A GAIJIN’S LIFE IN JAPAN! Tom Korzeniowski Reminisces About 1960s Tokyo!

Tom Korzeniowski and the author in July 2012. Photo © Brett Homenick.

As Vantage Point Interviews readers know, many gaijin have appeared in a great many of the science fiction films we love. In most cases, little is known about the Westerners who acted in these films. Tom Korzeniowski is one of the Americans who made a splash in the Japanese film industry during the 1960s, but one of the very few who went on to act in several U.S. productions.

Mr. Korzeniowski, who appeared in the 1968 cult classic The Green Slime and the Daiei co-production Flight from Ashiya (1964), was born on March 31, 1937. After earning a B.A. in Japanese studies at the University of Michigan (1970), Mr. Korzeniowski earned an MBA at the University of Chicago in finance (1984). His U.S. acting credits include The Replacements (2000), Dick (1999), Species II (1998), and the NBC television drama Homicide: Life on the Street (Seasons 4-9, 1994 – 1999). At the time of the interview (August 2010), he enjoyed working as a freelance news writer and video editor for WGN-TV, Chicago.

Mr. Korzeniowski fondly recalls his acting experiences, both in America and Japan, for VPI readers.

by Tom Korzeniowski (as told to Brett Homenick)

It was 1962, and I was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed with the Far East Network in Tokyo, working as a news announcer. Off-duty, I was working with Bob Dunham and a number of other Tokyo denizens, dubbing Japanese films and cartoons into English. The job paid between $50-100 for a full weekend’s work (12-hour days, beginning Fridays about 6 p.m. and ending Sundays (or when the film was finished). We worked with roughly-translated scripts and looped sequences, which ran repeatedly while we rehearsed the timing. The studio was in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, and was dank and dingy, and generally not air-conditioned.

We had a delightful woman named June Elliott working with us. When Hecht-Lancaster Productions came to Japan to use up its yen holdings by making a film (no free exchange of currencies in those days), June began a friendship with British director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, etc.).

One day she phoned me to ask if I’d be interested in auditioning for a role in the Flight from Ashiya film. It was a part originally cast for Ernest Borgnine, but he had a scheduling conflict, and Anderson was looking for someone with Borgnine’s “presence” to replace him. Anderson, June, and I had dinner together at the Okura Hotel, and Anderson invited me to screen-test at the Daei Studios in Kyoto, where principal filming would take place.

This was exciting stuff! I didn’t know Michael Anderson’s reputation, but the fact that June was intrigued by him influenced my attitude.

I flew down to Kyoto, checked into the Miyako Hotel, and the next morning a car was sent to drive me to the Daei Studios. There, I was padded out with a heavy judo-gi (judo uniform jacket) and donned flight overalls.

“Why the judo suit?” I asked.

“Your character, Sergeant Garrison, is supposed to be a big, burly guy,” came the  response from the wardrobe person. I thought, Sure. They’re trying to make me look like Borgnine. Okay. I’ll play the game.

Next, it was off to makeup for some Pan-Cake, powder, and hairspray. Then to a makeshift set. The scene eventually was shot in the actual fuselage of a wrecked Grumman HU-16 amphibian, but I guess they were still constructing it during my screen test. So we were told to use our imaginations.

I was introduced to the guy I’d be doing the dialogue with, Joe DiReda. Joe was a stocky type who was standoffish and obviously discouraged at having to do dialogue with an unknown, inexperienced actor.

We did the scene, where I nudge him awake from a snooze and offer him a cigarette. (Everyone was a smoker in 1962.) I think we did about three takes and wrapped it. No need for perfection, of course. It was only a screen test, and Joe quickly disappeared from the scene.

About a week later, back in Tokyo, I got a call from June. Anderson wanted me to be in his film. The job would take about two or three weeks, and I’d have to make myself available to travel back and forth from Tokyo to Kyoto. The job would pay $125 a day!

That amount was a virtual king’s ransom to me, and I was thrilled with the offer, and the thought of how much money I might make.

A few days later, after having arranged for a 30-day leave from the Air Force, I headed back down to Kyoto. There, I met Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark, and George Chakiris (who was riding the crest of his career from his success in West Side Story). It was pretty heady stuff.

But acting is a job that moves in fits and starts, and I soon learned how to deal with delays of hours while lighting and sound was adjusted before shooting could take place. The other people on the set were friendly, but Joe DiReda remained aloof. I got to be good friends with Joe MacDonald, the chief camera guy, and the still photographer. The Air Force had lent a major who was an Air Sea Rescue Service HU-16 pilot as a technical consultant, and we also hit it off.

One of the first scenes I shot was the same one we’d performed in the audition. The others followed in no particular order, but one was unforgettable.

It was the scene where I throw a line to Yul Brynner in a raft and haul him and his shipwreck victims back to our plane, ostensibly floating in the South China Sea. In fact, we were in a shallow tank of water on the Daei lot, in a fuselage section mounted on a bamboo framework that was rocked by a team of Japanese grips. A large wind machine was blowing a gale, and huge tanks full of water were opened every so often to create a large wave as thousands of gallons rushed into the tank.

As the survivors clambered aboard the “plane,” one female Japanese extra was panicked by the violent action and – looking for a hand-hold – decided that my ear would suffice. I thought she’d tear it off and her fingernails left it bleeding!

Evenings, a group of us would leave the set and be driven back to our hotel, where we’d scrub off the makeup, take a nap, then dress for a late dinner. The principals never joined us, so we were a youthful, fun-loving bunch of actors “on the town.” We’d dine sumptuously, then hit the night clubs. Since everything closed about 1 a.m., it would be a rather short night of sleep before we’d return to the set.

The makeup man, who also appeared as Widmark’s co-pilot in his Philippines flashback, used to complain. “My Gawd,” he’d cry. “You guys look like hell. You’re not making my job any easier.” Such were the fruits of dissolution.

Flight from Ashiya was filmed in ’62 but released in ’64. I was back in Michigan at the time, working as a suburban Detroit radio station news director (WBRB, Garden City), and was pleased that I received good reviews in the Detroit papers.

Before we finished shooting, Michael Anderson has asked me what my future plans were. Was I interested in an acting career? He said that when I was discharged from the service, I could come to Hollywood, and he’d see that I got the “right” parts. With a Japanese wife and two children at the time, and realizing that Joe DiReda and just every other actor from Hollywood had to run side business like Laundromats to make ends meet, I declined.

I’ve often thought, “What if?”

My friend Bill Ross (who was the man behind our dubbing enterprises) got involved with The Green Slime as an actor and casting director. At the time (1968) I was living in the Grant Heights military housing area in Nerima-ku (Nerima Ward) outside Tokyo, and about two blocks from the Toho production facilities.

I was due to leave for the States and my discharge from the Air Force in about two weeks. Bill phoned and pleaded with me to lend my presence to the production. “I can’t get enough ’round eyes’ (foreigners) on the set,” he explained. “You’ve got to help me out here.” He said they were paying $15 dollars a day for extras, and I said, “Keep the money. I’ll show up tomorrow as an act of friendship.” At least I think that’s what I said.

Meanwhile, I knew a lot of hungry judo students from Tokyo’s Kodokan Judo Institute. I managed to get a few non-English-speaking Germans and Israelis to come down for the filming.

Anyway, I told him I could only spare three or four days, but that was enough for an air-lock walk-through, a group dance scene, and a hunt through the corridors of the space station for the “electrifying” aliens, who were nice, small Japanese guys sweating inside those rubber suits.

One day, we broke for lunch. Richard Jaeckel came up to a group of us — including Bob Dunham — deliberating where we might go for something to eat. I suggested that we head for my house, so about eight of us, Jaeckel included, drove to my neighborhood.

When we got out of the cars, the neighborhood tykes were astounded to see our group of silver-suited spacemen. It was hilarious to see them gawking with mouths open in disbelief. My kids of course were delighted with this excitement while my wife — ever the wonderful and obliging lady that she still is — managed to whip up enough food for us hungry, make-believe astronauts.

Richard Jaeckel was one of the nicest people I’ve met in the acting business. I was saddened by his passing, which ended one of Hollywood’s most successful and long-lasting acting careers.

As far as exposure to Japanese movie monsters is concerned, I recall visiting an adjoining set one day where one of Godzilla’s legs hung suspended above a meticulously crafted miniature of a Tokyo neighborhood. One swing and thouands would die!

Another memory was working with Ann Ault, who was the comely daughter of an Air Force general in the 5th Air Force. We were set to dancing some weird futuristic step at one juncture. Ann was good people and a nice friend even before Green Slime. In fact, she’d once invited me to join her and her father at the dedication of the new Honda Technical Center in Nerima. I actually met and shook hands with Soichiro Honda, himself, founder of the Honda Motor Car Company. He smiled when I told him that I’d owned a couple of his motorcycles over my 13 years in Japan.

The only involvement in film (outside of narrating various marketing productions) was with the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad film of Kon Ichikawa. In fact, I filled the role of casting director for some foreign language narrators for the the overseas dubbed versions of the film.

I went (on) to become a TV reporter in Detroit, then Chicago, and in 1981 I’d had enough of television “news.” I joined a major health care corporation as a speech writer for senior executives, and developed an in-house video studio for training and marketing productions. Life was good, and I was earning a six-figure income.

I’d been flying airplanes since the early ‘70s and had owned three high-performance planes and had all the ratings: commercial, single- and multi-engine and instrument. When the company decided on some significant down-sizing, I was let go along with my staff of five and eventually found myself doing public relations work for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, MD. I had a nice 37-foot-long Tartan sailboat that I was living aboard in Baltimore Harbor.

My wife of 34 years and I eventually divorced, I got my Coast Guard captain’s license, and – when I lost my AOPA job in Frederick, I started running tour boats to Fort McHenry and operating water taxis.

I picked up acting again, even though 30 years had elapsed. NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street (was) in production in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, where I lived on my boat. The owner of the production company, Jim Finnerty, was a marine enthusiast and had a large Ocean sport fisherman at the dock. Naturally we struck up an acquaintance. During a lull in my freelance captaining, I asked if he could use an old actor like me. He introduced me to Pat Moran, his casting director.

Another audition, and I was cast as a hippie proprietor of a poetry café who gives a clue to Richard Belzer and Melissa Leo in Season 4’s “Heartbreak” episode. I had grown a ponytail at the time and looked the cynical, world-weary type. (Type casting at its best!)

The show eventually aired, and I went back to Pat to ask how I’d done. “Oh, you were fine,” she said.

“Can I work for you again?” I asked.

“Oh, no. No. We have a very astute and observant audience,” Pat said. “They’d recognize you in an instant, and Homicide is based on realism and honesty.”

I thanked her and left. It was a short walk back to my boat, and I thought long and hard about things. One of the artifacts that remained from marriage was a hairpiece, produced for me by my ex, who had been a barber-stylist. I shaved off a mustache I’d started, put on a pair of glasses and the hairpiece, looked into the mirror, and the idea struck!

Photo © Brett Homenick.

Next morning, I returned to Pat Moran’s office wearing my finest blue suit, hairpiece, glasses, and carrying a Hartmann briefcase. Her door was ajar, and I knocked.

Pat looked up. “Yes, sir. What can I do for you.”

I gave it a long pause… then said, “Pat, it’s me.”

Her jaw dropped. I didn’t look like the “me” she’d seen less than 24 hours earlier.

“Okay,” she said. “You can work.”

Thus, I became one of dozens of background extras, playing a squadroom detective in the Homicide Unit.

That hairpiece also led me to other acting roles. Pat needed me for a gag scene in Pecker, produced and directed by her high school buddy John Waters. I had a brief scene in the movie’s titles that paid about $500 – SAG scale. After my first speaking role (in) Homicide, I’d become a SAG “must-join” and was now earning scale – much preferable to non-union compensation.

From Pecker, I worked as an extra in Dick, and remember a blistering hot July day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. where there was a massive crowd scene. I had to wear a very heavy brown serge suit that was soaked through with sweat by the end of the day.

Then came The Replacements with Keanu Reeves. I’d auditioned for the part of his father, but that was dropped from the final script. Then Pat called and asked if I could be at RFK Stadium outside D.C. in 20 minutes. I sure could and hit the road.

I waited for about 20 minutes in the parking lot and was told to show up in Baltimore the next morning for a better part. No problemo.

I showed up the next day, had a nice breakfast, was told I’d be one of two drunks in Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend’s bar, and spent the day in my trailer (Gee! My very own trailer) reading Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October. By 10 p.m., I was told they wouldn’t do my scene that day after all and to wait for a phone call.

A few days went by, then a few weeks. Then it came: Be at the location the next morning. They were doing pick-ups (last-minute shooting that had been neglected) and I’d do my scene. I was to be Drunk #1, and another Hollywood actor, “Goose” Gossen, would be Drunk #2. Gossen was a favorite of Gene Hackman’s and was usually his stand-in on many films. Goose was good people. Keanu Reeves was pleasant and informal as well.

We did two scenes with wardrobe changes between each to represent different days, and then it was done. I was working at CNN in D.C. when the film was released, and a friend and I sat in the theater near Union Station after buying tickets to the showing. Ah, sweet anonymity! Nobody noticed me as the theater cleared during the closing credits, which we – of course – watched. They’d misspelled my name, too, but with a handle like Korzeniowski, that was not something new.

Eventually I returned to Chicago and worked a graveyard shift for eight years, writing news at ABC’s WLS-TV. When that gig ended, I moved to NBC. And when that job became history, I thought I’d dust off my old SAG membership and see what work I could get in Chicago. After paying up ten years’ worth of back dues to become “legal” again with SAG, I began going to auditions and tried to find agency representation.

After spending more hard-earned bucks for head shots, I was finally picked up by three agencies, but only got some SAG ultra-low-budget work, and one paying commercial in which I was one of about 50 extras in a bingo hall.

I awakened to the reality that I was not going to be a successful actor, and in order to stay alive I’d better get back to my chosen career: journalism.

I networked my way to WGN-TV, where I’m now a freelance news writer/video editor. Life is good, and can be damned interesting, if you can stand the pain it offers.

(Courtesy of Robert Dunham’s daughter Emiko Jade Frost, Mr. Korzeniowski adds these thoughts about Mr. Dunham.)

In Flight from Ashiya, I believe he (Robert Dunham) played the role of navigator on Richard Widmark’s aircraft, a Grumman SA-16 Albatross amphibian. George Chakiris (West Side Story), Yul Brynner, and I were the other crew members. As for funny/interesting things that happened at the Kyoto studios of Daei Films, I recall that when each day’s shooting wrapped, we’d all head back to our rooms, get a quick two or three hours’ rest, then shower, dress up, and meet for dinner and late evening entertainment at the bars and cabarets. We had to move fast, of course, because all the clubs closed at one a.m.

I recall the makeup guy (who also acted as Richard Widmark’s co-pilot in the Philippines flashbacks) used to yell at us for showing up for makeup looking like death warmed over in the morning. “You’re not making my job any easier,” he’d cry. (Robert Dunham) and I merely smirked.

Most of my interaction with Bob Dunham was in the film-dubbing that we did on weekends for Bill Ross. We’d show up Friday evenings in a grimy, smelly, smoky, tiny studio in Roppongi where we’d work from English script translations of Japanese films: war movies, samurai epics, cartoons — you name it. We’d usually work till midnight and return early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The films were normally completed in a single weekend. Bill directed the recordings of the loops, and we always had fun doing one for “the funny reel.” That’s when we’d go wild with the dialogue and add our own version. Usually profane. We’d usually net about $50 (Japanese) for the weekend. Of course, at ¥360 to the dollar, that amounted to ¥180,000 or nearly $200 in today’s currency. It kept us in sake.

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One thought on “A GAIJIN’S LIFE IN JAPAN! Tom Korzeniowski Reminisces About 1960s Tokyo!

  1. You met Tom … what a legend. He provided just the best evil menacing voice when he dubbed in for the Japanese TV series The Samurai. The ’60s program was a huge hit in Australia.

    Like

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