News Column

Oklahoma actor fulfills dream of playing Frankenstein monster

October 27, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 27--Ryan Bellgardt knew Eric Gesecus would be his Frankenstein Monster the moment the actor wrapped his burly hands around Bellgardt's neck.

Bellgardt interviewed several actors to play the classic character in his made-in-Oklahoma sci-fi/horror flick "Army of Frankensteins," but none had really fit the part.

When the 6-foot-3, barrel-chested Gesecus, 45, walked in for his audition, he made an immediate impression on the director.

"He knew more about Frankenstein than I did," Bellgardt said.

And when it came time to show the casting director what he could do, Gesecus beat his chest, let out a booming roar and went right after the director.

He got the job on the spot.

But for Gesecus, the road to playing the classic character of American horror was not quite as immediate as his casting might suggest. It was something he had dreamed about since he was an oversized adolescent, mesmerized by Boris Karloff's misunderstood monster in the original 1931 film. As a child, Gesecus would sit in front of the TV and watch his favorite show, "Chiller Theater," for hours on end as it replayed the classic monster movies over and over.

Nearly 40 years later, his eyes light up and his mouth reveals a boyish grin when he describes the show and recites the opening monologue word for word as though he is seeing it for the first time. Gesecus has lost count of how many times he's seen the original Frankenstein movies, but he assumes it's in the hundreds. He once spent all day as a child on the phone with an operator in England trying to speak to Boris Karloff. He tried every Karloff in London and Manchester and even asked for William Pratt, Karloff's birth name, to no avail.

"Turns out, he was probably living in California at the time, so that explains why I wasn't successful," Gesecus said.

Gesecus' passion for monster movies got him his first job when he was 6 at a small general store in Louisville. The store had 6-inch tall monster models of the Wolfman, Dracula, the Mummy and, of course, Frankenstein's Monster. Gesecus pined for them, but his want exceeded the change in his pocket.

He cut a deal with the shop owner that he would sweep the shop and straighten up the shelves and his only payment would be to get one model per month.

A few years later when he was in middle school, Gesecus got his first acting gig in his school's performance of "Arsenic and Old Lace." Gesecus played Jonathan Brewster, a character originally written for his idol, Boris Karloff.

Gesecus loved acting, but once he got out of high school, his interests began to vary. He worked in politics for a while, then moved to newspapers, radio and TV. Meanwhile, Gesecus married his wife, Leslie, in 2002 and their son, Nathan, was born in 2007.

When Nathan was three and in the midst of potty training, Gesecus caught him flipping through his tattered and torn copy of The Essential Monster Movie Guide. He saw an opportunity to share his monster passion with his son and maybe solve another problem along the way.

"I found a bunch of old Famous Monsters magazines on eBay and bought about a dozen," Gesecus said. "I told him that every time he used the toilet he would get one magazine and every time he used a diaper I would take one away.

"He only used two more diapers after that."

Fast-forward a few years, and Nathan's bedroom has turned to a shrine of classic monster films. On a bookshelf in his room, he has stacks of classic monster movies on VHS. His monster magazine collection has ballooned to more than 200, and framed movie posters line the walls surrounding his bed.

"By the time he was 4 he knew the actors in all of those movies," Gesecus said. "I was amazed."

On the shelf above the movies sit a number of monster models, identical to the ones Gesecus worked for when he was Nathan's age.

"I found them all on the Internet and gave them to him for Christmas and his birthdays," he said. "They're a little more expensive now than the $1 they were back then."

Gesecus works in insurance now, but in the early 2000s his experience on the radio led him to give voice acting a shot. He was featured in several commercials and eventually a couple small budget films, portraying a mobster and a state senator.

When he stumbled upon the casting call for "Army of Frankensteins" two years ago, he didn't jump at the opportunity as quickly as one might imagine.

His past two films had been much more work than the payout had shown, and he wasn't sure this would be any different.

But the lure of morphing into the creature he had always dreamed of was stronger than his doubts. Two years later, the film is close to finished and its creators are hoping to get a national distribution deal.

Bellgardt said the film will premiere Nov. 10 in Los Angeles at the American Film Market. There, representatives from the film industry will watch it and potentially buy it and distribute it nationally.

Bellgardt said the project has turned out to be much bigger than originally expected.

"We just thought we would make it for fun and screen it for friends and family," he said. "But now we're confident it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray at least."

For Gesecus, the opportunity to play his favorite character is a dream come true. The fact it could be seen around the country is just icing on the cake.

But regardless of what theaters end up displaying "Army of Frankensteins" posters on their walls, there is one place it will be proudly displayed -- in Nathan's room.

___

(c)2013 The Oklahoman

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