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Remembering Marilyn Eastman

Remembered by most horror fans as Night of the Living Dead's Helen Cooper, actress Marilyn Eastman has passed away. To honor and mark her passing, I thought I would share our conversation from the 50th anniversary film book we did a few years ago. Marilyn was a kind, funny and warm person and we here at Fantasm send our heartfelt condolences to her family, friends and fans.

Helen Cooper Talks the History of Hardman, Ghosts and Writing


FANTASM: Can you tell me how Hardman Associates, Inc. actually got started?

MARILYN EASTMAN: I wasn't actually there when they got started. I came along one year later, but I know the history. Karl Hardman was vital part of the Rege Cordic show and, of course, the Rege Cordic show (“Cordic & Company”) was a phenomenal success on the east side of America. Karl was Rege Cordic's number one man. Karl had a powerful and very, very wild, wide capability to do voices and if that man had gone to California where voices were used constantly, he would have been a very big success. But for one reason or another, he liked staying in the home ground and when Cordic told everybody he was looking at retirement in the near future, Karl decided to go out on his own and open a production studio. Meanwhile, I came along to Pittsburgh and I was working at KQV Radio, doing many different things. One of them was voices and writing copy for clients. It just so happened, one day I was invited to lunch by some fellow advertising agency people and a couple of people from Alcoa and we mostly did table-swapping stories history stories. Someone asked me, “What would you do if you had any job in the world?” And right away I knew that answer. It was to work solely in production because I liked writing and I liked performing, and I liked putting it all together.

FANTASM: At that point you'd done some television performances, correct?

EASTMAN: Yes, minimal at that point. When I was 15, I lived in Iowa and I went to WOC and knocked on the door and said, “I want to be on television. I want to work here.” Can you imagine? Fifteen years old. (laughing) Now, those people took me in and they gave me some things to do and I did some live commercials. Everything was live in those days, so I was one of the girls in the back of a Nash. I don't know if you're old enough, but you might remember the commercial, “the bed in the back of a Nash.” That's what Nash Automobiles came out with. They hired me to pose getting out of the car and getting in. I was in these grayish pajamas and had to get in the back of the car, and then they had Mrs. Iowa come along with me. It was very hokey but it was great pleasure for me to be hired to do those things when I was so young. But anyway, back to Karl. He started a production company in 1962, I think, and it was one year later, then, when the fellow from Alcoa at my lunch table said, “I know somebody that just opened a new production studio. You should go see him.” The next day I went to go see him. And “him” was Karl Hardman. He said, “What do you do?” I said, “Everything.” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well, I can act, I can do some voices and I write.” He said, “What do you write?” I said, “What do you want me to write?” And he said, “I'm going to give you 30 minutes. You write some things for me.” I said, “What do you want me to write?” And he said, “Whatever you like. I'll be back in half an hour.” So there I was, sitting in his office with the paper and the pen, thinking, “What the heck do I do? What do I write, a weather forecast? What is this?” Then I thought, “I'm going to write something very weird.” So I wrote a little, tiny short story. And it was all kind of psychedelic and kind of fanciful. I had never written anything like it before, but it was a quickie. He came back and I said, “Here's my offer to you.” And he said, “Read it aloud to me.” And I read it aloud, of course, with very careful acting infused into it and he said, “You're hired.” (laughing) So that's how I began with Hardman Associates. I left KQV very reluctantly because when I went in to quit, the station manager said, “Wait, wait, wait. You can't quit. What would you say if I doubled your salary?” “Ah!” So I stumbled out of the room and I thought about it for a few minutes, and I thought, “Double would be great!” because I had kids to support, too and I said, “That would be great, but, no, I'm going to take the job with this production company because it's what I really can do.” And he said, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. What if I tripled your salary?” (laughs) And I said, “Oh, I really have to think this one over.” Then I went away for a day or two and I went back and said, “You know, it's really a wonderful offer but, no, I gotta go do what I gotta do.” And he said, “Don't go.” That was not my last offer.

FANTASM: Wow! If you'd held out long enough, he may have made you a 50 percent partner! (laughs)

EASTMAN: Does that even sound real, like it could ever happen to a person? I said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, but I'm going.” What he didn't know was I was going over to Hardman Associates for just exactly the same as I was making at KQV, and that was peanuts. So I can never forget that because that gave me the boost, you know, the gumption and the nerve. Nerve is a big thing in radio and television. I went back to Hardman Associates and told Karl Hardman about it and he appreciated it. He said, “Look, we'll do our best to up your salary as soon as we earn a little more money.” (laughs) And he did up my salary. So eventually, the differences weren't so big. But of course I'll never know what the end would have been. I don't like to think about that. (laughs)

FANTASM: If nothing else, that really says that your other boss definitely saw value in what you brought to the table or he wouldn't have tried so hard to keep you.

EASTMAN: That's right and that's why I think to this day, I probably would have gone to ABC in New York out of that job because that was their alliance and they were always looking toward bigger and better and being somebody. I think they saw me as one of their helpers in that end and he had me doing character voices on the radio, which they had never done before. Nobody understood what I was doing, but it was something new and more sophisticated than their programming had been. So I think that's what he saw. I'm very grateful for him giving me that memory, if not the paycheck.

FANTASM: So eventually you became vice president of the company at Hardman Associates, right?

EASTMAN: Yes, that 's right. We were partners and we bought a building on the south side of Pittsburgh on Carson Street and built a studio smaller than the one we had in downtown Pittsburgh. That studio had a great history because Kathryn Kuhlman, the evangelist, used to broadcast from the same place that we had our studios. In fact, she left us a ghost in the back end of the studio, which was filled with old steam rooms because the original patrons of that property were the people who started the Duquesne Club at the height of sophistication, if you want to call it that. We loved that studio because of the ghost and he would come out at night and leave little marks around. We never met him face to face, but when we left there, we invited him to come along but he declined. So we moved to Carson Street with no ghost and felt like we'd been cheated. (laughs) Ghosts are valuable. They can give you the insight on things. We finished our last years of business on the south side and then we both reached retirement age and we both were tired of it, like the thrill was gone. And we both retired. We both continued to work freelance but we got into other interests, each of us on our own.

FANTASM: When George first presented his idea for a horror film, how developed was his concept? Was there a full script at that point or just an idea?

EASTMAN: He told us that he had been influenced by {Richard Matheson's} story I Am Legend. That story was not the same story as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but it was just the fact that it contained dead people who were never dead. That really tickled George and he came up with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It had no name at that time, I don't think. But he worked on a story and he wrote the story. Then when they invited us to join them, we had just finished a year on the air doing another radio show, which we fashioned sort of like the Rege Cordic show, but we had Charles Craig, a real talented guy with a great voice. We said, “Yeah, of course we would. We're looking for something exciting to do. And this is it!” So there was no hesitation on our part. Before the words had passed their lips, we were part of it. We put in some money, the small amount that they asked for and we got ten people together. All ten of us recognized that each one of us had a talent. We didn't all have the same talent but that was what was good about it. And then we started planning the movie and getting toward the time that we'd actually start shooting, George said, “I don't have time to finish the film script for this. We have to transfer a story into a motion picture script, which is totally different.” As I got it at the time, he asked Jack Russo, knowing that Jack had done some writing in his life, if he wanted to take a try at finishing the film script. Russo said, “Yes, of course,” and that's what he did. The scenes I was in, I wrote my own dialog and Karl and I used that dialog. I presented it to them, they asked me to do that, they okayed it and we used it. That's the sum total.

FANTASM: Can you tell me about working with George as a director?

EASTMAN: Well, George was very low key. He would think about things. He didn't wax verbally, you know? (laughs) He was a quiet, silent guy and he would be looking out into space and he would turn and say, “Why don't you enter from the left and why don't you anticipate danger...” I'm just making this up, but that's the way he worked. It was a scene at a time.

FANTASM: What can you tell me about working on the film with Karl?

EASTMAN: Oh, it was old times. We were so used to working opposite each other in so many different avenues, this was our bread and butter. We could have gone on with 102 scenes and ad libbed, you know? We just knew what the other one could do. It was just wonderful. It's just too bad we didn't have more scenes. (laughs) We would have surprised them so many times because that was our thing to do, always the unexpected.


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