The Man Who Was Count Yorga: A Tribute to Robert Quarry
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Remembering the actor who spun a proposed porno movie into a genuine cult classic...
February 2009 began on a sad note for many vampire lovers and horror fans with the death of iconic genre legend Robert Quarry. If there was one actor capable of equalling Christopher Lee’s immortal performance as Dracula it was Quarry as the evil Count Yorga. A veteran of stage and TV, Quarry was set to become a major horror star of the seventies, but his film career faded rapidly, a situation not helped by a terrible run of bad luck that nearly cost him his life. Despite never achieving the movie stardom he deserved, his enigmatic turn as the sardonic vampire lord has given him cult immortality.
The son of a doctor, Robert Walter Quarry was born in Fresno, California on 3 November 1925. He spent his early years in Santa Rosa, Northern California, where he excelled in most high school sports, especially swimming. Quarry, who had an IQ of 168, became interested in acting through his grandmother, who had previously performed in amateur theatre. Graduating from high school at age 15, he won a drama scholarship at the Pasadena Playhouse.
After finding out Alfred Hitchcock was filming Shadow of a Doubt (1943) in Santa Rosa, Quarry got himself a bellboy’s job at the hotel where the cast were staying. Not only did he manage to get a bit part in the film, he met the main star Joseph Cotton, who took him under his wing.
Quarry later moved into the Cotton family home in Pacific Palisades, Hollywood; he even dated the veteran actor’s daughter. During his stay he met many famous actors, directors and producers, including Cotton’s old friends Orson Welles and future co-star Vincent Price. Universal signed Quarry as a juvenile lead on $97.00 a week. After several bit parts, he worked as an apprentice editor for 6 months before moving into full time radio work with the Lux Radio Theatre and the Mercury Theatre Company; he had regular spots on the popular radio dramas Dr Christian and A Date With Judy. With many actors fighting in the War and his ability to mimic a variety of foreign accents, Quarry was constantly in demand, earning $750.00 a week on radio work alone by the time he was 18. An accomplished dancer, he made unbilled film appearances often in the chorus line.
Quarry served two years with the Army Combat Engineers but never saw action. He was posted to Washington and later Camp Lee, Virginia where his shorthand and typing skills got him a clerical job. He started his own theatre group, starring and producing The Hasty Heart, which received a special viewing from President Franklyn D Roosevelt. He transferred to Special Forces, but instead of seeing action, Quarry worked as a DJ playing records to the troops and sounding ‘Reveille’ every morning. Quarry moved to New York following his discharge to pursue a stage career. After early struggles (he lived on cream cheese and nut sandwiches!) he got leading roles in The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III and made his Broadway debut opposite Ernest Thesiger in As You Like It for the Katherine Hepburn Company (he became a lifelong friend of the veteran actress).
Quarry began making inroads into TV on the shows Philco, Studio One and The Robert Montgomery Show, the latter featuring an episode where he played James Dean’s brother. He later signed for MGM as a juvenile lead. The contract included acting classes and dating female starlets. Despite being groomed as the next Robert Montgomery, Quarry hung around for two years before Dore Schary, Louis Mayer’s replacement as head of MGM, fired him. He returned to Broadway to star in The Gramercy Ghost opposite Veronica Lake, who he briefly dated. The couple toured together in Peter Pan with Lake in the title role and Quarry as Captain Hook.
Returning to Hollywood, Quarry attended the Actors Lab but a further contract with 20th Century Fox only lasted a year. He spent much of his time getting fired from various films and TV shows but did make an impression as the college boy pleading for his life before being murdered by Robert Wagner’s serial killer in A Kiss Before Dying (1956). In 1960, with funding from the Ford Foundation, Quarry spent two years visiting regional theatres across America. Now an expert on Shakespeare, he gave several critically acclaimed college lectures and one-man performances. He also worked with John Carradine in the Broadway production of the Madwoman of Chailot.
TV credits at that time included Perry Mason, Ironside and a recurring role in Mr Adams and Eve. Quarry also enjoyed an 8-month theatre run opposite Cloris Leachman in Design for Living at the Los Angeles Stage Society. His participation on several TV commercials made him financially secure enough to pick and choose his roles. In 1965 Quarry contracted cancer. During his successful two-year struggle to fight off the disease, he became a life master at Bridge. Returning to the stage in 1967, he scored a personal triumph with a hugely successful American tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Although most of his role was cut out of the film Winning (1969), Quarry became close friends with the stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and this led to a supporting role in the couples’ next film WUSA (1970). The film’s critical reaction was largely negative, but Quarry’s performance as a slimy right-wing DJ was singled out for praise; there was even talk of a possible Oscar nomination.
During the making of WUSA, actor George Macready introduced Quarry to his son Michael, who was involved in a college project with actor Michael Murphy. The project was a softcore porn movie directed by former actor Bob Kelljan called The Many Loves of Count Iorga (the cast included porn star Marsha Jordan). Quarry agreed to play the lead role if the film was made as a straight horror. Renamed Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), the film was shot at weekends and weekday evenings on a $64,000 budget. Quarry was paid $1,249.00 and a $350.00 bonus. Distributed by horror specialists American International Pictures, Yorga grossed $8 million in its first weekend. Macready and Kelljan made $2 million but Quarry never saw a penny more.
Despite the obviously amateur production, the film is very effective, and Quarry is simply excellent. With his modulated speaking voice, sophisticated manner and impressive stage presence, Quarry plays Yorga with a smooth tongue-in-cheek style that rises above the shoddy workmanship. He successfully transports a 19th-Century vampire to a modern setting, something Hammer’s failed to achieve with their dismal attempts to update Dracula.
Thanks to his enjoyable performance, Quarry received offers from American International Pictures, 20th Century Fox, MGM and Universal. Signing a five-year five-picture deal with AIP, the studio promoted Quarry as a successor to their other contract star Vincent Price, who was winding down his own horror career. AIP quickly produced Return of Count Yorga (1971). Made on a bigger budget and with a higher degree of professionalism (the better-known cast included Mariette Hartley, Michael Pataki, Craig T Nelson and George Macready), the sequel is a vast improvement, and Quarry gives a better performance, with Yorga being played as a more multi-faceted individual.
Although Return of Count Yorga made money, it did not repeat the original’s success, and plans for a third Yorga film were shelved. Quarry’s other vampire movie was The Deathmaster (1972), which he also produced. This time he plays Khorda, a Charles Manson-style vampire guru who enslaves a group of hippies. Already dated on its release, the film rarely gets a TV screening.
AIP gave Quarry equal billing opposite Vincent Price in Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), a sequel to The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) with Price repeating the title role of the demented musical genius. As the 150 year-old Egyptologist Darius Biederbeck, Quarry gives his best horror performance, far removed from the camp air of Yorga. Although an essentially evil character, Quarry plays Biederbeck with more sympathy than the script indicated. In fact Quarry almost comes close to acting his co-star off the screen.
Unfortunately, a rift broke out between Quarry and Price during the making of Phibes. Tired of the horror genre and the career restrictions imposed on him by AIP, Price became resentful of Quarry after a press agent mistakenly informed him that the new contract star was being groomed to take over his mantle. With Price’s later films not doing well at the box office, coupled with his salary increases, AIP were opting for someone cheaper. As a result neither actor remained on friendly terms. By then, Quarry had his own problems at AIP.
AIP was a two-prong organisation run by Sam Arkoff and James H Nicholson, with Lewis M Heyward in charge of their London base. Arkoff handled the financial and distribution side of things and Nicholson looked after the contract stars. Not only did Nicholson sign Vincent Price on a personal contract, he put the old-time horror stars Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone into several AIP films during their final years. Nicholson was also responsible for signing Quarry and fellow stage actor William Marshall, who scored a mega-hit as the vampire Blacula (1972). Relations between Arkoff and Nicholson were never perfect, and the various professional and personal problems that constantly undermined Nicholson’s role at AIP prompted him to leave in 1973. An equally fed-up Heyward departed the following year. With Arkoff in sole charge, his contract players had no protection from his belligerent attitude.
Quarry’s AIP career consisted of missed opportunities. In addition to shelving the third Yorga film, a third Phibes movie starring Quarry, Price and Marshall was also scrapped after Heyward’s exit. Ray Milland replaced Quarry in Frogs (1972) and the chance to co-star in a film with Christopher Lee failed to materialise. Like Price, Quarry’s contract stipulated he could not do horror films for anyone else. Needless to say he took an active dislike to Arkoff.
By the time he appeared in Madhouse (1974), Quarry wanted out of his contract. The film starred Vincent Price as has-been horror star Paul Toombes. Quarry was due to play Price’s friend Herbert Flay, but ended up with the thankless role of producer Oliver Quayle when Arkoff gave the other role to Peter Cushing. As an act of revenge Quarry re-wrote the part to come as close to Arkoff’s personality as possible. His relationship with Price never improved, despite re-writing most of the horror legend’s dialogue, but he did become close friends with Cushing, whom he had first met during the making of Dr Phibes Rises Again. Because The Exorcist (1973) destroyed the largely British low-budget horror film industry, Madhouse was not a success. Closing his London base, Arkoff let his contract stars go and moved into other exploitation markets. Quarry’s final AIP film was the Blaxploitation horror flick Sugar Hill (1974).
Quarry returned to smaller film roles and TV guest spots, including a recurring role in the popular series The Rockford Files. In 1978 he played Michael Anthony in the short-lived detective series The Millionaire. An avid gourmet who studied at Dione Lucas’ Cordon Bleu School in Manhattan (during the making of Madhouse he would often invite Peter Cushing over to his apartment and cook dinner for him), Quarry wound down his acting commitments to write the paperback Wonderfully Simple Recipes for Simply Wonderful Food in 1979. The book sold over 60,000 copies but the proposed follow-up was scrapped when the publisher went bankrupt.
The eighties were terrible years for Quarry. In 1980 he suffered severe facial injuries after being knocked down by an uninsured drunk driver; he was dragged for several minutes under the car. Unable to work after the incident, he used his life savings to cover the extensive medical bills.
The health problems got worse when Quarry suffered a serious heart attack in 1985. During his recovery he was brutally mugged outside his home. The thugs beat him senseless, breaking his knees, ribs and cheekbone, and robbing him of a mere $27.00 (he also suffered another heart attack in the process). It cost him $1777 in medical bills and because he hadn’t worked enough that year, he could not qualify for his Screen Actors Guild insurance.
All these awful incidents left Quarry a penniless, wheelchair-bound recluse unable to work; he wouldn’t have been able to, because his poor health made him difficult to insure. But salvation came in the shape of low-budget filmmaker Fred Olen Ray.
A great admirer of the actor’s work, Ray gave Quarry a small role in his low budget action thriller Cyclone (1986). This marked a welcome return to the genre as featured player in several more Ray movies. It kept him busy for the next decade although a further heart attack in 1988 just before the opening of a Las Vegas show prevented Quarry from resuming his stage career.
Quarry returned to the vampire cinema one more time in Ray’s Beverly Hills Vamp (1989) only this time as the force of good, playing a kooky Irish priest, a part he more or less repeated to absolutely hilarious effect in Ray’s Teenage Exorcist (1991). Both films, and an enjoyably sardonic leading role as ghost hunter Dr Wicks in Ray’s Spirits (1991), showed he never lost any of his sophisticated charm or flair for the genre. Quarry retired from acting in 1999 but remained a popular figure at horror conventions, where his acid wit and skills as a raconteur made him a hit with many fans. Sadly he fell on hard times again after losing money to several con artists posing as fans.
Quarry was set to lock horns with Ingrid Pitt in The Tell-Tale Heart (2007) but the film was scrapped after a series of small heart attacks took their toll on his health. With financial and moral support from his fans, he spent his final months at the Motion Picture Country House (AKA the Actors' Home) in California, and his final days at the nearby hospice where he died on 20 February 2009. Had circumstances been favourable, Robert Quarry could have been a big horror name. But to vampire lovers all over the world, Count Yorga will always be the ultimate in cool. Move over Dracula!
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