Derrel Maury kicked off his acting career with a healthy stint of television work throughout the '70s, including early appearances on Adam-12, Barney Miller, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Shazam! and Happy Days, as well as recurring roles on One Day at a Time and later, Joanie Loves Chachi.
He also landed gigs on the big screen, including parts in the sci-fi thriller Looker (1981) and the Nick Nolte actioner Who'll Stop the Rain (1978).
Genre fans will instantly recognize Maury for his star turn as David - the teenager from hell - in Rene Daalder's superior horror-revenge film Massacre at Central High (1976).
The actor continues to work these days, appearing in such fare as Wasteland (2011) and Hobgoblins 2 (2009). He agreed to return once more to Central High and discuss his memories of shooting Massacre, easily one of the best teenage comeuppance flicks ever.
The Terror Trap: You’re a California native, correct?
Derrel Maury: That's right, a California native.
TT: Grew up in L.A.?
DM: Yup. Born in the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, and I’ve been here 68 years. I’m 57.
TT: Oh, we've got a joker on our hands this time, eh? Okay, take us back to your youth. When did you realize you wanted to go into acting?
DM: Well, my dad was a Theatre Arts Professor at UCLA, and he and my mom - who was an English teacher and a stage actress - used to do plays together. I would see my parents on stage all the time. I was probably around five or six when I met Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton and Edward G. Robinson.
My dad and mom would have these Thanksgiving parties and invite students from UCLA and teachers…people that my dad knew.
My parents took us to silent movies when we were little kids, and I'd meet these great stars in our home and it would blow me away. Dad used to play tapes to help put us to sleep. In the old days, we had reel to reel tapes. He made these recordings of interviews with Laurel and Hardy…and he had these Al Jolson records. He put them on and the first time I heard Al Jolson, I went nuts. I used to imitate him. I’d goof off and be a showoff kind of kid and sing Jolson songs at the top of my lungs everywhere we'd go.
TT: Did you do “My Mammy”?
DM: I did “Mammy,” “Swanee,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “You Made Me Love You.” I still do Jolson. I did a medley recently at the 35th anniversary of a theatre out here called the Victory. I was invited to join Linda Purl. There were about a dozen of us and I did my Al Jolson. It went great.
TT: That’s cool.
Now, early in your career, you appeared in a string of television shows such as Adam-12, Barney Miller, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, The Partridge Family, Shazam!, Emergency! and Barney Miller. What were those beginning years like for you?
DM: That was exciting for me. The first thing I ever did was a Marx Toys commercial. Remember those old toys? “By Marx!”
DM: I also did Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and a bunch of other commercials as well.
TT: What did you think when you first saw yourself on TV?
DM: It’s funny…when you’re watching television, they don’t tell you when a commercial is going to be on, unlike a show where you know it’s gonna be on a certain night and time. I was in our game room watching TV and I was by myself and I came on. I just freaked out. I was like, “Oh my God, look there I am…I’m on TV!” I was running through the house, jumping up and down, screaming.
My dad was outside and he came rushing in and said, “What’s the matter with you? What’s going on? Is your mom okay?” He was very upset and when I told him I just saw my commercial, he replied, “Damn it, Derrel, don’t ever scare me like that again. I thought your mom was hurt or something. Big deal. Acting is just a job, like anything else. Like being a plumber. Relax.”
Dad was right. I adopted this theory of "just doing my job." However, doing those jobs was really exciting. And when I was on shows like The Partridge Family, I was always very excited to be working. I like hanging out on the set and learning as much as I possibly could. For me, one of the most thrilling parts of that learning experience was sitting in and watching the writers just tear the script apart.
TT: Oh, really?
DM: Yeah, like you’d go in on a Monday for your first read, say on Barney Miller or Happy Days or whatever - and they would give you your script. You’d read it out loud and the writers and everybody would hear how it’s going. You would come back the next day and there’d be re-writes. And you’d start all over again. By Wednesday, you’d start rehearsing and there would be a preview for the producers and writers at the end of the day. And they would do it again, just ripping the script apart.
I was fascinated by that process. Of what was funny and what wasn’t funny. And what worked and what didn’t work. I loved that part of it. Still do.
TT: Tell us about the difference between a guest appearance on a show versus a recurring role, of which you had several.
DM: That’s kind of an interesting change of events because all actors want to stop going on auditions. (Laughs.) We all want to turn that corner where the work is steady and you have a place to hang your hat. Somewhere consistent to call home.
I did a lot of guest appearances on shows, which was fun even though it was sporadic. It was a weird transition to go from auditioning and beating out other people for a job - to people calling you and offering you work. Or auditioning for a job and then getting consecutive work, which happened with me a number of times. Happy Days, Joanie Loves Chachi, I played Jughead on the Archies series…and I was in a show with Rue McClanahan and Dabney Coleman called Apple Pie.
TT: The Norman Lear series?
DM: Right. We only did seventeen episodes and I think they aired ten of them. It was a crazy concept. It took place in the thirties, right after the Great Depression. This mother, played by Rue, put an ad in the newspaper for a family. Jack Gilford played the grandfather and I was the son. Lear produced it. It got attention because it was so offbeat. People tuned in at first but it was a very odd concept - even though it was funny. It never did click and get the attention it deserved.
Dabney Coleman was great. He’d get into all these fights...more like healthy arguments...okay, they were fights, with the writers about what was funny and what wasn't funny. He was generally always right.
TT: What was Jack Gilford like?
DM: Jack was one of these seasoned professionals who had been around since the old days of Burlesque. So, coming from my background of appreciating all the silent stars because of my dad, Jack was a complete delight. I hung around him a lot. He was extremely funny and could make you laugh without saying a word. I truly loved him. He was a great guy.
TT: What was the most fun thing you did in terms of your TV work?
DM: That’s a good question. I had so much fun on so many of those shows. I had a blast playing Jughead on The Archie Variety Show. We sang a different song every week and there were different guest stars. I really enjoyed being a part of the Archie gang ensemble. And Jughead was such an iconic character. Great fun to play. I wish it had gone longer.
What’s funny is that in the original casting, they cast David Caruso as Archie. He looked so much like Archie. He did two weeks of our three week rehearsal and then they replaced him with another terrific actor named Dennis Bowen.
Caruso always thought of himself as a Jimmy Cagney type of guy and I think he hated being Archie.
TT: In 1976, you appeared in the feature Cat Murkil and the Silks AKA Cruisin’ High. Was that made prior to Massacre at Central High?
DM: Yes, it was made about a year before.
TT: That was about gang warfare, correct?
DM: That’s right. I’m the leader of this gang called the Silks, and the weakling in my gang is named Cat Murkil. He’s a kid and a punk. I pick on him constantly. I put him down in front our gang, our girls, everybody. He hates me for it.
So he finally decides that the way to show everyone how tough he is, is to get me out of the picture (literally) and take over my gang. For fun, I would take my boys out joyriding, looking for other gangs to shoot up in drive-bys. We'd get in our cars, cruise around, look for trouble and start shooting everybody.
At one point, one of these rival gangs sees us cruising around, gets the jump on us and riddles our car with bullets. I end up slamming the car into a tree. When I come to, my door is swung open and my gun’s on the ground. Cat Murkil is standing there, picks up my gun and shoots me right between the eyes. I think he takes over my gang. I don't remember. I was dead.
TT: Did that film lead to Massacre in any way?
DM: No, they weren’t related. Except that I was getting my first taste of killing and being killed on film and enjoying the hell out of it.
TT: Tell us how you got the role of David in Massacre at Central High? Were you up for the part originally?
DM: No I wasn’t. In those days, I was kind of a scrawny kid playing lots of character roles. Well, I say kid but actually I was 23 when I was cast as David, who is seventeen/eighteen. Because of my small stature and youthful look, I played juveniles well into my thirties. I was more known for doing comedy, character voices, impersonations, singing, and I have this kind of sitcom energy about me. So when my agent called and told me I had an audition to play Rodney, it came as no surprise.
You remember Rodney, of course?
TT: The guy who gets blown up in the car…
DM: Right. A bit nerdy. Born on a farm. Loves chickens. So I read for the role of Rodney and thought I could make him kind of fun. Sort of the guy you feel sorry for because he's such a loser.
When I went to my audition, it was in this big building down in Hollywood and I walked in and immediately met Rene Daalder, the film's director. I think he was the only other person in the building. Anyway, he asked me the usual "how are you?" I told him, "Great." I then asked him, "How's it going with you?" He started complaining.
TT: About what?
DM: That he had all these characters to cast for the film and he had about a week to get his cast together…he had thirteen principal characters to find actors for, felt way behind and didn't know what he was gonna do. I said, “Listen, let me know if there’s anything I can do to lend a hand. I'd be happy to help with anything at all.” And he replied, “Well, will you look at the script and go through it and suggest people to me?”
I said, “Sure.” So I went outside and I read the script and about an hour later, I came in with a list of people that I thought could play certain roles. I wasn’t even focusing on one specific character, thinking I was auditioning for Rodney - which I did later after discussing my list.
I read for Rodney and about a day later, I got a phone call from Rene at my house. He said, “Hi, Derrel, this is Rene Daalder…you read for me yesterday on Massacre. I really enjoyed meeting you and I’d like you to play the lead role in my show.”
And I said, “What?” He threw me for a loop by asking me if I wanted to play David. I said, “David? Which one's David?" That's how out of it I was. "Okay, have you talked to my agent?” He said “no.” I told him to call her and I hung up! (Laughs.)
TT: Why did you do that?
DM: I was just too stupid, too stunned, whatever. That had never happened to me before. My agent called me and said, “Hey, Derrel…did you just get a phone call from Rene Daalder?” I said, “Yeah.” She asked if I had hung up on him. I replied, “Yes, I told him to call you.”
TT: And what did she say?
DM: She said, “Call him back right now!” She gave me his number and we started talking on the phone. He told me he was serious and I asked him why he was offering me this job. Rene said it was because David is a mensch. Do you know what that is?
TT: Someone who does good deeds for people?
DM: Exactly. He said, “That’s what YOU did when you came in here and spent all that time reading my script and offering to help. That’s how I see David.” I replied, “Okay but I’m gonna be honest with you…after reading the script, I wasn’t focusing in on this character. I’m going to need your help on this.”
We got along great. I ended up practically living with him and his wife Bianca. They rented a house up in the Hollywood Hills and I went there every single day and night. So anyway, that’s how I got the job and ended up being cast as David in the film.
TT: You served as sort of a casting director and got the lead role yourself…
DM: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. Funny how these things work.
TT: Do you remember who you had recommended for some of the other roles, and did Rene take your advice?
DM: Oh, I just recommended some character people in town and some old friends of mine, and just started making that list out for Rene. I remember putting Steve Bond's name down. And there was a friend of mine named Meegan King, whom I had gone to high school with and who also worked on Cat Murkil. I had also recommended my brother Jason Randal.
I didn’t think of myself as a casting director necessarily. I just offered to help. If Rene had told me he was having trouble fixing his pipes, I would have said, “Do you have an extra wrench? Let me give you a hand.” I do a lot of casting now with plays, which is funny…
TT: He was right, because that really is what the character of David is all about.
DM: David doesn’t really ask a lot of questions. He sees someone in trouble and he just jumps in and gives them a hand.
TT: What did you think of the script as a premise when you first read it?
DM: Oh, I thought it was really cool. First of all, I had a lot of things to assess. The first time I read it in Rene's office, I was looking at it like okay…here’s a kid (David) who’s eighteen, nineteen years old. The librarian (who Dennis Kort played wonderfully) - he's gonna be an intellectual snob/nerd. And there is this one girl, she’s like a real sex kitten. So I was looking at the script in that sense, in terms of who could play the characters.
When I brought the script home after being cast as David, I read it again and started to really focus on the story. It was then I became aware of this really interesting plot structure. It reminded a bit of Lord of the Flies. Here you've got these kids that are being repressed and when their oppressors are taken out, they start, one by one, filling their empty shoes, assuming the same human characteristics while jockeying for new social positions.
TT: That’s right.
DM: I loved that there were no adults in the film. I thought that was pretty fun. You don’t really know going into these things as an actor, unless you’re working at Warner Bros. or Universal, what their budget is gonna be or how it's going to look. I think Rene only had a dollar fifty to make this movie.
The production value was pretty short, but the structure of the telling of the story was so unique, so different and fun. It made it stand out amongst a lot of other films. Here it is 35 years later and people are interested in Massacre. It’s fantastic.
TT: Did you have any trepidation going into it about the dark and somewhat exploitative premise?
DM: No, no. I wasn't some "squeaky clean, fresh off the bus" kid. I was a pretty goofy sort. Got into my fair share of trouble. I had observed enough of "the dark side". I also had a pretty dark sense of humor back then. My family certainly wasn’t Father Knows Best, but it was a normal environment. Except that we were kind of in showbiz.
I went to stunt school when I was a kid because my brothers and I used to fight all the time and my dad thought we would kill each other. So he put us in this stunt school in Santa Monica. I was in there from the time I was about eleven until I was seventeen or eighteen. I had the best time learning fight techniques and safety with these really rowdy guys….big wrestlers and karate guys and professional stunt men.
I didn’t lead a sheltered life so the plot of Massacre didn’t worry me. Or the darkness of it. If anything, my reservations were about being able to pull off this part and do justice to it because I had, up to this time anyway, always thought of myself as a comedic character guy. I could have played Rodney with my eyes closed. That was my kind of thing. And here I am being offered the part of this inventive guy, this silent but clever killer. THAT made me a bit nervous. (Laughs.)
After I did the film, my agent started sending me out as her “young Charles Bronson” - which I thought was funny. Ridiculous but funny.
TT: What was Rene like on the set as a director?
DM: Rene was great. First of all, being a foreigner...he had this unique perspective. He’s a brilliant guy. He used to be a music producer back in Holland. He just had this great, great sense of intelligence, direction, humor. He was a really well-rounded guy.
Rene was young, about thirty-two at the time. He was like a big brother. Off set, we would joke around and, like I mentioned earlier, I practically lived in his house. He came to my place one time and I was actually living in a garage and had built a loft with my bed and furniture…and he started laughing.
I remember he said, “This is great. I cast David!” (Laughs.) It wasn’t QUITE as bleak as what my environment was in the film, but it was one of my transition times. He and I just clicked. We hit if off and I loved being around him. His wife was also very charming and sweet. My parents had a cabin up in Bass Lake and we went up one weekend and spent some time together up there.
On set, he was extremely professional. He always knew what he wanted, and had a great way of explaining either an emotion or a shot that was being set up. I guess maybe coming from Europe, he drank regularly. And smoked regularly. I remember there were crew members who made a stink about whatever they thought was wrong with his drinking…
TT: Did that have any effect on the filming?
DM: I never saw an effect on set or in his work ethic. There WAS an incident one day where the crew wondered if we were gonna continue making the film and Rene started laughing and said, “What are you guys talking about?” It all got worked out in that meeting but I thought the crew was kind of ridiculous. I mean, they were all getting high and whatever else as well.
I was very impressed with his approach, his professionalism, his friendship…just about everything. He was a huge help to me.
Just to reiterate, not one cast member ever complained. I think the crew was jealous because they were working their butts off. When you’re doing an independent film, you’ve got such a little budget and you’ve got so much to do in such a short period of time. He worked everybody pretty hard, but he worked harder than anyone else. Rene was burning the candle at both ends.
We’d get home after shooting and he’d be up all night rewriting. You know, he wrote the original music for the show as well…
DM: Yes, because he was a musician and had musician friends. Being a record producer in his home country, that was his thing.
He came up with this eerie, beautiful theme song and called it “David’s Theme.” It was just fantastic.
TT: Why wasn’t it used?
DM: One of the producers wouldn’t let him use his music because he didn’t have charts. Rene wasn’t able to produce sheet music…any written notes on a piece of paper. So the producer said, “We’re not using your music. We’re not paying you for it.” It would have given that film a whole different feel.
They ended up hiring Kimberly Beck’s stepfather Tommy Leonetti to do the music, and it came out in sort of a Mod Squad kind of style. I never liked it because I heard the original. Those who never heard the original music that Rene created probably enjoyed what was in the film. “Here at the Crossroads of Your Life.” (Laughs.)
TT: So “David’s Theme” was darker?
DM: Yeah, “David’s Theme” was this interesting, intricate kind of jazzy New Wave thing. It was kind of where music was going. It was just fascinating. I remember the first time I heard it, I thought it was sensational. It was like you were feeling what was in David’s soul through that music. It was remarkable. I was so frustrated when it wasn’t used.
TT: It sounds great!
The biggest motivation for David and his subsequent acts of revenge is the fact that Bruce cripples him by causing the car to fall on him. When you watch the movie, it almost seems as if it could have been an accident. What do you think?
DM: No, I think it’s pretty specific. They come to my garage to ask me to join them. Mark had convinced them that if I’m this good in beating them all up and controlling things the way I'm doing…it would be better to have me on their team.
So they literally come to ask me to join them and I’m under the car and I say, “Fuck you, I’m not one of your stooges, I’m not joining you.” And Bruce says, if I remember correctly, “Fuck it…I’ll get him out.” There’s a shot of him putting his foot on the gurney thing and he shoves it. To me, I wouldn’t say that was an accident. It seemed pretty deliberate.
Whether he knew that car was gonna jack down or not, and have it land on me…that was just pleasurable circumstances for him. I think he went in there to recruit me. And then when I gave him shit about it and it wasn’t going his way, he thought, “Okay…this is what I wanted to do to the guy anyway.” If I had just come out from underneath the car by him pushing that thing, the three of them would have picked me up and tried to beat the crap out of me. (Laughs.)
TT: So if the group intentionally caused David harm, he’s almost justified in how he reacts…
DM: Yes. That’s the turning point, when he goes on his revenge kick. I don’t know that his motivation for his actions was just that one act, though. I think there were a number of things. He’s got this lost kid Mark, that he had saved from another school…and Mark is now being the same kind of student he had saved him from earlier.
He’s got this girl he’s in love with that he can’t do anything about because she's dating his old friend, which has to be tormenting him. He’s probably seen all these types of kids at this school before, and the oppression they’re under, and that's just ripping his conscience apart. And then he’s got this schmuck of a gang that he can’t stand. It’s not even just his interaction with them…it’s looking at them, they way they dress, the way they act - everything about them.
So David’s got all these elements going on...including the way he was raised, whatever other problems he had as a kid, the way his psyche exists…he had all this brewing inside of him and it was probably just a matter of time before the shit was gonna hit the fan. Remember - David was a runner, which was established in the first shot of the film during the credits when you see him running on the beach. And that’s taken away from him when Bruce and his friends come and do that physical damage to his body.
So, I think he had A LOT of motivation to be on the path that he finally chose.