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Questioning Pilate: Our Exclusive Interview with Barry Dennen from “Jesus Christ Superstar”

 If you’re a fan of musical theatre, Barry Dennen has a resume that will make your jaw drop.

The Chicago-born actor famously embodied Pontius Pilate in both the original Broadway run and 1973 film version of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar." Dennen has also crossed paths with some of the biggest names in stage and screen. Starring in the London premiere of “Cabaret” alongside Judi Dench and recording a concept album with “Tim” and “Andrew” (that would be Sir Tim Rice and Baron Andrew Lloyd-Webber, to the rest of us) may sound like the stuff of an actor’s fever dreams, but Dennen has lived it. And that was all before “Jesus Christ Superstar” became a cultural phenomenon.

Dennen's career spans much further beyond musicals,  voice-acting in many projects like "Ducktales,"  "The Dark Crystal," and various video games.  In the massively popular MOBA game DOTA 2, Dennen voices a number of heroes: Chaos Knight, Phantom Lancer, and Rubick.  He even appeared on the small screen in the 1960s "Batman" series. In 1980, he played Bill Watson in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."

Still high off the success of a recent Italian arena tour of “Superstar,” Dennen took a few minutes to talk to us about his memories of Chicago and what it took to bring Pilate to sneering-yet-sympathetic life.

MK: I know the folks at Hollywood Blvd. Cinema are excited to welcome you back to the Chicago area for these special “meet-the-cast” Easter screenings of “Superstar” April 3rd through the 5th.  How old were you when your family moved from Chicago to Los Angeles?

BD: I must’ve been about 14 years old, it was my first year of high school. And I have lots of memories of Chicago....When I was a kid, and my mom used to go shopping, she’d drop me off in the toy department at Marshall Fields. They had a marionette show with a proscenium stage and everything, and I was fascinated with how everything worked. The last time I wandered through, the remnants of the stage were still there, though I think Marshall Fields has long since been bought out by a different company . . . it’s the most wonderful city. Visiting Chicago is a pleasure.

MK: When you were growing up in Chicago, did you have any opportunities to perform?

BD: My mother took me to performing lessons – they called them singing lessons, but it was really more about performing than vocal technique – with these two sisters named Kirchner, I think. I can’t remember their first names. But later, when I was doing the first national tour of “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off” with Joel Grey, the stage manager came knocking on the dressing room door after a matinee and said “Barry, there’s two sisters here to see you.” I came out of there, and I could not believe it, but there were standing in front of me, all those years later. I was thirty-something at that point, but they remembered me and they had pictures for me to sign and everything.

My life is full of oddball twists and turns that are not typical of the path of the normal actor . . . it’s had its wonderful delights.

MK: Tell me about your time in London. How did it happen that you were cast as Pilate in the “Superstar” concept album?

BD: I was working with a guitar player named Murray on a movie project that would hopefully bring some revenue to the Commonwealth so that we could keep our visas. We started writing songs together, and then one day Murray said he knew these guys who were writing a rock opera called “Jesus Christ,” and that they would like to meet me. So I said, “Okay, let’s go,” and we got fixed up in our velvets – this was 1968 – and I went to this recording studio. They played me three or four songs, and as I sat there listening to them they said, “Well, what do you think of it?” I said, “I think it’s either going to be a sensational event or a total disaster . . . but I think it’s going to be wonderful. I really think it’s going to blow the lid off. No one’s seen anything like this before.”

MK: There are numerous Internet sources that say you were the first person to suggest that the musical be made into a movie.

BD: No, that’s not exactly right. Around the same time we recorded the album in London, I got cast as the rabbi’s son in the film of “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Norm Jewison (who went on to direct “Superstar”). So there we were in Yugoslavia; it was November and it was very cold. We were waiting for it to snow – a local farmer told us later that it didn’t start snowing there until February -- but Norm came up to me and said “Your record is all over the place in London, in the stores . . . In New York, they’re playing it on the radio. I’ve got an idea how to make this into a movie. Do you have a phone number for these guys?” And I said, “Why, yes I do.” I called them the next day from the set, and Andrew didn’t pick up, but Tim did. I said, “Tim, this is Barry Dennen. I’m on the set of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Norman Jewison – do you know who he is?” And Tim went, “ . . . No.” And I said, “Well, he has an idea for a movie that he wants you to hear,” and I handed the phone over to Norm and I walked out to give them their privacy. That was how it all started.

I didn’t say anything to Norm; he had the idea in his mind coming from New York. There were so many people who were so negative about “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the time – they hadn’t seen the show, it was just a record – but Norm had the same kind of “Whoa! What is this thing?” reaction that I’d had.

MK: As an actor, what were some of the ideas you had about the character of Pontius Pilate? How did you prepare for the role?

BD: I read several books. First of all, I re-read the Gospels, which I hadn’t read since university. Then I thought a lot about how people perceive him as the villain. And I thought, that can’t be right. Except for the Nazis, people aren’t completely villains, they’re not black of heart. They are human beings. I thought that there had to be more to this guy than just “a Christ-killer.” And I started to think about him as a person. Here he was, sent up to Jerusalem from Rome.  It was not a great position; it was a very lowly position. He was doing the best he could with an unruly group of people, who were going to get him in terrible trouble with Rome. And chances were, he would be dragged back to Rome and in chains and executed because he couldn’t control the situation. Not only his job, but his life was at stake, so as the character, I started to think in terms of “I have got to get rid of this dude. I’ve just got to get rid of him” and he did. There’s a famous short story by a French author about the last days of Pontius Pilate’s life. In the story, someone comes to Pilate and mentions this huge cult following that has sprung up around a man who was executed, and Pilate says “Who was it?” And the man says “Uh . . Jesu Christe.” And Pilate says, “Huh. I don’t remember him.” He saw Jesus as just a man, and Pilate put lots of people to death, many on the same day.

MK: Toward the end of the movie, the character of Judas re-appears and sings about how, if Jesus were on earth in modern times, he would be more popular and his message would spread more easily.  If Jesus were around today, would you follow him on Twitter?

BD: I don’t follow anybody on Twitter. (laughter)

MK: Looking at your body of work, you’ve been involved in a lot of other things that have achieved fan bases and even cult status. Do you think anything else has taken on the kind of following in the way “Jesus Christ Superstar” has?

BD:  Well, I was the original Emcee in “Cabaret” in London, and that was a very important show too. But I did meet a fan who came up to me and said “Oh my god! You played a Skeksis in ‘The Dark Crystal’? You were in my childhood nightmares for years!” That’s amazing to me, the effect you don’t realize you’re making. I’m a working actor, and I’m very, very lucky. I have managed all my life, pretty much, to keep going. And the “Jesus Christ Superstar” experience was totally, totally unexpected and unforgettable. Forty, forty-five years later, you still have these fervent fans , especially in Italy. We would meet some of them after the show, and of course many of them are Catholics, and they would tremble and cry – which was very alarming! -- and they’d say these breathtaking things like, “I’ve waited fourteen years to meet you.”

Watching of the movie has become traditional for some families; they watch it at Christmas. They watch it at Easter. They’ll dress up and bring their children to the live shows, and the crowd is six to 16 to 60 year olds packed into this 2,000-year-old arena . . . It’s incredible, I never thought it would be like that. It was absolutely wonderful.

Meet the Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar Easter Weekend at Hollywood Blvd Cinema

Comments

Private comment posted on September 28, 2016 at 2:37:34 pm

Private comment posted on August 28, 2016 at 12:55:41 am

The Thomas Crown Affair

June 30, 2015
The second minor alarm Hitchcockian Planfuck occurs not long after, and it concerns Erwin, the getaway driver, played by Jack Weston (I beg your pardon to digress a moment ? was there ever an actor more perfectly cast than Jack Weston is in this role? Answer: No!) He?s got all the pilfered loot in the getaway car (a Ford wagon with wood paneling on the side), heading off to the dropoff point, when, on a narrow street, he gets stuck behind a truck of eggs making a delivery ? Minahan The Egg Man.
http://crazyaboutmoviesblog.blogspot.com/

Terri Peterson

May 6, 2015
I was there for this interview with my sister who has brain cancer. We had our picture taken with Ted Neely. Everyone in the cast was very nice. It was our first time at the Hollywood Blvd Cinema.

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