Robert Englund Reflects On A Life As Freddy Krueger, And The Evolution Of Nightmare On Elm Street

Robert Englund shares the "happy accident" that led to him becoming a horror actor.


You may not know the name Robert Englund straight off, but his alter ego, Freddy Krueger, is known by millions. The burned child killer of nightmares--and slasher movie greatness--became something of a legend when he debuted in Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. The role of Freddy Krueger was taken on by Robert Englund, who, up through this point in his career, had been a solidly working actor. He wasn't a superstar; he wasn't a name. He was an actor who had appeared in a dozen feature films, as everything from the best friend to the thug, from comedy and drama to horror and sci-fi.

But things changed in 1984, when he auditioned for the role of Freddy Krueger. Not because it was some kind of calling, but because it was a job. This is one of the things you learn in Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story, a documentary about Englund's career. It will be available on Screambox and digitally beginning on June 6.

Obviously, a large part of this documentary is about Freddy Krueger and his career in horror, but it also focuses on Englund's beginnings in theater, his non-horror roles, and how Mark Hamill wouldn't have become Luke Skywalker without him. I spoke with Englund to discuss what we learned in the documentary--and what we didn't.

GameSpot: So you didn't intend to become a horror actor, yet you ended up as one of the biggest horror actors in the world. Looking back, do you regret it at all?

Robert Englund: Oh, no. It's not something I set out to do, but it was a happy accident. It actually started with the successes of my television series V, which was an international science fiction hit, and then my horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street, starting with the first one, which was huge overseas as well. It made me international overnight, and I've been able to work in Europe as well as Hollywood.

So when things get slow for me in LA, I can chase some beautiful Spanish actress around a castle in Spain, or I can go do a little down and dirty horror movie in Sicily, or shoot giant alligators somewhere in Romania, or do a little vampire movie in the UK. It's just been this great gift and made me an international actor, which is not something that agents advise you about, nor is it something you learn in acting school; it's just something that happens. It never, never would've happened for me had I not said yes to Wes Craven all those years ago.

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So is that one of the perks, getting to travel the world?

And it elongates your career. I wore the makeup from '84 until '94, and then I did Phantom of the Opera in makeup, and I also did a Stephen King movie in makeup, because I was Robert Englund. He's like the Lon Chaney guy, "Call Robert, and we'll put this crap all over him."

But I came out of the makeup in the mid-'90s and I had aged. I looked much younger than I was when I was a younger actor. I mean, I got carded in bars until I was 35. But now my hair had receded and I was finally able to grow a good beard, and my face got narrower, I had bags under my eyes and I was looking interesting. I didn't look like a kid anymore.

So, I was able to segue a bit into some of the offers that were coming my way because I was a genre star, which I want to say were low-budget Vincent Price kind of roles, Christopher Lee kind of roles. No one else was doing those, so I stepped up. A lot of them were in Europe, but there were a lot of them in the States as well, Canada and Mexico. I did those and I did heavies, bad guys.

I don't think that would've happened for me had it not been for Nightmare on Elm Street, because from 1973 until 1983, I was the best friend. I was the pal, the sidekick, the buddy, the nerd, and I didn't have that gravitas that comes with having been a horror actor. Between that and the way this old mug of mine aged, it just turned out to be a happy accident.

Here it's exactly 50 years now since I arrived in Atlanta and drove down in a big old Ford Station wagon to do Buster and Billie, my first film. My first film, a starring role, with Jan-Michael Vincent. He and Burt Reynolds were the biggest stars in the '70s. It's been 50 years since then and I'm still here. I'm here not because of my sidekick roles or my best friends and buddy movies, I'm here because I said yes to Wes Craven back in 1984.

Fifty years, that's why I look on this documentary, as not a movie about talent and not a movie about Freddy, it's a movie about a character actor, a utility actor who survived all these years, and what goes into that and the serendipity and the happy accidents that can happen that you can't control, and some of them can be for the best.

Freddy became a lot more tongue-in-cheek as the movies went on. How much of that was you and how much of that was the scripts?

Well, there are jokes all over the original Nightmare. Wes was not real happy with how we exploited Freddy's personality, but Freddy did have a lot of personality. He makes his tongue come out of the phone, "I'm your boyfriend now, Nancy," and he puts Tina's face up over his, and he's pulling all kinds of pranks with his fingers being cut off and cracking wise. He's a cruel clown from the get-go.

What happened was, I think New Line just reacted to the fan mail and what the fans loved. The fans loved this monster, this boogeyman with a personality, unapologetically evil, and they sort of ran with that. But Freddy always had those sort of Dirty Harry lines, those "make my day" quips that he would do. I always saw Freddy kind of like a cat who plays with a mouse before he kills it. He taunts it a little bit. Freddy's taunts were him throwing the culture right back in the face of his potential victims who were the children of the parents who burned him alive.

Robert Englund
Robert Englund

You know what happened? I think when we were cranking these movies out about once every year, year and a half--there's a lot of them, I've done eight of them. I think it became easier for the editors in post-production to go with a kind of barrump-bump rim shot percussive ending to a scene. What would help that and what would signal that would be if Freddy said something, Freddy had a line, and that gives it a natural ending for them. Even though the lines are funny and the audience likes it, I might have gone darker or might have preferred for them to choose the dark choice that we did shoot.

I remember specifically, I think it's in Nightmare 4, which by the way, is my favorite performance of mine. It's not my favorite film in the franchise, but I like my work in that. Renny Harlin let me dance Freddy a little bit against the landscape of the dream, the nightmare.

But I remember in the junkyard sequence, which I think still holds up in that, that we killed Ken Sagoes a couple of ways. There was a kiss of death, but I remember one where we just let him kind of slide down my body after I stabbed him. I saw it on Video Assist--it's the first time I'd ever seen Video Assist on a film--and I thought it was superior. I think we went with a jokey line there instead.

But sometimes that was a decision made in post that I had nothing to do with, and if it was done too many times in a row, it may have thrown a section of the film out of balance, I think. But I can't think of a lot of times when that happened; I can just think of a few, because Freddy was funny. I loved returning to him with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, really making him this scary kind of meta aspect, true evil.

Was there anything not covered in the documentary that you wish they had covered?

Of course, I have these terrible ideas. I remember telling the guys, I have a funny dance in Strangeland, and I have a dance with Susan Sarandon in Last of the Cowboys, and I have a funny dance in 2001 Maniacs. I kept thinking, "Oh, that will be fun, a montage. Robert Englund dances!" But thank God they didn't do that, because that would've been a bad idea.

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