Don Calfa, the Mortician in 'The Return of the Living Dead,' Dies at 76

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He played Ernie the embalmer in the cult classic, was a hitman in 'Weekend at Bernie's' and appeared in films for Bogdanovich, Scorsese and Spielberg.

Don Calfa, a top-notch character actor who portrayed the embalmer Ernie Kaltenbrunner in the 1985 cult horror comedy The Return of the Living Dead, has died. He was 76.

Calfa died Thursday — two days before his birthday — at his home in Yucca Valley, Calif., actor-producer Mark Terry (Live Evil, Brother's Blood) told The Hollywood Reporter.

A native of Brooklyn, Calfa also portrayed Paulie, the hitman who murders Hamptons rich guy Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser) by giving him a heroin overdose, in the classic comedy Weekend at Bernie's (1989).

Calfa was cast by some of the top directors of his time, including Peter Bogdanovich (1976's Nickelodeon), Martin Scorsese (1977's New York, New York), Blake Edwards (1979's 10), Steven Spielberg (1979's 1941), Bob Rafelson (the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Barry Levinson (1991's Bugsy).

Calfa also collaborated several times with director (and fellow New Yorker) Peter Hyams; they worked together on Peeper (1976), The Star Chamber (1983), Running Scared (1986), The Presidio (1988) and Stay Tuned (1992).

He also was in Cinderella Liberty (1973), Bank Shot (1974), Foul Play (1978), The Rose (1979) and the remake of Doctor Dolittle (1998).

In The Return of the Living Dead, written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, an employee at a medical supply warehouse accidentally releases toxic gas into the air in Louisville, Ky., bringing to life dead people who want nothing but to eat brains.

Calfa's blond-haired Kaltenbrunner character enjoys listening to Wehrmacht marching songs and has this memorable exchange with half of a corpse in the film:

Kaltenbrunner: Why do you eat people?
Corpse: Not people. Brains.
Kaltenbrunner: Brains only?
Corpse: Yes.
Kaltenbrunner: Why?
Corpse: The pain!
Kaltenbrunner: What about the pain?
Corpse: The pain of being dead!

On Doogie Howser, M.D., starring Neil Patrick Harris, Calfa played Carmine Delpino, the father of Doogie's best friend Vinnie (Max Casella). On Beverly Hills, 90210, he showed up as beach-house landlord Mr. Pitts. And on Barney Miller, he worked on seven episodes, playing a different character each time.

Early in his career, Calfa appeared on Broadway in Mating Dance in 1965 and Lenny in 1971.

 

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