Descending by car into the flaccid Florida peninsula on I-95 can make a bull rider reach for a Valium. Cars, trucks, and trailers from the entire country drain into this eight-lane nightmare once the weather gets testy up North. A parking lot doing 80 mph. They like things close and fast in south Florida.
I have the GPS set for the Broward County Convention Center, the location of the First Annual Shock Pop Comic Con, but the GPS seems dazed and confused. I pass through the same Immigration Control roadblock twice.
This is my first comic con. It’s being held in a cavernous convention center peopled by fantasy/mayhem fans paying $30 per day to get in, by celebrities schmoozing and flogging their autographs, and by a hefty merchant class selling everything from Freddy Krueger razor paws to tattoos. There are talks, panel discussions, and rows and rows of booths offering posters, books, toy weapons, art, luchador masks, and a Hollywood wardrobe of costumes manifesting good and evil. Judging from the crowd, I’d say Spider-Man squeaks by as winner for the good side, but then who doesn’t look great in a head-to-toe skin suit? Bad guys, it’s no contest. Freddy Krueger is king. Separately, you have a horde of weapon-toting revelers. Aliens pack bulky laser guns and glowing swords. Paramilitary types tote realistic AK-47s, each with the orange tip indicating “toy.” This you want to leave in place lest security gets jumpy.
I am meeting up with the actor Marshall Bell, best known for his roles in Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Total Recall, and Stand By Me.
Marshall is my first cousin. His mother, Blake, was the oldest of four girls in a row and, then finally, a boy born in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to Mabelle and Edmund Kennedy. My mother was the youngest girl. Aunt Blake, a very bright, inventive woman with a touch of boho and a penchant for performance, was the eldest.
At Christmas dinners Aunt Blake would inevitably ask me what I had been reading, and I would tell her The Hardy Boys or Ivanhoe. She would nod without looking up from her salad. One day I said, “Of Mice and Men.” She turned to me, and as if seeing me for the first time, said, “That’s quite interesting.” Then we talked.
Blake’s son was Marshall Bell, and to me he was quite interesting. He was five years older than I and altogether more hip. He wore white bucks with red soles. Baggy suits. He was dead handsome. He had a swagger, a self-confidence, that sure looked authentic to me. He was intelligent and had a real talent for the thrust and parry of good conversation.
Our grandmother Mabelle (Mimi) was a force of nature. Her husband died young. She spent the early part of their adult life as a housewife. After her husband died of cancer, she took over his bank, ran their ranch, was elected mayor, appointed to the National Democratic Committee, and eventually served in the Truman administration. Mimi and Marshall were fast friends, both gutsy. But Mimi was smooth, and Marshall exuded that tight-wired vibe of the inchoate addict.
A panel discussion is under way at the back of the convention hall in a curtained-off area about the right size for a really beefy AA meeting. I am late. Marshall is on the panel. To his right is Robert Englund, aka Freddy Krueger, who is taking a question from the audience.
The question involves the significance of the lighting in some obscure scene deep within the Freddy Krueger bonanza of movie trivia. The question is insightful. It would not be out of place at UCLA film school. The student, however, would need to be dressed in full Freddy Krueger regalia. Englund, a distinguished-looking man with a thin face, tidy gray beard, and tan blazer, leans into the question and returns a thoughtful answer. With that, the discussion is over. Both audience and panel stand, clap, and cheer.
I get my first good look at Marshall, and he’s looking strong. IMDb describes him as “a tall, imposing character actor with a penetrating stare.” He has Irish blue eyes and shortish, coiffed hair. He wears a dove gray summer suit with a white hankie stuffed in any old way and uber-preppie blond tortoiseshell glass. His 72-year-old face is what one thinks of as ruggedly handsome.
Marshall was born in Tulsa in 1942. St. John’s Hospital. He attended Eliot Elementary School.
“I still consider Eliot as much an important part of my background as any school I went to. I was a Brookside guy,” he says.
In junior high, Edison opened its door for the first time, and Marshall walked in.
“It was great,” he says. “We got to vote on the school colors. I voted for black and white.”
He went to prep school at St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire, but was kicked out for stealing a bottle of hooch from the vice-rector, getting loaded, and crashing the spring dance. He finished high school at Fountain Valley in Colorado Springs, then went off to Yale, where he got kicked out for not attending class or much of anything else. He spent three years in the Army, was discharged honorably, and entered Colorado University on the G.I. Bill, where he received a degree in sociology.
I ask him if he was a hippie in Boulder.
“No. I had hippie friends, but it wasn’t my bag,” he says. “I was a juicer and that wasn’t cool then. Other people had more fun than I did in the ‘60s. I didn’t really start having fun until 1970.”
Marshall and I are installed in his signing booth on Celebrity Row. The backdrop of Celebrity Row is an electric-blue drape that appears synthetic enough to spontaneously combust. There are about 50 celebrities at the event. I check the program for the players. Okay, we’ve got Corey Feldman from Friday the 13th. Mike Lookinland from The Brady Bunch (huh?), Karate KidRalph Macchio, Robert “The Man” Englund, and—what is this? John Waters to give a talk and sign books. I’ll be there.
In the booth to our left is Ken Kirzinger, a stunt man with 105 stunts to his credit and a nice guy. And why is he here? He played Jason No. 5, in Freddy vs Jason, a movie overflowing with consequence for comic-con fans. This is Sugar Ray Leonard fighting Sugar Ray Robertson. You gonna buy that ticket!
When asked who won the battle, Ken answers, “Well, I cut his head off.” That’s a good start, but in the horror genre, not necessarily a franchise-ending injury.
After a slow beginning, things are heating up at the signing booth. They’re now coming up in twos and threes.
Marshall rises, shakes hands. He has a Teddy Roosevelt smile, big and toothy.
Marshall signs photos from his various movies, $20 a pop. People bring up posters. He signs those gratis. People arrive who just want to talk movies. He’s into it. They ask him questions. He answers. He has questions for them. Lots of joy and happiness all around the Marshall Bell booth.
A young girl rushes towards the booth.
“You’re awesome! So awesome!”
They chat movies. He laughs, and he’s got a great one. He hawks a photo, and she’s off.
He turns to me. “Now what’s wrong with that?”
He sits beside me. I’m attempting an interview leafed in between poster signings.
“So why do you do this?” I ask him.
“Hey I know all these people,” he says. “You gotta do it ‘cause it’s fun. There’s no money in it, unless you the big dog.”
He nods in the direction of Robert Englund’s booth. Englund is doing righteous business. The line to reach Freddy’s autograph snakes away from the booth, folding back and forth.
Marshall is a part of Shock Pop Comic Con because of a tasty bit part he had in Nightmare on Elm Street 2.
Marshall played Coach Schneider in NES 2. Johnny Depp had tackled the role of Glen Lantz in NES 1. (Tulsan Heather Langenkamp offered some superior screaming in NES 1.)
Marshall messes with Depp, “You’re cooler than me because you were in 1.”
Depp replies, “I did 1 because I needed work. You identified the franchise. You’re cooler.”
Nightmare on Elm Street 2 got the comic-con nation sniffing around Marshall, but it was his role as George/Kuato in Total Recall that got them all the way there. In this 1990 Paul Verhoeven film Marshall portrays George who, as I understand it, has a conjoined twin brother named Kuato on the inside. Plus this Kuato is a rebel leader. On Mars.
The physical emergence of Kuato from George is a sci-fi classic. Marshall puts in a good performance. His craft is improving. He’s getting noticed by the public.
“Hey, what that guy’s name? Remember? He was in Total Recall.”
In 1966, Marshall was 24, back from Korea and stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He spent weekends riding his Honda Super Hawk to Philadelphia, where he knew some rowdy bike freaks with a bit of money and good attitudes. One weekend, they’d all got drunk, saddled up, and started for South Hampton, Long Island. Just after arriving Marshall was jailed for breaking a window, presumably with his body.
“I don’t think I did it, but there was glass all over my shirt,” he said.
Later that night, one of his friends landed in the same jail for unpaid tickets and something else.
The friend was holding cash. They paid, got out nolo contendere, and got drunk again. Then Marshall met Marisa Berenson on the street
“This,” Marshall said to himself, “is the most beautiful woman in the world.” But his lizard brain is saying something far dirtier, less ethereal. Marshall fell instantly in love with Marisa. But Marisa had it going on as a model with a bright future, and Marshall was in the Army, a drunk, and really just too fucking wild.
They hung out together; she tried to get him to drink less. Throw a rock at the sun. This nascent friendship was the first link in the chain that would eventually lead Marshall to a wife, a career, a life.
Nine years later, Marshall traveled to Dublin to visit his half brother, Eamonn. In a pub he started yakking up a table of strangers and learned Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon was being filmed nearby. One of the gals at the table was Marisa Berenson’s dialog coach.
Marshall asked her, “Could I send a note to Marisa back with you?” Indeed.
A dinner party was shortly arranged with various of the film’s company and whatever friends Marshall had gathered. A striking Italian woman named Milena Canonero was in the group. As Marshall soon discovered, she was not only striking, but also talented. Her first stab at costume design had been A Clockwork Orange for Kubrick, a propitious beginning.
Milena was doing the costumes on Barry Lyndon, work which would win the 1976 Oscar for best costume design, her first. She has since been nominated nine times and taken home four Oscars, including this year’s award for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Marshall and Milena fell in love and were married in Liverpool in March of 1980. The reception was held on the set of Chariots of Fire.
“Big party. Really big,” Marshall remembers.
They are still married today.
I tell Marshall I’m going to take some pics and wander off into the convention. I remember the John Waters thing and get there when it’s half over. He’s basically throwing down a comedy bit. Graphic, homoerotic. Very smart and funny.
He claims Paul Bowles said that he only had sex with two people in his life, one man and one woman, and that he found the experiences equally disgusting.
The Q-and-A starts and I head out. As I move through the exit, I hear the first question, “Who’s the filthiest person in the world?”
Marshall and I are in Palm Beach, my erstwhile home. The comic con is yesterday’s news. We’re at Charlie’s Crab with a platter of stone crabs.
“When did you start with the cocaine?” I ask.
“Always.” He laughs. “But I mark my addiction, the time when I needed it, when I wanted to do it all the time, from the night Milena unexpectedly won the Oscar for Chariots of Fire until the night four years later that she didn’t win for Out of Africa. I was a serious addict for four years.”
Marshall has been continuously clean and sober since that night, coming up on 29 years this March. God bless an old-timer.
In the early ‘80s, Marshall reads for the part of Ronsky in Alan Parker’s Birdy. Parker thinks, “We can make this work,” and at age 42, Marshall finds a career. I ask him, “Who are the best directors you’ve worked for?” Marshall has been in the industry long enough to be political, cautious, and meticulous in his answer.
“I’ve worked with a lot of great directors, but Alan Parker will always be special to me. He literally walked me through Birdy. Made me believe I could do it. Made me see, ah… you know, that you learn and get better.”
Quoting again from his IMDb bio, “A solid, reliable actor with an authoritative presence, Bell is a natural for playing ‘tough guy’ roles, although movies like Airheads show him to be able to play comedy as well.”
Solid, reliable, and (give the man his due) sober. Marshall has 125 film credits. He has worked for Herzog, Depp, Winders, Stone, Coppola, Beatty. And too many fine actors to name. He has added TV commercials to the mix. IMB, Xerox, Nikon, CDW with Charles Barkley. He’s making a sweet living and loving his work. He always brings the full packet of energy and enthusiasm to the job, whether it is on the set of Capote or at the equally sanguinary Shock Pop Comic Con in Ft. Lauderdale.
I was just a kid, seven years old, at an afternoon party at Aunt Blake’s house in Tulsa. Lots of children, lots of grown-ups. He said, “Follow me.”
He led me into the backyard where he had hacked out a hiding place in a stand of bamboo. I remember it being sunny in there, which is odd given the size of the place and bamboo’s propensity to block everything.
Marshall was 13 then, dressed in Levis and a tight white t-shirt. Judged from the airy heights of Maple Ridge, he looked like a straight-up hood to me. Six decades later he would say to me, “I was born on the wrong side of the tracks. South of 31st.”
He pulled a half-full pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his jeans. He lighted two cigarettes at once and handed one to me. I looked at him for a moment to see what to do. He was smoking like a movie star. I took a puff, coughed, and was dizzy. But elated. I’m smoking with Marshall.
“Let me show you something, Cuz,” he said. He took the pack of cigarettes and rolled them up in his left t-shirt sleeve.
I thought, “This guy is exactly what I want to be.”
Maybe still do.
Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.