Robert Z’Dar (1950-2015): Man, Myth, Maniac Cop

ON

ManiacCopFeat

There’s a certain type of actor celebrated in select circles: stalwarts of their respective genres who are viewed as Gods by their adoring fans. Robert Z’Dar was precisely this type of performer – a thespian known more for his cherubic chin than his actual chops. What he lacked in talent he made up via imposing form, filling each frame in which he appeared with the thickset embodiment of walking destruction. Collecting over 120 screen credits over the course of thirty years, ranging from bit parts to titular bruisers, Z’Dar became a household name amongst those who kept old, tattered issues of Fangoria on the floor of their tree houses. He wore the badge of silence and battled the Samurai Cop. Now he’s gone, reserving his right to remain silent…forever

Born Robert J. Zdarsky on June 3, 1950 in Chicago, Illinois, Z’Dar received a BFA from Arizona State University (where he also played football, formed a band called Nova Express, and spent some time as a Chippendale’s dancer). Shortly after graduating, Z’Dar moved back to the Windy City, where he patrolled as a police officer. The actor’s first screen credit didn’t come until 1985, as “Brad” in Pierre De Moro’s ode to a scarf-wielding serial killer, Hellhole. From there, a long and prosperous career was born.

Starting in 1987, Z’Dar averaged several credits a year. He’d play an unnamed Security Guard in Moonlighting and Chet in Cherry 2000. His big break came in 1988, when exploitation guru Bill Lustig cast him as the homicidal boy in blue, Matt Cordell. Scripted by Larry Cohen, Maniac Cop is one of the great ‘80s slashers, brimming with subversive themes about NYC police brutality. Without Z’Dar, who lent sad humanity to what could’ve otherwise been a murderer whose mask folks knew all too well in their everyday existence, Lustig’s picture would’ve never turned out to be as truly memorable as it is. Like that, an icon was born.

The very next year, Z’Dar would appear in Tango & Cash, taking on both Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone as “Face”. From 1990 – 1999, the actor would accumulate 61 roles, replacing Roddy Piper as Sam Hell in Frogtown II, while also recognizing that no henchman was beneath him (this author’s personal favorite credit: “Z-Man Lord Invader” in 1997’s Guns of El Chupacabra). Z’Dar was an incessant worker, embracing the idea that acting wasn’t simply a dream, it was a day in/day out nine-to-five that required he show up to set and punch a clock. By no means a glamorous life, Z’Dar’s unique career certainly came with perks (like having two films – Soultaker and Future War – lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000). On the flipside, playful ribbing is nothing compared to the flocks of fans who showed up to his numerous convention appearances, hoping to get a signed picture with the Maniac Cop.

Robert Z’Dar died of heart failure in Pensacola, Florida. It’s a sad loss to anybody who devoured countless VHS tapes during the 90s, looking for that next “so bad it’s good” gem. Z’Dar was 64 and is survived by a brother, Billy, and nephew, Matthew. Yet beyond leaving behind loved ones who will surely miss him with all of their might, there’s a legion of lovers who will be holding on to memories the big lug gave them through a lifetime spent devoting himself to being a hammy heavy. Farewell, Mr. Z’Dar. May Richard Kiel greet you at Heaven’s Gate.

Jacob Knight is an Austin, Texas based film writer who moonlights as a clerk at Vulcan Video, one of the last great independent video stores in the US. You can find find him on Twitter @JacobQKnight.