I woke up this morning to the shocking news that beloved character actor and Return of the Living Dead (1985) star Don Calfa had died at the age of 76. I was both shocked and saddened to hear the news. Return of the Living Dead has been one of my favorite movies for as long as I can remember and Don was a huge part of that experience for me. In this article, I’m going to do my best to summarize Don’s vast and varied career as well as pay my respects.
Don Calfa was born on December 3, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. After seeing Rebel Without A Cause (1955), he decided to drop out of school and pursue acting. He appeared in many off Broadway productions before making the transition to the film industry with Robert Downey, Sr.’s No More Excuses (1968). During his decades long career, Don worked for several high profile directors such as Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Blake Edwards, Barry Levinson and Steven Spielberg and has appeared in such films as Foul Play (1978), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989), Bugsy (1991), H.P Lovecraft’s: Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993), and Progeny (1998).
In 1985, Don Calfa got his big break in Return of the Living Dead as mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner. Ernie was a vital character in the film, inadvertently causing the dead to rise when he burns the body of the yellow man for Burt (Clu Gulager). He even wrote a treatment with Roger Carney for a sequel called Revenge of the Living Dead. The sequel was set to bring back the characters of Ernie, Spider (Miguel Nunez, Jr.), Casey (Jewel Shepard), Chuck (John Philbin), Tina (Beverly Randolph) and even zombified Freddy (Thom Matthews) and Frank (James Karen).
You see, the armies nuke was off target and didn’t directly hit the town. Burt dies in a building collapse and Spider and Ernie team up to try to lead the survivors to safety, away from the military lockdown. Apparently, Frank didn’t know how to operate the furnace as well as he thought and survived as a zombie, although severely burned. The studio opted to not use their treatment and instead we got Return 2 (1988). Years later, Calfa teamed up with artist Gary Smart to try to turn the idea into a comic, but as of this time, it was never released.
Don Calfa was a fixture at horror conventions where he was said to forge strong personal connections with his fan base. He was universally loved by the horror fandom and rightfully so. His performance as Ernie was phenomenal and the scene where he’s about to shoot Beverly Randolph’s Tina before Freddy can break in and eat her never ceases to make me emotional. Don Calfa, you will be missed by your friends, family and horror fans worldwide. Rest in peace.