30 Years Ago: ‘Tales From the Crypt’ Debuts Uncensored TV Terror
Noted character actor William Sadler's career caught fire with the grisly, groundbreaking June 10, 1989, premiere of Tales From the Crypt. But it almost didn't happen.
The first episode of the HBO series, which featured Sadler in a segment titled "The Man Who Was Death," was based on a story written by DC comic legend Gardner Fox in the May 1950 issue of the controversial Tales From the Crypt comic books.
Famed filmmaker Walter Hill and screenwriter Robert Reneau adapted the script, as the Tales team got HBO to sign on for six episodes of the show with the help of producers Richard Donner, David Giler, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis.
On deck to direct "The Man Who Was Death," Hill chose Sadler to star as Niles Talbot, but he was not the casting department's first choice for the role. Instead, they were hoping an established actor with better name recognition would take on the part, such as Christopher Walken or John Malkovich.
In fact, Sadler first auditioned for a bit part at the conclusion of the episode as a police officer with essentially one line. Then Karen Rea, the show's infinitely wise casting director, had a moment of inspiration.
"They were looking for a name. I said ‘Oh, okay’ and left," Sadler told Hollywood News in 2015. "I got halfway across the parking lot and she yelled out of the window, ‘Bill, come back.’ She gave me the sides for Talbot; she said ‘Come back on Monday, grease your hair, black out your teeth or something because you’re too pretty. We’ll put you on tape and see what they say.’ I came back in, I put myself on tape, Walter Hill saw it and said 'He's great; he should play this role.'"
"The Man Who Was Death" unfolds in a slow and methodical way, as we meet a state executioner who philosophically believes he is doing the Lord's work through his daily life. Some film buffs interpreted the character's name as a nod to Larry Talbot, the character played by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941's The Wolfman. Niles certainly strikes a tragic figure, though not in the sense of the forlorn and unwilling Wolfman. Instead, Niles has a terrifying God complex.
Listen to Ray Cooder's Theme for 'The Man Who Was Death'
The scene is set early on as Talbot calmly discusses details surrounding the imminent execution of fictional death-row inmate Charley Ledbetter, while Ledbetter pleads for his life as he is dragged away to the electric chair. This is a man who clearly loves his work.
In addition to filming a script about someone he said was a "twisted human being," "The Man Who Was Death" also gave Hill an opportunity to experiment with the form. "I wanted the character to talk to the camera," the director said in Tales From The Crypt: The Official Archives. "It's an old technique that I'd seen many times when I was a kid."
Unfortunately for Talbot, the unidentified state where he works has voted to rescind the death penalty, and Talbot finds himself out of a job. As he bitterly reflects on the decision, Talbot rages that the "whole world has gone to hell." He's pissed off at computers, corporations and lawyers, as well, but decides to focus his energies on carrying out his own non-state approved executions with the help of his muse, electricity.
In keeping with the source material – William Gaines and Al Feldstein created the violent original comic book series – the HBO show was a no-holds-barred affair. Back then, producers were not obligated to censor the show's content to meet modern decency standards now outlined by the FCC. That meant guts, sex, gore and R-rated language got the green light.
"This would never be a movie – the material is too thin – and it would never be on network TV because it's too strong," Hill told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "If it was ever going to be done, this is the only way."
That played out from the first, as Talbot discovers he's not as qualified as he thought to serve as judge, jury and executioner. He's apprehended in the act, and Talbot's life comes full circle in the worst possible way. The conclusion of the episode requires you to forget that his is the same state which had previously banned executions, but that doesn't prevent Talbot from meeting his maker by way of the device he once championed, the electric chair.
Watch as Niles Talbot is Apprehended in 'Tales From the Crypt'
In this grim way, the debut edition of Tales From the Crypt set viewer expectations for the entire series – in terms of content, tone and edgy directorial approach. "The Man Who Was Death" notably featured the premiere of the Crypt Keeper, the decaying host operated by puppeteer Van Snowden. Memorably voiced by actor John Kassir, the Crypt Keeper introduced the episodes, often with a ghoulishly funny pun.
"The Crypt Keeper is that ride up to the top of the peak before the roller coaster drops you down," Kassir told the Observer in 2016. "Whether the roller coaster ride was the best you’d ever been on, or pretty good, or it sucked, the anticipation of going up is always amazing. It’s the anticipation of it. It’s the fun, giggly part. No matter what the other part is, the fun part makes it okay for you to be doing this. The Crypt Keeper did that."
This was also the initial showcase for Danny Elfman's Tales From the Crypt theme song, as viewers descended to the CryptKeeper's dungeon lair. Along the way, music would play an integral part in the series, and contributors during the show's run included Jan Hammer and James Horner (of Titanic and Avatar fame) and Ry Cooder, the storied session musician and slide-guitar whiz who provided the soundtrack for Niles Talbot's dark story of non-redemption. Big Screen Records released a soundtrack for the series during the fourth season that included Cooder's moody "A Man Who Was Death" theme. (He borrowed from Link Wray's 1958 classic "Rumble," which later found a home in Pulp Fiction.)
Hill went on to oversee a string of well-received Crypt segments, often with a roughly similar theme. "I mean, these are nasty people, caught in a nasty situation, that out of the experience are somewhat chastened and wiser for it," Hill told Film Comment in 2017. "Assuming they survive — not all survive! Which was certainly out of the old EC Comics."
Tales From the Crypt had grown to 93 episodes by the time it ceased production in July 1996. Numerous spin-offs and films followed, then a comprehensive box set of the original HBO production called Tales From the Crypt: The Complete Series was released in 2017. At that point, a previously announced reboot from M. Night Shyamalan appeared to be as "dead as the Crypt Keeper." He'd earlier issued a promising teaser for the project, but reportedly had trouble securing other ownership rights associated with the show.
Meanwhile, Sadler subsequently collaborated with Joel Silver on 1990's Die Hard 2, and Hill again on 1992's Trepass. Tales From the Crypt writer Frank Darabont picked Sadler for the cast of 1994's Shawshank Reception. "He would later go on to work with me in The Green Mile and The Mist, as well," Sadler told Coming Soon in 2015. "I can't count the roles that have happened since then as a result of that one episode of Tales From the Crypt. So yes, that one audition for Karen Rea and her willingness to give me a chance at the lead was a moment that changed the trajectory of things for me."