REMEMBERING ULTRAMAN: THE ULTIMATE HERO! Producer Julie Avola on Bringing Japan’s Greatest Hero Stateside!

Julie Avola served as producer on Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero (a.k.a. Ultraman Powered), a 13-episode series produced in 1993 by Tsuburaya Productions. Prior to her involvement on the only American-made Ultraman program, Ms. Avola did post-production work on such films as Troll (1986), Rawhead Rex (1986), Puppet Master (1989), and Robot Jox (1990). She also co-produced Puppet Master II (1991) for Full Moon Features. In 2010, Ms. Avola offered her memories of the shoot in this article as told to Brett Homenick. (Photos courtesy of Robyn Bliley.)

Thanks, Brett, for the trip down Memory Lane. I love looking at old photos, especially when they capture a period in time that many of us will cherish forever . . . and have the scars to prove it, ha! But, seriously, we did have a great time and a wild ride.

Photo courtesy of Robyn Bliley.

The picture of the four WINR team members in their gorgeous blue suits was taken late one afternoon. It was a summer day, and hot as hell, and I’m sure those actors couldn’t wait to unzip those flight suits! On the far right is the lovely and talented Robyn Bliley. She was an absolute pleasure to work with, and a genuinely good person in private, too. Together with Chad Wilson, Robyn founded Progressive Productions and is now a successful producer and director. If you look at a picture of her today, she looks like she hasn’t aged a bit, and it’s been 16 years! I swear that girl knows the secret to eternal youth. In Ultraman Powered, Robyn played Julie Young. In one of our early production meetings, Mr. (Noboru) Tsuburaya and the financiers decided to name her character after me (Julie). Honestly, I have no idea why, but I was flattered anyway.

Standing next to Robyn is Kane Kosugi, our Ultraman, a.k.a. Kenichi Kai. Kane was our youngest member, didn’t have much acting experience, and most of his previous work was in stunts. But the entire cast and crew welcomed him with open arms and did everything they could to make him feel at home. He was such a joy to be around, full of enthusiasm and ready for anything we threw at him. He always wanted to do his own stunts, and I was so worried that he’d get hurt, and our insurance company would hang me from the highest tree.

It didn’t take long for him to prove his capabilities, and pretty soon he was not only doing his own stunts, but coming up with ideas for stunts to add to the show. At the end of the series, Kane presented me with this beautiful enormous Japanese doll in a fancy glass display case. The doll sits on the shelf directly above my desk, and I occasionally glance up and say, “Thanks, Kane,” wherever you are. I recently saw him on a Japanese game show called Ninja Warrior. It was one of those weird moments when you are sitting in front of the television, flipping channels, and looking for something to watch, and then all of a sudden you shout, “Hey, I know that guy.”

Next in the WINR lineup we have the hilarious Rob Roy Fitzgerald who played Rick Sanders. Of course, his character wasn’t really funny, but Rob sure is! He was always making us laugh and lightening the mood on set when things got rough or it was a long day. Most people know Rob from all the funny commercials he’s been cast in. But if you’ve ever seen him play a serious role, or play a bad guy, wow, that man can act! He’s truly gifted.

Look at Sandra Guibord and that stunning red hair. Did you know that Mr. Tsuburaya got all wound up when he first set eyes on her? She walked in wearing a red dress that set off her red hair, and he just about fell off his chair. I think she was cast on the spot! Sandra played Theresa Beck, and her character had to pronounce all sorts of ridiculously scientific words. I didn’t envy her one bit because I couldn’t articulate any of those words or even spell them. She did a great job, though. Brains and beauty don’t often coincide.

I don’t know why Harrison Page isn’t in that group photo; maybe he just wasn’t on set that day. Harrison played the WINR captain, Captain Edlund. I think Mr. Tsuburaya got the idea for that character’s name because he was a big fan of Richard Edlund (Star Wars, Raiders, Alien 3). Harrison was the seasoned professional of the group, and the oldest of the five — ironic since he was also their “captain.” He had so many great ideas for his character and was constantly meeting with King (our director) to discuss his thoughts. They got along tremendously and still exchange cards on holidays. I’ve seen Harrison on episodes of Without a Trace, Cold Case, JAG, ER, Ally McBeal, Profiler, and Melrose Place. He works a lot.

Photo © Robyn Bliley.

Oh, that picture of the MTC brings back some nasty memories. That monstrosity was built on a soundstage, and for some wicked reason, it held in the hot air from the set lights. I swear it was 110 degrees in that thing! We tried everything to cool it down. It was utterly miserable to work in there, so we just did the best we could to complete our scenes and move on to another set. There was a similar problem when shooting scenes in the Hawk. The Hawk was outdoors and had an acrylic canopy. It was July, and we were shooting in the Santa Clarita area, a region known for its dry, hot summers. When the actors were ready to shoot their scenes, we’d have to close the Hawk canopy, and they’d basically bake inside like an oven. I heard some choice words on those days. The pictures of Mr. Tsuburaya with Robyn were for publicity; he rarely visited the set, rarely even came to California to see us.

Kane Kosugi and Robyn Bliley. Photo © Robyn Bliley.

How do you like our Hummer (Ultraman Rover)? We had a real Rover designed and built for us, but when the design team delivered it, well, it was hideous and unusable. They didn’t do anything right; it looked terrible and didn’t drive well at all. There was no time, or money, to have another one built, so King and I went out and rented a Hummer. It really was the only option, and it looked darn cool.

Ultraman and Red King pal around with Bruce Fuller in between takes. Photo © Robyn Bliley.

I love this photo of Ultraman and Red King. Why is Red King sitting on that man’s shoulders? I don’t know, but it’s funny. The man is one of our creature artists, Bruce Spaulding Fuller, who also puppeteered and even had an acting role in the Teresdon episode. We filmed most of the monsters in either Tujunga Canyon or on top of a mountain in Burbank. Both locations were bad for my cell phone reception. It’s funny what your mind remembers. As the producer, it was important that I be able to communicate with the outside world, so cell phone reception is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about those two filming locations. I’m sure that, 16 years later, cell phone reception has improved in those areas (I hope).

King Wilder directs his cast. Photo © Robyn Bliley.

That’s a great picture of the director with the actors in the WINR Command Center. Weren’t our sets incredible? We have the multi-talented production designer Aaron Osborne to thank for that. That man can pull a rabbit out of his hat. Did you know he won an Emmy for his work on Without a Trace? How cool is that?

Well, Brett, thanks again for the trip down Memory Lane. If you come across more pictures, I’d love to see them and reminisce with you some more. Take care.

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