Fifty years ago this month, Steve Railsback was a 23-year-old actor in New York when he caught a newspaper headline that Sharon Tate and four others had been brutally massacred in a house in L.A. “I remember thinking, ‘God, what’s happening in this fucking world?’” Railsback recalls.
Seven years later, in 1976, Railsback would be part of one of the first attempts to depict what transpired that horrific night. In the two-part TV movie Helter Skelter, based on the Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry best-seller about Charles Manson, his Family, and the murders, Railsback made casting history as the first actor to portray Manson. “This sounds crazy, but I had a ball,” Railsback, 73, recalls. “People have asked me if I had to go to a psychiatrist afterward, but there I was, 29 years old, doing what I loved doing — acting. It was amazing.”
Many have donned Manson wigs and beards since, including Damon Herriman in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood (and again in Season Two of Mindhunter). But thanks to the success of Helter Skelter — which drew a staggering 55 million viewers back in those three-network days — Railsback remains the actor most associated with the role. He was also the first to deal with the repercussions of portraying a murder-ordering cult leader, which has been a blessing and occasionally a curse over the last 43 years.
Originally from Texas, Railsback moved to Manhattan at 21 and worked his way into its theater community; his first cinematic role was in Elia Kazan’s 1972 drama The Visitors. Railsback was invited to L.A. to attend the premiere of that film and, strangely, wound up staying at the very same Cielo Drive home where the Tate murders had taken place. His manager, Rudi Altobelli (whose clients also included Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn), owned the home and had rented it to Tate and Roman Polanski that fateful summer. Three years later, Altobelli offered the house as a crash-pad to Railsback while he was in L.A. “I knew that was the house, but I didn’t think about it,” Railsback says. “It was so peaceful. Rudi never talked about it when I was there. Coincidence is coincidence.”
A few years later, Railsback found himself back in L.A., auditioning for Helter Skelter. For his try-out, he acted out Manson’s courtroom testimony, a chilling scene that would later be in the movie as well. In prepping for it, Railsback says he wasn’t thinking of Manson but rather his own life. “There were two people in New York who were trying to take my confidence away,” he says. “So when I went up to do that speech, I was talking to those two people. I was talking about actors who had never arrived. It was about my feelings about acting and how you have no right to take my confidence away. My whole thought was that they had me on trial.
“I put a lot of passion into that speech,” he says. “When it was over, I felt a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Offered the role of Manson, Railsback initially turned it down. “I didn’t want to be [typecast],” he says. At the urging of Kazan, who knew Helter Skelter director Tom Gries, Railsback relented. “If I’m playing a killer, that’s a negative,” he says, “but you turn a negative into a positive.”
At that point, Railsback read Helter Skelter and watched a documentary to study Manson’s way of walking and talking. Since Manson had said he felt most secure in jail, Railsback locked himself in a room in his home a few times. “I wanted to get that feeling of solitude,” he says, “so I would close the door and talk to myself.” The one thing he chose not to do was meet Manson: “I didn’t want him to manipulate me into thinking he was something he wasn’t.” To this day, Railsback never had any face time with Manson (who died two years ago) or his followers.
The making of Helter Skelter wasn’t without its own drama. At least one bomb threat, attributed to a Family member, was called in, and, as Railsback watched, Gries threw Bugliosi off the set after the district attorney-turned-author told George DiCenzo, the actor playing him, that he wasn’t getting the portrait completely right. Yet Railsback has little but fond memories of the experience: Veteran actors David Niven and Peter Falk visited the set, and Truman Capote hung out with Railsback in his trailer to talk about Manson and his crew.
Given how omnipresent Manson has been in the culture, it’s easy to forget how much Helter Skelter freaked out America in 1976. The CBS movie lost money once not enough sponsors signed up; in some cities it aired late at night or not at all. Yet even with that pushback, it became the biggest made-for-TV movie of its time, and Railsback, wearing various wigs and fully inhabiting Manson’s combination of mad-dog menace and intensity, seemed to become Manson onscreen.
The real struggle came after the movie aired and Railsback realized that Hollywood might not see him any other way. “I was offered every killer in theatrical or television: ‘Get Railsback!’” he recalls. “I didn’t work for a year because I knew I’d be typecast.”
Then he had two breaks: 1980’s The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole (he remembers O’Toole hiding his joints in the wardrobe trailer, so he wouldn’t be caught red-handed) and a TV remake of From Here to Eternity. But Railsback admits he also made a few mistakes, like turning down the villain role in the first Lethal Weapon that eventually went to his friend Gary Busey. “It was a wonderful role, but I still had Manson on my mind, and I said no,” he says. “It was stupid. How did I know it was going to make $80 million? People said, ‘If Railsback turns it down, it’s gonna be a hit!’ We all make stupid choices sometimes. I’ve made a few.”
Railsback landed parts in smaller or low-budget movies, like the Pamela Anderson bomb Barbed Wire, and has continued to work; last year, he starred opposite Tom Berenger in a western, Gone Are the Days. But today, he largely considers himself retired. “I get calls and they’re usually not for a good movie,” he says. “Everything these days is a sequel to a sequel to a sequel. It’s just boring after a while.”
Railsback admits he has never seen any of the other onscreen Mansons in subsequent movies and TV shows, although when heard Jeremy Davies was playing Manson in the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter, he sent a note saying, “Dive off a cliff and have a great time.” (“I don’t know if he got it,” he says. “I never met him.”)
As of last week, he still hadn’t seen Tarantino’s movie, although it’s on his list; he’s an unabashed admirer of the director’s work, and the two had a long talk at the premiere of The Hateful Eight. “He was walking toward me and said ‘The Stunt Man!’ about five times and hugged me,” Railsback recalls. They never talked about Manson but instead about Railsback’s work in Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s 1985 space-vampire movie.
For all his career speed bumps, Railsback has few regrets about playing Manson and found the character intriguing. “He could be charming and violent,” he says. “It’s not mind-boggling to see how he got those girls to follow him. They were looking for a father figure or whatever. They would do anything he said. They would hang on his every word.”
Clearly, we’re still fascinated with Manson and what happened over two nights in 1969. But for his part, Railsback doesn’t know why movies and books on the subject keep rolling out. “I’ve asked myself that question,” he says. “Why do they keep doing these? What else are you going to learn? What the fuck? You’re just giving him all this attention. People would call me up and say, ‘Manson’s going to be on Tom Snyder’ or whatever. I didn’t care. I said, ‘I don’t want to watch it.’ You’re just making him more infamous.”