Of all the scenes in all the films to have been made over the last 100 years, not many are quite as powerful (and downright mental) as the penultimate scene in The Warriors. After a long and arduous journey through New York City, the Warriors finally make it to their home turf of Coney Island, only to be confronted by a mad guy wearing a headband driving really slowly in a hearse whilst clinking some bottles together and shouting, “Warriors, come out to play-ay.”
It may not sound like much when you try and describe it to people, but anyone who’s seen it will agree that it’s like nothing else on film — and it was improvised on the spot. As it turns out, the man with the bottles was David Patrick Kelly, a young actor and musician who was plucked from the stage after Warriors director Walter Hill saw him performing in a Broadway play.
David has since gone on to be dropped off a cliff by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando and chow down on large Parisian sandwiches in Twin Peaks, along with countless other film, television and theatre appearances. And now, for some reason, he’s agreed to do an interview with us…
I don’t want to beat around the bush too much here David — the bit at the end of The Warriors where you’re rattling those bottles together and shouting, “Come out to play-ay,” is probably one of the best scenes of any film ever made. Where did the idea for this scene come from? Is it true that originally you were going to use dead pigeons instead of bottles?
I knew that Walter Hill was giving me an opportunity when he asked me to improvise something. All I wanted to do was make something unique — all that was in my head at the moment was this has to be my own ‘voice’. That was around a lot in artistic circles — having your own sound, your own look, your own style.
It's always been important in film for me to try to use something that is actually present at the moment you are shooting the scene — whether it's little bottles or some deceased pigeons (they were considered a nuisance on the boardwalk and were often poisoned). It was kind of a record of that moment in time beyond what was in the script.
Can you tell me a bit about the making of The Warriors? What was an average day making that film like?
I remember working on The Warriors for about three months. I would wait every night to hear if I was working the next day. At one point my small apartment was robbed, I think by the gangster guy I got the idea for the sound of ‘come out to play’ from. I had to move out, put all my stuff in storage and live in various cheap hotels — one of which was across the street from the Chelsea Hotel when Sid and Nancy were living there. It was a crazy time in New York City.
Who’s this gangster guy?
He was my next door neighbour. I lived next to him for about four years. He had two little dogs he was always shouting at. If I did some home improvements he would be motivated to try that too but would only start the task before it would fall to the wayside.
I don't really know if he was a gangster, but sometimes you get a feeling that perhaps there is a life going on that you don't want to know more about. So the sound you hear me making in The Warriors started from something he said to me and I took it up a few notches.
The Warriors was your first film. How did you get the role?
My life was saved by rock and roll. Because I could play I got the part in Working on Broadway that Walter Hill saw. I played James Taylor's songs (ever listen to his guitar playing on Joni Mitchell's “All I Want”? Astonishing). When we came to improvise the ‘come out to play’ moment Walter first asked me to sing something, but it came out like you hear it — one take.
That’s brilliant. What led you to acting in the first place?
In high school we did a play by J.M. Barrie called The Admirable Crichton. I had the role of a pompous Lord who was completely at a loss when shipwrecked on an island. I noticed that the other actors couldn't keep a straight face while I was acting. It was a funny role and I guess that gave me an empowered feeling — a lightbulb clicked on for me.
How did you wind up in New York?
It's where great theatre was and I have always been a theatre dog. I had a kind of idea of what theatre should be and I have managed to do most of it — great productions of Shakespeare, avant-garde, adaptations of Chinese classics, rock and roll cabaret…
You've lived in New York for a while now. How has it changed since the ’70s?
New York, and the entire world, seems like a branded shopping mall now, but I'm kind of a Warholian optimist. Much is improved — although CBGB’s is now a John Varvatos store it smells much better. Transport around the city is much better with hybrid buses and taxis that actually go to where I live in Harlem. Areas are safer too — I live on a street named after a New York City gang called Young Lords Way.
Before The Warriors you played with a band at some of New York’s most infamous venues — CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. These are places that are talked about a lot now, but as someone who was actually a part of the ’70s New York punk/art thing, what was it actually like to be there?
When I first came to New York in the early ’70s one of my survival jobs was working as a staff member at Max’s Kansas City in the upstairs music room. There were only 150 seats but, for a time, it was the major showcase for anyone, with or without a new record.
Springsteen, The Wailers, Charles Mingus, Television, Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, Suicide, Peter Frampton, Iggy Pop, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, Andy Kaufman, Doc Watson, Merle Haggard... it was an incredible education and after a couple years I played there as well. I think I am the only one who staged a play there.
Maybe this still happens now too, but it seems around that time everyone did everything… writers painted, actors sung songs and filmmakers made sculptures. Where did this freedom come from?
Max's and the artistic mentality that thrived there influenced a lot of the culture in New York at that time. The famous downstairs restaurant where Debbie Harry was a waitress was the meeting place for writers, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, actors. Everybody wanted to do everything. It was part of that Warhol ‘everybody is a superstar’ thing.
That flowed directly into CBGB's and that scene. It was a biker bar discovered by Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Richard Lloyd and Billy Ficca. I read a review of them playing there by Lenny Kaye and went down and signed on myself. It was a wonderful scene to be a part of.
A few years ago you released an album called Rip Van Boy Man. What is a rip van boy man?
I was an official part of the CBGB's Summer of 75 Top 40 Unrecorded New York Rock Bands. The list included me, Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and many, many others. A few years back I finally did a professional mix of a few tapes I had — I had a very talented band and I wanted to put it out there that there was more going on in that scene than is fully realized.
I added three more recent songs from a play I wrote and starred in at a place called Here in NYC. The song “Rip Van Boy Man” is about suddenly being an older fella in a flash and knowing the best is still ahead.
I suppose the next thing I want to ask you about is Twin Peaks. David Lynch came up with Jerry Horne specifically for you. How did this come about?
I met David Lynch for Wild at Heart. I brought in a prop made for me by the artist Joni Mabe. I was playing a stalker character — so I brought in a strange suitcase shrine to womanhood. After that meeting David wrote the character of Dropshadow for me, and when I was doing Wild at Heart he asked me to do Twin Peaks. I am one lucky guy.
I always thought David’s work at that time had this Maginot Line between straitlaced ’50s and wild ’60s, so I asked the hairstylist to give me an extremely short sided haircut that was wild on top. I bought my suit at Agnes B. for Jerry's first entrance.
Do you know what’s going on with the new series at all? Are you in it?
I wish them all well for the Twin Peaks coming up. I haven't heard from them. I always thought there was a lot more to that town…
What’s David like to work with?
David is a great guy to work with. He’s filled with joy and exactitude and serendipity.
Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped you off a cliff in Commando. Arnold’s strong, but according to my research you’ve been doing martial arts for years — who would win in a real fight?
Arnold is surprisingly humble and encouraging and we had a great deal of fun. I wouldn't want to fight him but if we were fighting on the same side... look out villains.
From what you've said it seems a lot of what you do is about being in the moment. A lot of things miss this these days — stuff is too scripted, too planned. Why do you think this is?
In the comedies from Hollywood there’s just enormous pressure because they must get laughs every few minutes or they are screwed. In something like Twin Peaks, Lynch truly didn't care if it was funny or weird or scary — or sometimes all at the same time.
I have always been allowed to improvise and add things from the moment into my film and T.V. projects. Whether it’s Louie or Flirting with Disaster or Commando — the directors have always trusted me.
Apart from maybe Harry Dean Stanton, I don’t think I can think of someone who’s been in as many cult films as you. How come you’ve been in so many good things?
Most actors cannot really choose where their career will go — you must make the best of what you're given. But by simply keeping in my mind the things I wanted to do I have been able to act in science fiction, film noir, war epics, family dramas, comedies, Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, great poetic avant-garde artworks. I’m very blessed.
For someone whose work is based around spontaneity and the moment, is it weird that people like me are e-mailing you from across the ocean to talk about films from over 30 years ago?
I’ve always said that art is a bet with history, and if my work can mean something or perhaps inspire somebody decades later that is extremely fun and rewarding.
I think I’ve run out of questions now. Thanks a lot for agreeing to do this. Have you got any wise words you’d like to pass on?
Encouraging words from Horace — "Nil desparandum!"