Heroes of Black Horror History: The Inimitable Tony Todd
By Sumiko Saulson
My first exposure to the versatile and prolific Tony Todd was in 1990, when he starred as Ben Jones in the remake of George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Too young to have seen the original performance by Duane Jones, Todd’s take on the role was indelibly etched in my mind moving forward. My budding infatuation with Tony Todd became a full-fledged love affair two years later, when he acted in what many consider his career-defining film, “Candyman.”
Not having seen the original “Night of the Living Dead” until well after I watched the reboot, my first exposure to black representation in horror films had instead been the second in the Romero series of zombie films, “Dawn of the Dead.” In it, Ken Foree starred as the musclebound action hero type character Peter Washington. I was only ten years old, but I loved and rooted for its hero. Like many African Americans, I was proud to see such a positive portrayal of a black man in horror.
Watching Tony Todd in the 1990 remake of “Night of the Living Dead” was a much different experience. By then, I was a twenty-two year old woman and immune to neither an actor nor a character’s sex appeal. Ben Jones as portrayed by the unusually tall and thin Tony Todd, who is 6’5, was not a powerful man of action, but a soft-spoken, thoughtful character that remained poised and dignified in the most unusual and dire of circumstances.
Although both films are about humans trying to survive a zombie outbreak, unlike the action packed “Dawn of the Dead,” “Night of the Living Dead” spends a lot of time with its main characters in hiding or isolation. Ben Jones and Barbara Hamilton, a young white woman portrayed Patricia Tallman who is attacked by a horde of zombies at her parents’ gravesite at the start of the film, first discover and then gradually begin to rely on each other. Ben is a sensitive, soft-spoken character whose demeanor goes against stereotypical portrayals of black men. He rarely loses his temper, even when faced with racism on top of adversity. Along with other characters, the two struggle to survive against unfavorable odds by keeping their wits. Brains and calm and collected mind become more important than brawn and weaponry. Ben’s upbeat attitude in the face of tragedy gives the film heart. Because the Barbara character has more agency in this version than in the original, the Ben character is less the clear-cut protagonist of this film and Barbara’s role is more active and central.
After Candyman came out, I wasn’t the only one swooning over Tony Todd. His portrayal of the story’s iconic urban legend inspired title character was both nuanced and provocative. The movie was written by British horror master Clive Barker and directed by fellow Englishman Bernard Rose. Its subject matter, however, was distinctly American. Set against the backdrop of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects, it tells the tale of Helen Lyle, a white graduate student portrayed by Virginia Madsen who is investigating the true histories behind urban legends.
Despite the presence of a central white or white-passing character (the character is allegedly a distant descendant of Candyman), the backstory’s premise is steeped in the history slavery and the restoration. Most of the supporting cast is African American, including Helen’s bestie, Vanessa Williams, played by Anne-Marie McCoy, and Helen’s Cabrini information source Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh, played by Kasi Lemmons. There are several other key African American characters and a wealth of lesser or background characters.
None of the characters, including the protagonist, steal the show in quite the way Tony Todd’s charismatic and frequently sympathetic villain Candyman does. The brooding bad man approaches Helen in a provocative and often flirtatious manner, imploring her to understand the dark history of injustice and terror that lead to his monstrous afterlife. His deeply resonant voice is seductive and haunting. His character evokes such pity and empathy in the viewer that even as a villain, he could be considered a Byronic hero. When pleading fails, Candyman resorts to threats and bargaining. Helen is the hero and the catalyst for the story, but Candyman is clearly its star. In spite of this, and his stand out performance, Todd didn’t win any awards (he was nominated for one, “Fangoria”), while Virginia Madsen won three.
From the start of his acting career, Tony Todd seemed poised for the world of speculative fiction. Although “Night of the Living Dead” was his first starring role, his motion picture debut was as Barrington in the 1986 fantasy “Sleepwalk,” about a Chinese manuscript with mystical powers. Fantasy and horror weren’t his only speculative acting roles. Some of you will remember his appearances on sci-fi television program “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as Worf’s younger brother, Kurn.
Todd is often cast in villain roles, and horror is the genre he is most solidly associated with. He played the villain Grange in 1994’s classic dark fantasy film, “The Crow,” starring the ill-fated Brandon Lee, who died during production. The movie, based on a dark super hero comic book, contained many elements of horror. Grange, a gangster, is merely a henchman of the main villain Top Dollar. However, in classic Tony Todd character style, Grange is the one who discovers that the crow is the source of hero Eric Draven’s powers.
His characters often have dark mystical knowledge, even when they are neutral, or on the side of good. William Bludworth, his character in the “Final Destination” series, is a coroner who has some special magical knowledge of how death (the entity, not the action) operations. Like Grange, William Bludworth can be considered somewhat problematic as a cinematic trope known as the “magical black character.” These are token black mystics who use their special magical knowledge to aid the story’s white protagonists (or in the case of Grange, villain). However, he is a notable character in the series by virtue of being the only repeating character besides Clear Rivers, the original protagonist (played by Ali Larter) to appear in more than one film. Since death never appears in the flesh in the movies, the Bludworth character acts as an anchor for its personification, performing as a medium or mystic of sorts. He appears in more than half of the movies.
The movie “Candyman” spawned two sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999). While “Farewell to the Flesh” was well-received and succeeded as a sequel, it lost much of the Afrocentrism of the original 1992 Candyman film. Fay Hauser as Pam Carver plays a significant enough role to prevent Todd from being the token black actor, but the significant decrease in black actors in both speaking and background roles makes certain elements of the backstory a bit more problematic.
In the story, Candyman originally existed as a free black man Daniel Robitaille. He was an artist and the son of a slave. His eternal torment is the result of having been tortured, maimed, and murdered by a white mob for sleeping with a white plantation owner’s daughter whose portrait he had been commissioned to paint and getting her pregnant. Candyman’s central targets as victims are women who are descend from his bloodline.
The story becomes increasingly problematic with each sequel as the viewer begins to wonder why these descendants of Candyman’s biracial daughter are predominately white. By the third film, one begins to wonder why the blonde starlet (Donna D’Errico) is the descendant instead of her black girlfriend Tamara (played by Alexia Robinson). In a seeming effort to relieve the second movie’s lack of color, the third film takes on a Day of the Dead theme, a series of Latino secondary characters, and a new Los Angeles location. None of this saves the movie, which is by far the worse of the three. Some of the other acting performances were so bad that not even Tony Todd could save it, and it ultimately killed the franchise.
Although these are his best-known horror series, Tony Todd’s notoriety as a horror actor has landed him a number of parts both large and small over the years. He played a parody of himself as an obnoxious, entitled actor in two episodes of the television show “Holliston” entitled “Candyman.” Some of this other movie roles include Ruber in “Dead of the Nite,” a story of ghosts, ghost hunting, and murder; Reverend Zombie in “Hatchet II,” and Reverend Abraham Stockton in “The Graves.”
Tony Todd remains very active in acting and other pursuits and at 61 years of age, is still widely regarded as a sex symbol. He was a voice actor in a 2015 animated treatment of “Night of the Living Dead” subtitled “Darkest Dawn.” Other 2015 forays into horror for the busy actor included Eddie in “Frankenstein,” Detective Johnson in “Scream At The Devil,” Dr. Murphy in “Agoraphobia,” and the pastor in “Live/Evil.” “Frankenstein” was written and directed by Bernard Rose, co-wrote and directed “Candyman.” Tony Todd also keeps up his creepy bad guy image with a recurring role in the television series “The Flash” as Zoom, an arch-villain who is kind of the anti-Flash. He stars as Detective Sommers in the horror film “Zombie,” currently in post-production.
In addition to his successful movie career, Todd has a substantial history in both Broadway and off-Broadway theater. His onstage credits include Donkeyman in Athol Fugard’s “The Captain’s Tiger,” the title role in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” and Reuben Tate in “Zooman and the Sign.” He continues to be active in theater, and is currently starring in Jack Megna’s “Ghost in the House,” a historical piece about Jack Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. A victim of Jim Crow laws, the boxer convicted of violating the Mann act in 1913 for traveling with a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes,” despite a lack of evidence. One of Tony Todd’s personal causes is working with other celebrities to ask President Obama to issue a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson for his unjust imprisonment.
Sumiko Saulson a horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer. Her novels include “Solitude,” “Warmth”, and “Happiness and Other Diseases.” She is the author of the Young Adult horror novella series “The Moon Cried Blood”, and short story anthology “Things That Go Bump in My Head.” Born to African-American and Russian-Jewish parents, she is a native Californian, and has spent most of her adult life in the Bay Area. She is a horror blogger and journalist