Born on June 16, 1953, James Brewster Thompson is a former judo practitioner who achieved his best-known film credit worldwide by playing Barabbas in Toho’s futuristic actioner Gunhed (1989), starring Masahiro Takashima and Brenda Bakke. In May 2019, Mr. Thompson answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his life, career, and memories of Gunhed.
Brett Homenick: What can you tell us about your early life? Where did you grow up, and what were your hobbies at the time?
James Thompson: I was born in Arkansas. I remember picking cotton in Arkansas. I grew up in the segregated South. I moved to California when I was 10 years old. It was all-black at the school where I went to school in Arkansas. In California, I went to school surrounded by children of all races. It was a shock at first. My first hobby was ventriloquism. I learned how to be a fukuwajutsu (ventriloquist). I brought my first ventriloquist dummy at 13 years old.
BH: How did you get interested in judo?
JT: I got my first lesson in judo at a YMCA camp for young kids. I was 13 years old. The camp had weightlifting, archery, boxing, judo, and arts and crafts. Judo was the only activity that I could do well enough to win points for my cabin of several boys. I was judo champion for my weight division that week.
But I didn’t do judo after that week in a dojo until I was 21 years old. But I learned two throws at that camp that I threw my friends with from 13 years old until I was 21 years old. I received my black belt in ten and a half months’ time. It is a record in California and perhaps the whole United States. Usually, it takes two to five years for one to earn their black belt in judo. I am a 5th-degree at the present. I earned all five degrees from competition. (My black belt is) registered through the Kodokan in Japan.
BH: What were some of your early athletic achievements?
JT: In 1972, in my senior year in high school, I was all-league in football, all-league in basketball, and an all-state California high jumper — 6’7. In junior college, I was all-conference in the triple jump and the high jump. I was 2nd in the state decathlon and 8th in the state in wrestling. I was also all-conference in wrestling and 1st in Northern California for wrestling.
In 2005, I placed 6th place in the amateur Sumo World Games at 52 years old. I was the oldest in the competition, fighting kids in their twenties and thirties. In 2008, I became the oldest American to ever fight with the kids in the Olympic Trials for judo. I was 55 years old, believe it or not.
BH: When did you come to Japan (for the first time)?
JT: I went to Japan in the 1980s for judo and competed at the Kano Cup. In 1994, for the amateur Sumo World Championships, America took 2nd to Japan in the team competition. I toured Japan in the late 1990s with a jump rope team called the Skip-Its. We performed all over Japan, including Tokyo Disneyland. I came back to Japan in 2010 for my Guinness World Record jump-roping. Gunhed was in 1989.
BH: What were your initial thoughts when you first came to the country?
JT: My initial thoughts — I am in the country were judo was created, and I was honored. Very proud. That first trip to Japan, I watched sumo wrestling every day on TV. When I left Japan, I gained more respect and love for sumo. My favorite sumo wrestler of all time is the great Japanese sumo Yokozuna Chiyonofuji Mitsugi.
BH: What were you doing in Japan at the time?
JT: (During my first trip,) I was there for a judo tournament called the Kano Cup named after the founder of judo in 1882.
BH: How did you get involved in acting in Japan?
JT: I saw an ad in one of the entertainment trade papers that the movie Gunhed was looking for a black male to play a lead role in the movie. I drove down to Los Angeles from San Jose, California, to audition for the movie. I was told later on that the reason why the casting director and staff of Gunhed gave me the part is because I was the only black male out of all the ones who auditioned for the role who spoke a little Japanese.
While graduating from San Jose State University, I took a course in Japanese. My major was psychology. My minor was Asian American studies. The minor concentrated on Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino history from 1850 to 1977. I chose that minor by accident.
BH: Do you remember around what time of year you shot your scenes?
JT: The movie came out in 1989, so therefore it was somewhere in 1988 or early 1989.
BH: How long were you on set every day for Gunhed?
JT: Eight to 12 hours a day.
BH: How many weeks did you work on the movie?
JT: A month and a half, then I flew back to America.
BH: What do you remember about working with director Masato Harada?
JT: He was a very kind man. I had to do my own stunts, and he was checking on me all the time to make sure I was OK in doing some of the stunts. He made sure the deal and the contract I signed were followed to the letter. He made sure I was happy. After three weeks, my wife came over from America and hung out with me for a week when I was not working.
BH: What kind of direction did he give you?
JT: When you watch Gunhed, everything you see in the movie he told me to do. He even had me do my own stunts. I didn’t have a stunt double. I did my own stunts.
BH: How many takes would there generally be for your scenes?
JT: We usually only took one take. He was a good director. And the actors and actresses were good, too.
BH: How did you feel about doing your own stunts? Were you OK with it? Also, was anything particularly difficult to do?
JT: I was OK with doing my own stunts. I was in great shape at that time of my life. And I am still in pretty good shape, for a 65-year-old man.
BH: Was there much time for rehearsals?
JT: Plenty of time for rehearsal, yes.
BH: How much rehearsing was there?
JT: Don’t remember.
BH: How about star Masahiro Takashima? What do you remember about him on or off the set?
JT: On the set, Masahiro would always try to help me understand what the director wanted me to do in each scene. When we would be hanging out between scenes sometimes, he would flex his muscles, and I would flex my muscles and say, “Chikara mochi.” On the set, everyone loved him, especially the ladies.
In 1989, I returned to America after filming the movie. There was a major earthquake in Oakland, California, about an hour’s drive from where I was at the time. After the earthquake, Masahiro called me long-distance from Japan to see if I was OK. I had great respect for Masahiro as an actor, but after the phone call, I loved him more as a human being.
BH: Brenda Bakke, a fellow American, was the female lead. Did you have much interaction with her?
JT: With most of the cast, the only interaction I had with them was on the set and special promotional events. Brenda was so classy and beautiful at the same time.
BH: Of course, there were many elaborate sets used in the film. What was it like to work on them?
JT: Some were a little tough for me because I played two roles in the movie. I was the Rambo-like character that was killed off in the first part of the movie by the Gunhed monster, and I played the monster that killed the Rambo character. I know; it’s confusing.
BH: What was it like being a stunt man in the film wearing the costume?
JT: When I was inside the costume, it was hot and sometimes hard to see out of the costume. But the director didn’t know I was having problems seeing until halfway through filming the movie. I finally told him I was having problems seeing, and they fixed the headgear so I could see very well for the rest of the picture.
Everybody did their own stunts if stunts were required. It was different than what I was used to in Hollywood. In Hollywood, you would have a stunt double for the more dangerous stunts.
BH: Do you have any other interesting memories about working with all the special effects and explosions?
JT: Well, when my character Barabbas got killed, it was with a steel pole-like object. The monster killed me. That was great special effects.
BH: What about any general memories of working at Toho Studios?
JT: Nothing that stands out at the moment.
BH: Is there anything else about Gunhed that you could share?
JT: I was in Japan for six weeks to do that movie. I remember that I was learning how to tap-dance in my spare time when I wasn’t on the set. I remember getting a piece of plywood from the wardrobe to practice on in my room. I remember one day someone in the room below my room complained about me making noise. (laughs)
BH: What did you think of the movie? Did you like it?
JT: The special effects were great. But the story could have been better. It was not a great story, and it was not a bad one either. It was somewhere in between, which was OK.