American actor Rhodes Reason (1930-2014) made his mark in the world of Japanese monster movies when he starred as Commander Carl Nelson in King Kong Escapes (1967), a lavish Toho production that still entertains audiences to this day. Mr. Reason had a wonderful sense of humor about his monster movie legacy, which is on full display in this July 2007 interview with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Before we begin with the questions, would you like to make any introductory comments?
Rhodes Reason: Well, I just got here; that’s the important thing. After 40 years (since King Kong Escapes), your life changes, your body changes, your age changes — you’re just thankful that you’re here every day, and I’m thankful that I’m here with all of you. (applause)
BH: Would you like to give the audience a little information about your background, and some of your other film roles, before we get to King Kong Escapes?
RR: Well, I’ve done really so many television shows, commercials, motion pictures — I’ve had two television series. I’ve done a lot of stage work in musicals. I made my debut on Broadway at the age of 50 in the musical Annie — I played Daddy Warbucks for three years.
Other than that, you can punch up my name on the computer, and it’ll bring up all the information that I could take the next two hours to impart to you. That’ll be easier for you. I know you want to get into the more human interest part of my biography, which is more interesting than the naming of actual movies and shows.
BH: Okay, let’s get going with King Kong Escapes. The first obvious question is, how did you get involved with King Kong Escapes?
RR: Well, my agent called me and said, “Rhodes, Arthur Rankin has a role in a motion picture called King Kong Escapes.” And I said, “That sounds rather interesting.” So I went over and had a meeting with him. When I first read the script, it was like a Saturday morning cartoon script, as far as I was concerned. Well, it turned out Arthur Rankin was a producer of Saturday morning kids’ cartoons. He was an animator primarily, and he got the rights to King Kong from RKO, and he spent a lot of time in Tokyo, so he made a deal with Toho and Universal Studios. They had a co-production, and I was hired to play Commander Nelson, and the rest is history.
BH: Now when you actually came over to Japan to film the movie, what were your living arrangements in Japan like?
RR: They put me up at the Hilton Hotel, and I had a very nice suite of rooms there for the length of the motion picture, which lasted about four months, actually, so that was fun.
BH: What are your memories of the pre-production meetings that took place before King Kong Escapes started filming?
RR: That’s probably one of the most interesting parts of the whole movie. The pre-production days I spent at the studio were quite revealing because, for instance, all of my uniforms, all of my wardrobe, were actually tailor-made for me. They didn’t go to the Army Surplus and get a coat off the rack. Even my shoes, even the T-shirt I wore, totally everything was made in the wardrobe department.
The first day, they took me through a vast warehouse of nothing but bolts and bolts of material. They kept holding this out and asking, “Do you think that would be nice for your Ike jacket?” And I’d say, “I don’t think it’s quite the right color, or the texture isn’t too good.” Well, they kept this up.
Oh, they took me to lunch, and then we went back and were looking at more fabrics until finally I realized that they were just doing that as a nicety, because they ended up selecting the fabrics they had already previously decided to use, anyway. (audience laughter)
So I went back to Arthur Rankin, and I said, “What is all this nonsense about showing me all those bolts when they knew what they wanted to do?” And he said, “Well, that’s how the Japanese work.” I said, “Oh, well, now that I know that, I will just acquiesce to whatever they say.” Do you want to see this? Sure, let’s go see that for three days. What about that, do you think that’s appropriate? I’d say, “Yeah, that’s wonderful.” Because they ended up doing what they wanted to do, anyway. (audience laughter)
So, in fact, I kind of learned their way of thinking — in fact, that’s a huge cultural philosophy of that nation, that there is no obstacle to a goal they can’t surmount, and I called it patient persistence. So I started using the same thing because they made my Ike jacket first where it had shoulders out to here. I looked like Joan Crawford in one of her first movies. (audience laughter)
I tried it on, and it fit fine. I said, “But the shoulders are much too wide. Can you just bring them in to be more military?” “Ah so, Reason-san. Very good, Reason-san.” So the next day I came in, and I tried it on again, and they’d taken about an inch off. I said, “Oh, no. It’s got to be about way, way…” (brings his hands closer together) “Ah so, Reason-san. We’ll take care of that.”
The next day I came in, it kept getting smaller and smaller. (audience laughter) Finally, it was the normal width of my shoulders so it would be more G.I., but in the movie, it took about three weeks to have that done, and I was wearing that same Ike jacket every day. So if you look at the movie closely, in some scenes my shoulders were out to here (holds hands far apart), and some scenes here (moves hands closer together) That became rather a comedy routine, but that’s what I learned from them — patient persistence. There isn’t an obstacle you can’t surmount if you use that philosophy. I could go on and on, but I won’t. (To Brett) Go ahead.
BH: You can answer as much as you like. This is all about you.
RR: Oh, really? You must be Japanese. (audience laughter)
BH: You talked about this a little bit, but what other involvement did you have with Arthur Rankin, and did you work with Jules Bass at all?
RR: No, I just met them for the first time when I was introduced to him as the producer, and I found out that he and Jules Bass had a company in New York that made Saturday morning animated cartoons, and they employed Japanese animators. That’s why he had a home in Japan, and he had a Eurasian girlfriend and drove around in a Cadillac.
So that was my early involvement with him, although being the producer, he would say to me, “Rhodes, I’m going to be out of town for two weeks, so you take over my job as executive producer.” I said, “Well, what do I do?” And he said, “Just make sure they don’t put any flower arrangements in the submarine.” (audience laughter.) “Oh, okay. I’ll take care of that.” (audience laughter.)
BH: Please talk about Ishiro Honda what he was like as a person, and what you can remember about his directorial style.
RR: Honda-san? (using the Japanese pronunciation)
BH: Honda. (using the Japanese pronunciation)
RR: Actually, we had very little contact verbally with each other because he spoke no English, and I spoke… well, I could say, “Ohayo gozaimasu,” but you can’t do that all day long. (audience laughter) I had an interpreter; his name was Henry Okawa. If Honda-san wanted to give me instructions or directions, then he would talk to Henry, and Henry would walk over to me and say, “Honda-san say to run down hall and run into the room.” And I’d say, “You tell Honda-san that the shot previous to this is I’m walking down the hall, so tell him I’ll walk down the hall and walk into the room, okay?” So he says, “Ah, so desu ka!”
So he’d go over to Honda-san, and Honda-san would sit like this. (holds chin in his hand and slowly nods) “Hai.” That means “yes” in Japanese. (audience laughter) So Henry would come back to me and say, “Honda-san say you can walk down hall and walk into the room.” I said, “You thank Honda-san for me, will you?” That went on through the whole movie. You see, that’s why it took four months to shoot. (audience laughter)
BH: Did Honda rehearse the scenes with the cast members before filming?
RR: Oh, yes, there were camera directions we had blocked within each scene. He was a good director in that he was very economical in his direction. If there was a two-shot, he would just shoot a two-shot. You’ll notice how in many movies there are single shots of people, but if there are two people in a scene, he shoots two people. If there are three people in a scene, (he shoots) three people. And he’s always thinking about now how is this going to cut into the action of the miniatures and the action of Kong. So he almost pre-cut the movie in his head. He was very good at that.
BH: Approximately how many takes would Honda make before yelling, “Print that”?
RR: Well, the whole process of setting up a scene for a take to begin with, they used the word “hon ban” which means, “It’s a real shoot.”
You see, in American films, they say, “Quiet on the set.” The assistant director says, “Quiet on the set! Okay, quiet on the set!” “Okay, roll sound.” “Okay, action!” Then when the scene would be over, you’d say, “Cut!” Well, in Tokyo, they had no words for “action” and “cut,” so they would take American words and put vowels on the end of them. So in this case, Honda-san would say, “Start-o,” and at the end of the scene, he’d say, “Cut-o!” (audience laughter) And that’s the end of that.
He wouldn’t ask me if I liked it or didn’t like it; he’d tell Henry that it was okay, and Henry would say, “Honda-san say scene all right.” And I’d go, “Well, thank Honda-san. (audience laughter) And we’d go on to the next scene. So it just went on like that, forever and ever and ever. (audience laughter) So that was fun.
BH: Did Honda (assist) each actor to develop his or her own character, or did he leave the actors to their own devices?
RR: What character? (audience laughter) No, he directed the physical action primarily — blocking, etc. He had to, because l was speaking in English, and they were all speaking in Japanese. So when I did a scene with the Japanese actors, I had to look at my script and know what I was saying in English and what they were saying in Japanese. I would hear them finish the sounds that were coming out of their mouths, and I’d say my next line. So it was very difficult to get some kind of characterization because I never spoke to anybody in the whole movie who didn’t speak to me in Japanese.
So it was like I was doing a dual thing, if you can imagine. I was looking at my script — I had a line, they had a line, I had a line. I knew I had the first line, but whatever they were saying to me was what appeared in my script, and then I would follow that up with the answer. Doing it day in and day out, it got to the point, since I was not hearing English back to me, that even my own English sounded Japanese. I started to accentuate the vowels and consonants. I’d say, “Do yooou think that IIIII aaam yooour friennnnd?” (audience laughter) I’d tell myself, “Come on, Rhodes. Get off this. Let’s get back to reality.” That was difficult.
BH: What kind of freedom did you have with your dialogue, to rewrite dialogue that you didn’t feel was natural?
RR: Well, it depended on the scene. There was a line there when the sub hit an underwater reef or something, and someone was supposed to run up to me and say, “Oh, the water-sucking valve has leaked,” or something like that. (audience laughter) And I’d say, “Would you tell Honda-san that that’s not going to be in the script? We’re in a nuclear reactor sub, so say that the nuclear reactor has sprung a leak or something, but don’t say that the water-sucking valve is… (audience laughter) So
Honda-san would say (chin in hand, nodding), “Oh, ah so desuka. Hai, hai.” (audience laughter)
Then I’d be very careful about, as I said, the flower arrangements on the submarine. That was true. When I first walked on the submarine, they’d constructed the whole interior of the submarine where, to get into the submarine, you had to actually walk down the conning tower and into the submarine. They brought their cameras right into the sub they had fabricated. When I first walked down the hallway, there was a beautiful flower arrangement in one comer, and I walked across, and there was another flower arrangement.
I said, “You’ve gotta get those flowers out of here.” I mean, you beautify things, but the Japanese had a way of poetic license with things like this. They love to ornament everything to the point that the reality sort of left the scene that was supposed to be portrayed. So from that standpoint, I had to be very careful. Even in Mie Hama’s quarters, it was terribly over-ornamented, but it was very pretty and lovely. It was like being in the Plaza in New York City right in the middle of a submarine. (audience laughter)
BH: What do you remember about your co-star Linda Miller?
RR: Linda was an Air Force brat living in Tokyo. Her father was a meteorologist with the Air Force, and she was a very pretty young lady of nineteen, twenty years old, who was very popular as a cover girl over there. The publishers over there put out these gorgeous, full-color magazines every single week — tons and tons and tons of magazines. She would appear on all these covers and so forth.
Arthur was looking for someone just like her to play the role of Lieutenant Watson, and so she was auditioned, and she was hired. That was her motion picture debut. I think she did one after that, and then just kind of disappeared into wherever young actresses disappear into. I really helped direct her because she was such a novice, and I’d make sure she wasn’t totally out of sync with what was going on. She was just fun to work with, a very nice young woman.
BH: What do you remember about Akira Takarada, your co-star in the film?
RR: Oh, Akira. He was a neat guy. At that time, they called Akira Takarada the Clark Gable of Japan, and he was their tall, leading man. It’s interesting, too — Akira was not Japanese; he was Korean. People don’t realize that. My wife said, “But he has a Japanese name.” Well, you know, Rock Hudson’s name was Roy Fitzgerald, so what? (audience laughter) Akira was a delight to work with. He was very accommodating, and he spoke broken English, so we were able to communicate somewhat. He was married to a lovely young Japanese wife who was an ex-Miss Japan. I never met her because he didn’t like to take her around too much. I think that’s a Japanese thing. No, he was a delight. Akira was just fun to work with.
BH: One of the most unusual actors in Japanese cinema was Hideyo Amamoto, who played Dr. Who. What are your memories of him?
RR: I remember he was a very fine actor, working with him. He was very competent. It was just that I never had any association with him socially because we just had this language barrier. It was difficult to fraternize with anyone. I would arrive at the studio, go to my dressing room, I would be given a kimono to hang around in till wardrobe came over to me. Then I would have green tea to drink, and that was coming out of my ears after about two months. (audience laughter)
Every chance they would serve green tea — it’s a wonder I didn’t turn into the Jolly Green Giant. Then I’d get on the set, and he’d be there, and we’d greet each other. Of course, you always bow in Japan. I’ve never bowed as much in my whole lifetime as I did in Japan. Yes, he was a very competent actor, but we never had any contact other than that on the set.
BH: Did you have any interaction with the Japanese producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka?
RR: I met him when I first arrived, and he greeted me royally, and so forth. At the end of the production, he gave a very lavish party in my name, and that was wonderful. He had all his corporate executives there, and they were all slurping up noodles as they do. It was an incredible scene; I couldn’t believe it.
There was this big room with all these Japanese gentlemen in their wonderful three-piece suits, and they were having some soba or whatever it was, and you heard 50 guys slurping up noodles. (makes slurping sound into the mike) What in the world is going on here? (audience laughter) But that seemed to be the courteous thing to do, so I started to slurp up the noodles, too. (audience laughter)
BH: Do you have any other interesting stories from the set of the film you’d like to share?
RR: I have too many, and I can’t tell them here because they are very private. (audience laughter) But that may be in my autobiography; I may have an appendix just for that section alone. Then I’ll have to move to China. I’ll be banned in Boston.
No, actually, Japan at that time was just a rock-and-rollin’ (place). (Tokyo) was just a super city in 1967, and the exchange rate of the yen to the dollar was almost five to one, so you can imagine. You could buy things over there on the cheap. It was just incredible — glasses, suits, hi-fis, all kinds of interesting things. In fact, I had a massage every day I was there, and it cost seven bucks a day. When I finished that movie and came home, I was as sleek as a leopard. In fact, when I came home, shortly after that, that’s when I did “Bread and Circuses” for Star Trek, so I was in pretty good shape.
BH: What do you remember about going on location for the Mondo Island scenes?
RR: Ah, that was interesting, because we actually filmed on this island named Oshima, which is about 40 or 50 miles southeast of Tokyo. It’s the youngest volcanic island in the Pacific. You notice in the film that there are a lot of volcanic rocks and so forth, and lovely vegetation. We were there about four weeks because the first two weeks we couldn’t shoot anything because it rained every day.
So we just started rotating giving lavish dinners at each other’s apartments for two weeks, and having sukiyaki, drinking hot sake and beer, and smoking cigarettes, and getting served by geishas. God, it was wonderful! (audience laughter) It was incredible. They used to give me these yukatas, and because I was so tall, they would come up to a little above my knees. Everyone would see me walking down the hall, and they’d all laugh. I’d wonder, “What are they laughing at?” Well, yukatas are supposed to go down almost floor-length.
BH: How was the hovercraft on Mondo Island operated?
RR: Well, that was very simple. They just laid down railroad tracks, and they had these railroad wheels that they put under what you saw there. They would have a fan on the side blowing the shrubs away, so it would look like we were actually rising up and taking off. All they were doing was just pulling it down the railroad track, out of shot. So it was a very simple, very rudimentary special effect, you could call it.
BH: What do you remember about the submarine set?
RR: Well, I just remember that it was all there, all the hallways and compartments — oh, my captain’s quarters. That was kind of funny when I was first introduced to it. On the captain’s composing table where he had the maps, they had piled up just a pile of T-squares and triangles and calipers and things. I thought, “It’s like pick-up sticks. What’s this all about?” I said, “Do you mind if I get rid of some of these things?” So you saw a T-square maybe, and a triangle and a caliper, to make it more realistic. They loved to overload everything to be just too much of a good thing.
BH: Now is there any funny story behind the scene in which you, Linda Miller, and Akira Takarada swim away from Dr. Who’s ship at night?
RR: I can tell you how it was done. We were in a tank, an interior set, and the water was about four feet deep. Linda Miller had to be on her tippy toes. (audience laughter) No, that’s a joke. We had these little, supposedly motorized things that would pull us through the water, and we held onto whatever it was we held on to. They had wires hooked up to winches and just pulled us through the water. It was just a momentary sequence, anyway. And they would have little things thrown into the water to look like we were being shot at, and the water was splashing up, and the bullets were splattering around us, and everybody was in extreme danger. It was terrible. (audience laughter)
BH: Away from the set, what were some of the things you did in Japan on your own time?
RR: I had a lot of fun, going to nightclubs and going to dinners. I had a special restaurant that I would frequent called Le Printemps, which means “springtime” in French, I believe. A little French restaurant. I was a regular there, and I managed to arrange to have the restaurant at my disposal just for my friends, so I set up a nice dinner for all of the cast there one evening, and they had a lot of fun, and we had fun.
BH: In general, what was working for Toho like, back in the 1960s?
RR: It was just like a copycat of the major motion picture studios in Hollywood in the thirties and forties — the MGMs, the Paramounts, the Warner Bros. It was totally self-sufficient, self-contained. They had their own contract players, they had their own contract actors and directors, writers. They had their own distribution; they had their own exhibition theaters throughout the world. So they had total control of producing their product and distributing it and exhibiting it, so that was very much like the thirties and forties in America. I don’t know what it’s like today, but it was fun from that standpoint. They had their own commissary, their own wardrobe department, make-up department — they were just totally self-contained.
BH: How was the film dubbed back in the States?
RR: We took it to Glen Glenn Sound. That was in Hollywood, and Riley Jackson was the head guy who helped write all the dialogue to match the mouth movements of the Japanese actors. They employed Paul Frees, who was at that time one of the finest voice-over actors of the period. He used to copy everybody — Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart.
In fact, he did all the male voices in the movie, and Julie Bennett, another actress of the period, a voice-over actress, she did all the female voices. I did the voice of King Kong. (audience laughter) No, I did my own. I re-looped my own dialogue, just so they would have the same sound balance throughout.
It took about two weeks to dub this. Paul says, “What are you doing here, Rhodes?” I said, “Well, I’ve got to re-dub my own lines.” And he says, “I can sound more like you than you can.” (audience laughter) I said, “Thanks a lot, Paul!” Then of course everything was put together. They had the two versions — the Japanese version that was distributed in the East, all the Asiatic countries, and we had the American version for the United States and England and wherever they spoke English.
BH: When the film was first released in the U.S., do you have any memory of what the critical reaction was?
RR: Not too good. (audience laughter) No, it was okay. At that time, it was thought to be more of a kids’ movie than an adult movie, but as I get older, I get more childish, and I’m enjoying it more. (audience laughter) I grew up in Glendale, and the local newspaper in Glendale had a whole front page: “RHODES REASON STARS IN KING KONG ESCAPES!” You’d think World War II had just started. They showed it at a little theater down on Brand and Broadway, which is the center of Glendale, and it was quite a big event for that little town at that time.
BH: The final thing I just wanted to ask about is, I believe you’ve worked with the following people. I just wanted to throw you a couple of names, and if you have any memories of them, just feel free to share them with the audience.
BH: The first one is Nick Adams.
RR: Yeah, poor Nick. He was an afflicted young man. He had a lot of emotional problems, but he was a wonderful little actor and a very dear friend of mine. In fact, I had the unfortunate time to be with him a week before he killed himself. That wasn’t very much fun for me. He was very upset and despondent because his wife had left him, and he was kind of low. But he was a depressive individual. I feel very sorry about that to this day because he was a good little actor.
BH: The next one is Raymond Burr.
RR: Oh, Raymond. Raymond and I go way back. (laughs.) You won’t believe it, but in 1950, I did a pilot. I was just twenty years old, and I was going to be inducted into the Army to go into the Korean conflict a month later. My brother (Rex Reason) was making his first movie called Storm Over Tibet with Diana Douglas, who’s Michael Douglas’ mother, by the way. I used to visit him on the set.
One of the producers there kept walking back and forth. He’d see me, and he’d say, “Rhodes, I want you to go over and meet Richard Irving at Universal Studios.” “Well, what for?” “There’s a part over there that would be really good for you.” So I said, “What is it?” “Well, it’s a pilot film for a new series called Prison Doctor, starring Cameron Mitchell, and you’d play part of a gang of a notorious gangster to be played by Raymond Burr.
Raymond Burr was doing a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, and they had him in a butch haircut, and it was dyed red. The plot was that the prison doctor would rehabilitate these inmates that they caught during one of their heists or something. So Cameron Mitchell made me divulge the whereabouts of the gang and so forth. And this gangster, Raymond Burr, was in a wheelchair. So if you can get the connection, years later he made a series called Ironside where he appeared in a wheelchair.
That was the first time I worked with him, and of course, later on, I worked on the Perry Mason series with him when he became Perry Mason. Also in that pilot film was Steve Reeves, who was kind of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of that period. He was Mr. Universe, and he was just a beautiful guy. That was the first pilot film for Revue Productions, which became quite large in the fifties with all kinds of TV shows and so forth. That was my introduction to Raymond, and we’ve been kind of friends through the years.
BH: The next name is Joseph Cotten.
RR: Ah, Joseph Cotten, one of my favorite actors. What a beautiful guy. Growing up, I enjoyed all of his movies. I had the opportunity when we made the pilot of Bus Stop, which was in 1961. Don Siegel directed it. It was, at the time, the most expensive pilot ever made. It was a remake of the movie Bus Stop. In the pilot, we sort of followed that same story.
I played Will Mayberry, the local sheriff, and Joseph Cotten played the old, fading professor who kind of had a crush on one of the waitresses there. It took about three weeks to make the pilot film. Joseph and I got together quite a bit. He regaled me with stories of his friendship with Orson Welles, and that was quite amazing. He was just a beautiful guy. So that’s all I know about Joe. (looks up toward the ceiling) Do you hear me Joe? (audience laughter)
BH: The last name I have for you is Richard Jaeckel.
RR: Well, Richard, that’s another story people probably don’t know about. In 1943, during World War II, there was the huge invasion of Guadalcanal, and there was a book written about it called Guadalcanal Diary. They made a movie shortly after that, during the war. They were looking for a young actor to play the part of Chicken, one of the young Marines who invaded the island.
Richard Jaeckel was a junior in Hollywood High School and his mother took him to a casting call, and he was cast in the role of Chicken. That was his introduction into the movies, and he had this short blond hair in a crew cut. He was just the cutest little guy. And that launched his career, and the rest is history. He died a couple of years ago, which I was sorry to hear. Richard and I kind of grew up together. We kept in touch on and off through the years. It’s too bad that some of these stories are rather sad in retrospect, but that’s life.