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Interview with Keith Coogan (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead)

In 1991, at the height of her Married…with Children fame, Christina Applegate landed her first major film role as Sue Ellen in Stephen Herek’s black comedy Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.

As the oldest of five siblings, teenager Sue Ellen is forced to lie her way into the business world in order to support her family after their mother leaves on vacation and their babysitter dies. But even as she finds success in the fashion industry, she is forced to act as the parental figure for her brothers and sister; Kenny (Keith Coogan), Melissa (Danielle Harris), Zach (Christopher Pettiet) and Walter (Robert Hy Gorman).

Marking the end of a run of teen-oriented movies for Coogan, which had included Adventures in Babysitting and the underrated thriller Toy Soldiers, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead allowed the young actor to play against his usual respectable image by portraying a lazy-yet-lovable metalhead who seems more pre-occupied with getting stoned with his friends than helping out his family. In some ways his character of Kenny was a play on what Herek had previously explored in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Following our interview regarding his work on Toy Soldiers, released the same year, Keith Coogan talks about his role as Kenny and his memories of working with Christina Applegate.

Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead shared a similar ‘children running amok’ theme to Adventures in Babysitting; did you notice any similarities between your roles?

Absolutely not! Brad Anderson and Kenny Crandell were two characters that were about the furthest apart one could hope for! Although both characters have crushes, Kenny likes the hot nurse…perhaps seeing Elisabeth Shue in a nurse outfit would be good for world peace, or the environment, or something. Doesn’t really matter what the reason would be, it’s just something that clearly needs to happen.

You played a stereotypical heavy metal stoner called Kenny. Were you anything like this in real life and how much of yourself did you put into your character?

I think there is a small part of Kenny in all of us; the sloth, the toad, the child. He really represents the ultimate man/child, who must come to grips with his responsibilities, and grow up in the course of the film.

Do you remember any other actors that were up for the role of Kenny and did you also audition for the part of Bryan, which was played by Josh Charles?

I did audition for the role of Bryan, the Clown Dog Boy. And when auditioning for Kenny (which is a story in and of itself), I clearly remember Lizard, Hell Hound and a number of my stoner friends up for the role. I’m glad they had the confidence to invest in the hand-laced wigs that were signature to the Kenny look. They showed a ton of faith in me, and I am grateful for such a brave choice in casting.

Stephen Herek had already proved he was capable of directing comedy with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. What was he like to work with and did he seem confident in dealing with a cast of children?

Stephen showed no bias when working with adults and children. We did have at least three minors on the set most of the time, but I think the kids acted like adults in the film, and the adults all acted like children! So, there was a bit of role reversing going on, and Stephen gave free reign to the kids to make adult choices, and Mr. Herek also let the adolescent nougat rise to the surface in characters like Bruce, Gus, Mr. Egg and, of course, Rose Lindsey, played brilliantly by Joanna Cassidy.

Do you think it was necessary for the babysitter to be portrayed as unsympathetic and obnoxious, in order for her death to be more comedic than tragic?

Yes, there had to be a switch up in expectations, and there had to be a reason to not think these were the worst kids ever! If Mrs. Sturak was officious and commanding, then the audience would be able to identify with our lead characters better while they made such bad choices.

With much of the cast being young were there many practical jokes taking place on set?

Can’t remember even a single practical joke or ‘goofing off’ moment. There were certainly times where we couldn’t keep it together, and kept breaking up during takes. But we would focus on how incredibly hot and smelly it was in the house, and just try our best to get through it quickly.

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead

The movie was released when Married…with Children was at the height of its popularity, did you have a secret crush on Christina Applegate?

Christina had been a friend for many years before we had the opportunity to work together. Nothing but respect and no, she played my sister…don’t be gross.

Despite appearing to be an airhead, Sue Ellen manages to find success in the fashion industry, just as Reese Witherspoon would do in law with Legally Blonde several years later. Do you think that her role helped inspire other movies where a dumb blonde excels in business?

Sure, although I felt our story was already a bite of Secret of My Success and Working Girl.

What do you recall of meeting David Duchovny, who would later become known for his role in The X-Files?

David grilled me on agents, managers, how to move up in the industry. I can remember sitting on my trailer steps, answering his plethora of questions about success, and how to attain it. Whatever I said to him must have worked!

You also worked with Danielle Harris, who is now regarded as a scream queen due to her work in the Halloween franchise. What was she like on set, as many have commented on how professional she was as a child?

Danielle WAS Melissa! Totally funny, and she seemed to relish any lines that were gross, or mentioned hacking people up. There may be another scene we shot that happened to be trimmed from the final cut. I’d love to see some of those scenes end up on a DVD or Blu-ray some day.

Christopher Pettiet, who played your younger brother, Zach, sadly passed away at the age of twenty-four. What was he like to work with and did you bond at all during filming?

It was tough to bond with the minors, including Zach, as our work schedule disallowed it. Although I did seem to gravitate towards their on-set school trailer whenever they fired up the classroom Nintendo. Good times. Also, I never saw anything on the set that would have been considered as troubling, so that was a complete shock to me when he passed.

Two underrated actors who would give humorous performances were John Getz and Kimmy Robertson. Was there much of a divide between the young and older cast?

Um…Don’t you dare forget to mention Joanna Cassidy and her liberating and bubbly performance as Rose. As for John and Kimmy; The Fly and Twin Peaks. Respect…’nuff said.

Do you feel that the idea of children disposing of a corpse with little guilt so they can enjoy the summer without a babysitter a little tasteless, much in the same way that Weekend at Bernie’s had covered up a death in order to enjoy a weekend by the beach?

Ribald fun! I think the gory and grim aspects were sacrificed to tell a story of wish fulfillment for teens. Focusing on the darker parts would have taken the film into another direction, then the GAW story may have seemed out of place considering the roots of Swell’s issues. I think the writers struck a great balance between the dead babysitter and how the kids moved on to get through the months alone while their mom leaves them to boink her Australian boyfriend!

You were able to scrub up and cut your hair for the end of the movie, were you happy that you were able to get a makeover after having long hair through most of the film?

That was a wig. I had a buzz cut at the time, and the producers had such great vision and faith in my portrayal as Kenny, that they sprung for two hand-laced real human hair wigs by Ziggy, an old-school Hollywood wig-maker. Going in to audition for Bryan the Clown Dog Boy, I was drawn to playing fifteen-year-old Kenny, and asked the casting director and producers if I could come back in and show them something. They played along, and an hour later I kicked in the door to the casting office, and in Kenny’s stoner voice shouted, ‘OK, who’s in charge here?’ I barely remember playing Kenny, or how I made the choices I made, as it was such a complete character that required a bit of ‘going under.’ I stayed pretty much in character whenever I had the wig on… subsequently it was very hard to find his voice for the scenes with the short hair. The wig did a lot of the work for me.

Were you pleased with how Kenny was allowed to develop and mature by the end of the story and did you offer any suggestions on the character?

I was very pleased; it was one of the aspects that drew me to playing Kenny. I have many stories from fans who were stoner lay-abouts, that saw DTMTBD and then signed up for Culinary Academy, and are now working as five-star chefs in high-profile restaurants. It’s good to know Kenny had that kind of an impact on people. Redemption stories are always loved.

Was there ever talk of a sequel and was this a role you would have liked to have returned to?

Never talk of a sequel, although I’d love to see Kenny with a restaurant of his own, maybe having some zany adventures babysitting Swell’s kids or something. I’d love to see what they do if they remake the film.

Keith Coogan

Keith Coogan

Do you miss playing the kinds of roles you had with Adventures in Babysitting, Toy Soldiers and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead? Who would you like to see play Kenny in a remake?

Not necessarily. I do continue to build strong characters in the independent films and web shows I’ve taken part in. There’s always a little bit of Keith Coogan in the characters I play. As for casting the remake, I really haven’t got a clue.

Although it would be great to see another ‘clean-cut,’ Disney-reared young actor have a shot at playing someone so reckless, careless and selfish. I really had fun working on DTMTBD, and only hope any remake sticks to the spirit of the original piece.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about my time working on Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. It does remain one of my favourite pictures, not only to work on, but also to watch whenever it’s on HBO! Which is quite often, thank you Warner Bros. and MTV Pictures!

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