CHASING ‘THE LAST DINOSAUR’! A Candid Conversation with Joan van Ark!

Joan van Ark with Steven Keats (left) and Richard Boone (right) on the set of The Last Dinosaur. Photo © Joan van Ark. The Last Dinosaur © 1977, Tsuburaya Productions.

Joan van Ark is an accomplished actress who is best known for her work on the hit television series Dallas and Knots Landing (as Valene Ewing in both series). An Emmy- and Tony Award-nominated performer, her other credits include television programs as diverse as The Mod Squad, Bonanza, Night Gallery, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Nip/Tuck, and My Name Is Earl. Ms. van Ark also starred in the 1972 cult classic Frogs, opposite Ray Milland and Sam Elliott. After being offered the part of Francesca “Frankie” Banks by her agent, Ms. van Ark traveled to Japan to film The Last Dinosaur, a co-production between Rankin/Bass Productions and Tsuburaya Productions, that aired on ABC in 1977. In 2009, Ms. van Ark spoke with Brett Homenick on the telephone about her memories of The Last Dinosaur.

Brett Homenick: How did you become involved in the production of The Last Dinosaur?

Joan van Ark: It was a William Morris package. I was with the William Morris Agency. I believe the story is, because I was good friends with the agent who packaged this, that the first offer went to Candice Bergen because the part is a photographer, and Candice is, in fact, a photographer. It’s a fun, sidebar thing like Henry Winkler does — he photos all his jobs. So it was offered to Candice, and she had some conflict or something, so she passed. So he brought it to me. To me, the exciting thing was to go over to Japan. So I jumped! (laughs) I loved the part. So I was flattered and excited to do it.

BH: Excellent! Well, do you remember any pre-production meetings with the production crew and what was discussed in them? How was it presented to you by the crew making the film?

JVA: Not a soul spoke English, and they didn’t know what a blonde was. At least when this was filmed, they go (makes sucking sound). They make this sound, sucking their breath in, because a blonde is unusual to them. That’s why Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a lot of blondes make huge money doing commercials for them because blondes are not the norm, by any means.

There was no pre-production, other than to say, “Go on over. There’s hair, makeup. We will provide all of it,” and — I’m joking, but not really — 12-year-old Japanese kids who didn’t speak English. That was my hair and makeup crew! There was no pre-production whatsoever.

We get there, and it’s monsoon season. So we were filming it during monsoon season. The whole thing was one of the biggest joke memories that I’ve ever worked on in my life. I loved it and hated it, all in one. So, no, pre-production did not exist with me, not with the actors. They may have done it with Alex Grasshoff, the director, but not with the actors.

Luther Rackley, for instance, was offered the part, and he, at the time, was playing basketball for the New York Knicks. He was offered the part and did not know until he read the script on the plane going over to Japan that he didn’t have a word to say in the entire film! (laughs) That he had no lines whatsoever. He wanted to turn around and come back, but he was already over the ocean when he finally realized it. So he and my husband would talk all the time over their Asahi beer. The two of them just hit it off; they were best buds and had a ball. Meanwhile, I’m working every shot in the monsoon weather. Oh, it was hysterical!

BH: Well, that does segue into the question I was going to ask next. What were your living arrangements like while you were staying in Japan?

JVA: Well, they were various because we weren’t in just one location. We were mostly in the Japanese Alps, which were gorgeous and reminded me a lot of Colorado where I grew up. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. So we were in as nice as the hotels get over there at that time. We were in a rather nice (hotel), but it was spartan. The way you take showers is with cold water. First you spray yourself, then you soap yourself, then you spray again. It was very Japanese, but for this diva, when I’m working, I need everyone to peel me a grape. I need a pit crew. When Hillary says, “It takes a village,” it absolutely, with this diva, takes a village. But not in this case.

We’ve got rain, all day long, drenching us, and a hand-held shower at night. During that time, just because it was easier, until the wrap party, I lived on these huge, yellow apples. I think they’re called Fuji apples. They’re big, yellow apples that taste like a cross between an apple and a pear. I had never tasted them in my life, but for me, that got me through the whole shoot. So those were in the hotel, and I ended up taking them with me for the shoot because a lot of their food was kind of weird, like octopus and eel. It was not my idea of catering.

So just to be safe, it was salads if I could get one, and mostly the huge apples. I stayed on them when I came back home to L.A., even. They are so delicious! They are almost the size of a grapefruit. But the hotels were okay. They were just the best thing they had at the time. But, for divas, it wasn’t exactly the Four Seasons.

BH: While you were staying in Japan, off the set, what sort of things would you do in your spare time?

JVA: My friend, there was no spare time. With the monsoon weather, there were no days off. The phrase was, “Do it for Arthur.” Now Arthur Rankin was the producer, and they would come at all hours of the day and night. Alex and — I don’t remember Tom Kotani being there — but I just remember whoever it was. It was the spokesperson for Arthur Rankin. They would ask and beg us and almost manipulate us to shoot. It felt like 24-7. So don’t give me the two words “spare time.” It didn’t exist.

Just before we started or after, my only “dessert,” or reward, if you will, was running. I loved and did run around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. So maybe if you want to call it spare time, it wasn’t during the production. It was before we started shooting, and it was after it was over. That’s when I could go do my jog and go do my run. That was when I learned about that noise they make when they see a blonde.

I would see guys running toward me when I would go around the Imperial Palace, and I would say hi because I just do that when I run — I meet somebody, and you lock eyes. “Hai” means “yes” (in Japanese), so here is this blonde, running around the Imperial Palace, saying yes to all these guys as they’re coming toward her, running! (laughs) They thought, “Wow, is this actress easy!” So that was something I learned — “Hai” means “yes,” and it doesn’t mean what it means here. It means something else.

Joan van Ark and Steven Keats. Photo © Joan van Ark. The Last Dinosaur © 1977, Tsuburaya Productions.

BH: Right! (laughs) What was Alex Grasshoff like as a director? How did you get along with him?

JVA: Well, he was easy. He was nice. He was understanding. He was funny. I’ve had directors that make going to the set kind of unpleasant because of their personality or their style of shooting or whatever. But Alex was kind of great, go-with-the-flow, and he got it done. There were things that happened that were just unreal. There were turtles; it was Japanese men underneath the turtle shell, going downstream because that’s the way they had to show that there were turtles. There were little Japanese guys underneath it, manipulating the turtle. So a lot of it was just so funny and humorous, and Alex was pretty loose with it and pretty good with it.

BH: Well, when it came down to it, did you have any input on your character or dialogue, or was it essentially filmed as written?

JVA: This gets tricky because — God bless Richard Boone — but we had to get the dialogue before noon, or we were in trouble. Maybe you can take from that what you will, but there were many, many “liquid lunches” and sometimes a “liquid morning.” So talk about dialogue — sometimes that just didn’t exist, and it was a lot of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. But it had to get done by noon. (laughs) We had to do most of the action stuff in the afternoon.

BH: We have mentioned Arthur Rankin before. Along with Jules Bass, they served as producers of the film. Did you work much with them, or were they just basically away from the set all the time?

JVA: They were pretty much away from the set. Jules Bass might have been there. I didn’t meet him until later, but I think it was at the wrap party. After all of this unbelievable monsoon and difficult obstacles and a tough, tough shoot, they threw the most elegant, magnificent wrap party. That’s Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. I (must) hand it to them; they sure knew how to wrap it up. But it was at this incredibly chic club. I drink champagne sometimes, and they had vodka in crushed ice in these little vials/ You shoot the vodka, and then you eat caviar. It was just all very elegant, very sophisticated, chic, wonderful, amazing!

And tons of sushi, which I had never known about until I went over there, and we have been hooked on it ever since. They had sushi all over the place. So they are two classy producers, and they’ve done some amazing product. But this was a particularly difficult shoot, given Richard Boone, who is brilliant and magnificent and wonderful, but there was the caveat (of) getting the dialogue before lunch hour. So you add a monsoon to that factor, and then you ask me about dialogue. I don’t know. Those are tricky questions because of the complicated situation!

BH: Could you tell us what Richard Boone was like to work with?

JVA: I loved him. I loved him, but he was complicated. He’s an icon. God rest my father’s soul, but that was a family affair to watch Paladin (Boone’s character in Have Gun, Will Travel). That was one of my father’s favorites. So this man is on a throne, but he got, I think, more complicated as time went on. So it’s a mixed answer with that. I have incredible respect for his career and his work and his presence. He’s a magnificent film presence, that face and that huge, tall, looming body. He’s a sweetheart. But he did enjoy the vodka. (laughs) So that’s all I can say.

BH: You did share a lot of screen time with the late Steven Keats, who played Chuck Wade in the film. What can you recall about his personality?

JVA: He made me laugh until I would gag and fall on the floor. He was a high-energy, crazy, wacko. He would pace around as we would wait for lighting or wait for the weather to clear or whatever. He’d say, “I just need some yellow tail! I need some yellow tail!” And he wasn’t talking about sushi! He would pace around with his hands in his pocket and just pace back and forth, high energy and crazy, and say, “All I need is some yellow tail.” He was hysterical. I must say, given the problems we had, the obstacles, I adored his energy and humor, having that there, because it releases a lot of tension and made things bearable because of his energy and his humor and his talent.

BH: Two of the other actors that you worked with were Tetsu Nakamura (who played Dr. Kawamoto) and, of course, as mentioned earlier, Luther Rackley (who played Bunta). What memories, other than the ones we discussed, of course, could you share about working with these two gentlemen?

JVA: Well, Nakamura, I must say, maybe Luther Rackley and Steven Keats and Richard Boone wiped this person’s impression from my mind. I seem to remember classy and low-key, but I don’t have a specific reaction. Compared to the others, though, classy and low-key is all I could say because, otherwise, I would have a stronger memory of him.

But Luther, we saw him socially even after the shoot. My husband and Luther were the best buds because my husband went with me for two weeks on this shoot. I think it was a month or three-week shoot. So my husband was there for a good part of it, which thank God he was, so he could fill in the gaps for me because I didn’t take an assistant. Had I known, I would have, maybe, but Jack became my assistant and helped me. He was a news reporter for NBC News, but he had gotten that time off.

Luther is just hysterical to me, and almost comical to look at, even though that’s not the way he came off in the movie, by any means. But it was so funny because he never really said a word! He’s just such a personality. That’s where Alex Grasshoff and all of us would get the giggles because there were so many difficult situations.

I remember one. We were waiting for a rain storm to pass so we could at least film, and the funny thing is, they said, “Well, don’t worry about the rain. You can’t see it on film. It doesn’t photograph.” But how about Blondie who’s standing out in the rain, getting soaked to the skin, to the bone, with the hair and the makeup, which didn’t really exist? How about Blondie standing out in the rain for 12 hours a day? Maybe it doesn’t photograph on the film, but it (shows) on Blondie’s face and hair! It was just too, too funny, now that it’s over!

BH: Well, you have hinted at this, and probably more than hinted at this, but what was a typical day of shooting like on the set?

JVA: A nightmare. I could just give you that in two words: “a nightmare,” because the weather was just horrific, and we started filming six or seven a.m. We would shoot until we got it, and that could be held up by the weather. It was just grueling. I remember “Bennie and the Jets” was a popular song at that time, and there was a Benni connected with the show in some way. (Benni Korzen was associate producer of The Last Dinosaur. – BH) (He) would come with Alex Grasshoff and just say, “Do it for Arthur,” meaning film 18 or 20 hours today instead of the union 12 or whatever the union thing is. So a typical day of shooting, well, there was no “typical day.” It was shoot until we get it.

I don’t want to say that I would never do it again because I probably would, but it wasn’t a day at the beach.

Joan van Ark in conversation with Richard Boone on the set of The Last Dinosaur. The photo, from Joan van Ark’s personal collection, is signed by Richard Boone. Photo © Joan van Ark. The Last Dinosaur © 1977, Tsuburaya Productions.

BH: Speaking of shooting, and the way things went on the film, did you get to see any of the special effects shots filmed, other than what we’ve talked about with the turtles?

JVA: That was what I saw, and I thought I would never recover from that. (laughs) They could only go 40 seconds, and then these guys had to come out from under the turtle shells and gasp for air, and then they’d get another 40 seconds’ worth, as they would basically be breathing and then go back under the turtle and go downstream a little bit more. (laughs) So that was the only thing I think I saw, that I could remember.

BH: Generally speaking, when and where, as much as you can remember, were your scenes shot?

JVA: Well, as much as I could remember, I would say that there might have been some in Tokyo that were in-studio. But most of it was in the Japanese Alps (in Kamikochi, Japan). A lot of it was in the Japanese Alps because it had the countryside and the look that we needed.

BH: Do you have any other interesting or funny memories from the set of The Last Dinosaur that you’d like to share, or have we pretty much covered everything?

JVA: I think we covered it, yeah. I have to giggle when I asked my agent who’s comfortable here in Beverly Hills, “What about hair and makeup?” “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll have someone just for you.” It’s a 12-year-old Japanese girl who’s never seen a blonde in her life! So that makes me giggle, especially when you’re a diva. I forgot about all that after about three days. You just pray that you’re going to get through it! (laughs) So hair and makeup was a last consideration, and usually it’s my first. It was very different on this.

BH: Would you like to make any closing comments?

JVA: Just that I’m grateful if anyone enjoys this film — or has enjoyed it! We worked very hard on it, and it means a lot to me if the end result was … “entertaining.” With love and thanks to all my fans — xxx Joan.

Very special thanks to John Marshall for all his help in making this interview possible.


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