(This interview was originally published July 9, 2011 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 Scott Schwartz. He is best remembered as the child actor having roles in both The Toy (1982) and A Christmas Story (1983). In the first film, he starred next to the legendary Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason. In the other, he steals a very memorable scene where a part of his body gets stuck to a flag pole and the film has gone on to become a holiday classic. Both are very impressive accomplishments for such a young actor. You will find out much more about his memories/experiences making those classic '80s films and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Scott Schwartz...
Q: When and how did you get your start in acting?
Scott: I started in 1977. I was going to an "old movie" club in New York City with my dad. A guy there produced some commercials and asked if I wanted to do one. After talking to my dad, we said SURE. From commercials to Off-Broadway to Broadway, 150+ commercials later... the movie roles came.
Q: How did the role of "Master Eric Bates" in 1982's The Toy come your way?
Scott: I auditioned for it, like everyone else, over 5,000 real actors tried out and another 5,000+ went to their local Toys-R-Us store where they had a contest for a "Jackie Gleason" look-a-like. It took 8 auditions, several screen-tests. I got the role.
The Toy is a 1982 comedy directed by Richard Donner and starring the legendary Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason alongside Scott Schwartz. It was the 14th highest grossing film of that year. I loved this film when I saw it as a kid, but looking at it now there are some racist undertones that can be interpreted many of which are due to the storyline. It is about a spoiled boy (Schwartz) who does not get the love and attention he desires from his wealthy father (Gleason). The boy, who can pick out anything he wants at the toy store, is really desperate for somebody to play with and demands that he wants the actual cleaning guy (Pryor) instead of a toy (cue the slavery comparisons). At the core, though, are lessons for the characters in friendship, love and respect. Here is a trailer for The Toy...
Q: What a film to make your debut in! Getting to work with both Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason! First, what can you tell us about Richard Pryor and your memories of working with him?
Scott: Richard Pryor was probably the nicest, kindest, most wonderful person I have ever met or worked with. His wanting to help me, educate me, give me massive amounts of knowledge about not only being an actor and comedy timing but life in general. There wasn't a question about anything he wouldn't answer. He truly has impacted my life more than anyone except my own father. He was a second dad.
Here is the scene when Schwartz's character first sees Pryor's character at the store playing with a "Wonder Wheel"...
Q: What can you tell us about Jackie Gleason &and your memories of working with the legend? How was he off screen as well as onscreen?
Scott: Mr. Gleason was a professional. He and I got along really better than most people expected as I showed him very early on I wasn't out to steal scenes, I knew WHO he was and appreciated his work. Mr. Gleason taught me how to shoot pool, told me all kinds of stories about his life. Off screen he was pretty quiet, basically saving the energy he had for his onscreen time, but we had a LOT of conversations during down-time.
Q: The film was directed by the great Richard Donner. What do you remember about your experience working with him? What did you learn from that experience?
Scott: Richard Donner was wonderful. His charm and sense of humor was really unexpected as normally a director is very serious during filming and he wasn't that way at all. He'd be laughing and joking quite a bit during filming. I tried to watch him as much as I could to see how a director works, but I ended up laughing as much as I did learning things. His "eye" for scenes and set-ups was amazing; he could just see things before they happened.
Q: How do you recall your overall experience making The Toy back then? Any other interesting stories or memories about making The Toy that you can share with us?
Scott: The Toy was four months of shooting that, of course, I'll never forget. The cast, the crew, everyone really treated me well and most of the time went above and beyond to show they cared.
To this day that still applies as I have run into people from the film, cast and crew and we still have good words and share time talking about the filming. &Too many stories really: going to see Poltergiest at the movies with Richard Pryor, sharing laughs with Mr. Gleason about episodes of The Honeymooners, singing the Superman theme with Richard Donner (he begged me not to jump off the roof of the house into the pool and told me, "You may sound good, but you can't fly") ... SO many good times.
Q: What were your feelings about it when the film was released in 1982? You were only 14 years old at that time. What changed for you personally after the success of the film?
Scott: It was amazing when the film came out. I was on location in Tucson, Arizona at the time shooting a film I did called Kidco. The producers bought three rows of seats so all the cast/crew could go see the movie opening night. How did my life change? All of a sudden I was a "movie star" as people call it, BUT people said "Hey, you did a movie with the godfather Richard Pryor" ... that to me will always be in my heart. Every celebrity or athlete I've ever met wants to talk about Richard Pryor. Truly I was blessed to share time and work with him. Now that he's gone, I still miss him.
Here is a video montage of scenes from The Toy set to the song "I Just Want to Be Your Friend" by Jeffrey Osborne from the film...
Q: What are your feelings about The Toy now nearly 30 years later?
Scott: I'm thankful, can't say it better than that. I got the chance to work with three of the biggest stars/director of that generation and beyond. Pryor was beyond words, Amazing. Mr. Gleason REALLY gave of himself to me with his time and stories and Richard Donner taught me how to make a motion picture. I wouldn't give up that experience for all the tea in china.
Q: Then in 1983, you had the role of "Flick" in the holiday classic A Christmas Story. How did that opportunity come your way?
Scott: I had finished shooting the film Kidco and got back to the east coast. Bob Clark [the director] called me in for the last round of auditions as he'd seen The Toy and wanted me for the film. I basically showed up, had a one hour chat and lunch with Bob and the film was mine. He just wanted to meet me and see if I was a good kid to shoot with. Before I left Bob said to me, "OK, you got the film. I'll send over details to your agent." Really that was it.
1983's A Christmas Story was directed by Bob Clark and is based on the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and other short stories by author Jean Shepherd (who also happens to be the film's narrator). The movie follows the Parker family as Christmas approaches and primarily revolves around 9-year-old Ralphie's obsession with getting a particular BB gun that year. It is a charming story supported by outstanding acting performances by a great cast. Peter Billingsley stars as "Ralphie" and Scott Schwartz plays one of his friends, "Flick". You might remember him better as the boy who gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole. The film is certainly a cherished bit of Americana which I watch at least once (if not more) every holiday season. Here is the trailer for A Christmas Story...
Q: For the scene when Flick's tongue sticks to the flagpole, I read that a hidden suction tube was used to safely create the illusion that your tongue had frozen to the metal. What can you tell us about your memories of filming that iconic scene?
Scott: Memories? It was COLD! It was 25 degrees below zero in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. The scene was done twice as the first go around the film was "under-developed" and was too dark. The second time we did it in 11 1/2 hours. Yes, there was a plastic pole and a vacuum type suction tube with a motor buried in the snow. No plastic tongue, that was mine, but the pole didn't taste very well as it was plastic and painted to look real.
Here is that popular scene from A Christmas Story when "Flick" accepts a triple-dog-dare and ends up getting his tongue stuck to the flagpole...
Q: How often does someone say "I triple-dog dare you" to you? And (you can tell us the truth) how old has that gotten? Do you pretend like it is original each time?
Scott: I hear that "triple-dog-dare you" about once or more a day. Almost every person I meet says it. It was old 15 years ago, but at the same time, it's nice that something I was a part of is so memorable. I just tell people "thank you" as I do appreciate it. There are thousands of films made each year and only a few are remembered. So I'm one of the lucky people to have been a part of an amazing film that people love.
Q: When you think back, what other memories do you have from filming A Christmas Story?
Scott: The relationships really. Being friends with Peter Billingsley, Zack Ward and the other guys. Talking to Bob Clark over the years. I have lots of other memories, just too many to write. It was a fun film to make, just too cold.
Q: Any other interesting stories about making A Christmas Story (either onscreen or offscreen) that you can share with us and let us in on?
Scott: Ordering room service for Bob Clark when he didn't order it. It was a GREAT joke to play on him. Peter and I would send a steak and shrimp to his room and he'd open the door and say, "I didn't order this, BUT hey, is that steak?" He'd never turn away a good steak.
Q: What were your feelings about the final version of A Christmas Story when it was released in 1983? I seem to recall that it took a little while before it became the cult classic we know it as today. Could you have ever expected the film to have the popularity it has gained over the years?
Scott: The film is perfect. NO way, NO how could Bob have done it better. No one expected it to be the iconic film it became, but that really has a lot to do with Ted Turner buying it for Turner Entertainment (as part of the MGM film package he bought) and creating the "24 hours of A Christmas Story" back in 1996. When he (or his advisors) did that, the film took off like a rocket.
Q: What are your feelings about it now nearly 28 years later? How does it feel to be a part of such a beloved cult classic now?
Scott: Being a part of A Christmas Story will always be one of those amazing things in my life. Never gets old, always cherished and always appreciated. I was a small part of a big puzzle and it all worked. Darrin McGavin was fantastic, Melinda Dillon was adorable, all of us kids were perfect, it all worked.
Q: I know some of the cast does reunion appearances together. Have you kept in close touch with Peter Billingsley or any of the others cast members over the years? Do you enjoy making the appearances and seeing all of the fans who cherish the film?
Scott: I have kept in close contact with all the guys. We email, talk, get together when we can. We all have our own lives and we're all busy. Peter is ultra busy co-owning a production company with Vince Vaughn now, so he's mega busy. I couldn't be prouder of a nice guy like Peter to have achieved the success he has. When we go places together it's always fun, it's a reunion each and every time. Peter doesn't go with us as he's just too busy but he's certainly not forgotten in our travels.
Q: After working with Corey Haim in the 1985 television movie A Time to Live, I read that you remained friends. What can you tell us about your friend Corey Haim? Would you comment at all on how his death impacted you?
Scott: Corey was a good guy. I never in 25 years ever had an argument with him. He was like my little bro, we'd talk and chat. I wish what happened didn't of course. I miss the guy. Since his passing March 10, 2010, I haven't been able to watch one thing he was in, it just hurts too much. He was a special guy and people who adored him from his films would have loved him more if they knew him. Really, that's all I want to share, the rest is for me to know and remember, but like I said, he was my little brother and I miss him.
Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or particularly interesting especially looking back now?
Scott: Two projects for different reasons. One was The Goonies . The film was made by Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg. That would have been great to work with Richard again and of course Mr. Spielberg would have been amazing. The other was Twilight Zone: The Movie . I was supposed to play the psycho kid who controlled people (that Jeremy Licht ended up doing). I was booked to do the film and with the accident that killed Vic Morrow, they shut down production for six months. Upon starting up again, they just grabbed Jeremy from L.A. as I was in New Jersey and they shot as fast as possible to get it done. Both of those would have been terrific experiences, but weren't meant to be.
Q: I asked this same question to fellow child actors Keith Coogan and Gabe Jarret and others in my interviews with them. With your incredible first hand experience (or the experience of those you've known/observed), what are the positives and negatives of being a child actor? How does being a successful child actor affect your ability to be a successful adult actor?
Scott: TOO long of an answer on this one. Positives: you learn to be a "man" WAY earlier than a normal kid, you learn what it's like to get up and go to work at 7-8-9 years old. Fame and money are great, BUT when you are so young IF you don't have the right kind of parents it can get out of hand quickly. Negatives: learning to hear the word "NO" so many times and being rejected. It takes a very thick skin to deal with it all. My folks really educated me on as much as they could and it truly formed my personality and understanding of the world at a very early age. Being a child actor to adult actor isn't up to you as the actor, it's up to the powers that be to want to continue to hire you. You can be the best actor in the world, but if someone doesn't give you the opportunity to show what you can do, it's all for not.
Q: Do you still get recognized in public a lot? Is "Flick" the role you get recognized as most often?
Scott: I do get recognized more from A Christmas Story than The Toy and sometimes Kidco. Not all the time, but I do get recognized.
Q: After the '80s, it seems your acting roles surprisingly declined despite some impressive success at a young age. Was this a situation where you decided to move in a different direction or were the roles just not being offered to you anymore? Is acting something that you still consider pursuing at any level?
Scott: Puberty had a lot to do with my not getting work. My face changed and I didn't grow very much, still being 5'2" at age 15-19 isn't a good thing for actors. I never decided not to act anymore. Again, the powers that be just didn't hire me. I still act or work when people call and ask me, always a pleasure to do work. Always loved acting and performing and I'm sure I always will.
Q: What has Scott Schwartz been up to more recently? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Scott: I work mainly for trading card companies providing Celebrity Autographs for their products. I came up with an idea for a line of cards with Donruss card company (now Panini card company) called "Donruss Americana". They came up with the designs and I got them the celebrity autographs for the cards. I now work for four companies and I love what I do. Also, I have a collectibles store in Southern California with my dad called "Baseball Cards - Movie Collectibles". We've been in business for the past 24+ years. Always working, always busy and just enjoying life with my four doggies. I smile each and everyday.
No real regrets to speak of other than that I haven't been able to help a few of my child star friends with their issues that have led to their leaving us early. I truly believe in helping those you care for and love. Life is too short, enjoy each and every day.
I am thrilled that Scott took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. If you are ever in the Westlake Village area in California, be sure to stop in his memorabilia shop. You can also find him on Twitter @ScottakaFlick. And when you watch the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story this year and it comes to the triple-dog-dare scene, just remember how bad that pole tasted and how cold it was when they filmed it.
I want to take this opportunity to again thank Scott Schwartz for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through The Toy and A Christmas Story and, even more, for taking a walk down memory lane with us here as well.