I set out with my Polaroid camera to photograph and interview disappearing Hollywood—the directors, actors, special effects artists, producers, even composers, who’ve had great influence but have since fallen under the radar. This is a record and a reminder of the true soul of the movies.
Grease (1978), Laserblast (1978), Midnight Madness (1980), WarGames (1983), Surf II: The End of The Trilogy (1984)
When Eddie Deezen turned 18 his father offered to buy him a Dairy Queen, but Eddie had his sights set on showbiz. By mixing his innate geeky character with elements he admired in Jerry Lewis and, oddly enough, Daffy Duck, Eddie Deezen created and personified the nerd character and moved to Hollywood. It wasn't long after he arrived in Los Angeles that he started booking parts in movies just in time for the 80s. As Eddie Deezen lays out the faults he turned into movie star assets, and laughs about them shyly, I realize this is why people love and remember him (and I made a playlist of all his best moments here). He took his presence and presented it as a character who is comfortable with being geeky and awkward and just rolled with it, paving the way for future nerdy actors like Dustin Diamond and Jaleel White.
In Disney's 1980 film Midnight Madness Eddie plays the leader of the White Team, a debate team full of nerds who aren't afraid to compete against a bunch of stupid jocks. In Surf II, Eddie stars as Menlo Schwartzer, a maniacal teenage scientist who creates a chemically-altered soft drink which turns its drinkers into mutant zombie punk rockers in a diabolical scheme to rid the beaches of surfers. In the 90s, Eddie was in line at Pioneer Chicken on Sunset Blvd., when some gang members started making fun of an obese woman in line. When they started making pig sounds, Eddie spoke out and told them to shut up and punched one of them in the face. Unfortunately, his punch had no effect on the man whatsoever, a point that Eddie likes to have a laugh about after he tells me this. The men then assaulted Eddie and he was rushed to the hospital.
Perhaps this is the reason Eddie was not cast in Revenge of the Nerds. It takes the entire film for those nerds to gain the confidence to stand up to the Alpha Betas. Eddie would have walked up and punched Ogre in the face.
VICE: Many people claim you are the first actor to characterize a nerd. Do you think you are a nerd?
Eddie Deezen: Yeah, I suppose I fit the characteristics of a nerd. The history is, Harold Lloyd was probably the first in the silent era. Then Charles Martin Smith picked up the character in American Graffiti, but dropped it after that film. It was dead for about five years until I picked it up. I started the whole nasally voice spastic kind of a nerd.
How do you define a nerd?
We all live in three universes. You have your own universe, the universe of me. Next, we are all here and this is the physical universe. Then there is everybody else's universe. The nerd is too stuck in their own universe. Most of us come out of our universe. Like you, you come out of your universe and you go around talking to people about movies, you meet people. The nerd is stuck--he doesn't want to come out and interact. That's why some get into comic books and are scared of girls and whatnot. To live a full life, you have to visit all the other universes.
Why do you think a nerd winds up getting stuck?
Stuff happens to us along the way. In this life or in past lives, stuff has happened to us that makes us who we are. Jack the Ripper wasn't just born that way. Barack Obama wasn't just born that way. Things that happen is what makes us what we are.
Do you have any of the quintessential nerd traits?
I'm definitely a big reader and I can't get women. I love women, but I can't seem to get women. I wear glasses. I have scoliosis, my back is crooked, so I walk funny.
Although your characters are often nerds, they always seem to be strong and able to stand up for themselves. Is this something you consciously put into your characters?
Jennifer, I know this sounds so dumb, but I swear it is true--I got a lot of it from the cartoon character Daffy Duck. Daffy was crazy and very funny, but he was also very bold and aggressive. Daffy is my all-time favorite cartoon character, and I really did pattern the boldness and aggression of many of my characters on him. If you look closely at my films, you can see it.
So, I watched Surf 2 last night...
It's a great movie! I think it is a film that deserves a massive cult following. It's just as funny as Naked Gun.
You know there is no Surf 1? A lot of people say that's the best thing about the movie. Lots of girls in bikinis, I like that! The name of the director was Randall Badot, I think he just wrote it out of the clear-blue sky.
I read that he had been in the hospital after a surf accident. He was on a bunch of painkillers and wrote the whole story in four days. He said Surf 2 came to him in a vision. He also claims he wrote the character Menlo Shwartzer specifically for you.
That's hilarious! That would come out of him and that type of mindset! Last year they had a screening here in town and I got to see Randall Badat and everybody again. It was great. You know, ironically enough he did a sequel of WarGames, which nobody saw.
I love your character in WarGames.
Thanks. Yeah, that character was the first computer nerd, that guy. That was the first time I had to use cue cards. I could never remember the line "data encryption algorithm." I kept forgetting and forgetting, that was the hard one. The director took me for a walk and said, "Look kid, you're costing us thousands and thousands of dollars. We're going to have to get you idiot cards." So I read the whole thing off of cue cards. Not long after that though, the director, Marty Brass--who directed Beverly Hills Cop--got fired. He was fired after twelve days of filming. Then they got John Badham to finish the movie.
I also love Laserblast.
You are amazing for knowing this stuff!
I take it most people on the street recognize you for your role in Grease?
Yeah, isn't that weird? I had the smallest part, but that film had the widest release.
As a kid, I used to reenact Grease with the neighborhood girls.
The effect that film had on girls is an unbelievable thing. It's kind of missed by culture. That is the most watched film EVER by girls. Two girls I know said they broke their tape, they watched it so much. Girls just watch it over and over. I think it's OK, but I don't like it as much as girls do.
What was it like on the set of Grease?
It was electric. It was so much fun. We were all kids. Although a lot of people laugh about how everyone at Rydell high was 30 years old. I was 20 at the time. I used to get up at 5 AM to take the bus across town to the set, which was at Venice High School. That was until one day I was in makeup and Dennis C. Stewart, the man that played Crater Face, said to me, "You take the bus? Well not anymore." From then on he gave me a ride everyday. John Travolta was a big star but he would make it a point to walk over and say hi to me everyday. He was really nice. One day on the set someone came up to me and said, "Hey Eddie, do you want to meet Frankie Avalon?" and I wimped out. I'm a big fan of Beach Party films so I was too afraid to meet Frankie Avalon. Years later, I was finally doing a signing with him and I got to talk to him. He allowed me to sit with him for about ten minutes while I told him how much I loved all those Beach Party movies. He was a totally nice guy, a great guy.
Eddie, my research tells me you are a Scientologist.
Yes, but I haven’t been very active lately. I was raised in Judaism, and I have deep respect for that religion, and all religions. At least the religious are "looking for something," "the answers," whatever. I can understand how a nihilist or an agnostic or an atheist can come to their conclusions because "finding the answers" is, as we all know, not an easy thing. I looked very deeply to find God, I used to go to the local church all the time with an older lady who befriended me named Mrs. Kelly. She was a nice lady, I used to pray so hard to find answers, to help me reach my goals, you know, all the things we all pray and look to God for. I was always "looking," maybe because I had so much spare free time as an unemployed actor. I was always free to do whatever I wanted, and I looked into many different things: psychics, Christianity, the bible, praying, going to church, talking to others.
Did knowing John Travolta influence you to seek Scientology?
Knowing John Travolta, meeting him, seeing what an extraordinary guy he was, just such a nice person, such a kind human being, did make me think, but it was probably my first impulse of curiosity concerning Scientology. Around the time of WarGames I was unhappy in my personal life and somehow I was introduced to it. Now, I'm not going to tell you everything, it's something you would have to try for yourself and see if it works for you. I'm never the kind to place my beliefs on someone else. Everyone has their own path to happiness.
Do you feel that Scientology gets a bad rap?
Yes and no. Like I said, it works for some people. It helped me a lot. It just gave me some tools to make my life better. Humankind is in a terrible state: Suffering, misery, poverty, cruelty, hate, these are all such common things. I believe there is a greater side to people, I do not believe it "has to always be this way."
Did you ever feel like an outsider in Hollywood?
No, not really. I have had a really fun life. After The Polar Express, Tom Hanks brought me to three Dodger games. He knew I was a real baseball nut and he also loved athletics, so we went to a few games together. I used to have a neighbor that I would take care of. He had Lou Gehrig's disease, his body was falling apart, so I took him to my first baseball game with Tom Hanks. My friend couldn't talk very well, but I'll never forget, we sat him down and Tom Hanks came around and sat with my friend for a long time. He is such a kind man. We became pretty good friends. When he talked to me I felt like I was talking to Elvis, it was just surreal. I'd always think, I'm talking to freakin' Tom Hanks. I'm trying to look casual. Then I'd ask him things like, "Which of your movies have been parodied in Mad magazine?" I'd ask him all kinds of crazy stuff.
What are some of your favorite Tom Hanks films?
Excluding The Polar Express, obviously. I do like Forrest Gump and The Green Mile, oh, and That Thing You Do. That's an underrated movie.
You would like that film because you're a Beatles fanatic AND Surf 2 is a total "Beach Party" movie, so Eddie, I think you got to do everything you've ever dreamed of doing in Hollywood.
Hahahaha! You're very astute!
Previously - Off Hollywood - Vernon Wells
Some of Jennifer Juniper Stratford's portraits are currently showing in ”Instant Revolution” at Polaroid’s Impossible Project Gallery with other Polaroids by James Franco, Maripol, Mary Ellen Mark, and Gary Baseman. She also created that weird, amazing epic music video play with Geneva Jacuzzi called Dark Ages for us. And we did an interview with her here.