Jean died in 1953, Brad was only three years old. He stated on his Father’s death – “a feel of abandonment. You can’t get away from it. When you’re that age, it hits you”. His father definitely had an influence on a son who would later go on to star in some of the creepiest movies ever filmed. “He was very much into macabre. He would always have macabre stuff around the house like fake skeletons and stuff like that”.
His mother remarried champion golfer William C. Campbell, one of the world’s leading amateur golfers and a well-known Huntington businessman, who helped raise Dourif and his five siblings. As a step dad, says Brad, Campbell did a good job. “He was a little tough, but you know, I was a bit of a space cadet and this was alien territory to him, I had a rather strict stepfather and a lot of prep school. My stepfather paid attention to our manners and behaviour. He was a man of extraordinary self discipline, I had a stepfather but you know we were still in the adjustment phase and nothing really felt right yet”.
About his childhood, Brad says “When I was very young, I lived in a certain dream world. I was a very shy and withdrawn child. I had a very difficult time to adjusting to school and all that kind of stuff”. His mother was an actress and when it came to vocation, though, it was Joan who had the biggest influence on him. She was very active in community theatre and that was his main inspiration to go into acting, although he toyed with becoming a painter, then a poet. “My mother was an actress and worked in the local theaters. She studied at the American theatre but she didn’t do it professionally”. She would entertain him at bedtime with her dramatic readings of his favourite stories.
From 1963 to 1965, Dourif attended the private Aiken Preparatory School in Aiken, South Carolina. There, he pursued his interests in art and acting. Although he briefly considered becoming a flower arranger, poet or an artist, he was eventually inspired to become an actor by his mother’s participation as an actress in a community theater called “Give me Shelter”. After Aiken, he attended Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, graduating in 1968.
Dourif attended Marshall University for a time, while still staying very involved in community productions, before quitting college and moving to New York City to study acting on the advice of actress Conchata Ferrell – A Marshall student approached him and asked him:
“What are you doing here?”, I told her. “Wasting my life. What’s it look like? I’m going to college”. The young woman said « “You should come to New York”. There began Dourif’s long-time friendship with Conchata Ferrel.
Dr Elaine Novak was one of his professors and she remembers Dourif’s remarkable turn as ‘Romeo’ in a classroom production of “Romeo and Juliet” – “He was terrific, even then you could tell there was something very special about him”. Starting in school productions, Dourif progressed to community theater, joining up with the Huntington Community Players while attending Marshall. In New York, he studied with Sanford Meisner, and worked with Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson at the Circle Repertory Company.
“I just kind of went to Marshall University to stay out of the Vietnam War. I didn’t even finish the first year. I drew a real good draft number and I left and I went to New york and I already knew about Circle Rep Company so I just walked in and started working. I started building sets and I was just doing things. I started getting good. I took a year off, studied with Stamford Meisner, a member of the Group Theatre”.
When he first moved to New York, he became roommates with Ferrel. “We started out in this apartment on 58th Street between 10th and somewhere really, really west. It was a pretty tough neighborhood and a long way from the theatre”. For some three years, Dourif worked at Circle Repertory, “going into leads pretty quickly. I mean, by the time I got there I’d probably done 30 to 35 different roles at the Greenbriar Repertory in West Virginia and some summer stock. It was hard, I didn’t have a day off for three years. I had just enough money to get by. I could live, as long as I didn’t go out or anything like that”.
Among those plays in which he had leads were Stringberg’s “Ghost Sonata” and Chknov’s “Three Sisters”. He played also in “The Doctor In Spite of Himself”’ and in the originals, “Time Shadows” and “Not To Worry”. Brad, having been part of the theatre’s summer program since he was 16, was well taught in the technical side of theatre, as well as in acting. It was in 1972, when playing the lead in the theatre’s production of “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder ?”. “Red Ryder” opened at the Circle Repertory in the autumn of 1972 and a few months later moved into the Eastside playhouse, off-Broadway. Brad Dourif played the role of Stephen. He was asked to reprise the role for the film, but turned said offer down because he didn’t want to work with Marjoe Gortner.
His first studio film was “W.W. And the Dixie Dancekings” (1975) but his bit part was cut. It was in 1972, when playing the lead in the theatre’s production of “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder ?”, that Milos Forman was sitting in the audience, looking for a young man to perform alongside Jack Nicholson in his next film. In his autobiography, ‘Turnaround’, Milos recalled “I immediately saw ‘Billy Bibbit’ in him. He was dripping talent and had the core of vulnerability that was right for the role”.
Brad says, “They were actually in negotiations with someone else at the time. Then Milos Forman saw me and cast me as ‘Billy Bibbit’. They asked me go in and audition – I did, and got it. I’d actually already had it at that point. They’d already decided on me before I auditioned. Suddenly there I was working with Jack Nicholson in my first feature film. It was great. I wish they were all like that”. “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” based on Ken Kesey’s novel, was of course a huge success on all levels. It was the first feature since “It Happened One Night” (1934) to win all five top Oscars.
“It was shot in Salem, Oregon [for three and a half months]. Everybody knew that something really good was happening”, says Brad. “We got to go home to sleep. It was a remarkable experience for me. We worked together excellently as a group of actors. And Jack Nicholson! He’s beyond belief. He’s absolutely, totally my idea of what a star should be. He was always involved. A lot of stars just wouldn’t bother”.
Louise Fletcher, who played ‘Nurse Ratched’, said about the set : “I was totally isolated from everybody else in every way. Milos Forman is not one to discuss your role with you. He doesn’t want to intrude on you, to invade your space. And I was isolated from the other actors because of the character I was playing. A lot of the time I used to tell the other actors what to order for dinner. That isn’t like me to be so controlling. The boy who played ‘Billy’ couldn’t eat. He would leave most of the food on his plate. And I would say, ‘Come now. Eat up. You have to eat that, Brad’”.
About stuttering, he said, “I worked with a therapist to do that. I had a friend who was studying to be a speech therapist and she had somebody who was working with stutterers and I got a textbook that was just on stuttering. And it describes how stutters form and sort of formed in layers of compensating that you know finally reaches its peak where it becomes very terrifying to talk. I was pretty shy when I was young and so I did what stutterers do. I put myself in very difficult situations. I’d go to a candy counter in Grand Central Station during rush hour, buy a bar of candy or ask for information or something like that and stutter. I just did it to really get a feeling of what a stutterer feels like. If you don’t stutter it’s hard work”.
His portrayal of the vulnerable ‘Billy Bibbit’ in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest‘ was his big break, and he received a lot of nominations and honours. About this, Brad says, “I didn’t think that was going to happen. I thought I was pretty good in it – I didn’t think I was that good. It was just all very sudden. I didn’t think about that, you know, because everything was exciting enough. I’ve just never been exposed to that kind of world before. I’ve been an off off Broadway actor and that was good enough for me. Once I got into it, it was kind of frightening because as they say being on top of the glass mountain I mean you aren’t going to spend much time up there. So I just found all of that really terrifying. I wasn’t really set up for it”.
Brad won a Golden Globe, then a BAFTA. He was nominated for a Supporting Oscar in America but it went to George Burns. The results were announced by Linda Blair and Ben Johnson. “I was relieved. And then I didn’t have to go up and prove anything. I was glad I didn’t have to go up and give a speech. I guess I felt a little letdown, I mean everybody at my table had an Oscar. You know, except for me. I was with the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ crew”. For BAFTA, when he walked up on stage to accept the latter, he declined to give an acceptance speech. “It scared the shit out of me. All that happened too soon for me. I think psychologically, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was too young. Sooner or later I felt that everybody was going to find out that I wasn’t deserving of it, that I couldn’t act, and the bottom was going to fall out from under me. So I just hid from it”.
He turned down several parts following “Cuckoo’s Nest”, roles that might have shifted his career into high gear. “I was absolutely dead set against being successful”, he reveals. “I did everything I could to make sure that I wasn’t”. As evidence of his desire for self-sabotage, he turned down roles in Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” and Milos Forman’s “Hair”, two parts that eventually went to John Savage. Most of all, he avoided characters who were too much like ‘Billy Bibbit’.
After his newfound fame, Brad was living in Woodstock, New York, and went through a drug period hanging out with musicians. “They were the greatest group of druggies you could ever hope for. My first wife Janet was a musician at that point so I heard a lot of music. I mean, I followed the band around and when I wasn’t doing that I was just listening to music all of the time. I loved them. I play a little flute, but I never got near an instrument around those people. Woodstock was in those days really something. There were a lot of hippies and people who sort of felt the same way about life as I did”. As a hippie, Brad says, “I didn’t feel like I was dropping out, I was rebelling. I was trying to find myself. As a kid, I always felt very inhibited. I decided I was going to take drugs, let my hair grow I was doing it for myself. I needed it. In school, I thought the hippies had such a lot of personal freedom. I wanted to be my own man, for a change”.
His next acting job was in a PBS TV movie called “The Mound Builders” in 1976. “That’s Lanford Wilson who was the leading playwright in residence at Circle Rep. “Lanford’s one of the greatest playwrights in our country. Yeah, he writes fantastic, doing Landford’s stuff is wonderful. This thing we shot, “The Mound Builders”, we taped it, we didn’t even use film. I think we shot it in eight straight days of shooting. I played a kind of a toughie you know a stud kind of a guy”. In 1977 he appeared in “Group Portrait with A Lady”, it was a French/German production about Germany before and after WWII as seen through the eyes of one woman, played by Romy Schneider.
“Oh, it was horrible. You know it was the first time I’d ever seen the real idea of what a Prima Donna really is. Oh, she stormed off the set, and threw tantrums ans screamed and yelled. I play a Russian prisoner of war. I was the only American. It was strange acting in Germany and I didn’t speak the language. I was trying to learn it but I never really quite succeeded. It was based on a really fantastic novel which was kind of interesting”.
His second American feature film was “The Eyes Of Laura Mars”, directed by Irvin Kershner. It’s an occult mystery in which ‘Laura Mars’, played by Faye Dunaway, a fashion photographer, specializes in stylized violence in her fashion shoots. These themes start to become real as ‘Laura’ begins to see her friends and colleagues get murdered. Brad plays ‘Tommy Ludlow’, ‘Laura’s shifty chauffeur with a criminal past.
“That was the first bad boy I played. He wasn’t really wicked he was just an ex-con, he was actually a sympathetic character. We spent two weeks rewriting it, it never really quite got rewritten right. There was a lot of tension on the set. I enjoyed her [Dunaway] a lot. I also enjoyed working with Tommy Lee Jones. I don’t think the two of them enjoyed working with each other though. It was just very unsure, nobody was really quite sure of the material and they were right, the material had problems”.
“Those of us who weren’t involved in all of the bad stuff were having a great time actually. You know it’s great to be in New York. I was young. I was surrounded by really gorgeous women and it was the most glamorous movie I was ever in. I stayed at Hotel Navarro which was kind of really wild hotel and by then I knew a lot of people in rock and roll and people used to come to my hotel suite and play all night. I had a real party going. The worst part about making that film ? My chase scene running through dark streets in New York in the freezing cold”.
“Sergeant Matlovich vs, The U.S. Air Force” was a critically acclaimed NBC TV movie which Dourif starred in. “Sgt. Matlovich was a guy who had a court case declaring himself homosexual and then got the ACLU behind him to fight it to stay in the Army. I met Leonard, he’s dead now. He died of AIDS. There’s a guy I met, who wanted to do another movie which he never did, a bicycle movie, which became “Breaking Away”. But that’s not what it was called and it was a whole other kind of movie at that point. So he said we’ll do this and we’ll use this to get the other movie off the ground. So I did “Sergeant Matlovich” and that was difficult. You know, you do a lot of scenes in one day and they don’t take the same kind care as when you do a film”.
“Studs Lonigan” was an NBC TV mini series starring Harry Hamlin. It was based on a series of novels by James T. Farrell about wayward Chicago teenagers in the depression. “It used to be a really popular thing cause it had sex themes back when books didn’t have sex themes. I played a writer”.
In John Huston’s 1979 film, “Wise Blood” (based on the Flannery O’Conner novel of the same name), Dourif’s character, ‘Hazel Motes’ is subject to powers above and beyond his control. ‘
“They called me up to play ‘Enoch Emory’ and asked if I would do that. I said I would not play ‘Enoch Emory’ but I wanted to play ‘Hazel’ and they said just who the hell do think you are and I didn’t hear from them for a year. Then they called up and said how would you like to play ‘Hazel Motes’ and I said I would be delighted”. Another TV movie was “Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones” for CBS, in 1980.
That was definitely just a job. I played the Doctor who mixed the poisons together. Ned Beatty was in that as well and Ned was so mad at one point he called everyone together to have a strike. He just said – at one point he was so angry he said what happened at Jonestown was bad enough – what we’re doing is worse. I thought it was kind of silly of him, frankly. I don’t think it’s a straight exploitation, it was like a docudrama it was trying to get to the bottom of what happened”.
During the next few years, Brad ended up in three of the most expensive financial flop movies of all time. All three features were costume epics and all have their defenders and fans. He was a polish immigrant in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” in 1980. This film had a production so marred with escalating budgets and overrunning shooting schedules it has become synonymous with box office flops ever since. With a budget of $44 million (closer to $120 million in 2015), it made back a little over $3 million in its theatrical run. The word-of-mouth was so toxic that the film was all but dead on arrival, with allegation of animal cruelty (notably a cock fight and a horse blown up by dynamic) which still plague the film to this day. In 2008, Joe Queenan of The Guardian named “Heaven’s Gate” as the worst film ever made, and Michael Cimino won a Razzie Award for Worst Director in 1981.
“Well, first of all I had read the script and was being considered for a part in “The Deer Hunter”, but I wanted to play another part in it but it didn’t work out. But when I read the script. I thought, well there’s some problems with it but its pretty good. He took it further than what the script was. It was a better film than the script. So I thought Geez this guy it great. I read “Heaven’s Gate” and the script was a mess. I signed for one week of shooting and stayed for five months! I got up every morning, learned how to rollerskate, and then went back to my hotel room. We called it Camp Cimino”.
Dourif’s next feature, “Ragtime”, seemed to echo the wreck of “Heaven’s Gate”. A harsh criticism came from David Denby in The New York Magazine : “Brad Dourif is an actor with a stalled engine – you want to give him a kick so he’ll get through his lines. Forman, who has worked with Dourif before, must think Dourif’s hesitations and stuttering are a sign of spiritual grace. But while Dourif is holding the camera interminably, the audience is miserable. He is so wretchedly unappealing that when he pursues McGovern’s Evelyn Nesbit, you don’t want to see him put his hands on her”. Nevertheless, while the film got mixed responses and made a disappointing return at the box-office, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
“I stopped drinking on that film. I quit everything. At the point I had a drugs and drinking problem. It all stopped on “Ragtime”. I realized I had a problem and just sort of enjoyed it for a long time and then about the time I was doing “Heaven’s Gate”, it just wasn’t much fun anymore. So I stopped and that was it. My wife Jonina went in to the Betty Ford Center and I went there”. His next role on the silver screen after “Ragtime” would not come until ’84 in David Lynch’s “Dune”.
Foreman later invited Dourif to teach directing in the film program at Columbia University, which he did for five years, from 1981 to 1986. Brad says about this : “I love teaching, but there is no way to get poorer faster”. Former students remember never missing classes, but a few accuse him of being deliberately intimidating. “He has a habit of running his hand over his forehead and into his hair and leaving it there, and then he just stares at you”, recalls a student, who admits Brad taught him how to observe and understand people. He also insists “Brad has to know he is intimidating – He uses it, I think”. when charged with intensionally intimidating students, he replies without hesitation “Yes, I really came down on some pretty hard… At times”.
Brad expected students “to come to terms with the fact that they really have to be right there and expose themselves”. Being scared and resisting was fine and understandable”. A few, however would stubbornly insist, “You can’t do this to me”. Then, he says with savage glee, “I would turn right around and say : ‘Oh, yes I can !’”. Sincerely, he believes it forced them to use parts of themselves that they would never otherwise have tapped. “I did intimidate some students, but most of the time we were just hard at work”.
Before “Dune” in 1984, he was in a ABC TV movie, “I, Desire”. “I played a vampire, it was kind of fun to. It starred the Dr. Pepper guy (David Naughton). It is his only bloodsucker role. How is it possible that this actor, with his patrician profile anc cat-slanted eyes, has never been cast as a gothic vampire? “No one ever asked me”, he sighs. You have no idea how much I’d love to do one”.
David Lynch’s adaptation of “Dune” was Dourif’s first theatrical release in three years. “The first time I read it was about 10 years ago, when I was about 23 or 24. I loved it. It’s a fairy story, a very dark one”. Brad’s first of three collaborations with Lynch, the actor pinpoints it as the movie which began his typecasting as a villain. “That was the first sociopath I ever played. I told David that if I played it, there would be no end to it, and I was right. That was the beginning of my playing killers”. Again, “Dune” was considered a flop making back $30million of its $40million budget. “It was an economic disaster for the studio. Not for Dino De Laurentiis [Producer], it was an economic disaster for Universal Pictures. I wasn’t confused, but it certainly may have been confusing for the audience”. Although, unsurprisingly, it was “Dune” which became the cult hit and sealed Dourif’s fate, forever associating him with highly-strung, creepy lunatics such as ‘Piter De Vries’.
“I had fun doing it because I had to make-up a lot of stuff to make sense of it”. About the set, Brad says “”Dune” was the hugest shoot in the world and, my God, the sets! We had giant set A, giant set B, C, D etc”. Asked what he thinks of “Dune”, he replies : “It was a bad movie. The problem with “Dune” was, it tried to be one movie and it should have been two. The amount of information they needed to do the thing was not containable in one film”. However, despite his fear of being typecast by “Dune”, Dourif enjoyed working with Lynch. “He is one of the most original directors I have worked with. He has a unique vision”.
He remembers “When I first met Lynch, this was during “Dune”. I shook his hand and he was at lunch sitting with Raffaella De Laurentiis and he leans across the table and says “How do you feel about actors having surgery done on them ?”, and I went “Oh my God!”. And I said “It’s fine as long as it’s isn’t me. Somebody wants to have surgery done on them that’s their thing, you know?”. And there was just this long discussion about – he wanted the guy that played the Duke to put a tube through his cheek to put out the poison gas. He wanted him to have some kind of surgery and it was just mad, it was just insane. I mean I couldn’t believe he was expecting this much – and it got to be like this thing, you know to the point where a couple of weeks later I was sitting down and I see his back and Raffaella’s back sitting next to each other. And he going ‘But Raf’. And she’s going ‘But they said no. They said absolutely no and there’s no way it’s going to happen’. Needless to say. Raffaella’s sanity prevailed. They did it with mirrors finally”. Dourif then teamed up with director David Lynch again for “Blue Velvet” (1986). He also appears in the 1984 music video for the single “Stranger in Town” by Toto.
He appeared in a number of horror films, notably as the voice of ‘Chucky’ in the “Child’s Play” franchise. He portrayed the ‘Gemini Killer’ in “The Exorcist III” (1990), “Death Machine” (1994), but has broken from the horror genre with roles in “Fatal Beauty” (1987), “Mississippi Burning” (1988), “Hidden Agenda” (1990), and “London Kills Me” (1991). Dourif also played ‘Gríma Wormtongue’ in the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. Many of his co-stars in ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ trilogy were under the impression that he was actually English because of the British accent he used as Grima Wormtongue throughout filming. As a method actor, he kept the accent even when he was not filming.
They were shocked to hear him speak in an American accent after filming was complete. Bernard Hill believed Dourif was speaking in the worst American accent he “had ever heard in life”.On television, Dourif appeared in “The X-Files” episode “Beyond the Sea” as the psychic serial killer ‘Luther Lee Boggs’. He also portrayed ‘Lon Suder’ in a 3-episode story arc on “Star Trek: Voyager” and has guest starred as a troubled monk haunted by visions in “Babylon 5”. In 1984, Dourif played a suspected serial killer in the episode “Number Eight” of “Tales Of The Unexpected”.
Dourif was cast as the ‘Scarecrow’ in “Batman Forever” while Tim Burton was attached to the project. However, Joel Schumacher eventually took over the project and instead cast Tommy Lee Jones as “Two-Face” and Jim Carrey as “The Riddler”. Other roles Dourif has played are ‘Doc Cochran’ in “Deadwood”, receiving a 2004 Emmy Award nomination for “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series”.
He also appeared in “Sinner” and portrayed ‘Sheriff Lee Brackett’ in “Halloween” and “Halloween II”. In 2013, Dourif reprised his voice role as ‘Chucky’ in “Curse Of Chucky”, his daughter Fiona Dourif starred with him in this 6th installment of the Child’s Play franchise. He guest starred in the third season finale of “Fringe” and also had a brief scene in one episode of “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D”.
Though Dourif is a prolific screen actor who hadn’t been on stage in nearly 3 decades, he chose to star alongside Amanda Plummer in the Off Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Two-Character Play” that played to critical-acclaim at the New World Stages. He explained, in a filmed interview released by the producers, why he broke his 29-year hiatus from acting in live theater: “I hated the stage, did not want to do it. And then somebody said, ‘Will you do a play? It’s with Amanda Plummer’, and I said, ‘Oh shit! No. Oh God, I’m gonna have to do this…'”.
It opened on June 10, 2013 and closed on September 29, 2013. The play was subject to a number of performance cancellations, one relating to Dourif’s absence, due to a death in the family. Plummer refused to perform without Dourif, notwithstanding the presence of an understudy.
Dourif has been married twice. He has one daughter, Fiona, with his former wife Joni, and adopted Joni’s daughter, Kristina Dourif Tanoue.
Brad claims he can still recite the script from “Wise Blood” and frequently makes appearances at horror and science fiction conventions. At the age of 65 he’s still going strong.
I couldn’t sit through a scary movie myself to save my life. When I was young, I really loved Halloween and I loved to tell spooky stories, but that didn’t last. – Brad Dourif
2 thoughts on “Icon Of The Month: Brad Dourif”
Wow. I've been reading everything I can find on this guy, and this is far and away the best. Great job, thanks so much.
Thank you 🙂