Often a villain, sometimes a hero, actor William Sadler took a more nebulous role in “Disturbing Behavior.
William Sadler has played some memorable villain s in his career, including the fanatical leader of an elite special forces until in Die Hard 2 and the evil android in the Mario Vam Peeble vehicle SoloTales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.
But then his latest film, Disturbing Behavior, Sadler plays retarded high-school janitor Dorian Newberry, whose motivations towards good or evil aren’t nearly so cut-and-dried. Newberry lives in the basement of Pacific Northwest school where troublesome studentes are “reprogrammed” by a sinister doctor and turned into wholesome overachievers. As Sadler tells it, the reclusive Newberry may have mental deficiencies, but he knows more about the creepy goings-on than he’s given credit for.
“In the beginning, he’s just mad as a hatter,” says Sadler, “but about halfway through the film, the hero of the story, Steve [James Marsden], stumbles onto the fact that he’s not as retarded as he has let on. I mean, he is still a damaged individual, but he’s not anywhere near as profoundly retarded as he likes people to thing he is. So it’s a great character because fooling with somebody’s intelligence like that is a wonderful challenge for an actor. It’s one thing to play someone who’s retarded who just doesn’t function in society and has a very low IQ — but if you find out halfway through the movie that he’s not so retarded, how smart is he? And how do you play someone who’s playing someone?
“That was really the most fun part of the character,” the actor continues, “’cause he’s not just a straight-ahead retarded. When you find out that’s not, he doesn’t sound like Ted Kennedy, or soue like you or I. He still sounds like the Dorian Newberry that you met in the beginning, except you adjust his intelligence — the way that he sees the world, how much of it he understands, an how mush of it he can talk about becomes bigger.”
Although Sadler has many genre credits, Fango readers probably knew him best from his role in 1994’s Demon Knight. He says he had a blast working on that comic-book-styled film with former Spike Lee protege Dickerson, who allowed him to inject his won ideas into the portrayal of Braker. “I enjoy having input into these characters,” says the Cornell University alumnus, ” and I find that once I get involved in the process, and start studying the people and the characters and the situations, ideas come to me like popcorn. And not all of them get into the film, but I love having a relationship with the producer and director where I can feel free to suggest things, and help choose the colors and the palette that we’re gonna work with. They set up the play ground, and I help play the game.”
Anyone who has seen Demon Knight is aware of how crucial the over-the-top makeup FX were to the film’s success. Sadler says that he didn’t run into any problems when dealing with the multitude of creature and gore FX, which were supervised by Todd Masters. “Todd and I are close friends now,” he reveals. “I went to his wedding, and I’m forever taking tours of schoolchildren over to his special effects shop. I have a lot of respect for what [makeup artists] are able to do: I’m always astonished at how creative and realistic they can be. They take somebody’s idea and just make it happen right in front of the camera. The best example from Demon Knight was the scene where I’m stretched out on the wall and the demons are gorging on my entrails. It was a fantastic little piece of visual cinema.”
There were also plenty of wild FX in Alex Winter and Tom Stern’s Freaked, the demented comedy about a sideshow proprietor who uses toxic waste to create custom geed. Sadler played the head of the corporation that invented the mutating goo in the unjustly overlooked 1993 release. “It was funny,” says Sadler, “’cause when I did that job it was kind of as a favor to Alex Winter, and I thought, ‘This thing is so strange! He’s gonna people it with Keanu Reeves and Brook Shields and me, and it’s gonna end up being some kind of cult classic. If it’s good it’ll be great, and if it’s bad it’ll be a must-see because it’ll be so bad.’ They did it on a shoestring — there was very little funding for it — but again, I had fun. I don’t think it got the release it needed to have a chance to do any business, but I see it in the cult sections at video stores.”
The flipside of an overlooked cult item like Freaked is the acclaimed Stephen King-based film The Shawshank Redemption. Sadler played convict Heywood in the prison drama, which saw horror screenwriter Frank (The Blobtremendous respect for what he was able to do with Shawshank. Terrific script, assembled a great cast, and he took the time, you know? He stood his ground and insisted that his vision get on screen the way he saw it, which a lot of directors as young as he was might not have been able to stand up for. But the results speak for themselves. He made a brilliant movie.”
Not so brillian, perhaps, was 1996’s Solo, in which Sadler played the robotic-colonel nemesis of Van Peebles’ android-with-a-heart. Sadler has some negative memories of shooting the movie on Mexican locations, although his overall optimism prevails. “Mexico in the summer was a bitch,” he recalls, “so it was a very tough shoot. It rained every day, the humidity was 100 percent and the temperatures were through the roof. I mean, I lost 15 pounds! But given those circumstances, the film itself was fun to work on, and Mario Van Peebles is a very giving actor.”
While Sadler admits that his part in Solo was “maybe not one of my better efforts,” he enjoyed playing the baddie. And he has come to realize that audiences connect with his villain roles. “For a long time, I struggled to play more good guys,” he says, “but then it dawned on me that perhaps that’s not my strong suit. i mean, popular opinion of me seems to be that I make a great bady guy. And frankly, the bad guys have more fun, because there aern’t any rules. Good guys have all the rules. you can’t harm innocent people, you can’t laugh at somebody’s misfortune. you have to be honorable, you have to be fairly honest. You can never hit the girl. And so on. There are no rules for bad guys. You know, how bad do you want them to be? That’s the only question.”
Sadler doesn’t only play brutal killers and brave heroes, however, sometimes he’ll tackle a role that’s way out in left field, like his comic Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Sadler chuckles when reminded of that accent-heavy role. “I stole the voice from a Czechoslovakian actor I used to work with in New York,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Well, the Reaper’s gotta have an accent; he can’t be from Buffalo.’ I got a call from Karen Rea Casting to go in and audition for it, and they put me on tape and they all laughed, and then the people at Interscope said, ‘He’s very good, but he’s too young.’ Then they proceeded to see every actor they could get their hands on. They put 70 other people on tape — Vincent Price and Christopher Lloyd; they just went all over the place looking for a Reaper. Finally, Karen called me up and said, ‘bill, they want to put you on tape again. Go to a makeup store, buy some age makeup and make yourself look as old as you can, come in and we’ll tape you again.’
“So I called up Scott Eddo, who was the makeup man on Die Hard 2, and at 7 a.m. he did an age makeup on me,” Sadler continues. “I got in my car and drove to the audition, put myself on tape again — same voice, sam everything, except I looked about 70. And as I was leaving the room, on of the producers turned to Karen and said, ‘You know, he looks a lot older in person than he does on tape,’ And I got the role.”
Sadler’s Reaper performance proved so popular that he was called upon to reprise it for the framing sequence of Tales from the Crypt’s sixth-season “Assassin” episode. Indeed, Crypt has been a large part of the actor’s professional life; in addition to his Demon Knight lead, he played the prologue mummy in Gil Adler’s much-maligned follow-up feature Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood, and took the title role in the very first Crypt TV episode, “The Man Who Was Death.”
“It’s funny,” he says, “there’s a little community of people surrounding the Tales from the Crypt TV series and those movies who’ve kind of adopted me. I feel like I’m one of the repertory players in their touring company. It’s a nice family to be in.”
Sadler’s work for his clan outside the Crypt includes his roles in producer Joel Silver’s Die Hard 2, producer/director Walter Hill’s Trespass and producer Richard Donner’s failed pilot for an Omen TV series [directed by The Hidden’s Jack Sholder]. As far s future appearances are concerned, Sadler has a John Hughes-penned drama in the can. Gramercy Pictures’ Reach the Rock, which he calls “a terrific little actor’s piece.”
With a lengthy film resume that also includes Rocketman, Rush, The Hot Spot, Hard to Kill, and Project X, Sadler is one busy Hollywood actor. And he doesn’t like to sit around and twiddle his thumbs when the projects slow down, either. When he finds himself with any spare time, Sadler performs as a singer-song writer, and Fango’s knowledge of his musical hobby takes the amiable actor by surprise. “Where do you get all this information?!” he blurts out, before spilling the beans about his little-known sideline.
“I’ve got about 30 songs that I’ve written now,” he says, “and I perform infrequently at coffeehouses around LA. I guess you’d call it urban folk, and a lot of it’s funny stuff. I really do like being funny,” he concludes, “making people laugh at look at themselves , and see how ridiculous we all are.”