Robert Picardo, who plays chief of security Forster, the object of the Gremlin bride’s affection in 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch, may just be Joe Dante’s lucky charm. Having first slayed for the renowned genre director as serial-killer werewolf Eddie Quist in 1981’s The Howling, Picardo went onto roles both big and small — but never overlooked — in Dante’s Explorers, The 'Burbs, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Matinee, Small Soldiers (as another Quist, Ralph), and Innerspace as the boots-during-hanky-panky-wearing Cowboy. But with Gremlins 2 celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer, our questions for Picardo were singularly focused. (OK, we also had a lot of questions about doctoring in Star Trek: Voyager and Johnny Cabbing in Total Recall. We couldn’t help ourselves.)
Maybe that’s because there’s just so much going on in Gremlins 2, as Picardo tells SYFY WIRE. Perhaps due to his decade working alongside Dante, the actor had a great deal of influence on how his character would ultimately be portrayed. That’s keenly displayed by two insightfully additive ideas he pitched to his director for the film, which Picardo told us all about. And we’d have been remiss if we didn’t get to the bottom of who planted all those foxy Gremlin kisses all over Forster’s face too. But first, we had to find out what went through Picardo’s head when he initially read the completely bonkers script, which somehow managed to bring all those twisted Gremlins from the 1984 classic to wreak madcap mayhem on New York City six years later.
“Gremlins 2! A really fun movie. I would call that movie absolutely packed. There’s just so much in Gremlins 2, so many jokes,” Picardo tells SYFY WIRE. “It was just everywhere. The script was huge and complicated. And it was very difficult to visualize. And so many puppets. And I would read the scene that my character is running down the hallway with a puppet attacking him, and wondering how all that would be done.”
Picardo also recalled taking his cues from John Glover’s “overgrown kid, kind of oblivious, kind of a baby” Daniel Clamp, the eccentric billionaire who owns the Manhattan high-rise that becomes the funhouse of Gremlin-induced horrors. “And I was his corporate henchman, not a very likable guy. And I do remember that I wanted to look very put together. This was in the ‘80s when men had big styled hair, and I didn’t want to be bald in it, I wanted to have a very big, well-coiffed head of hair,” Picardo says.
“I grabbed one of our then... I guess he was a supervising producer who turned into a director after that... Fred Gerber, who was a good sport and had the most beautiful head of hair, this giant, coiffed head of hair. And I dragged him to Joe Dante’s office on the other side of the lot, and I said, “This is my friend Fred, I want to look like him,’” Picardo recalls. “So Joe let me have Ziggy, the premiere wig maker at the time, and he made me this gorgeous wig for my Forster character.”
Which was just part of Picardo’s overall vision for Forster.
“I reasoned that the more put together he was, the more fun it would be to see him deconstructed,” Picardo says. “So I asked to have gorgeous clothes, I wanted Armani suits. And the movie had a nice budget so I got beautiful shoes... I asked Joe if the first thing you could ever see of my character was my shoes coming out of the limousine, just to establish that I’m stepping over a puddle, that I don’t want to get myself mussed up. And that way all of that fed into the fun with the Gremlins tearing my clothes off and messing me up.”
But Dante wasn’t done listening to Picardo’s wild ideas.
“The other great thing I love Joe for indulging me on, since the movie was about the dehumanization of a workforce, right, all the people that work in this giant highrise are little tiny, tiny, little cogs,” Picardo says. “So I wanted to be insulting and dehumanizing to the people who worked for me as much as possible.”
To show exactly that, Picardo thought of the perfect symbol.
“At that time, we all were newly acquainted with barcode technology from the grocery store. And I pitched Joe the idea, I said, ‘What if everybody had to wear a barcode instead of a nametag?’” Picardo says. “And remember this is in the '80s, so there were no handheld computers then, and I said, ‘What if I had this electronic device with a barcode reader, and I just didn’t learn anyone’s name, all I did was scan them, and then read their names.’”
Great idea, right? Well, unless you’re in the props department.
“So because of that, the poor prop guys had designed this seven or eight thousand-dollar phony computer thing,” Picardo says. “And I said, ‘I’d like the barcode thing to open like a switchblade.’ Which they did! And then they had all these badges made, all the hundreds of badges for all the extras, so they had barcode badges.”
All of which not only goes to show how insightful Picardo was about his character but also how important it is to have an open-minded director.
“The great thing about working with Joe Dante is if he knows you and he trusts you from prior experience, if you pitch him an idea, he’ll decide on the spot,” Picardo says. “He doesn’t go ‘how much is this gonna cost,’ he just goes, ‘OK, all right.’ And there you go, you’re in. That’s what makes it so much fun as actor, to have a director who trusts you... you know, they’ll immediately visualize your idea, they’re not gonna take an idea they don’t like, but they will immediately visualize it, and he makes a decision absolutely spontaneously. And that to me is what makes Joe... a joy to work with.”
One part of the film that Picardo didn’t have as much say on is perhaps the part most people immediately recall: When he’s seduced by a hot-lipped Gremlin in a wedding gown, who plants a faceful of kisses on Forster’s well-coiffed mug. But who planted all those kisses?
“Ooh, that’s a tough one. I’m going to give you the honest answer, even at the time, I thought it was not necessarily the correct thing to do,” Picardo recalls. “There was a second prop assistant who was a woman... and she was putting lipstick on and she was going to have to plant the kisses on me. I said, ‘Are you OK with this, I don’t think you should have to do this.’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t mind.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure, because I don’t think... you know they could make a stamp or something.’ So she was asked two or three times, and she still agreed to do it.”
Not that it made things any less comfortable for Picardo.
“I was uncomfortable then, but I would absolutely refuse it now. But I asked her personally if she objected to it, and she said no. She went on to become one of the most successful prop masters in all of television,” Picardo says. “I was completely uncomfortable... I guess... I guess they looked at her... and she looked like she had the perfect... how do you say it gracefully? She looked like she had the perfect lips to make lipstick marks on the wall. She could have done that for a living. She had a very good lipstick look.”
In the end, it was a hugely memorable scene, one of the many that make Gremlins 2: The New Batch so much fun. Which is pretty much par for the course as far as Picardo/Dante collaborations go.
“There’s no greater playground than a Joe Dante set,” Picardo says. “I’m still hoping we have another one before we’re both on the wrong side of the grass.”