Baltimore-born actor Conrad Brooks, who parlayed a recurring role in the films of the legendarily awful director Edward D. Wood Jr. into a decades-long career in grade-B films and as a big-hearted mainstay of fan conventions, died Wednesday.
Mr. Brooks, who had lived in Inwood, W.Va., since 2004, died of complications from sepsis, said his daughter, Connie Archer.
As an actor whose film appearances included “Glen or Glenda” (1953), “Jail Bait” (1954), “Bride of the Monster” (1955) and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) — all among the worst films ever made, and all directed by Mr. Wood — Mr. Brooks easily ranked among the kings of grade-B films. Those movies normally played as undercards on theatrical double-bills (if at all) and often betrayed little in the way of acting talent, production values or even coherence.
The New York Times once compared Mr. Brooks to Sir John Gielgud, saying both brought prestige to a project simply by being in it.
Mr. Brooks clearly loved the celebrity his movies brought him.
“He was absolutely aware of his reputation, but he was also completely willing to exploit it as much as possible,” said Skizz Cyzyk, a former programmer for the Maryland Film Festival and founder of Microcinefest, for years Baltimore’s underground film forum, who met Mr. Brooks several times. “He was determined to be in any bad movies that he could.”
Mr. Brooks appeared to be the last surviving member of Mr. Wood’s stable of stars, which at various times included an aged Bela Lugosi, who had played Dracula on Broadway and in the 1931 film adaptation, as well as Tor Johnson, a 300-pound former Swedish wrestler; Lyle Talbot, a leading man in B-films going back to the 1930s; Vampyra, a ghoulish host of late-night horror films on TV whose real name was Maila Nurmi; and Criswell, a psychic whose predictions included that the world would end in August 1999.
“Ed told us from the day we met him, ‘These pictures are going to become world-famous!’ ” Mr. Brooks told The Baltimore Sun in a 1994 interview in Hagerstown, where his daughter was then living.
Mr. Wood was right. And even though he died in 1978, well before his movies were embraced by an audience where bad taste was a badge of honor — largely thanks to the 1980 publication of “The Golden Turkey Awards,” a book that judged “Plan 9” the worst film of all time — Mr. Brooks was happy to bask in the acclaim.
“He wanted to make films in the worst way,” Mr. Brooks once said of Mr. Wood, “and he did.”
Born Conrad Biedrzycki and raised the son of a baker in Fells Point, Mr. Brooks first met Mr. Wood, whose life was dramatized by director Tim Burton in the 1994 film “Ed Wood,” in 1948, after moving from Baltimore to Los Angeles.
Four years later, after returning to Baltimore briefly before moving back to Los Angeles, he was given a part in Mr. Wood’s directorial debut, “Glen or Glenda,” a film about a transvestite obsessed with angora sweaters. Mr. Brooks appeared in several more films for Mr. Wood, including the director’s magnum opus, playing a cop in 1959’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” the story of aliens determined to subjugate the Earth by raising the dead.
“Plan 9” also “starred” Mr. Lugosi, who died before work on the movie could get started but still appeared thanks to test footage that had nothing to do with the rest of the film, as well as Mr. Johnson as a sheriff (and later zombie) and Criswell as the narrator who reminded viewers, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
Mr. Brooks’ roles were usually small, sometimes uncredited and sometimes didn’t even include dialogue. But he was there, as a reporter in “Glen or Glenda,” a photographer in “Jail Bait,” a suspect in “Bride of the Monster,” a brawler in 1959’s “Night of the Ghouls.”
“Conrad was very proud to have known Lugosi and to have worked with Ed Wood,” said Mark Redfield, a Baltimore-based actor who got to know Mr. Brooks about 15 years ago.
While his film career lapsed after Mr. Wood stopped making movies in the 1960s, Mr. Brooks was rediscovered in the early ’80s, after Mr. Wood’s movies had become a favorite of bad-film enthusiasts. He even achieved a modicum of mainstream fame when Mr. Burton’s “Ed Wood” was released. Mr. Brooks, who was given a cameo as a bartender, was portrayed in the film by actor Brent Hinkley.
“He was so giddy to be able to observe these guys playing his old buddies,” Mr. Hinkley said from his home in Oregon. “He was so happy about being asked to be involved. Just such a sweet, kind-hearted guy.”
Mr. Brooks took gleeful advantage of every moment of his ensuing fame, agreeing to appear at scores of fan conventions and taking roles in just about every movie he could. When The Sun interviewed him in 1994, he was headed to Baltimore for the world premiere of his latest effort, “Bikini Drive-In.”
He would maintain a hectic filming schedule almost to the end, appearing in films and videos with titles like “Blood Slaves of the Vampire Wolf” (1996), “Max Hell Frog Warrior” (2002), “Taste of Desperation” (2009) and 1994’s “Test-Tube Teens from the Year 2000.”
He even took to the director’s chair himself a few times. “My favorite of Conrad’s bad movies was ‘Jan-Gel, the Beast from the East, ” Mr. Redfield said. “I think Conrad plays a sheriff or somebody, investigating a menacing caveman who’s thawed out and come back to life. There’s a scene where the caveman fights a snake. It’s a rubber snake that one could buy in any novelty shop. The scene is probably five minutes long, and it’s one of the funniest sequences I’ve ever seen on video.”
“Jan-Gel” was once shown as part of the monthly Mondo Baltimore bad-film series at the Windup Space. “He was a good friend of ours,” said Mark Colegrove, who helps run the series. “He was such a friendly guy.”
Her father’s last couple acting jobs were done while he was confined to his bed, Ms. Archer said. “He did not want to give that up; that was his passion,” she said.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Ms. Archer said she hopes to hold a memorial service for her father early next year.
In addition to his daughter, who lives in Inwood, Mr. Brooks is survived by two grandchildren. He is also survived by his sister, Irene Klezcowski, and brother, Ted Biedrzycki, both of Baltimore.