Monday, August 17, 2020

Xenon & Zed: An Interview With Comedian, Actor, and Voice Actor, David Traylor

Like so many who have worked in the genres of SciFi, Fantasy, or Horror in some capacity, David Traylor grew up a Monster Kid watching classic monster movies and reading Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. A fan of all things Science Fiction (and especially Ray Harryhausen), David incorporated his love for Fantasy into his comedy act that, virtually by accident, eventually led to global success as the robotic comic, Zed. The multi-talented Traylor has also been a voice actor for cartoons, video games, and a dubber in Italian movies. For cult film fans, he is fondly remembered as Xenon, the catch-phrase spouting alien being in Avi Nesher's version of SHE (1983); a nearly indescribable SciFi-Fantasy adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's famous novel. In this interview (a companion piece to our recent review of SHE that also contains an interview with Gregory Snegoff linked at bottom) David discusses his fascinating career that includes how he ended up creating a character that made him famous around the world; his experience working on an 80s cult film; and other places his talents have taken him.

Venoms5: What started your interest in wanting to be a comedian?

David Traylor: I had an idea at an early age how I wanted my life to go. I went to university for radio, television and film. There's an old proverb 'when men make plans God laughs'; so I thought I needed to know how to act, sing and dance to some degree; and mime too, but that was me being rebellious at that time because all they taught you as far as theatrical stuff was that you need to project and you need to be flexible, graceful... that sort of thing. Zed, who is an android, does the exact opposite; so what entertained me personally was going the other way from everybody else. I've done a lot of television, but not as much in America. I did a program for NBC last summer in prime time. I was surprised how few people seemed to be watching, quite frankly. Back in my day there were only the three networks and if your prime time program was horrible people still watched it because there wasn't much to choose from. When I was a kid I loved it; when I was a college student I studied it; but I knew already showbiz was where I wanted to be. Now I've done nine TV series in three languages on four continents. We did 360 programs, and live; not like Saturday Night Live with a nine second delay. It's different when there's no going back (laughs). Watch what you say and if something goes wrong don't repeat it (laughs).

I did a week on a kids program called ROMPER ROOM. It was done locally. I was born in Indianapolis; this was a locally produced kids show and every week they'd change out the kids. Your mom could write in for you and get you on the show. We used to have the Three Stooges there like that; but that doesn't exist in American TV anymore, I don't think.

V5: Who were your comedy influences?

DT: Well, there was Jerry Lewis... then in my adolescence it was the Marx Brothers, who I still love to this day. In my teen years George Carlin was big, Robert Kline... then there's the Firesign Theater. They were like the American Monty Python; but they were more controversial and more surrealistic. In America, TV would not have them, but records would. They sold a lot of pop songs and did movies, just brilliant stuff, and brilliant use of audio alone. And that fascinated me. At that time there was no such thing as video that everyone has access to now. Radio was far more common than it is today. I started out in radio in Philadelphia years later, inspired in part by The Firesign Theater. Now, one of the four guys from the group (see insert) is a personal friend of mine, which to me is like, WOW, you know? I wish I could have made friends with Groucho Marx as well; but unfortunately, I was a little out of sync in my timing there. He was gone before I got out to LA; one of the greatest comedians that ever lived.

V5: How did you end up in Italy?

DT: I got a scholarship from Temple University to go abroad for a semester. I thought it was going to be a little vacation from show business. I was doing a little radio program and some live gigs as a stand-up in Philadelphia and around the area, wherever I could find a place to play. I was just over 19 so I was playing in places I wasn't old enough to be in. It was an entirely different world then.

V5: How did you get the role of Xenon on SHE (1983)?

DT: I auditioned for it. I was already here; and prior to that film I did a TV show called TILT! (1979) which had been a major hit for the Italians and it represented them at TV festivals around the world. I think it won some awards although they didn't share it with me. It was my first break and gave me a big break in show business here right away. I came here with two hundred dollars in travelers checks and that was it. For a semester that's not much. At first I played the streets as a mime doing robotics and whatnot to make money. At night I did a radio program called Radio Daily American, which was the English language newspaper here in Rome and they had their own radio station. It didn't pay much but it paid enough to get me to stay an extra couple of weeks after the semester was over. 

I got discovered busking and was invited to perform at a discotheque. The discotheque hired me immediately and sent me out to do a tour promoting disco records. This was in 1979. Disco was still a big deal here. The whole reason for coming to Italy was I figured I wouldn't get the chance to come to Europe again later in life. I did the show, I was an MC and people really loved what I did so the record company signed me up for a record deal. They also wanted me on TV. I thought it would be something to add to my resume. So they put me on TV and the program became a major hit in Italy. I had a top 40 hit and enough gigs to last me another two years. I had one more record to do and the record company eventually lost faith in me so I did a TV show, a live program where I improvised, and got a job doing comedy and it became a mega-hit with 20 million viewers a day. There's 60 million viewers in Italy at this time. This was when TV was just regular networks and prime time. There wasn't a lot of channels. So I was back on the train again. This ran from '83 to '85. I got a gig writing for an Italian puppet political satire TV show. I also did theatrical work and eventually it got to the point where I'd gotten as far as they were gonna let me so I returned to the United States and Los Angeles. 

In the early 1990s I ended up working with Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and others at The Comedy Store doing my Zed routine. I even opened for Richard Pryor. Dick Clark Productions wanted to pick up my Zed program. Then the earthquake hits in 1994, and NBC decided against using my show. The excuse I got was the executive didn't like fantastic characters, thought it was old hat akin to MORK AND MINDY. I had gigs set up in Vegas, things eventually dried up, and my wife was pregnant with my daughter. Then I got an offer in Italy to do a program there. So I got my own weekly kids show. I was also writing for adults on these programs; gags that would appeal to children but also were broad enough that adults could appreciate it too. It was put on late night and it was a big hit in 35 countries. I did shows as Zed in Japan like ZAKUBARAN! (1994) and Great Britain. My career was going very well; so what was the point in moving back to LA?

V5: Gregory Snegoff said you ad-libbed your Xenon character. What was the character like before you refined it?

DT: It was a dry script. The character that splits like that was from an old religious text; a Gilgamesh; long before Christianity and the Hebrews. He gets chopped and regenerates. The Gilgamesh is just a monster. I improvised for Avi and he liked what I did. He asked me to come back and perform the character again the next day and I got the gig.

V5: Did the picture influence your career in any way?

DT: Not really. We got paid and it went away like most 'B' movies did at that time. It was a fun experience and that was it. At times, interacting with the crew was funnier than what went on in front of the camera. I couldn't see well while wearing that eye patch so I was bumping into things a lot. I didn't see it again till years later. I enjoyed it to be that free working with a film director so I am grateful to Avi for the opportunity. I wish it had led to bigger things. It's not like anything out there then or now. Hollywood today is an idea-free zone. In business I'm still well known; my name is still there at The Comedy Store (see insert) and I still get called back to do a show.

V5: Where did you shoot your portion of the movie?

DT: We shot on an Italian military base on the outskirts of Rome called the Cecchignola.

V5: What can you tell about your experiences with the other cast members? Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Harrison Muller, and Gordon Mitchell?

DT: Sandahl as you know had done ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) and had just come off CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). She was very professional and had a good sense of humor. She was very down to Earth and easy to work with. One time, though, I'm ad-libbing things and Sandahl looked at me like I'd said something really vulgar and I felt like I may have stepped over the line. Then I realized she's just playing her part as this serious warrior Queen--as serious as you could be in this movie. There was also something that kind of freaked me out during the bridge sequence. I'd calmed down and was returning to normal person mode and I look over and see Sandahl and Harrison tossing me over the side to the ground where the landmines are. The Xenon dummies have my face on them and it hits me that I've just been blown up (laughs).

Gordon Mitchell was huge here in Italy. I used to eat at this little diner type restaurant and he was the biggest celebrity that had eaten there. He'd given a dedication to the place. He was so well loved here.

I didn't get to know David Goss too well; although we had a long conversation in the car ride to the set. He had done club gigs as a singer with his wife. They'd play these small clubs out in the boonies in these places where the market wasn't taken over by the big names, and he and his wife made a pretty good living at it. I told him good for you, man; you're creating something new and doing your own thing. That's all I really remember about him. A really nice guy who had ambitions.

I remember Quin Kessler off-camera pretending to be like Marilyn Monroe, acting like a sexy type character. I remember commenting to someone that she was going somewhere. The way she was acting towards people around her with a fake, sexy identity it seemed like it could play very well somewhere else. Then that 'Jane' movie she was to star in never materialized. You just never know, especially with 'B' movies. I've done a few 'B' movies, but none as memorable as SHE (1983) was. I never saw these people again. You just wish them well and hope they make it.

I ran into Harrison Muller (see insert with Quin Kessler) several other times in movies and maybe even a dubbing session. His sister was big here as a sex symbol. His career took off and he did a bunch of these movies because of SHE (1983). I remember he'd done a 'B' movie with Richard Roundtree (MIAMI COPS [1989] directed by Alfonso Brescia) and there was a stunt where they're either thrown from, or they jump off, a speed boat. On a lot of these things you do the stunt yourself. Well, the crew all went after Roundtree first and Muller afterward. He's out there in the ocean and almost drowned. I remember some of the crew were very concerned about that scene. There were no safety precautions on these movies.

V5: Like Gregory Snegoff you dubbed these films as well.

DT: I did the dubbing on many of these Italian 'B' movies, usually as the bad guy. There were some BILLY JACK type rip-offs I dubbed, and some adventure stuff. I dubbed minor characters on Luigi Cozzi's HERCULES (1983). He was filming that while I was filming SHE (1983). We were at the studio in Rome and I stopped by to see if he could use me in the film and we didn't hit it off at first but became very good friends later. It was one of those occasions where an actor comes in with the wrong vibe and we just didn't get on at all. But now, when I'm in the neighborhood I stop by Profondo Rosso and we talk about movies we both have a big passion for. He also likes horror and I don't. I see enough horror in the newspapers; I want a sense of wonder. Films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and the Ray Harryhausen movies are examples. 

I did a movie for Luigi where I played George Melies
(see above and insert) called BLOOD ON MELIES MOON (2016). George Melies was really the founder of SciFi movies, during the Silent Era. This guy was crazy and he was working in special effects and he had a great sense of humor; and that's the way I played him. Luigi loved it. I don't know if it ever came out in English, but it played the festivals. Filming it was a bit weird as I delivered my lines in Italian but with a French accent. Making the movie was a lot of fun and Luigi is a very fun guy to work with. I love that kind of cinema, 50s SciFi, that sort of thing. He and I both shared a love for 50s and 60s SciFi. The 'B' movies I dubbed didn't always play in Italy, so I never saw them. In '89 or '90 I was working on this kids cartoon called DYNAMO DUCK. One time after work we went to this video store and I was shocked--there was a whole wall with movies I had dubbed; the MAD MAX clones and other things.

V5: What would be a highlight of your career and why?

DT: Appearing on THE TONIGHT SHOW was one, certainly. Once when Jay Leno was on in 1992 and again last year. Another would be this program I did in 1992 as my Zed character at the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot with a bunch of big names called the ALL STAR FIESTA AT FORD'S. Rita Moreno, David Copperfield, Barry Manilow and others were there. It was a ton of fun. It was really amazing to be a part of that. The president was in attendance. We had a cocktail party before the show and we met Colin Powell and his wife. I couldn't believe it. I'd only known him from the newspapers. We were guests at the White House, as well. By the time I'd finished I had the audience in stitches so it seemed it all went very well. Ricardo Montalban introduced Zed on that show. I was blown away. I was like, WOW, I'm being recognized, I'm really up there.

An enormous thanks to David Traylor for taking the time to answer questions about his career. We wish him continued success in all his future endeavors.

If you'd like to learn more about David Traylor you will find even more information about his career, his famous Zed character, videos of his act, and if you'd like to book him for a show HERE.

You can view David's YouTube channel with his Mr. Zed videos HERE.

To read our extensive review of SHE (1983), that also includes an interview with Gregory Snegoff (Godan in the film), click HERE

*Images 6,7,8,15,16 and two images in main photo courtesy of David Traylor*

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