Scott Wilson, who appears at Fan Expo Vancouver this weekend, is as surprised as anyone at his current status as a horror icon.
“If you had told me five years ago I would be doing these shows,” the 73-year-old Walking Dead star says with touches of both humility and amazement, “I wouldn’t have believed it.”
But amazing, it seems, has been a hallmark of Wilson’s long career. Fifty years before fighting zombies as Hershel Greene, the Georgia native hitchhiked out to the West Coast and decided to stick around.
“I got drunk and ended up in an acting class,” Wilson laughs, over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “and found out that I liked it. I stayed with it and pursued it diligently. I’m still pursuing it.”
After honing his craft in local theatre, Wilson got his big break with a standout role in Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night (1967).
“Working with Sidney Poitier?” he says, still incredulous. “Are you kidding me, in my first film? And Rod Steiger? How blessed can you be as a young actor, coming out of the gate like that?”
Wilson’s performance clearly impressed Poitier, as well as the film’s composer, Quincy Jones, who were instrumental in getting him a starring role in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1967).
When Wilson is praised for his masterful—and truly chilling—performance as killer Richard Hickock, he chuckles.
“I could be flip and say it’s typecasting,” the soft-spoken actor jokes, “but there was an incredible focus on that film, and an incredible willingness on the part of the cast and crew to try to recreate what had taken place. I didn’t want the audience to like my character. I wanted them to see he was evil, but to know he was a human being.”
The film got Wilson on the cover of Life magazine, and led to roles in films like The Gypsy Moths (1969), The New Centurions (1972), the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby (where Wilson’s character kills Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby), and The Ninth Configuration (1980).
Wilson also appeared in the film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1983) as test pilot Scott Crossfield.
“Ah, that’s a great film,” Wilson says happily. “It was terrific, meeting Chuck Yeager and the original astronauts—it was really something.”
However, Wilson notes that playing Crossfield—who broke Yeager’s flight speed record—at first resulted in a somewhat frosty reception from Yeager.
“I’m not demeaning him, it was just an example of the competition between these guys. General Yeager broke the sound barrier, he was the first one to go Mach 1, but it was top secret, no one knew. Then Crossfield goes Mach 2 and he’s on the cover of Life magazine,” Wilson explains. “Later we talked, and I admire and think the world of General Yeager. They were all fearless and very brave.”
Lately, it’s Wilson’s role as Hershel on The Walking Dead and his journey through the zombie wasteland that has endeared him to a whole new generation of fans.
“To me, the most interesting aspect of working on the show,” Wilson says, “was not knowing exactly where the character was going, while helping to mold where he does go. Not necessarily with dialogue, but with my look and behavior and how I react to things.”
Still, Wilson knew he was living on borrowed time, as no cast member is ever truly safe on The Walking Dead.
“I wanted Hershel to represent the better parts of humanity,” says Wilson. “To show that you can treat people in a good manner, and that improves the life experience. But I knew when I went in that I would be going. I mean, it was inevitable. The first time they said they were going to take me out they didn’t, and I survived for that season, and then another season. Then in episode 405, where Hershel goes into the prison and is trying to save everyone in there, doing what he can to make their lives better, I knew at that point. I said, ‘He’s done!’”
Regardless, Wilson obviously has great affection for Hershel, The Walking Dead, and the show’s cast and crew.
“The overall feeling that you come away with is how generous everyone was with their support of each other,” he says. “It’s just a great group of people. It was fun—we totally got into it and enjoyed it.”
Wilson also reveals that he got to keep more than just memories. His severance package—so to speak—included Hershel’s severed prop head, created by makeup effects master Greg Nicotero and his effects team.
“It’s in my closet,” Wilson says with a laugh. “I think it might freak people out to see my head out on display.”