William Sadler is a man of many faces. He’s played good guys. He’s played bad guys. He’s been the President of the United States. He’s played an illiterate convict with a heart caked in soot. There’s just no limit to what he can and cannot do.
This weekend, he returns to the underworld in the highly anticipated sequel Bill and Ted: Face the Music. As the board game-failing, bass-jamming Reaper, Sadler brings some much-needed humility to Hades. Once again, he steals every scene.
In anticipation, we connected with the veteran actor to revisit those faces across 10 Years and 10 Questions. Given his eclectic and exhaustive resume, it was next to impossible to squeeze everything in within the allotted 20 minutes, but we tried our damndest.
So, enjoy the stories we did get below.
Beyond The Crypt Keeper, you were the de facto face of Tales from the Crypt. How did you get involved?
I actually got really lucky. I was called in for that episode, the very first episode of Tales from the Crypt. I was called in by the casting woman, Karen Ray. My agent submitted me, and they said, “Okay, we’ll see you. We’ll see him.” And I went in, but I was called in to read the cop at the end who arrests Niles Talbot. So, his entire role in the show was, “Mr. Talbot. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say…” That was it. That was the intent, and I read it. And she said, thank you. And as I was about to leave, I said, “What’s up with the role of Talbot, the executioner?” And she said, “Oh, they need a name for that. They want like John Malkovich or someone like that.” And I said, ah, okay, and I left.
I got halfway across the parking lot. She stuck her head out the window of the 20th Century Fox office and yelled, “Bill, come back!” She gave me the sides through the window and said, “Come back on Monday. I’ll put you on tape. But you should slick your hair back or yellow your teeth or something because you’re too pretty.” So, I came back on Monday and did the character, who talks right to the lens in these big monologues about how fun it is to kill people with electricity. And I just had too much fun with that, and I got the role.
And that was funny because one of the writers on Tales from the Crypt was Frank Darabont, who later came up to me on the set and said, “I’m going to do this movie called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. So, it led to that, and it led to The Green Mile and the next movie Joel Silver was doing, Die Hard 2. And so I became the villain in Die Hard 2. It sort of all grew out of that. That one audition, that one performance.
But, I have to say, I was new to this. I was new to this kind of working with cameras. I’ve done tons and tons and tons of theater. But I hadn’t really worked much in front of a camera. And that Tales from the Crypt … that very first episode was directed by Walter Hill. And he liked the character that I came up with, and he kept writing.
I would show up in the morning, and he would hand me these handwritten monologues and say, “Read this.” And I would read it, and he would say, “Okay, I think you can learn that. We’re going to shoot it in about 20 minutes.” And so it went. So, he had fun putting words in that character’s mouth. And he taught me. He taught me a lot about how to work for a camera.
You’re one hell of a villain as we saw in Die Hard 2. At the time, was there any pressure following up Alan Rickman? Do you prefer playing the villain?
Well, I’ll answer the second part first. It’s great fun to play the villain. If you’re not going to be the hero, be the villain. In fact, villains can have more fun than heroes. There’s no limit to how bad you can be. There’s a great deal of freedom in being that evil. But you can’t have a great hero without one. You can’t have James Bond without Doctor No. You have to have a huge villain.
Yeah, I felt a lot of pressure [on Die Hard 2]. I love what Alan Rickman did with Hans Gruber. There were scenes where he was this phenomenal, unctuous, greasy, smarmy mother — and he was just delicious. You loved hating him, and the movie was huge. It launched all of these sequels. So, there was a lot of pressure.
Nobody talked about it, but I think everybody sort of felt it. You’re following in some big footsteps here. But, at the end of the day, this is the story you were given. This is the character. That’s how you do it. You can’t focus on what he did or the script that they were given. So, we worked our asses off and tried to make a good movie.
What were your earliest experiences with Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves like?
The very first time I met Alex and Keanu was my first day of filming on Bogus Journey. We had never tried the makeup — the robes and boots that make me 6’4″ or whatever — and we’d never quite put it all together before. So, everybody was like, “Oh, Jesus, is this gonna work?” as we were still fiddling with the makeup. There was Mike Mills, the special effects makeup man, and there were other designs for what Death would look like.
But I walked in on Alex and Keanu, and the very first thing we shot were the games: Clue and Battleship. That was the first date. It was the very first, “Action! Go!” That’s the thing we shot. I had never met them before, it worked out great, but it was nerve-racking to be tasked to play a game.
What board game do you think you’d pick as Death?
Well, it wouldn’t be Scrabble. And it wouldn’t be Clue. Monopoly maybe? I don’t know. I don’t play a lot of board games.
You played Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption, your first of many roles in Stephen King’s universe. Are you a fan of his work?
I wasn’t, actually. I’m not a big fan of horror. I get scared. I don’t get it. I don’t know why people enjoy being frightened at movies. It scares me. It’s never been something that I’ll go out of my way to see. Scary movies scare the crap out of me.
You returned the Crypt to lead the way in Demon Knight…
Demon Knight was fun. I loved working with Billy Zane and Jada Pinkett.*
* – Again, the time constraints led to some brevity. This was pulled from the initial Crypt discussion.
You’re in some of the grizzliest movies ever; for instance, Disturbing Behavior. How much agency did you have in creating the film’s Pink Floyd-referencing anti-hero Dorian?
It’s funny. It’s like with the Reaper. He’s such a big character. Dorian was the janitor in Disturbing Behavior. It was a huge character choice, and I did it at the audition. And I guess, David Nutter, the director, liked it. We’ve worked together since then a number of times, but yeah, I guess I’m drawn to them, sorta larger-than-life characters. It’s funny because you sort of have to make a leap to get there. And once you’ve made the leap, it’s very freeing. You’re not you anymore. You’re not precisely Bill Sadler anymore. Now, you’re embodying this other person. It’s hard to describe really well. But it’s fun when they’re really close to you, but it’s also fun when you can take a leap totally away.
Over the years, you’ve delivered so many different, incredibly nuanced characters. With Roswell, you got to play Sheriff Jim Valenti for 61 episodes. Was it comforting being able to go back to the same character?
I had a great time doing Roswell because I knew who he was. But every episode that came along — every 10 days, you get another script — it sort of became like a novel. It’s the next chapter in the character’s life. If you recall, he starts out being this hard-ass Sheriff who is determined to get to the bottom of things … he suspects these alien teenagers are aliens. But he’s the biggest problem they have. They’re in real danger because of him all the way through the first year.
The second year he flips over now. Everything he thought about them is true, and now he has to protect them. So, his character goes on this journey. By the end of the second year, he gets in trouble and loses his job because he’s protected them. All the time, he can’t tell anybody about these guys. So, I really enjoyed the episodes with that guy. I had done a lot of movies and bits in guest stars and what have you, and I really enjoyed settling in and doing a steady character over a long period of time.
A character that grows and changes.
As for aliens, are you a true believer?
I’m sure there’s life out there. There are the astronomical number of planets that are out there that could support life. There has to be life out there on other planets. I don’t really think they’ve visited our planet.
President Matthew Ellis was another recurring role of yours in Iron Man 3 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Are you still involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at all? Do you keep tabs on it?
I don’t. I haven’t heard from them in a while. I’m always ready to go back and play the president again. That was one of my favorite roles. It was one film, but it was great. It was really fun to do those gigantic green-screen things. I had never done anything on a scale like that — and I was just blown away. Also, being the president, every time I arrived on the set, the crew started humming “Hail to the Chief”. It was great. It was just like the VIP. It was the best I felt. There was a lot of love around it.
How crazy was it behind the scenes of VFW, and what is your drink of choice?
My drink of choice for some years now has been coffee. I drank enough in the first 35 years or so to last me, apparently. But sitting around on the set of VFW was an extraordinary thing because there were all of these actors who’ve been around for 100 years like myself, Stephen Lang and Marty Kove and Fred Williamson and David Patrick Kelly, and we just had so much fun. There was so much camaraderie. It’s like we had been in the trenches together.
We’d all worked with each other. I worked with Steve Lang doing Shakespeare in the park in 1976. And then I worked with him in a a movie called Project X. I had worked with Marty Kove in New York on a play. I did a musical with David Patrick Kelly. So, by the time they threw us all together in this little VFW post, we felt like veterans, like we had been in the trenches together forever. And that camaraderie just slumped over onto the screen. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that much fun.
The bond was immediate and easy. We’ve all kept in touch after that. It’s like one of those things where you say, “Well, there’s got to be another. We have to keep the band together and do this again somewhere.”
Out of all the cast announcements for Bill & Ted: Face the Music, we were most excited to see you return as the Reaper. Were you always supposed to reunite with the Wyld Stallyns?
I think every time the conversation had come up with Ed Solomon [writer], or with Alex Winter, they mentioned that they were writing one or working on it. Or there’s one in the works. But, he was always, I think, supposed to come back in some form.
But, I was as surprised as anybody when they finally did it. I mean, it took long enough. It was 30 years or something! I was really thrilled, though. I’ve played a lot of characters that I’ve enjoyed, but I’ve never been this guy.
This character is huge. He’s just more fun than they usually are.
Bill & Ted: Face the Music is available to rent now.