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Horror Icon Robert Englund on His 50-Year Career and Being a "Survivor" of Horror History
Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story pulls back the curtain on one of genre cinema's most beloved figures.
When he was 12 years old, Robert Englund had a formative experience that validated his love of performing. Backstage after starring in the title role of Pinocchio, he was approached by comedy legend Steve Allen, whose celebrated tenure on The Tonight Show predated Johnny Carson.
"He came backstage when I was doing Pinocchio and, literally, asked for me and took me aside," Englund told SYFY WIRE in an interview promoting his new documentary, Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story. "I remember him saying, 'Where's that kid that plays Pinocchio?' And he goes, 'Come here.' He took me aside and he, literally, said, 'You're funny. You're a funny young man. You could do this if you want.' And it's like, 'Whoa, Steve Allen telling a 12-and-a-half-year old that there's a place for him in show business.'"
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That story is one of dozens that Englund tells over the course of Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares, a loving tour by director Christopher Griffiths and Gary Smart through Englund's entire life and career as an actor, from his early days of theater to his first film roles and, of course, his casting as slasher movie legend Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Over the course of the documentary's runtime, Englund proves himself a classic Hollywood raconteur, telling stories not just about his own roles, but about the work going on around him, how it changed his approach to his own craft, and how his own views on his life and work have changed in a career that now spans five decades. (Some of the films in that half-century career — including Dead & Buried, Eaten Alive, and Galaxy of Terror — can currently be streamed on Peacock.)
"I really chose those guys [Griffiths and Smart] because we were really simpatico," Englund said of his collaborators. "We're all film fans, and I felt comfortable with them, and I knew they had my back. I didn't want to celebrate Robert Englund or my talent, such as it is. It was about a survivor. As we sit here, actually, this is my 50th year in Hollywood. I went off and did my first movie and it's, literally, 50 years [ago]. So it's also a nice round number, 50 years in the business, a survivor, a working actor, a utility actor. I'm still here, got a movie coming out this year, and I'm starting one in October so I just keep chugging away."
Englund's life as a working actor whose career has evolved continuously over the course of five decades makes up the backbone of Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares, as fans get to hear from the man himself about the ups and downs of his working life. But Englund's not the only one offering perspective. Everyone from his wife, Nancy, to longtime collaborators and friends like Lin Shaye, Tony Todd, Heather Langenkamp, Bill Moseley, and many more major genre cinema names are interviewed for the film, sharing the experience of Englund the actor and Englund the man. Seeing all of his friends and colleagues speak about him came as a bit of a surprise to Englund, who knew the directors would be talking to other people about his work, but didn't know who was interviewed, or exactly what they said, until he sat down and saw the film for the first time.
"It was really kind of a shock when I saw it late last year in Spain at the Sitges Festival," Englund said.
He added later, "It was a bit like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attending their own funeral. Kind of uncomfortable but also flattering."
One of the film's recurring themes, which comes through frequently in both Englund's interview segments and the segments starring his friends, is something that ties all the way back to that first encounter with Steve Allen. Throughout his life, Englund can recall major players in Hollywood who reached out to him, offered advice and encouragement, or simply told him that he belonged there with them. According to the other interview subjects in the film, he's done the same for many other people over the years, and even now he's doing his best to offer at least a little wisdom to young actors.
"Even though you don't get some roles, but you've been called back several times, you need to celebrate that, feel good about that," Englund said. "Go out and have a nice dinner or something and write down everybody that was in that room and tell your agent so they know when those people have another project that you get in front of them because somebody there likes you and, sooner or later, they'll cast you."
He added, "You also have to learn to let [rejection] go. I held on to stuff way too long. You go right down to the wire on a big project, some of which I beat myself up about and they turned out to be flops. Other times, some wonderful actor did them that you could never approach their performance. Other times, the project just wasn't made because of financial reasons or something. You just never quite know."
Whether you're a longtime horror fan who just knows him as Freddy, a deep-dive Englund devotee who knows even his more obscure work, or just someone who's hoping to learn more about an icon of genre film, Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares will deliver. It's a portrait of a singular artistic legacy, one defined as much by the way Englund collaborates as by the image he's created.
Or, as Englund himself put it: "I don’t know about 'legacy, but I’m grateful to be a survivor of 50 years in Hollywood and close to 100 features."
Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story is now streaming on SCREAMBOX.