Five decades after the release of “I Drink Your Blood”, star Ronda Fultz is enjoying a well-deserved second act as a horror icon.
“When it came to acting, there were no holds barred.” – Ronda Fultz
Ronda Fultz’s career spans just five films; three of them for writer-director David Durston, including the legendary I Drink Your Blood, which was notoriously rated X for violence. I had the good fortune to meet Ronda this past April at Cinema Wasteland in Strongsville, Ohio. She joined the rest of the surviving cast for a poignant, first-time reunion that was rapturously received by fans. Ronda was candid, hilarious, and lovely.
We reconnected a few weeks later by phone. What follows are some of the highlights, beginning with the story of her auspicious debut in the Oscar-nominated In Cold Blood.
INTERVIEW WITH RONDA FULTZ
1. I wanted to start right at the beginning. You grew up in rural Kansas, right?
Yeah. Pleasanton, Kansas, which is a little farming community about 60 miles south of Kansas City, right on the Missouri-Kansas border. Did I tell you the story about when I tried out for In Cold Blood? It was kind of funny. I was hitting 300 pounds. Richard Brooks, the director, had come to the University of Kansas, which is my alma mater, and he was auditioning people. We had basically done improv-type situations to audition.
I was sitting in front of my acting teacher and Richard Brooks. Brooks said, “I really need a 300-pound bald guy.” I was so fresh at that point. It was really interesting. As obese as I was and uptight in some areas, when it came to acting there was no holds barred. I was very out there. So I said, “I’m not proud. I’ll bind my chest and shave my head (laughs)”. So Brooks said to my teacher, “I’m going to use her.” We were all in such a daze with this big movie possibly casting some of us. Being in that movie, I got my Screen Actors Guild card before I even got to New York. That was a big coup for me.
2. You told me a great story at CW about having shot more stuff that didn’t make it into the film.
I had the scene that’s in the movie where I just walk in the house and scream when we discover the bodies; very short. Then there was the scene where I was telling the townspeople. There was no sound, I was just supposed to be telling the townspeople what we saw. Brenda Currin was the actress playing Nancy Clutter, and she was a dear friend of mine. We were all taught Method acting, so I started telling the story with her in mind – as though I had found my friend murdered.
Conrad Hall, the cinematographer, he said to Brooks, “Look what’s happening with Ronda.” So they came in on a close-up because I was crying, I was hysterical. I didn’t think any more of it. I was having breakfast in the motel with John Forsythe on my last day. Brooks came into the restaurant. He could be very gruff and said, “Why aren’t you getting ready to go on set?” I said, “I’m going home today, my shooting’s over.” He said, “No you’re not. I saw the rushes from the crying scene and we decided to add dialogue to it.”
I didn’t know what to expect and I figured we’d be shooting the whole thing over again But little did I know we’d just be behind this barn with a boom mic; Brooks, the sound man, and me. So they said ‘action’ and I was so taken aback. There was nothing there to set the scene, and it was just horrible. So Brooks said, “Okay, Ronda, we’re going to try it again.” And he slapped me. Well, instant tears. I cried like a flippin’ baby, and we got it. He said, “Perfect.” As we were walking away, he put his arm around me and said, “Now, Ronda, I don’t want you to feel bad about that slap. The last person I slapped was Bette Davis.” (Laughs) So I said, “Okay, I’m in pretty good company.”
3. And so you made your way to New York, SAG card in hand, around 1968. What were you doing in the interim before landing I Drink Your Blood?
That was one of the first things I got because, back then, what we did was pick up a newspaper. They had Backstage and Show Business. That’s where you found the auditions. My first job there was working with an actress on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Barbara Sharma. My first year in New York I was very lucky. I knew one guy; a gay guy I had gone to high school with. His partner was a hair stylist, and he knew Barbara. The goddess was with me. I got a job and a roof over my head within 24 hours of being in New York because Barbara needed a governess. And, you know, at this point I’m so green I give myself a lot of credit (laughs).
So I moved into her place up at 103rd and West End Avenue because she was getting ready to leave town and needed somebody to watch her daughter. So that was really great. The day I got there, it was crazy. I think I stayed at a really dingy hotel the first night. I went to meet Barbara and literally moved into her house the next day. Just one of those crazy things. My first year in New York was really just about acclimating myself. One of my friends from the University of Kansas was at…I can’t remember the acting school she was in. Anyway, we hung out together.
I didn’t do that many auditions but I did try out for I Drink Your Blood with David. But I didn’t hear from him. Barbara had moved to L.A. to do Laugh-In, so she flew me out. I was there when David called and said I got the film. So I went back to New York, to Sharon Springs where we did the filming.
4. Tell me about meeting David. Judging by the various interviews and DVD commentaries I’ve heard, he seems like a pretty cool, interesting guy.
(Laughs) David was a trip. David was wonderful. I was very naïve at the time in most ways. I don’t think I’m kidding myself to say David had a bit of a crush on me. And I was so taken aback because I was kind of the fat girl. But he adored my personality, and he really did keep adding scenes when he saw my work. He gave Jadin Wong, Bhaskar, and me star billing. And that wasn’t written into anything I signed. He really adored me. Our relationship did go on for many years after that, even though he eventually went to the west coast and I stayed on the east coast.
But he was great. He had a wonderful sense of humor. I was living, I think, down on West 12th Street at the time. And he was in what we called the ‘dance belt,’ which was in the 40s – the very West Side between 8th and 11th Avenue. A lot of artists lived in that area; Broadway dancers. And that was my very first apartment after leaving Barbara’s. But David was great. All the people in the film, I think we all got along quite well.
5. I’m not surprised to hear that. You all seemed happy to be back together at CW.
Tyde Kierney (who played Andy) was the sweetest. Lynn Lowry and I we really were good buddies. She was there the day I did my death scene. She was right there. She helped me back to my room later because I really was exhausted from the scene. Even though we lost touch, we were very good friends for years.
6. I only became aware of Stigma after we met at Cinema Wasteland and got a DVD copy just a few days ago. I was excited to tell you how complimentary David is on his commentary. He said you were born to act and that you were Oscar-worthy in I Drink Your Blood.
Awwww. How sweet. I have to say, Steve – and if this is grandiose, it’s grandiose — but did I tell you what my motivation was with Molly’s death scene?
There was a person that I had such a crush on, and his name was Peter Cox. I don’t know if you remember him in the film, but he’s one of the crazy guys who all have hydrophobia. He was the blonde, curly-haired guy who comes out foaming at the mouth. He was also the assistant director to David. He knew I had a crush on him. But he was with someone else on the film, who will remain nameless, and I was heartbroken. He’s the one with the clapboard every time we do a take of the scene. So I just used the Stanislavski Method and just lived out what my life had been like.
I was always the fat girl, always the one made fun of, and I just got used that. And that’s where I got to that emotion. And then David, I think when he did see where I was at with it, he just kept doing it over and over again. So I literally was exhausted when the whole thing was over. But I was so proud of that scene.
7. It is great work. Any other places in the film where you really dug deep like that?
There was the scene with Lynn and I and the woman in the house whose hand Lynn cuts off. There was so much that was high-powered in that. And even with the rats in my face. I mean, that’s a true scream when she holds that rat up in my face. There were really a lot of dicey things in the movie. In the first scene, the naked scene where we’re all doing the ritual, it was very creepy. There’s a lot of creepy stuff in that. I would say – of course I don’t have great recollection – but I was very into putting everything I’d learned to use if I could. Being Method actors, maybe we overdid it a bit, but that’s what we were: Method actresses back in the day.
And I think, with Lynn too…Lynn didn’t have a line in the film. But you’re drawn to her. I mean, I am. She has this gorgeous face, and there’s just something about her. Not a damn line, but you certainly remember her.
8. You all seemed so thrilled with the response at Cinema Wasteland. Your panel was packed. How did that make you feel?
I was over the moon. I’ll tell you why, Steve. I’m not on social media and all that. I’m not even on Facebook. It’s just not my thing. I don’t want everybody in my business. I don’t know if I told you this: Unitarian Universalism is my faith. It’s a very, very, very liberal religion. We teach our kids everything in religious education and let them make their choice of what they want to believe. We’re very liberal and very proud of that. So I showed the movie at Central Unitarian Church as a fundraiser. We had so much fun! I did a red carpet, I wore a gown and the whole bit.
That was back in ’97 or so. I showed it again a couple of years ago. One of my biggest fans, he’s my best girlfriend’s husband. And he’s an absolute horror aficionado. So of course he and his wife helped and we made more money for the church and everything. He was at a party in New York City and met this guy, and they got to talking horror films. The guy said, “My girlfriend was in this movie, it’s an old one, called I Drink Your Blood.” That was Elizabeth Marner-Brooks (who played Mildred Nash and was also at CW). He was her boyfriend at the time. So he said, “Could you get in touch with Ronda? Because all these things are going on with the movie and nobody knows where she is.” So I gave him my e-mail and all that.
9. So you’ve always been proud of it. You’d have to be to share it with your spiritual community.
Yeah. First of all, it is about something that could happen. It’s not like ghouls and monsters. And David showed us some of these old films that he had watched of people that actually had hydrophobia. At one point I said, “C’mon David, you’re overdoing it with the foam in the mouth.” He said, “No!” And he showed us. And they did foam at the mouth like crazy. So he did his homework on it.
10. Right. And that’s part of what’s so cool about just discovering Stigma now. It deals with some similar themes and ideas. When Stigma came along, I assume David just sort of called you up and wanted to work together again?
Yeah. Absolutely. Did I tell you I did a gay porno with him? That was hysterical because David needed money. He didn’t put his name on it. But if you want to look it up later, it’s called Boynapped. 1975. I only did outside scenes – we filmed some exteriors in Washington Square Park. There was a lot of sex in it, which I didn’t watch. But when I went to a screening, David was hysterical. Here he was taking me to this gay porno and he said, “Ronda, just keep your eyes on the screen. There’s probably more going on in the audience (laughs).”
I wasn’t in the film much. Just before the guy gets boynapped, we were his groupies or something in Washington Square Park. I was actually in another movie. David didn’t do it. But it was called Naked Came the Stranger, which was an anthology. It was very interesting. It was softcore porn. Radley Metzger. Does that name ring a bell? This was a Radley Metzger film. I played a fashion consultant, and I’m in this crazy, wild yellow caftan dress coming down the stairs in this, like, mansion out on Long Island. And if the owners of the mansion had known this was a softcore porn, they’d probably have never let us use it. I just remembered I was in that too. This was probably the late ‘70s.
11. Going back to Stigma, I really do like it. It’s got an odd sense of humor but also some very serious social commentary about race, and conservative moral hypocrisy. Your role is small but quite memorable. What are your recollections of it?
You know, I remember hurting myself falling down those damn stairs. I don’t remember that much about the film. I remember liking the star. Philip Michael Thomas. He was very good, I thought. I wish I remembered more. It was a smaller part.
12. IMDB doesn’t list any roles for you after Stigma. What were you up to aside from Boynapped and the Metzger film?
I just kind of got out of it. I did some stand-up comedy.
I wanted to be the female Lenny Bruce. I wanted to get up there and shock people and talk dirty. I did that for a while. I think I was pretty funny actually. But I got it out of my system. I was waitressing in the theatre district at night, and I would come home and go to the open mic places. I finally said, “Why do I give a shit if these people think I’m funny or not?” I really did get it out of my system because it’s a grueling profession. It just didn’t make sense to me anymore.
I remember the first time, I was the only woman on the show and I had an act. I was going to do this monologue, and I passed out. I had such an anxiety attack over it. After I had tried for probably six to nine months I finally said, “It’s not for me.” But I gave it a whirl, and it just didn’t fulfill me anymore. My stuff was so blue. I really was filthy. I don’t even want to tell you.
13. What soured you on acting?
It’s just the whole thing of having to make a living. I just kind of got out of it. It didn’t fulfill me anymore. So then actually, crazy as it sounds, I was always very spiritual. Not religious, spiritual. So I went to the New York Theological Seminary to get my Masters in divinity because I had a degree to teach school. My dad, he was the practical side of me, said, “Ronda, I don’t care if you go into drama, but you’ve got to get a degree to fall back on.” And I was glad I did because I was an after school director in New York.
14. Anything you want to say to the fans who’ll be reading this?
I’m just so thrilled. I’ll be 75 this year, and I just feel so blessed that people still want to see I Drink Your Blood. When we were in Ohio, we were all so touched by the reception. I love all you fans. And I think it’s wonderful you still want to see us.
15. Are there any other cast reunions coming up?
I just got an e-mail from Lynn. I think we’re going to Phoenix in November for two days. And then she said, “Ronda, get your passport together. We may be going to Canada in the fall or winter.” I’ll keep you posted, Steve!