Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > John Strobel (Cronenberg)

How did you get cast as Cronenberg in Escape From New York?

I was friends with his casting director. I already had worked for Carpenter on The Fog. Originally I was a dead body that fell on top of Jamie Lee (Curtis), not a bad job. I also played the "Grocery Clerk" in the opening credits. When we were shooting the scene at the "Canyon Country Store" up Laurel Canyon the police came by and shooting had to wrap up quickly as no permits were pulled for this. Always surprised that I got credit in the film as this was off record to some degree. Debra Hill (Producer) and John knew they were sneaking this bit of shooting which made it more fun really. They told the police that it was a student film as I recall.

How did you prepare for the role and how was the experience filming your scenes such as the one with Plissken choking Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) for instance?

We did run through/rehearse the scene with Kurt and Lee. We actually did one run through with all of us doing a fey act. While very much not politically correct it was pretty funny at the time, especially considering it was Lee and Kurt. Also ran lines with Lee for another scene we did, he was very gracious and giving in doing so.
Small anecdote: The injection device in the scene actually broke before we shot. The wires became unconnected. I had to hold the injection bit and the wire in such a way that the wires looked attached. Just an odd moment but on relatively low budget movies waiting for a repair would have eaten up time.

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

The interesting thing about EFNY is where it sits in the careers of the actors (not me, the stars). For Kurt this was really his first go at an action hero type character. He was extremely focused and took the entire process very seriously and I think it shows in the quality of his performance. I loved working with Lee. I was a huge fan of his work in westerns, especially of the spaghetti variety. On screen his look was terrifying! In life he was the kindest and gentlest guy you could imagine.

Carpenter did not do a lot of takes in general was my impression. He used his storyboards extensively and shot what he needed. I do know that he sometimes had to shoot inserts after primary shooting was completed, stuff like the face of a clock or a hand. Little snips that he needed in editing. Also Carpenter used Matte shots a couple of times if I remember correctly which are fascinating. Even then pretty much a dead art. He also loved fade to black and extended pans (see Halloween) to extend his shots and shift locations which was pretty cool and I got to see a couple of those set up and executed. His ability to shoot on a bridge outside of St. Louis and then shift to the Sepulveda Damn in LA was pretty neat.

It was the late 70's, early 80's what do you think went on?

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

Really meeting and working with Lee Van Cleef. Also meeting some of the other actors involved. Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie) was amazing (his portrayal of Marty was off the charts great, as was most everything he ever did) but the high point for me was meeting Isaac Hayes (The Duke). This was the man who wrote the theme music to Shaft, amazing talent and a very large presence.

Is it true that you were responsible for the EFNY t-shirts sent to the cast and crew after the movie was made? If so, how come you chose to make them and how were they thought up and made?

Jeez, how in hell did you find that out. I had some made up that had a number like on the watch Kurt wore in the picture, so it was something like "00:00:15 To Escape From NY". (I think I used the count down time that was on Kurt's watch when it stopped after Cronenberg deactivates the explosive charges in his neck – not sure about this) Did it just a gesture of thanks is all. Just designed it and had them printed at some t-shirt joint in Hollywood as I recall.

Comment (Kelli Thompson (Garris)/Unit Publicist): "I remember that the film finished under budget and ahead of schedule. I was disappointed that there were no crew gifts. Shortly before attending the cast and crew screening I received a package in the mail. In it was a t-shirt with an image of the watch/timer Snake wears on his wrist and it said something like "21 hours and 23 minutes until Escape From New York!" It was from John Strobel, the actor who played Cronenberg. He personally had the t-shirts made and then distributed via mail to the cast and crew. It appears other crew members got different "I Love Escape From New York" t-shirts. I mailed him a thank you note. When I was at the cast and crew screening he sought me out and thanked me for the card and told me I was the only person that thanked him or even acknowledged his gift. I still have the t-shirt around here somewhere though I cut the sleeves off to make it a tank top at one point."

What do you think of the movie personally?

The older the movie gets the better and more fun it is. It was good when it was released but viewing it now the rudimentary special effects seem somehow quaint and you can accept them for what they are, antiquated. They seem better now than they did then for some odd reason. Kind of like watching an old Roger Corman film now vs. then. It was cheesy then but now viewing a guy in a rubber suit playing the monster, I love that stuff. While CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) is amazing the art of actually filming live action models was cool and is more fun to watch. The interesting thing, and this is news to no one, are some of the locations. Especially the Statue of Liberty shots. I would think security concerns would make shots like that impossible and so they would be CGI. In EFNY it was all shot on location.

One thing to remember: When this film was shot the idea that NYC (New York City) could be abandoned and turned into a big pit to throw bad guys into was not a gigantic stretch. I lived in NYC in the mid 70's and it was nearly as trashed out and dirty as depicted in the movie. I have read that they have tried a couple of times to remake EFNY. The problem is that no one would accept NYC being abandoned. Back then, as I said, it did not take a lot of imagination to accept the premise.

How come you stopped working as an actor after EFNY and what are you currently doing?

I decided I liked eating more than not eating I guess. I co-owned some restaurants in LA for a while which took care of the eating part. Later I owned a logistic business and now I am an Angel investor and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of an equity investment firm focused on commercial real estate.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Playing music, guitar. And the normal stuff, hiking, biking, travel, dining, cooking, reading.

Thank you for your time, John.

Photo: Copyright 2016 Kelli Thompson