Interview with Richard Lawson
Above, Richard Lawson ("Ryan," on the far right) looks into the children's bedroom at some poltergeist activity.
Recently I spoke with actor Richard Lawson, who played the parapsychologist Dr. Ryan Mitchell.
1. Can you talk a bit about how you got the role of "Ryan" in "Poltergeist," and what it was like working on set? What was it like working with all of the visual effects, and have you kept in contact with any of the cast/crew over the years?
Steven Spielberg saw me in a play called "Streamers" by David Rabe. It was opening night and the play was a huge success that night because we got three standing ovations. My character "Carlyle" was the antagonist in the play. He kills two people during the course of the evening. I was standing backstage talking to Jack Palance when over my shoulder I overheard someone say "You see Steven, he's not like the character". I turned around to see Steven Spielberg and his then wife, Amy Irving. Steven proceeded to confirm that he had no desire to meet me, because anyone who could play that part, must be like the character. He went on to say that it was one of the most powerful performances he had ever seen. And I was like a time bomb and that kept him nervous the entire evening. He thanked me for my performance and wished me well. That was in 1977. I finally had a chance to work for him in 1981 when we shot "Poltergeist".
It was really incredible working on the set because it was such a small cast and such an efficient crew. Everything was storyboarded, so you knew exactly what the day was going to be like. Steven is so prepared, that shooting the movie seems like the easy part.
Visual effects are interesting in that it's 100% imagination because there's nothing there. The actors are looking at a stick with a white tip on it so that everyone's focusing on the same point and everyone is playing something different. One person may be playing the "awe" of it, while someone else is playing the fear. My character was always fascinated and interested.
2. What was it like when you finally saw the film with an audience (at that point I'm sure you realized you were in a big hit!)?
I first saw the film in a screening before it was released. I knew it was going to be something special but I had no idea that it would be such a big hit.
3. In the novelization, there are some scenes which were apparently thought up by the writer James Khan, and others from the script, which were not in the finished film. Did you read this book? It's really good. Some of the differences are very interesting. For example, unlike the movie, it is Tangina who leads the paranormal investigators to the house. Ryan and Marty design this contraption to monitor her brain waves while she sleeps (she's been having bad dreams). With Dr. Lesh, they then set out driving and "follow" the signals emanating from the EEG readout, until they get to Cuesta Verde. Do you recall any scenes being shot which either involved your character or other scenes which didn't make it into the final film? On the trailer, there is a brief shot of Jobeth Williams saying "That thing is in there with my baby!" as well as Beatrice Straight looking at the monitors saying "There are hundreds." Both of these lines were cut out.
No, I didn't read the book and most of the things we shot as I recall made it into the film.
4. Regarding the sequels: Were you ever asked about appearing in "Poltergeist II"? Apparently Beatrice Straight's character Dr. Lesh was written into the script initially, but then she backed out and was replaced by Zelda. I think II would have been much better had they found some way to include Lesh, Ryan, and Marty. In addition, what did you think of II and III? Tobe Hooper once claimed that his and Spielberg's original idea for part II was to have the National Guard cordon off the neighborhood, while a scientific team is assembled to enter the flashing blue light which consumed the house. That sounds more interesting than what MGM ultimately came up with.
I was never contacted by anyone to do the sequel. I thought it was kind of strange but what are you going to do? :-)
5. If there is a fourth film ever made, would you consider appearing in it (assuming it was a good script)? There have been some rumors off and on that MGM was considering this. Original co-writer Michael Grais even has a title as being "in development" listed on his web site called "Poltergeist: In the Shadows."
Yes, I would consider doing a fourth film. Let's see what happens. Maybe this 25th anniversary will stimulate more interest.
6. Were you ever approached about appearing in the upcoming 25th Anniversary DVD release, and do you plan to see the movie in the theater again for the one night only showing?
I was interviewed along with everyone else. I haven't seen anything yet but I'm sure they'll be some kind of release. If you hear of anything let me know.
7. Any other interesting memories from the making of the film you'd like to share?
Just that it was a wonderful experience working on the film. Craig T. Nelson and I worked together twice after that. On a series called Chicago story and on his series "The District".
I'd like to thank Mr. Lawson sincerely for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out his web site at www.richardlawson.net
Also, here's some excerpts from a 2005 interview that Richard did with Larry King regarding a plane crash that he (Richard) survived:
Richard Lawson, TV and movie actor, who by the way is best known for a two-year stint as Lucas on ABC's "All My Children." What happened?
RICHARD LAWSON, SWITCHED SEATS, SURVIVED JET CRASH; PASSENGER IN ORIGINAL SEAT DIED: I was catching a U.S. Air flight 405 from La Guardia to Cleveland.
LAWSON: March 22nd, 1992. And I was going to -- I was doing "All My Children," but I was also working for the NBA Drug Education and Training Association, so I was going to Cleveland to have a meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And I was trying to beat the snowstorm that was coming supposedly Monday morning.
So I left my house about 7:00, and the snowstorm hit. By the time I got to the airport, it was just a mess. And so got on the plane, had strong feelings about it.
KING: Plane took off, though?
LAWSON: Plane took off, going down the runway. I knew the plane was going too slow, I could feel it. We took off, and immediately started going to the left, banking hard to the left, and I knew we were going to crash. I knew we were going to crash the moment I started to get on that plane. That was my premonition.
LAWSON: Yeah. And so...
KING: Why didn't you get off?
LAWSON: Well, that's a good question. And I wrote a -- I'm in the process of trying to finish a book about why didn't I get off.
KING: You switched seats, though, right?
LAWSON: I switched seats from 6-A to 1-F.
LAWSON: Well, because the flight -- the ticket agent recognized me, and he wanted an autograph for his wife. I gave it to him, so he gave me a first-class seat. So I went to 1-F.
KING: The person in 6 died?
LAWSON: The person in 6-A died.
KING: How many died in the crash?
LAWSON: Twenty-seven people died; 24 people lived.
KING: Do you remember hitting the water?
LAWSON: I don't remember hitting the water. I remember the sky lighting up outside the window, and I remember it was like in slow motion. I was very, very conscious, in present time, and I lost track of, like, when the plane hit the ground again, that it went into some kind of spin, and we wound up in the water. And I was under water, trapped in my seat.
KING: Freezing, right?
LAWSON: Well, I wasn't aware of the cold.
LAWSON: Not at that point, no. I wasn't aware of the cold until after I got out of the plane and got on land that I was soaking wet, covered with jet fuel, and then I was in freezing temperatures.
KING: Who pulled you out?
LAWSON: Well, no one actually pulled me out. I got up out of the water after I decided that I was going to live. And somebody -- an unknown person stuck their arm through this hole in the side of the plane, and pulled me out of the plane. And I got on top of the plane, and a piece of the plane that had been bent over like a sardine can. And then there was this -- I guess some flame hit a pocket of jet fuel. We all jumped off, and walked around the front of the plane, which we discovered at that time was only five feet deep.
KING: You weren't in deep enough water, so you were able to walk?
KING: Do you believe god was with you there?
SEYMOUR: I -- yes, I believe. I believe that there is some spiritual entity that's greater than us. I do not belong to any specific organized religion. I have always believed that, and I believe it even more so now. I believe that someone was listening to me, and someone is giving me an incredibly blessed life.
KING: You lucky, Matthew?
LAWSON: Richard? Yes.
KING: Richard, I'm sorry.
LAWSON: That's all right. Sure, I -- you know what, I am lucky.
KING: Cause you switched seats?
LAWSON: Well, I mean...
KING: But the other guy wasn't.
LAWSON: No, the other lady wasn't, and it was funny, because the -- there was two ladies that took those seats, and the first lady, who sat in 6-A had a weird feeling at Kendra St. Charles (ph), and she asked to move -- to change seats with her friend. And so I sat there first, and then she sat there, and we both had -- you know, something happened that changed that seat, and that lady that wound up sitting there didn't make it.
So, yes, I am very lucky, but I'm very fortunate to have had that experience. I think experiences like that, for whatever reasons we are blessed enough to be the ones to survive it, gives us something that, I think, that few people have.
KING: You'll never be the same.
LAWSON: No. No.
KING: Richard, how have you changed?
LAWSON: I don't think that I've changed a lot other than to sort of confirm the things that I always knew. I have -- dove into the aspect of creation, art, writing. I've written a book. I'm now doing the things that I've always wanted to do, and I'm sort of -- I'm more walking the walk than talking the talk.
KING: Are you afraid to fly?
LAWSON: Not at all. Not at all. I'm a great flyer, because what I realize is -- you know what my philosophy is? I live every day like as if that's the last day on Earth.
KING: Tim McGraw's song.
LAWSON: Maybe so. But I expect to die at the end of the day. And, so therefore, I'm going to make sure I get it all in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Investigators are laying out the pieces left from Sunday's U.S. Air Flight 405, looking to explain the plane's failure to stay in the air just after lifting off. The commuter jet bounced over an embankment and broke into pieces, with most of the bodies spinning upside down into Flushing Bay.
LAWSON: And I was completely pinned under water. I didn't think I was going to live. As a matter of fact, the thought that I had was, you know, just be calm in this death, just be calm. Don't fight and struggle, you know. And so -- then another voice came to me and said, you know, get out of here, you can do this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SEYMOUR: Well, actually, my sister had a brain aneurysm. And just before she collapsed, her brain aneurysm, she clearly saw my father who had died exactly four years to the day, to the hour, that she collapsed. And she saw him sitting right next to her. So that was very bizarre. But that didn't happen to me.
KING: Did you have anything like that, Richard?
LAWSON: Not flashing before me. I mean, what flashed before me was this truth, and this, like, I was saying to you about that plane, I knew that the plane was going to crash.
KING: Still you got on?
LAWSON: I still got on. And it's that voice, that battling of that one side of you that knows the truth and the other side of you that is just euphoric in nature, and wants to be satisfied. That middle class part of me made me stay on that plane.
BADERINWA: And I appreciate this caller from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thank you so much for calling in.
You know, for me personally, I've never really looked at myself as a victim, because there are so many people who actually die from this experience. I just did the story on Giuseppe Papandrea, father of six, 61-years-old, he didn't make it. But both of us, we survived. And I would just encourage you to look at that, instead of looking at this negative experience, turn it into something positive. Try to take this experience and say, well, why did I survive? What am I to do with my life now? And try to live it to its fullest. Not one moment did I ever think that I wasn't going to make it. That I wasn't going to pull through this, even though I have a permanent disability with my arm. You continue with life.
KING: Very well put. I notice you're nodding, Richard.
LAWSON: Yes. You know, I think -- you know, it's an interesting thing, this post-traumatic stress. The easiest thing to do is look at the problem. If you're trying to look for a reason why, you could stay forever looking for why. If you're looking to solutions and looking to what is good in your life and what is positive in your life, and you get rid of the people who are negative and dark in your life, you have a greater chance of surviving. It's not about why you did it or why it happened. It's about, well, what do I have? And what's in front of me? And what can I do? KING: Very well put. We'll be back with more. Don't go away.
KING: What about you, Richard?
LAWSON: Well, when I was under water for close to two minutes probably, there was a -- there was a moment where I did think that I was going to -- that was it, because it was in this plane crash, I was under water, I couldn't move. All of the data that I had going through me said, there's no way. And then there came a moment when my will became stronger than the circumstance.
KING: You wanted to live.
LAWSON: I wanted to live. And that was true for a lot of people who -- there was 27 people that died and 18 people drowned, and there's 24 people who lived. And a good deal of the people who lived talked about the similar experience of getting to a place where death was imminent, and they knew it, and they made a decision to live. And that's one of the things that I think I'm very well aware of today, that living is a choice.
KING: Let's get caught up on things now for these folks. What are you doing now, Richard?
LAWSON: I'm teaching, where I've taught for the last 25 years, at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. I started this new camera technique class called the Richard Lawson's on-camera class, and you can find it at RichardLawson.net. And it's changing actors' and people's lives. It's really a revolutionary kind of thing. I'm using technology to really, you know, show people how to really act on film.