CHASING THE IVORY APE! Derek Partridge on His Tsuburaya Productions Turn!

Derek Patridge in recent years. Photo © Derek Patridge.

Derek Partridge is an actor and television presenter whose credits run a broad gamut. Mr. Partridge has appeared in such films as King & Country (1964), The Killing of Sister George (1968), and the James Bond thriller Thunderball (1965). His television credits include the original Star Trek series (the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”), Dallas, and T.J. Hooker. Of interesting historical significance, after George Lazenby’s brief stint as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the casting assistant for Live and Let Die (1973), Allan Foenander, chose Mr. Partridge to be the next James Bond. However, the producers elected to give the role to the better-known Roger Moore, and the rest is history.

 n 1980, Mr. Partridge co-starred in the third and final collaboration between Rankin/Bass Productions and Tsuburaya Productions, the ABC made-for-TV movie The Ivory Ape. In the tradition of other jungle adventures like White Pongo (1945), The Ivory Ape tells the story of an albino gorilla who attracts the attention of hunters who seek to profit from the animal’s unnatural condition, as well as environmentalists who wish to protect the creature. Mr. Partridge, who played the villainous hunter Aubrey Range, recounts his memories of this rarely-seen Japanese co-production in a 2009 interview with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: How did you get started in acting?

Derek Partridge: From my early twenties, I had wanted to be what in England we call a TV presenter (program host), that is, someone who does everything in front of cameras or microphones that is not acting. I had never wanted to spend my life pretending to be other people, as I was quite happy with being whatever my real self is. I had my own business, a landscape gardening firm and later worked as a feature writer and columnist for the London Daily Express Group’s Investors’ Guide. As no one in the U.K. would give me a chance to start as a TV presenter, I started doing some acting work—initially in repertory theater and then in TV—as a way of gaining on-camera experience.

My first TV role was in BBC TV’s Flight into Danger (1962) where Donald Sutherland and I had equally small parts! I did Spaghetti Westerns in Rome, had a featured role in the original Star Trek series and starred in 20th Century Fox’s Savage Harvest (1981), opposite Tom Skerritt, with Michelle Phillips (from The Mamas and the Papas) playing my wife. However, in 1976, after I started work as Rhodesia’s (now Zimbabwe) head news anchor, host of the live talk show Frankly Partridge, I did less and less acting work and have probably not done any acting job for some 20 years.

BH: How did you land the part of Aubrey Range in The Ivory Ape?

DP: I was living in New York and was brought in to audition for the role—along with several other actors—by casting director Joy Todd who, coincidentally, was my girlfriend at the time!

BH: Do you have any memories of the preproduction stage?

DP: None.

BH: Did you work with Arthur Rankin or Jules Bass at all?

DP: Yes, with both these very pleasant gentlemen. We filmed The Ivory Ape in Bermuda because they had residence there. To be granted Bermudan residence, you had to prove considerable financial assets and also bring money into the island, e.g., by producing a film there.

BH: What do you remember about the movie’s director, Tom Kotani?

DP: Tom (Shusei) was very pleasant and easy to work with. For some reason, to which I have never found the answer, some Japanese people—when speaking English—transpose “l” and r.” When a director wants a scene to start, he yells, “Roll it” to the cameraman, so, at the end of filming, we presented Tom with a T-shirt, emblazoned with the words, “Loll it!”

BH: How would Mr. Kotani direct you in a scene?

DP: This was 30 years ago—no idea!

BH: You traditionally played good guys in your other roles. How did you approach the role of the villain for The Ivory Ape?

DP: It was quite a turn-around that Jack Palance—the archetypal villain—should play the “good guy” while “clean-cut” me should be the villain! I never “approached” a role, I just got on with the job, which comprises mainly of learning your lines, listening to your fellow actors, and not tripping over the scenery! We all have shades of good and bad within us, so you deliver your lines from your ”nasty” side!

BH: What was it like working with Steven Keats and Cindy Pickett, two of the main heroes of the film?

DP: I don’t think any of my scenes involved working with either of them. A few years later, I worked again with Cindy—a very pleasant lady—on a TV series called Call to Glory.

BH: What do you remember about Jack Palance on this project?

DP: I first saw Jack in one of his early films, as the black-suited villain in Shane, menacing Alan Ladd. People thought that his menacing facial features resulted from injuries incurred during his time as a boxer or as a pro footballer. However, they were the result of facial burns and resulting reconstructive surgery following the crash and burn of the WWII bomber plane he piloted. Off-screen, he was a very gentle man, who enjoyed writing poetry. We got on very well and found that we had in common a love of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he had made two films. He had a slight tendency to over-act and be overly-dramatic. (Remember his one-arm press-ups at the Oscars?!) Regarding The Ivory Ape, one critic wrote: “The film was nothing more than a chance for Jack Palance to mug and grimace his way around a bad cast.”

BH: The actor inside the gorilla suit is another of the film’s stars. What can you tell us about him?

DP: A very likable young Japanese guy, who was remarkable for his height—around 6 foot—which probably influenced his being cast inside the gorilla suit! There was a separate gorilla head for close-ups, capable of making facial expressions and controlled by a computer expert!

BH: What was a typical day of shooting like?

DP: Pretty much like any other day on any film: know your lines, wardrobe, make-up, rehearsals, shoot, eat, watch the previous day’s rushes…

BH: When and where were your scenes filmed?

DP: In 1980 at various locations around the very beautiful island of Bermuda.

BH: Do you have any other stories or memories from the production that you’d like to share?

DP: Apparently actors have a certain fascination with how other actors play dying and death scenes. But, before learning this, I was somewhat surprised when I found the entire cast had come out to a distant location to watch me “die”! The scene was set in a shed, housing an old and rusting miniature steam engine, which used to pull cars around the island. I follow the ape in, and I think he removed my rifle, so I was left with a sheath knife being my only defense. To escape the oncoming—and very angry—ape, I got into the driver’s compartment. When the ape tried to reach in for me, I tried to escape from the door on the other side, which was jammed closed from rust. I tried to prize it open with my knife, but the blade breaks off.

The props people were supposed to have “fixed” the knife so the blade would easily snap off, but they didn’t. So, in order not to ruin the take, I used a lot of force and succeeded in breaking it off—and gave myself a quite severe cut! The ape then smashes through the window and his long arms reach in to strangle me, at which point blood was supposed to gush out of my mouth. Unfortunately, the easy-crush capsules used by the film industry were not available on the island, so we had to fill pharmaceutical capsules with screen blood. Equally unfortunately, they didn’t crack and easily release blood, so I had to prolong my dying agony longer than intended, while I worked frantically—staying in character as being strangled—to break the capsule and release the blood!

BH: What did you think of the finished product?

DP: An adequate and entertaining TV movie with a somewhat unusual story line.

BH: Do you have any closing comments?

DP: Keep enjoying movies and, if you want to see more of my career and work, please visit www.derekpartridge.com.

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