Larry Cohen is the creator of the cult TV series The Invaders, and has also been the writer/director of numerous film projects. His work includes It’s Alive (and it’s two sequels: It Lives Again and It’s Alive III: Island Of The Alive), God Told Me To (the first film to feature legendary comedian Andy Kaufman), and Q (also known as “The Winged Serpent”). He also wrote the script for the 2003 Joel Schmacher film Phone Booth.
With release of The Invaders first season on DVD (see the review, Mr. Cohen spoke with GoD about the The Invaders, his relationship with maverick director Samuel Fuller, working with Andy Kaufman, and some of his other projects.
Geeks of Dooom: I appreciate this opportunity to talk with you about The Invaders and some of your other projects I’ve enjoyed. I’ll try to make this concise and not ask a million questions you’ve already been asked.
Larry Cohen: Can you ask me a question I’ve never been asked?
GoD: Probably not, but I’ll try.
LC: Good for you. Thank you.
GoD: Walk us through this a little bit. There had been some science fiction on television in anthology programs like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. There had been some science fiction shows in the 1950s like Captain Video. How did you pitch an on-going science fiction TV series that follows the same premise each week, when there was really nothing like that on TV at the time?
LC: I didn’t think about that, I just thought there was nothing like The Invaders on TV, and it might be something we could sell. It was unusual and different and it was time somebody did it. I wanted to do something in a thriller mode that didn’t have a lot of hardware and a lot of (different kinds of) spaceships. I didn’t want to do a show with people wandering around other planets or bouncing around in space suits, although that kind of show became very popular with Star Trek. I don’t know if you remember, but Star Trek was not originally considered a successful show. But over the years it acquired a following and became huge. With The Invaders, we were only on two seasons. The show didn’t play again until The Sci Fi Channel picked it up and ran it for a few years and then it was gone again. Now the DVD is out.
I’m glad they waited a long time to bring The Invaders out, because they’ve brought out many old TV shows out on DVD and now with The Invaders, it will give people something new to look at. Hopefully people will say: “I didn’t know about this show” and come look at it.
GoD: I think of The Invaders as being sort of the first crack in the mirror that was American TV. It was the first TV show that said “The military might not be what they seem” or “The police may not always be the good guys.” There wasn’t a lot of that on TV at the time. When The Invaders first aired on TV, everyone respected authority figures and trusted the government and The Invaders kind of questioned all that.
LC: I went into ABC (TV network) and in those days you only had to deal with maybe one or two TV executives that were at the top level and if you were a writer who was known like I was, you could get them to listen to you. I had sold a TV show called Branded, a western with Chuck Conners and another TV show, a mystery called Coronet Blue for CBS, so it was easier for me to get a meeting with the top guys. I just went in there and pitched it to them and they bought it on the spot.
Today if you went to sell an idea to a network you’d have to be dealing with 11 or 12 people. Then they’d take notes. Then somebody would go down the hall and tell the story to somebody else until it finally reached someone with the power to buy it. When a story or concept for a TV show is told second-hand, you can only imagine how well it’s told. The concept would be destroyed by the time it was repeated again and again.
I was told they were interested in The Invaders by the two top executives at ABC and walked out of there with a commitment. Before I knew it, they were scheduling the show and we didn’t even have a pilot (a “prototype” episode that explains the series premise and characters). Then they (the network) brought in Quinn Martin to produce it and they were the top production company and had already made The Fugitive.
GoD: I looked up the database for The Invaders and I was amazed at how many great actors had been guest-stars on the show. You had Suzanne Pleshette (From The Bob Newhart Show), Roddy McDowall (from the original Planet Of The Apes movie series), Jack Lord (From Hawaii Five-0), Michael Rennie (from the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still), and many others. How were you able to attract so much remarkable talent? Did you have anything to do with the casting?
LC: I had nothing to do with the casting, but I was pleased. Quinn Martin went after the top people available to guest-star on television.
GoD: The Invaders wasn’t a show with an ensemble cast like Star Trek, or even a two-man show like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. where you had two actors who could play off each other’s acting strengths. Roy Thinnes (who played David Vincent, the series only lead character) had to carry the whole show. Can you tell us a little bit about working with Roy Thinnes?
LC: Roy had done The Long Hot Summer, which was an ABC show. It was not on long, but it was a good show. Roy was very well received in the show. Everybody thought he looked like Paul Newman. I thought he did a very good job and he is a very good actor.
As you say, he had no one else in the show until the second season when Kent Smith came on as the millionaire who was funding David Vincent’s crusade against The Invaders. My original idea was to create kind of a Mission: Impossible task force that would work with David Vincent so he would have people to work off of, but they (the network) didn’t listen to me.
It was also originally pitched as two half-hour shows each week with a cliffhanger, like the old movie serials I saw when I was a kid. ABC elected not to do The Invaders that way, but they used the idea on the Batman TV show. That was my idea. They took it from me and used it on Batman instead.
GoD: You we ahead of your time. When I look at the popularity of The X-Files, I remember The Invaders was first, before the interest in that kind of topic really peaked.
LC: There is no question The Invaders influenced The X-Files. Chris Carter (The X-Files creator) was a fan of The Invaders and used Roy Thinnes several times as a guest-star as a little homage to The Invaders.
GoD: I have here on my desk a 1967 Whitman “Big Little Book” called The Invaders: Alien Missile Threat. I also seem to remember an Invaders board game and a model kit of the alien spacecraft. Although The Invaders was only on TV a few seasons, I seem to recall seeing several Invaders items. Did you have anything to do with market Invaders merchandise? Were you allowed to help decide what kinds of Invaders items would be sold?
LC: ABC has their own merchandising division. They put out several books including hardcover books. There were paperbacks. There were also paperbacks in Spanish that served the South American market. I have copies of most of these things.
GoD: There are a lot of legends about the way you wanted to conclude the series. I’ve heard there was a script for the final episode that revealed David Vincent was actually working for another group of aliens who were trying to prevent the Invaders from taking over so they could conquer the Earth themselves. I’ve heard that it was going to be revealed in the last episode that it was all a dream. If The Invaders had gone on five or six years before cancellation and there had been a series finale, how would you have liked to see it all end?
LC: I never wanted it to end. I would have liked it to still be on today. The problem is, if you end a show and tie it all up, it eliminates any interest in reruns. They found out with The Fugitive that when they solved the crime at the end of the series and captured the killer and the story was resolved, the reruns didn’t do well. After that, they decided it was not a good idea to cap these stories off, the audiences don’t want to see them again if they know the ending. So I think we would not have ended it, just kept David Vincent battling against the aliens into infinity.
GoD: I understand what you mean. I remember that on Twin Peaks, once we discovered who killed Laura Palmer, it took the excitement out of the show.
LC: That’s a good example. Once they resolved the crime, the reruns did not do well at all. Networks have a fortune invested in these TV shows. You never make as much money on a dramatic show as you make on situation comedies — that’s where the big money is. At the time of The Invaders, there wasn’t a big rerun market but we had hoped the show would maintain itself in reruns. I think part of the interest in the DVD will be that you have to draw your own conclusions on how it all may end.
GoD: I have read you were friends with movie and television director Samuel Fuller (director of movies including The Big Red One and Shock Corridor and TV series episodes The Virginian and The Iron Horse). I’ve always been interested in his work, how did you meet?
LC: I liked him. He also worked as an actor and I hired him to work on a movie I wrote and directed called A Return To Salem’s Lot. He had a big role in that movie and worked for four weeks. He had been doing movie parts where he did little “walk-on” appearances. When he saw the script he said, “There’s so much dialogue.” I told him, “Sam, this is a regular part in a movie. We’re going to take four weeks to shoot your scenes.”
He was great. He was a writer and a director and he had been a soldier and reporter. His biography, which came out a few years ago and won an award and is worth reading. He was a wonderful guy to be around. He was always in a good mood.
I met him because I had bought a house in Beverly Hills and I found out Sam Fuller had owned the house. I ran into him at a party and told him I bought his old house. He said his new wife had never seen that house and asked if he could bring her over. We became friends and I saw him right up to the time he passed away. He was a good friend and a big supporter of my work.
GoD: In addition to Samuel Fuller you also worked with legendary comedian Andy Kaufman in your movie God Told Me To (also known as Demon and God Told Me To Kill). In fact, you were the first director to use Kaufman in a film. What made you decide to use a comedian in a horror/ science fiction movie?
LC: I saw his act at The Improv (comedy club) and I was impressed. I had a part open in a movie and I thought he was going to be a star and I better grab him before somebody else does.
I asked him what size suit he wore and what size shirt, because I needed to get him a policeman’s uniform for the movie part. He said, “I don’t know what size I wear.” I said, “Andy, you’re a grown man, how can you not know you wear?” He said, “I wear my all my father’s old clothes.”
When we shot the scene he was in, we didn’t have any sound equipment. When he had to say his line of dialogue: “God told me to,” we didn’t have any way to record it. So when we put the film together, I did his line of dialogue. That’s my voice coming out of Andy’s mouth. Later on when the movie came out he said, “How did you get my voice in the movie? I know you didn’t have a microphone.” I told him, “That’s not your voice, Andy, that’s me” and he said, “Wait. I know my own voice.” For years afterward everytime I would see him we’d have an argument and he would act like I was putting him on.
I remember he clowned around on set a lot, but I didn’t care because I’m just as crazy as he is. We had a good time. He did everything he was asked to do. We remained friends for years after the movie.
GoD: I also loved your movie Q about the flying monster. Are there any plans for a remake or a sequel?
LC: They’re always remaking movies. Recently they remade my movie It’s Alive and it was just dreadful. I took a lot of money for the movie rights to It’s Alive, but it wasn’t good. I would love to see someone make a sequel to Q, but I would like to be involved. Usually when they do these remakes of classic horror movies they don’t do such a good job, but you get tempted by the money.
I’m hoping The Invaders DVD will do well enough that someone will want to do a movie version. They did a four-hour TV movie version a few years ago and I had a little guest-star part. But they took out all the elements of the TV show that people liked, such as being able to detect the aliens by their “pinky” fingers and the way the aliens burn up when they die — all the signature items of the series. There was nothing left but a science fiction movie about aliens wandering around the Earth and most people have seen that a lot of times. They basically took all the character out of the show. It was sad, because I had hoped the TV movie might bring The Invaders back as a regular TV series.
But with the new DVD coming out, there’s always hope for the future.