The character of J. Frank Parnell, played by Fox Harris in the original REPO MAN, was an invention. I’d read enough about the Neutron Bomb to make me speculate on the sanity of its creator, and to create a fictional dramatic character based on that person. But I didn’t know Sam Cohen at the time, and Parnell and Cohen were distinct in numerous ways, while being just as insane.
Now an email from Robby in Los Alamos arrives, to relate the following strange tale…
“I’m writing to tell you thank you for creating Repo Man so many years ago. I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and when your film came out in 1984 it showed at the Los Alamos movie theater. Half of Los Alamos High School were beyond thrilled that our town was featured in the opening map scene, and the portrayal of the scientist in the film was beyond perfect. Your film came out at a time when we were just getting introduced to punk rock and all that (information moved slowly up to the mountains in New Mexico), so it was just perfect for us.
“I’ve read online about your call from Sam Cohen, the father of the Neutron Bomb, and that’s really interesting. We had some really amazing characters in Los Alamos, oddball scientists and their weird families and all (I’m probably included in that!), but when your film was released, we all thought it was based on a Los Alamos scientist named Ken Ewing. By most accounts he was legally blind, and would walk around town talking to himself, wearing a fannie-pack and had these thick, crazy taped-up glasses. He’d go to all the art openings and gorge himself on the free food, and would have that same 1000-yard stare and freakish demeanor that the scientist character you portrayed in the film had. It was beyond uncanny. When the film premiered in town, all of us yelled “Ken Ewing!! when the scientist character first appeared. it was just too coincidental how similar they were.
“Ken was a neighbor and my parents knew him from the amateur archaeological society they were all volunteering for. For his daytime job, Ken was an explosives expert. He never mowed his lawn (much to the consternation of his neighbors), to make sure the horned toads could have a good habitat. He lived with his mother until she died, and kept on living at the run-down house. He was an avid hiker, I don’t think he drove, and to get downtown it was a good 5-mile walk up and down canyons and stuff, he’d chug along talking to himself, wearing an old parka and a fannie pack…”
I never knew about Ken, but am sure he fit right in with the nuclear labs crowd. And to his credit he supported the horny toads! Robby reports that the Los Alamos High School almost voted REPO MAN their 1984 Class Film, but it lost to RISKY BUSINESS. Instead, they arranged to have the film re-played in the cinema on graduation night, at midnight.