by MATTHEW HAYS
It has been half a century since Andrew Robinson freaked just about everyone out with his depiction of Scorpio, the Zodiac-inspired serial killer who is preying on the citizens of San Francisco, in Dirty Harry. Robinson, then an up-and-coming New York-based stage actor was hired in part due to his hippie vibe, with long hair and the aura of experimental fringe theatre hanging around him.
Robinson was completely unforgettable, playing one of the greatest crazed killers in big-screen history, squaring off against “Dirty” Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood. Both roles would forever change the lives of the actors who breathed life into them. Eastwood became a household name and starred in several subsequent sequels. But Robinson was left marked by the role in a way he didn’t anticipate: he was completely pigeonholed. Robinson became so frustrated with the situation that he left acting for several years before returning to find some fresh, non-psychopathic roles. Fans will remember him as Larry Cotton in Hellraiser (1987) and for his recurring role as Elim Garak in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99). For the past 25 years, Robinson has taught acting at USC.
Rue Morgue recently caught up with Robinson while he looked back on the role that left an indelible mark on his career and life.
Don Siegel’s son, Kris Tabori, was someone that I had worked with. Don came to New York and asked, “Who’s the best young actor in New York?” And Kris said, “Andrew Robinson.” That led to a meeting, but it was so brief, maybe 15 minutes, so I was convinced nothing would come of it. Then, a few weeks later, the stage manager came down to the green room, just before we were to go onstage to perform in a play I was doing, and told us that Clint Eastwood was in the audience. This was off-Broadway and it was an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novel, so it wasn’t something that people would have thought Clint Eastwood would be showing up to. I knew why he was there.
For me, it focuses me. I don’t mind opening nights, because I’m really focussed. Nothing’s going to stop me, unless a beam falls on my head or something! Apparently I did a good job of it that night, but then the stage manager told us during intermission that Clint had left after the first act. Again, I thought that was that, but two weeks later I was in San Francisco.
I wasn’t conscious of it at all. Clint is Clint, as you say. He has his relationship with the camera and he’s a minimalist. Very unshowy. There’s a stoicism about him. It didn’t hurt that he was such a good looking young man. I think that’s why Don wanted a young New York stage actor, and I was, you know, a downtown stage actor with long hair, I think that was Don’s idea from the beginning, to have us play off of each other. Playing someone who’s insane is such a difficult thing. You have to go there. When an actor is winking to the audience, then it just doesn’t work. Don encouraged me to go there. It was such a creative experience. It was the most creative experience I’ve ever had in film. The sad thing is, I thought all film experience was going to be like that. I was quickly educated to the contrary. Don saw what I was doing, and if I came up with ideas, he was open to them. He accepted pretty much every idea I had.
I was very involved in physical theatre work that was coming to America at the time, and that I still teach at USC, in particular the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski. And it was a very physical approach to acting. When I went to do Dirty Harry, I was in the physical shape of my life, so the entire performance is a very physical one. In the stadium scene, when he shoots me, and I do a flip, I suggested that I do the flip myself. The final sequence when we’re chasing through the quarry, Don, the cinematographer, and I walked through that chase scene, and I would suggest things to do. Like I said I’ll get on the conveyor belt. I also wanted to slide down the banister, but it was really full of splinters, so Don had the costume department fit some leather under my pants so I wouldn’t get slivers. For the final sequence, Don had flown in a stunt double, but I felt like I could get shot and fly off the deck and land in the pond. So, I did my own stunts.
I saw it not so long ago on the big screen. I feel it really holds up. The cinematography by Bruce Surtees, Lalo Schifrin’s score. That score is remarkable. The way he scored the music for Scorpio. I think it’s half the film.
You just hit the two fucking hardest places! You nailed them! The guy who played the guy who beat me up was this lovely actor, and he had the hardest time doing that scene. He was so upset by it! When the camera was really tight on me, the stunt coordinator stepped in to fill in. The school bus thing was really terrible. Those little school buses, it was like you were in a little tin can, and you’re driving back and forth over the Golden Gate Bridge. But Don said, “You’re not scaring them. And you’ve got to, or the scene won’t work.” So then I started screaming and singing those songs, and then the kids did start to get scared and one of them started crying. I don’t know how they chose those kids, but I think they thought they were getting the day off of school, and instead they were filming this very intense scene.
I hope they’re okay now. Hope they don’t have too many shrink bills.
[Laughs] I think I’m the last person they’d want to see now!
It was euphoria. The first time I saw the film before it came out, I was watching it, and I’m thinking, “I can’t believe this!” Because I was really proud of the performance. I was over the moon. I don’t always feel that way about my performances, but with that film I did. What I didn’t realize was, it scared a lot of people. And scared people to the point where people weren’t interested in hiring me. I didn’t work for a year. It wasn’t until Don hired me to be in his next film. I was confused by this and baffled. One moment said it all: there was a casting agent at Warner Bros, and I had an appointment with her. She didn’t put my name together with that film, but I was walking up the path to her office, and she saw me, and she realized who I was, so then she told her secretary to make up an excuse and cancel the appointment. Years later this casting director told me this story, that she asked her secretary to get me out of the appointment, because she simply did not want to see me. It lingered like that for a few years. That fucked me up a bit, because for a while I felt like I was going to have a film career, and then it didn’t turn out.
Oh, absolutely. I quit the business for a while and left LA and lived in this small, mountain town and did something else. For a while, the only roles I was getting offered were very similar to Scorpio. That was it. So that’s why I moved away. It was a very smart move, because for about five years I was completely removed from the scene. And finally, that Scorpio part was in the rear-view mirror for me.
There were a few death threats. There were a number of terrible things, like my wife answering the phone and getting the death threats. So we had to get an unlisted number. A guy passed himself off as a journalist and wanted to interview me, and luckily, we set it up at one of William Morris’s offices, and right away, I felt like something was wrong. He was completely insane, and wanted to know how it felt to be Scorpio, and so I left immediately. Guys would come up to me and pretend they were holding a Magnum, and then do the whole spiel that Clint says before he shoots me. It just convinced me that acting is not such an innocent enterprise sometimes. It can really attract different kinds of people. It took a while for me for that to pass and for me to move on.
The making of it was fantastic, and so thrilling. The people making it were old-school Hollywood. They were mainly conservative. You didn’t do third takes. It was economic filmmaking, but very well done. Here we are, 50 years later, and we’re still talking about it. It’s a quintessentially American film, being a mash-up of several genres — the Western, the cop movie and the horror movie.
You know, I didn’t think about it. It’s funny, because I’m so far left. What I was bothered by was, not long after the film came out, two kids were playing Dirty Harry and one of the kids had his father’s gun, and one kid killed the other. When I heard that it really deeply disturbed me. What can we say about violence? As an American, where we have almost twice as many guns as human beings, it’s hard to know what to say.
And that didn’t feel entirely honest. I know they were smarting from Pauline Kael’s calling it a tribute to fascism. They were trying to go back on things a bit. Dirty Harry does express a dark side of a movie, but at the end of the day it’s a fucking movie. I was at an audition with Stuart Rosenberg, and at my audition, I got into a fight with him. He was a real lefty and he asked me point-blank, “How could you make that film?” And I said, “Jesus Christ, man, I’m an actor! It’s not as if I’m doing a film that’s espousing the Third Reich or something!” I thought, “Fuck him!” But he so appreciated that I pushed back that he hired me, so I was in the film, The Drowning Pool, with Paul Newman.
You’re probably right, but it became a huge bone of contention. I was very glad that Don’s idea prevailed.