Horror Icon Robert Englund On His Life as Freddy And His Half Century On Screen

Classically trained, the actor became famous as the center of the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' franchise—after missing out on 'Star Wars.' He talks about his long career and the new documentary 'Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares.'

Robert Englund in the documentary ‘Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares.’ Courtesy of Cinedigm

Robert Englund has the distinction of being the only actor classically trained by England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to portray one of those demented, demonic slashers that populated the movie screens of the 1980s. Under the name of Freddy Krueger, he sliced-and-diced bodies with his extended steel-plated claws and gave nightmares—followed closely by grisly deaths—to his victims, whose vigilante parents had torched him to a crisp. All this in Installment One, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.

After that, Englund tells Observer, “Freddy’s makeup took three-and-a-half hours, but that, no means, was the  longest session I had in the makeup chair. Stephen King’s The Magnum was almost a five-hour job when I did that. And The Phantom of the Opera”—that’d be a 1989 gore-fest telling of the tale, the soundtrack of which did not feature Andrew Lloyd Webber—“was about a four-hour ordeal.”

At right, Englund getting his Freddy Kruger makeup applied, which took three-and-a-half hours; at left, the results. Courtesy of Cinedigm

The jolting surprise smash of the first Nightmare on Elm Street saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy. Its budget was just $1.1 million, and it raked in $57 million. (No wonder New Line was  referred to as The House That Freddy Built.) Critically, it came in #17 on Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and Freddy ranked #40 among AFI’s 100 Years list of film villains.

Installment One naturally triggered A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge a year later. In a brand-new ghastly makeup, he began a reign of cinematic terror that would last until 2003. 

All in all, Englund played Freddy Krueger eight times, equaling a record shared by three other thespian bad-guys: Brad Dourif’s Chucky, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw and Doug Bradley’s Pinhead of Hellraiser fame.

His favorite kill as Freddy was “the boy with the hearing aid from Part Six.” That’d be The Final Nightmare (it wasn’t) from 1991. “I pumped up the volume on him,” Englund says. “It was so politically incorrect, but Freddy doesn’t discern. He doesn’t care if you have a disability decal on your car. He’s still coming after you. He’s an equal-opportunity killer.”

Englund ended the series with a million-dollar salary, fighting another fright-franchise survivor—the hockey-masked Jason Voohee of Friday the 13—in Freddy vs. Jason. Who won that, you might ask? According to Englund, “I think Jason kicks my ass, but, when he falls asleep, I’m in his head and I get him.”

Englund shows his Kruger claws. Courtesy of Cinedigm

His career in film and TV has kept him busy for the last 50 years, but Freddy remains the professional ghost that won’t die. Which is a good thing.

Specifically, it brought Gary Smart and Chris Griffiths to Englund’s doorstep—a couple of cult-screening guys who spent two years putting together a documentary biography of sorts called Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story. It’s to be released on Screambox and Digital on the sixth of June—D-Day, which, funnily enough, is the actor’s 76th B-Day.

“Gary and Chris are genre-fans as well as being overall film buffs,” Englund says, “and so knowledgeable that I said, ‘I’m going to let these guys into my life a little bit.’ They began following me around to film festivals and screenings. When they showed up in L.A., I invited them down to my home. Covid interrupted the process, but they still assembled a documentary from talking to my co-stars and people I’ve known in front of and behind the camera over the years. Basically, they did a little film about what it’s like being a surviving character actor in Hollywood for half a century.

“This, literally, is the 50-year anniversary of my first starring role, which was in my first movie—Buster and Billie, with Joan Goodfellow and the late Jan-Michael Vincent. It was a true story.”

Englund kicked around a decade before he made the Krueger connection. To date, the actor has amassed hundreds of feature films and television episodes—plus four network series.

His highest-profile role before Freddy thundered onto the scene was that of Willie, one of the reptilian extraterrestrials in V, NBC’s 1983 blockbuster series about an alien invasion. 

Among the roles that got away: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise—though Englund does take a measure of pride in the fact that he recommended Mark Hamill for the role of Luke.

Born in Glendale, Englund put in three years at UCLA before dropping out and transferring to Michigan’s Oakland University where he trained at a branch of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I auditioned in England, but I was unable to stay because it’s not an academic school. I couldn’t use it as a deferment in the draft, which meant I‘d be sent to Viet Nam—and I was terrified of that—so, when I came back to the states, I was blessed with a letter that said they were opening a branch in the U.S.”

The majority of the Nightmare movies sprang from the fevered brain of writer-director Wes Craven. “He was very, very smart,” says Englund of his screen mentor. “I hesitate to guess his I.Q., but he was a brilliant man and very academic—yet he kept this 14-year-old boy alive in him. He loved those adolescent bad jokes and bad puns. Still, he was very wide in his range of tastes.

“I’d  visit Wes at his house, which was the old Steve McQueen bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills. Every time I went up there, there was a new, great book on the coffee table or great, new records he had found. He was always playing catch-up because he had been very sheltered as a child. His parents wouldn’t allow him to see TV. He was only allowed one Disney movie a year.”

Because the frightening side of Freddy was so easy to slide into, fans are genuinely surprised at how friendly and brainy and accessible Englund is. Mostly, he has been successful at keeping the supernatural serial killer in check. “Where Freddy manifests itself is when I’m on the road and somebody cuts me off. I’m not proud of that. I think it’s because you open certain doors in your psyche when you’re an actor, and one of the doors to my anger is permanently unlocked.” 

Another image of Englund that you probably never considered: Like any self-respecting, longtime resident of Laguna Beach, he surfs—or did. “I was a very active surfer into my 60s,” the actor confesses. “But I don’t surf anymore. I got too many injuries that start coming back when you age. I couldn’t take the risk of having a wipeout now and injuring my spine again.”

Pity, that. It must have been quite a sight, seeing an iconic boogeyman riding a surfboard.

‘Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story’ will be available on Screambox and digital on June 6, 2023.


Horror Icon Robert Englund On His Life as Freddy And His Half Century On Screen