Keith Coogan is a face familiar to anyone who grew up watching quality movies of the 80s and 90s. Perhaps most known for his work as Brad in Adventures in Babysitting and Kenny in Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Keith Coogan can also be seen remembered for his roles in movies such as Toy Soldiers, Spooner, and Fox and the Hound.
We had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Keith Coogan about growing up as a child actor and his experiences filming his most notable roles. We also chat with him about a possible Disney+ Adventures in Babysitting series, working with Christina Applegate and Anthony Rapp, following in his grandfather’s legacy, and his iconic wig.
Will the dishes ever be done? Check out our exclusive conversation with Keith Coogan:
Listen to the audio transcript version of our interview-only portion with Keith Coogan:
Good morning guys! Thanks for having me.
We’re very excited. We watched both “Babysitter” movies in preparation.
I love to hear that, thank you.
Can you start off by talking a little about what initially inspired you to get into acting? Was there anyone who influenced you?
Oh, Big bird? Oscar The Grouch. I was probably about 3 or 4 and was watching kids’ TV, mostly stuff on PBS. Electric Company, Sesame Street. I thought the kids looked like they were having fun, especially on Electric Company they had Spiderman on there so I was all in. I mentioned to my mom I wanted to be on TV. Our family has a couple of generations’ history of being in the business and some issues here and there so my mom kind of rolled her eyes.
I really had no idea my family had done this before. She brought me down to LA and we got an agent and really began working right away doing commercials and stuff. I could read and was well-behaved on the set and understood it was an adult job. The family had to break it to me that your grandfather was a child actor so it was a lot to live up to. He was very supportive of that. He was also confident I could never break his records [laughs]. I had fun doing it. It’s a business and a craft.
You’ve spoken before about being the grandson of Jackie Coogan, who of course was one of the first child stars of Hollywood and helped enact the California Child Actor’s Bill or the Coogan Act. It can be easy to forget that young actors still need to be protected. Do you feel that’s still important today?
It is. I think there are 4 states that have a version of the Child Labor Law. It’s now more important than ever. More children are in the entertainment industry, often working in states that don’t have the Coogan protection. Not to say that parents aren’t looking out but traditionally it hasn’t worked out. It also flips the dynamic of a household to have an 8-year-old as the breadwinner. California has set the standard since 2000. All of the earnings are the child’s, 15% must be put aside and annual accounting. I know people that got 100% of their money and I know people that owe money because their parents failed to pay their income tax when they were minors. So, they grow up, they turn 18 and get a huge tax bill.
Isn’t that nice?
Yeah! It’s super nice. And of course, they were in the entertainment industry so there was no focus on schooling, and some never even registered for selective service, the draft…which means they can’t get disability or social security or any other help. You have to have an education and learn as much as you can.
You’ve had an illustrious and varied career yourself. Some of your more well-known roles being, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and Adventures in Babysitting which we will talk about later…But what some people may not know and I’m ashamed to say I was one of those people, is that you were also the voice of Young Tod in the Disney animated classic film The Fox and The Hound. That’s amazing.[laughs] Yes, and the Young Hound was of course Corey Feldman. We will, of course, be friends forever. Doing a voice over you don’t really get to meet your costars, Pearl Bailey, Jack Albertson, Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell. But you do know you’re working on a Disney movie. I had never done voice-over before or after. It’s so funny I’ll do a panel because of the one voice role.
But it happened to be the Disney movie that had the last of the 9 Old Wise Men that had worked on Snow White and Pinocchio. They were handing it off to the new kids, Don Bluth, John Lassiter. So it really had everybody involved in animation. Brad Bird. Don Bluth left production halfway through taking half of the animators from Disney and Disney had to rehire and train new animators. So it took 3 years to make Fox and the Hound. It was their largest animated film budget at the time at 10 million dollars. But it also made at the time, their largest box office for an animated film so it all worked out.
So, you can essentially say that you saved Disney.
Nah. What had happened was, they had had some lower-rated classic Disney films. I’d say, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, Black Cauldron, Rescuers Down Under kind of fall under the “Yes, they’re Disney movies but are they really Pinocchio worthy?” There’s kind of a love-hate relationship with those. It seems to cut off after Fox and the Hound as the last one included on the clamshell black diamond list. Fox and the Hound is the last classically animated Disney film. The renaissance was just 2 or 3 years away. I did audition for Aladdin and The Lion King.
Yeah! A friend of mine Christopher Daniel Barnes got Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid. Fox and the Hound… huge honor to be a part of the Disney animated films. I’ve worked with Disney a couple of times. I did the Tales of The Apple Dumpling Gang series which was called Gun Shy. The first job I was cut out of, The Cat From Outer Space. I was skateboarding as a background extra. That’s showbiz. I also did Cheetah, In The Army Now, and Spooner a Disney Sunday movie of the week. I love Disney. Part of the reason I kept my nose clean, I wanted to work for Disney for the rest of my life.
I think you’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Fox and the Hound so congratulations on that!
Thank you very much. I can’t really believe it’s the 40th. It sneaks up on you.
It hurts a little.
Yeah, it hurts a little. I love that it still works. We watched it a bit a while ago when the anniversary hit and I know a lot of people cry.
I can’t do it.
When Widow Tweed drops off the fox in the forest. I tend to really lose it at the very end when they’re echoing “We’ll always be friends forever.” I’m a bawler. Definitely a good cry. It’s the movie that parents will put on to punish you.
That’s definitely true. I’ve blocked it out as an adult. I’m traumatized.
Absolutely. It’s heavy-duty. We’ve got a loss, orphans…undertones of classism and racism and segregation and prejudice. In the original subject material murders chief, he gets hit by the train and dies. It’s bad. It’s clearly in two acts. Its Tarantino-esque. You have the first act and then the adult second act which gets a little dark. It’s classic Disney, we kill the mother in the first 5 minutes.
It wouldn’t be Disney without a parent’s death.
You have to. I think a lot of it stems from when Walt Disney had become a moderate success and had started a studio out here in California. There were studio-built homes in the neighborhood maintained by the studio. He moved his family out and there was a gas leak and it killed his mother. I think this is why Bambi and other films have this.
That’s awful. Speaking of Disney, We realized Adventures in Babysitting is heavily edited and censored on Disney+ which is rare for a streaming service. Have you heard about these edits? Do you think there is a better solution for Disney other than censoring their films?
Kids can pick up the remote and watch Elephants or Iron Man. You see how scrubbed the Marvel movies are of blood or eviscerations or language. Here we pushed it in ’87 with the MPAA. We should have gotten an R rating then. I actually tell people that I recommend their children watch Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitters Dead before they grow up and then watch Adventures In Babysitting because of the language.
We say 5 of the 7 words you can’t say on television. We say them several times. I use homophobic language. I understood there’s a tv edit and different ratings overseas. There were other contracts with other streaming services so it wasn’t available at first in the United States when Disney+ premiered. There were people overseas that had it but it was edited. I’m very against censorship and very pro “Air it as is.” I didn’t think it was going to make it.
I thought they were going to have to do a separate category like Netflix has Kids Netflix. We’ve got a prostitute and a playboy magazine. This isn’t gonna look good next to Phineas and Ferb. [laughs] The running time is the same and visually it’s the same film. The content has been modified. They took the tv edit and it’s “Thor is a weirdo”…
Don’t fool with the babysitter.
But the movie isn’t cut, it’s only dubbed for language. But this is why they made Adventures in Babysitting their 100th Disney Channel Original Movie. The head of programming said, “I love Adventures In Babysitting but I can’t show it to my 8-year-old daughter.” He wanted the universe to live on.
Tell us a bit about your working dynamic with Anthony Rapp!
Oh, I LOVE Anthony! Ask your question first [laughs]
You guys play off each other so well and have great chemistry. Noelle and I were dying at the faces he was making, how did you keep a straight face?
I kept a straight face by staying annoyed by Daryl. This was supposed to be this deep friendship, everybody has that best friend. But he’s very violent. I hit Anthony in the arm like 900 times and Anthony would say “Can you stop hitting me so hard? My arm’s sore.” I think I hit him harder next time. I love getting under the skin of other actors to get mad at me on screen. He came from a theatre background and Broadway. I grew up doing Mattel commercials. It was a different approach to the material. I think we had different ways of doing it. We both were on the same page about the relationship between Brad and Daryl.
My favorite scene is the big musical performance. Tell us about the energy in the room during that big babysitting karaoke number.
It was karaoke in the essence, as actors, we’re lip-syncing to what we recorded. We shot the “Babysitting Blues” over two days with 3 cameras and the band and the bad guys and shot 13 thousand feet of film. I know Chris Columbus, the director, said “A movie has to have 3 great scenes and no bad ones.” So his 3 great scenes were “Babysitting Blues”, the l train sequence and I can’t remember if it was The Hospital or The Frat House. So we knew this was going to be a magic trick to pull this off and it was all Lisa to make it look like just coming off the top of our head.
We had choreography believe it or not. Monica Devereux, who was Chris Columbus’ wife, she was the red-headed prostitute down by the river. She was the choreographer for the opening dance sequence with Lisa and our shimmy shimmy’s for “Babysitting Blues”.
We were really interested to learn that Adventures in Babysitting was Chris Columbus’ directorial debut. Chris is like a dark horse director. He’s responsible for so many amazing and classic films that people may not even realize. Can you tell us what it was like working with him?
He is a kid that knows the Language of Film very well. I really connected him to the Spielberg school because he had written Goonies, Gremlins, and Young Sherlock Holmes. On set, he was supported by seasoned veterans. By the third hour of shooting, he was a seasoned veteran himself. He climbed onto the set with us and would ride in the truck of the car. He’d be willing to walk the beam or whatever we had to do, Chris would do it first.
We had a very different script when we first got the movie. A lot of changes in the third act. At one point, we had a toy box that looked like Sarah’s toy box and it had plutonium in it with gangsters chasing us across the bridge. At one point to get money for the station wagon, we stole The Bears’ jockstraps at the field. A lot of things changed. Adventures was very well prepared. We never slipped a day off of the schedule.
What are your thoughts on the Disney Channel remake of Adventures in Babysitting? Did you get a chance to see it?
Absolutely loved it. I reached out when I heard Disney was going to remake it and said “I wanna be in it!” And they were like “We aren’t flying you to Canada” and I was like “Damn!” So I get through to the Head of Programming and I said I want to support it, so he said “Come to the premiere!” They sent cars for the original cast but I was the only one that showed up. They were like “Who’s this old man?” One of them said, “Oh, that was my mom’s favorite movie.” I was humiliated the entire night [laughs] but got to have that conversation with the head of programming who said how much he loved the original.
They had cast members from all other 99 of the Disney Channel Original Movies filling up the theatre.
Huge hit. It premiered that night on Disney Channel. They had to redo the blues bar is now a rap battle, the bad guys are more caricature and bafoonish than scary. There are 8 kids running around the city instead of our tight group of 4. Those are my only gripes but it’s also for a different audience, people coming of age. Their wish fulfillment for a night out on the town without their parents at that age is different than what ours was. So, it’s a different movie. I love it and I support it. I know that parents can safely share it.
You know, it’s Adventures in Babysitting, not Adventure in Babysitting. I think there can be many adventures. There can be ones where a boy babysits or maybe the dad is forced to watch the kids and all heck goes squirrelly.
Pitch that! New series coming to Disney+ next year.
Adventures in Babysitting: The Series! Which they tried. Starring Jennifer Guthrie, Joey Lawrence, and Brian Austin Green. They get held up at a 711 and get chased by an alligator. It aired at 3 am on a Friday night and nobody ever heard from it again. It’s available on YouTube. The opening credits are great, I have to give it to them.
In Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, you essentially get to play 2 characters as we see Kenny evolve over the course of the film from Kenny to Kenneth. Where did you draw your inspiration from for this role?
That’s interesting because I felt that I had inspiration certainly for the stoner element of Kenny. I’m working with Stephen Herek, the director, and he had directed Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then I borrowed from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. A blend of those and then a lot of help from Stephen Herek while we were doing it. It was super fun to play Kenny.
I love the role because of the redemptive arc of him by the end. The writer’s point of the movie was, every other movie where the parents leave town, everything just falls to hell and the kids get in big trouble. In this one, they said, “What if the kids get their act together?” So for Kenny, finding something he loved and finding a direction and finding a value in education, I love that. That’s the message to get out to people. No matter what you can turn around and move on.
Kenneth was very hard to do because part of Kenny was putting the wig on. As soon as I put the wig on, he just came out. So without that, I was like, “Where is he? He’s gone!” That was a challenge. It was nice to play a supporting character you get a whole arc for.
I was actually going to ask whether or not that was a wig. We weren’t 100 percent sure, we couldn’t tell. I guess that’s a good thing.
It was pricey. They made two 3,000 dollar handmade wigs. 6 grand for the wig budget. I had to come in earlier than Christina Applegate to get the wig applied. They shaved my hairline so the wig could be where my hairline is. The lace disappears when you put the adhesive on it. It is some of the best special effects I’ve seen. So many people assume I cut my hair. Wigs were kept by Warner Bros archive. I went to go promote the film a year later and the makeup artist is sitting there and there’s the wig. It’s probably been chopped up, dyed, and repurposed now. I had a big relationship with the wig.
A big part of Kenny’s character is he is on his way to becoming the next Julia Child. How are your culinary skills in real life? Do you have any goto recipes?
Fantastic. Not immediately after the film, from the inspiration that anyone can cook, it starts with a pepper steak, bake a potato, fry some eggs, make your mac and cheese. But to make beautiful spaghetti with mushrooms and asparagus and filet mignon and lobster and lasagna. I’m a master at ribs. So now I cook really good hearty comfort food. Definitely a comfort food cooker.
That sounds really good. It sounds better than those gross, extra crispy waffles you were eating in the movie. Were you forced to eat a lot of those on camera?[laughs] I think the other actors, my buddies, had to take bites of dried, burnt, cooked the night before waffles. The art department would actually stay up all night making undercooked ones, overcooked ones, but then they get better by the end. Beautiful, golden brown. On a side note, it was all real food in the movie. The Clown Dogs were McDonalds rewrapped. We’d leave it hanging around in the kitchen. They were like “Just throw it in the kitchen.”
We were shooting in sequence and right before we clean up our act, there’s a scene or two in the kitchen and it stinks. It’s bad. It’s hot, it’s 110 degrees outside. So the wig, the leather jacket, the kitchen reeks like trash. That was some method acting right there.
It seems like you had some great memories together. How was that experience working with everyone?
Oh, real siblings, I think. Me and Christina as the older siblings. She took a more motherly role and spent a lot of time with Christopher and Danielle and Robert. She would hang out with them and play video games and I would just take naps. I loved the Chuck E. Cheese scene, it shows the disdain Kenny has for his siblings.
I’m a semi-method actor in that if I’m supposed to have a great relationship with someone on-screen then I make great pains to have a great relationship off-camera. If it’s supposed to be antagonistic then it’s on. Let’s do it. I worked with the principal from The Breakfast Club and he was exactly the same kind of jerk off-camera that he was on-camera and I think it helped. It helped me hate him. So I like to bring a little method to it.
Later, I spent more time with the kids. I loved how they’re all game at the end of the movie to play the roles. “Hi, Boss Lady would you like a stuffed creole mushroom?” They’re casting kids because they’re talented actors that know how to turn a comic beat. I think that’s what works with a dark comedy. As far as me and the rest of the cast, ultimate respect. Especially Christina. She’s the head cheerleader on this boat. She lead by example. Always be prepared, always be present.
I got really lucky because they played the “The dishes are done” line in the trailer. So people who hadn’t even seen the movie heard the line. And I do sell dishes available on KeithCooganonline.com
Do you really? [laughs][laughs] Yeah. Autographed Dishes Are Done dishes. Mailed right out to you. At my first autograph convention, my friend comes up to me like he’s hiding drugs and he shows me this little plate. And he’s like “Can you sign this? Is that okay? And I said, “I can sign anything.” He said you should keep this at your table. And I was like “That’s a great idea.” I’ve sold dishes at every convention I’ve ever been to.
What was your favorite outfit in Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead? The fashion was just so much fun to watch in every scene.
I didn’t know what I was wearing on my shirt half the time. My room pretty much killed the babysitter. She walks in and takes one look at it and has a heart attack. The leather jacket was exceptionally hot when we were filming but a big part of the character. The biggest part though [laughs] is the jeans he wears. They have several mostly completely rotten and broken down, knees torn out, crotch half falling out. My ass and the pocket like hanging through. Those went for more than Russel Crowe’s breastplate from Gladiator on eBay. There is a proud owner of Kenny’s jeans here in California.
Is it true that the original title of the film was The Real World and they had to change it at the last minute?
Yes. It was focused on Secret Of My Success and Working Girl story of the office. It was probably, 3 quarters was the office stuff. We started shooting and the studio wants it 50/50 with the family stuff to balance it out. They showed bits of everything we shot, nothing was left on the editing room floor.
They shortened some scenes and contrary to what IMDb says, I do not know of a single moment of filming that was delayed because of a rumor of Christopher Pettiet’s drug use. I never saw a problem with Chris. Those rumors are terrible and really should be taken down. Any time you waste a minute on set, it goes into a production report. Delay: Costume problem. Delay: Rain/accident or something.
If someone can show me a production report that said Christopher delayed a minute of production then fine. But for now, I would ask that IMDB take that down because he’s passed and he has no way to defend himself. I don’t like seeing that rumor up there. I was on set every day and I never saw that happen.
Thank you so much for sharing that with us.
How does it feel to be a part of multiple films in this instance that still resonate so much with fans decades later?
Incredibly lucky. Curtis Armstrong, Booger, of course, was at a book signing and someone asked “What does it take to be a successful actor?” and he said “Luck, but there are two levels of luck. There’s one layer of luck where you get a job and you get cast in a movie and you get to go make a movie and meet great people. The other level of luck is, are people talking about it 30 years from now? Do people love it? Do they own it at home? Are there fan clubs?” You have to embrace that. That’s what got you where you are. You embrace it, you double down on it, and have fun with it. You have to have fun with it.
I love that it exists. I love when people tell me they are friends with people because the first day at a job they hear from across the room “I’m right on top of that Rose!” and they want to immediately be friends with them. I love that people say the “Dishes are done, man” when they do their taxes, wash their car, drop their kids off, or actually do the dishes. I get pictures in my DM’s of a rack of clean dishes. Are the dishes done? Will the dishes ever be done? God, I hope not. I absolutely love it.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now? What would you love to get the chance to do next?
The upcoming appearances and conventions and auditioning like crazy but it’s changed a bit since the days of going into a casting office. Everything is on tape. You film it send it in and pray. Great projects. Very excited about the stuff I’m up for. During the pandemic, I did a web series The Quarantine Bunch about a former child star’s secret society. It’s a bizarre comedy. You can catch that on YouTube or TheQuarantineBunch.com.
I never know what I’m going to be doing next. That’s the fun of being an actor. I’m really looking forward to Sony opening back up. A few years ago I found my dream side hustle, as a tour guide at Sony Studios, formerly MGM Studios. I get to show old stages I have worked on, my grandfather has worked on, the history of the lot, and what’s currently shooting. Best way to spend your day as an always looking for work actor.
The dishes may be done but I don’t think your career is.[laughs] Thank you very much.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
You guys are awesome thank you great questions.
We think you’re awesome too. The feeling is mutual.
Rock and roll. There’s only one thing left to say. Dishes are done, man.
Thank you so much to Keith Coogan for taking the time to speak with us!
You can check out Keith Coogan’s official website where you can order Dishes Are Done merch!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.