An emblematic part of Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me, Al Strobel (b. 1939) played a character who was known by three different names: Mike, The One-Armed Man and Philip Gerard. Today, Strobel is happily retired, living in Oregon, and he has sworn that he will never return to film or television, unless David Lynch and Mark Frost choose to call him. Apart from Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me, Strobel has starred in various stage-plays and films like Shadow Play (1986) and Megaville (1990), yet he is almost exclusively known for his role as The One-Armed Man – a character that only gradually came into existence. As funny as he is insightful, Strobel talked with me about films, television and art, and he gave his honest and sharp opinions on Hollywood, “network suits” and critics that do not understand and appreciate the juxtapositions in David Lynch’s films.
AH: Twin Peaks is full of references. Gordon Cole seems to be a reference to Sunset Boulevard, Mr. Neff refers to Double Indemnity, Laura could refer to Otto Preminger’s eponymous noir-film from 1945, and Judge Sternwood seemingly alludes to The Big Sleep. Similarly, Mike could be seen as a reference to The Fugitive. Did you see him as an allusion to The Fugitive, and what, as you see it, is the purpose of these intertextual references? Did you ever talk with David Lynch or Mark Frost about it?
AS: From the very first filming of the pilot we talked about my character, Philip Gerard, as a reference to The Fugitive. Interestingly, my character had not been scripted as part of the original script. David picked my photograph out of a pile of head shots, so I came to Seattle. The only thing I had to do was to go out of an elevator, and David looked at me and said, “Can you stay a little longer?” And I said, “yes”.
He asked me to come to the Veteran’s Hospital. I came, and David called his secretary and started writing this stuff in his notebook. He wrote a poem – the poem that my character says – and he asked me to say it aloud. I did, and he loved it.
AH: I have heard you say that Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me are about juxtapositions or contrasts. Would you say that a central part of Twin Peaks is its melding of different genres and moods?
AS: Especially in the first season, when David and Mark were running the show – as opposed to the second season when Harley Peyton was running the show – there was a lot of humor. When you’re trying to do a detective story, it’s normally serious, and you rarely mix those elements and genres. In Fire Walk with Me you really see that juxtaposition of beauty and horror, which is so typical for David.
AH: Twin Peaks and many of David Lynch’s other productions feature characters that are missing different body parts (e.g. the title character in The Amputee, Nadine and Mike in Twin Peaks and “Van Gogh” in Blue Velvet). Why do you think that is?
AS: It would probably be a question better answered by David, but I have my own opinion. I think that in Hollywood you normally see things that have a surface-beauty. As a matter of fact, when I did the scene where the police officer sees me without my shirt on, the executives from ABC said that I couldn’t do that. “No, we can’t show that you are an amputee,” they said, and I said, “Well, I could have my t-shirt on, I guess. Most people shower in their t-shirts, right…” Finally, we called David, who was elsewhere at the time, and he said to the executives, “Look, ABC don’t own my show. I own the show, and we are gonna shoot it the way I want.”
I remember at one point, we had two scripts ahead to shoot. Michael Ontkean was terribly upset and got in something of a fight with David. Michael said, “You only give us a script for the next episode or an aide or something, and I can’t work this way.” He wanted David to solve the question of who killed Laura Palmer, and I just went up to him and said, “Look, that’s not what this show is about. It’s not about who killed Laura Palmer.”
AH: We have Mike (The One-Armed Man) and BOB (Killer BOB), but also Mike and Bobby. What, if anything, is the connection between the two ‘Mike and Bobbys’?
AS: There might be a connection, but I think that it’s more of an esoteric connection or a subtle form of humor. There’s humor in both Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me, but it’s more hidden in Fire Walk with Me because David wanted in to be darker.
AH: The ratings started to drop during the second season. Why do you think that the ratings of Twin Peaks dropped, and why do you think that many people (including critics and fans) didn’t like Fire Walk With Me? Vince Canby even implied that Fire Walk with Me might be one of “the worst” movies “ever made.”
AS: I think they couldn’t understand the juxtaposition, and critics have never understood art. Vince Canby called it “The worst movie ever made.” I would wear that as a badge of honor.
I think that the ratings went down because of Harley Peyton, and, in fact, he more or less admitted it. The soul of the entire thing began to vanish. Harley, I think, was listening to the executives too much, and they were saying, “People love these quirky characters,” and perhaps that was the reason why they started bringing on these quirky characters.
AH: In Fire Walk with Me there is an absolutely fantastic sequence where Leland and Laura are stuck in traffic, just as Mike pulls up. Mike starts to yell different words and says, “It’s him. It’s your father!” His words, however, are almost drowned out by noise. I see this as an expressionistic way of mirroring Laura’s feelings, of illustrating that she tries to ‘drown out’ or repress the knowledge of her father’s abuse. How do you see/understand this sequence?
AS: That was my own vehicle. I actually still owned that until a few months ago. Originally, a stunt driver was going to be hired to do that scene in a muscle car. I said, “No, my character would never ride a muscle car,” and I’m a good driver. They said “okay,” so they started filming it, and I really scared David. I had my car up on two wheels a few times. Finally, when the premiere came along, David introduced me as “Al Strobel, the stunt driver,” not Al Strobel, The One-Armed Man.
When we filmed that sequence from Fire Walk with Me and I showed Laura the ring and screamed “It’s your father,” David had me hitting the breaks. I was bouncing around, the engine was screaming. David says, “Scream as loud as you can, It’s him. It’s your father.” He planned to make the line inaudible and then to get me back and redub it in a sound studio. It was meant to be barely audible. I screamed at the top of my lungs, and my voice was so loud that I didn’t have to redub it afterwards.
My character was never clearly and carefully delineated, so I think the intent was that you shouldn’t know exactly who or what I am. There is a normal quality to my character, but also something completely alien, and you can’t tell if he is good or evil.
AH: Your character is called Mike, The One-Armed Man and Philip Gerard, and it seems that he continually shifts between different personalities or states. There is one shift which is particularly noticeable. I am thinking of the scene in Twin Peaks where your character has not managed to take his medication. Suddenly, the voice changes, as if channeling a different reality. Did they do anything to make your voice sound like that?
AS: That was one of the best things for me – to make those kinds of transitions between a normal guy and a more scary, alien character. Usually, they make those transitions come out of the editing room, but because of my experience from the stage, they didn’t have to do anything to change the sound of my voice. What you hear is my voice, done in one or two takes.
AH: Twin Peaks has often been described as one of the most important and influential TV series of all time. Would you say that Twin Peaks has been influential, and, if so, how has it influenced modern-day television drama?
AS: I think that Twin Peaks incontrovertibly changed the standards of TV. It was the first network show – certainly the first crime show – that told an intricate story in a serialized way, rather than an episodic manner. It was so new that it confused the people at the Emmy Awards. They didn’t know where to put us, what to do with us, so they placed us in a category with all of the daytime soaps. As far as they knew, serialized television was soap operas. At the Emmy Awards, we didn’t really get any awards. We were a dog in a cathouse. We had absolutely no similarity with other shows at the time. It just shows you the stupidity of the network executives. The industry is controlled by people who don’t understand art.
Finally, they have wised up to it, and almost all prominent TV shows today are serials. And when you look at it, serialized television is a much more interesting way of telling stories because you can develop the plot and the characters much more.
There was an immediate copycat of Twin Peaks called Northern Exposure, about a murder mystery in a small town in the same area, The Pacific Northwest, and that show had a longer run than Twin Peaks. One reason might have been that all of it was shot in The Pacific Northwest, whereas many of the scenes in Twin Peaks are shot in Van Nuys, California.
Meeting Al Strobel at The UK Twin Peaks Festival in the Fall of 2015.
AH: IMDb has only released a few names. Is there any chance of you coming back in 2016 or 2017? And what difference does it make, in your estimation, that season three is being written and directed entirely by Mark Frost and David Lynch, and that the show is now going to be aired on Showtime (instead of a broadcast network like ABC)?
AS: The executives did everything they could to kill us. I think that is one of the beautiful things about the new episodes on Showtime. Everything I’ve heard is that they’ll have a great deal a freedom. They won’t need to worry about ‘suits’.
I’ve been privileged to go on different Twin Peaks Festivals, and there are packed houses, and the majority of those people are too young to have been born back when it originally aired.
I’m happily retired, and I’m happy no longer to be a part of the industry. The only thing that would ever bring me back to acting is if I got a phone call from David and Mark. I would love to be a part of that, and I have complete faith in the creativeness of both David Lynch and Mark Frost. David is an artist, and Mark is an incredible storyteller.
I’ve heard rumors, saying that they are location scouting up here in Oregon.
A famous transition from Twin Peaks where Mike talks about himself as “an inhabiting spirit” and about Philip Gerard as his “host”:
Elsewhere, I have analyzed the sequence from Fire Walk with Me which is mentioned above. My video-essay can be located here.