Interview with actor Steve Railsback of Helter Skelter

James Michael Hughes, Associate Producer of YOU ARE PERFECT interviews actor Steve Railsback of "Helter Skelter"

Mention the TV-movie “Helter Skelter” and it still causes a reaction.  And how could it not? This is the definitive documentary real television event that was based on the notorious murders committed by Charles Manson and his family members.  At the center of this film is veteran actor Steve Railsback who played Manson to high acclaim.  His was one of those rare breakout performances that left an entire nation both bereft and breathless with its bone-chilling perfection.  Railsback didn’t’ merely act Manson.  He became Manson.  And now 40 years later, we caught up with the youthful Steve Railsback in Los Angeles to talk about actor’s choices, “Helter Skelter” and an actress named Nancy Wolfe. 

Railsback’s characterization of Charles Manson still rates as one of the most memorable in history, television or other wise .  It’s one of those creative confluences of actor and character where the result seizes the audience to such a degree one forgets there is an actual actor behind the character. Railsback takes us back to when he auditioned for the role of Charles Manson. 

“I didn’t want to play him,” says Railsback.  “I know that sounds shocking, but I believe that Manson is evil and I didn’t want to get into the psyche of this maniac. So I turned down the role.  But it was “EK” (a nickname Railsback fondly uses to describe his artistic mentor and friend Elia Kazan) who changed my mind.  EK said to me, “Are you crazy? This is the chance of a lifetime!”  Railsback changed his mind and delivered one of the most harrowing performances ever put on film. 

Despite the explosive and controversial subject matter, the cast and crew managed to have a joyful time shooting “Helter Skelter.”   A highlight for Railsback was encountering actress Nancy Wolfe who appears in the new play “You are Perfect” based on Susan Atkins, one of Manson’s family members.  “Nancy was phenomenal to watch.  Her focus was astonishing.  It was a lesson in acting just to watch her work.  Even on the days that I was not scheduled to work, I’d arrive on set just to observe Nancy in action.  Somehow Nancy makes her work so specific and real… it’s a marvel to behold.   And now she is on stage with “You are Perfect.”  I’m eager to see her and experience what she does with her role.  All is can say is Nancy has the talent to bring any role alive and I know she’ll be terrific in the play.  She told me she’s having a ball.  That’s what it’s all about.” 

Steve Railsback may have made a sensation as Manson in “Helter Skelter,” but he didn’t stop there.  His credits are vast and varied and for this veteran it’s all about the work. It’s about those deeply personal choices one makes as an actor.  Railsback says, “I always approach my work with a positive no matter what character I am playing.  I was taught early on never to allow anyone or anything to take away your confidence. Your talent is yours alone to share with the world. And that’s what I do.” 

Railsback has had the good fortune of training with Lee Strasberg.  He became a lifetime member of the Actors Studio in the mid-‘70s.  He appeared on Broadway in “The Skin of our Teeth” with Tony award -winner Elizabeth Ashley.  But it was his lifelong friendship with Elia Kazan that is closest to his heart.  “EK was a true friend. He was there for me for the highs and lows.  He was more than a friend.  I truly think of him as family. He was my creative father – that guiding spirit through all my decisions as an actor.”   And it was Kazan who gave Railsback his first big break in the feature film “The Visitors.”   These are just some of the experiences that have become valuable treasures for Railsback, making him to be one of the richest actors in the world. 

When “Helter Skelter” aired on April 1st and 2nd in 1976 it instantly became the highest rated movie in television history.  It was the very first dramatization of its kind based on the Manson murders.