The Boy Who Got Away With Murder!!!! Tom Van Dell by Greg Tiderington

Tom Van Dell was noted to the horror viewers as the bully Mike in the cheesy cult classic 1983 flick 'Sleepaway Camp'. His character made out with the nastiest girls of them all at the cam known as Camp Arawak named Judy and got away with murder as the rest of the kids who tormented the shy serial killer Angela were murdered for being so nasty and cruel. Mike even encouraged the other bullies to be mean to Angela.
He also enjoyed smoking weed at the camp too and playing tricks on the other girls with his friends. Afterwards, Mike acted in TV commercials and regional theatre plus playing in a rock band titled Exit.
Afterwards he decided to become a record and film executive with his company IN2N including producing the upcoming sequel 'Return to Sleepaway Camp'. We all hope he returns as Mike in another 'Sleepaway Camp' sequel but we shall all see.

At what age did you see yourself as an entertainer?

If you ask my mother she will probably tell you 2. I grew up in a family that placed a fair amount of value on a good self deprecating sense of humor. That is very rare for Germans! My earliest performance was doing a skit in 3rd grade. When we immigrated to the US I began seriously getting involved in the drama club in Junior High School that carried through into High School and then the film and TV work I did throughout college.

Did you see yourself acting in horror films?

When you are 18 years old and starting out in the business you will take any work offered that isn't morally offensive. I acted in commercials, eating cheese filled pretzels at 8 am in the morning. Horror couldn't have been worse than that! As both a producer and actor I get a great sense of satisfaction evoking a reaction out of an audience be that laughter, tears or fear. Horror is the movie business equivalent of the biggest baddest rollercoaster at a theme park! The rest are just kiddy rides when it comes to the thrills.

What was your first taste of acting?

Third grade in Germany, doing a comedy monologue for all the students and parents. I remember being scared to death until I received the first laugh. From that point forward I remember having the time of my life up on stage. It helps when you have great material to work with and whatever piece my teacher gave me to perform was right on the money for that audience.

How old were you?

Nine I believe ......

So was 'Sleepaway Camp' your first horror film?


How did you hear about the auditions?

My manager sent me on the audition, which was great as usually she only sent me out for cigarettes. She received word from the producers that they were casting and looking for teens to play lead roles in the film.

What did Robert Hiltzik ask you to do for an audition?

Tons and tons of adlibbing. I read a little bit of the script but it was mostly just free style acting like a brat of a kid that he wanted to see. Our tag line for 'Return To Sleepaway Camp' is "Kids Can Be So Mean" and he already wanted to see that emphasized in the first film.

Who were you up against for the part?

I remember seeing what looked like hundreds of resumes on a table in the audition room. I knew at that point, if your headshot ended up on that table you weren't returning for a call back. I believe every actor in the 15 to 28 (campers and counselors) age range auditioned for 'Sleepaway Camp'. Any New York actor that is now in his or her mid thirties to mid forties would have auditioned. Judging by that, it is fun to think about who you beat out for your role.

Were there other characters Hiltzik had in mind for you than the role of Mike?

Not sure. Robert always plays things close to his chest. I never asked him to this day. Looking back at the film now, Mike seemed to fit fairly well for me, so not a bad casting choice.

What was Hiltzik like to work with?

Very easy. I remember having a great time up there. We were all young and hanging out off the set as well. The atmosphere was very relaxed and comfortable. Seemed like a family film since Robert had Missy (his wife) working on the picture as well as Missy's brother and other relatives were always popping up. He just let the kids act like kids and caught as much of that as possible on film. I think that is why it worked so well and struck a chord.

What scene will you always remember performing?

I remember most of it fairly vividly. The one that will always stick out is the rec hall fight scene. They wanted it to look real and we didn't have stunt doubles for the scuffle. The scene involved a lot of local extras, big tough, farm kids. We antagonized them prior to shooting the scene to get them pissed and work up their adrenaline. When the camera rolled, we all really got into it in a real way, fists flying, punches connecting. What they captured on film was really not acting but as close to a brawl as you can get.

During the softball scene were all of you experienced players and were there many goof ups?

A mix of experienced players and New York City kids that had most likely never had as much as a catch. It was a fun scene to shoot. John Dunn had his sports ego cranking at full steam, to this day I still think he hits the ball like a girly man! Ha, I am still friends with John so I can say that. I hate watching that scene to this day because of my head motion. Robert never shot the close ups of my making faces at all the players coming past third base. The whole scene looks like I am doing a bad Stevie Wonder head sway move because of the edit and the close ups never being filmed. Was fun to knock the ball around though, especially since it was a beautiful day.

Did you have a great chemistry working opposite of John E. Dunn who played your bully friend Kenny?

Yes it was instant, we actually dated for years after. KIDDING! John was an instant friend and remains one to this day. We are both very busy with our grown up lives now but still always try to find the time to keep in touch or get together for a bite to eat. I think he has fathered 20 children so far so he is quite busy being a Dad.

What was it like working with Karen Fields during your make out scene as she played the nasty Judy?

She was a fun and nice (truly) person so the scene was comfortable to do. Everyone was easy to work with, Karen included.

Your character Mike seemed to get away with murder as he encouraged the other bullies to be mean to poor Angela yet he didn't get killed for it. Or was he killed off screen before Judy was going to get what was coming to her?

Hmmmmmmmm. Interesting point Professor! The next installment is entitled 'Sleepaway Camp Reunion' and we begin filming next summer. Nuff said, you will have to wait and see. There was a lot more to Mike than meets the eye my friend!

Who do you stay in contact with since the filming of it?

John Dunn as mentioned before. Rick Edrich is working on the CGI work we are compositing now for 'RTSC' so we see each other all the time. We are also collaborating on other projects, so we've come full circle in a way as I was friends with Rick on set and for years after until we lost touch for a while. I was re- introduced to Loris at one of the Fangoria Conventions and stayed in touch for a while after, I actually dated his best friend (a girl!) for a few years. I see Robert all the time as well as his wife Missy. His daughters who are all smart, beautiful, funny and great athletes are in the new movie. Having just re-read that last sentence I wonder if Robert is really their father. Let's put that in the things that make you go hmmm category.

What kinds of work did you do afterwards as I understand you had featured extra roles in 'Muppets Take Manhattan' and 'Heaven Help Us'?

I did theater and TV work and paid the bills by doing extra work. After college I ran my own Concert Promotions company in Asia and then the regional office for Universal Music Group prior to coming back to NY to head international for Universal. Universal was fun and gave me the chance to work with everyone from No Doubt through to Stevie Wonder on a close personal level. I then started my own company IN2N and had a great roster of acts and some Usher publishing, before concentrating full time on my film and TV production company.

Did you act in any more horror films?

No. I think my acting days are over.

What made you leave acting to pursue being a record executive?

I've always been a student of business and it was a natural transition for me. I wanted to develop and distribute content, not just be a part of it. If I ever find the time, I would love to do some theater work as a hobby.

Did any of the band members see you in 'Sleepaway Camp' and talked to you about it while working with them?

All of them. I am amazed at how many people know the first film. Doesn't matter where they are from or what age they are. The film struck a chord and I am excited to know that fans of the first one as well as a whole new crop of Sleepers will soon get the chance to see the sequel on the big screen.

You co-produced a documentary on horror films called Unconventional. Were any clips of 'Sleepaway Camp' shown on the piece?

No, it was just the fan enthusiasm and brand loyalty that we wanted to showcase. Horror fans remind me of Rock Music fans..... Once a fan of a band or film, always a fan of the band or film. Much nicer to see than the disposable loyalty on the Pop side of the business, where you see such a short shelf life.

What's really exciting is the upcoming sequel 'Return to Sleepaway Camp' as Hiltzik hired you to come on board as an executive producer for it. I understand you've been busy with many other projects during it's post-production that the film is taking a long time. Are you back on it as me and the fans are cringing like crazy wondering if it will ever come out as there's lots of questioning on it as well as there's some idiotic webmasters out there we have heard about that's saying the film is a hoax etc which is upsetting alot of the fans. Please tell us the scoop as it's frightening us all and really want to see it.

Certainly not a hoax and I believe I hired Robert to direct. The film was completed and we ran into some glitches in regard to how the CGI footage was shot on location. Much of what you will see on screen should have been shot in a "practical" manner instead of us relying solely on CGI. It was my intention to have the film look as realistic as possible and I believe we now accomplished this. The truth of the matter is that we weren't happy with the CGI work being completed and at great expense and considerable time opted to throw all that work out and start fresh. We easily could have gone with what we had and the film would have been released already. In my opinion that would have cheated the audience, something I didn't want to do. 'Sleepaway Camp' fans have waited a long time to see the true sequel and I want them to see a great, entertaining and scary picture. That is exactly what we now have. To me, it was worth the wait. When you have a loyal fan base you need to deliver something that meets or beats their expectations.

Are you at work with it now as we speak?

Everyday. We are composting the FX, finishing the last of the ADR work. It is 98% complete and the remaining pieces will be completed by end July mid August latest. I would like to see the film hit theaters at Halloween. Love having it come out in the fall, something we did with the first one.

What would it be like compared to the first one? Some people are wondering if it's compared to 'Halloween: H20' as that one was a direct sequel to part 2 like this one is a direct sequel to the first one and not to 'Unhappy Campers' and 'Teenage Wasteland' that starred Pamela Springsteen as Angela. 'H20' was a disappointment but I heard nothing but good stories from people who saw the rough footage of it as comparing two totally different horror films is like comparing apples to oranges.

I consider this a true sequel to the original film. It stays true in character and spirit. We had a much larger budget to work with so the quality of the film and the way it was shot is a significant step up, as are the FX and killings. At the same time you have the core element of kids behaving badly, the suspense, a touch of campiness and of course "who done it" factor. Once that is coupled with some very nice plot twists, familiar faces from the first film and the big surprise at the end (as with the original) and to me it's once again a winning formula.

Did you ever see the sequels starring Springsteen and what were your feelings about them? I found them a little too silly myself but had great killings.

Sorry I didn't. To me 'Sleepaway Camp' is represented by the first film and now the sequel. The rest simply borrow the name.... Just one man's honest opinion.

Did you ever wonder why Mike didn't return to those ones since they were taken in a different direction?

No. I am happy with my involvement on the first film and making 'Return' happen. That is satisfying enough.

Hiltzik of course is planning to make another 'Sleepaway' sequel after 'RTSC' is officially released. Will your role as Mike return as well? I always wondered what became of him if he didn't get killed offscreen and perhaps maybe Judy can return since she wasn't proven dead.

You have to wait and see. If I told you the story line, I'd have to kill you right after. We have Reunion in the works and plan on shooting next summer. Great storyline and the mother of all surprise endings!

Now here's some fun stuff:

What are your favorite horror films?

Just saw Griffin Dunn at a party and told him that 'American Werewolf in London' actually got me interested in doing some work in the genre. Definitely on my short list of ones I like most since it had me on edge the whole time. All the original slasher pix are up there as my favorites including the original 'Halloween' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street'. Also love watching the new breed with my kids (yes they inherited the scare gene) like 'Jeepers Creepers' and 'Saw'. And the throw back style of M. 'Night Shyamalan' is something I love. You can be more scared by what you don't see sometimes than by what you do see. Love 'Signs' and 'The Sixth Sense', although not really horror in a pure sense.....

If you have a show you were in that you'd like to change. What would it be?

I would change nothing. I am an optimist and never make it a point to revisit the past with regret. I concentrate on today and how my actions effect the future, nothing else.

What is the show you acted in that you cherish the most?

'Grease' on stage! What a blast! High energy, the audience involved and lots of singing. And at that young age you could eat all the donuts you wanted without putting on a pound! Was a good time.

If you were a top scream king for one day whether this actor was alive or dead who would he be?

Great question. Wouldn't want to be one that seems so personally disturbed to me that being myself (that person) would scare me, e.g. Steven King. And to top it off Steven is a Red Sox fan and I am a major Yankee fan! I would have to say Hitchcock. I love clever and no one was more clever when it came to scarring people than Alfred Hitchcock. Pure genius behind the camera.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting on a beach chair (on an actual nice beach in the Caribbean or Mexico) with a drink in my hand watching my children play is up there. Playing a round of Golf with my eldest son Brandon, who now kicks my butt big time when we play. Life if good!

What are your ambitions in life?

I remember having a long discussion about this years back with rock god Sammy Hagar, one of the nicest most intelligent guys you will ever meet. We both concluded that a great and simple ambition to have in life is just plain old HAPPY. I am sticking with that....what it all boils down to is simply being happy.