She has the distinction of being the first victim of the possessed doll Chucky in 1988’s iconic classic Child’s Play. Now actress Dinah Manoff shares some insight into getting that hammer to the head while tending babysitting duties for Diabolique…
What are your thoughts on Child’s Play and horror in general? Of course it is a genre that is varied in themes and tone and style, but overall, what is your take on horror cinema from the perspective as a spectator? Of course your mother has a history with horror movies also starring in cult favorites like Damien: Omen II (1978), The Mafu Cage (1978) and others.
DINAH MANOFF: Truthfully, I have never actually watched the whole movie of Child’s Play! I have only ever watched it up until I die! But as far as horror movies go, my first and all-time favorite horror film would be Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and I watched that when I was a kid and I think I watched it about ten times and I just thought the characters were so compelling and the story was so compelling, and I read the book too. I love when the genre has characters that draw me in. I also really liked The Exorcist (1974) a lot, but I do get put off on excessive violence and gore for the sake of gore. So I have never watched any of say the Friday the 13th movies, but I am totally drawn into anything that have strong character development like horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and films like Carrie (1976), and more contemporary films like Get Out (2017), which once again has a lot of great character stuff in it, but violence and gore doesn’t do it for me, I’m too scared to watch that kind of thing. I really don’t like to get nervous for the sake of getting nervous – so for example, when you watch say a typical slasher movie and the girl is running down the hall and the killer is stalking her and she gets to a door and you know that the killer is going to pop out from that door, well that kind of thing I can’t handle. My system just can’t handle it, I can’t metabolise it! I have never seen any of my mother’s horror films either!
What were your thoughts about Child’s Play when you first read the script and heard about the concept?
DINAH MANOFF: It’s so funny…the year I did Child’s Play I also did a film called Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) and that film was this all-star picture with all these big names, and it was based on Damon Runyon stories and I thought, “Well, this is great – I mean they are paying me no money but everyone will see this film!” So, within the same few weeks I got Child’s Play and I thought, OK well this one pays me money but no one is going to go and see this movie! So of course what happened was Child’s Play was number one at the box office and Bloodhounds of Broadway lasted in theatres for about three days and then went straight to cable! So you never know! Clearly I have no field of what films were going to be successes. I thought the same thing about Ordinary People (1980) – I thought this movie is so depressing, no one is going to see it and then it became a phenomenon, one of the most important films of the period.
The characters of Maggie and Karen (played by Catherine Hicks) are these great working class single women trying to make ends meet. They are kind of throwbacks to working shop girls of Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s – what did you like about Maggie?
DINAH MANOFF: Yes! I can see that comparison, for sure! Maggie was a “best friend” – the penultimate “best friend” character. Let’s just say that I have played Maggie a lot! In a lot of films I have been the best friend to a lot of stars, and basically we say lines like “Oh my God what did he say?” and “What did you do?” and “Call me if you need to talk”. And that is basically the Maggies of the world. However, in Child’s Play – and this is totally countering what I said just before about slasher movies – I got to play out really tense scenes and this is something I loved doing. So while I don’t like watching these moments in films, I loved performing them. I love where Maggie is being pursued by the doll and she hears something – I just love horror movie acting. It is so much fun to do. Catherine Hicks was just the sweetest most easy going human being. She’s such a comfortable actress. So I have worked with many actors who are starring in pictures, and there is quite often so much insecurity that comes out in a lot of tension and a lot of stress, and she had none of that. I mean if she was feeling any stress or tension on set it sure didn’t show. We got a long so well and playing her best was so easy, we just immediately got along and could sit and chat. She was just great. Plus I’ve been that actress who had felt that insecurity and tension, so I can spot it easy, but when you’re playing the best friend there is nothing to be worried about, you are there to support, and I love that, I love doing that, there is no tension in that kind of role at all.
The entire sequence where you are stalked and then killed by Chucky rings similar to the Karen Black TV movie horror classic Trilogy of Terror (1975) with the killer doll segment. Your death is almost like a separate mini-movie, what was it like to play out and how was it staged?
DINAH MANOFF: Oh I love that you mentioned that film! And yes exactly! It was staged with the camera peeking around corners and staged with moments where the camera comes creeping up on your back, and creating the tension in the audience, so I had a blast doing that. Of course then the hammer hits my head before I fall out of the window, that was just a blast! I loved doing that. The other films that come to mind when I think of horror and suspense are the works of Alfred Hitchcock, I mean The Birds (1963) scared the shit out of me and so did Psycho (1960), so those films I have always loved and I think this moment in Child’s Play is played out like that, all that suspense and tension.
It’s great you mention Psycho, of course the director of Child’s Play, Tom Holland, wrote Psycho II (1983) which is such a terrific follow up…
DINAH MANOFF: Oh really? Wow, I didn’t know that. Tom Holland was great; from my first audition I liked him so much. He was an all-round gentleman and was just terrific, and the writer Don Mancini is someone I keep in touch with still on Facebook. And we share a birthday, he and I.
Don Mancini is incredible, and the current Chucky TV series is excellent, you should check it out – I love that he conceived Child’s Play as a commentary on consumerism and the evils of consumerism…
DINAH MANOFF: I didn’t know that until now! First time I’m hearing that. And that makes it all the more interesting, maybe I’ll watch the whole film now!
Yes! Please do, it’s superb. As well as the great performances from yourself, Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon and of course the lovely SFX work that brought Chucky to life, complete with the legendary vocal talents of Brad Dourif, young Alex Vincent does a great job as Chucky’s “friend to the end” Andy and you got to play out a few moments with him. What was that like?
DINAH MANOFF: He was a really good kid to work with, and with child actors you don’t really know what you’re getting, but when they hire children to act they really are looking for kids who have the time to commit to doing the role and take the hours of responsibility of being on set. He just sailed through the production, but I didn’t have much to do with him besides those one or two moments where I’m babysitting him.
Was this a role that you had to audition for, or were you offered the role early on?
DINAH MANOFF: I read for the role and I was stunned that I got it! I turned up, read it and suddenly got the part and I was like shocked, I was stunned, and thought OK that’s interesting, I never really saw myself in this. But everyone was super sweet and it was shortly after doing I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982) and I was living in New York and there was a lot of stuff that I was going up for, so it was a busy time finding work.
And you were working on the Golden Girls spin-off Empty Nest around the same time?
DINAH MANOFF: I remember working on a sound stage, it may have been while I was shooting the sitcom Empty Nest, yes, and the producers of Child’s Play had contacted me and told me that they wanted me to do the stunt where I fall through the window, well breaking through the window. So they had come out to the sound stage where I was working on the show and they had set up a sugar glass window set. They had told me that when I break through it I won’t be hurt, that this is what is used all the time in movies. So I told them to set it up and we can see how this goes. I asked them to have the stunt person do it first and show me, and she was there and she did it and get did the fall through the glass and she got cut. And right after that I said, “Nope, not doing it!” I was always very careful not to be pressured into doing anything that I thought could hurt me. I understood that they wanted this effect, but I also thought they could do this in a very different way with a different set up.
And Child’s Play had you trek to Chicago?
DINAH MANOFF: Yep. Shooting in Chicago was freezing cold. It was so cold. I had never been so cold in my life. I thought my eyeballs were going to freeze inside my head. I remember the harsh Chicago wind in Winter, that is what I most remember. I think I was there for just a week between rehearsals and shooting.
And Chucky himself…do you remember the doll well?
DINAH MANOFF: Oh yes, I remember the doll! I remember thinking it was truly terrifying. Nobody would buy this for a child, you could tell it was going to kill you! You know it’s really funny, my husband and I came back from vacation a couple of weeks ago and hanging from my tree in my front yard was a Chucky doll that my neighbours had put up there and when we got up to our door they jumped up at us with their children. So everyone remembers Chucky and my connection and like to remind me about it!
You have the honor of being the first victim of Chucky! Is that something that you treasure?
DINAH MAOFF: I know! It’s a pretty great honor and I’m pretty proud about that. One particular story that I am fond of is this: So, I teach impromptu acting classes for women in prison, at a nearby prison, close by to where I live, and there was one woman in particular who was in my class who just was never impressed by me and didn’t like me, and I could never get her to warm to me. But then somehow in conversation it had come up that I had been in Child’s Play and suddenly her eyes lit up and she was like “What? You’re Aunt Maggie?!” and I was like “Yep! I played Aunt Maggie in Child’s Play!” and from then on I had her in the palm of my hand! Isn’t that funny? Nothing else impressed her, but being the first victim of Chucky, it gave me street cred.
What were your thoughts on the film spawning many sequels and becoming a franchise?
DINAH MANOFF: I don’t look at the film as something that belongs to a big franchise, for me as an actress I am in a project and then out of a project. With few exceptions my participations really ends there. It’s a bit different with something like Grease (1978), which is such a huge phenomenon, or with Ordinary People because of how important that is culturally, but with Child’s Play and the franchise it spawned, I feel kind of removed from. I am super glad I did it and it gives me a thrill to sign Chucky dolls for fans and the like, but I don’t really have any deep feelings about the franchise and what has become of it.
Is a character like Maggie someone you enjoy playing – as you say, the archetypal “best friend” role?
DINAH MANOFF: I love the no-pressure roles. I much prefer the supporting roles of best friend where there isn’t so much pressure on me. except for something like Empty Nest where it was so much fun. I mean I love doing sitcoms, I think sitcoms are like doing a little play all the time, so I never felt pressure there to sell the project. But with something like I Ought to Be in Pictures I was terrified. Whereas the play of that I was as comfortable as can be. The mediums are so different. The stakes on set when you’re carrying a motion picture for a major studio, are so oppressive – for me at least. I don’t like that performance in that film because I can see my fear on screen. I was also scared and insecure on Grease, mainly because it was my first movie and I was intimidated by all the talent that I was surrounded by, and at that time I felt very much in the shadow of my mother’s career, just trying to make a name for myself in a town where my mother was this incredibly highly regarded serious actress. I mean I was just a juvenile delinquent! But I had fun on Grease, because the ladies were do great and the energy and creativity was so high and Pat Birch the choreographer and the director Randal Kleiser were just so great! We Grease gang have all kept in touch! Barry Pearl is our glue, he keeps us all together, he is amazing and emails us with anniversaries on what happened during Grease, oh and Olivia Newton-John was just so decent, and so humble. She was so gentle and lovely and had such a goodness and so talented. We were all knocked out from the talent that she came in with.
You mention that you loved working on stage in I Ought to be In Pictures but found the film adaptation stressful, do you prefer theatre?
DINAH MANOFF: I feel like I’m in my element on stage and don’t feel in my element on film. I always feel self-conscious on film, not that I am self-conscious but that I am working through my self-consciousness while being on film, while on stage I’m lost in the work and it’s all to do with the medium. On stage you can be lost in the character and words and it’s all organic, while on film it’s all broken up and disjointed and there is an uneven flow, and there’s the whole “This is the scene where you’re supposed to cry” and yet there is no lead up to that. You are right in the middle of the action and its all craft and it’s hard craft for me, it’s not something that I have innately in me, and on stage you have a whole storyline that you’re living in the moment and so it takes you there naturally. So for me it’s more convincing for self-expression on stage.
Could you have treated the Maggie death sequence in Child’s Play as a mini-play? It is so self-contained, so perhaps it could have been played out like a theatre piece?
DINAH MANOFF: No, I don’t think so. It was still disjointed because it was for film. But doing Maggie is something that I am so used to, I have played that kind of role so many times, you know there’s a movie of the week where I’m Valerie Bertinelli’s best friend and so forth. If I was to look back at my IMDB page I would see how many “best friend” roles I’ve played and that is completely just me being myself. Those roles are comfortable for me because they are so much like me. So there is not something that I have to reach for other than how I would normally react, so it is much more relaxed.
So you have a book out now, The Real True Hollywood Story of Jackie Gold, can you tell us about it?
DINAH MANOFF: Yes, I do and the book is about a Hollywood starlet who was raised in Malibu and then Beverly Hills, her father is the head of a motion picture studio and her boyfriend is People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” and the story is told from her hospital bed where she is lying in a coma after jumping off a balcony trying to escape the paparazzi.
Well that certainly sounds like there should be a movie deal in the making…
DINAH MANOFF: I hope so! From your lips my dear, from your lips…