Robert Dunham (July 6, 1931 – August 6, 2001) worked for several years as an actor, stunt man, and voice actor in the Japanese film industry during the 1960s and ’70s. Among his best known credits are Godzilla vs. Megalon (as Antonio, the emperor of Seatopia), The Green Slime (as Captain Martin), and Dogora the Space Monster (as Mark Jackson). Mr. Dunham also appeared in smaller roles in such sci-fi titles as Mothra and Espy, as well as non-genre films like Flight from Ashiya and Marines, Let’s Go.
In 2010, Emiko Jade Frost, Robert Dunham’s daughter, spoke with Brett Homenick in a comprehensive discussion that covered all aspects of her father’s fascinating life. The transcript of the interview follows.
Brett Homenick: Please tell me a little bit about your father Robert Dunham’s upbringing.
Emiko Jade Frost: My father was born in Portland, Maine, on July 6, 1931. Shortly after he was born, his family moved to an affluent suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, called Wellesley Hills. My grandmother, Charlotte, was a homemaker. From what I heard growing up, she seemed to be the one who “ruled” the household. My grandfather, Earl, owned a Pontiac dealership and a marina. My father had one sister, named Patricia, who is still alive and is now in her mid-80s. (She is five years older than my father.) He had several uncles and one aunt on his father’s side of the family. Two of his paternal uncles had worked for The Studebaker Corporation in South Bend, Indiana, in the early 1900s.
I don’t know too much about his maternal family. His maternal grandmother’s name was Bertha (Chadbourne) Dean. She married a lawyer from Worcester, Massachusetts, in the late 1800s named Henry Dean. They had a daughter, also named Bertha, who died when she was five years old. His paternal grandparents came from Nova Scotia, and their names were William and Clara Dunham. (My paternal family are all buried in the same cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts.) My father was also related to Theodore Roosevelt’s first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. I believe they were distant cousins.
BH: During this time, would you describe your father as having had a wealthy upbringing?
EJF: Yes, he was born with “a silver spoon in his mouth,” so to speak.
BH: What eventually brought him to Japan?
EJF: My father had graduated from college in 1953. Soon after he graduated, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Since my father had a college degree, he went through the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. Later, he was stationed in Yokohama, Japan. According to his DD214 (which is his discharge paper from the USMC), he had only been in the Marines for two years. After his discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1955, he returned home to the United States to work for his father’s auto dealership in Needham, Massachusetts. According to my aunt, he didn’t want to sell cars for a living, so after nine months, he went back to Japan.
My father started an import/export business, which was called Pacific Commercial Unlimited. During this time, he had made some contacts with some people who worked for the Japanese tire and automobile industry. Since my father had raced on the Upstate New York dirt track circuit during college, he eventually got into test-driving and started racing cars. I’m not sure how my father was “discovered,” but I believe he was first noticed for his race-car driving skills. At the time, Steve McQueen was starring in the movie Bullitt, so Japanese audiences were captivated by it. The film has a classic chase scene, from what I hear. The Japanese movie industry wanted to have similar type of chase scenes, so my father was asked if he wanted to do automobile stunt work. Of course, he said yes. My father was quite the daredevil. (laughs)
Shortly thereafter, his employment opportunities began to multiply. My father had used his Montgomery G.I. Bill to attend correspondence school, to learn Japanese. He was fluent in Japanese by the early 1960s. He started being cast in small parts in Japanese movies, usually as what they call “a heavy.” As the roles got larger, he eventually started playing leading parts. He felt that The Green Slime was his biggest picture. (I don’t know why, but that’s what he had stated years ago.) In The Green Slime, he played the third lead as Captain Martin. My father had said in the past that although he had “considered” a career in acting, he never took the movie business too seriously. I can imagine it was quite fun for him to go to the movie studios — I know I would have!
My father had also worked for a casting agency, where he would bring foreign actors to do work for Japanese movies. He also did a lot of dubbing work, which I just found out recently by a former actor buddy of his. My father would spend a lot of his weekends dubbing everything from kung fu movies to cartoons. I guess it brought in just enough extra spending money to go out drinking with his friends. (laughs) During this time, he was still running his import/export business. So I guess you could say that my father was very successful in all his endeavors.
At some point, he met race car driver Pete Brock, and they formed Brock Racing Enterprises or BRE. My father raced a car called the Hino Contessa 1300, which was manufactured by Hino Motors, a subsidiary of Toyota. It was built after the Renault and was discontinued in 1967, so it was never brought to the United States. But it was a great car for racing! I know he raced on the Suzuka Circuit in the early 1960s. My father raced motorcycles, as well. (In fact, he won a silver medal at the Suzuka Circuit, for his motorcycle racing.)
BH: Just to backtrack a little bit, where did he go to college?
EJF: He graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is a very tough school to get into. Although it’s not considered “Ivy League,” it’s a very expensive private college, for the elite. He had majored in art history and received his bachelor of arts in 1953. He enjoyed painting portraits, mostly oil paintings. He had also played the piano. My father had graduated from Noble and Greenough back in 1949, which used to be a private school for boys. (It’s now a co-ed private school.) He played basketball and football in high school.
So he was a very well-rounded person. Just on a side note, I have a newspaper article here that my father had clipped out and put in a scrapbook I have. This is quite a funny story! When my father was in college, he was arrested for speeding. It states in the article from his local Boston newspaper that he was fined $15 in district court and pled guilty! (laughs) I guess he was 21 at the time. He had been racing two other students, going 60 miles an hour. I guess he always liked racing cars because he loved competition. Actually, even after his movie career was over in 1975, my father continued to race cars in the United States. I believe he raced in Baja, California.
BH: What can you also tell me about his military career?
EJF: Because he had a bachelor’s degree, my father was able to go to the officer school. As far as I know from looking at his military records, he was second lieutenant of the military police. I believe he joined right after the Korean War ended. It appeared that he did do some work for the U.S. government, just from what I’ve read in his scrapbook. In fact, that may be the real reason why he was in Japan in the first place.
BH: You’ve perhaps touched on it a little bit. But do you know specifically how your father got involved in the film industry in Japan?
EJF: My father had initially gone to Japan as a U.S. Marine. I am not sure exactly what, if any, federal government agency he worked for. (He had kept some paperwork, which seemed to point that he may have worked with several different agencies such as the F.B.I., as well as the U.S. Treasury Department and the C.I.A.) As far as his involvement with the Japanese film industry, I firmly believe that he used that as a “cover” for whatever government activity he was involved in.
It seemed odd how my father was able to run an import/export business, be a race car driver, a stunt man, a movie actor, as well as a husband and a father to five children, from three different women. Yes, my father was indeed multi-talented. He was one of the premier stuntmen in the Japanese movie industry. He later reported on Japan’s auto industry for publications in the U.S. and around the world. While working in the Japanese film industry, he collaborated in the creation of what is now the classic B-movie genre of the Japanese horror films of the 1950s and 1960s.
In fact, I have a picture of my father where actually he’s doing some stunt work. He was lit on fire for a movie called The Little Adventurer, which he starred in with British child actor Mark Lester. (Mark Lester played Oliver in the 1968 musical Oliver!) In this movie, my father played what they call a “gun-toting heavy,” so I guess he played a mobster of some sort. I have managed to collect most of my father’s movies on VHS and some on DVD, but I have never been able to find The Little Adventurer, anywhere. It was filmed in Japan when Mark Lester was a teenager.
I had contacted Lester about a year ago. He is now an osteopath and an acupuncturist in Cheltenham/Gloucester, England. (In fact, Lester is the godfather of singer Michael Jackson’s children.) As a child, I do remember seeing photographs that my father had of the movie. I guess it wasn’t that popular because Mark Lester refused to talk to me about his movie career in Japan. In fact, he doesn’t even list that he made any movies in Japan. So my father did some stunt work for that movie, as well as starring in the movie. I don’t know where he got the experience, as far as being lit on fire and all that kind of stuff. As I said, he was a daredevil, not afraid of anything. That’s just the kind of person he was.
BH: At this point, if you could share your father’s memories, if he had any, of making any of the films that he shared with you.
EJF: The only movie that I can recall him talking about a lot, was the movie Time Travelers, with actress Linda Purl. My father wrote and directed it in 1966, I believe, but the movie was never sold. At that time, Linda Purl was only 10 or 11 years old. In fact, it was her first movie, according to my father. She had been living in Japan with her family and studying acting at the Toho Geino Academy. I’m not quite sure how he got in contact with her, but I believe he was friends with her parents, Raymond and Marcie Purl. He did talk about Linda Purl a lot and how he basically “started” her career in the movie business.
From there, she continued to make many movies and TV shows, mostly on such networks as CBS and ABC. She was most recently on TV shows such as Desperate Housewives, Bones, and The Office, where she plays the role of Pam Beesly’s mother, Helene (2009-10). Linda Purl was on Happy Days, playing two different roles between 1974-1983. She also played the role of Charlene Matlock on the TV series Matlock from 1986-87. (I guess my father had tried to get in touch with her over the years, but I’m not sure if he ever did.)
From what I was told recently by one of my father’s oldest friends, he used to do a lot of extra work, as far as dubbing for other films. I guess he made pretty good money. Back in the early 1960s, he was making about $200-$300, just for a weekend of doing dubbing work.
He never really talked about his acting career too much. By the time I had realized that he was even in the movies, it was very surreal for me, as a child. We used to have Channel 56 on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where we had moved to from Tokyo, Japan, in 1975. They had a show called Creature Double Feature, which was on every Saturday afternoon. It would come on after all the cartoons, so it would be on around 12 noon. They would show back-to-back movies, whether it’d be movies like Godzilla, Mothra, or The Green Slime. My father would say, “Well, kids, I’m going to be on TV in 10-15 minutes. Let‘s put it on.” It was very weird for me to watch him on TV.
I was probably about nine years old before I even knew that my father had been in any movies. It was kind of hard growing up with a father who was a movie actor. I’d tell kids in school, “My dad’s an actor,” and nobody would believe me. (laughs) All the kids made fun of me, and I barely had any friends, all throughout elementary and middle school. First of all, it was a complete culture shock for me to move from a big city like Tokyo, Japan, to a small town called Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
My father always spoke Japanese at home, so when we moved to the States, I had to learn how to speak English. We moved to Cape Cod, about a month before my 6th birthday. I had a very hard time adjusting to living in the United States. It was tough being the only Japanese-American child in my elementary school, besides my younger sister, Marcia. (But she looked more American than I did. Amazingly, she had blonde hair as a child!) I was made fun of for being half Japanese, all throughout my childhood. You could say that my life has been a lot different than the average person, mostly because of my father being a movie actor, among other things.
BH: On a personal level, what do you think about the films that you have seen of your father’s?
EJF: Well, since I was a child, I have watched Godzilla vs. Megalon, Mothra, The Green Slime, Dogora the Space Monster, Time Travelers, Flight from Ashiya, The Little Adventurer, and Marines, Let’s Go. I haven’t had the opportunity to see him in A Face of Another, although I do have it on DVD. I just watched The Green Slime again a few months ago, with some of my friends. I thought it was wicked funny, especially with all the cheesy special effects and stuff. My friends and I were laughing throughout the whole movie! And then we were kind of watching my dad, to see what scenes he would appear in next. I’d say, “There’s my dad!” trying to point him out in every scene. Every time he was in a scene with Luciana Paluzzi, it appeared that he was looking right at her. (laughs) I think he had “a thing” for her, as with all the leading ladies, in his other films.
I have been collecting my dad’s movies, but most of them are hard to find and are only available on VHS. I have managed to buy Dogora on DVD recently. The Green Slime is next on my list, to buy on DVD. I love Godzilla vs. Megalon, too. But for me, it’s kind of weird watching it, knowing that the guy who played the emperor of Seatopia was my dad. I think his acting in it was pretty bad. (laughs). But back in those days, they didn’t have the technology that we do now, so that’s why I think many people consider Japanese B-genre films to be “classics.” I don’t think my father ever wanted to become a serious actor, anyway. He thought it was fun, and I imagine that is was. I thought that Time Travelers was a really neat movie, not only because it was in black and white, but just the way it was filmed. The story line was very creative; it kind of reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode.
My father was always “on the go,” whether it was acting in movies, doing stunt work, racing cars, writing for magazines, etc. I don’t think he could sit still for a minute. (laughs) He was a very successful person, as far as his career. He ended up leaving the movie business in the mid-’70s because he was getting burnt out. He decided that he was going to get into freelance journalism because, at the time, the Japanese auto industry was beginning to turn heads. My dad had contacted a bunch of different publications and told them he was very familiar with the industry, and that he’d be available to write. So he started sending in request after request, petitioning to write.
There was a recession or an energy crisis that (was affecting) the Japanese economy, and prices started to skyrocket. In an interview with a newspaper reporter in 1980, my father had said, “I found that no matter how much money I was making, I wasn’t saving any money.” So I guess that’s why he decided to move back to the United States with our family. And so we moved to the United States in September of 1975.
My father starting writing for various automobile magazines like Road and Track and Car and Driver, as well as The Saturday Evening Post. I knew that he also wrote erotic fiction and contributed to magazines like Hustler and Cherry. He even wrote sexual self-help articles for some men’s magazine! (laughs) I guess that by alternating subjects, he had a tremendous amount of writing in his career, so he never had any writer’s block. He was actually a remarkable, prolific writer, and he churned out about 5,000 words a day. Once somebody asked him what motivates him to write, and he said, “Every time I get a bill in the mail, it motivates me to write.”
I knew that my father wanted to break out of the weekly and/or monthly deadlines and to launch a bigger project. I guess he eventually followed through with that, shortly before his death in 2001. I have an article from a newspaper in Sarasota, FL, where my father had been living, called Florida West. He had made an independent film called Samantha. The movie was shot using all local cast and crew. My father had belonged to a theater group in Sarasota.
He decided to use some of the actors and actresses whom he had worked with at the theater group and asked them to be a part of his movie project. My father had started on this years earlier. In 1978, my father won an award from a Tokyo newspaper for a short story he had written called “The Nine Lives of Miss Hama’s Cat.” He eventually turned this short story into a 90-minute script. (According to the newspaper article from Florida West, the whole process took a little longer than two months.) I had heard from my aunt that Samantha had won some kind of award at The Sarasota Film Festival, but I was never able to get confirmation of this. I know he spent the rest of the money he had to make that movie. He truly believed that it would make him a lot of money. Although he completed filming Samantha, he never had the opportunity to do anything with it because he passed away from a massive stroke in August of 2001.
BH: Do you know your father’s political leanings, like what he thought about politics, and which party he belonged to?
EJF: My father’s family are die-hard Republicans. His family is so Republican that my aunt even collects elephants! She has small elephant figurines all over her house; it’s not even funny! (laughs) (Elephants are associated with the Republican Party.) My father always voted Republican. Obviously, most people associate Republicans with the wealthy. When Jimmy Carter (a Democrat) became President of the United States in 1977, my father was not too happy. He would always talk about how he couldn’t stand Jimmy Carter. I remember him discussing things about him and stuff about (President Carter’s) brother going to jail.
My father was always discussing politics, which played a big role in our daily discussions at the dinner table. (laughs) It was kind of weird because my mother’s English wasn’t very good. I don‘t think she understood what he was talking about, anyway. (laughs) But she would often nod her head, like she knew what he was talking about. (laughs) I was eight years old then, and I was pretty fluent in English by this time. I listened to everything my father had to say, absorbing everything like a sponge. I tried to get a grasp on his political views from a young age, but I didn’t really understand it, either. He just loved to talk! (laughs) He was a big talker. My father was very opinionated about everything. You could say that my father was an elitist and what you’d call a “W.A.S.P.,” which stands for a “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” I remember hearing those words often as a child, thinking that it was very strange that we had come from a family of wasps. (laughs) I had no clue what it meant, at the time.
My family are Protestant/Episcopalian. My father often gave sermons at our church, but I‘m not sure what type of involvement he had with the church. We attended the Wellfleet Congregational Church, in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Eventually, my father stopped going to church altogether. Recently, I found out that some of my father’s family members were Christian Scientists. (Many people think it’s the same as Scientology, but Christian Science was a religion founded by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston, Massachusetts.)
BH: Also, when he came back to America, I guess he resumed racing for a little bit?
EJF: Yes, my father would venture out to Baja, California once a year. I think he was racing dune buggies. If you can recall, they had used a dune buggy in the movie Godzilla vs. Megalon. The dune buggy actually belonged to my father. I remember when we lived in Denenchofu, Japan (a very affluent suburb of Tokyo), we used to keep the dune buggy in our garage. The dune buggy was a brownish color and it had copper-colored glitter on it. I used to love to sit in it as a child. My father took me for rides in it sometimes. I used to love that dune buggy! (laughs) I don’t know whatever happened to it.
My father wasn’t home a lot, up until I was about nine years old. He often traveled around the country to Las Vegas, Nevada, Palm Springs, California, and parts of Florida. I remember him mentioning various races that he was going to race in. I know that he was involved in some racing accidents. The last time my father raced was in 1977 or ‘78. I know that my mother really didn’t want him racing anymore, because he was in his late 40s by this time. He kept getting injured. So, my mother just basically said, “If you don’t stop racing, then I’m going to kick you out of the house.” (laughs) My father used to have a lot of his race car driving buddies come visit us on the Cape. Some were from California, but I can recall one guy from England and one from Japan, who were famous race car drivers. I think one guy was named Mickey something.
BH: Is there anything else that you can tell me about your father later in his life — what he was doing, or what he was interested in?
EJF: My parents got a divorce in 1984, so I didn’t see him very much because my mother had won full custody. My father wasn’t much of a “dad.” He wasn’t around a lot, and when he was, it was very chaotic. He had battled alcohol addiction, but he could never quit, although he had tried many times. I think that one of the last times I saw him was when I was 17 years old. He had moved to Sarasota, Florida, in 1987, I believe. When he was there, my father really didn’t have to work if he didn’t want to.
My grandparents had both died of lung cancer in 1965 and left him a large trust fund, which ran out in 2000. He would get a check every month, so he was kind of set, financially. I know that he enjoyed boating and sailing. He owned a boat, and he lived right on the water in Sarasota. I had heard that he had gone to graduate school and eventually got his Master’s degree in psychology. He had worked as an alcohol and drug counselor, although he was battling to get sober, himself. My father was not in good health at all. He had always smoked. He started smoking when he was a teenager, and he never attempted to quit.
I had heard from one of his friends that he had suffered a mild stroke when I was about 18 years old. My father was very stubborn, and he would only go to the VA Hospital for medical care. He found out that he had prostate cancer when he was in his late 60s and didn’t receive treatment for it that I know of. As I said before, he was involved in the theater and had acted in a few plays in the Sarasota area. Recently, I found out that he did attend G-CON in New York in the late 1990s. I didn’t even know that my father had such a following. In the past three years, I have been interacting with many fans of my father’s, through both my MySpace and Facebook accounts. In fact, I have created a fan page for him on Facebook, as you know.
As far as what else he was doing, I’m really not quite sure. He may have gotten married again and divorced. My aunt said she really wasn’t really sure how many times that my father had actually been married. I know that at the time of his death, he was not married. He really did not keep in touch with (his) family too much, especially his children. He did have some contact with his sister, who lives in Connecticut. I guess he was very involved with Alcoholic’s Anonymous (AA) and had tried many times to stop drinking. He had gone to rehabs numerous times when I was a child. He would come back after a few weeks or a couple months and start drinking as soon as he got back home. He had a lifelong battle with alcohol, which was very sad. Luckily, I never got into drinking, myself. I guess that was my dad’s greatest gift to me.
BH: Do you know what his favorite foods were, maybe his favorite movie, TV show, any other favorites that he might have had throughout his life?
EJF: When I was growing up in Japan, we ate a lot of multi-cultural type of food. My mother cooked a lot of Italian, Indian, and Greek food (as well as traditional Japanese food, of course!) But I thought that everything she cooked was Japanese food. (laughs) My father loved seafood. He loved to go fishing. Sometimes, as a child, he would take me fishing. He loved catching bluefish, especially. He would go out on the boat a lot. I guess that’s one of his favorite fish. He also ate raw clams, mussels and quahogs. He loved shellfish, as well. I’d say seafood and shellfish were his favorite foods.
As far as TV shows, I remember watching CHiPs and Cagney & Lacey, as well as Three’s Company and Diff’rent Strokes. Even though we had money, we had the smallest TV ever. It was a black-and-white TV; we never had a color TV, growing up. I never even had a color TV until I was an adult. When all my friends started getting cable and MTV, I didn’t even know what that was. One time my father went to a thrift shop, and he bought this huge TV that was probably from the 1960s. We could only get one or two channels on there. Once, I remember that my father had let me and my younger sister watch some horror movies. We watched Friday the 13th and Carrie. He didn’t really watch TV too often.
My parents liked to throw parties a lot. So we were always having people over to the house for cocktails, and my mom would make all this food. Mostly, this happened during the summer months, when all these rich people would come down to the Cape on vacation. My father seemed to know a lot of people. We always had visitors staying at our house, friends of his from California or wherever. Sometimes, we had guests from Japan, as well. Many of the friends he had in the United States were Americans that he had met while living in Japan for over twenty years. (I guess many of them had moved back to the USA, around the same time we did.)
BH: I’ve pretty much run out of questions. Is there anything you’d like to say in summation?
EJF: Well, my father had a very dry sense of humor and was often very sarcastic. I would always say that he wrote the book of clichés. He would talk a lot in clichés, like, “You’ve made your bed; now you have to lie in it.” Another classic one was, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Or “The tail is wagging the dog.“ (laughs) I figured out what that meant when I was very young. He was always full of clichés. He was a great storyteller, and he often spoke about the “good ole days” when he was a kid, growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. Of course, that didn’t really help me when I was a teenager.
I always thought that some nice boy would come to the door (like he had explained) and would ask me out on a date. Ha! Well, that never happened. (laughs) Everything my father had told me about boys, dating and all that stuff, was totally out of style, by the time I was teenager. In fact, I think it went out of style before I was even born! (laughs) He was 37 years old when I was born, so his views about life were a lot different than most of my friends’ dads’. I guess you could say the most important thing he ever taught me was to be polite and have good table manners. (laughs)
My father listened to music from the 1950s, and that’s all that we were ever allowed to listen to in our house, besides classical music. My father was a huge Elvis fan, so he bought my younger sister an Elvis record for her birthday once, and she cried. It had all these corny children’s songs on it. I used to sing along with it when I was like 10 or 11 years old. In fact, I think it was actually a sing-along record! (laughs) My father had no clue how to raise children because he was never around. Plus, I had many nannies growing up, in Tokyo, because my mother worked as a fashion model.
I’m sure that my father had many regrets, later on in life. He has ten grandchildren, and to my knowledge, he has only met two of them. I have four children, who are now nine, 12, 17, and 21. Now my youngest child is telling classmates at school that my father was a movie actor. And no one believes her, either. It’s kind of sad that the only way that my kids will ever get to know their grandfather is by watching his many movies.