtesan who also acted in German films from 1919 to 1929. My uncle owned and operated a notorious cabaret in Vienna which was appropriately named "Hoelle" ("Hell" in German) in the basement of "das Theater an der Wien" throughout the 1920s. There are no filmed records of what went on in such a place. My early memories are filled with decadent, smoke-filled parlors where anything goes.
This environment must have been instrumental in your love of the theatrical.
When you are born into such an environment you know nothing else. I took dance, ballet and painting classes. This enabled me to help my uncle by painting backdrops and suggesting tableaux for the cabaret. It was a fantasy world and the only thing that changed it was the Nazis. I fled Vienna and arrived in Paris where all my theatrical experience would be put to the test. I had no money and had to find work in very untheatrical venues. By the time the Nazis came to Paris I was established in cabaret, specialising in a dance called The Apache. It was considered shocking at the time as the woman, my partner, was made subservient during the dance. In fact, she was dominated and loved it.
This sounds intriguing...
It was. My partner became my lover and we performed in private for those that could afford it. At one point I employed a hunchback to procure customers for our more exotic shows. Believe me, sex has always been a best-seller. We were very successful. It disgusted me to perform for the Nazis but survival made me do things that seem impossible now.
Did you attempt a film career at this point?
Not really. I wanted to. But it didn't happen until the war was over. One of my first [pictures] was Le signal rouge with Erich von Stroheim that was filmed in Austria with French money in 1948. It allowed Mr Von Stroheim the chance to go home to Vienna. He was a genius. The mayor gave him the key to the city. He was so highly regarded in France. I was honored to be in the same city with this man. So to make a film with him meant I was on my way.
What other films did you do at that time?
I also did Echec au porteur (aka Not Delivered, 1959) with Jeanne Moreau, a divine actress to work with. She was kind to the cast and crew alike. I loved her. Also Demain sera un autre jour (the working title of Rene Clement's The Day and the Hour [Le jour et l'heure, 1962]). It starred Simone Signoret who was what you Americans call an "earth mother." She was mad for her husband (Yves Montand) who was unfaithful. And she was always looking out for people like me who were starting out in films. Simone was all heart. I wish she could have been happier in her private life. I would not meet a woman like her again until Melina Mercuri years later, larger than life. But, unlike Simone, Melina was happy at all times.
Weren't you also in The Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951)?
Yes, with your great pal Vincent Price! The Adventures of Captain Fabian was shot in France in the summer of 1950. It was an amazing film for many reasons. Michelle Presle was the evil woman in the picture and a great friend. She had seen my cabaret act in Paris during the war. Errol Flynn was producing the film and the whole production was centred on him. Well, the cast and the crew spent weeks on salary without a frame of film being shot because Flynn was off being Errol Flynn and wasting a lot of money. Finally William Marshall [the director] walked off and Flynn directed the film from that point on. A disaster! Flynn was a great guy. He was well liked by the crew but he was no film director. It was a paid vacation for all of us. My part was small. I did get to work with a little monkey in that film. I love animals so much but I travel too often to own one. Vincent and I had one good scene together toward the end. I saw him again back in Hollywood. He came up to my apartment in Hollywood and we had cocktails. He seemed to be having some problems with his wife at the time. I lost touch with Vincent soon after.
Let's move on to the film that made you world-famous, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Hitchcock was responsible for my coming to America, and I owe him a great deal. I didn't realise how much this film would change my life. I am recognised all over the world as "the man at the Albert Hall." Hitchcock never gave actors any real direction [and] I was a bit put off at first. You really didn't know where you stood with him. He told very crude and dirty stories like a schoolboy. He knew exactly what he wanted from you, and once you were there he felt it was up to you not to disappoint him.
What else do you recall about the filming?
Doris Day was such a pro and Hitchcock gave her little encouragement. She always felt unsure, which is exactly what he wanted. A writer named Donald Spoto asked me about this film and I told him that Hitchcock asked me to regard the man I was going to assassinate as if he were a beautiful woman gazing lovingly at the target before I shoot him. What I didn't tell Mr Spoto was that Hitchcock stared right at my crotch whenever he talked to me, never once looking me in the eye. At the time I was convinced he must be perverted. I already knew he was a genius.
What was your favourite moment from that experience?
Oh, the touring. I went to all the major cities in America and some in Europe. Of course the Cannes Film Festival was unforgettable. I felt like a star. I posed for publicity pictures by the Carlton Hotel with Melina Mercouri and her husband, Jules Dassin. In fact, I was the centre of attention. One reporter remarked that the one scene at Albert Hall would be remembered as one of Hitchcock's greatest set-pieces.
Did you come to Hollywood after that?
Yes. After the Hitchcock film Paul Kohner got me a lot of television. I guest-starred in villainous roles of course, in 77 Sunset Strip and Surfside Six. I did one feature with Rock Hudson called The Spiral Road (1962). I played a witch doctor that helps Hudson who is lost in the jungle. A very nice guy, Rock Hudson. Very polite and completely professional. He looked like a movie star.
You also did two episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller.
My favorite was Terror in Teakwood that was directed by Paul Henried. The lead actor, Guy Rolfe, was very ill during the filming, very weak and pale at the time. I remember the scene where I lead him to the tomb and describe the casket and the funeral service to him. When my speech was finished, Paul said, "Cut!" and the crew burst into applause. I felt like I'd just won an Oscar.
Did you meet Karloff at the time?
No. But I met him briefly during the second one, The Return of Andrew Bentley. John Newland, who also played the lead, directed it. There was also a talented actress named Antoinette Bower with whom I remain good friends today. I had no dialogue, just a black cape and a "familiar" who looked like a man in a furry costume. Newland did needlepoint between takes and loved Hollywood gossip. A sweet guy and a good director.
You also had a small role in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) around this time.
I remember working only one day on that film. Frank Sinatra remembered my face from the Hitchcock film and thought it would compliment the other spies. So John Frankenheimer asked for me. I had no dialogue in that one either. About the same time I remember working on a prison film where I had dialogue and it was later re-dubbed with another actor. I hated it.
That would be Convicts Four (1962) with Ben Gazzara. Vincent Price played an art critic in that one.
Yes of course. I played one of the prisoners and I suppose my voice wasn't hard or tough enough.
I understand that the Hitchcock film was also responsible for your casting in Argento's first feature, L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1969).
I went to Rome to see Argento who asked for me through my Paris agent. He worshipped at Hitchcock's shrine and insisted I be an assassin who gets killed immediately in his film. I enjoyed Argento very much, a strange guy fond of using his hands to direct. We worked well together. He wanted me to appear in Suspiria (1977). I was to have been a professor in it. I was about to do Casanova (1976) for Fellini and one scene was all he offered. I would love to work for him [Argento] now.
Fellini must be on your list of geniuses that have directed you.
Of course! Casanova was a dream for me as an actor but a nightmare for poor Fellini as he was always trying to get money. He is like a child, very sensitive. Aware of all that goes on around him. Fellini was wearing a big straw hat on the set and toward the end of my scenes pictures were taken of me wearing Fellini's hat. He put his arm around me and hugged me like a bear. I wanted to be around him always.
It was during this period of European activity that you made those two infamous German films, Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (Mark of the Devil, 1970) and Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält (Mark of the Devil Part II, 1972).
The first film was the brainchild of my late friend Adrian Hoven, who produced both films and directed the second. In truth, Adrian directed them both. Poor Mike Armstrong, who wrote the script for Part I, arrived from England to Austria without any idea how to direct a movie. Michael and Adrian didn't like each other at all either. So after a couple of weeks Mike was removed as director and Adrian shot the rest of it. By this time Herbert Lom arrived and his presence made everyone work better. Little Udo Kier played his assistant. It gave me great pleasure to see my name on a Hollywood Boulevard marquee. I even took a photo of it: "MARK OF THE DEVIL STARRING REGGIE NALDER."
I know Michael [Armstrong], Reggie, and for the sake of film history, I should tell you his side of things. Mike wrote a script in which the Herbert Lom character is sexually impotent and becomes frustrated and begins to lust for Udo Kier, thus his motive for torturing beautiful women. Lom kills your character, Albino, because you know the truth. According to Mike, Hoven didn't like the gay subplot and rewrote it. So poor Mike was out on both levels.
The film made so much money for Hoven, it's too bad he and Mike didn't have a good rapport. He wasn't up to directing a feature and knew it. I remember the very well endowed actress Olivera Vuco, the one I try to rape at the inn, wanted to make love to Udo Kier. She was after him throughout the filming, even coming to his room at night. Since he was gay she became very frustrated. When it came time to shoot our scene I was supposed to overpower her. However this huge woman used her frustration on me and I was the one who was overpowered.
Wasn't Sybil Danning supposed to be in Mark of the Devil Part II?
Yes. She was cast. I like Sybil. Adrian Hoven was married at that time and had a roving eye for beautiful women. He began a relationship with Sybil that was so intense he had a heart attack trying to keep up with her. He gave her all of his antique furniture that she put in her apartment in Vienna. His wife discovered this and demanded the furniture back or she would get a divorce. That ended any possibility of filming with her.
The second one had Anton Differing instead of Herbert Lom. What do you recall of it?
The second Mark of the Devil went very smoothly. Tony Differing became a close friend of mine and I enjoyed working with him. It was our only film together. There was a scene of me having violent sex with a nun that was cut, as well as much more violence sexual and otherwise toward the nuns. A fan sent me a tape of Mark of the Devil Part II and I couldn't believe how much was cut from what we had shot originally, especially the scene where a nun is impaled on a giant wooden phallus until blood is everywhere.
Sounds like thoe vomit bags went to the wrong movie! You also did a Dracula film for Charles Band. How was that?
It was called Zoltan: Hound of Dracula (aka Dracula's Dog, 1978). It was okay, I guess. Albert Band was a nice guy to work for and Joe [Jose] Ferrer was a great actor. We felt embarrassed for a while. As usual I had no dialogue for most of the film. I only speak in the flashbacks. I also did an episode of McCloud and John Carradine played Dracula. I played his butler.
Speaking of TV movies, Curtis Harrington told me that he fought like a tiger with NBC to cast you in The Dead Don't Die (1974).
Curtis is a friend and I suppose he did. I remember Joan Blondell very well. She was very frail when we shot the scene where I am lying dead on the floor of the shop. After a take she whispered to me, "I can't get up." She had knelt by my side but could not get up. George Hamilton was a real pro on that too. The scene where I rise from the coffin even frightened him! Curtis is a real master of this type of film.
Salem's Lot (1979) was also done for television with a shorter version released in Europe as a feature. Tell me something about making it.
I had met James Mason before at the Cannes Film Festival. He is one of our best actors, highly regarded in Europe, a joy to work with. The director, Tobe Hooper, had asked for me from the start. The makeup and contact lenses were painful but I got used to them. I liked the money best of all. The scene where David Soul stakes me took many retakes because Tobe wanted me to die in a certain way. I never saw the other version but the cuts wouldn't have affected me anyway.
You played the title character in The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) with Bill Cosby.
Yes, I played the Devil. I went out to the Disney studio and read for that one. Once again I had few lines to say. I hated working with Bill Cosby. He is a pig. I first met him in Rome where I did an episode of I Spy. Bill Cosby is rude, arrogant and very untalented. He walked right by me on the set as if I were a piece of furniture. I tried to be polite but he made it impossible. I have rarely ever worked with someone like him before or since.
Your Star Trek episode ["Journey to Babel"] is memorable to me and made it possible to go to that amazing 20th Anniversary party on the Paramount backlot.
It always shocks me that people remembered things so trivial. When we arrived I didn't even have to tell them my name. The boy at the door knew my episode and the character's name. There were so many stars assembled in one place and all because of Star Trek. Amazing.
You once wrote a treatment for a film you would like to see produced. What was it?
It is entitled "Forgotten Idols" and it is based somewhat on my mother. It takes place in the 1920s, and the lead character is a celebrated stage actress who retires at the height of her career. It is a mystery. No one makes this type of film nowdays. I will keep offering until someone is intrigued.
I know this is a little sensitive but didn't you do a porno "Dracula"?
You mean Dracula Sucks (1979), of course. It was a very nerve-wracking experience. The Marshak Brothers who wrote the script in pencil on large sheets of paper, handing it to us seconds before we did a take, did it. Nobody knew their lines because they were being changed all of the time. We were all staying in a small motel in Palmdale, California. And people were going in and out of people's rooms all night. It was an orgy. John Holmes was the star of the film but he stayed on the castle set. I finally saw what he was so famous for, and it looked like a huge snake in repose! If you know what I mean!
You weren't credited as Reggie Nalder on that one, were you?
No. I was called Detlef Von Berg. But everyone that saw it knew who it was. I don't care. Work is work. And the Marshaks were happy with it.
I also saw your last skin flick called Blue Ice (1992). What's that about?
What do you think? Sex, of course! I play a Nazi general who likes to watch sex acts. It was shot in San Francisco over two weekends. So it was like a vacation for me. But promise me you will never see it!
Blue Ice would be the final film appearance of Reggie Nalder in a career that spanned nearly five decades.[*]
David Del Valle
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