My newest interview subject, Elizabeth Shepherd, was introduced to me by my friend Matt Beckoff, who books talents for conventions and recently collaborated with Ms. Shepherd on a CD with her performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s story Ligeia, a story which provided the basis for the 1964 Vincent Price movie The Tomb Of Ligeia, which costarred Ms. Shepherd. Elizabeth has worked in a diverse array of projects over the course of these past few decades, and on Wednesday, September 4th, I interviewed her about them. I hope you all enjoy getting to know her.
Say hello to Elizabeth Shepherd!
Johnny: Hello, Ms. Shepherd.
Elizabeth: Oh, hello, Johnny Caps.
Johnny: How are you?
Elizabeth: I’m very well. How are you today?
Johnny: I’m doing good. I have my questions ready to go…
Elizabeth: Okay. Very good.
Johnny: …Starting with this: The Tomb Of Ligeia celebrates its’ 55th anniversary this year. What are your favorite memories of shooting the movie?
Elizabeth: Oh, I have very happy memories of it. In 1964, before I emigrated, I was not aware of Roger Corman or the Poe series. I knew Vincent Price from Laura, but I didn’t know him in this context, so it was a whole new world for me. We had such a good script by Robert Towne, and then I discovered that, for Roger Corman, this was an epic: We had five whole weeks (laughing) to film, and a whole week of that on location in the beautiful Norfolk countryside. Apparently Roger and Vincent had always wanted to film in a real ruin, and so Roger had scoured the English heritage sites, and had chosen the beautiful Castle Acre Priory for the abbey in our story. I had to learn to ride a horse sidesaddle, so it was quite exciting. Of course, working with these two men, they were both very classy guys, I discovered. I think that Vincent Price has been underestimated for the wonderful classical actor that he was, because he sent up some of his genre horror stuff.
(Pictured above are Elizabeth Shepherd and Vincent Price hamming it up behind the scenes of The Tomb Of Ligeia)
Elizabeth: Victoria Price said in her book that Vincent had regarded these Gothic tales like Shakespeare because of the highly emotional situations where the stakes were very high, and then there was the heightened language, so both Vincent and I felt very at home in that world because of my Shakespeare background also, so he was just wonderful to work with. There was no star posturing with him. He just welcomed me as a fellow actor. Of course, he was such a delightful, charming person, and a very accomplished man in many, many ways, so to meet Vincent Price was very exciting and a very great pleasure. I really, really liked working with Roger Corman because he knew so precisely what he wanted. I don’t know how much you know about how he worked with actors.
Johnny: I’ve interviewed other people who have worked for Roger Corman, and they’ve spoken highly of him.
Elizabeth: Roger took himself to The Actors’ Studio to find out about how we worked and to get some idea of an actor’s process, which was very unusual among directors who weren’t actors themselves. His way of working with us was to talk to us in great depth, before we started filming, about the characters, so that we were all on the same wavelength about what we were aiming for. I had two characters to play, Ligeia as well as Rowena, and of course, he did the same with Vincent, so we didn’t waste time on the set because all that had been talked about already. We knew exactly what we were aiming for, and so that left him free to create the storytelling with his wonderful eye for composition. It’s such a very good-looking film. Roger Corman, because of all he has contributed to the cinema with not just the films he made, but all the directors that he started on their path like Scorsese and Coppola, and his company which sponsored bringing foreign films to America, to me is not just the King Of The Bs, he’s the king of the whole Alphabet!
Johnny: I definitely agree with that. Mentioning the two roles you played in The Tomb Of Ligeia, what mindsets did you have when playing the characters, and did you ever have difficulty switching between those mindsets?
Elizabeth: Well, what was fascinating, of course, was in the film’s mesmerism scene where Rowena, under hypnosis, takes on the character of Ligeia, I was switching between the two. Both were very forceful women, and as a matter of fact, in the original story of Ligeia, Ligeia herself is the star of the story, and Rowena is just a sort of prop (laughing).
Elizabeth: She’s really there as an incidental in the original story, but Rowena, as conceived and created by Robert Towne, is a very lively character in her own right, so I was able to get a lot of her character from our script. In order to create Ligeia, I went back to the original story with how she is described, the intensity of her feelings and, particularly, the quality of her voice, which is what I used mostly to convey the difference between the two characters.
Johnny: Okay. Speaking of Ligeia, soon you’ll be releasing an album with your reading of that story, so what was the origin of that project?
Elizabeth: Matt Beckoff, who has been managing my appearances at conventions, talked to me about this some time ago, and so we decided to actually bring it to life. I was thrilled, really, because the original story is so powerful and intricately written, and so I was very happy to bring the story to life. Although the narrator in the story is a man, the fact that he’s talking so much about Ligeia, I felt like I was bringing her character into it. On this disc, we have also put some of the Edgar Allan Poe poems. Annabel Lee is a famous one, and there’s a poem that was supposedly written to his cousin Elizabeth also that we have included among others, so it’s really a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe as the wonderful writer he was. When I’m not acting, I teach Shakespeare to acting students at the Stella Adler Studio, and I’m very concerned that we need to keep language alive. We’re kind of losing vocabulary these days, and so I was very pleased to bring such a wonderful, heightened language writer like Edgar Allan Poe to life so you can see how exciting language can be.
Johnny: Definitely. He was a fantastic writer.
Elizabeth: Can I just say one thing about The Tomb Of Ligeia?
Elizabeth: I would’ve been amazed, when I made it in 1964, to know that it was still very much a part of my life now. At these horror conventions, I have been really most touched at how these fans love these Gothic movies. Roger and Vincent never thought of these films as horror films. They felt that they were Gothic tales in the nature of how Poe wrote them, tales of mystery and imagination, and so it’s been a great pleasure to me that this film is still very alive in my life. A couple of weekends ago, it was showing on a double bill at The Film Forum, where Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks had created this double-feature program, and put Ligeia with Olivier’s Richard III. There I was at The Film Forum, talking about The Tomb Of Ligeia, and I must say it’s been a great pleasure to me to be associated with it. I’m very proud of the fact that it has survived time very well.
Johnny: It definitely has. It is a fantastic movie, and your work was great in it. To move to another notable project, you played reporter Joan Hart in Damien: Omen II. How did you get involved in that movie?
Elizabeth: I had recently moved to Hollywood. I’d been doing some Shakespeare and things in Canada, and curiosity took me to Los Angeles. Mike Hodges was the original director, and he had co-written the script. They were looking for an English woman to play Joan Hart because this woman was supposedly a friend of David Warner’s character who had to deal with Damien in the first movie. That was how she had been told about Damien, and therefore has explored what he was talking about, which was why she was the first person who knew what the boy was. I had seen Yigael’s Wall, and I was the first one to try and bring the warning to the family. Since** they wanted an English woman, I guess I was in the right place at the right time. I met Lynn Stalmaster and Mike Hodges, and I was cast.
Johnny: It was a very interesting movie, and you had a memorable death scene in it…
Elizabeth: I definitely did. Yes (laughing).
Johnny: …Being pecked to bleeding by Damien’s raven and then being hit by a truck. What went into the preparations for that scene?
Elizabeth: Well, what happened first of all was that a fiberglass mask of my face was made, and supposedly I was going to do all the work with the birds with the mask on. There were three birds, and Ray Berwick, who did the birds for Hitchcock’s film The Birds, was our bird wrangler, so I knew I was in good hands. Of the three birds, Windy was the black bird that was trained to land on that branch. He was the long distance bird, and then Toughy was the one who had been taught to peck blue eyes out, heavy pecking. Big Boy was the one who was taught to land on black hair and peck blue eyes once. I did the whole thing with Mike Hodges first as he was still on the film at that time, so I did wear the mask for the heavy pecking, which was very frightening because fiberglass is extremely thin, and those birds of prey are extremely strong. The beak was as if it was hammering against my eyes, which were squeezed tightly shut under the mask. I was told that the fiberglass would not give way, but it was so scary. We filmed that, and then Mike came to me and said, “Look, Elizabeth, we can’t possibly do any close-ups with the mask. Would you work with the other bird without the mask?”. I liked Mike so much, and I wanted the scene to be as effective as possible, so I said yes, I would.
(Pictured above is a candid behind the scenes shot of Elizabeth Shepherd in Damien: Omen II)
Elizabeth: I was informed by the makeup artist that this was extremely foolish because if there was an accident, and my face was wounded, if I agreed to do it, they would have no liability. This was how we did it. The bird was tied with black threads to my black wig, and then I was handed hamburger in my fingers, so that distracted him from actually pecking me, but it looked as if I was trying to get rid of him. Big Boy and I were the main actors together in the scene as I was running and as if trying to dislodge him. I was scared for the bird then because their legs are so thin, and eventually he would fall and still be tied to my wig. I would catch the bird in my hands, and we would wait then to be rescued (laughing) by the wranglers. I really liked Mike Hodges’ vision of the film because he wanted to explore, more deeply, Damien’s mixed feelings when he discovered what his destiny was to be. There’s the scene between Damien and his cousin, when he has just discovered what’s in store for him, and he’s begging his cousin and friend to accompany him on this journey, and the other boy can’t. In the reading that we did before we started filming, that scene was absolutely heartbreaking because it was filled with real emotions. Indeed, the tension that Mike wanted to build up before my death was such that he wanted a real Hitchcock approach whereby, yes, the car stops and I am alarmed and I see this bird, but that whole part of the scene was drawn out when we first shot it.*There’s a feeling of danger that both I and the audience are feeling, but then the bird disappears … I see a farmhouse ahead and I think that I am walking to safety, so I and the audience relax and believe “Oh, nothing is going to happen now”, and then THAT’S when it happened. WHOA! (Laughing) That’s much more frightening, the tension leading up to the attack, and then the attack takes everyone by surprise. But the producers wanted blood and gore up more quickly. They didn’t want that Hitchcock tension, so Mike Hodges was let go. I was very, very disappointed because I would love to see the film that he wanted to make. The original Omen film was very scary, and it also had great class, and Mike intended to make it even more classy, even more scary, and to explore the journey that Damien has to travel in himself. My death scene was redone, and it was still very scary and is still an amazing scene, but now I get out of the car, there’s the bird, I’m scared, the bird attacks me, I get my eyes pecked out, get hit by a truck, and on to the next scene. I would’ve loved to have seen the scene as it was originally intended, and the film as Mike Hodges had conceived it. But even so, it was still in the time when the horror of stories was told through the stories about people. Nowadays, the emphasis is much more on special effects and montage, and we actors are there less as the main action of the story. Times have changed as far as “horror films” are concerned, so that’s the story of Omen II.
Johnny: Cool. I have to ask this: Are there any figures in this era that you feel might be the equivalent of Damien in terms of evil?
Elizabeth: Oh, you know, I don’t know how I can answer that because there’s an awful lot of films I have not seen.
Johnny: I was actually talking more in real life than in fiction.
Elizabeth: Oh, the devil in real life. You mean our politicians (laughing). They’re leading us in very dangerous directions, and are not paying attention to the fact that there are bombs in this world that can destroy us all. Climate change is going to do that, anyway, and we have to do something about it. To me, that’s the devil’s work, ignoring how to keep our planet and our human race alive. Ignoring that is the equivalent of Damien in my opinion, yes.
Johnny: I can definitely see that. Well, on a lighter note, I would like to ask about some of your TV work, starting with this: As the show is reported to be lost, what can you tell me about the series Amelia, and your work as the title character?
Elizabeth: Amelia…That was based on a classical novel by Henry Fielding, who also wrote Tom Jones. Amelia was this TV series I made years ago in England, and then I was in the movie Amelia (laughing), about Amelia Earhart, but very, very different. I did lots of those classical series. Buddenbrooks, for instance, the Thomas Mann novel. Frost In May, which was from four books . I did tons of what used to be Masterpiece Theater series. I mean, Masterpiece now is all Downton Abbey, but I did a lot of those miniseries: The Cleopatras, Bleak House, By the Sword Divided, The Birds Fall Down.
(Pictured above is Elizabeth Shepherd on Buddenbrooks)
Johnny: Alright. Since you did mention Frost In May, that was also an early credit for Daniel Day-Lewis, so what was it like to work with him?
Elizabeth: (Laughing) Oh, yes. Well, that was his first TV appearance, as far as I know. He played my son-in-law, and played a very intricate character. He played it beautifully, and it didn’t seem as if he would immerse himself in the character like we’ve seen now in the big films he has made, where he gets into character and stays in character for the whole of the filming. He was very available in those days, and very charming, as they say. Although he was a young leading man, he showed what a brilliant character actor he was from the very beginning because the character he played was not straightforward at all. Daniel really understood that, and brought him so truthfully to life.
(Pictured above is Elizabeth Shepherd in Frost In May)
Johnny: He is a fantastic actor. To go from live action to animation, according to the IMDB, you voiced the character of Infinity on several episodes of the 90s Marvel animated series Silver Surfer.
Elizabeth: Yes, yes!
Johnny: What was your favorite part of working on that show?
Elizabeth: Oh, that was fun. John Neville, he was Eternity, and I was Infinity, and we were the Twin Gods Of The Universe (laughing), so that was great fun to do, and then it was supposed to go on to another season. We were all set for a new season, but then there was a quarrel between the show’s two producers, so the whole thing fell apart. It was extremely disappointing because I was enjoying myself. I have a wonderful Silver Surfer jacket.
Johnny: So do you ever break out the Silver Surfer jacket when you’re out and about?
Elizabeth: (Laughing) Very occasionally, and I’m hanging on to it. My son will get it eventually, but I still enjoy it, and I hope I don’t get rumbled in an alley where someone wants to take it (laughing).
Johnny: Alright. Well, to jump back to the big screen, you played Frances in the Michael Sarrazin/Anthony Perkins movie Double Negative. What do you recall the most about that shoot?
Johnny: Cool. To jump from the screen to the stage, of all the plays you’ve been in, which have been your favorites to perform?
Elizabeth: I have performed in a lot of Shakespeare, which I love. You know, obviously Juliet and all those young ones. I particularly enjoyed Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. I love that play because I think one of the great wish fulfillments in life is that, if great damage has been done at one point in your life, the wish is if only in the end could it come out right. In that play, it does, (although, as I say, a great damage was done,) so I enjoyed playing Hermione very much. Of course, there was the Lady Macbeth, who I think has been maligned as an inhuman woman, but she actually has to gear herself to help her husband get what she knows he wants, the crown. She’s a very human being, which shows in her later grief and guilt and madness. One of the wonderful later roles I did was in Henry VIII. The role of Queen Katherine of Aragon is most beautifully written. She was a remarkable woman in life, evidently, and in the extremely moving scene in the court, when she’s pleading with Henry not to go through with the end of their marriage, Shakespeare uses the very words that she had used in real life. He amplified them somewhat, but it was more or less exactly her words, her heart that she put into words.
(Pictured above is Elizabeth Shepherd in Henry VIII)
Elizabeth: As I was waiting in the wings to go on to that scene, I felt as if I was channeling her waiting in the wings to go into that courtroom to plead for her life. That was a wonderful role to play. Other roles…Blanche DuBois was one of my favorites. It was one of the most demanding roles. You really have to go to that extremely painful place to get inside her, but Tennessee Williams is a poet of the emotions like Shakespeare; I enjoy his world very much.
(Pictured above is Elizabeth Shepherd in A Streetcar Named Desire)
Johnny: Alright. Since you did mention Macbeth, is the old theatrical superstition about not mentioning the name Macbeth when rehearsing the play something that’s real?
Elizabeth: Oh, yes, yes. I mean, theater people tend to be superstitious anyway, you know, knocking wood, because our lives are so precarious (laughing). I’ve heard that one reason why he wrote Macbeth at that time was that the new king, James, who came in after Elizabeth, was extremely interested in witchcraft. Bringing in not only the witches, but that kind of evil onto the stage, and the trickery to lure somebody, to use their own fatal flaw to lure them to their death and destruction, some people feel that those incantations and spells had something of reality to it. Of course, there is quite a lot of malicious fighting, but I think in that play, Macbeth and The Lady do not start on the dark side. Between the two of them, they encourage each other to commit murder, and once you cross to the dark side, then you are in very dangerous uncharted waters. It is very painful in the way Shakespeare goes inside Macbeth and his Lady, and what it does to them, the ruthlessness then with which he has to try and protect himself. To act in that play, you are dealing with very dark emotions, and so I think there are reasons, with all the people who have had accidents or died, that there’s something superstitious, because you venture to the dark side and you have to do a lot to try and keep yourself safe. I would think that all those things contribute to why that superstition about the play has grown up, and I find that when I was doing a Chekhov play in Montreal, there was a young actress who wasn’t aware of this, and so she said the unforgivable thing. The guys in the dressing room on the other side of the hall heard this, so she had to go out of the dressing room, turn around three times, and go through all the rituals to undo the bad spell before she could be let back into the dressing room (laughing). Yes, there’s a lot that has grown up around that, and I respect it and follow. I would not quote the Scottish play inside the theater, and there are some people who take it very, very, very, very seriously. They kind of freak out if the rules are broken.
Johnny: That’s a fascinating way of looking at it. When it comes to your stage work, what stage role would you most like to try that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
Elizabeth: Well, I would certainly like to play Queen Katherine again now that I am older. You know, when reviewing the roles and thinking of all the roles you would’ve wanted to play, I would be interested to play some of the roles that I did earlier as an older woman. It’s interesting. In Beatrice and Benedict, for instance, they are older lovers, but if they had more baggage behind them, that makes for an interesting work. I think I’m kind of interested in a series or a play or a movie that may come along. I must say that the one role I wanted to play, and I did play a few years ago, was Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy. That, I loved doing. I did it, so I don’t have to wish for it again, although I wouldn’t mind playing it again, I must say.
(Pictured above is Elizabeth Shepherd in Driving Miss Daisy)
Johnny: Alright. To go to a different tack, you’ve appeared at several conventions in the past, and will be heading out to some more of them to promote your recording of Ligeia, so what’s been the most rewarding part of attending conventions for you?
Elizabeth: Oh, to meet the fans. As I say, I have been extremely touched by them as to how ardent they are. You know, when you’re making films, you don’t meet the audience, and so it’s a way, really, to connect with the audiences of my films that I’ve very much enjoyed. We’re going to Baltimore next week to the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Con, and then we’re going to Boston, November 15th and 16th, for the New England Super Megafest. I’ve been in touch with Victoria Price, and we’ve become quite friends. We’ve met on several occasions, and she’s going to be in New York at the end of October, and then she’s going to Chiller. I know that Matt has been talking to Chiller about me. I understand they don’t have so much horror this time, but if Victoria is going, it would be quite appropriate for me to go as well to Chiller. I think they’ve got more sort of corporate guests and stuff happening this time?
Johnny: Well, what I know about Chiller is that it still has a lot of horror there, but it has a lot of regular pop culture, too. I’m attending this October, and with any luck, you’ll be booked for that and maybe we can meet in person. That would be really cool.
Elizabeth: It would be grand. I know Matt Beckoff has been in touch with them, and I was due to talk to Victoria about it. I’d love to meet you in person. It would be fun.
Johnny: Yeah, definitely.
Elizabeth: That would be great if we were both there.
Johnny: Well, when it does come to conventions, what’s been the most wonderful piece of memorabilia you’ve signed, whether at a convention or through the mail?
Elizabeth: Sometimes people have found photographs that I’ve never seen, but really, it’s people’s memories of what the movies have meant to them that I treasure most of all. You know, I keep those letters and personally reply to them. Somebody recently had seen practically EVERYTHING I had ever done, and it was absolutely amazing. When they take the trouble to write to me to tell me how much they enjoy my work and wish me well and ask, of course, for an autograph, I will send them the picture and write on it, but I’ll also send them a personal thank you note as well. I’m thanking them for taking the trouble to write because people telling me how they feel about my work is extremely touching and rewarding and satisfying, so I think that is what I treasure most coming from the fans.
Johnny: Alright. When it does come to pictures, I have to ask this. There’s a rather stunning picture of you on your Facebook fan page of you in stockings and garters and a bustier, this really good-looking ensemble. Where did that come from?
Elizabeth: (Laughing) That must be me in a modern dress production of Tartuffe in Canada. Moliere’s play Tartuffe is about a hypocritical preacher who is trying to get money out of this wealthy man, and also trying to seduce the wealthy man’s wife, me (laughing). At the time, it was some years ago, Madonna was on tour with Like A Prayer, and also there were various TV evangelical men who had been caught having an affair with their secretary or whatever with them then coming on television and crying about it. They were really doing a Tartuffe in modern times. Of course, when Moliere wrote this play, it was a modern play that was satirizing this kind of hypocrisy, the people who pretend to be so religious. Tartuffe, in the scene where he seduced me, I tell my husband to go under the table so he can watch this, and it will prove to him what Tartuffe is really like. I am dressed like that because of Madonna, her Vogue-ing and all that, and we danced at the curtain call to her song “Like A Prayer”, so that was where all that came from.
(Pictured above is Elizabeth Shepherd in Tartuffe)
Johnny: Cool, and that’s a great-looking photo, if I may be so bold (Elizabeth laughs). I now come to my final question, and it’s this. I’ve asked this of other performers who are either British, or have spent time in the U.K, so I’d like to ask it of you: Which do you find funnier, The Benny Hill Show or Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
Elizabeth: Monty Python, yes. I mean, Benny Hill was a very basic kind of bathroom/schoolboy humor with women with big bosoms and everything, but Monty Python has the element of Sartre and satire, often based on very literate things. Of course, they were all university men. I find that extremely clever, and goodness me, with what’s happening in England at the moment, where is Monty Python when you need them? I mean, it is Monty Python come to life with what’s happening in British politics at the moment. Oh, my goodness (laughing), so that’s my answer about that.
Johnny: Well, that means Monty Python is now up 2-1.
Elizabeth: Oh, good (laughing).
Johnny: Well, that does it for my questions…
Elizabeth: I wonder if you were curious about me and The Avengers?
Johnny: Okay, I do have a question about that: Did any of your work as Ms. Peel survive, or was it all wiped?
Elizabeth: No. I think it was all wiped, although there’s a photograph, and I’m told that my hand appears in one shot somewhere. If anybody ever finds any of my footage, that will be a treasure. But you know why that started? When I was cast, Julian Wintle, who has just taken over the series, cast me and said, “Oh, Elizabeth, we’re going to put it on film, not on tape. It’s going to be 10 times better, and we welcome your own ideas”. It was fatal saying that because I inundated them with ideas, and that’s the reason they felt I was too much (laughing). That was the reason I didn’t continue. That was my enthusiasm, for which I would have been quite ahead of my time. One of the things that I suggested was a computer watch that would give me information about the assignment, and what wardrobe would be needed, and all that kind of stuff. With this computer watch, I would’ve been ahead of Apple by decades if that had been allowed. They did bring me an enormous watch one day, and I was thrilled. It was like a diver’s watch, and they took it away at the end of the day, saying to me, “Oh, Elizabeth, we only showed it to you so you could see how silly it would look”, that kind of condescension. If you’re a woman, you should not tell them your ideas until the second or third season, where you are then indispensable, I discovered afterwards (laughing).
Elizabeth: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed talking to you, and I hope we meet.
Johnny: I hope so, too. Thank you very much, and I hope you have a fantastic afternoon, Ms. Shepherd.
Elizabeth: Yes. Thank you very much, Mr. Caps.
Johnny: See you later.
I would like to thank Elizabeth Shepherd again for doing this interview, and I would like to thank Matt Beckoff for setting it up. For more on Elizabeth Shepherd’s work, you can visit her official website (where most of the pictures in this interview came from) and her Facebook fan page (where you can get information on how to purchase a signed copy of her already acclaimed recording of Ligeia, produced in part by Redfield Arts, which she has also been performing at recent public appearances).
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview is a new conversation with Kathleen Wilhoite, whom I previously interviewed via e-mail for my former writing base, RetroJunk, in 2011. Stay tuned.