Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > John Cothran Jr. (Gypsy #1) (Phone Transcript)

How did you end up being an actor?

I started acting when I was in high school and I majored in theater in college. Around twenty-one or twenty-two I finally made a commitment that I had to make a living at it so I started acting professionally in my early twenties. I had a lot of jobs before that but acting was always my first love.

How did you get cast as Gypsy 1# in Escape From New York?

I was in Kansas City, Missouri working at a repertoire theater and my agent called me and told me that they were shooting a feature film in St. Louis. Kansas City which is where I was, was about four, five hour drive from St. Louis. I lived in St. Louis but I was working in Kansas City. I agreed to drive to St. Louis and I auditioned not realizing that it was gonna cause me even more problems. I auditioned for John Carpenter and he was surprised that I was a real actor because he was in Missouri. He wanted me to do Gypsy One and have a couple of lines but I wasn't a member of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) so that meant I had to make a trip to Chicago to join the Screen Actors Guild which cost me I think more money than I got paid to do the film. But it was unusual that a feature film would be shooting in St. Louis. That's how I got cast. They were shooting in St. Louis which is my home town and I was already an actor. Escape From New York was my first film. I had never been in a feature film before. All of my work had been in the theater up until then.

How did you prepare for the role and how was the experience filming your scenes?

Well again, it was such an unusual experience because it was my first film and Escape From New York was an incredibly complicated action film. They used the old Union Train Station which had fallen into complete disrepair and wasn't used anymore. It was quite a showplace in the fifties and forties. I was a gypsy and the whole Union Station was transformed into a real. How can I say. It was the place the Isaac Hayes character (The Duke) ran. He was in control of the city and that room where the big fight took place was the main hall of the train station. I had a lot of friends who were in the film too. A lot of people I knew in St. Louis were used as extras so it was just an incredible first time experience. I worked on the film for I think two days and hung around probably for another five or six days just hanging around talking to people. Lee Van Cleef (Bob Hauk), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Donald Pleasence (The President). I was smitten by Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie), that's for sure. We all knew her from television. She had been on Maude. It was just a fun experience and I remember my big line was. I had to make Snake get off the table and I had a crossbow. I had buddies in St. Louis for years who would always tease me about my line, "Get up, Snake!, Get up, Snake!" If I remember right, that big scene, get off the table and leading him into the arena. We did that maybe two or three times. The time consuming part of that was once we got him into the arena he had to be put into the ring in the fight and that took forever. That fight with the big hairy guy with the club with nails in it that was quite something. That was a world that was completely new to me. Like I said, I had never been on a film, let alone an action film so seeing how that was done was incredibly interesting. His death and all of that was new and exciting stuff for me and Isaac Hayes back then was iconic. He was only known in the music world so this was a big deal for him to be acting and for him to be there you know, acting and giving his big speech to the hall was. We were all excited by it.

The costume designer decided what we we're gonna wear you know. Everything was. I mean, they made real choices because the people who populated the city had to look a certain way. You know, the underlings. If I remember right there were like two different kinds of people that populated the city. Obviously the convicts and then the regular people had been reduced to almost a homeless kind of look you know.

How was the experience working with the cast and crew and what went on behind the scenes?

Again, I was all new to that
and because I didn't have a major role my involvement with the cast and crew was very minimal you know. I wasn't one of the people that got the chance to really talk to them or deal with them. My memory was, they were all you know, pleasant and nice to everybody. I did have one friend who lived in St. Louis who injured himself. He had to jump off a train or something, a boxcar and he really hurt his legs very badly. That caused him problems for years. The insurance you know, production company took care of him and all of that because of it. I just remember that my interaction with the crew and all that was minimal but the interaction I did have was pleasant. I didn't have any problems at all and they really took care of us.             

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

My favorite memories of working on the movie has to do with, as an example, it was the first time I had ever seen a hand-held camera, a steadicam (panaglide). That was a new thing back then you know. They were just beginning to start using the steadicam and that whole scene of us walking down the hall leading Snake to the auditorium that was shot with a steadicam. So just watching how things were done was my most favorite memories. Just being a fly on the wall and watching how film worked.

My next favorite memories certainly is you know, meeting people like Ernest Borgnine. I remember having a really pleasant conversation with him in the front of the train station. He was a big deal you know.

What do you think of the movie personally?

I think it's a really fun movie
and it was really ahead of its time. I mean, think how many movies we've had since then that deals with that kind of subject matter you know, the disinigration of a city and in fact right now I play the President of the United States on a show called The Last Ship. This last season I became the President of the United States in the last eight episodes. It's a show that deals with an apocalyptic kind of thing that's going on in the world. I think Escape From New York was one of the first films that dealt with that kind of thing going on. That's basically what's happened to New York. It's been walled off and it has returned to the most basic and primitive of mans instinct so it was ahead of its time, even in terms of the technology that was used in the film. You know, the digital time on the watch and all that was stuff we hadn't seen before. It turned out to be such an iconic film but when it was being done none of us knew really what we were in and what it really was. I'm not even sure I was given an entire script because I know when I finally saw the film I was wide-eyed at what was going on. I didn't really know what was really happening. At that time if you didn't have a major role you only got sides of the pages you're involved in.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I'm just a regular working stiff actor. I live in Sherman Oaks, California. I do a lot of television and occasionally I do theater still. If you go to IMDb you can see I've been staying pretty busy over the years. I feel incredible blessed about being able to practice the craft that I love so much. I have a family. Just a regular guy.

Thank you for your time, John.

Gypsy #1 Costume Design Drawing By Stephen Loomis here.

The Duke of New York Costume Design Drawing By Stephen Loomis here.