Ken Foree on Dawn of the Dead and being a horror fan
Ken Foree will forever be Peter to generations of zombie fans
Veteran character actor Ken Foree has deep roots in Denver. He graduated from a small Catholic high school here, where he was an all-city, all-state basketball player for two years -- "arguably the best player in the state of Colorado," he says -- and his appearance at this year's Mile High Horror Film Festival is something of a homecoming. "I'm terribly excited," he says. "It's been a long time since I went back."
Denver's horror fans should be excited, too: Foree played Peter, one of the leads in the seminal zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, a featured film at Mile High Horror. It's showing Friday, October 4 at the Alamo Drafthouse, with Foree and fellow castmate Tom Savini -- who also provided the film's effects -- in attendance for a pre-screening Q&A. Before the big night, we caught up with Foree to find out his feelings on the horror genre, what it was like to work with George Romero and what he's up to these days.
Westword: You got your start acting off Broadway in New York. How did you get into film work from there?
Ken Foree: I auditioned for a episodic [television show] and got a guest-starring role and that was it. That was the beginning. I did another film, which was The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings with Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams. That was out of New York. Between these films, I would do a play here and there. Eventually I had Dawn of the Dead and that was it. I came out for Dawn of the Dead and that got me to California.
How did you end up in Pittsburgh, doing Dawn of the Dead?
Well, I was cast out of New York. We were performing Uncle Tom's Cabin -- I think it was the third or second time that it had ever been done since Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel -- and one of the actors told me they were auditioning in midtown if I wanted the information, and said, "They're looking for somebody that looks like you." I said, "That sounds like a good idea, I'll do that."
He gave me the information, I took the subway the next day and went up to Richard Rubinstein's office. I had no idea. I was a fan of Night of the Living Dead, I knew Duane Jones. I didn't know these were the same individuals who had created Night of the Living Dead. I was cast in New York, went to Pittsburgh a month later, and started shooting.
How was working with George Romero?
Aw, I hated his fucking guts. [Laughs.] No, I'm kidding. George was a teddy bear. He's a nice guy, good director. Some directors are not as collaborative as others. You kind of want that to happen if it's possible. Some guys, not all, but some [directors] are traffic cops. They just say, "Move here. Move over there." But George was collaborative, and so was Rob Zombie. Nothing but nice things to say about both of them.
I saw it a week ago. I hadn't seen Dawn of the Dead in, hmm... a year. I was very afraid, because there was an audience involved, and I was going to talk to them about it afterward. I said, "Oh, my god, it's going to be so dated and campy. It's not going to be good. I'm going to have to sneak out of here with my coat over my head." [Laughs.] But we sat there and watched it, and it still holds up. I was in entertained, the rest of the audience was entertained. Still, after 35 years, the film still entertains someone like me who's seen it a hundred times -- not that many, but certainly enough times. I was pleasantly surprised at the reaction from the audience and my own reaction.
When you were filming Dawn of the Dead, did you have any idea it was going to be such a phenomenon?
No. No clue. I thought it was going to be a fun job, but then it would be over and that it would get distribution overseas, but not here.
So you weren't even sure it was going to be seen in the U.S.? That's not a bad thing to be wrong about.
Exactly. It's not the first, and if you talk to my wife, there's a long list of things. I was dead wrong about that, as I was about rap music. I didn't think it would last, "It's a fad." Wrong again! I'm the wrong person to go to Vegas with, certainly. Don't let me bet on any horses. I'm just not the guy to select.
What are you up to these days?
I'm writing these days, so that's going well. I should stick to writing. I told my neighbor the other day, "I don't build fences, I'm a writer." I'm co-writing -- we should have it done within the next three or four days -- a screenplay based on a David Morrell novel called The Totem. That's horror, action-adventure horror. I've also written a six-hour limited series on Indiana basketball, the KKK, the Hoosier basketball hysteria, and a white family and black family and their joys and struggles through a very difficult time. It's multi-generational, something like The Butler, I would imagine -- I haven't seen it, but from what I've heard. I'm going to try to push that this year. It's called Attucks, like Crispus Attucks, the first casualty in Boston in the Revolutionary War.
We should have a working script within a few days for The Totem. It's been fun. Well, I wouldn't call it fun. Rewarding. As a writer, you get to a point where you don't want to see the script again. [Laughs.] You can't read through it again! Not again! You have to put it down for a while. It's gotten to the point where two more reads won't kill me, but if I have to do a third one, I may grow fangs and catch on fire.
Do you do a lot of conventions and film festivals?
Well, it's a convention, a film festival, or a film. I'm either working or at film festivals, sometimes tributes. I do a lot of traveling. Between the three and family, that's enough. I do about eight conventions a year, then the rest are film festivals. That keeps me going.
Is that something you still enjoy? It seems like it would be easy to get burnt out on that whole process.
On conventions and film festivals? I don't. The fans enjoy it, and they're always very kind, generous and loving. They always want to express that love, for the genre and for me, and it's a wonderful thing. I can't complain about that. People adore you, and I adore them for adoring me. It's a nice thing. Sometimes the travel is a little much, but I enjoy the fans. Interesting conversations sometimes. It's not always a grind. I don't do it as much as some, believe me. [Laughs.] It's a lot of traveling, and I have a family, so I wouldn't want to be away that much during the year. Film festivals I enjoy a little more. Sometimes I'm on the jury and that works. That's nice. I get to view a lot of films.
You're clearly a fan of horror, given that you're working on a horror screenplay. Were you a horror fan before Dawn or did that come later?
I was a fan of horror before Dawn of the Dead, and action, adventure, sci-fi -- I was a fan of all that. I was more a fan of horror before I did Dawn of the Dead than after. I'm still a fan, and I still like good horror, but I don't get to see it as much as I like. I just don't get the opportunity that I used to, to sit and watch a lot of horror. I have kids, some of them are too young to watch a lot of that stuff. And I'm busy. But I am a fan. I'm a fan of those actors that are continuing to work in the field. [Bill] Moseley, [Sid] Haig, Tiffany Shepis, who seems to crank them out. I do like Korean horror. I like what they do.
Horror films have been very good to me.
Your acting resume has plenty of horror on it, but it also has plenty of everything else. There aren't a lot of gaps there. You've stayed busy.
Thank god. I've tried to keep it rolling and I've been lucky. People have wanted me, and I've been involved in projects throughout the years and I'm thankful. Continue, continue, continue and continue, thank god. I'm hopeful that The Totem will get some funding and my writing career will go just as well.
Anything else you want to say before we wrap up?
I wonder if any of my old classmates are zombie fans? It'd be wonderful if they showed up.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.