Interview with actor Conrad Dunn who was Psycho in 'Stripes' & more

(This interview was originally published February 6, 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 Conrad Dunn. He is probably best known to '80s fans as Pvt. Francis “Psycho” Soyer from the 1981 comedy Stripes. He also played the major recurring role of “Nick Corelli” between 1981 and 1990 on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. He's appeared in over 60 roles on either television or film over the years. You'll find out a little about his experiences as “Psycho” in Stripes and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Conrad Dunn…

Q: When did you realize you wanted to be an actor? Then how did you go about pursuing that career?

Conrad: I've been interested in performing since childhood; reenacting things I'd seen for as long as can remember. I lived in the theater arts department in college. I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as well as studying with Stella Adler. I also had my own theater company, which led directly to Stripes.

Q: Your first big screen role was as “Psycho” in 1981's Stripes. How did that opportunity come your way? Do you remember the audition process at all? What were your expectations going in?

Conrad: Karen Rea [casting director] saw me in a production with my company and had me in for role of “Psycho.” I auditioned in New York after they didn't find anyone they liked in L.A. I really had no expectations, but was thrilled to have gotten the part.

Q: What was your experience of being directed by Ivan Reitman?

Conrad: Actually, Reitman and I had very little interaction.

Q: I read that the excellent scene when the characters are introducing themselves to each other and telling their back stories was mostly improvised. Is that true? This is one of my favorite scenes in the film. Your character has the following hilarious introduction…

“The name's Francis Soyer.
But everybody calls me Psycho.
Any of you guys call me Francis, and I'll kill you.
And I don't like nobody touching my stuff!
So just keep your meat hooks off.
If I catch any of you guys in my stuff, I'll kill you.
Also, I don't like nobody touching me.
Now, any of you homos… touch me, and I'll kill you.”
Sgt. Hulka responds, “Lighten up, Francis.”
Was any of that improvised? Did you have experience previously with improv and do you personally enjoy improv when acting?

Conrad: My dialogue from intro scene was exactly as written and was also the same scene from when I auditioned for the part. I heard the character was based on someone real, but not sure who. I have no background in improv, so consequently I am uncomfortable with it.

The “Psycho” character is a homophobic tough guy. Those traits are belittled rather than glorified by the others in his platoon. As Sgt. Hulka tells him, “Lighten up, Francis. One of these men may save your life one of these days, do you understand that?” Then Bill Murray's character replies, “Then again, maybe one of us won't.” Here is the part in the scene where “Psycho” introduces himself to the rest of the platoon…

Released in the summer of 1981, Stripes was one of the most successful films of that year and I do recall it to be the first R-rated film that I ever knowingly saw when it came out on HBO the following year. It combines the genius of Bill Murray and Harold Ramis as two slackers who join the Army, get into trouble, but in the end prove they have more of what it takes inside than expected. The film also stars John Candy, John Larroquette and many others making film debuts including Conrad Dunn.

Q: This film's cast was filled with greatness. Please tell us about the experience of working with Bill Murray.

Conrad: I believe Murray may have felt the pressure of carrying the film. He seemed always “on” but perhaps that was just his nature. I don't really know, as I never worked with him again. For the guys in the platoon, Murray arranged a screening of film the film The Bofors Gun. It was sort of a bonding effort, which was appreciated, but an odd choice in that it was a very dark military film.

Q: How about working with Harold Ramis? How about John Candy in one of his first film roles? Judge Reinhold and John Diehl in their first film roles? John Larroquette as “Capt. Stillman”? Was the cast close during filming? Was it a fun and enjoyable experience making Stripes?

Conrad: Ramis was the opposite of Murray, reserved and seemingly glad not to have focus on him. Candy did a nice thing inviting the guys from platoon to his house to see the “No Mas” Roberto Duran vs. Sugar Ray Leonard fight [June 20, 1980] and eat a spaghetti dinner that his wife made. I did not have that much interaction with Diehl or Reinhold. I do remember John Larroquette being especially dismayed because of John Lennon's murder, which occurred during our shoot [December 8, 1980]. I really enjoyed playing “Psycho”.

Q: Warren Oates was fantastic as Sgt. Hulka. Was he as intimidating in person as he seemed on the screen? Did he stay in character all the time; how was he when the cameras weren't rolling?

Conrad: Warren Oates stayed at same hotel and rode to set in same car as I did. He was soft spoken and quite reserved. He did not stay in character on set. He was very professional.

It is reported that during filming one of the obstacle courses scenes, director Ivan Reitman told the actors to grab Oates and drag him into the mud without telling the veteran actor about it to see what would happen and get a genuine reaction. Oates' front tooth got chipped in the process and he let Reitman know his displeasure for what he did. When I asked Dunn about this, he said he did not know about it nor did “Psycho” have anything to do with chipped tooth incident. Oates played the perfect Drill Sergeant. Sadly, he would pass away from a heart attack less than a year after the release of Stripes. The army base scenes were really filmed on location at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Reitman has been quoted as saying he was amazed that the Defense Department cooperated and gave permission to film there.

Q: Did you have to go through any real form of Army Basic Training to prepare for the role? What about the scenes filmed at Fort Knox with the obstacle course?

Conrad: We didn't really go through any basic training. We just shot a lot of coverage on an obstacle course, as I recall.

Q: Any memories about the filming of the “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” marching scene?

Conrad: I remember John Candy and me as being the only ones who knew the lyrics to the song. We had to teach it to rest of company.

Here is the scene where they learn how to march...

Q: What are your memories of filming the iconic Graduation performance scene? How long and hard did you guys have to practice to get that choreography down?

Conrad: I remember working on that graduation scene for several days. The crowd consisted of local Kentuckians and their response was genuine and spontaneous.

Here is that memorable graduation scene…

Q: “Psycho” is not included in the post script at the end of the film. What do you think that Francis Soyer went on to do after the events shown in the film?

Conrad: I felt there was opportunity for more character development after the troops saved the day in Czechoslovakia. Psycho could have been appreciative to the point of being mushy about it, perhaps hugging guys. Consequently, he could have been a monk in the “what have they all become” montage. Even without a character change, he could have been at the forefront of the survivalist movement.

Q: What do you think old “Psycho” would say about the repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” in the military now?

Conrad: I actually did a YouTube video of Francis “Psycho” Soyer supporting the repeal of DADT.

Here is that video of Conrad Dunn reprising his “Psycho” character but with a more positive outlook. There is a little tongue-in-cheek humor, but he also relays a serious message (you have to turn up the volume a little to hear it)…

Q: What are your feelings regarding Stripes now that it is nearly 30 years later? The movie, the cast, your performance? Do you (or did you) keep in touch with any of the cast or crew from Stripes?

Conrad: I thought there was an opportunity to have Cruiser (Diehl), Elmo (Reinhold) and Psycho characters more involved in the second half of the film. They pretty much disappeared after the first half. There was an inner circle consisting of the Second City crowd that shaped the film. It makes sense to go with what you know, but could have been richer with everyone's input. I had kept in touch with Diehl and Larroquette a bit. I saw them in an excellent production of Endgame. I am not in touch with any of them anymore.

Q: With the success of Stripes, how did things change for you personally? Did it open up more doors for you in the industry?

Conrad: It would have been great had it led to more work, but it didn't. I had great agent at the time, but he soon left the business and I never had as good of an agent as Richard Dickens thereafter.

Q: You would change your stage name from Conrad Dunn to George Jenesky for many years. What was the reason for the name change and why did you eventually change it back again?

Conrad: The name change was about trying to honor some family members who had passed on. Unfortunately, others in the family didn't appreciate it, so I eventually changed it back.

Q: I will admit that I have never been a Soap Opera follower, but I have to ask you about your time on Days of Our Lives. How did the opportunity to play the role of pimp “Nick Corelli” come your way? The role began back in 1981, but would recur often especially between 1986 and 1990. Did you expect this to be a recurring role when you first got it? Please tell us about how it is working on a Soap Opera.

Conrad: It was the usual audition process. The character was a recurring role where I popped up every year or so to complicate some character's life. The last time it was to kick off Eve's storyline as a prostitute. The new Executive Producer, Shelly Curtis, saw and developed chemistry between Eve and Nick. Soap Operas are a very demanding medium. It is like making two and a half films a week.

Days of Our Lives is one of the longest running and most popular soap operas on television. It has aired every weekday on NBC in the U.S. since November 8, 1965. Under the stage name George Jenesky, Dunn played the role for nearly a decade of “Nick Corelli” described as a misogynistic pimp who evolved from a despicable guy to part of one of the more popular couples of that time.

Q: With your relationship with “Eve” (played by Charlotte Ross), your character evolved from a bad guy to sort of a romantic lead. The odd pairing of a pimp and a prostitute would end up being one of the most loved couples in the show's history. Were you surprised when the writers took this turn with your story? Did you enjoy that storyline? Tell us about working with Charlotte Ross. Were you disappointed when the decision was made to kill off your character on the show? A character dying has never stopped a Soap Opera from bringing that character back in some loop hole, so do you ever think (or hope) “Nick Corelli” will return to Salem?

Conrad: Charlotte was so talented, so focused and so professional, and so young to be all those things. I thought being a prostitute/pimp plus the age difference and a love story was different and intriguing. I loved playing it. It was all Shelly Curtis' doing to see the potential and run with it. To have it end so abruptly was disappointing. Curtis was replaced as Executive Producer and, as so often happens, the new Executive Producer dismantles what was developed by last one to put their own stamp on the show. Nick's demise was part of that process. Over 20 years later, I think Nick is good and dead.

Q: You seem to play an excellent villain on screen. You seem to channel the proper characteristics for those roles. What do you do that you think makes you a believable villain on screen?

Conrad: I think the key to playing a villain is to see things from his perspective. He doesn't see himself as evil and often feels his actions are justified. It also doesn't hurt to have the right look.

Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or interesting especially looking back now?

Conrad: I was up for Mickey Rourke's role in Body Heat [1981]. I was also up for Mandy Patinkin's role in Ragtime [1981].

Q: After three decades in the industry, from your perspective, how has it changed over that time?

Conrad: Oddly, even with all of the new mediums, I find there is actually less work to be had. Part of the problem is that there are too many reality shows now. Plus, there seems to be competition that didn't exist before, so many film stars are doing TV work which was never the case before.

Q: Do you ever still get recognized in public as “Psycho” from Stripes or “Nick” from Days of Our Lives?

Conrad: No, never. It is too long ago for both.

Q: You have remained relatively busy working over the years. What is Conrad Dunn up to nowadays? Both acting and otherwise?

Conrad: The last film I did was Animal 2 [2007] with Ving Rhames. He was a really classy guy. The last TV I did was an episode of the Canadian mini-series XIII: The Conspiracy [2008]. I also teach tennis when I can.

I am so pleased that Conrad was able to take the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Conrad Dunn for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially as “Psycho” and, even more, for reminiscing here with us here for a little while as well. Even though his character didn't want to be touched, his characters touched many people.

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