April 17, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way, Part Two: An Interview with Actor Jesse Dabson

Last post I profiled low budget filmmaker Fred Olen Ray and his extremely varied output, from his ‘80s and ‘90s knock-offs of popular sci-fi and action films to his current specialty, Hallmark Channel-style romantic TV movies.

Fred’s early path to success was to take box office-proven sci-fi concepts, enlist veteran name actors on the downswing of their careers, mix in young actors eager to work, and borrow as much as possible from other productions -- sets, props, costumes, etc. -- to keep costs low.

One of those eager young actors was Jesse Dabson, who at the time had just two movies on his resume when he went to work for Ray on Deep Space (1988). Jesse would work again with Ray on Alienator (1990), a Terminator clone featuring an impressive list of veteran actors (Jan-Michael Vincent, John Phillip Law, Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry), and a female cyborg terminator played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive.

Jesse Dabson and Dawn Wildsmith in Alienator (1990)
Benny (Jesse Dabson) gets a well-deserved rest after
a long night of battling the Alienator.
In Alienator, Jesse plays Benny, the brainy member of a group of vacationing college kids who, while driving their camper through the woods, accidentally hit a weird drifter (Ross Hagen). They enlist the aid of a park ranger (Law) to get him medical attention, but little do they know that the stranger is an intergalactic fugitive who is being hunted down by a unstoppable, deadly cyborg. When the Alienator shows up to menace the space renegade and his newfound earthling friends, Benny has to grow up fast and find his inner-hero.

Since Alienator, Jesse has appeared in a diverse array of movies and TV. He had a major recurring role in the 1990 TV series Elvis, co-starred with Susan Griffiths in the TV movie Marilyn and Me (1991), and has appeared in such shows as The Golden Girls and Beverly Hills 90210, among others. Most recently, he’s guested in two episodes of Chicago P.D.

In an exclusive Films From Beyond interview, Jesse talks about getting into acting, and his work on the sets of Deep Space and Alienator.

How did you become interested in acting?

I was always a bit of a ham and have one of those personalities that thrives on attention. I can remember as far back as childhood watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago when we visited my Grandparents and wanting to be in those movies. I did a few plays in High School for something to do; small town Pecatonica Illinois didn't have a lot of diversions. However, it was my Freshman year of college at Knox College the bug bit hard. I was playing football and the ADD kicked in and I auditioned for a play fall term, got cast in the lead and proceeded to do a play every semester for the next 4 years. Of course it was supposed to be training for going to law school because I was majoring in Economics, but I soon picked up Theater as a second major and graduated with a BA in Economics and Theater.

Your first movie credit according to IMDb is The Hanoi Hilton (1987), a drama about U.S. POWs in a North Vietnamese prison camp. How did you get the part? What were the biggest challenges for you on your first movie set?

Actor Jesse Dabson
Jesse Dabson today.
Not only was that the first movie I did, that was the first movie audition I ever had. I met a Casting Director named Perry Bullington who worked at Cannon Films and was a Northwestern Grad. Back in the day there were "showcases" where you could pay a small fee to do a monologue or a scene and the organizers of the showcases would invite Casting Directors to come view them. It was sort of pay for play and has since been discontinued as a practice, but I viewed it as a ticket to get to know "people in the biz" because basically I didn't know anybody in Southern Calforinia except the bartenders and other waiters at the restaurant that I was working in. So Perry sees me in this show case, I don't remember what I did, but he sees on my Resume that I attended Northwestern for Grad school. I must have made an impression on him beyond the resume because the next thing you know I am driving up to Cannon studios and auditioning for this movie. I, of course, don't know the first thing about that whole process, so when it's my turn, I stride into the room, walk around the table, shake Lionel Chetwyn's hand and proceed to do three different versions of the sides, with commentary about the approach to the part blah blah, like I am auditioning for my college professor, wind things up and walk out. Perry comes dashing down the hall yelling "What the hell was that?" And the next day I got a call telling me I got the part. Sometimes its good to not know what you don't know.

You first worked for Fred Olen Ray on Deep Space (1988). How did you get that part?

I met Fred through some friends. He never had any money to do his movies. He shot very fast and was a genius at cobbling crap together and talking people into financing his projects. 1988 I think was the year of the writers strike so there wasn't a whole lot going on and Fred contacted me about making this movie over the course of about 5 days outside of LA near where he was renting a home. Fred always had great cigars, good booze and was a riot to work with so when he called, I went.

Your next role for Fred was in Alienator (1990), as Benny, the brainy member of a group of college kids threatened by the alien-cyborg assassin. At this point in his career, Fred was known for doing low budget knock-offs of sci-fi hits (Alien, The Terminator) with name actors who were in the twilight of their careers. What sorts of things about a Fred Olen Ray production stand out for you, as opposed to the other movie work you have done?

He had as much fun as you can have directing. He shot fast and furious, wasn't afraid to change stuff on the fly. It was all just run and gun and he would let you improvise if you had a decent idea. He was also a very bright guy and knew his film history so he told great stories. During Alienator he was dating or married to Dawn Wildsmith, I believe she was a wiccan at the time and the canyon we shot in was where her Coven met. To this day, I'm not sure we actually had permission.

In Alienator, you worked directly with veteran actors John Phillip Law, Leo Gordon and Ross Hagen. What was that like? Any other members of the cast who were especially fun or interesting to work with?

Teagan Clive as the Alientator (1990)
The Alienator sets the fashion scene ablaze with her no-cost outfit.
John Phillip Law was very funny and I enjoyed his stories about Barbarella. I don't remember a ton about Ross or Leo other than they came and went and were there for a paycheck. Old School. None of us ended up being drinking buddies. I do remember Gary Graver the Cinematographer also shot porn and those were some interesting conversations.

What did you think of the idea of a Terminator knock-off, but featuring a female bodybuilder instead of a male? The Alienator costume is unique to say the least. Did Teagan Clive have fun with the role?

I honestly don't remember Fred telling me what the movie was about when he called me. He said, you want a job? I said sure and the next thing you know we are shooting. I'm not sure Fred ever had the whole thing planned out when he started.

That costume was cobbled together from stuff Fred got for free or borrowed. He was a master at that kind of thing. When Teagan showed up on the set, let's just say she didn't look quite like the bodybuilder picture she submitted and there were some alterations.

What have been your most gratifying roles?

Definitely the first one in the Hanoi Hilton, playing Scotty Moore in Elvis the series and at this stage of game usually the last one I did because I'm happy to still be doing it.

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