"Ex-Wing Pilot"The Bothan Spy's interview with David Ankrum, published March 10, 2008
A man who is passionate about his work, David's career has taken him from stage and film acting, voice artistry, and writing, to his current role as a successful talent agent. David was kind enough to shed some light on his involvement in Star Wars as the voice of Wedge Antilles, his friendship with Dennis Muren, and his plans for the future. Without further delay, we welcome David Ankrum!
To begin with, thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us Mr. Ankrum. It is a real pleasure to talk with you and learn about your experiences. You come from a family of actors – your mother, Joan Wheeler, appeared on Broadway and in several 1930's Warner Brothers films, and your father, Morris Ankrum, appeared in numerous westerns and sci-fi films. What was it like growing up seeing your parents on television and in movies?
First off…Thank you for the opportunity to answer a few questions. It's a thrill to be asked.
Growing up as a child of actors gave me a twisted sense of reality and a rich fantasy life. When I was around eight years old, I remember sneaking into the living room at night and hiding behind a chair during a rehearsal of the play Come Back Little Sheba. My father was directing the play and my mother was the lead opposite William Challee. My mother was crying, "Come back little Sheba…Come back". I was discovered behind the chair. I was upset. I asked my mother, "Sheba comes back doesn't she, mom? Where’s Sheba?”
I had no idea what the play was about or even if it was a play. I just knew my mom was upset about this dog named Sheba. How was I to know that Sheba represented her lost youth. What did I know about metaphors ... I was only eight. I was a confused youth.
Our living room was always filled with actors. Friends of my parents who would stop by for drinks and stories. Lots of laughter and loud booming voices ... Victor Jory, Robert Preston, Dana Andrews, Henry Brandon, Charlie Lane to name a few.
Another evening I was sitting in front of the TV watching an episode of Wagon Train. My father was playing a cowboy villain. I watched him get shot. He lay dying on the screen one moment and the next moment he walked through the front door (coming home from work). He was in a cowboy outfit. Alive and well.
And I loved the sci-fi films. I used to ride my bike down to the local movie theater with my friends to watch the matinees. 2 films for 50 cents. Wow. Those were the days. We sat in the theater mesmerized. Eating popcorn; screaming our heads off. Invaders From Mars, Earth vs The Flying Saucers, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Beginning Of The End (with Peter Graves). What a great time we had. I was so into the films that I totally forgot that my father was playing a role in them ... acting ... it was all real to me.
A side note: I just met Peter Graves. I wanted to represent him as an actor at my talent agency. When he was in my office I showed him my lobby card of Beginning Of The End. A picture of him with my father. That sealed the deal. He signed. I now represent Peter Graves. Small world.
What influenced you to go into acting? Did your parents' careers have an impact on your career choice?
Yes. They did influence me. I appeared in a few plays that my father directed and later did a number of plays in high school and college. I was bitten by the acting bug. A big, giant, hairy bug busting through the window to my soul. Maybe I'm a poet?
You appeared in a number of television shows and movies, including The Waltons, Murder She Wrote, Simon & Simon, and Days of Our Lives, to name just a few. Do you have any favorite memories of your acting experiences?
Gerald McGraney. I was in an acting class with Gerald early in our careers. We both studied with Jeff Corey, a really great teacher. Gerald was an amazing actor in class and I knew he would go places. It was fun to reunite with him on Simon & Simon. I was also involved in a crazy little improvisation/sketch comedy group in the mid 1970's. We called ourselves “Three And a Half”…..The group: Betty Thomas (from Hill Street Blues), David Arkin, Herve’ Villechaize (Fantasy Island "The Plane..The Plane") and myself. We performed at a little club called "The Hollywood Canteen" on Melrose Ave. There are so many stories. What an adventure it was. I remember getting cast in an awful indie film called Zebra Force in the early 1970's. The really cool thing about it was that Rick Baker was doing the effects. He was just getting started in his career. He loaded me up with these squibs that exploded when I got machine gunned down. Blood spewed everywhere. It was very cool. Another experience that I really enjoyed was being cast opposite Melanie Griffith to star in a comedy series for NBC. I screen tested against Adam Arkin and got the job. We shot the pilot and everybody was very excited. We had an order for a full season! Then Fred Silverman took over the network and canceled the order. He wanted to do another show. I was paid in full for an entire season but the pilot was never aired ... show business.
What actors inspire you? Did you ever get to work with any of them?
Karl Malden. Jackie Gleason. I was very lucky to work with them in The Sting II. Danny Kaye ... loved his physical comedy ... and worked with him in an episode of Alice. And Jerry Lewis ... I was really fortunate to work with him. He directed me in a scene from Cracking Up. I played a bellhop and I got shot in one of Jerry's failed suicide attempts. That was very cool!
You have also appeared in a number of commercials? Could you tell us about some of the commercials you have done?
I did quite a few commercial spots in the 1970's and early 1980's. I played a martian in a Quaker Oats commercial. I had my own spaceship. I don't think it ever made it to the air. I loved the spot. Pointy ears and a nifty spacesuit. I did several McDonald's commercials ... having to bite into a hamburger and smile like I loved it ... over and over again. Now that's acting.
How did you get cast as the voice of Wedge in Star Wars?
Well, herre's the timeline ... a lot of elements came into play.
You remember I told you about the play my father was directing (Comeback Little Sheba). My mother eventually ran off with the actor William Challee and started an art gallery business in West Hollywood. My brother and I moved to West Hollywood with them. Fred Roos became a patron of the art gallery and cast William Challee in the film Five Easy Pieces to play Jack Nicholson's father. Fred also came to see me in a play I was doing. He then cast me in my first union film Every Little Crook And Nanny starring Lynn Redgrave. I had a scene with Victor Mature. I played a long haired hippie. A few years later, Fred called me in to read for a role in a sci-fi film called Star Wars. I auditioned for C-3PO. I never heard a word and a few months later (out of the blue), I was called to come in and do the voice of Wedge Antilles. And there you have it. The Hollywood machine in action.
Did you get to meet George Lucas or any of the actors?
Yes. I met George at the post production facility in Hollywood. He was standing beside me as I voiced all of the dialogue that the actor Dennis Lawson said as Red 2/Wedge. He gave me some direction. Also, in the briefing room scene, I did the dialogue for the actor Colin Higgins ("That’s impossible, even for a computer"). George wanted Wedge to be in the briefing room and my voice was the voice of Wedge. Mark Hamill arrived as I was finishing up. He was going to redo some of his dialogue. He was reclined on a couch. Very relaxed ... having a good time and waiting his turn at the mike. That was a very thrilling afternoon.
I understand you have another Star Wars connection. You grew up across the street from Dennis Muren and were friends with him. Could you tell about that?
Yes. I had a lot of fun working with Dennis Muren on his early special effects experiments. My younger brother, Cary, worked on them too. There was one film where I was a giant and I crushed my tiny brother. I stomped on him wearing a tennis shoe. You actually can see this footage in the DVD set of Equinox. It was one of Dennis' first films. In the extra footage on the DVD, he talks about his early days and making films in his garage. You will see me crush my miniature brother and some very cool flying saucer effects. Exploding battleships. Dams bursting. Floods. The three of us collected 8 x 10 stills and posters and lobby cards from all of the horror and sci-fi films of the 50's. Forest J. Ackerman came to my house to interview us and take some pictures for Famous Monsters Magazine. We set up a monster museum in my garage full of photos and special effects, etc. I have a picture of that day. Who knew that 16 years later Dennis and I would both be involved in Star Wars. Very cool. I still stay in touch with him. Those were some very cherished days back in 1961.
After working as an actor and voice artist, you moved to writing for sitcoms. What shows did you work on? How did you make the shift from acting to writing?
My writing developed out of the sketch comedy group I was involved in and grew from there. I was writing for myself, at first, and then began to write a few spec TV scripts. I eventually was in the right place at the right time and was hired as a staff writer on the TV series Charles In Charge starring Scott Baio. I had an office at Universal Studios. It was very cool. From there I went on to write on a show called 13 East for NBC (a short lived comedy series that dealt with nurses at a hospital ... a comedy ER). Then I was hired to write embarrassing situations on a hidden camera show Totally Hidden Video for Fox TV. Other TV shows I wrote on were Getting By starring Cindy Williams and Roc starring Charles Dutton.
Since then, you've become a talent agent with bi-coastal offices. What prompted you to go in this direction? This may be a stupid question, but what do talent agents do? I imagine it could be both a very interesting and tedious job at the same time.
After a couple of dry years as a writer, I met with my previous theatrical agent to jump back into acting. She was actually looking to hire a new agent and so I decided to take it on. She gave me a small room with a phone and a desk and no door. More like a cubby hole than an office. I started to make calls to casting directors and soon got my actors auditions for TV and film jobs. I also created a small literary department and handled a few writers. One of my writers was hired to write several episodes of the series Sliders. Twelve years later, I not only have a door on my office, I have my name on my own agency. Here in Los Angeles and New York City. We handle actors and writers for television, film and theater. It's an insane way to make a living. There are ups and downs, but I enjoy the daily battles. I really love it when my actors get to do a job that they are connected to ... a chance to watch them shine. All that training and working at their craft comes together in an amazing performance. It brings me satisfaction. The agency business for me is not "Show me the money", it's "Show me the passion"!!
You've recently begun attending conventions, including Dragon Con, CE, C4, Memorabilia, and even a convention in Japan. How do you like the convention experience? Are you surprised by the enduring fan interest in all aspects of the films?
The fans never cease to amaze me. Power to the fans!! I started doing conventions a couple of years ago. I really love the opportunity to meet the fans and my fellow actors. The experience has brought back a desire in me to work again. I have put together a new voice-over demo reel and I'm considering testing the waters with some voice-over work.
So what does the future hold for you? Any upcoming projects?
I have a very exciting film project in the works. Two of the characters are based on Dennis Muren and myself when we were making films in his garage. I'll be putting my producer's hat on for this one. I have interest from some very cool actors and I'm in the process of putting together financing. I'm a huge fan of Simon Pegg. I would love to get him involved in my film. If you're out there Simon. Contact me! "Red 2, standing by". Another project I'm developing is a CD that will help actors from all around the world navigate the Hollywood jungle ... from the voice of Wedge. Life is good.
Lastly, do you have any words of wisdom or advice you can share with our readers?
Follow your passion. Go to matinees. Eat popcorn. Scream at the scary parts. Laugh at yourself. Love the one you're with.
Thank you again for the chance to share a little of my journey with you.
May the force be with you always.
Thank you once again David for taking the time to share your experiences with us. On behalf of everyone here at The Bothan Spy I would like to say what a pleasure and treat it is to have you as our guest.