MAX GASH ON HOW WE MADE ERASERHEAD

BARROW-IN-FURNESS – Former bit part player Max Gash on how he helped make David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Eraserhead. What the fuck was that about? I mean, I remember going to the first showing of the film which was held somewhere in Culver City. sitting next to David, I could tell he was nervous. I said to him, “How are you feeling David?” He turned back to me and I’ll never forget his words. He said, “Max, I’m fucking nervous.” It wasn’t hard to read between the lines. There is no doubt the screening couldn’t have gone worse. The sound mix didn’t work. And the audience had all bought tickets to see The Spy Who Loved Me. Eraserhead was many things, but a Bond movie is not one of them.

I had worked intermittently on the film. What you have to understand is that David was making that film for four years. At one stage Jack Nance, his many actor, accidentally got a haircut and the production closed down for six months while he grew it back. I already knew David from Philadelphia where we both attended the art school. Everyone already knew David was weird. He used to wear three shirts and two ties at the same time. Once he wore one of those bow ties that when you press a button twirls around. He made short films and I had a role in A Man Being Sick on a Baby. It’s since disappeared but at the time it was a hot controversial piece of work, leading in part to Eraserhead.

“You’re my mascot,” David said when he offered me a major part in the film. “What do you say Max?”

I hadn’t even considered acting but I thought it would turn out fun. Plus David was just one of those people it was great to be around.

Filming

David had a way of getting everyone involved in what he was doing. Not only did I act, I drove him around while he delivered newspapers to earn extra money. Then I sold my house to buy film stock. He was so happy. My then pregnant wife, Ilsa, less so. But we were crazy for art and we had a tent. Jack and I would always be the first on set, except for David of course, who was basically living there. We worked for years. Occasionally I went off to make other films, but David was very supportive and ready for me when I came back.

My role was secret and complicated. The costume took five hours to put on and five hours to take off and then we filmed for sixteen hours. This meant that I only ever got halfway through taking the costume off before I had to start putting it back on again.

Of course when I finally saw the film, I couldn’t believe I received no credit. “I don’t want to ruin the mystery,” David said. You see he was getting a lot of praise about how he managed to do the baby that is at the center of the film. And he believed that if everyone knew it was just Max Gash in a suit they would no longer be impressed. Years later, I’d talk to John Hurt and hear that David had tried to pull the same trick with him on The Elephant Man. At a party in 1986 I bumped into Burt Reynolds and he confided in me a similar story about the making of Dune in which he played a giant Sand Worm.

But I can’t be mad at David long. Originally the film was called Flat Fred, but then at the end of the shoot I was taking a photograph and I couldn’t see David’s face because he was looking down. “Raise your head, David,” I shouted. A light went on in his eyes and the rest is history.

MAX GASH ON HOW WE MADE SORCERER

HOLLYWOOD – Max Gash – supporting actor of over 1000 films – tells how he helped make William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

Sorcerer. You ever hear the phrase “eat shit and die”? Well that actually happened to Stem Chudley. He was a minor bit part actor who was working on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer as an actor. One of the worst catering fuck ups you can imagine; Chudley went down with dysentry and was dead in 24 hours. And Billy’s on the phone to me, telling me to catch the next flight to the Dominican Republic and to bring a packed lunch.

I’m not going to lie: Billy was difficult. But when he came personally to pick me up at the airport I felt this was a man I could get along with. Dressed in a smart white safari suit and a pith helmet, with aviator shades hiding his eyes, Billy was the acme of charm. Only when we got outside did I realise that he’d come to get me on a Lambretta. But this was the Friedkin way. The budget had doubled and he desperately sought to save money.

Filming

I took over Chudley’s role. As anyone who has seen the film already knows, it tells the story of a group of desperate men who agree to transport nitroglycerin through the jungle for a fortune. My character was to add some well needed comedy relief in what was a fraught sweaty tale. Three trucks set off one with Roy Scheider who I always mix up with Rod Steiger, I don’t know why. The other with Bruno Cremer. And the third was with Roger Moore and me. Roger was already famous from the James Bond movie Live and Let Die and the studio thought they could cash in on the popularity.

The idea was he would be suave and dry while everyone else was sweaty. I was the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, playing what can only be described as a grotesque comedy ethnic type. It was never fully clear whether I was supposed to be Chinese or Mexican, but either way it was deeply offensive and very very funny.

If you’re asking yourself what happened, yes, the whole section got cut from the final version. No one knows why. It wasn’t the only thing that changed though. The film was first titled Wages of Fear. Then Billy one day decided he hated the title, partly because he was scared that people would think he was remaking a French film of the same name, which he definitely wasn’t. Then it was called The Devil’s Armpit. But only provisionally. We’re sitting down to lunch on the last day of filming and Friedkin starts gesturing at me. He had his mouth full of hotdog and I couldn’t tell if he wanted the hot sauce or the script girl. So I said, ‘Do you want the sauce or her?’ And this light went on in his eyes and that’s how we got the title.

Max Gash continues his memoirs soon.

MAX GASH ON HOW WE MADE THE MEDUSA TOUCH

LONDON – Max Gash, supporting actor of a thousand films, tells the story of the Richard Burton classic The Medusa Touch.

The Medusa Touch. 1977 was an odd year. Something called Punk Rock Music was making ears bleed and for the first time ever garlic was imported into England. I shared a small bedsit with star of television Leonard Rossiter. At this time Rossiter was already a household name with his situational comedies, Rising Damp and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. He’d even worked with Kubrick but the fact was he was tighter than gnat’s chuff and so rather than getting a place of his own, he dossed with me, living exclusively on a diet of fried egg sandwiches, which he referred to why I’ll never know as “Banjos”.

I bumped into Richard Burton at the Pick n Mix in the Camden Woolworths. His fist tightly gripped a bunch of pear crops. ‘Ah Max!’ he said. I hadn’t seen him since we were in Where Eagles Dare and frankly I was surprised he recognised me, though in that film he had stabbed me in the neck and we had a laugh when he’d accidentally got the stage knife mixed up with the real one. He must have remembered because there was a hint of guilt in his eyes. ‘You working?’ he said.

The secret – learned from no less a talent as Michael Crawford – was never to come out and say no. ‘This and that,’ I averred.

A Break?

Burton told me he had a part for me. A supernatural yarn called Whoopee! It’s Satan, they were filming in Elstree and on location in Kent. I only had a few days to prepare, but the part seemed substantial. Jack Gold was the director who I’d work with again on Escape to Sobibor. He rushed me through make up and at 8 o’clock in the morning I found myself on set, wrapped in bandages and hooked up to medical machines. Over the next few days it soon became clear that Burton had pulled a fast one. I was essentially body doubling the Welsh bastard while he got a snoot full in the adjacent hostelries. Every now and again he’d come in and sit off camera and say things like: ‘I shall bring the whole edifice down on their unworthy heads.’

Jack knew a dirty trick when he saw one and invited me to the wrap party. Munching on what the caterers had boasted was the largest scotch egg ever attempted, I bent an ear to Jack’s complaints about the production and the title Whoopee! It’s Satan, which he confided that he secretly thought was complete twat. Catching an eyeful of Lee Remick, who was pogoing to Kenny Nolan’s I like Dreamin’ and wanting to change the subject I said, ‘Did you use her much?’

Obviously the Scotch Egg filter in my mouth distorted my words out of all recognition.

‘The Medusa Touch!?’ Jack shouted. ‘Why that’s fantastic!’

And that’s how The Medusa Touch got its title.

Max Gash is currently appearing on ITV 4.