JAMES AT 44
RETROCRUSH INTERVIEWS LANCE KERWIN

Anybody who grew up during the 70’s would have had to be living in a cave not to remember Lance Kerwin. He was a very popular teen heartthrob, but he also was the star of the classic James at 15, Salem’s Lot, about 11 ABC Afterschool specials, and over a 130 other movies and TV shows. Lance was kind enough to talk to us about his career in this exclusive retroCRUSH interview.

How did you get into acting?

I was from a family of musicians and aspiring actors, artists, and hippies. Everyone wanted to be an actor. At least my step dad, my mom did, and so did I. My parents told me there were two different types of individuals that approached work as an artist whether it was acting or music or whatever.

They said there’s the one that spends all their time trying to get their foot in the door and the one that spends all their time getting prepared so that when they get their foot in the door they’re ready. The guy who gets his foot in the door may get their quicker. He may get his shot, his break but he may not be prepared and therefore won’t have longevity in his career. If you spend all your time being prepared then when you get your shot you won’t be just a flash in the pan.

We studied all the time. We took drama workshops, music & dance, did little plays. We took every opportunity to get involved in some sort of theater or production. I started going out on auditions. I went on a 1,000,000 interviews with no union affiliation. I just never got it. I took a summer off and was up where Clint Eastwood was filming “High Plains Drifter”.

When I got back I told my mom I wanted to write him a letter so I did. I told him I’d been studying and was prepared to work. I told him if he was ever interested in a young man for a film that I would appreciate an opportunity to audition.

 

So your career began taking off after that?

Clint ended up calling and asked me for an audition. I didn’t get that part, but I got an agent out of it and went on a 1,000,000 more interviews until I got a part. You can get in the union if you’re in the movies. You can get in a movie if you’re in the union. But you can’t do a movie unless you’re in the union. There’s that kind of catch 22 that makes it difficult until someone comes along and believes in you enough to request you. Then they write in a waiver for you to work in the film with no union affiliation. After that you can get in a union and that’s what happened to me.

You were in a lot of classic TV shows:

I did Gunsmoke, Adam 12, Emergency, Lassie, Wonder Woman, Bionic Woman, Simon & Simon, Trapper John MD, Hotel, Canon, Police Story, Little House on the Prairie.

Do you remember much about Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman was a ball. We had a good time. I was working with Roy Rogers who played my father in that. There was nostalgia in working with an old time great like Roy Rogers riding horses. Of course Lynda Carter and the whole Wonder Woman thing was cool as well.

People to this day are still in awe over how foxy Lynda Carter looked as Wonder Woman.

We hit it off at that time because I was a Vegetarian and I had been for many years. She was an aspiring Vegetarian at that time. She was enjoying some sort of a modified Vegetarian diet. So yea...we hit it off pretty good. It was a neat show we filmed it up at the Disney ranch or whatever that is up above LA.

What about the “Bionic Woman” and Lindsay Wagner?

Lindsay Wagner was way cool! I went to go to work on the show the first day, but I was sick. I had a hundred and something temperature. They sent me home and said if you can be well by Monday you’ll still get the part. Otherwise we’re going to have to hire someone to replace you. So I went home and got on the Garlic man. I started grubbing on the Garlic trying to kick it and sure enough by Monday I was working on the Bionic Woman being kissed by Lindsay Wagner Bro.

I think you played a prince or something. I even vaguely remember that episode.

Yea, I played an Arabic prince who was a snob, had an attitude, and made his private teachers quit. He was too rough on them, but of course Lindsay was too tough to be forced around. That was a neat show we had a lot of fun. A little trivia for you. We filmed that episode in David Lee Roth father’s mansion in Pasadena.

What about “Little House on the Prairie”?

It was great to work with Michael Landon. It was neat to see that level of perfectionism and preparation. He knew exactly what he wanted. He had worked with the cinematographers and the sound men a long time. He knew what he wanted and they did it exactly the way he wished. If was like clockwork. They had it down to a science.

I read he burned down the sets when the series was over so nobody else could use them.

I don’t know about that. Through working with Little House with him that’s how he came to know me and had me do the Loneliest Runner. It was the TV movie he wrote, produced, and directed. A life story about a kid who wet the bed and grew up to win a Marathon race.

What about “Battle of the Network Stars”?

I had so much fun on “Battle of the Network Stars”. I did it three years running. We took it seriously. It wasn’t because of the pay. I think everyone was pretty well paid. You got twice as much money if you were on the winning team than if you were on the losing team. It was the side bets and the egos that had us so intense behind it. You know it was fun I remember being embarrassed that I got beat by Kristy McNichol in Kayaking.

She seemed pretty tough/intense.

I think I still hold the record in the obstacle course. I beat everybody. I even beat Kevin Dobson who was in Kojak and later Knott’s Landing.

You were in an ABC Afterschool Special called "The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon". To this day the line "You can do it Duffy Moon! You can do it!" still plays over & over in my mind. Do you remember much from the filming of that movie?

The director I ended up working with a lot: Larry Elikann. He was a neat, neat guy and Ike Eisenmann was Duffy Moon. The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon. That must have been about 1976. We filmed all over downtown LA. Around a lot of places. For me it began to show me the magic of cinema because that’s everybody’s  dream. We’re sort of “Walter Mitty type” people. We have these fantasies that we’re wonderful, but the reality is that we’re knuckleheads. If you think about it that was a forerunner to “James at 15”. Years later to be able to have a character that had these fantasies where he was Mr. Wonderful.

Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island was in that.

Jim Backus was HILARIOUS! We were filming in this little seedy hotel in downtown LA. Jim Backus would start ad-libbing and we couldn’t stop laughing in order to film. He’d go, “This place has air conditioning. The bellman comes down and blows through the keyhole once an hour. Flush the toilet and the street lights go dim.” He was going on and on and on. What an opportunity for a kid to work with those greats. I worked with Glenn Ford & Julie Harris too.

I did a movie with Robert Mitchum, James Spader, and Erik Stoltz about some kids who broke their father out of prison. The father started running amok and killing people. It was with Stuart Margolin who was Angel on the Rockford files.

I did a TV series with Glenn Ford. Working with James Arness, Charles Bronson, and Lee Marvin. These people that I worked with instilled a professionalism in me.

The myth of Hollywood is that it robs kids of their childhood. That it robs them of their education. Really, that’s not true. True, we are exposed to some vulgar and crude mentality. True, not all of the subject matter of the films is what I call edifying, but the positive aspects of working in the motion picture industry outweighed the negative aspects for me. I had a private tutor, my grades went up, I traveled all over the world. I was working in films. It was awesome bro!

What was Charles Bronson like?  

I didn’t get to know him that well. I was so young in the film, but what I did notice was he was one of the few actors that represented family values in the midst of the mentality of Hollywood. Where everyone is trying to hobnob with everybody, talk with everybody, and rub collars with everyone. This guy would finish his scene and he would go back to his family in his dressing room. Then he’d finish his next scene and return to his family in the dressing room.

I’ve heard Robert Urich from the show Vegas was a good family man too. Did you ever meet him?

I didn’t, but I did recognize that in Charles and I respected that.

You were in a lot of ABC Afterschool Specials.

In one “PJ and the President’s son” I played the president’s son and another kid who looks exactly like him. They swapped places. It was a modern day Prince and the Pauper. There was one called “The Bridge of Adam Rush” about a kid who built a bridge in the 1400’s. Oh my gosh there were so many afterschool specials bro. I probably did 11 after school specials.

Everyone rushed home to watch those.

Yeah...

Lets talk about your pretty big hit that was a TV movie, “James at 15” that later became a show. I think your girlfriend in the movie was Melissa Sue Anderson.

Yup. Melissa Sue Anderson was the girlfriend in the pilot and Kate Jackson was in it. We had a lot of fun. James was this character who was a struggling normal kid who was trying to do things right and kept goofing them up. He had a fantasy that he was Mr. Wonderful. He thought he was no good in certain areas, but he had qualities in other areas that he didn’t recognize. That’s how it is for a lot of young people they don’t realize these hidden talents that they have because they’re too busy wishing they were better in other areas.

When I start looking at the different episodes of that show I was amazed at the different topics covered.

Peer pressure, desires for sex & adolescence, all of that, Bro. Drugs. They covered it all.

James joins a cult.

You remember the cult episode?

Vaguely I do. There was a great deal of paranoia in the 70’s about kids joining cults.

Uh huh

What about Melissa Sue Anderson? Did you have much interaction with her? Did you talk to her much?

I did a couple of shows with her. I did “Little House on the Prairie” and then another one called “Advice to the Lovelorn” with Cloris Leachman. It was a movie of the week.

Was that an advice column thing? Dear Something...

Yup. Flashing to the lives she was writing to. One of the subplots that she was writing to was Melissa Sue Anderson & I in a torrid love affair.

I thought James at 15/16 was immensely popular and ran longer than it did.

It was right there at NBC. NBC was going through some troubles and they were looking to move things around. James was a different type of show than most. He had a relationship with his parents that depicted respect. At that time they were looking at shows like “Laverne & Shirley”. They’d say, “Come on lets have a little disrespect. Let him pull out his shirt...” The show wasn’t along the mainstream you know.

It was a little too different. I’ve read there was a lot of hubbub when James lost his virginity.

You know I think the hubbub was more controversial than the show itself. The kid was trying to lose his virginity and then he didn’t. Then they wanted him to use a condom. Today it would be mild.

I remember that in one of the movies that both you and Melissa Sue Anderson were in sleeping bags next to each other.

That was the pilot.

That was kind of a sleepover thing?

They went camping to try and consummate the relationship, but they didn’t pull it off.

I also read you were on Dinah Shore show talking about James at 15.

She asked me, “Your show deals with all the problems that teenagers have like sex, drugs and alcohol. I remember I said, “Yea, but kids don’t have sexual problems. The only problems that kids have regarding sex is if they’re not getting any.” Then everybody laughed. Fred Astaire was sitting next to me. He leaned over to me and he said, “You know what, Lance?  That’s the only problem I’m having at my age too.”

You wouldn’t even think he’d be able to joke around.

Yup. Isn’t that amazing.

I’ve also read you were the highest paid kid in TV at that time.

Yeah. Well, you know that’s the way it was. It was just that I was prepared, Bro. I had a good agent. He asked for more money. I wasn’t desperate to work on any particular show. I was looking at a variety of shows. I like to work. It wasn’t because I had to work. I wanted to do a different character so we’d say “No thank you. We’ll wait for another show.” They’d offer more money and you’d think about it.

Richard Chamberlain once said, “There’s only three reasons you work in a film: it’s not going to be that much money, it’s not going to be that much fun, but it’s a character you’ve always wanted to play.” So you do it. 

Or it’s not going to be that much money, it’s not a character you like, but it’s going to be a lot of fun because it’s a location you want to go to. You realize you need some fun so you go ahead and do it.

Or it’s not that great of a character, it’s not going to be that much fun, but they’re paying you so much money that you can’t afford to turn it down.

Oh man, that’s funny!

So it’s always for one of those reasons.

I just watched Salem’s Lot last night and you were good in it.

That was a lot of fun. It was a neat experience for me because it had a high budget for a TV produced movie. The director Tobe Hooper was the director of Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They worked at a feature film pace instead of a TV pace. I was primarily a TV actor so it was a neat experience to work at that pace, to take your time, and do it over. They let me be involved in blocking of some of the scenes and directing little second unit stuff.

Was that filmed in LA, too?

It was filmed at Warner Brothers and then in Northern California. A place called Ferndale.

At the time many kids considered that one of the spookiest movies they had ever seen.

I had a lot of family in Hawaii at the time and they’re pretty tough over there. Some of the kids were sleeping in their parents’ bed because they were scared by the movie.

The boys hovering outside the windows...creepy stuff.

It’s really even hard to tell the flow of the film. It was a miniseries originally, then we shot a feature film version for Europe at the same time. They’ve edited and cut together so much. How many tapes did you watch?

I watched a DVD and I think it was cut/edited down. What about David Soul of Starsky and Hutch fame? No singing on the set?

He was serious. He was trying to do a good job. He was into it. I remember he was like, “ALRIGHT! Lets figure this out!” He wanted to make sure his motivation was correct. He played the character straight & strict.

What about James Mason? 

What an opportunity to work with him. He was from the old school. He had a sense of humor nobody expected. He was funny.

Tell us about the movie based loosely on Michael Landon’s life called “The Loneliest Runner”.

He wrote, produced, and directed it. It was based on his life story although he wasn’t a Marathon Runner he was a javelin thrower. The rest of it is all true. His parents made him sleep in a crib until he was 15 years old.

I’ve read he had a bad childhood.

That’s what I hear, but it was quite an experience working on that film. I ran and ran and ran. I tried to train for it, but there was no way I could for the amount of running in that film. We filmed it all on a Friday. By that point I had cramped up and was in a Jacuzzi trying to loosen up a bit so I could do it again on a Monday.

I remember in the movie weren’t you trying to beat out a school bus that would be going by your house and the stained sheets were hanging out your window? I think that’s every kids worse nightmare is to have your mom do something crazy like that.

Yeah...

There’s another movie that my friend Robert liked called, “The Death of Richie” with Robbie Benson, what was that like?

It was about a kid strung out on drugs. I was his younger brother. For me I have brothers that were in bondage to drugs, and drug addiction.

You have another brother named Shane?

He was my stand in for many years. He started working with me in the “Family Holvak”. He pretty much worked on every show and then started working with Sean Penn when I retired.

I know your mom & dad appeared in your movies.

Yeah, my mom and so was my step dad.

You were in another movie were you played a clone?

“The Cloning of Clifford Swimmer” that was kind of a weird one. He didn’t want to be with his wife so he got himself cloned. I dunno...it was a weird one. I can hardly remember it bro.

What about other movie roles you enjoyed?

I enjoyed my two experiences with Wolfgang Petersen in “Outbreak” and “Enemy Mine.” All my footage is pretty much cut out of the film. They’re almost identical scenes in identical movies with identical directors. I liked working with him a lot and I was able to be in Europe for a long time working on those movies.

I did another film in Europe called “#44 The Mysterious Stranger” with Chris Makepeace and also Fred Gwynne from Herman Munster.

Is that the Mark Twain one? I might remember that. I was so young when a lot of this came out.

You make me feel like an old man.

No no...I loved it. I’m sorry. I’m not that much younger than you. I was born in 1969.  So I’m only a couple of years younger.

I got to travel around in Europe so that was neat. All I can tell you in a nutshell is that it was an awesome experience and I enjoy the letters and the fan mail that I get. The opportunities that I’ve had. At one point my brothers and I did a record for NBC for the beginning of the Rose Bowl parade.

Really? That’s cool.

We got to do a song together. My brothers are my heroes. They were musicians and I felt they always had more talent than me. They didn’t pursue acting. They pursued music and other things.

Did you hang out with Kristy McNichol as a kid?

Not a lot socially. We went to the Emmy awards together and also the Golden Globes.

She’s sort of disappeared too. You don’t see her that much.

I don’t know if she has or not. I don’t have TV anymore bro. When I see a film and I see some of the old friends on it I’m happy for them. There may come a time where I’d like to get back to doing a couple of shows. I’ve got offers.

The problem for most of us is that we’re selling our self worth for whatever show we’re working on. Most of us were set up by ourselves, by the world, or our enemy in my opinion the devil himself to have our whole self worth tied into what we did for a living as a youth. This acting.

Then when we didn’t have a show we felt worthless. That’s why you see these childhood actors doing these “Whatever happened to?” things where they say, “I’m working on a show right now. I can’t tell you what it is.” or “We’re in the contract stage and I can’t tell you.” It’s a BIG ole lie because if they don’t have that to talk about they don’t think they have anything to talk about.

I finally realized that I am worth nothing. I am of no value at all in and of myself. I’m a regular Joe trying to make it, but the God who I serve is worthy to be talked about. The only reason I do things like this is to let you know that my life has been radically changed.

You had to go through drug rehab, right?

Yeah, I did. Several times. I went through rehab maybe 12 times.

That’s amazing and good for you. A lot of people never kick it.

To be honest I wasn’t kicking my habit in rehab. I’d be addicted to AA for a minute and it would be pretty exciting. That early recovery time getting your stuff back, but then I wouldn’t be fulfilled.

I was trying to fulfill that empty place in the middle of my heart though dude. I tried working, acting, success, money, girls, traveling, drugs, surfing big waves, traveling to Europe, hanging out with gangs. I did all that stuff to try and find out what was missing in my life. What I found out was missing was a relationship with God. It’s that simple. I have a relationship with God that fulfills me and now I’m okay with whatever it is I’m doing.

If I went back to working now I wouldn’t be going back looking to be fulfilled. I’d go back telling how I’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit.

Is there a role that you’re thinking about that you’d like to play?

I’d love to do a film that has some kind of edifying, building that is encouraging to young people. I would do anything that is Biblical. I would do anything that is positive. I would work again now that I’m balanced. I don’t spend a lot of time seeking it.

It’s interesting in your career you played a lot of roles that said: Don’t do drugs, believe in yourself, don’t drink too much.

I did a movie called “The Boy who drank too much” with Scott Baio about a kid whose life was all messed up by his friend’s drinking problem. I did one called, “Children of Divorce” about kids whose parents were getting a divorce and how it was all messing them up. I did a lot of shows with these positive messages. Be careful! Be careful!

I kind of missed the message.

That happens. It’s hard being young and famous in Hollywood. Look at Drew Barrymore. She was underage, but they let her into clubs because of her fame. It was free access to everything.

She’s doing good now.

She’s doing very well for herself. I’m saying you might have had some of that too where they let you in when you were underage because of who you were.

Oh yeah. The rules were meant to be broken. I never had any boundaries. I never had any rules. I never quite got that. The rules weren’t for me. What I’ve learned with my relationship with the Lord is self control and discipline are the most important things a young man can have. There’s only one way the Bible says a man can keep his way pure and that’s by taking heed according to his word. I never had any clue what the Bible said.

Right...

All I knew is what the actors were saying and everything’s contagious man: positive energy, success, negativity, insecurity, paranoia, joy. It’s all contagious.

It’s all interrelated.

I try to surround myself with people that are filled with joy, that are trying to help other people, that are givers not takers. If a part came along I’d probably do it.

From the parts I remember you in and watching Salem’s Lot again. I know you’re a good actor. I’m sure many of your fans would like to see you back someday.

Who did you have a crush or “retroCRUSH” on while growing up?

Well, I went out for awhile with a girl named Rosanna Arquette.

What was that like?

It was cool, Bro. I didn’t give her the respect she deserved. I was so busy. She was VERY real at that time. She was VERY neat.

Which other girls did you date at that time?

I thought I had a crush in the early days on Jody Foster.

I think everyone had a crush on Jody Foster.

I had a crush on Jody Foster for sure.

Thanks Lance for your time. You’re great part of retropop culture history, and it was great talking to you!

Thanks!

-Randy Waage
randy@retrocrush.com

If you need help with the process of quitting drugs or recovery, visit drugtreatment.com.


NOTE:  You can see "The Loneliest Runner" on THIS SITE broken in to 3 parts, for free!