Musings of a Grey-Haired Man: Interview with a X-Files hitman
By Daniel Hartvig Nielsen - from the Danish X-Files podcast, ‘Sammensværgelsen’ (The Conspiracy Podcast).
The Canadian actor Morris Panych appeared in six episodes of ‘The X-Files’, starting in season two as Dr. Simon Auerbach in ‘F. Emasculata’.
From season three’s ‘Piper Maru’, he became known as The Grey-Haired Man in the X-Files community. An ice-cold hitman working for the Syndicate, doing The Cigarette Smoking Man’s dirty job.
We have seen him threatening Skinner, he killed off Mulder’s informant X in ‘Herrenvolk’, and he almost shot Mulder in the Emmy-nominated episode ‘Memento Mori’.
But The Grey-Haired Man disappeared out of the blue after season four’s ‘Zero Sum’, and the henchman’s fate is still unresolved.
Last summer I got the chance to ask Morris Panych some questions over e-mail about his time on the show – from his audition to the character’s iconic moments. He had some surprising answers.
- Do you remember your first audition for The X-Files?
- Yes, vaguely. It happened in downtown Vancouver, I think, in an office building - but I could be wrong. In those days the scene in Vancouver was quite busy and growing very rapidly so the locations of auditions kept changing. I think I might've auditioned twice, once for ‘F. Emasculata’ and again for the first Grey-Haired Man episode [Piper Maru].
- In your first appearance in the episode ‘F. Emasculata’, your role is credited as Dr. Simon Auerbach. He also does some of the dirty jobs for the Government / Syndicate, just like your character, The Grey-Haired Man, does later in the series. To you, is “Dr. Simon Auerbach” actually the same guy as Grey-Haired Man - just under a false name? Or is it two different characters?
- These are two completely different characters. I remember saying something to them about it, and my agent, wondering if anybody would be bothered that the same actor was playing two different roles, but it did not seem to phase anybody at all. That is when I began to realize how little importance was attached to my acting!
- Talking about ‘F. Emasculata’, you have a scene with Gillian Anderson, where you are burning the bodies from infected prisoners. What are your memories of shooting that scene?
- I remember her being a very nice person and quite welcoming to the set. I was also the first time I heard the term 'jilly'. Somebody said 'bring in the jilly' and the gaffers brought it a little box for the lead actress to stand on. I loved that they had a name for it, obviously they used it quite a bit. And, clearly, she was well-liked on the set
- Was your character named Grey-Haired Man in the script? Or is a fan name, given later? If he was not called Grey-Haired Man, can you remember what the name was in the scripts?
- He was always Grey-Haired Man
- Your next appearance was in ‘Piper Maru’, where you threaten Skinner. What are your memories of shooting that scene?
- I remember only that the episode had some dialogue for me that I don't think the producers liked me saying it, in fact I got a lot of acting notes; so that was my only dialogue episode. It was a crazy time, and we already knew the show was a big hit, so people who very reactive to stuff. I was a bit overwhelmed. I remember my suit more that I remember Skinner! I also remember how filthy the restaurant was, and I wondered if it really was that filthy or just set-decorated that way.
- Did you have to audition for any episodes later, or did they just contact you to say that your character was to appear again?
- I was always on call for the part; not paid to stand by, but waiting to see if they would use me, and I know that they expected me to show up if they wrote me in.
- Did you have any conversations with writers/directors about your characters background?
- Kim Manners talked to me once about the character. He said something like 'a cold wind blows through him' which I liked. He had me redo a shot where I am firing a weapon and walking forward, directly into the powder discharge and casings. He said 'you blinked; your character doesn't blink' or something to that effect.
- Did you make up a background for him yourself?
- No; I thought about it, but I thought it was dangerous and too logical to develop a backstory. I could not make it all fit. I just thought of myself as a mindless killer, who liked my job.
- The Grey-Haired Man seems to be a very consistent and ice-cold hitman, who does not show emotions. Was that the way you played him? Or what was your approach to the character?
- As I say, I played 'cold'. I thought if I applied character logic to it that it would diminish his power and even, weirdly, his complexity; the audience is often better at supplying background than the actors themselves. It is how novels work, I think; and why you are often disappointed when a fictional character is portrayed in film.
- In ‘Herrenvolk’ you kill off one of the regulars, when you kill Mr. X in the elevator. Can you remember shooting that scene? What memories do you have of shooting it?
- I think I might have apologized to the actor playing 'X' [Steven Williams]. I showed up, did my thing. I was trying to treat the role the way that the Grey-Haired Man treated the job. Believe it or not, I was not really following the show. In fact, I watched the episodes I was in and that was about it. I thought the show was very good, and well produced, but I was not into it.
- Were there any precautions taken to keep the murder a secret for the medias back then?
- That, I cannot recall.
- Can you remember being on the set of ‘Memento Mori’ with all the bodies in the tanks in the laboratories?
- Yes, it was an extraordinary set. But I never spent much time on set because they would hold me in my trailer until they needed me for the scene; often the scenes were shot very late at night.
- In ‘Memento Mori’ you have a very intense scene, where you try to shoot Mulder trough a bulletproof glass door. What are your memories of shooting that scene?
- I remember really appreciating my coaching from the SWAT guy: I think he worked in Pitt Meadows or something. He was the one who told me how to fire as a real assassin, and how stupid it was to hold a gun sideways when you shoot, since the casings will fly right into your face. Also, as I mentioned, being told not to blink when I walked towards Mulder.
- In ‘The X-Files’ you have scenes with both Gillian Anderson, David Duchvony, Mitch Pileggi and William B. Davis. Do you have any memories or stories about working with them?
- I knew Bill Davis from other things because he was a local Vancouver guy and a very nice man. I did not get too close to anyone else, frankly. I am not sure the producers wanted me to hang around too much. They treated me well, but I was a featured player. I would be surprised if any of the stars knew who I was.
- Did you get to meet the creator Chris Carter?
- Not that I recall.
- You appeared in six episodes, and the last one was in season four. Your character was never killed off on screen, so he may still be alive. Do you know the reason why you did not return? And has there at any point been talked about you being in another episode after your last appearance in ‘Zero Sum’?
- The episode was quite fraught for me, personally. I was directing a very large opera production at the time, involving hundreds of people, and a conflict arose with my dress rehearsal date for the opera and a shifted shoot date for X Files. I told the producers that I could not make the shoot because the opera was too big and too hard to shift. They basically read me the riot act over the phone. It was a very unpleasant exchange, and so, with great difficulty, I got the dress rehearsal moved and showed up on set.
- I felt that might be it for me - the mood was cool to say the least; maybe I'd crossed a line with the producers, I do not know. To be honest, after that exchange, I was glad not to be part of the show. I can only guess the feeling was mutual. You could say, yes, my character is still alive. But I certainly won’t be playing him.
- Do you have any other memories from working on ‘The X-files’ that you would like to share?
- I remember making really good money. I do not mean to be glib but at the time I was very grateful for the money, mostly, because I could afford a down payment on a house, which gave me a really good leg up in life. I was always surprised by the shows massive success and it’s cult following. I think there were other actors who were more into the whole thing than I was. I was interested in developing my theatre craft and my playwrighting. The X Files helped me do that.
- Are you yourself a fan of the X-files?
- No; but I might binge it sometime.
- The episodes are always funny to me. It was shot in Vancouver and so, inevitably, somebody I know- sometimes quite well - will show up in a scene, and so it is difficult to see them as the character. I just think of them as the person I know.