INTERVIEW: Actor Garth Pillsbury talks about working with Russ Meyer on VIXEN! (1968)

Actor and photographer Garth Pillsbury talks about working on the infamous 1968 film VIXEN! with Russ Meyer and Erica Gavin.  Pillsbury also chats about appearing in the fan favorite episode of Star Trek: The Original Series 'Mirror, Mirror' and also his career as a crime scene photographer in the Los Angeles Police Department...

TV STORE ONLINE:   How did you come to get hooked up with Russ Meyer for VIXEN (1968)?

PILLSBURY:    Well, when I first came to Hollywood I did a play at what is now the Fountain Theater called The Golden Boy.  In that production, there was a fellow by the name of George Costello.  He eventually became Russ Meyer's Assistant Director and worked with him on several films.   So when it came time to shoot VIXEN!, George suggested me to Russ.  I went in and auditioned for Russ and he said, "You know Garth, you're very good.  You can play any one of these parts. You decide what you want to do."  Obviously, I wasn't going to play the role that Harrison Page played, so I went over the script and I saw that the biggest role in the film was the role of "Tom Palmer" and that's who I chose to play. 
TV STORE ONLINE:   Where was VIXEN! actually shot at?

PILLSBURY:  We all went up to Miranda, California and pretended that that was Canada, and it was pretty hot up there too while we were shooting.    A funny thing that happened during the shoot...George Costello and actor Stuart Lancaster really thought that Erica Gavin could be a really big Hollywood star and so while we were shooting VIXEN! they decided that they were going to become her management team and act as her agents or whatever.   Russ, for whatever reason, became very upset about this and VIXEN! was the last time that George Costello ever worked with Russ.  

TV STORE ONLINE:    What was Russ like on the set of VIXEN!?

Russ could be very volatile.  One day during the shoot Russ and George got into an argument and it got pretty tense so some of us actors wandered up into the hills and while we were up there we heard a couple gun shots. We thought that Russ had shot George!  So we all went back down the hill and there was Russ sitting on the porch of the cabin that we were shooting VIXEN! in with a handgun sitting in his lap.    When I asked Russ what had happened he said, "I thought I saw two no good robber types lurking around the back of the cabin."   So that was supposedly why he had fired his gun, because he was trying to scare them off.     Whether that was the truth, we'll never know now, but I think he had just gotten so pissed off at George that he had to let off some steam.  I heard later, Russ also had put his hand through a glass cabinet after a fight with George, but I wasn't around to see that happen.   VIXEN! really ruined the relationship that he had had with George Costello. 

I ended up working with Russ a few times after VIXEN!.  I had small roles in SUPERVIXENS (1975) and BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970).    Russ lived up the street from me too, and I'd see him every so often, and one of the last times I ever saw him he said, "I have to make another film, so I can use you again."  But he never did.  His signature was to have these big and buxom naked women running around and by that time Hollywood had been showing movie stars in the nude and I think that was the reason why Russ never made any films past the late 1970's.   He just couldn't compete with Hollywood after the end of the '70s.   He had a much bigger following in Europe than he had here in The United States even though filmmakers today have claimed that Russ had an influence on them.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Russ Meyer was very much an auteur...

PILLSBURY:  He was a real one man show, but he never lit his films.   He had someone come in to help with the lighting on his films.    I remember on VIXEN!...Russ was using a very wide angle lens and he laying down on the floor shooting up at us actors.  Every time he would start the camera, something would go wrong.   He got really frustrated.   Actors were blowing their lines, and finally Russ just exploded.  He said, "I don't care what goes wrong!  No one is allowed to yell cut!  We have to get through this scene."   So we got through the scene, and when Russ yelled cut the sound man said, "Russ, we didn't have any sound on that one."  Russ went through the roof...laughing

TV STORE ONLINE:  What was your experience working with Erica Gavin?

PILLSBURY:    Well, Erica...At least I thought, at the beginning...During the very first scene that we shot together, she wasn't very good.   She wasn't very believable.   She was very sing-songy.   Not that I'm a very good actor, but I took her aside and said to her, "Don't try to act.  Just say the lines and it will work."  And that seemed to make it work.   We were just actors working together.  I never got very close to her.  I was married at the time and my wife was coming up and visiting during the weekends. 

TV STORE ONLINE:   That must have may the love scenes with Erica difficult....Did you have any problems with any of the racial aspects of the script for VIXEN!?

PILLSBURY:   Not really.   If I felt any awkwardness in the love scenes with Erica, it was just that I've always felt that making love is something that should be done in private between two adults.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What are you memories of shooting the infamous scene with Erica dancing on the table with the fish?

PILLSBURY:  Laughing...Well, I couldn't get into that.   That wasn't me, I realize that some men and women can be attracted to sexually suggestive things, but for me I just thought it was really weird.    VIXEN! was the very first film I ever did, so I didn't really consider stuff like this at the time or think about it too much while we were doing it because I was just really happy to be working.

TV STORE ONLINE:    You also worked on one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series...

PILLSBURY:  Right, 'Mirror, Mirror'. At the time it really didn't mean anything to me.  Star Trek was just another television series to me that I was working on.   The thing that stands out in my mind today about working on that episode was when we shot that scene where William Shatner comes out of the elevator and my character punches him.  It was supposed to take place right before the commercial break, and in the scene you just see this hand come into frame and punch Shatner.   I knew how to throw a punch on camera, but when it came time to shoot it, Shatner wouldn't allow me to throw that punch at him.  Obviously, I never would have hit him.  I would've thrown it and missed him as I had been taught to do, but he was insistent that a stunt man do it.   Thinking about it now, of course, Shatner was right in having the stunt man do that for the scene because the stunt man made it look the best that it possibly could've looked on camera. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  Fans today can follow you via your photography website....But where did your interest in photography develop from in the first place?

PILLSBURY:  OK, well growing up...As a teenager I had been interested in photography.  When I first came out to Hollywood to get into acting...The problem is that you rely on someone to give you a part in something so you can work.   Sometimes you work once a month, sometimes you work once a year.  So I used photography to make ends meet, and it became a very creative outlet for me.   Over the years as I was acting, my career started to plateau out and I realized that I couldn't live on social security alone so I took a job job as a crime scene photographer with the Los Angeles police department. I did that for a few years before I took another job with the city as a photographer before retiring.   I think, and I'm being completely honest here, by the time that I started working for the city I had become pretty disillusioned with acting.   I'm still involved today with several actors groups and I enjoy it but I'm still working in photography today because I enjoy it so much.  I never wanted to be a movie star.  I never cared about that, I really just wanted to make a living as a working actor. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  When did you get into the crime scene photography and what was that whole experience like for you?

PILLSBURY:   I started around the middle of 1982.  Los Angeles, just like any other major city has a lot of major crimes.   I'd go out and do what was called "nuts 'n bolts" photography for the department.   That would involve taking photos of serial numbers on stolen items or of abused children or wives that had been beaten up by their husbands, and then eventually I started shooting homicides, and that really took a lot of getting used to.    I would photograph crime scenes.   Some of the murders I had to photograph, you begin to think that these drug dealers that are laying there dead in front of you somehow got what they deserved because of what they were doing, but then when you'd photograph some innocent victim or by-stander it would just break your heart and make you very sad.  

The morale was very bad in the department that I worked in too and I worked as a civilian, so you were never considered a police officer and because of that you felt alienated because you weren't really technically one of them, even though they appreciated what you were there for.   Eventually, I did train to become a reserve police officer and I go out and work a couple times a month and it gives you an entirely different perspective on things that you see out there.  

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Garth Pillsbury please check out his official website HERE:

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