Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Catching Up With a Stand-up Performer

As the 40th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey approaches, you’d think that the film's most recognizable star would stop and smell the roses. But while other surviving veterans of the science-fiction classic are fondly reminiscing on a job—and a career—well done, not every cast member is basking in the starshine. The forty years since this cinematic landmark have not been kind to the 2001 Monolith, and he let’s Mount Drinkmore know about it.

Randy: First of all, should I call you "Monolith"?

Monolith: Yes. I prefer it to “slab.”

Randy: Is this a special year for you? Is there a heightened sense of pride that your work is as highly regarded today as it was four decades ago?

Monolith: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of what the film still means to people. We revolutionized an entire genre of motion pictures, and to an extent, American culture.

Randy: And yet you’re bitter?

Monolith: You’re damn right!......I’m sorry. I’ve been a bit on edge about all of this.

[Quite literally he was, and I needed a lever to get him down flat again.]

Monolith: You see, being selected for that film was an honor and a challenge. I did some really fine work in it. Have you ever seen a more low-key, yet dominating, performance than what I portrayed in the “Dawn of Man” scene? It was all-encompassing power and subtle dignity amongst screeching, frenzied man-apes. Steve McQueen couldn't have pulled that off. I thought my career would skyrocket after that caliber of acting.

Randy: And what did happen?

Monolith: We all know what happened—a bunch of half-assed, totally exploitative offers that led nowhere. A lot of Roger Corman rubbish—Blood Slab and the Cobra Woman. Are you kidding? Playing second fiddle to Bruce Dern in parts not fit for a dog. You know who got all the glory? HAL. He’s the one everybody remembers. A red light! From the back of the theater, he could’ve been mistaken for the exit sign. All of his lines had to be overdubbed by Douglas Rain anyway. Yet he’s the icon. Big deal. A talking computer won’t open the pod-bay doors. Boo-hoo. That’s a film? Not much of a story without my mysterious intrigue and extraterrestrial intelligence. But the industry forgot about me in a hurry. The only offer I’ve had in the last four years has been to pitch Viagra. “You'll be the perfect spokesman,” they told me. What a joke.

Randy: The rest of the cast went on to fairly successful careers in the 70s and 80s. Did you ever feel resentment toward them?

Monolith: In the beginning. I mean, those damn apes padded a half-hour sequence into years of lucrative Samsonite commercials. I stewed about it for a while. But then I came to realize that the apes, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, all of them, were just doing what they had to do. I would’ve done the same. What made me seethe—and still does—are the studios. They wouldn’t know talent if it emoted in their faces. By 1970, the quality parts had already dried up. Do you know what I had to resort to? That damn Who’s Next album cover. Can you believe that? Here I am, the star of a groundbreaking film just a few years before, and I’m sitting through six hours of makeup just so they can make me look like a concrete block. The money was good, but if I’d known those limey animals were going to urinate on me, I’d have crushed them where they stood.

Randy: Didn’t you also appear on Led Zeppelin's Presence album?

Monolith: That’s only a likeness of me. They wanted me, but I didn’t want to get typecast in album cover art, so I refused. Jimmy Page somehow got hold of my baby pictures and used them without my permission. I never saw dime one. If it ain't nailed down, Jimmy Page'll steal it. And if it is nailed down, Page'll steal the floor and get it anyway.

Randy: And what about the sequel, 2010?

Monolith: [heavy groan] Rubbish. I did it for the money. Period. They had me regurgitate the same role I’d done fifteen years before. Humiliating.

Randy: So what do you think of 2001 from a cinematic standpoint?

Monolith: I must be dashing the hopes of every hardcore fan out there, but I don't know what the hell it means. People are always coming to me for the answer, looking for some mystical insight that will unravel the great cinematic secret. Damned if I know what Kubrick was going for. I don’t have the answer. I’m just happy not to fall over.

Enjoying a quiet afternoon in the park is a challenge for the Monolith, whose privacy is often disturbed by those soliciting the meaning of his most famous role.

Randy: From a technical aspect, though, it certainly was a marvel.

Monolith: Sure, no doubt about that. But gimmickry was never my cup of tea. I always preferred dialogue and character development. I was weaned on English sitting-room dramas, and well-crafted witticism sat better with me than filling the screen with fantastic colors. The “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence was nice, but it did nothing to advance the plot. Truth be told, I thought it would have fit much better in Barry Lyndon, but that’s hindsight.

Randy: How did you decide on an acting career?

Monolith: I come from a long line of I-bars, cross-beams, and highway pillars. But even at a young age, I didn’t see holding up an overpass as a rewarding profession. It was so...redundant. I did have a cousin who found success as a sculpture outside of a Cleveland public school, but acting was in my blood from an early age. I never felt that I could express myself as a piece of superstructure.

Randy: Did you have any idols in the acting arena?

Monolith: I've always admired the strong, silent type, so I was a great aficionado of Gary Cooper. He could say more just by standing there than any other actor I’ve seen. I also adored Red Skelton, but I learned early on that hamming it up wasn’t my forte.

Randy: What are your thoughts on Stanley Kubrick?

Monolith: He got more out of me than any other director, before or since. We’d met in ‘66 at a foundry in Birmingham and hit it off right away. He was taken with my appearance and intimated to me that he was writing a treatment about some outer-space epic. Our chat must have left a good impression, because he called two weeks later asking if I’d be interested in the part of the Monolith. I told him, “You provide the crane, and I'll do it.”

Randy: So you were his first choice for the role?

Monolith: Well, the first choice of actual actors. They’d hit a snag on how to depict the “Sentinel,” as it was called at the time, from Arthur C. Clarke’s original short story. As filming approached, MGM was really pressuring him to get the ball rolling. Out of desperation, he was going to use a blackened, overcooked soft pretzel shot at low angles as the Monolith...which probably wouldn't have played as well. It was just good fortune that we bumped into each other when we did. Well, he bumped into me...

Randy: Did you sit in on any of the advance screenings before the general release?

Monolith: Yes. I had the crew of Loew’s Chinese Theater disguise me as one of the balcony risers and laid quietly under the last two rows. The audience viewed the unedited version about three weeks before it actually premiered. Not a peep out of them for the first forty-five minutes. But as the sequence on the moon developed, the audience really got into it. I found out later that people were dropping enough acid to drown a cow.

Randy: Did you ever indulge back then?

Monolith: I never got involved in the drug scene. Besides, I’m solid, non-porous lucite, with no mouth, nose, or veins. How would I even ingest them?

Randy: Does any aspect of show business still give you pleasure?

Monolith: Not really. My son has taken up acting and quite enjoys it. He’s very good. I enjoy it through him. He’s playing Hitler’s moustache in the new Broadway version of The Producers.

Randy: Clarke wrote two sequels since your last film appearance, in 2010. Would you ever consider doing one of them?

Monolith: Only if they give me screen time worthy of my talent. I’d much rather get a spot on Boston Legal.

Randy: Do you ever see any of your co-stars?

Monolith: Only if they come to see me. It’s tough for me to get around. I saw Keir Dullea about two years ago at a Piggly Wiggly, but he was in a rush. In truth, I had very little interaction with him during shooting. It was the apes with whom I shared the most scenes. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them over the years. Doug Rain still crank-calls me as HAL. Every year, it's the same gag—"Hello,'s HAL. What...are you...doing, Monolith?" That guy drives me nuts!

[I sensed that the Monolith was getting annoyed now, as his trademark eerie, high-pitched shrill began to crescendo, so I bid the embittered Monolith farewell.]