Dick Nieskens holds a distinction that few in the realm of dubbing can claim. As a voice actor during the 1980s, he dubbed movies and TV programs in both Tokyo and Hong Kong. In Tokyo, Mr. Nieskens worked under the tutelage of William Ross, whose Frontier Enterprises is well known to kaiju aficionados as the company responsible for dubbing the “international” versions of many Godzilla films from the 1960s. Following his stint at Frontier, Mr. Nieskens switched gears and moved to Hong Kong, briefly working for dubbing director Rik Thomas (a.k.a. Rick Thomas), a familiar voice in the dubbed versions of many of the Heisei Godzilla films.
Dick Nieskens has lent his voice to such varied works as: Dragon Ball Z, Cyborg 009, the celebrated Tora-san films from Shochiku Studios, Toho’s Princess from the Moon (1987), and The Silk Road (1988). Mr. Nieskens kindly answered questions about his voice-acting career in the following interview (conducted in January 2013) with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Please discuss your background before you got involved in voice-acting.
Dick Nieskens: I was an English major in college and had been working in advertising in America. The Panasonic Company sent me to Osaka (home of parent company Matsushita Denki) twice on business. I loved Japan, and later traveled to Tokyo and Hong Kong looking for a job. I returned to New Jersey empty-handed, but within weeks was offered the position of Creative Director at a small Tokyo ad agency whose main client was Matsushita – and I hadn’t even heard of them before, let alone talked to them on my trip. But they’d tracked me down. The Good Lord provides!
BH: What brought you to Japan?
DN: So that’s what brought me to Japan – a good job coupled with a desire to see the world and a fascination and appreciation for Japanese culture. I stayed nearly four and a half years, right through the heart of the Big ‘80s – a very good time to be there!
BH: How did you get started at Frontier Enterprises as a voice actor?
DN: I had been a DJ in college and for a while after graduation. I had a desire to get further involved in broadcasting. I did modeling for my agency’s projects and was beginning to dabble in voiceovers. One day in December 1986, I saw a classified ad placed by Bill Ross in the Asahi Shimbun (could have been the Mainichi or the Tokyo Journal). He was going to be auditioning voice actors the following Saturday. It was at a studio in town; I drove there on a grey, snowy day in my little white Nissan, did my best, and was cast in his next production, Dragon Ball Z. After that I was a regular and got bigger and better parts, though never the leading man – perhaps because I could do many voice characterizations, especially villains and old folk. The hero role in anime at that time was usually straightforward declamation with little or no subtlety. I liked Bill immediately. He was big, bluff, loud, mostly good-humored, brutally direct and fair – but I’m jumping ahead of the questions.
BH: At Frontier, please describe the usual process of dubbing a film or TV program.
DN: I only did movies, animated or live-action, and they were all dubbed on the outskirts of Tokyo at an old soundstage that was probably part of the Toho complex in Setagaya-ku (I could be wrong). Microphones were set up in this big soundproofed room (something like 80’ x 50’ – a large space), and Bill arranged us on the mics by role. If you weren’t in a scene you sat down or went outside. We used to horse around between scenes with the sound effects props and other assorted odds and ends – split bamboo rods that made punch impact noises, etc. I think there was a samurai helmet behind the movie screen. Anyway, I loved that place because it was old and snug and reminded me of the theaters I grew up going to – magical old places with fabric-covered walls, lamps in sconces and a big screen above an actual stage. When the curtains were pulled (two sets), you felt a thrill of “show time” like no other. Well, now I was part of the show – and that made me very happy.
When Bill was given an assignment, he cut up a print of the movie into sections that were taped into loops. Each loop was a scene with specific characters detailed in the script. Our dialogue was recorded simultaneously on audiotape. Bill operated the audio recorder. We did not work sequentially but according to the most efficient use of actors, finishing roles and letting people go as we progressed. This was more cost-efficient. We all had the complete script, so we knew the context of every scene. Bill would also brief us before we recorded. If someone messed up or a take fell apart at a certain point, Bill was expert at finding the exact location for rerecording – no mean feat on an analogue audio reel – and saved us from having to start at the top every time.
We recorded only on weekends, most parts being required both Saturday and Sunday. When your part was finished for the day, you were free to leave. Bill sat half a level above us on an open projection deck with a silent, intrepid Japanese camera operator that he always used. Bill spoke fairly fluent, colloquial Japanese. His wife Michie was always there and bought the lunch, which was usually on the house for us. We got our own drinks and snacks from vending machines. We sat around in the hallway outside the studio to eat. Bill and Michie delighted in talking and joking with us. They had a great affection for actors they’d known for years like Cliff Harrington, and, while sharp business people (especially Michie), they were lenient and understanding of the personal problems of a large cast that could impact the work. For example, I played baseball on weekends from spring through fall. Bill accommodated my game schedule whenever possible. I didn’t want to miss any dubbing and he liked to use me.
BH: What was the work schedule like? How often would you work at Frontier, and how long would your workday last?
DN: If you were a main character, you could work 10 hours on Saturday and 8 on Sunday. Sundays usually wrapped earlier than Saturdays. So a movie was completed in two days. Everyone’s starting and finishing times were determined by the size and recurrence of role. As I said, Bill arranged the scenes to use the most people in the most efficient manner. As I recall, he paid a pre-agreed lump sum for each film, not according to hours worked. He would add to that sum if he felt you put in significant extra time due to a variety of circumstances that could affect the duration of recording. He was concerned that everyone got paid quickly, usually within a week. He communicated by mail. When you found a Frontier Enterprises letter in your box, it only meant good things – either a part in a new production or money (it was common to mail cash in those days). There would be busy and slow periods throughout the year, depending on Frontier’s business, but I could usually count on one film every five to six weeks on average.
BH: What was William Ross like?
DN: I’ve been trying to get back in touch with Bill for years with no luck. I hope he and Michie are healthy and thriving. They used to go to Alaska to fish, so maybe they settled there. When I left Japan for Hong Kong, I used to fly back for visits and would record for them if we could arrange it. They’d ask me to bring them some facial cream that wasn’t available in Japan. Once we met in Hong Kong, and I showed them where to buy the cream themselves.
So, on a personal level, I liked Bill and his wife a lot. He and I are both Americans, so we had a cultural affinity as well.
As a director, he was tough and honest, but that’s what you want because that’s how you get better and the job gets done. He loved to laugh and kid, but like everyone else, he was also subject to moods. Some days he didn’t see the humor in situations and yelled at you for making mistakes. Occasionally he would go off on a tirade from the projection level, about how bad we were and how much time we were wasting – but no one took it personally. In some ways, he was like a child – once he blew off steam, he was fine – it didn’t carry over, and he didn’t bear a grudge. He wanted to be on friendly terms with everyone. He had very little ego and didn’t like his actors to have egos.
BH: What sort of direction would he give you?
DN: He constantly urged us to keep energy and focus and avoid flat reads. He had a great ear for a scene and how the characters were interacting. He would pinpoint a weakness and tell the actor responsible what to do to correct it. He was easy on me, and I was open to all his comments, but sometimes I felt a scene could be played differently to greater effect. But creativity is subjective, and his final product was always solid.
BH: Who were some of your fellow voice actors during this time?
DN: I’ve already mentioned Cliff Harrington, who I believe served in the U.S. Army with Bill and was a close friend of his (Bill called him “Cliffy”). As such, he had more scope to negotiate his roles and work schedule. But by that time, after years of dubbing, he seemed bored with the whole process and gradually showed up less and less.
The only regular cast member with whom I’ve been in contact is Carrie Sakai, who is perfectly bilingual and did lots of Japanese-language voice gigs around town. At Frontier, she specialized in small parts that didn’t require long hours at the soundstage. She doesn’t know what’s become of Bill and Michie, either.
The other actors were a mixed bag, but mostly young (late 20s at the time), with a year or so under their belts in Japan and other work outside of dubbing. One girl, for example, was a student of kabuki and noh drama.
BH: Do you recall what role you have in Princess from the Moon?
DN: Not in the least. I probably did several. I usually did one major and one minor role, plus ad hoc lines.
BH: What work did you do on the famous Tora-san series?
DN: Otoko wa tsurai-yo, which could be translated as, ”A man’s life is tough,” was a big favorite of mine. We must have done five or six installments during my time at Frontier. With perhaps one exception, I played Tatsuzo, Tora-san’s aged uncle, who like everyone else at the family sweet shop, spent his free time worrying what foolishness his nephew was up to.
BH: What are some of your standout memories from your time at Frontier?
DN: Best moment – a soliloquy by Tatsuzo on life, age and death. I don’t know how good it played with audiences, but it touched me deeply when I recorded it. Great job by Bill and Michie on the script. I didn’t read the lines, I felt them. No one said a word when I’d finished – that’s how I knew it worked for Bill and the cast (or it was so bad, there was nothing to be done about it!).
I liked sitting in the hallway outside the soundstage at lunchtime, chatting with the other actors and enjoying the camaraderie. I listened a lot to Bill and Michie and got a feel for them as people. For a big man (about six-two and 230 pounds), Bill spoke in a loud squawk and would go a bit high when he was excited or agitated. Michie had a deep, throaty voice and raspy chuckle – probably due to the cigarettes she chain-smoked. But what always came through about them was that they really enjoyed what they were doing and cared about the people they worked with.
BH: What brought you to Hong Kong?
DN: I had a great CD job that paid well in local currency at a time when the yen was king; I had good friends, regular dubbing, and a notorious gaijin baseball team that was featured in magazines and on TV. So what was the logical thing to do? Move on! That’s me all over. What’s right for me may not be right for anyone else. I wanted to advance my broadcasting career in an English-language environment, where there would be more opportunities to grow and improve. Hong Kong was a natural choice. I made a couple of exploratory trips with the idea of getting a job in advertising and branching out from there. On the second trip, I pulled out the phone book in my hotel room and cold-called six ad agencies. I got three interviews scheduled for that same week. One of the agencies offered me a job on the spot. That was the dynamic of Hong Kong at the time. No other place could compare.
BH: What are your memories of Rik Thomas at Chasen Company?
DN: Well, I know you’ve seen it (the spelling of his name) written both ways, but I’m going to go with the spelling on the name card I still have somewhere: Rick. Rick Thomas, in my opinion, had crested the wave in terms of dubbing activity by the time I started working for him in the fall of 1988. He made his name in the Hong Kong gong fu boom of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and by the late ‘80s was working mainly with Philippine and Indonesian action movies. Little dialogue, no character development, and everyone blown up in military action. Most of what I did was contribute one-liners and crowd reactions – shouts, screams, exclamations. Not very satisfying, and the pay was low. Still, I was delighted to be working for such a well-known name in the Asian dubbing industry. I remember one Sunday morning, I crashed my bike while racing from early Mass to catch the ferry to Hong Kong Island (I was living in Discovery Bay on Lantau Island at the time). Cut, sprained and bleeding, I carried my mangled cycle back to my house and pushed it under the porch (where it still may be) and limped to the ferry where one of the pilots gave me crude first aid. I did my dubbing stint for Rick in Sheung Wan, then made it over to Broadcast Drive in Kowloon to do my afternoon DJ slot for Commercial Radio. Boy, did I enjoy a hot bath when I got home that evening! I was a trouper, and I was having the time of my life.
Getting back to Rick – like Bill Ross, he formed his company with his wife who became the main business driver and the facilitator of local production resources and staff. Though we recorded at other places on Hong Kong Island, he had an office/studio very close to Kai Tak Airport and the old Walled City in Kowloon, and that’s where I first met him.
BH: What about Chris Hilton, another dubbing director?
DN: Chris Hilton was a prominent journalist in Hong Kong who often appeared on TV discussing current events and political issues. He was stocky, bearded, and not very open or accessible to the other actors. In my time at Chasen, he didn’t direct unless Rick was absent, but rather voiced main roles in the films. Rick played some parts, as well, and you’ll easily recognize both of them in scores of classic gong fu movies that were before my time.
BH: Did you ever do any voice-acting for Omni Productions?
DN: No, never – unless Rick was subcontracting from them.
BH: Was the process of dubbing the same in Hong Kong as in Tokyo?
DN: Basically, yes, but not as efficiently organized as at Frontier Enterprises. In Rick’s sessions, actors often sat around for hours waiting for scenes or to be used in crowd reactions or to pick up ad hoc lines that hadn’t been assigned. Part of that was a function of the material. In those kind of war movies, there can be dozens of bit speaking (or grunting) parts that you need a pool of people to cover without using the same voice too many times. Frequently you just had to tell Rick, “I’m off,” and leave when you’d had enough.
BH: How were Rik Thomas and William Ross different as directors?
DN: Rick Thomas was an altogether different type of person than Bill Ross. While they both shared a military background (the American and British armies brought a lot of sharp, entrepreneurial people to Japan and Hong Kong, respectively), Rick was probably 10 years younger than Bill and had a less open personality. He wasn’t really chatty with his actors unless he knew them well and he employed a sardonic, colloquial, blue-collar English wit when giving direction. Still, we got on well for the short period of time I worked for Chasen Company.
Bill Ross worked with quality material and pushed you to create realistic characterizations. You felt part of a team, working in pictures and having fun together. At the time I voiced for Rick, the material was violent and simplistic and didn’t require great input from the director. Rick just wanted us to get through it competently with no mistakes; acting considerations were fairly superfluous.
BH: Why didn’t you stay longer at Chasen Company?
DN: Career priorities. In December of 1988, I was hired by ATV to write and voice their on-air promos – a tremendous break for me and my first foray into television. Shortly thereafter, the host of ATV’s popular music video program switched channels, and I auditioned for and won the (additional) job of writer/host of Mild Seven Videography, a sponsored weekly half-hour slot on Wednesday nights. I poured everything I had into that show and eventually won a Silver Award at the Film & TV Festival of New York (now called the New York Festivals). I was still presenting weekend shows on Commercial Radio that required preparation and song selection –
no computerized playlists then! – and I was starting to record lucrative TV commercial voiceovers as well, so I was a pretty busy boy. The kind of movies I was dubbing for Rick coupled with the low rate of return for a time-intensive commitment led me to drop out. I must not have been able to speak to him directly about my decision because I remember him phoning me back and being rather displeased about it. But I made what I thought was a sensible decision, and I stuck by it. We had no further contact after that.
BH: Would you happen to remember any other sci-fi or horror films or TV programs you may have dubbed during your career?
DN: I used to keep all my scripts from Frontier Enterprises, but must have thrown them away eventually during one of my many moves. Afraid I can’t remember any more titles – certainly no live-action horror or sci-fi. I only ever dubbed for Frontier and Chasen.
BH: What are some of your favorite dubbing roles?
DN: Tatsuzo in Tora-san gave me the most scope for acting. I had to stretch in terms of voice characterization and emotion. But the part was relatively small. I had larger roles in live-action movies such as Kinema (no) Tenchi, which was a new release at the time – unusual material for Frontier – but, honestly, I can’t remember them without my script collection.
BH: What are some of your current projects?
DN: I’m back in Hong Kong after 10 years, five of them spent in beautiful, gracious Barcelona, Spain. As always when I’m here, I’m excited at the prospects of work that I enjoy, of making my own way, of changing direction or reinventing myself – Hong Kong is that kind of “can-do” place and probably always will be. Nothing seems to change it fundamentally. I’ve got lots of goals and ambitions, but you know the saying, “Man proposes and God disposes.” We’ll see what He brings to pass for me and my family. It may not be what we had in mind, but it will be what’s best for us.
Recently I’ve been working on corporate videos, and you can see me on-camera in this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXd0UG406Rs (video title: “China Sourcing Fairs in Hong Kong”).
BH: What else would you like to tell readers?
DN: Thanks for prompting me to delve back into a special period in my life. I’ve enjoyed sharing. Best wishes to all.