It has been nearly 40 years since Robert Carradine first put on the horned rim glasses and pocket protector as nerd Lewis Skolnik and outwitted the jocks of Alpha Beta fraternity at Adams College in the 1984 cult classic comedy “Revenge of the Nerds.”
People still ask to hear that famous nerd laugh when they see him.
“It has not waned,” Carradine said. “It still happens all the time.”
But he gets just as much recognition from a younger generation of fans who know him as Hillary Duff’s father on the 2002-2004 Disney hit TV show “Lizzie McGuire.”
“The tween audience holds me in high regard,” Carradine said.
Carradine will share stories from ‘Nerds’ and his career this weekend at the Mid-South Nostalgia Festival at Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center in Olive Branch.
Carradine grew up in a family of actors. His father, John Carradine, was a noted Shakespearean actor who also enjoyed a long film career as a character actor in numerous westerns, low-budget B-horror movies and over 350 movie and television acting credits. Older brothers David and Keith also went on to act in numerous movies and television productions.
Despite his father’s deep love of Shakespeare, Carradine said he never had any thought of following in his father’s footsteps on stage bringing the bard’s words to life.
“The way that he put sentences together and the actual words that they used, it’s a challenge,” Carradine said.
In fact, he wanted to be a race car driver. It was his brother David who suggested that he try his hand at acting. Carradine was living with him at the time when he was encouraged to go to a casting audition for an upcoming John Wayne western directed by Mark Rydell called “The Cowboys.”
“The people at Warner Brothers wanted my brother to play the part that Bruce Dern played,” Carradine said. “David said ‘I don’t want to be the guy who shoots John Wayne in the back.’ So that was that. But at the same time, he was aware of the fact that they were going to be hiring ten kids to be playing the cowboys. It occurred to him that I might be right for one of those.”
Carradine said he turned his brother down and thought that would be the end of it.
“He said ‘well, Robert, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose,’” Carradine said. “So I mulled his words over for a day and thought, okay, I’ll go. I have nothing to lose. And I got the part.”
“The Cowboys” tells the story of a group of school boys who are hired by ranch a ranch owner played by John Wayne to lead a 400-mile cattle drive after all of his adult ranch hands desert him to go look for gold. Wayne’s character, Will Andersen, teaches the boys how to rope, brand and herd cattle.
Carradine said to get to work with John Wayne on his very first movie was like being a student pilot and being asked to fly a 747 jet.
“He was larger than life,” Carradine said. “He went out of his way to be gracious with all of his cowboys.”
Carradine said he enjoyed working with Wayne, but there was an instance on the set when he learned a painful lesson for trying to give the world’s biggest movie star some unsolicited acting advice.
“It was about week into the shoot,” Carradine said. “I tried to tell him how he should say a line. That didn’t go over well. He gave it to me in no uncertain terms and with some very colorful language. I don’t know why I thought a 17 year-old could give advice to John Wayne.”
Carradine followed “The Cowboys” up with an appearance on the popular western TV show “Bonanza” and also acted alongside his father and brother David in an episode of “Kung Fu.”
“I’m really happy that I was on an episode of “Bonanza,”” Carradine said. “And being on “Kung Fu” was great. I was kind of a fan boy because I loved the show.”
Carradine also had a memorable role in the 1977 thriller “Orca” with Richard Harris about a killer whale bent on taking revenge against a boat captain who killed his pregnant mate. Carradine’s character ends up being eaten by the whale. The movie was popular with movie audiences, but derided by critics as a rip-off of “Jaws.”
Carradine said he enjoyed making “Orca.” The film was shot on two remote locations in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and in Malta.
“You want to talk about desolate,” Carradine said. “Go to Newfoundland.”
Carradine said the scenes aboard the boat were shot in a gigantic infinity water tank which allowed the filmmakers to shoot in and around the water.
“That was really something,” Carradine said. “You can’t tell where the tank stops and the ocean starts. So the boat for the movie is only half a boat. The bottom half was on wheels so they could move it around. It also had hydraulics on it so they could make it rock. It was really a great piece of movie making.”
Carradine said although he dies in the movie, he became good friends with Richard Harris and got to work with screen beauty Bo Derek.
“What’s not to like?” Carradine said.
Two of his best remembered films came out in 1980 - the war film “The Big Red One” with Lee Marvin, and the western “The Long Riders” which featured four sets of real Hollywood brothers as the outlaw James-Younger Gang.
Carradine said he was working on the movie “The Hatfields and McCoys” with James Keach when Keach asked him if he thought he and his brothers would be interested in making a movie about Jesse James.
“I said, ‘yeah, I think they would,’” Carradine said. “In terms of an on-set experience, it doesn’t get any better.”
Carradine said the movie should have done better at the box office, but the studio, United Artists, put their efforts behind promoting the notorious flop “Heaven’s Gate.”
“They spent all of their advertising on that,” Carradine said. “That was a movie that went so far over-budget that it almost bankrupt the studio. So we were sort of an afterthought. Nobody knew it was out.”
Carradine said “The Big Red One” is one of the best war movies ever filmed. Director Sam Fuller and star Lee Marvin both saw combat in World War II.
“There was a sense of authenticity when we were on the set with those men,” Carradine said. “I think that movie really captured what it was like to be in combat.”
He said Marvin taught the cast how to properly clean and hold a rifle.
“Not only did he have a great sense of humor, but he was very supporting of his young charges, which were us,” Carradine said. “He would give us tips on how to handle a rife, how to carry it, and how to clean it. He showed all of how to clean an M1 Garand rifle. We took our rifles home every night because in Israel, where we shot it, we were allowed to do that.”
“The Big Red One” came out the same year that co-star Mark Hamill appeared as Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Carradine said none of his fellow castmates teased Hamill about “the force” during the shooting of the movie.
“We didn’t give him any of that,” Carradine said. “He is a great person. I admire what he has done and I am honored that we had that experience together.”
Carradine said a restored version of the film called “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” was released in 2004 and adds back in 47 minutes of footage and is closer to Fuller’s vision than the one released by the studio in theaters.
“That’s the genuine article,” Carradine said. “That is the movie that was meant to be released by Sam Fuller. It is night and day.”
“Revenge of the Nerds,” which was released in 1984, was a major hit at the box office and spawned three sequels and a reality competition show.
Carradine said filming “Nerds” was the most fun he ever had on a movie set.
“Revenge of the Nerds was out of this world,” Carradine said. “It has some genuine belly laughs in it. It’s fun to make a comedy. We were always looking for ways to crack each other up. A lot of that stuff wound up in the movie.”
Carradine said he showed up on location two weeks early and only had his “Nerds” wardrobe with him. He stayed in his hotel room for three days because he was too embarsassed to go outside looking like a nerd.
“I was getting cabin fever and I finally put the nerd clothes on and I went out,” Carradine said. “I didn’t know what to expect from people. It turns out they didn’t even react because I was in a college town and they just figured I was an engineering student.”
He was reunited with “Nerds” co-star Anthony Edwards in 1995 who was staring on the hit TV medical drama “ER.”
“It was such a different role for me and for “ER” too,” Carradine said. “ER was always very serious, and to have me show up as an escaped mental patient trying to talk them into coming to work in my new mental hospital, it was a very fun idea.”
“Nerds” remained his best known role until “Lizzie McGuire” came along. He said it was joy to come to work because the set felt like a real family.
“I have two kids that were the same age as Hillary Duff,” Carradine said. “So I would go home at night and be with my real family, then I’d come back to work the next day and be with my TV family. It was very comfortable. It was a very warm set and was really something to look forward to.”
The “Lizzie McGuire” cast was reunited for a 2020 reboot, but the show was prematurely cancelled due to the pandemic.
“We filmed two episodes and then COVID hit and it lost traction,” Carradine said. “A certain part of me holds out hope that they will bring it back. But I don’t think that is going to happen.”
Carradine remains a busy working actor, but said the entertainment industry has changed drastically as a result of the pandemic. He said a lot of auditions for roles today are being conducted using Zoom video conferencing on a computer desktop or mobile device.
“It’s way different from going to a room and doing it,” Carradine said.
And many movies are being released straight to streaming services without ever being shown in a cinema, which he believes takes away from the movie going experience.
“I’m a total movie nerd,” Carradine said. “I see a ton of movies. I love going to the movies. I think seeing a movie in the theaters can’t be replaced by watching it at home. There is a magic happening when you have a room full of people that are like minded and they all want to see the movie. To get that group reaction is a better experience.”
Carradine said he doesn’t have a lot of time to binge watch TV shows, but he is a fan of current shows like “Yellowstone” and the sci-fi neo-Western series “Outer Range” and would jump at the opportunity to join the cast of a good TV project.
“I would love to be on “Yellowstone,” Carradine said. “I think it is a great show. “Outer Range” is really great too. I don’t know if they offer guest roles. But if they did, I would sign up in a New York minute.”