Erland Van Lidth, a.k.a Terror, Grossberger, and Dynamo

Erland Van Lidth is in my mind the b-movie equivalent to a John Cazale. Cazale has one of the most remarkable, and tragically short, film careers in history. He was in five films before his untimely death, all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and three of which won. Those films in order:
Image of John Cazale from WikipediaThe Godfather (1972)
The Conversation (1974)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The Deer Hunter (1978)

That is an insane list, and I will leave Godfather III out of that list because he had no say whether or not he could be recut into that mess. Cazale in many ways embodies everything great about 1970s Hollywood, an emotionally reactive force tied up in slender, intense frame—a character actor for the ages and one whose short career rivals the longest and most accomplished of any actor of his time.

Cazale is in a place by himself in my mind, right up there with Harry Dean Stanton. So it might seem odd that I always associate Erland Van Lidth, a relative unknown to many, to Cazale, who by all accounts was an artist of the first order. But van Lidth is an interesting story in his own right, and he in many ways stumbled into acting on account of his rather unique physique. Van Lidth studied computer science at MIT during the 1970s, was a world-class heavyweight wrestler, and all the while was working towards becoming a heldenbaritone (or an opera singer whose particular voice is associated with the works of Wagner). How do you like that crazy combination of abilities and talents? What’s more, Van Lidth was discovered by a casting director in NYC during the late 70s, and started his own very short, but at the same time quite remarkable, movie career, becoming the face of some of my favorite films of the late 70s and early 80s.

His first film was Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979), and he played one of the most memorable characters I have yet to encounter in all of film: “Terror” —the leader of the Fordham Baldies.  And when you watch the following clips (both of which feature Terror towards the end—the first shows him inhaling a slice of pizza and the second features him in a gang faceoff) you’ll now exactly why I feel this way about him.

“Walk like a man”

“Leave the kid alone”

The visage of Terror was forever burnt on my mind after watching The Wanderers for the first time, and it is a face I still can’t shake—not unlike Jaws from Moonraker (1979). He is one of the wildest looking cats ever!

Soon after I saw Van Lidth as Terror in Wanderers he showed up again in one of my favorite movies of the early 80s, Stir Crazy (1980). How can you help but love the comic pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor? Add to that the character actor Van Lidth as the golden voiced homicidal maniac Grossberger, and you have one of the most memorable, but all too forgotten, comic scenes from 80s film:

After Stir Crazy Van Lidth teamed up with what might be the greatest cast 80s slasher film of all time, acting alongside Jack Palance, Martin Landou, and Donald Pleasance in a little known gem of a movie called Alone in the Dark (1982). It is one of the most underrated slasher films of the 80s, but has a solid cult following amongst b-slasher fans, and this one is up there with the original Halloween in my mind. Not only that, but it is absolutely hysterical at the same time, take for example this scene with Martin Landou (that also features Van Lidth and Jack Palance) going nuts over stealing a mailman’s hat.

This is 80s direct to VHS cinema at its finest!

And last, but not least, Van Lidth starred as Dynamo, the electrically charged opera-singing stalker in the Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man (1985). He actually does the opera singing—which is the second time his voice talent is featured on film—but he, like everyone else in the film, is a victim of one of the coolest ideas from a King novella sacrificed to a terrible adaptation. But with all that said, it was his film swan song, and being an electrocuting opera singer that zooms around in a miniaturized bat mobile is pretty cool gig no matter how you cut it.

And there Van Lidth’s career is tragically foreshortened by heart failure at the age of 34, leaving behind a wife and newly born child. I don’t know why this actor speaks so deeply to me about the idea of a career, being many things at once, and leaving some kind of record of ones very being—but he does, not unlike the great John Cazale.

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20 Responses to Erland Van Lidth, a.k.a Terror, Grossberger, and Dynamo

  1. Martin says:

    I _loved_ The Wanderers when I was a teenager ‘leave da kid alone’. That and the Warriors were pretty much permanently in my Ferguson Videostar.
    I’d forgotten he was in Running Man, and haven’t seen Alone in the Dark. Once again, I pay homage to your 80s B-movie mastery.

    • Stirgy says:

      I agree – Mostly with the Warriors, but watched the Wanderers some years later. I do remember watching Alone in the Dark and being scared to death – but I need to rewatch, since it was like 20 some years ago… Saw Running Man in the theater, but never realized that Dynamo was Grossberger!

  2. Gardner says:

    Phil Kaufman is strictly genius.

  3. Luke says:

    I fear Terror indicates the quality of his character by leaving his crust uneaten.

  4. Mikhail says:

    Clearly, he is a man of questionable character.

  5. Reverend says:

    @Mikhail and Luke,

    Please, don’t drag Erland’s memory into your academic arguments about crust eating. He was obviously a crust eater, just so happens that in this scene he is simply making a point to his baldie underlings. Later on in the Wanderers he has a long, impassioned speech about how the Duckey Boys are trying to pollute the New York City water supply, and by extension taint the power of NY pizza everywhere. And we all know that the NYC water supply is the key ingredient what makes the pizza crust taste like it does. NYC pizza is all about the crust, in that I agree with you, but let’s not detract from the man by one scene in a much larger film about NYC pizza.

  6. Classmate says:

    Erland was an amazing man….

    I first met him when he was a member of the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Festival Choir.. where he sang Tenor….

    Then were were classmate s( he was one year ahead ) at MIT…
    I remember him being on the wrestling team…..

    When he started to show up in the movies….
    we were pleasantly surprised….

  7. Pingback: Triple Troll Quote: Harrison Ford vs. John Cazale | bavatuesdays

  8. Bob says:

    I was three years ahead of Erland at MIT and sang shows with him. He did not sing in Stir Crazy. He could have, but when the music was ready for later dubbing in, it was in the midst of a strike and he couldn’t participate. BTW, at MIT he was fondly known as “Baby Huey” — affectionately of course.

  9. Philine says:

    Thanks for your thoughts about my brother – it’s good to see people still remember him and appreciate his work. He was a truly remarkable man, and I miss him still. BTW, he may have stumbled into film acting, but he did theatre throughout high school and college. As Bob may well remember, he was an impressive Richard Henry Lee in “1776” at MIT, and Miles Gloriosus in “A Funny Thing….” – the audience roared when he said “step aside, I take LARGE steps”. He sure did.

    • Reverend says:

      Your brother made a very big impression on a child of the 1980s taking in all of his roles. He was a presence on the screen–truly unforgettable. Thanks for the comment here!

    • mike says:

      Hello from Memphis….Down In the Valley is still one of my favorite moments (and songs) on film. Can you please settle once and for all…did your brother actually sing this?

      • Philine van Lidth de Jeude says:

        Hey, Mike! Sadly, no, Erland did NOT sing Down in the Valley on screen in Stir Crazy. He sang it so beautifully that it’s a shame it’s not him, but SAG was on strike when they were going to loop it, which prevented him getting it done.

        If you listen to his entrance as Dynamo in The Running Man (and later when he’s chasing the runners in his dune buggy), you can hear his actual singing voice – they managed to retain that from the original filming. His speaking voice was dubbed by someone else, as he was already in the hospital when that was looped.

  10. Dougdenslowe says:

    Frank Miller said in a interview,way back when,that he based the Kingpin on this actor.Frank wasn’t the first writer/artist to use Kingpin in the comics,but in his Daredevil run in the ’80’s,was what brought the Kingpin his huge following.He was a minor villain in Spider-man,but Frank Miller’s Daredevil was what we all remember him by.

    • Wow. Seriously? That’s pretty damn cool! Thanks!

      • I met Erland when I was a High School Wrestler from Boston and he was wrestling for MIT. He allowed me to come to MIT and practice with the team. He was a great guy, but the joke was my homeroom teacher was a friend of Erland’s from the MIT theater group and he did not tell me how big Erland was!! He just sent me to Erland’s Frat house and told me to ask for him and that he would be expecting me. I was 5 feet tall and 102 lbs.

        • Philine van Lidth de Jeude says:

          OMG! You poor thing. But knowing my brother, he put you at ease quickly. He was good at that. Frat house? He didn’t live there long – he wasn’t happy in that atmosphere and moved to the dorms at some point. He really enjoyed wrestling, and encouraging young people!!

          Thanks for sharing your memory of Erland.

  11. Sandor Nagy says:

    I could be his twin, and we make it look good.

  12. Ken says:

    Hey, Philine

    I had the privilege of hiring Erland at Pfizer in the early 80’s when we need some computer programming help. He was a delight but I never felt smaller being in an elevator with him nor safer on the streets of Manhattan walking along side him.

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