Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Evil Dead News Interviews Richard Whiting Smith, Featured in Sam Raimi's Super 8 film, "It's Murder!"

Richard Whiting Smith, circa 1978

Evil Dead News recenty received an email from Richard Whiting Smith. Smith plays the role of Milton Bradley in Sam Raimi's It's Murder!. It's Murder! was a collaborative effort of the Metropolitan Film Group, which included Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel, John Cameron, William E. Kirk and Mike Ditz.

It's Murder! is a follow-up to a film Sam Raimi wrote and directed entitled The Happy Valley Kid, which starred Rob Tapert and was made for $700. The Happy Valley Kid is a film about the plight of an MSU student driven mad and it played on the Michigan State campus for five weeks in the winter of 1977. It’s Murder! was made with three times the budget of The Happy Valley Kid. A then sophomore at MSU, Sam Raimi co-wrote, directed and starred in It's Murder!, described as a “slapstick mystery/comedy". The film debuted on Friday, October 13th, 1978 at 7:30 p.m in 111 Olds Hall on the Michigan State University campus.

The story of It’s Murder! involves a wealthy man being murdered. Sam Raimi plays the role of Uncle Jasper, who intends to collect the inheritance. Longtime collaborator Scott Spiegel plays the role of a detective investigating the murder, who is also trying to avoid ending up dead as well. A young Ted Raimi makes his acting debut in It's Murder!. The entire movie only runs about 68 minutes, includes a fairly impressive car chase (a set piece reused in Crimewave), and Bruce Campbell makes a brief appearance, playing a cop on a bicycle.

Most notably, It's Murder! contains an effective "scare" scene in it, in which a criminal leaps from the backseat of a car and attacks an unsuspecting victim. That victim is the character Milton, played by Richard Whiting Smith . This scene, along with some research of horror cinema at local drive-in theaters, helped inspire Raimi to pursue a career in the horror genre.

How did you first meet Sam Raimi?

Sam and I lived miles apart. We never would have met, except that the kid living across the street from him transferred to my school in 7th grade. We both loved theatre, music, comedy, and became close friends. It wasn’t long before I was hanging out at my new friend’s house all the time, and he eventually took me across the street to meet Sam, who’s a year older. That good 7th grade friend was Douglas Sills, who later turned out to become a Broadway star, pioneering the role of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, and more recently, taking over the part of Gomez in a national tour of the “Addams Family”.

What are some of your memories of Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel and the rest of the Metropolitan Film Group?

The more time I spent over at Doug’s house, the more we’d be called on to help Sam, Bruce and Scott with their filming. My first memory beyond “here, carry this and don’t drop it..” was going into Sam’s school library on a weekend – he had the keys – and filming some sort of promo for the up-coming season in performing arts. He had me stand in the book stacks pretending to be a happy new student, but then a knife wielding maniac jumped out and stabbed me to death. They made me lie on the floor, and stuffed my shirt with spaghetti and meat sauce. That’s when I was hooked. Other fond memories involve getting to throw pies at people from off-camera, but one of the best is the time that Sam and the Boys came by to show Super-8 movies at a party being thrown at the house of a friend of ours, Jody Broad, who was moving out to NYC to become an actress. It was such a great time, 20 years later I married her.

How long did the filming of It's Murder! last?

Pretty much the late summer of my Senior year, but then after I moved up to University of Michigan in September, they came up and snatched me a couple times to shoot scenes down in the old neighborhood on weekends.

The cemetery scene in It's Murder! starts with a sign that reads, "Due to a shortage of help, graves will be dug by our skeleton crew", which is obviously funny, and could be connected to a future Raimi film, Army of Darkness. The same scene with you in the cemetery being attacked by a fake wooden beam was later re-used in The Evil Dead when Ash attacks Linda by her grave. It must be rewarding to see Raimi's best known horror films now, and say to yourself, "I was in a film that hinted at those ideas first", correct?

Absolutely! When I watch those two films and then his evolution to “Darkman”, the “Spiderman” series, and “Oz”, I really love to see little threads that connect the big time professional productions back to his Super 8 days.

The "scare" scene with you in the car in It's Murder! helped inspire Raimi to venture into the horror genre. It must be surreal to have been a part of such a crucial moment for a promising filmmaker. Do you recall seeing It's Murder! with an audience and noticing them jump at that particular moment in the film?

Oh yes. I attended a premier of the film at Michigan State University. There was quite an audience, as I recall. I always knew people would laugh at the comedy, but they really did react to that scene. I think I jumped, myself, having never seen the final version with sound and music before. My favorite part of that car fight (it was an old Cadillac, and I remember going with Sam when he bought it) is how he put the camera in the back seat for one of the shots to look out the windshield at the oncoming attack, but catch my reaction in the rearview mirror at the same time, as I was frantically trying to start the engine to get away.

Did you keep in touch with Sam Raimi or the others after It's Murder!?

No, and I’ve always felt terrible about that; not because they made the “big time”, but they were great guys, really good fun to hang out with, and had a very different perspective than most of the more engineering/science/analytical cats I see daily. I think the last time I met up with them was probably back in the early 1980’s at the wedding of our friend, Kelly Pino to Bill Prady. Bill is now famous for creating TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”. After that, I just got too wrapped up in my own stupid stuff in grad school, but email and social media is making it easier to get back in touch, so maybe there’s hope. My wife, Jody, did manage to contact Mike Ditz last summer and have dinner in LA, while she was out helping produce a music CD.

At what point did you realize Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and the others had become successful?

I always knew it would happen, just not when. The big milestone was probably when I could finally point my friends and family to a work that even people who weren’t quirky movie fans had to recognize as a pretty big deal. That would have been “Darkman”. You have to appreciate great filmmaking to love “Evil Dead” and “Army of Darkness”. Odd, but some people just don’t get it. Of course, by the time they announced the making of “Spiderman”, the same people were calling me to see if that was “the same” Sam Raimi I’d been trying for years to tell them about.

A recent photo of Richard Whiting Smith (photo by Sylvie Ball, NYC)

Your own family's history is quite fascinating. Your mother was Barbara Whiting, daughter of the music composer Richard A. Whiting, who wrote "Hooray for Hollywood", "Good Ship Lollipop", "Ain't We Got Fun" and many others. Those songs are timeless! Also, your father was a "Mad Man" sent to L.A. to transition soap operas from radio to TV and later ran TV advertising at GM. What was your childhood like?

For the most part, perfectly normal. My mother was completely out of her career by then, and was really just “mom” (although people sometimes got a little animated in the grocery store). Sure, Dad was in charge of a bunch of big TV commercials, but mostly that just meant going to work in a suit, and coming home in a suit, like most fathers in the area. Visitors did drop by on occasion, like every other family, but once in a while, the nice man bringing you a raccoon hat actually turned out to be Fess Parker from TV’s Daniel Boone. The couple times Mom’s “Uncle Johnny” came to visit, it was Johnny Mercer. One of my favorite Polaroids from the late 60’s is me as an awkward little 3rd grader standing in the living room with an amazingly “mod” Jean Claude Killy, who was going to be doing an AD for GM. Normal stuff like that.

Your aunt was Margaret Whiting, a popular singer in the 1940s and 1950s. Your mom and aunt both had a TV show from 1955-1957 called Those Whiting Girls, produced by Desilu Productions (Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball). Since your relatives were involved in music and film, did you feel compelled to try some acting?

In school, I did love acting in plays around 5th, 6th, 7th grade. Later, I think I may have become more conscious of what my mother had actually done in her life, and got nervous that I might stink the place up in comparison. The thought of going on a live stage (even a high school one) after that was quite frightening, even though all my good friends were into it. Sam’s offer to participate in a movie was amazing, because he could do multiple takes, and anything I botched up, he could burn. I had no anxiety about that, and loved every minute of it.

It's Murder! turned out to be your only acting role. What has been your chosen profession for all of these years?

I turned out to be a science geek with a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering. It’s pathetic; I know things about the Schrodinger equation and Pauli Exclusion Principal that nobody should have to live with, and I sometimes tell “jokes” that only make sense if you understand what Leptons are. It’s not pretty, but in an attempt at rehabilitation I’ve been working with my family to re-connect with the Whiting music. We recently collaborated with a good friend’s record label (Woodward Avenue Records) to do a CD of Whiting songs with the fantastic Wendy Moten, and through my cousin Debbi (Margaret’s daughter) we’ve all become involved with Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Initiative. It’s been an exciting year, because we’ve recently seen Whiting songs pop up in “Boardwalk Empire”, and Woody Allen’s Broadway musical, “Bullets over Broadway”, which has really been amazing.

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