Almost seven years to the day since the passing of the Return of the Living Dead director Dan O’Bannon and another veteran of the cult classic has now departed. Arguably most famous for his iconic role as coroner Ernie Kaltenbrunner in O’Bannon’s 1985 zombie flick, Don Calfa was a beloved character actor whose supporting roles in an array of pictures ranging from horror to comedy made him a favourite among genre fans.
Born in Brooklyn at the start of World War II, Calfa entered the industry in the late 1960s but it would be through recurring appearances alongside a pre-fame Michael Douglas in the popular drama The Streets of San Francisco that he would first gain recognition. His launch to the big screen came a few years later with the role of a hitman in the Goldie Hawn classic Foul Play, a Hitchcock-style comedy thriller which also marked early roles for both Chevy Chase and Dudley Moore.
During the early 1980s Calfa appeared in minor roles on both television shows and in respected feature films before finally landing the part that he would be remembered for. But the role of Ernie almost went to another respected actor, one who had recently appeared in an Academy Award-nominated picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ‘s Vincent Schiavelli. Calfa’s perseverance would pay off, however and he would land one of the lead roles in the Return of the Living Dead.
The character of Ernie would ultimately come to life through discussions with writer O’Bannon, whose work on the 1979 masterpiece Alien had brought him great respect in the industry. ‘I talked to him about it and the character,’ explained Calfa in The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead. ‘Dan said, ‘Can you shave the moustache?’ And I dyed my hair blonde and that did it. I went somewhere they recommended, one of the hairdressers. Ernie was the only part I was interested in.’
In the movie, an abandoned military canister is breached and releases a toxin that reanimates the dead, turning them into brain-hungry ghouls, forcing a group of punks to take shelter in a medical warehouse and the adjacent morgue. Among the cast were acclaimed veterans James Karen and Clu Gulager and rising screen queen Linnea Quigley. Calfa’s performance, which was a mixture of unhinged and deliciously over-the-top pantomime-style acting, has often been singled-out by fans as a highlight.
The unexpected success and acclaim of the Return of the Living Dead would soon bring about the inevitable discussion of sequels. While a follow-up would eventually materialise three years later, Calfa had developed an idea of his own alongside close friend Roger Carney called the Revenge of the Living Dead. In this story the nuclear bomb released on the town at the end of the movie would spare a handful of survivors, including Calfa’s Ernie, who were then forced to face both the walking dead and a merciless military presence as they attempt to escape the warzone.
Following his appearance in the Return of the Living Dead, Calfa appeared in the Billy Crystal comedy Running Scared before returning to familiar territory – that of an inept assassin – for the bad taste classic Weekend at Bernie’s as a hitman who repeatedly attempts to kill a man who is already dead. Other appearance would include the Troma fick Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and Brian Yuzna’s H.P. Lovecraft’s: Necronomicon.
Don Calfa passed away just two days before what would have been his seventy-seventh birthday.