Bobby A. Suarez with Chris Mitchum on the set of Master Samurai (photo courtesy of Richard Suarez and BAS Film)
CHRIS MITCHUM interview with Andrew Leavold, December 2009
...Being the adventures of a young Mr Mitchum in Taiwan and the Philippines under the patronage of Messrs. Bobby A. Suarez and K.Y. Lim.
AL: I can only imagine what it's like in Manila right now.
CM: Exactly. When I worked in Indonesia they told me, "There are only two seasons here." I said, "What's that?" they said, "Hot and hotter."
AL: Oh Jesus. Well, at some point I'd like to touch on the Indonesian adventures, because they do somehow interrelate. That and the Thai adventures, too. Because South East Asian filmmaking is like the Wild West. And I can only imagine that it operates under its own set of rules and its own weird internal logic. So, can you let me know what you're working on at the moment, to get a bit of background?
CM: Well, I've gotten more involved in writing, I'm getting too old to be jumping off motorcycles. [Laughs.] So I'm actually working with someone, I've written a children's book, they're doing the artwork on it now. And I've written a screenplay with some partners, it's called Slaughterhouse College. We're in the process of trying to get it funded. And I'm finishing up a screenplay called The Host which is an end-of-the-world 2012 film. And I'm working on a mystery novel called Victoria Falls, which is a kind of an Agatha Christie-type mystery. And other than that, just hanging out.
AL: That's amazing. Have you done much writing before.
CM: Well, I've written all my life, yes.
AL: There you go. That's something I didn't know.
CM: I've written things for everything from Black Belt magazine to Architectural Digest, Brides [?] magazine…
AL: Have you written screenplays before?
CM: Actually, most of the stuff I did in Asia, I actually wrote. There's one I did in Thailand - I was living in Spain and I was contacted by this guy they call Mason out of Los Angeles, and back then this was all Western Union. I asked what the story was and I got this twenty-page synopsis in the mail, so I Western Union telegrammed them back, I said I'd like to see the screenplay, and they telegrammed me back, it took about three days, and they said "That is the screenplay."
AL: And that was H-Bomb.
CM: Yeah, it was literally twenty pages long. So I sat down and I hammered out a script and sent it off. I sent a telegram saying 'There's a screenplay on the way. This is what a screenplay is supposed to look like." And they telegrammed me back and said 'We will have a finished screenplay ready for you when you arrive.' And when I got there, they handed me my script. (laughter) I actually wrote the screenplay for H-Bomb. I didn't get paid or credited, but I did it.
AL: That is incredible.
CM: And that's the way, you know, I ended up doing a lot of writing on the Bobby Suarez films… I wrote all the films they did in Indonesia. They'd send me forty-page scripts and I'd sit down and do the screenplay, send it back to them before the shoot… Back then, most of these places, they didn't shoot on a schedule. They started work, and if everyone survived long enough, they'd finish the film.
AL: And then it's all on a wing and a prayer.
CM: I remember the first time I got to Thailand. My Thai lead was a guy called Krung Srivilai, he was making sixty-five films at the same time. He got two thousand dollars up front, which was a lot of money in Thailand at the time. And of those sixty-five, maybe seventeen would get finished. I said, "How long does it take to make a film here?" He said "Oh, about two years. But most of them never get finished, they run out of money or the producer dies, or a couple of the actors die. And that's why I get paid up front." He'd come to our set, shoot for a couple of hours, then drive across the country and shoot another one. And because of my time restraints, we sat down and worked out a schedule. So we had a real script and a real schedule, so we made the movie.
AL: My Lord.
CM: This was a different time then. I guess I revolutionised Asian filmmaking in a lot of different ways.
AL: Well, internationalised it. Because I really don't think they were doing international productions. They were doing Asian productions.
CM: Well, because of my stuff with Terry Lai and Bobby, being the first Anglo-Saxon to be the hero, the lead star in an all-Chinese production, I got the Golden Horse award in 1981. The Chinese Academy award.
[Note: Cantopop star Alan Tam won Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards for his role in the mawkish Taiwanese melodrama If I Were For Real in '81.]
AL: That's amazing.
CM: I mean, they had white guys before, but they were all bad guys who [CM affects gruff voice] 'talk like this'.
AL: [Laughs.] Yeah. What do they call them, gweilos?
CM: Yeah. [Gruff voice] 'Ha, ha, ha.'
AL [Laughs.] Bobby definitely had a vision of taking the Asian action film to the international stage.
CM: Oh, absolutely.
AL: And I guess riding on the crest of the kung fu phenomenon, but also adding other elements to it. Because if you look at Cosa Nostra Asia, it's not just a regular kung fu film. There are elements of The Godfather and James Bond in there…
CM: That's pretty much what the Asians would do, though. They would see an American successful film and they'd make an Asian version of it. When I made my first film in Indonesia, I got a phone call and they said, "We're doing a film down here." I asked, "What kind of a film is it?" They said, "Lethal Hunter.” And Lethal Weapon had just come out, so I said, "Great, is it a similar story?" They said "Yes, but this one is much better." I thought, "Lethal Weapon was pretty damn good, I'm going to enjoy this project." Well, 'better' to them was less talking and more action.
AL: [Laughs.] Yeah, cut all that shit out.
CM: Yeah, all that relationship crap, get rid of it.
AL: Let's go back a little bit further, to when you were in Europe. You were based in Spain for a while.
CM: Yeah, I was kinda run out of the United States because I'd worked with John Wayne. And there was - It was kind of bizarre. I did Chisum, that was a small part, and I did Rio Lobo and Big Jake with him.
AL: And John Wayne was not cool at the time. This was The Green Berets-era John Wayne, right?
CM: Exactly. And Hollywood, you know there was all these people burning flags and booing soldiers returning from the war. And Hollywood could not differentiate between supporting the troops and supporting the war. So they thought he was pro-war. He wasn't - he was pro-American soldier. They were out there taking orders. And they basically set up a policy that anyone who worked with John Wayne was blackballed in Hollywood. Duke was noted for having friends work in his pictures. You watch twenty John Wayne films and you'll see faces repeat, you know, film after film after film the same actors in character roles. A lot of that had to do with the fact that they were of the same political bent. And Hollywood took the position that if you worked with John Wayne, they would not promote you in Hollywood because they did not want a second voice coming out, you know, talking about the Vietnam protesters.
AL: So basically it was McCarthyism in reverse.
CM: Yeah, it's reverse McCarthyism. Exactly. After I did Big Jake, I was on the Johnny Carson show. I was given the Photoplay gold medal award. Photoplay was a magazine which - their awards were sort of a people's choice award, their readers voted on it. And it was a pre-runner to the Academy Award. They came out before the Academy Awards ceremony. And they actually gave out a medal, about five inches across, of solid fourteen carat gold. And this is back when gold was still thirty-two dollars an ounce.
AL: My God. That's a lot of teeth.
CM: Oh yeah, I got that baby sitting on my shelf. I got that for being the best new actor of 1972. I was on the cover of Seventeen magazine three times that year, and I couldn't get a job interview. And I got this job offer while I was actually doing promos around the country. Me and Patrick Wayne were doing a twenty-one city tour in nineteen days, flying around doing interviews. And my agent said this director and producer were in New York, and we had a Sunday rest in Houston. So they flew me up from Houston to New York to have lunch, they gave me the script, told me about the project - it was called Un Verano Para Matar - Summertime Killer - and they flew me back down and offered me five times what Duke was paying me. And I said yes before I read the script. And it was a great script, we had Karl Malden, Olivia Hussey, Claudine Auger, Gerard Barry, Raf Vallone, a great cast. And yeah, in L.A. I went to a cast interview, and the casting director looked at me and said, "Oh, you're THAT Chris Mitchum." I said, "What do you mean?" And she said "I can't cast you because you starred with John Wayne."
AL: And that's how you found out!
CM: Yeah. So I went off and did this film in Spain, and I came back, and again I couldn't get an interview. The guy who did the stills photography on the film called me up and said "I would like to send you a script. The producer contacted me and wants me to get a script to you. Would you be interested in coming back to Spain?" I said "Yeah, sure." So I went back and I found out that Summertime Killer was the biggest-grossing film in Spain's history. It won something like seven Spanish awards, and I was a major star in Spain. My second day there I got offered another film in Spain, so I think, "Screw this," I go back after the first film, rent out my house, pack up my family and move to Spain for three years. And everything I did there, when Franco was alive, I mean Rosso [?] was living north of Barcelona, Eastwood was shooting all of his Spaghetti Westerns down at Almaria, it was a happening place. All the stuff I did there was being exported to Asia, and it turned out I was a big star in Asia. There was Eastwood, Bronson, Alain Delon and myself. I mean, Alain Delon was always number one. And the other three of us were two, three and four depending on who had the latest release. So I started getting job offers over there, and that's when I moved back to the United States, because I figured, what the hell am I doing living in Spain and working in Asia. And I wanted a hamburger and a milkshake.
So I went back there and I started doing stuff, the first one being the one in Thailand, so I started working there a lot. And the one in Thailand, it was the first… actually, I think Summertime Killer was the first film Olivia Hussey did after Romeo and Juliet. Because that was so successful over there, they brought her over to star in H-Bomb.
AL: So the producer said, "Let's, get lightning to strike twice. Let's get Olivia Hussey in here."
CM: I guess so, yeah.
AL: Bobby told me he was working as an errand boy on Summertime Killer.
CM: No, Summertime Killer was shot in Spain, Italy and France…
AL: Bobby maintains that he was in Spain trying to buy the Asian rights to Summertime Killer in advance, and the producer said, "If you come and work on the set as an errand boy and learn the ropes, then I'll give you the SE Asian rights."
CM: This is the first I heard the story. You'd think if I'd seen him on the set, he'd have said something to me when we did make films together.
AL: But regardless, Bobby sees you in Summertime Killer and thinks "Aha! Let's get him for…"
CM: I think he saw me in Summertime Killer after it was released in Asia.
AL: Bobby was based in Hong Kong, and he was operating Intercontinental.
CM: Was he ever married to Terry Lai?
AL: That's a very good question. I think he might have been. And for that reason he got in a lot of trouble.
CM: I thought so. Even though she still went under the name of Terry Lai, she was introduced to me as his wife. And we'll have to talk about the first film I did with him, which was Chinese American Commandos. [Big laugh.]
AL: So that was the very first one?
CM: That was the first one. And that was never made. We were shooting down in Taiwan, and Tony Ferrer was on it. And it was absolutely hysterical. I mean tragic, but hysterical. We're down there, and we have two typhoons coming in. Over in… I forget the name of the town, it's on the coast, the east coast. And the hotel we're in is divided in half. One half is a functioning hotel, the other half is a whorehouse. And the girls, the whores, they're also operating the hotel, they're at the front desk. And the town, it's this little dinky town with the open sewers running down the street and everything, and every single evening, around 4.30 or 5, a busload of Japanese tourists would come in. And they're all hungover, you'd see them with the big bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, they'd go up to their room and have a big drunken party all night long, you know, screwing the whores. And then at nine in the morning they'd all get up with blood-red eyes and crawl onto the bus to go to the next site for sight-seeing. But we were hit with two typhoons when we were there, so we just sat on our asses for God knows how long, waiting for the storms to go through. I decided to do something nice, so I thought I'd throw a party for the crew, because they're all going stir crazy in there. Larry Chiu helped me decide the meals, you know, some of them can eat this, and some can have this… And one of the meals they had was tiger dragon soup. And Larry told me, "This is wonderful. They can't afford to buy this at a restaurant." So at the night of the party there's this huge soup tureen, and I look in, and the dragon is a snake, and it's wrapped around a pheasant, some bird they trapped on the roof, and the tiger is an alley cat. And as the host and the guest of honour, I got to have the eyes of the alley cat. But I said "No, you set up this party, I'm just writing the cheque. You get the eyes." He was ecstatic. He was so appreciative. But that was on Cosa Nostra.
When we were doing Chinese Daredevil Commandos, that was a story that took place during WWII, and it's about a bunch of Chinese and Americans who go up against the Japanese. But they didn't - and I understand this is the way with Chinese thinking, I'm told there is no future tense in their language. And that pretty much exists in the way they think, they don't think ahead at all. And we get out there, and they said "Chris, do you think you could go to the American base here, and get some uniforms? And maybe some jeeps and some troop trucks." All that kind of stuff. So I go down to the base, you know, and talk to the base commander, and he says he'll be happy to do this, the military does co-operate with film companies, but you have to go to Washington, it starts at the Pentagon, you fill in some forms, and then it comes through here and we try to accommodate it. And that takes about three months. So I said, "Oh well. Is there anything you can do for me?" He says, "Well, I can give you a camouflage uniform for you to wear." And I wore that uniform with the sewn-on captain bars. And we had no guns. Guns are outlawed in Taiwan. So we got these toy guns, and they got the special effects guy to put firecrackers up the gazoo. The gun was like an M-1 carbine, and it had a light, and when you pulled the trigger it would light up. So they took out the light and packed it full of fireworks.
AL: Oh my God.
CM: So we get to the first real shot, and the shot is, you know, here comes this Japanese troop carrier, which is just a flatbed farm truck with a plastic machine gun mounted on it, and it's got these guys hanging off it, and it's coming across the field towards us, and they're going to engage us in battle. But there are guys falling off the truck, you know, the road is so bumpy, and they open fire with a machine gun and you see this big purple cloud… So then when the car hits this ditch, it's about five feet wide and six inches deep, they hit the embankment and we all have our M-1s and start to fire, and when we fire, it's like, yellow, poof! Orange, poof! Purple, poof! Coming down to the end of the line, every different colour. And Tony Ferrer, he pulls the trigger and nothing happens, he tries two more times but it doesn't work, he's supposed to shoot the driver of the truck, he tries two more times, then he brings it up to look at it and it goes swoosh! [Laughs.] Cloud of smoke comes over and for like four seconds you can't even see his head. I said "Cut, cut," and turned to Bobby and told him, "Bobby, this isn't working. It looks like a rainbow coming out of these guns." He said, "Okay, you're right. Let's all go back to the hotel to see what we can do." So we have another four or five days off. And Tony's room is a few doors down from the special effects guy's room. So I'm sitting in Tony's room having a beer, and I hear a big swoosh! I said, "What the hell is that?" Tony says, "You've got to see this," and we go out into the hallway. The door at the end of the hall opens, and a huge cloud of smoke drifts out. [Laughs.] And the special effects guys' standing there coughing his lungs out. [Laughs so hard I can't hear the next sentence.] And he's been working on it for three days. But then he comes in and says "We're not going to do it. We can't make this picture. We'll pay your salary and send you home." I said, "I'll tell you what, Bobby. When you can get the act together, I'll come back and do another film for you if you pay my expenses and five grand. I'll do another for you. And he said, okay, that's great. And the following February I came back to the Philippines and did what at that time was The Agency but became Master Samurai.
AL: And where was Cosa Nostra sitting in there?
CM: When we were in Taiwan.
AL: Okay, so you're making two films back to back.
CM: Right, two films back to back. We made one, and the other….
AL: So Chinese Daredevil Commandos you did first, but it never…
CM: No, it never got filmed.
AL: But then you went ahead and stayed in Taiwan and made Cosa Nostra Asia.
CM: Cosa Nostra Asia, right.
AL: Was Bobby director on Chinese Daredevil Commandos or just producer?
CM: To my recollection, he was.
AL: Right. Whereas on Cosa Nostra Asia he's got some guy called John Liao.
CM: Actually, John Liao spoke beautiful English, and from what I understand he studied film and film history at Stanford, or Berkely, or wherever he was. And somewhere in San Francisco he went to film school. And he really had it together, you know, my first day's shooting - you've seen the film?
CM: That scene where I walk into the dojo and I fight everybody in the room. Then I go in and fight the two girls with the sai, and then I go and fight Dick Chen. That was my first day on the set. And they kind of roughly choreographed the first run-through, fighting the guys. And they said "Cut!" And they're looking at me like someone farted. They say "Chris," and we walk off to the side and he goes "It doesn't look like you're hitting them," so I said, "Yeah, but they're not taking the punch, you know, if I punch at the head they gotta snap their head back, if I hit them in the stomach, they gotta double over." He says, "No, I mean really hitting them." I said, "Well, no wonder it doesn't look like it." He says, "That's what they're there for. Hit them!" I said, "You mean really hit them?" He says, "Yes!" I said, "That'll hurt them." He said, "Yes! That's what they're here for!"
So, I said okay, we go back in the room and do it again. And I'm trying to pull my punches, but if somebody moves forward a half-inch, then you crack a rib. And we get through the shot, and there's a couple of guys moaning and groaning, the director yells "Cut!" and they all applaud. And it got worse. For my fight scene with Dicky, I knew he was something like that year's Hong Kong kung fu champion. And we would work out a routine, and every time the camera came on, he would change the routine a little. Just haul off and went. So I think, "Is he just stupid, or is he trying to hit the round-eye on camera?"
AL: He's trying to one-up you, by the sounds of it.
CM: Yeah, that's what he's doing. So I - I had to basically get in a fight with him, to protect myself. And I'm, you know, guarding myself from punches and kicks, using my arms and shins. When I finished that first day's work, from my knee to my ankle and from my wrist to my elbow on both legs and arms were black and blue from taking punches.
AL: 'Cause it's a long scene.
CM: Oh yeah.
AL: And it really comes across as brutally realistic.
CM: Believe me, it was. And later on we had another fight scene, again he was thinking he was really going to do me in. And while we were mapping it out I had my fight instructor there, Larry [name indistinct, sounds like 'Elkins', but the fight instructor for Cosa Nostra was Larry Chiu]. And word was getting around, you know, because some of the crew actually liked me and they said Dicky was really trying to give me a hard shot, beat me out. And I said to Larry, "If he takes me down, don't let him stomp on me when I'm unconscious." He said "Oh yeah, you're joking." So we're doing the thing and he throws a punch to my stomach, in slow motion 'cause we're working it out for the camera, and suddenly he steps in and whacks me on the side of the head with his elbow. So I drop to one knee and I come back up to hit him and he says, "Sorry, Chris, I just got carried away. It was an accident, please forgive me." Well, now we get to about five shots later and I'm about to do a side kick into his chest, and he can see the look in my eye, he knows I'm looking for a chance… We come in to do the shot, and we rehearse it and everything's fine, and he braces his hand across his chest to protect it from a hard kick, and I change my kick a little bit, and do a knife-edge hand to his throat. [Imitates painful choking noise.] I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, it was really an accident, I'm really sorry." And that's the last time he took a swing at me.
CM: Yeah, after that we went into movie magic. I mean, that's a hard way to make a living, when you actually have to go there and fight people. That's crazy.
AL: But obviously you'd been trained to fight in Hollywood movies.
CM: Actually, back in 1969 I made a film called Bigfoot, where I fight Bigfoot, you know, the sasquatch monster. And a friend of mine, Tom Bleecker, who later ended up marrying Bruce Lee's widow, Linda Lee [Note: Linda tried to prevent the publication of Bleecker's brilliantly bitchy book Unsettled Matters: The Life and Death of Bruce Lee, which is a fantastic combination of accurate biography, wild surmise, and some very sour grapes indeed.] He's a third dan black belt in kenpo karate. He and Ed Parker learned a lot from Bruce Lee about that stuff. So I went to Tom, and I said, "Can you show me a routine? I don't want to take three swings at this monster and have it club me on top of the head. I'd like to do something fun." So we worked out a routine, which we put in the movie, and I thought "Hey, this martial arts stuff is kind of neat." So I started working with him, and I got my first couple of belts, you know… And he was good, I learned stuff about hand-eye co-ordination that you can use in reality if you need to, and how to use ordinary furniture for exercise, so you can stay in shape without having to carry a bunch of weights. You know, very useful things. So when I got into doing Asian films, they just thought I was a round-eye actor, but when we get into doing a fight scene, I'd say, "Well, should we try this?" And they'd go [comedy Asian accent] "Oh, he knows martial arts!" So all of a sudden I became this kung fu star over there. But the difference was, the real kung fu stars were kung fu stars who became actors. I was an actor who became a kung fu star. So my martial arts onscreen were nowhere near as good as those guys.
AL: And of course, Tony Ferrer was a karate champion too.
CM: Oh yeah, Tony was great. He's a lot of fun.
AL: From what I can tell, he was a first-class karate performer, but also a first-class gambler.
CM: Well, that I didn't know.
AL: Apparently he spends a lot of time at the casino. And he's very successful at what he does. So, that's your impression of Tony Ferrer - that he actually was quite a fun guy?
CM: Oh yeah, we got along very well. Very well. We had a lot of laughs together. I don't know how close he was to Bobby, but he had sort of the same detachment that I had. He could could look and see what was going on and appreciate - I mean, as tragic as it all was, appreciate the thing.
AL: Well, it's a very Filipino way...
AL: And of course, there's Terry Lai. Who everyone describes as sort of… businesslike. Which you can take one way or another.
CM: You know, she had her brother Joseph there, too. And at the beginning, everyone thought she was kind of like this inscrutable Chinese. Just wouldn't talk to anybody. But the more I got to know here - I mean, she was a very sharp businesswoman. But I think socially she was just very shy and not sure of her English, and was just very reserved because of that. I didn't go this year, but I think last year or the year before I went down to the International Film Market down at Santa Monica and stopped by the IFD office to say hi to Joseph and Terry. We chatted for a few minutes, and had a catch-up on old times. They went ahead and did more films with Bobby… Because I think Bobby moved Master Samurai to the Philippines to get away from Terry. That was my take on the whole thing. And once he was able to do that and get the money into the Philippines, it was "Adios." Because he already had a wife in the Philippines, and that didn't go down very well. The whole thing got really messy. So I think she was a little stand-offish with me because I had worked with Bobby. We did American Commandos a couple of years later together.
AL: You would have gone back to Spain, and then you get the call from Bobby to do another film. Which is Master Samurai, or The Agency.
CM: Well, The Agency we did eight months after the other two… or, the other one-and-a-half.
AL: Right. [Laughs.] So there would have been at least one day of Chinese Daredevil Commandos in the can.
CM: Ah… We might have had two or three. But probably no more than that. I would like to see it. It'd be hilarious.
AL: Like a Keystone Cops short!
CM: I tell you, Tony and I would get talking about this, we'd be laughing so hard there'd be tears coming out of our eyes.
AL: So… Master Samurai is your first introduction to the Philippines. And you get there, and it's under Martial Law. And you're doing a film that's set during Martial Law. What were your impressions of Manila at the time?
CM: You know, I think I had a little bit of jaded view of it. Whether it was because it was the film business or because Bobby was tied in, we were never really affected. You know, with the curfew, if you wanted to go to a club after curfew - curfew was ten o'clock, and we could drive back at one in the morning. And my driver had an M-16 there on the seat with him. So we had pretty much privileged access. So I was not really affected by Martial law while it was going on.
AL: What are your impressions of Manila as a city, then?
CM: I loved it. I mean, what's not to like? I stayed most of the time at the Manila hotel, which was just absolutely beautiful. I stayed at the General McArthur suite.
CM: Yeah, how can you go wrong with that?
AL: And then, you know, what about experiences off the set? Did you get to experience the craziness?
CM: Not really. Back then I had a wife and two kids, and I would usually go to a location and for the first two weeks I'd scope it out, and if I needed to change accomodation to get something better for my family, I would. And once I'd gotten all set up and bring them over to spend a couple of weeks with me. So that would usually keep me pretty sedate. But I enjoyed the people, I loved the food. I had a good time there.
AL: Do you remember the two American guys that went on to work on quite a few of Bobby's films - Joe Zucchero and Ken Metcalfe?
CM: Ken had a really good business going. He was in charge of all the round-eye extras. And what he would do is, he would line up the various expatriate Americans and have them play these parts. And part of the deal was he would get a part in the film. So he had it pretty well covered. But he would get parts not so much because of the actor he was, but because he could supply all these round-eye actors.
AL: But he was actually an actor, though. A trained actor.
CM: Well… Self-made, yeah. I don't think he ever went to the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York and studied.
AL: Well, anyone could be an actor in the Philippines… And of course Bobby has you riding around on a motorbike as an obvious nod to Summertime Killer.
CM: I rode a bike all throughout that. And after that when I'd make a film in Asia, I'd read the synopsis, but after I'd signed up, there'd be an extra eight pages with me on a motorcycle. I was looking at… Which one was it? It must have been Master Samurai. There was a car chase in it, and they have to blow up the car so they get the worst car they could possibly get. And if you look at that, you'll notice that the car chase isn't very fast. They're going along at twenty-five miles an hour. Because it's completely shot. The transmission's gone, the engine's gone. Everything. I hit a guy on a motorcycle, I jump out, do I help the guy? No, I take his motorcycle! I'm in a car, for Christ's sake, what do I need with a motorcycle? But that's how it was, Chris Mitchum on a motorcycle, that's what sells.
AL: Oh wow.
CM: It was funny, we were doing this car chase, and we're going around the roundabout, and I got this sucker floored. I'm going as fast as I can. And the traffic is passing. And this is our big chase scene!
AL: Now, that film was co-directed by Cesar 'Chat' Gallardo and his son Jun Gallardo. And Jun, you ended up working with later on SFX Retaliator (1987).
CM: Yeah, They would take turns. I don’t think they really collaborated much. They would take turns doing different scenes.
AL: But Chat was a really experienced action director. I mean, going back to the Forties.
CM: Absolutely, yeah. He'd been around for a long while. And I think part of it was, he was mentoring Jun on how to do it.
AL: Yeah, he probably hadn't done more than five or six films up till then. But Bobby's version is, they begged him to co-direct a film together.
CM: Well… I can't deny that…
AL: Is there anything else you wanted to add about Master Samurai? Since you only got to see the damn thing recently.
CM: There is one little bit… Because I found it interesting at the time. We're doing a scene in Asia Cosa Nostra. And we're doing this scene on a ship, and the wanted me to get knocked off one deck down to another deck. And it's like a twelve-foot fall. And I think "Hey, that's a steel deck, I don't want to do this." So I said "I'll tell you what, get me like twenty cardboard boxes, and two twin bed mattresses and we'll do the shot tomorrow." They're looking at me like I'm nuts. But they bring them, and I set the boxes up myself, stacking them up, then put the mattress on top. I say, "Put the camera down here right by the mattresses, get another camera up there for when I go over." And I go up and do the shot, I go over the rail, fall down, drop out of frame of the camera below, land on the mattress." I say "Okay, get this stuff out of here, bring me an apple box." I get up on the box, I say, "Put the camera right here, that's where I'm going to land." They roll camera, boom. I fall down on my back. They're like "Oh… He's such a good actor!" Two shots! Wow! It's such a revelation to 'em. You know, Jackie Chan still does this stuff. And these guys, they'll fall out of a three-storey window. They'd drop you out of a window and wonder why you couldn't get up off the cement.
AL: So they've been doing it the hard way.
CM: Yeah. It never occurred to them that these things were done in two shots. With stunt doubles. And that's why, like Krung Srivilai told me in Thailand, actors were dying left and right, and they couldn't walk anymore. They wanted me to jump out of a car at thirty-five miles per hour, I said "You're out of your mind! I'm not gonna do that!"
AL: You could probably picture them mentally forming a stuntman's union right at that moment.
CM: Well, absolutely. But this was pretty much throughout Asia. There's sort of this belief that if you're doing a stunt, and you fail the stunt - we've probably lost a person a picture. No matter what country I worked in. And if you died doing a stunt, the producer would take care of your family forever. Well, the thing is, the producer's not going to be around forever.
AL: Yeah, he's going to get into real estate real quick.
CM: Yeah. I remember in Thailand, we were coming back from a picture we were shooting and ran into this other crew who were making a movie. They were doing motorcycle stunts - everybody was doing motorcycle stunts. And the shot is, there's a guy being chased, he's on a motorcycle, he runs up the back of Volkswagen beetle, jumps over a moving train, lands on the other side, and takes off. And the bad guy's car stops right in front of the train. They're stealing the shot from the railroad. The railroad doesn't even know these guys are there. And they're getting everything set up, they move the Volkswagen to the other side of the tracks and set up a ramp. And the ramp has, like, a forty-five degree angle on it, and they've placed it about six feet from the track, and it's something like eight feet high. I said, "The guy's going to come off this ramp, he's going to go almost straight up in the air, and he's going to apex maybe thirty feet on the other side of the train, and he's going to go straight down." They said, "Oh, no. Thai stuntman number one." I said to the driver, "Pull over, I gotta see this number one Thai stuntman." So, here comes the train, cue the motorcycle, the train crosses, and sure enough, the guy comes flying up, he's going about sixty miles an hour, he flies up, maybe forty feet in the air, he's coming straight down and lands on the back wheel. The back wheel hits so hard, it collapses. And he flies off the bike [sound drops out for a few seconds], but the guy's still alive, he's moving and he's breathing. They pick him up, throw him in the back seat of the car and take him to a hospital. So he's probably got a broken back - at the very least - and they just pick him up and throw him in the car. Now, the director turns around - they do have a double bike, a back-up bike - and the director says "Okay, who wants to try it next?"
AL: Oh, no…
CM: Yeah. "We need a good landing. It wasn't a good landing, wasn't a good shot." They all talk amongst themselves for a while and then this guy holds up his hand, he's going to do it next. I said "Well, you gotta change the ramp. You gotta move it back about fifteen feet, drop it down a foot, and change the angle." "Oh, no. Thai stuntman number one, he do it!" They're gonna do it exactly the same way. So I say to my driver, "I can't do this, I can't watch this. I gotta go." They just didn't get it. And this is pretty much across the board throughout Asia.
AL: And of course the number one action star of the sixties, who was in sixty per cent of the country's films throughout the sixties, died in the last shot of his last film. Because he wanted to do a helicopter stunt and insisted on doing it in one take. He ended up plummeting to his death on a beach.
CM: That doesn't surprise me at all. I'm surprised Jackie Chan has lasted this long. What with all those films from Hong Kong, it's like he's trying to kill himself. But that's how it all was back in the early seventies, my friend. It was scary stuff.
AL: Pretty much making up the rules as they go along.
CM: Oh, absolutely. They didn't have a clue. Did not have a clue. They just went ahead and did it and hoped it came out okay.
AL: It was criminal recklessness.
CM: Yeah, absolutely.
AL: You know, Bobby told me he was one of the first people to actually pay stuntmen in the Philippines a real wage. Because up until then, they were getting something like a hundred pesos a day. Which wasn't even feeding their family. And these guys were jumping off the top of three, four, five storey buildings and not surviving.
CM: That's it. They just did it in one shot, and there was no flop mat. They would just land on cement and they couldn't figure out why they kept dying. I told them American stuntmen could do this and not get hurt, but they didn't get it.
AL: Burt Reynolds went to the Philippines to do a film back in the late Sixties [Impasse, 1969]. And he worked with a group of stuntmen called the SOS Daredevils. And he was just gobsmacked - a former stuntman himself - at just how good the Filipino stunt guys were, and how crazy they were. He ended up buying them a dune buggy at the end of the shoot.
CM: Yeah, well - they ain't lacking courage. What they lacked in planning they made up for in courage.
AL: So… Then there's a break. You take a break from Bobby for quite a number of years. And then, about twelve or thirteen years, you get asked to do American Commandos or Hitman, as it was called at the time. Had you even thought about the Philippines in that period?
CM: Yeah, it crossed my mind. I actually did try a couple of times to put together a project over there… But yeah, we kind of kept in very loose contact. He contacted me to do American Commandos, and I had actually just finished a shoot with John Philip Law down in Indonesia, a German production. And John and I hit it off, we were like brothers at one point. And I recommended him to Bobby. I read the script and I said "How about John Philip Law for the other guy?" And they thought it was a great idea, so I called up John and told them I'd given them his name and said, "Why don't you come out and do it?" And it was a little classier than the other productions, they'd already gotten the money so it was much better bankrolled than Bobby's other ventures. That was the first one, it may be the only one, that actually made it to video in the United States.
AL: Probably. But it also got pretty decent distribution, too.
CM: Oh it did. It actually came out looking like a real film.
AL: I interviewed one of your co-stars, a British guy called Nigel Hogge…
CM: Oh, Nigel, yeah. He was the cop.
AL: That's the one. And in real life he was the Sultan of Sleaze on Makati Avenue. He owned eight out of the eight bars and restaurants along Makati Avenue.
CM: The bum should've invited me out for a drink! [Laughs.]
AL: [Laughs.] Well, he remembers you on the set being completely obsessed with chess.
CM: I do love to play chess, yeah. Either playing chess or reading a book, between takes I like to totally take myself out of my work. Just really clean my mind out. And those are two things I can get totally involved in. It's a great form of relaxation. When I worked with Duke, he was an avid chess player. And the first few times I played with him, he was totally intimidating. He had these huge hands, he'd reach over to pick up a piece with his thumb and forefinger and slide in another piece at the same time - he'd cheat at chess. But what was I going to do? He was my star producer, the guy's six-foot-six, you know, and that big voice… totally intimidating. There was a guy called Ed Faulker, he did a lot of films with him, and I went up to him and I said, "Eddie, what's going on? Duke cheats." And Ed just said "Aw, he's just waiting for you to tell him to knock that shit off." So I thought about, and then the next time we were playing and he cheated I called him on it, and he said [John Wayne voice] "Well, I wondered when you were gonna say somethin'."
CM: And when I worked with Heston, he was an avid chess player. And I would constantly beat him. And he'd say, "Well, I can't see the pieces, they're too small." And we're working down in Mexico, and on the weekend I went down to Mogales and got a chess set. And the pieces were like, two feet tall. So I take them back and he walks off the set, and there's this huge chessboard, and I said "Well, now you can see 'em. Play me." And he beat me! And he said "I told you I just needed to see them." I love playing chess.
AL: So… You've obviously seen American Commandos, 'cause it's on video.
AL: What are your impressions of that film?
CM: Well, I think it's the best one I did with Bobby. Like I said, the money was there, and they were able to put some value up on the screen. I think it came out pretty decently. I tried to help him with a few things, like we were shooting up on the Marcos Highway, and the road was just falling apart right after they built it. And there's a big chunk of highway missing. So I said "Bobby, how about we do this bit where there's this truck coming, and I fire a rocket from a motorcycle, and it blows a chunk out of the road, and it'll look like I blew it up out of the road." And he used it, he didn't really shoot it well enough to pay off, but he did use the idea. We actually had this armoured car thing… we had some real stuff going on.
AL: And some crazy ideas. Because the one thing you can say about Bobby's films is, he's never short of a crazy idea. In fact, downright loopy.
CM: You know, it's kind of sad really. Some of these guys, like Willy Williams, the black actor in it, he had done maybe five or six films in the Philippines already, and he thought, "Gee, maybe Hollywood's ready for me." So he sold everything he had and moved to Hollywood to be a movie star, and then realised that nobody cared he had done films in the Philippines. Oh, it's tragic…
AL: I wondered what happened to Willy.
CM: Well, last I heard, he was in San Pedro, California, and he was hitting me up for a loan.
AL: Do you remember the German guy, Robert Marius?
AL: Did you hear what happened to him?
AL: It's really, really sad. He hung himself a couple of years ago.
CM: Oh my God.
AL: Yeah, he was still in the Philippines.
CM: Well, that's what did it.
AL: He had a gay lover who ended up stealing just about everything that Robert owned. And he was really messed up on crystal meth. He ended up killing himself. It's really, really tragic. And the most tragic thing is, it was only Bobby and Jim Gaines who told me about it. Nobody else in the Philippines knew about it, because they'd lost track of Robert over the previous ten years. So I've been the bearer of bad tidings, talking to everyone who worked with him. Because the word had not gotten around the community.
CM: Yeah, I guess he'd dropped out from all his friends, found a new group.
Chris and John Phillip Law celebrating Bobby's birthday on the set of American Commandos (photo courtesy of Richard Suarez)
AL: Exactly. But you got to work on the film American Commandos. That must have been fun. You and John had been friends for some time, right.
CM: Right. Like I said, I was down in Indonesia, I got contacted by Rapi Films, Indonesia. And he was a local co-producer with the Germans. And part of the deal was, they got the name actor on the film, and that name was me. And I was money in the bank down here, again because of Summertime Killer. So I fly in… [chuckles]… It's kind of amazing, I fly in, this great first-class flight, I get there, I have a suite at the Hilton, and we're shooting in the Hilton another suite, and there's a tailor-made suit waiting for me. And the next day I get five beautifully tailored English wool suits. I go ahead, I shoot three days at the Hilton, they have a big party for me at the end of the shoot, all the publicity people and all the Indonesian stars and everything out by the pool. The following day I was allowed an extra room because we ran over schedule or something, I went down to Bali for a day, came back and flew home.
CM: But then I get to Israel, I've got this tiny little room - the Germans are paying for Israel, the Indonesians were paying for Indonesia. It's this teeny little room, they eat health food and stuff, they've got ropes everywhere, wall to wall, with bananas hanging from it, mangoes… All this kind of crap. And it's like eighty degrees, it's like being in the tropics in this room. And when I join up with John - I don't think I've had a scene with him, you know, I'm on the phone talking to girls in slinky dresses most of the time. But he's getting up in the morning to shoot with another unit, waking up at six in the morning and driving halfway across the country, riding a motorcycle and getting punched in the face, doing these twelve-hour takes outside. I stopped by to say to say goodbye, he says "Jesus, Mitch!" I said "I didn't know, I thought I was the star on this movie." But anyway, I brought him to the Philippines and we had a great time. John had a propensity for smoking dope, and he was pretty much a stoner. And one day I said to him, "J.P., why don't you just… not smoke anymore?" "Gee, Mitch, you think so?" I said, "Yeah, try acting without getting stoned." And he said "Okay, I'll try that." For some reason I was some kind of mentor, how I ever got appointed that… So he comes out to the set, and he's all clear-eyed and ready to go. But come eleven o'clock he's flailing around and going "We could put the camera over here," and he's got all these ideas, and…
AL: My God, he was manic!
CM: "And we can blow up trees…" I mean, he's just out of control, hyper. I end up walking up to the JP, I say "Have you got any dope with you?" "I got some in my briefcase, you want some?" "No, but you go ahead and smoke a joint." He says, "Gee, do you think so, Mitch?" I said, "Yeah, I think it'll be good for you." He goes behind the door and comes back like a normal person. So I never said another word about it. He's 100% perfectly normal with dope. Without it, he was so hyper, he was out of control. He'd go in after work, eat his protein powder and six bananas and go to sleep. I said to him, "Come on out to the club, we'll have a few drinks, maybe meet some girls and go dancing." He says "Okay, Mitch." We go down and he was knocking off like four or five scotches by twelve, twelve-thirty in the morning, and he's sitting there with three girls on either side of him. I go off to bed and we have a six o'clock call in the morning. But he just drank, he got to bed at four in the morning. And he looks at me and he says "I don't know how you do it, Mitchum. Keepin' hours like that? Look at you. You're all fresh and -" I said, "Look, I had six hours' sleep, for Christs's sake, you had an hour and a half!" He didn't realise that I had left. So I came some sort of God to him.
AL: Drinking from the fountain of eternal youth.
CM: Yeah. But I loved the guy, we had a lot of fun. I was very sad when he passed away last year.
AL: So then another year goes by, and SFX Retaliator comes along. Did you get a chance to watch that?
CM: Yeah. I tell you. What was the name of the guy who produced that?
AL: Lim. Kimmy Lim. Silver Star.
CM: I gotta tell you, that's one of the top three most bizarre movies I ever worked on.
AL: It's nuts. I watched it last night, and it is insane.
CM: He would come and pick up Linda - Linda, I absolutely loved. I never worked with her before or since, but God, was she lovely. But he would come and pick us up at 7 in the morning, we're ready to go to work, and he'd say "I thought we'd go have lunch first." And we'd go south of Metro and go to the museum, we'd go see an exhibition and have a lunch at some club of his. And we'd get to the set at about two in the afternoon. And we're thinking, "Um, we just wasted half a day's shooting." We'd do a couple of shots and go home. And I'd say, "But what about the other stuff?" He'd say "Don't worry about it." And I'm supposed to do this big confrontation with this huge armoured car with a fire-breathing cannon on it… but we didn't get that. "Oh, don't worry about it. Just say whatever you wanna say." Bizarre way to make a movie. And we had Gordon Mitchell, he ended up going down to make movies in Italy and became a star in Italy. He said, "I just want to tell you, Chris, I know your brother." I said, "You know my brother? How do you know him?" He said, "Before I became I film star, I was a teacher at Unity high school in Los Angeles, and your brother was in my class." I guess he was a bodybuilder, he got a part in some movie in Italy, and became a movie star down there.
AL: He did the Hercules films.
CM: Yeah. And I totally stumbled into him.
AL: Well, like you said, it was a totally different world than working in a Bobby film. Because Bobby at least was professional.
CM: Oh yeah, this guy didn't know what was going on.
AL: And Silver Star is the Filipino version of Poverty Row.
CM: Yeah, and I find it hard to believe that he was actually able to put together a film out of what we shot. I mean, we'd be doing a car scene, and deliver dialogue from one of us straight to the camera sitting where Linda's supposed to be. And then we'd go. And I'd say "What about her dialogue?" "Oh, we'll get it another day." It's missing half of the scene! You can't put it together, there's nobody in it! It was absolutely crazy. He was a nice guy, but he obviously didn't have a clue.
AL: It was Jun Gallardo directing.
CM: Oh yeah, but he wasn't producing. Kimmy was the producer.
AL: But, you know, Jun's good for action scenes, and the action scenes are quite decent. But as soon as it comes to the dialogue - whoa. I think they've got the microphone in the next room.
CM: Like I said… I never saw one! I don't know how they did the dialogue. I said "What about the dialogue?" They said, "Don't worry about it."
AL: Do you remember how long you shot that film for?
CM: I think we were there four weeks.
AL: Right. And Linda obviously wasn't there for all of it, because she only has probably about four scenes in the whole film.
CM: Well, she had a hell of a lot more scenes in the script! They just threw those pages away because they never shot them. She was there the entire time.
AL: That's surreal!
CM: Yeah, she'd come out on the set, and we'd sit there and talk, then I'd go do a shot, I'd come back, we'd talk some more and go home. Absolutely nuts. She and I'd look at each other and I'd go "What are you doing here?" And she'd say "I don't know." But Kimmy, the producer, he does whatever he wants. He'd send the car out, or he'd call up and say "I'm not going to send the car out at six to pick you up for the set. I'm going to send it around at one, and we'll go and have lunch." We'd have lunch before going to the set.
AL: Sounded like he just wanted to hang out.
CM: Yeah, he just wanted to hang out with American movie actors.
AL: The movie - meh. Just an excuse.
CM: Well, he's paying for our time, he can do whatever he wants.
AL: And the other bizarre thing about the film is that it's set in California. But it's so clearly the Philippines. Do you remember where you shot the film?
CM: The opening of American Commandos, you know, that's supposed to be up in Whitewood in California. We did all that in the Philippines, of course.
AL: I noticed a lot of pine trees. Was that up near Baguio?
CM: Yeah, near Baguio. Exactly.
AL: Gotcha. Because Baguio always doubles for the United States.
CM: Yeah, we did that in Baguio. And we did the Vietnam flashback in Baguio.
AL: And Gordon Mitchell, of course, plays your nemesis. And he looks kind of bemused most of the time, too.
CM: Well, he had to be. [Laughs.] He had to have been. It was just - nobody could understand what they were doing there or how they were doing it. But I guess the stuff with Bobby, at least he had a shooting schedule and a screenplay. But that seems more like an anomaly than working with Kimmy Lim. Back at that time, that's probably how films were made.
AL: Definitely how films were made on the local level. Now, you played a movie effects guy who set off a lot of explosions. I mean a lot of explosions. Was that one of the roles where you were writing it for them as you went along?
CM: Well, they actually had a screenplay. But what they did is they just tore the pages out, because they didn't have the stuff. They just sort of winged it.
AL: Oh, God. There you go. The wonderful world of Silver Star pictures. Because I've seen a lot of films from that company, and they're all insane. All of them.
CM: I assume they made other movies that they distributed.
AL: There's about twenty of them. Twenty, twenty-five.
CM: Pardon? [Laughs.]
AL: And I'd say that was probably among the most coherent of all the Silver Star films that I've seen. Did you ever see his wife, Mrs. Lim, on the set?
AL: Because I think she used to do the catering, didn't she?
CM: Yeah, on the set.
AL: I went to see Mr. Lim once. He's still in the same office in Manila's Chinatown. He doesn't make movies anymore. They just in in the office, and they have lunch. And there's laundry strung from lines across the office. And they just hang out. Him and his wife just hang out.
CM: That's sort of what making his movie was like.