Crispin Hellion Glover

We’ve opened the vault to bring you Legs’ interview with Crispin, which originally appeared in a 1987 issue of SPIN magazine.


It was the best bit of television since Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Only this time no one got hurt. It just seemed that actor Crispin Hellion Glover was having a meltdown on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

David Letterman: “My next guest played Michael J. Fox’s father in a film called Back to the Future. He is now starring in a motion picture called River’s Edge. Folks, please welcome Crispin Glover.”

Applause. The camera cuts to a shot of a weird-looking guy dressed in a dirty blond wig, striped bell-bottoms, and huge black platform shoes. He looks like he was dragged from the waiting room and pushed out in front of the curtain. Looking back at the curtain for directions, Crispin walks over to David Letterman, carrying his diseased-eye collection, his new book, Rat Catching, and his latest art project, music boxes. The audience laughs nervously, while Letterman makes small talk with Crispin, trying to bring him out. But it doesn’t work.

Crispin Glover-in-Back to the Future

DL: Where do you live? Do you live in Los Angeles?
CG: Yeah, that’s right. I live in Los Angeles. I just bought a condominium.
DL: (Seeing the interview is going nowhere and that this is a potentially weird situation, starts to lose his composure.) Condominium, where is it located?
CG: It’s located over the hill in the valley and I’m really happy about it.
DL: Did you live for a time in Hollywood? On the Hollywood Boulevard?
CG: (In a voice that sounds like it’s ready to burst into tears) No.
DL: In an apartment overlooking Hollywood Boulevard? A big high building, you lived in a big tower on Holly…
CG: No. No.

At this point a number of women in the audience shout in unison, “Nice shoes!” The audience is really laughing nervously now.

DL: I notice you have something there in that case?

Crispin, still not recovered from the insult on his wardrobe, sits starting at the audience as the camera cuts to a close-up of his platform shoes.

CG: I, I, I, I, I knew that this was going to happen and I, ah, I, ah, I, ah, I ah can tell you because the press, they can do things and turn things around, and oh, I, because, because they, your talking, I don’t look, but the press say things about you…

Crispin spews out a string of disjointed sentences, condemning the press for things printed about him, while Letterman, realizing things are completely out of control, sits there watching his guest have a nervous breakdown.

DL: Paul, anything you’d like to add here?

The camera cuts to Paul Shaffer who silently mouths “No,” holds up his hands, and shakes his head as if to say he wouldn’t get involved in this scenario for all the golden oldies in the world.

CG: This is the other thing they said… “Crispin Glover was pin-striped and greased for the occasion and impressing the girl thangs who were trying to get next to him. Guess some people get turned on my Bryl Cream.”
DL: (Resigned) Yeah, well, I dunno.
CG: And then they… (Crispin is in a state of panic now.) I don’t have these…
DL: You seem to be distraught.
CG: They don’t…
DL: You seem to be distraught.
CG: People make me, make me a lot weirder and I’m strong, I’m strong. I can arm wrestle. I, I, I, I, do you arm wrestle? (Crispin is up from his chair flexing his muscle.)
DL: No.
CG: I’ve been taking…I’ve been taking, I can take you. These aren’t mine. I can, I can, I can kick. (Crispin has stood up, tripped over his eyeball collection, and is now performing a side kick with the heel of his platform shoe stopping an inch from Letterman’s head. David stands.)
DL: Okay, okay, I’m going to check on the top ten. (David is trying to leave but Crispin is pulling on his shoulder.)

David leaves as Crispin slowly sinks back in his chair, staring into the void as the camera cuts to a commercial. All across America people who have ever taken hallucinogens are experiencing screaming fits of paranoid flashbacks. When the commercial ends, Letterman is sitting alone on his set.

DL: Ah, well he came very close to denting my head with those giant shoes. I don’t need that. I’m forty. I went to college, I had a number of … I don’t need that. It’s not how I want my life ended, some goofball, some dork from wherever…

The audience, a bit freaked out and sorry about how they egged on an emotional cripple who just self-destructed on national television, begins booing and hissing at Letterman.

DL: Oh, stop it, stop it…Hey, do you want to have dinner with the guy?

“Crispin, I think your oven’s on, you don’t cook in there, do you?”

“Yes, my oven was on. Yes, I cook in…even though it’s kind of a mess. Do you want an ashtray? I think somebody broke it, I can’t find the holder, or if you want to flick it out the window, or…or what…Oh, here it is, here it is, here it is!”

Maybe Letterman didn’t want to have dinner with Crispin, but I sure did, even if it meant bringing my own six-pack and cigarettes.

I picked up the phone and called Crispin. He’s listed, and when you call, he answers the phone himself. Crispin asked if I’d meet him at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Gallery, hoping to get some publicity for his artwork and books.

A few days later, I’m wandering the warehouse district in downtown L.A., sure that I’m in the wrong place. It’s filled with tractor-trailer trucks, bums stumbling about, and a guy lettering “antiauthoritarian, oppression, poverty” on the wall of a building that turns out to be Crispin’s gallery. It is a hot, sunny L.A. morning, and Crispin arrives on a bicycle, totally out of breath and covered with sweat. He excuses himself to change out of his soaking wet clothes and into a warm, thrift shop brown wool suit. Then he guides me to his artwork and through the bookstore that features his music boxes, which are filled with plastic farm animals sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits, and which when opened tinkle cute renditions of Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” and the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” There are small black volcanoes, too, with eyeholes in them so you can peep inside at mouse fetuses being skewered by a phallic object. It’s all basically warped science-fair projects turned into art.

Crispin’s books are essays and morality tales from the 19th century. He finds them in used-book stores and then reworks them with gallons of india ink and his own hand-lettered words into bizarre fairy tales as metaphors of his own life.

“’The New World,’ by Crispin Hellion Glover…A contemporary forward…a dead stillness requires perfect calmness of the mind and emotions…” Reading from one of his books, Crispin has a nervous crackle that turns into the soothing voice of a master storyteller.

The story is about Mr. Long, a very wicked man who didn’t have a very good sex life. At least the pictures depicting sex during his youth and with his wife look like something Hieronymus Bosch painted. In the end, Mr. Long gets his due for being such an asshole.

“‘I like heaven,’ thought Mr. Long, who had very few ideas indeed. A big, big bubble broke open! Mr. Long’s hands made gestures for the last time. Mr. Long was on his way. His eyes shifted to the left…Good-bye Mr. Long, we always hated you! The end.”

I applaud, feeling grateful for this private reading. Crispin laughs sheepishly.

“Oh, you like them. Well, good…well, good.”

That evening as I’m walking near Hollywood Boulevard to Crispin’s building, I get to know his neighborhood. Two kids are kneeling by a car’s front wheel, prying off a hubcap. A pretty girl, about 14, in a white mini-dress asks me if I “want to party.” Everywhere junkies and street people huddle in the shadows of palm fronds. It’s like a permanent film set for Angel: “Honor Student by Day, Hollywood Hooker by Night!”  Crispin buzzes me into his building just as two hookers are leaving for a night of walking the streets. He welcomes me at his door, and then excuses himself to finish a phone call. His place is on the 14th floor with a view on three sides, but it’s more of a dungeon than an apartment. The main room is a huge black cavern with high ceilings painted a blood red. The joint looks like it should be lit by torches.

There’s something definitely Gothic about this guy. You imagine that he’s on the phone chatting up Lewis Carroll and Bela Lugosi, or Boris Karloff and Mary Shelly, or other weird actors and storytellers who know that Crispin has always been the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.

Crispin gets off the phone and joins me. He’s in his nervous mode, which ranges from a frantic hyperdrive, with his brain’s synapses over-loaded and his words coming from everywhere, to a slow Walter Brennan/Jimmy Steward homeboy stutter. Right now he is somewhere in between, nervously pacing around the room, wondering where to start. I mention his diseased glass eyeball collection – a dozen or so glass left eyes set in wax faces, each of them showing a different kind of deformity.

“Crispin, did you paint the cataracts on yourself?” I ask as we stand admiring them.

“Well, here, let me show you. This is probably the most expensive thing I ever bought. It’s diseased eyes from the 1890’s, that was used to tell what was wrong with you. The doctor would look at you and then look at these eyes and tell you that you had a number 7, which wouldn’t be a fun thing to have.” I wonder aloud what disease has one eye drooping out of its socket toward the floor.

“It was sitting in the sun and it got heated up and it melted,” Crispin explains. “I wouldn’t have done it on purpose, but as it happened it didn’t ruin any of the actual workmanship and I think it kind of works nicely…so, yeah, this is one of my favorite things. The craftmanship is really museum quality. It’s really nice, real wax…hee, hee, hee.” Crispin laughs as a dozen diseased eyes stare at him from off the wall. The effect is like a Salvador Dali painting of melting faces or something out of the Vincent Price film classic House of Wax. When I mention this, Crispin starts laughing harder.

“Yeah, in fact Vincent Price, I think it was him, Vincent Price almost hit me when I was riding my bicycle. I think it was him. Does he live in Los Angeles? It looked like him; it looked like that guy. It looked like Vincent Price and he was driving a BMW. But it happened real quick and I didn’t want to stare at him too much….”

While Crispin enjoys the fruits of his performances, he doesn’t exactly live in the style one associates with most movie stars. When I asked him why he chooses to live in a kind of a dangerous neighborhood, Crispin claims that it isn’t dangerous, but while he’s pointing out the different buildings he’s lived in in the neighborhood, gun-shots break out on the ground below. Crispin, however, goes on talking about how the cops tried to clean up the place during the Olympics, totally oblivious to the police helicopters that are now chopping loudly right outside his windows. The whoop, whoop, whoop of the chopper blades makes me feel like I’ve just landed in Apocalypse Now, and so I finally yell, “In-coming! It’s a hot LZ, everybody down!” Crispin takes notice and laughs. We walk over to the window and gaze out at the clutter of police cars in the middle of the street, the two helicopters sweeping the back alleys with their powerful search lights.

“The police are very watchful around here,” Crispin says dryly, turning away.

Crispin stretches out on his antique gynecological examination table that he picked up at the Salvation Army and uses like a Craftmatic adjustable bed and easy chair, then brings out a picture book about accident victims, The Emergency Room Primer. Everything from people who’ve gone through windshields with massive head traumas, to gunshot victims, to one of his favorites, a guy who hung himself during autoerotic asphyxiation. You look at Crispin and realize that if it really was Vincent Price in the car that almost ran him down, he had good cause to get rid of Crispin. This guy giggling on his gynecological table reading a book about accident victims, with a wall full of diseased eyes staring down at him, is surely the successor to the throne of weirdness. Vincent Price looks like someone’s tired old uncle compared to Crispin Glover. So does Tony Perkins. Even the master of damaged brain cells, Dennis Hopper, seemed almost sane, costarring next to him in River’s Edge.

Crispin was born to actor parents in New York City, then travelled with them to Los Angeles at the age of four. There, he was enrolled in the Merkin School for brainy kids. The kind of place where adolescents teach advanced mathematics and physics to UCLA students during their recess.

“The only thing I wanted to be before an actor was a geologist,” Crispin says, recalling how in the third grade he drew a picture of himself in a pith helmet collecting rocks. But by the time he was 13 he had an agent and was a regular on commercials.

“The first thing I ever did was The Sound of Music at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with Florence Henderson,” he laughs, realizing that it must sound like a bit of a stretch, considering what followed.

After small roles in a comedy called My Tutor and in Racing with the Moon, Crispin showcased his talents in a short film called The Oarkly Kid, about a transvestite who parades around Hollywood hoping to be discovered. This opened the door to a series of principal parts in films like High School USA, Friday the 13th Part IV, and Teachers. Each time, Crispin played a tortured weirdo, always getting beat up by the Nazis in shop class, a burnout, damaged by the process of trying to survive in an uncaring, insensitive world, or a soon-to-be-dead teenager.

“People come up to me all the time and say that’s exactly what high school was like for them. So I’m glad I got it down. But no. No one ever beat me up or anything. I’ve never really been in a fight. I haven’t gone through a lot of, of, of … torment. That’s the word. I haven’t had a tormented life.” Crispin explains, resting back in his gyno-chair and laughing heartily.

“Though I understand it,” he says, becoming serious. When Crispin talks about himself he tends to punctuate every sentence with a laugh. But when it comes to others, he chooses his words, careful not to offend. “Everybody goes through some kind of torment….” Then thinking about it, begins laughing again. “I mean, it’s not that hard to find.”

After Teachers came the blockbuster Back to the Future, in which he played Michael J. Fox’s bumbling, self-effecting loser of a father, George McFly. With the success of Back to the Future, Crispin found roles easier to come by and was cast in a small part with Christopher Walken and Sean Penn in one of the best films of the ‘80s, At Close Range, which died at the box office. Based on the true story of a dirtbag white-trash family in Pennsylvania who run a massive thievery ring, the film is a masterpiece of evil.

Crispin’s big scene comes when he and Walken are supposedly driving Mary Stuart Masterson, who plays Sean Penn’s girlfriend, to visit Penn in the slammer. In the front of a pickup truck with Walken at the wheel and Masterson sandwiched in the middle, Crispin and Walken get her drunk while describing why the jail visit will be hard for her.

On the strength of his body of work, Crispin was finally cast in his first starring role. River’s Edge tells the story of a teenager who kills his girlfriend out of boredom, then invites his friends to visit the body in the woods. They accept the invitation for lack of anything better to do, but nobody reports the murder, out of misguided loyalty and fear of being labeled a narc.

Since Crispin plays so many drug-damaged mutants so convincingly, I ask him about his own experiences with mind-altering substances.

“Do your fans expect you to be the tormented burnout you sometimes play?”

“Well, no one tries to give me drugs or anything, usually they give me artwork, which is nice, but nobody offers me any drugs.”

“Why do people think you’re a wacked-out guy?

“I’m not sure, I hear that people wonder what’s going on, but people never come up to me and say, ‘Are you insane?’” At this point we are both laughing hysterically. Crispin’s openness is refreshing. He’s a very truthful person, which is why his sentences always end in nervous laughter.

“But, ah, but ah, drugs, I don’t think that, I don’t think that, professionally, professionally I could say anything I wanted, I mean Dennis Hopper, it hasn’t stopped him, although he has this new thing where he’s cleaned up, but no, I probably shouldn’t say too much about it … I think it’s important to stay healthy, but in general what I have to say about drugs is, is, is, is generally good things…well, mankind has been taking drugs ever since they found them and (laughing) they like drugs, but they weren’t about to take a lot, regularly in leisure time, it was just certain celebrations during certain rituals so it was just certain specified times, so they didn’t hurt themselves. And I kind of believe that that’s probably the proper way to go about it. It makes the most sense of how it should be.”

“A lot of your characters seem to be acid casualties, have you done your share of acid?”

“Yeah, it’s funny, yeah, I guess in River’s Edge and At Close Range, but Teachers, Teachers kind of had that feel to it … I haven’t, I didn’t, ah, I didn’t, I haven’t, ah, that’s something I shouldn’t say for the tape recorder or anything….”

Crispin jumps off his antique gynecological examining table and has me follow him into the bedroom. He talks about wanting to take his name off his buzzer because a recent People magazine story spelled out his address. “After that, this kind of weird…this girl climbed up here, this is kind of weird, here, I’ll show you.”

Crispin climbs out his window, fourteen stories above the junkies and the pimps and the palm trees, as I watch in horror.

“No! No! No! No!” I stutter, getting vertigo just looking at him.

“No, I know, but see there’s a fire escape right out here and she climbed out along the ledge and…”

“Well, don’t lean out there.”

“Yeah, I know it’s kind of scary, you can’t even stand me leaning out here, but she climbed along the ledge…”

“Come on man, you’re making me dizzy!”

“…and she climbed in here and she stole a jacket and, ah, ah, photograph of myself and a page from one of the xeroxes of my book, Rat Catching, and my underwear, so, so, so the thing was she told me later that she did it so she could meet me.”

“Well, why didn’t she just ring the doorbell instead of climbing out on a ledge, I mean, you are a pretty accessible guy.”

“Yeah, yeah, she gave me everything back, but I told her she could keep the underwear and the xeroxes. Yeah, yeah, I try to keep pretty accessible, like my phone number is a listed number, so now, in fact you can say that in the article, say call up and can find out about my books, you can give my number out, it’s (213) 464-5053, so people can call that, I don’t know if the art show will still be on, but they can call up and I can tell them where to get my book.”

When I finally bring up the Letterman episode, Crispin says, “I think it’s not a good idea to talk about it because people can basically, certain people don’t figure it out, but…a lot of people do, I got some good telephone calls from it, but they were subtle about it, more like (in a very slow, bored voice) ‘Hi Crispin, I just called to see what’s going on, how you doing, just hang in there friend, hang in there.’” And then Crispin laughed, and laughed and laughed.

©1987 + 2017 by Legs McNeil

Watch Crispin Glover’s melt-down on the Letterman show:

Crispin Hellion Glover: Clowny, Clown Clown by Todd McGovern

Crispin Glover Website