Interview with Keith Gordon, Actor in 'Back to School', 'Christine' & More '80s Films

(This interview was originally published January 29, 2015 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Keith Gordon. He is best known to most as an actor in several memorable '80s films including Christine, The Legend of Billie Jean and Back to School. At the end of the decade he started to move to the other side of the camera and has since worked consistently as a director for both film and television. Find out a little about making those particular '80s films, what he has been doing since and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Keith Gordon...

Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? Was it something your parents encouraged since they were actors? When did you think that it had the potential to become a career for you?
Keith: My first professional acting job was in a 1975 episode of Medical Center. I played a kid who needed a kidney transplant, and felt guilty that my widowed mother (Louise Lasser) couldn't afford the dialysis while waiting for a donor. The job came about because Louise had worked with my father, Mark, in improvisational theater, and she thought I'd be right for the role. But at that point I wasn't focused on acting as a career, it was more just an amazing experience for a 13 year old to have (we shot in summer of 1974).

The first job where I felt like I was possibly beginning a career came a couple of years later. I was in a school play and someone saw me and invited me to audition for the National Playwright's Conference at the Eugene O'Neil theater center in Connecticut. It was an amazing chance to work with some of the best writers, actors and directors in New York City as they developed their new plays in a workshop atmosphere. That led to an audition for Jaws 2 [1978] and my first role in a movie.

My parents had mixed feelings and sent mixed signals about my being an actor. They knew how hard and even cruel of a life it can be, and so always dissuaded me. But at the same time, I felt their pride when I was doing well. So it was a little of both.

Q: Other than your parents, did you have any other acting inspiration? Did you ever have any formal acting training?
Keith: My inspirations were numerous. I was a huge movie fan from age 7, when I first saw Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey on opening weekend [1968]. Had no idea what it meant, but it still blew my mind, and I went back and saw it again and again. By age 10, I was making awful, half-baked films on super 8 and early portable video. I also went to a lot of theater, and my Dad was in a production of Of Mice and Men on Broadway with James Earl Jones and Kevin Conway in the leads, and that blew me away. I saw it over and over and it reduced me to tears every time. And just being a fan of films and theater, I was constantly being inspired by all the great work I saw.

I never had formal acting training, but my father was a teacher as much as anything. He taught all through his professional career, and had some amazing students. (One of the proudest moments in my dad's life was when Morgan Freeman talked about studying with my dad on Inside the Actor's Studio). So my Dad played the role of teacher and coach a lot with me in the early years, and also turned me on to tons of books about acting, directing, theater, etc. which I poured through.

Q: Jumping to the '80s, how did the role of "Arnie" in 1983's Christine come your way? What do you remember about the audition process? Had you read the book or were you aware of the story before taking the role?
Keith: The audition for Christine came through my agent in New York, where I was living. I had not read the book when I auditioned. In fact, I'm not even sure the book had come out yet. They moved very quickly to set it up as a film, even as it was moving towards publication.

I remember going in with clothes to wear for the different sides of Arnie - glasses and a button up shirt for the nerdy Arnie, a black t-shirt for the cooler Arnie. I think I read three times; Twice for John Carpenter with the casting director and then once more with John Stockwell.

Christine, released in theaters in December of 1983, was directed by John Carpenter and was based on a Stephen King novel. It tells the story of a car that comes alive and causes maniacal changes in its new teenage owner, "Arnie Cunningham" played by Keith Gordon. The film was a relative box office success especially for being in the horror/thriller genre. Here is a recreated trailer that I thought was well-done for Christine...

Q: Christine was directed by the legendary John Carpenter. What can you tell us about Carpenter and your experience getting directed by him? What did you learn from that experience?
Keith: Working with John really gave me a handle on what I wanted my own sets to feel like if I ever got to direct. We were working on a pretty modest budget for a special effects laden film. It wasn't a lavish schedule. Yet John always had a sense of humor, a sense of play. It was fun to be on that set. There were none of the usual "class" divisions between above the line and crew. It helped that John was working with a crew that was mostly made up of people he'd worked with over and over again, so there was a real sense of family. There were barbecues on the weekends, etc.

John wasn't heavy-handed as a director. He left a lot of room to try things. People don't think of directors like John or Brian DePalma as "actors' directors", but I had a great time working for both. They always seemed to have a real appreciation for what a good actor could bring to a scene, but were quick to speak up if something wasn't working for them. (John would also tease me mercilessly about my occasional pretentious dissection of the character and material - something I deserved. But he always did it in great fun, and got me to laugh at my sometimes too-serious young self).

The only thing both John and Brian had little time for were big egos or "star" behavior - not that the actors they picked tended to do much of that. But there was a clear delineation between intensity of struggle with the work and ego acting out. If Harry Dean Stanton wanted to do ten takes to get the scene just right, John would find a way to get him that time.

Q: What can you tell us about the car? What were your challenges of acting opposite of a non-human "character" in the film? What memories do you have of working with "Christine"?
Keith: The car was indeed a thing of beauty... on the outside. There weren't many of that make and model ever made, so finding a lot to work with was a big challenge. I believe they eventually found 24 of them in various states of repair. Seven were cannibalized for parts, meaning there were 17 film-worthy cars. It was amazing when you saw them all lined up next to each other.

The cars were designed to do certain things. Some were the best looking, used for the beauty shots. Others were reinforced to take the punishment of crashes with minimal damage, or were tuned to go as fast as possible. Of course, with cars that old, the reliability was less-than-stellar especially given the very odd and unreliable push-button gear shift. So, somewhere, there is a ton of footage of me jumping into various Christines, starting her up, and then just sitting there as the transmission refused to engage.

Acting opposite the car was actually a fun challenge. I loved cars, so that helped. And I did what you do acting all the time - used "substitution". I tried to remember what it was like dealing with my real life first big love affair, and made the car that girl from high school. It's not like you forget for a second that it's a car, and your acting in a movie, but one of the things actors can do is bring back those states of mind and emotions and put it on other people, or even objects. That may sound weirder than it is. It's a lot like an athlete visualizing the play they're going to make. It isn't "real" but it grounds them.

Here is the scene when "Christine", the car, repairs itself and starts to come alive ("OK, show me")...

Q: What were your feelings about Christine after it was released back in 1983? Did you find it to be scary at all even though you were in it? What are your feelings about it today over 30 years later?
Keith: I always really liked the film. I never found it particularly scary, but that wasn't what I found most interesting or enjoyable about it. To me the film always had its tongue firmly in cheek, so I enjoyed it more as a well-made playful ghost yarn than as something really frightening. That certainly seemed to be John's attitude at the time as well. Probably closer in tone to a playful film like Escape From New York or They Live than a really scary one like The Thing.

Q: Then in 1985, you were in The Legend of Billie Jean. How did the role of "Lloyd" come your way? What memories do you have of making this film?
Keith: I got the role like I got almost all that I did. I was submitted by my agents along with a ton of other young actors, and I had a series of auditions and meetings. The process is not really in your control very much. I remember going to [executive producer] Jon Peters' house to meet and be "approved". That was scarier than the auditions. If you have a script, you can put any nervous energy into that. But to have to sit and chat and somehow during that process convince someone you're right for the role was always a part I hated.

One memory I had was that there seemed to be a lot of studio interference during the making of the film. I never dealt with it directly, but I remember the script changing in ways that made it less satirical and more "commercial". Originally there was more of a sense of irony that this whole thing was about a motor scooter, but I guess they thought that would turn off "the kids", so Billie Jean became more of a true hero figure and less of a spoof of teen heroes. Personally, I liked the original script, but I'm probably not a good arbiter of what will sell!

Making the film was fun. It was a nice bunch of people. I was already a fan of actors like Peter Coyote and Dean Stockwell, so it was cool to be in a movie with them, even if we didn't get to interact. I think I probably was a bit too self-serious during the making of the film. I think other people in the cast let themselves have a better time, while I was busy trying to figure out how to make "art". I like to think I've grown up and gotten a lot more balanced since then. I still take my work very seriously, but I've learned that you can be serious about your work without being glum.

The Legend of Billie Jean was released in July of 1985, starred Helen Slater in the title role and features the song "Invincible" by Pat Benatar. It was a box office disappointment at the time, but has since gone on to become sort of a cult favorite. Gordon plays "Lloyd" who turns out to be the son of the district attorney and voluntarily becomes a hostage. Here is the scene from The Legend of Billie Jean when Billie Jean emerges after her haircut...

Q: You co-starred with Helen Slater. What can you tell us about Slater and your experience working with her in this film? How about Christian Slater who was making his film debut as well?
Keith: Helen was very sweet, an excellent actress and (of course) breathtakingly beautiful. Definite on-set crush material. I actually cast Helen in one of the leads in a black comedy I was going to direct that ended up falling apart at the last minute when the financing company went belly up. But I had that kind of respect for her work. I think because she was so great looking and started off as Supergirl, people tended to overlook how strong her work was.

Christian was so young back then! It still freaks me out to see him playing late-30s men now. He felt like a kid brother to everyone. High energy, curious about everything, floored by all the attention and women. Very funny.

Q: What were your feelings about The Legend of Billie Jean back then? How about now? Have they changed at all over the years?
Keith: Well, I sort of touched on this earlier. When I first read the script, the feeling that it was a satire felt much clearer. I was disappointed as it evolved into a more straightforward teen movie before we started shooting.

Now, I just enjoy it as a fun artifact of its time. It's funny, because it was a disaster on release. The reviews were pretty awful and it made nothing at the box office. But through cable (I guess), it seemed to develop a following and, from what I can gather, when it was released on DVD and then Blu-ray fairly recently it actually sold pretty well. Funny how time changes things.

Q: Then in 1986, you co-starred in Back to School. How did the role of "Jason Melon" come your way? What do you remember about the audition process? Did you read with Rodney prior to getting the role?
Keith: Well, as I mentioned earlier, the audition process almost always starts the same way unless you're a star. My agents called me, told me about the film, sent me the script. I read it and thought it would be a lot of fun to work with Rodney. So I went in and read a couple of times, and then they had me (and if I remember correctly) Robert Downey as well come in, and we both read with Rodney and with each other. I'm sure about Rodney, less positive about Robert.

It actually went pretty quickly and easily. Some films drag themselves out, but I remember this being pretty fast. I was also nervous because when they offered me the part, I had only read the early script. Harold Ramis had just come in to do his draft and I remember worrying "what if the part is cut to nothing?" But the Ramis script was brilliant and I felt lucky to be a part of it.

Back to School was released in June of 1986 and was hugely popular going on to become the sixth highest grossing movie of that year and earning well over $100 million. It starred the late, great Rodney Dangerfield as the extremely wealthy "Thornton Melon" and Keith Gordon played his son "Jason Melon" in this '80s classic. Here is the original trailer for Back to School...

Q: Speaking of Rodney Dangerfield, what can you tell us about the late, great comedian and your experience working with him in this film?
Keith: Well, what surprised me was that Rodney definitely had a dark side, a sad side. He was amazing in terms of comic timing, but being around him you realized that a lot of his humor, the "I don't get no respect" theme came from having had a pretty rough go of it for a lot of his life. Rodney paid a LOT of dues before making it big.

He was also very nervous about the more serious moments the character had. I think he was nervous audiences wouldn't accept him if he wasn't being funny every second. Alan Metter, the director, did a great job getting Rodney to let some of his humanity out along with the jokes. Unlike, say, Caddyshack, the film wouldn't have worked if Rodney was at a comic "10" the whole time. Coming down from that, even for a few seconds, wasn't territory he felt comfortable or familiar with. But in the end, that's what makes the film, and he did great.

Here is a scene shortly after Dangerfield's character decides to come back to college at the same school his son attends...

Q: I also had the pleasure on an interview with the film's director Alan Metter. What else can you tell us about Metter and your experience working with and being directed by him? Did you learn anything in particular from working on this film?
Keith: In addition to what I mentioned above, Alan really had to put most of his focus on Rodney, getting him to be comfortable. Luckily (or, rather, very smartly), Alan had cast a bunch of savvy and low-maintenance pros to surround Rodney so he could really put his focus where it needed to be. Alan was also great at stretching the budget. It wasn't an indie film, but I know it had a modest budget for a studio movie. Alan and his crew made great choices in how to use locations, only building a few key sets (like the dorm room), and using multiple colleges to give the film more scope.

Q: Robert Downey Jr. played your buddy "Derek". Did you know him at all previous to working on this film together? What can you tell us about Robert Downey Jr.?
Keith: I'd never met Robert before this. He was kind of amazing. At the same time we were making the film, he was also doing Saturday Night Live and had to fly in and out constantly. But he was always on and ready to go. Absolutely fearless. And very sweet, very easy to work with. Years later, I got to direct him in The Singing Detective [2003], and was very honored, since he picked me (he and Mel Gibson had set up the project and brought me in when another director fell out not long before shooting).

I'm really happy for Robert that he's got his life together. He's such an amazing talent and a good person. But there was a day back before The Singing Detective when I wouldn't have even guessed he would live this long, given the abuse he was putting himself through. But now he's clean, very happily married, and one of the biggest stars in the world. So, for once, things worked out right.

Q: Then I have to ask about the '80s greatest bully, William Zabka who played "Chas Osborne" in the film. What can you tell us about Zabka and your experience working with him in this film? Did the cast all get along off screen during the production?
Keith: Zabka was a really, really good guy. It seems like a lot of people who play bullies or villains are particularly nice. Maybe getting all that angry energy out on screen takes it out of your personal life. But he was always upbeat, friendly, super easy to work with. Just all around cool.

Generally, everyone got on pretty well. I don't remember any bad blood. I really connected with Burt Young, who was extremely funny, smart and very sweet. He's a real street guy, but unlike most of the roles he plays, he's also very sharp. He's a successful playwright, quotes Shakespeare - not what you'd expect from "Paulie". I remember he was trying to woo a much younger woman while we were in Wisconsin shooting. That may sound icky, but he was so courtly and polite that it was actually amazingly endearing. He asked her parents' permission to take her out (although she was well over 18), got to know the whole family together before taking her out alone, it was like something from another time.

Here is a scene featuring many of those guys where a bar fight breaks out...

Q: Any other interesting stories or facts about making Back to School that you can share with us?
Keith: I remember rehearsing with Rodney and realizing how much he wanted to nail everything down ahead of time and how uncomfortable he was with "acting". We were working on the scene where we walk and talk about his coming to college with me. We were sitting at a table at the time. He asked Alan Metter, the director, if I would be on his right or his left when we shot the scene. I had the feeling Alan hadn't made that decision yet (which made perfect sense) but to keep Rodney happy he just said, "I think on the right". So Rodney started playing the scene looking at the empty space to his right, rather than at me! So I grabbed a chair and ran over to get back into his line of sight.

Q: What were your feelings about the film when it was released back in 1985? What are your feelings about the Back to School now over 25 years later? Did you or do you keep in touch with any of the cast or crew members from the film?
Keith: I was really happy with the film when I saw it. I thought it was really funny, but still had a heart. I feel the same way now. The only thing that always seemed weird to me is the scene with Terry [Farrell who played "Valerie"] where we say "I love you". Really? Seems a bit quick to me now. The kiss was nice, just a very premature declaration of love.

I've seen many people from the film at one point or another. As I mentioned earlier, Robert [Downey] and I did The Singing Detective together, so he's the one I've spent the most time with. But I also directed Ned Beatty on Homicide, talked to Burt Young on the phone, etc.

Q: For what role do you still get recognized for most, if any? Do you find it flattering or annoying when this happens?
Keith: I'd say Christine the film I get recognized most for now. It doesn't happen that often. I'm a LOT older now. I'm 53, I've lost most of my hair, I have a beard, etc. But, amazingly people still occasionally ask, "Hey, aren't you the guy who...?" It's pretty flattering. I almost never find it annoying. Probably because I'm not famous enough for it to happen very much. So it's kind of a fun surprise and often leads to hearing about other people's lives, which is always interesting.

Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be particularly interesting especially looking back now? If so, would you share any of them with us?
Keith: God, there were so many. I went back several times for the lead in Risky Business. I could have been Tom Cruise! ... or maybe not. I also was close on the Judd Nelson part in The Breakfast Club. Those were probably the two most iconic '80s roles I didn't get, but got close.

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to move to the other side of the camera and become a director? What inspired this decision?
Keith: Directing was a case of coming full circle. When I was a kid (pre-teen on), I was a film nerd. I went to old movies all the time (I grew up before DVDs or even VHS, so the only way to see old movies were revival houses, where I spent a LOT of hours in New York. I interned after school in the Museum of Modern Art's famous film library, filing clips from articles on film from all over the world (also before computerized filing). I also made a lot of super-8 and video-taped projects.

So I was probably always more interested in directing than acting. But I got amazingly lucky and started to get work as an actor when I was 15 and managed to keep working a lot for the next 10 years. I tried to make my work on those movies my film school. I'd ask directors and others I was working with (editors, designers, writers, DPs, actors) endless questions and almost all of them were very kind about explaining the details of what they did. I'd hang out on sets on the days I wasn't working to watch, hang out in the editing room and go to all the dailies if the director would allow it. It was an amazing education.

Q: Please tell us about The Chocolate War which you wrote the screenplay for and directed. How did you decide to write a screenplay based on the Robert Cormier novel?
Keith: Actually, my first professional move behind the camera was on a little independent film called Static. I co-wrote the screenplay with the director, and was a producer, as well as playing the lead in the movie. That led me to a meeting with a young producer and financier named Jonathan Krane, who wanted to know what else I wanted to do. I told him about The Chocolate War. I had always loved the book and thought it could be a great movie, and wouldn't have to cost almost any money to make. And I was very hungry to move into directing.

He was interested as long as the budget was kept very tight, so I started doing homework. I researched the rights and found out it was available. The option had just been dropped by a studio that had it for a long time but was having a hard time making it. So I negotiated a deal that was for very little money up front, and was pegged to the kind of tiny budget we were planning (we made the film for $500,000). Ordinarily a book that successful would have cost much more than we paid, but I think Robert Cormier was sick of never seeing it actually get made, and sensed that I was passionate and serious about actually doing the film, and not just "developing" it.

Q: What challenges did you have making your directorial debut? How do you feel about the film you created?
Keith: There were a ton of challenges, but I also had never had a job that was more fun or rewarding. The whole cast and crew were great. We had no money, so no one was making much at all (I worked completely for free). So everyone who was there was really into making the film, and having a good experience. There were all the usual disasters you get on a director's first film with a young crew. There was the day we showed up at a location only to find out our location people had never closed the deal to shoot there, all that kind of stuff. On the first day of shooting, the bus we were supposed to shoot inside broke down. By the time we set up a rig with a tow truck and cleared it with all the local authorities we had lost half a day, and I had to shoot very quickly since we had no room in the budget to go over schedule. If we didn't get something done that day, it wasn't in the film. But I quickly learned that the fun of low-budget filmmaking was taking those disasters and finding a way to deal with them. There was no time to freak out or melt down, so you just all pitched in and found a way to make it work.

I'm pretty happy with the film. There are certainly things I might do different today - you learn a lot in almost 30 years - but nothing I find embarrassing. I got to make the film I wanted to make on my own terms and sometimes you never get that chance in a whole career. So I have nothing to complain about.

The Chocolate War was released in November of 1988 and went on to earn a Best First Feature nomination at the 1989 Independent Spirit Awards. In my interview with Ilan Mitchell-Smith, he praised his time working with Gordon in The Chocolate War: "Of all of the work that I did, working on The Chocolate War was by far my favorite experience. Keith was a real actor's director and he was so connected to the work that you couldn't help but feel like you were part of something meaningful."

Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Keith: Wow, the '80s is a long time ago now! My career has had a lot more years post-'80s than before/during. I'm most proud of the features I've directed (and written and/or produced). That started in the '80s, but A Midnight Clear [1992], Mother Night [1996] were in the '90s and Waking the Dead [2000] and The Singing Detective [2003] were in the 2000s. These features are the projects that are most truly "mine" in my career, good or bad.

I'm also proud of having directed on a lot of terrific TV series, which has both paid the rent and kept me challenged. But directing someone else's show, no matter how good it is, can never quite match developing a project from your heart, fighting to see it made, and finally getting to do it.

I'm also proud that I've managed to be with my wife for 28 years, in a business that tends to pull people apart. So that's a "professional accomplishment" of another stripe.

Last, I'm proud of the teaching and mentoring I've done. I teach at the Sundance Film Lab (among other places) any year my schedule will allow. If I've helped some of the amazing young filmmakers I've been honored to work with even a little - with their work or their lives - that's something to really feel proud of.

Q: What else has Keith Gordon been up to more recently? Either acting, directing or otherwise?
Keith: I've been directing tons of TV (Homeland, Masters of Sex, The Leftovers, Nurse Jackie, Fargo just to name a few). Also working on getting my passion projects both for film and TV done. Writing screenplays, developing pilots, searching for financing for my films, trying to write a novel (OK, you can laugh now). Trying to work a little less so I can see my family and friends more (I was away working a BIG chunk of last year).

Q: What can we expect in the future?
Keith: I don't know - Congress and the President to continue to be at a stalemate? Seriously, I've always find life takes turns that are never what I expect, but I hope the future involves one of my own projects getting made.

Q: Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Keith: Do I have a terminal disease I don't know about? This sounds like I'm 93, not 53! But I will admit my ambitions are tempered compared to, say, 25 years ago. I've gotten to live my dream, and direct five feature films. I have an amazing marriage and a great extended family. I'm lucky enough to have enough money in the bank and to be able to earn a living doing what I love. So while I have real ambitions to continue to tell stories that are personal and powerful to me, I don't feel the same level of driven-ness I had back when I was first getting to direct. There's lots left I'd like to do, but not much I would regret if it never happened. I just want to try and be happy and appreciate my life, whether I'm getting everything I want from my career or not.

I am so pleased that Keith was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. I want to take this occasion to again thank Keith Gordon for his contributions to '80s pop culture through his many films and, even more, for going back to that awesome decade with us here for a little while as well.

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