Stuart Fratkin might not be the most recognized face from the ’80s and ’90s, but he certainly played a huge role to the entertainment world – not to mention my own world – during those eras. Appearing in such staple slapstick comedies as Teen Wolf Too and Ski School, not to mention a host of popular TV shows at the time, he no doubt graced both the big and small screens far too many times for one to even keep count.
I was recently able to pick Fratkin’s brain about his entire career, and found his answers both insightful and fascinating (as I so often do with many of my interviewees). But before I got into his war stories from years in the trenches of the acting field, I asked him to give readers an idea of what he’s been up to more recently. He informed me; “After some smaller parts in the early 2000’s I began to transition to the business world. I became partners in a shaved ice business that I got featured on several shows I guest starred on and eventually sold it. I realized I could not make a living for my family on $1.75 residuals from Divorce Court, so I took a job in the
technology industry and have been successful for the past 10 years or so. I reengaged with my commercial agent a few years ago and have been actively auditioning. My goal was to get back into entertainment after my kids were grown and off the payroll! (Laughs).”
I wondered if he would give me some backstory on just how he got into acting, and he enlightened me; “Classic story of, ‘I had the burning desire to entertain and make people laugh’ ever since I was a kid. I have vivid memories of making 8mm movies, arranging skits at elementary school and being an extra on Camp Grizzly, a pilot with the late, great Carl Ballentine in the late 70’s. My parents were moderately supportive and not until I showed my mom a check from Girls Just Want to Have Fun for $650 did she believe it was possible.”
Regarding his experience in said first film role in 1985’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, he elaborated; “I got my SAG card on that movie. I was in a cold reading class with a casting director named Gino Havens who brought me in for the lead role. He was impressed enough that I was brought to meet the producers immediately. The role was eventually offered to newcomer Jonathan Silverman, otherwise…who knows?! I accepted the role of Sam and most of the experience was great except for Lee Montgomery. He sucked. After shooting my scene, my manager at the time came to find me and desperately asked if I already shot my part. I said I did, and she said, ‘they didn’t clear you with SAG before and now they have to Taft-Hartley you.’ That’s how I got into the union.”
Another early role that sticks out on his resume was an appearance on The Golden Girls in 1986. I asked Fratkin if he knew at the time what a special show he was a part of, and if he had much time to get to know the show’s stars while on set. He informed me; “Incredible. Had I have known then what I know now, I would have appreciated it more. I watched all of the rehearsals from the bleachers and reveled in their professionalism, candor, work ethic and warmth. I was fan of Maude growing up and working with Bea on our scene was a highlight from my early career. Guest star Polly Holiday yelled at me backstage on tape night because I tried to speak to her
while she was getting into character as the blind sister of Betty White. I responded
with, “Calm down. It’s only a sit-com, Flo.” Just kidding (Laughs).”
Aside from The Golden Girls, Fratkin made a number of guest spots on several other notable shows from that time frame, including The Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, and Sledgehammer!. I asked if he was a fan of any of these shows before appearing on them, and he said; “No. I was not a fan of any of them. Facts… was actually my first network show. I had the pleasure of meeting a dude on my first day of work that I bonded with because it was his first day of work, too. We were both a little uncomfortable, but we became pals and he was a good dude. His name was George Clooney. See what I did there?? I set you up and you were like, ‘who was it??’ and it turned out it was Clooney!! (Laughs). Anyway, I ran into him several times over the next few years, and he really is a good guy. The experiences were meh. Nothing earth shattering on either sets. I will say that after being in theater throughout high school and college, I felt very comfortable in front a live audience. Sledgehammer! was a lot of fun and kitschy. I did a lot of guest starring roles around that time, 1984-1987.”
Of course I had to ask what his experience in Teen Wolf Too was like, and if he had researched Jerry Levine’s portrayal of the Stiles character in the 1985 original or not prior to playing him in the 1987 sequel. He explained; “No. I had not seen the first film prior to auditioning for TWT. I received a script in early 1987 of the sequel and it was very funny, original and quirky. That’s not the movie that was made, which is too bad because it could have been a very good movie on its own rather than a retread of the original. I did not think it was in my best interest to see Jerry’s performance from the first film while auditioning and working on the movie. I thought about it but felt I needed to put my own spin on Stiles. I’ve mentioned this before in other podcasts but while working on TWT, I discovered that the Stiles character has different first names in TW and TWT. He’s called “Rupert” in the first one and “Ridley” in the second one. In my mind, they were related, but not the same. Hence, my interpretation was my own. I ended up seeing the original after the shoot was over. It’s a very different movie than the second one and Jerry was outstanding.”
And as far as what it was like to work with such legendary actors on the set like John Astin, Jason Bateman, Mark Holton, and the late James Hampon, Fratkin says; “I couldn’t believe my life! All of 1987 was a dream. After I booked the job, the fun began. We shot the movie at Montclair College in and around Montclair, Upland and Claremont, California. One of the lasting memories I have is upon meeting Jason, Mark and the rest of the cast, we bonded in Jason’s suite getting high and drunk. It was a great time for a bunch of 20 somethings. Being a fan of films from the 70’s, I was star struck meeting Jim Hampton. He was impressed that when I met him, the first thing I said was, ‘hello Caretaker!’ He was a sweet guy and I hope he rests in peace. I’ve spoken about my overall experience on TWT as not being fantastic due to a vicious prick executive from the studio, Atlantic. Whenever he was on set, no one wanted to go near him for fear of being chastised or criticized. Observing behavior on set, if director Chris Leitch had a tail, it was tucked firmly between his legs a la Buffalo Bill.”
Fratkin has also appeared in a number of non-comedic roles as well, guesting on the likes of Matlock, Freddy’s Nightmares, and the sorely underrated Vietnam series Tour of Duty. I asked him to tell me a little about these experiences as well, and he explained; Matlock is the gift that keeps on giving. I’m referring to the residuals, not the performance (Laughs). Long hair, New York dialect and a stereotype punk is a recipe for a poor and laughable role. Andy (Griffith) was cranky and unapproachable. It seemed he was at the end of his Matlock-ed contract. If you’ve seen that episode; picture Andy’s lines being written out on the pool table, furniture and by the camera. Opie would be ashamed (Laughs).”
He continued; “Absolutely loved Tour of Duty. This episode was directed by the great producer Ron Schwary (Tootsie, Ordinary People, Batteries Not Included). I had a very high opinion of myself at the end of 1988 and went into read for this show, booked it and off to Hawaii to shoot it. It was a fantastic experience and one of the highpoints in my dramatic career. The cast was great led by Terry Knox and Stephen Caffrey. It was a very rewarding experience highlighted by Ron, who was an absolute sweetheart. If you’re a cinephile, watch Tootsie again. Ron plays the agent in the scene with Director Sydney Pollack and Dustin Hoffman in the Russian Tea Room.
Freddy’s Nightmares was a lot of fun, too. This was around the time when I was trying to grow up and play different age groups and be more of a character actor.
Fans may also recall Fratkin had co-starring roles on a handful of short-lived TV series, namely The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, and They Came From Outer Space. I asked if he considered these to be some of his career highlights, and if he had wished they would have perhaps caught on more and lasted longer. He replied; “To address the former and latter questions; hell yes. Beans came first. It was the inaugural Fox season and they were greenlighting everything. Conceived and directed by Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer), it was way ahead of its time. Quirky, fun, entertaining and a little odd. I was still young in industry years and felt spoiled that I booked this role as it was fairly easy. For most of my career, I’ve been able to improvise on most of my auditions and it served me very well on these two different jobs. Beans was an unfinished script, meaning it was still evolving when we shot a 10-minute pilot presentation in 1987 at Cal Arts in Valencia, California. The rest of the shows were shot in Vancouver, BC (Hollywood, North) when other series were filming at the same time including Wiseguy, 21 Jumpstreet and the movie Stakeout. It was a great time and often a big party. I made a lot of friends on that shoot and was heartbroken when I got the fateful call in my apartment in North Hollywood that Fox had cancelled the show.”
He continued; “Three years later, I worked on a movie called Ski School where I met Dean Cameron. I took that role knowing that I would get a chance to work with Dean and there
would be a good chance that mayhem would ensue. That job led to Dean and I working together and a comedic shorthand was created between the two of us. We had a chance to audition for TCFOS together and aside from having an amazing time, the process was nothing less than magical. It’s not often in an actor’s life that they meet someone and they are just symbiotic. That was Dean and me. I sorely wish that magic would have continued because I firmly believe, given the right vehicle, we would have gone down as being inseparable.”
I asked him to elaborate more on his working relationship with Cameron, as well as how he feels today about the previously-mentioned cult classic Ski School the two did together in 1990. He stated; “The answer above addresses part of the question, but I had been aware of Dean for
several years prior to eventually meeting him at the airport to get on a plane to Canada to shoot Ski School. Dean had a reputation in the biz as the one to beat. If you were auditioning for the offbeat, best pal, comedy relief dork, Dean got all those roles because he was/is incredibly talented and gifted. After a few years of losing roles to him, I wanted to join him, not beat him.
And…love Ski School. Another fun time with the cast, crew and Whistler. No other opportunity I had in my career could I say that the producers came to actors and said, “we’re going to be short on time in the movie, can you guys write some scenes?” All of them are in the final cut. A fun, sexy, stupid cult film that’s fun to get drunk and watch. I fully endorse that!”
And as far as why he didn’t appear in Ski School 2 a few years later? He explained; “Dean told me it was because they didn’t have the money. I secretly think it was because I did not go to the photo shoot for Ski School 1 and I was being an asshole about it. I regret that decision because I think it cost me that job and maybe a Ski School 3: Fitz Marries Paulette (Laughs).”
As the ’90s went on, Fratkin appeared on more staple shows from that era such as Doogie Howser, M.D., Baywatch, and Friends; as far as what those were like, he told me; “Friends was great. I read for the pilot episode when it was called Friends Like Us for Chandler, so the producers remembered me. They were awesome. It was a great little role, and I came back for a second episode later in the season, and that scene was eventually cut (another residual windfall).The other shows kept my wife and I fed for a while, but those kinds of guest starring roles will not buy you a house. I was making the rounds and trying to maintain a foothold while I was growing up and trying to transition to adult roles like Melrose Place, Murder One, Judging Amy (twice), NYPD Blue (twice) and Courthouse.”
Another book mark in Fratkin’s career was his appearance in the 1998 summer blockbuster Godzilla. I was curious how he felt looking back on the film, which performed far better finaically than it did critically. He stated; “I remember quite vividly how incredibly excited I was to be part of it. Being a huge fan of the Godzilla movies from my childhood (hence the “Godzirra” reference I wrote into Ski School). My wife and I went to the premiere at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, and were thrilled to see my scenes were completely intact and received quite well. Overall, I was disappointed with the final cut. I wasn’t a fan but yikes, they play it a lot!”
Fast forward to some of Fratkin’s most recent acting credits were on such memorable shows as Spin City and Malcolm in the Middle in the 2000’s. Regarding these roles he noted; “Not a lot to say about these gigs. I was still trying to figure out where my career was going. Spin City was fun and as fan, loved working with the cast. This was Charlie Sheen’s first season and he was still kind of feeling his way around a sitcom. Since I was familiar with Heather from Melrose Place, it was fun to work with her again. My part was small, and I remember really needing a job, any job. After working as an actor for almost 15 years, I was reaching a point where I needed to make some decisions. With a mortgage, two young kids and a decent stream of residuals, it was almost time for a break. Malcolm was the last job that I remember thinking, if I wanted to make a good living, three lines on a sitcom was not going to cut it.”
Before our conversation was finished, I asked if we’ll be seeing him in anything in the near future. He assured me; “I hope so! I feel the need to express myself and hope to get some opportunities. That was the plan all along!”