It was the spring of 1982 and I was in an unexpectedly quiet spot in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for a plane. And, just as unexpectedly, there in front of me was horror movie icon Vincent Price.
I had been in Chicago on a press junket for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Conan the Barbarian,” which was due to come out in just a few weeks. I’ve previously recounted my brief meeting with Schwarzenegger, who was far from a household name at this point.
Likewise, Vincent Price wasn’t a household name anymore. Except in my household, and those of other old horror movie fans around the world.
Price was about 71 by this point and his career had, in some ways, peaked a couple of decades earlier. His series of classic 1960s horror films, many adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe movies, were followed by a series of 1970s films that, by virtue of being offbeat, had given his later career a boost. Price had won critical acclaim and made fans with the “Dr. Phibes” movies and “Theater of Blood,” in which he played a washed-up horror movie actor plagued by a series of murders … or was he the murderer?
I loved the Poe movies and looooved the “Phibes” films, which were modern and old-fashioned at the same time.
But by 1982, the type of horror movies in which Price had starred had fallen out of fashion. This was the period in which every hack filmmaker was imitating John Carpenter’s great 1978 “Halloween” with cheap and tawdry slasher films.
Maybe I was emboldened by having just talked to Schwarzenegger and the “Conan” crew, but I knew I had to talk to Price.
He was, improbably, alone. No entourage. Not even a traveling companion.
I crossed from the bank of seats where I had been about to sit and approached him slowly. He looked up and smiled and seemed to encourage me to come closer.
I introduced myself, told him what I was doing in Chicago and asked if I could sit with him for a moment.
Even though by this point in his career he must have been approached by strangers thousands of times, he welcomed me graciously and gestured for me to sit down.
We made small talk — at least when I wasn’t telling him how much I loved his work — although I don’t recall if he said why he was traveling.
I remember thinking how jealous Jim, Brian, Derek and my other movie fan friends would be about my opportunity to meet one of our favorite stars so I asked if he would mind if I got out my tape recorder and recorded our conversation.
Price, so friendly in our few minutes together, balked at this.
“I think it would attract too much attention,” he told me.
By this point, a few other people had arrived at the gate for their flights and had noticed Price. He was right, and I nodded.
We spoke for a few more minutes, although by this point Price was distracted by the other people around us. Before long, a woman came up to where we sat and asked if she could take his picture. (This was in the days before cell phones, of course, and the woman had a camera, which was certain to attract even more attention.) Price smiled a little tightly and gave his permission.
Feeling almost guilty that I had started this snowball of recognition, I thanked Price for spending some time in conversation with me and headed back to the seats closest to my gate. He smiled and thanked me for my time.
Price spoke to a few of the people near him but before long excused himself, probably to go to a nearby airport restaurant. I didn’t see him again before my flight left.
Although Price seemed almost a curiosity to the crowd in the airport that day, he achieved yet another level of pop culture fame just a few months later. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and music video, featuring Price’s spoken word “rap,” was released in November of that year. Although he wasn’t seen in the insanely popular video, his distinctive voice was heard, and anyone who wondered whatever happened to Vincent Price had their question answered.
I was lucky enough to have found out, a few months earlier, whatever happened to Vincent Price. And in the process, found that he was a gracious and generous man.
I didn’t get a chance to meet Price, who died in 1993, again. But he’ll live on in my memory from our airport meeting that day in 1982.