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'Return of the Living Dead' actor Don Calfa passes away at 76

The actor also starred in "Weekend at Bernie's," but horror fans know him best for getting a half-bodied zombie to disclose just why the living dead eat brains.

They may not earn the big salaries or the magazine covers, but sometimes it's the character actors we remember most. We lost one of them on Thursday, when Don Calfa, who played memorable roles in 1985's "Return of the Living Dead" and 1989's "Weekend at Bernie's," passed away at age 76, reports Deadline.

If Calfa's name isn't familiar to you, you still might know his roles. He's most famous for playing Ernie Kaltenbrunner, the heroic mortician who finds himself involved in a zombie attack in "Return of the Living Dead." It's through Calfa's character interrogating a gruesome half-bodied zombie that viewers learn why the creatures eat brains -- it's the only thing that stops the pain of death and rotting.

"Fans love Don for his role of Ernie," filmmaker Gary Smart, who co-wrote two books and produced a documentary on the famed film, said in an interview. "His comedy timing is spot on and he plays the role straight throughout. ... His interrogation of the Half-Corpse is one of the zombie genre's most iconic scenes and that truly comes down to Don's ability to balance comedy and horror whilst making the scene believable."

In "Weekend at Bernie's," Calfa played Paulie the hitman. "That role really shows Don's comedic timing and his physical comedy," Smart said.

And for a while, it was hard to watch a TV classic and not catch a glimpse of his elastic face. Calfa holds the record for most appearances in a TV series as different characters for his many "Barney Miller" roles. Other film and teleivsion appearances included "Foul Play," "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown," "Columbo" "Murder She Wrote" and "Twin Peaks."

Despite having only half a body, this zombie told Don Calfa's character Ernie that eating brains soothed the pain of being dead.

Shout Factory

Calfa was also a hit at horror and sci-fi movie conventions, and Smart thinks he knows why.

Don Calfa poses with Gary Smart, who once hoped to make a film about the actor and now has plans for a coffee table book.

Gary Smart

"This was a man that worked alongside the greats of Hollywood, DeNiro, Nicholson, Douglas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Beatty, and many more.," Smart said. "Fans loved him because he would share those stories with them. He would spend his time chatting to fans despite others queuing. His full attention would be on the person in front of him."

Smart feels lucky to have had a chance to know the character actor who was a real character.

"Don was a film hero of mine, when I met him we became family," he said. "To meet your heroes is one thing, but for them to far exceed your expectations was out of this world. A lot of people felt this way about Don Calfa."

In 2014, Smart tried to raise enough funds via Kickstarter for a documentary about Calfa. Not enough money was raised, but Smart is now planning a coffee table book charting Calfa's 50-year-career, with proceeds going to charity.

"Don was one of the most underrated character actors in the business, a familiar face but unfortunately not enough to gain enough fan interest in a documentary on his life," Smart said. "Seeing the thousands of messages and posts in the last 24 hours, I think that would be a different story today...He was an amazing guy and an amazing friend. I am genuinely heartbroken."