- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Eddie Deezen’s appearance in Grease helped launch the archetypal ‘nerd’ that we’ve grown so accustomed to since. Suited up with a bow tie and a pinched voice in the upper register, Deezen’s Eugene character in Grease made an indelible mark in just a few minutes and a few lines of dialogue. Eddie has an innately friendly and kind nature, evident in every memory he shares of working on Grease and the effusive praise he lauds on the film’s cast and director, and the warmth he has in recognizing the film’s enormous impact on his life.
Eddie Spoke to Home Theater Forum from California and happily reminisced about making Grease and why it’s a film that remains vibrant after all these years.
Grease 40th Anniversary Edition is available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and Digital HD on April 24, 2018.
HTF: I always thought there was something very Jerry Lewis-inspired about your performance in Grease as Eugene. Perhaps it's how I best remember Jerry Lewis from The Nutty Professor, but here was something about how he carried himself and how he looked. Having said that, you did create something I think was very unique at that time, the very likable geek. And it has been imitated so often since. You imprinted incredibly quickly on the audience psyche in Grease, so what did you draw from for that character and have you been surprised at the influence?
“I went into the audition and there were all guys looking like Henry Winkler as the Fonz. There were all these girls in poodle skirts, and I was the only geeky guy.”
Eddie Deezen: I don't think I’d even heard the word nerd at that time. But I went into the set [wearing] I think a little suit. I greased my hair back-bought a bunch of Brylcreem and put it in my hair to grease it back. And I went into the audition and there were all guys looking like Henry Winkler as the Fonz. There were all these girls in poodle skirts, and I was the only geeky guy. I did my audition and then when I came back they gave me the suit. So I don't know how it came up. But then, I swear to God, I did a movie about two years later with Pee-wee Herman. He's a good pal of mine, Paul Reubens. I always thought Pee-wee got the idea from my Grease suit and if you look at Pee-wee Herman's outfit, it’s the same as my Eugene Grease suit. I always said he got the idea from that movie, and Paul said to me, "You kind of influenced my character!" So I think he got his suit from Eugene in Grease.
HTF: That's funny. I'd never noticed that before.
Eddie Deezen: Yeah. Compare the suits if you see them.
HTF: Back when Grease was released in 1978, it blew up the box office. In adjusted dollars it's still the highest-grossing movie-musical. I don't know that anybody could've predicted the response to the film, but take me back to those days when it had just come out, audiences were flocking to it, and everybody was singing the songs and it was becoming a runaway success. What did that feel like, and how did you and your cast mates react to it blowing up the way that it did?
“It was the greatest, most visceral feeling in the world. It was just the greatest joy as an actor, even though my role was so small. But just to be part of Grease…”
Eddie Deezen: I was so lucky, Neil, because everybody when they do their first film, they think it's going to be like that. You always do your first film and think, "This is going to be like Star Wars or Citizen Kane." And for most people it's a turkey because most films just die out. Most movies are not big hits. But I lucked out that my first film was Grease. It was literally electric. I must've seen it at the theater probably a dozen times [back then]. I'd go and sneak in the theaters and watch it in the dark at the back. It was just electric because I'd been in high school just two years earlier. I was only 20 years old and was the youngest cast member with a line in the film. It was the greatest, most visceral feeling in the world. It was just the greatest joy as an actor, even though my role was so small. But just to be part of Grease. I always say it's like being one of the dead bodies in Gone with the Wind in the battlefield scene. And those guys all go, "I'm in Gone with the Wind. [laughs] I'm one of these corpses in Gone with the Wind." So I was very happy to be part of the whole thing.
HTF: Have you been surprised by the longevity of the film? As you were saying, every year there are of films that come out, and there's maybe a handful that are highly popular. And out of that handful, most of those tend to fade away after a few years. There's not much that sticks in the pop culture lexicon the way that Grease has.
Eddie Deezen: Yet, for some reason, it stuck.
HTF: I grew up in England. I was born in '75, so Grease running on TV was how I was first introduced to it. And I hadn't watched Grease for years before I re-watched it this week. And every song, I knew. I was able to sing along, so it's always been somewhere in my head bouncing around. I think it probably shaped my perception of how America viewed itself in the '60s, even though it was made in '78. Why do you think it resonates and echoes in pop culture so readily?
“…there's something wonderful about John and Olivia as a couple. Like Bogie and Bacall, they're one of the immortal couples in movie history…”
Eddie Deezen: I've thought about it myself. It's a great soundtrack, for one. The songs are so wonderful. I must've seen the movie 100 times, and still “Greased Lightnin'”, and the original “Grease”, and “Hopelessly Devoted”, and Stockard's song, “There are Worst Things I Could Do”, are fantastic. It's one of the great soundtracks of all time. I also think there's something wonderful about John [Travolta] and Olivia [Newton-John] as a couple. Like Bogie and Bacall, they're one of the immortal couples in movie history.
But if you had to pin the one factor, I think it was John's electricity. You can't imagine how big a star John Travolta was at that time. He's just coming off Saturday Night Fever, and to do two films in a row of that caliber I think was a huge factor. I asked my friend, "Why do girls like it?" and he said, "Girls fantasize this is how high school should've been. It wasn't necessarily like Grease, but it's like a storybook high for them where everybody's friends, everybody loves each other, and we're all friends”. It envisions the perfect, iconic high school life, because high school's tough on most of us. Kids are very cruel. But in Grease we all get along in the end.
Also, Randal Kleiser did a great job directing. It's hard to believe that it was the guy's first film, but he did such a beautiful job directing. To have a classic film like [Grease], there's got to be where the choreography's great, the script is great, the casting's great, the directing is great, the cinematography's great, the music is great. And Grease was one of those lucky films that covered every base and everybody in the cast was really good.
HTF: Lightning striking at just the right moment, in just the right way.
Eddie Deezen: Exactly! You look at the really great films like The Wizard of Oz, how great everybody in the cast was. How great the music was. What beautiful cinematography. It's very few films like that, but it all came together at that moment.
“I saw how great it looked, how great the colors look, and all that stuff. How great it sounds. And it's the highest state-of-the-art level.”
HTF: Grease is being released again on Blu-ray, and it's the best-looking Blu-ray. It's coming out in ultra, high-definition 4K, which is the new format, of course.
Eddie Deezen: Yeah. Isn't it the coolest thing, Neil? It's so cool.
HTF: It looks spectacular. Perhaps the best it's ever looked.
Eddie Deezen: Yes. It looks awesome. I got my copy and I saw it. And I couldn't believe how great it looked. I actually watched it with a friend. I saw how great it looked, how great the colors look, and all that stuff. How great it sounds. And it's the highest state-of-the-art level.
HTF: There's a contributor on HomeTheaterForum, the great Robert Harris, a very well-respected film preservationist and archivist. He's worked on things like The Godfather Trilogy and Lawrence of Arabia. I mean, he knows his stuff. He said (in his A Few Words About…Grease in 4K UHD Blu-Ray) that the new 4K Grease release from Paramount is “beyond startling” and that it's “one of the reference releases for the year.” That's incredibly high praise from Mr. Harris.
Eddie Deezen: That’s great! You know the saddest thing, Neil? I was in Vegas through Saturday. And I was getting my dinner Saturday, and my friend said that Grease was showing out there tomorrow on the big screen. But I was there with my mom. She's 90. So we had to take the plane home early in the morning. But if I had stayed, I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen [again]. I was heartbroken I couldn't see that screening as I wanted to make a surprise appearance and do a Q&A and all. I could have watched the whole movie on the big screen.
HTF: Oh, that’s a shame. The best way to see any movie, on the big screen. Let me ask you, you've worked with some outstanding directors in your time, perhaps most notably, Steven Spielberg on 1941, and Bob Zemeckis all the way back to I Wanna Hold Your Hand and then The Polar Express. In your view, what is it that great directors seem to have that most directors don't? What's the magic? What do they have innately that others don't seem to quite have?
Eddie Deezen: You know what it is, Neil? It's just simply they can communicate to you better. In all my hundreds of directors I've worked for in voiceovers and everything, there were maybe two bad ones. It's just somebody has to understand you and be able to communicate to you. You can ask questions and they communicate to you just right, tell you exactly what they want. And your feedback is free. Even with Spielberg, "Steven, can I do [this]?" And he'd go, "I don't think that's right for this here." 'Steven, can I do that?" "Yeah. Let's try it." Zemeckis was that way, Spielberg was that way. They're just great communicators. Maybe they're psychologists, too, because actors are so weird. [The best directors] can get into you, and read you, and know you as an individual. But I always said it's the communication factor that's the key thing.
“Sometimes you're with somebody great like Tom Hanks. And man, you're working with Tom Hanks. It elevates your performance because he's so great. It makes your performance better.”
HTF: In addition to your onscreen performances, you're a prolific voice actor. Do you have a preference for performance in a sound booth over a set? Or do you like the mix between live action on set and being in a booth recording?
Eddie Deezen: I like both, Neil. I like to be alone, but on something like The Polar Express, it was kind of a voiceover, but we would actually film it, and I got to work with Tom Hanks every day. That was a joy because he's such a giving actor. He's so wonderful and is the nicest guy. Sometimes you work better alone and you want that one-on-one with a director. And sometimes they'll slow you down. You're really in the groove. They'll be off their rhythm or you won't be with a good partner. But sometimes you get that energy off another cast member. Sometimes you're with somebody great like Tom Hanks. And man, when you're working with Tom Hanks it elevates your performance.
HTF: That's fascinating. Thank you so much. I can't believe it has been 40 years since Grease came out.
“I guess it's like 40 years in some way, but in others it seems like yesterday. It seems like yesterday I was setting my little alarm and getting up at 4:30 to take the bus to the Grease set.”
Eddie Deezen: I know. Me, neither. I guess it's like 40 years in some ways, but in others it seems like just yesterday I was setting my little alarm and getting up at 4:30 to take the bus to the Grease set. But like I say, when you get to be my age, that's kind of like how life is. It seems some moments, like where you met your first girlfriend, your first day in school, your first kiss, they can seem like they just happened yesterday although you realize it was 40 years ago in time. And that's how Grease is.
HTF: It's the innate connection that you have to such defining moments. Thank you, again, it was wonderful talking to you.
Eddie Deezen: Neil, it was my pleasure. Great talking to you.