GOD WILL UNDERSTAND: Actor Tony Cetera on Performing in Japan

Tony Cetera in May 2020. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Pennsylvanian Tony Cetera (born on November 9, 1938) came to Japan in the early 1960s to sell American life insurance and American mutual funds to G.I.s on military bases, and before long found himself in demand as an actor in Japanese productions.

Mr. Cetera appears as New Guinea researcher Dr. Wilson (who says the line, “God will understand,” to Tetsuro Tamba’s Dr. Nishiyama) in Prophecies of Nostradamus (a.k.a. The Last Days of Planet Earth, 1974), Abdul Jadot in the Sonny Chiba actioner The Street Fighter (1974), Rico in The Executioner Ⅱ: Karate Inferno (1974), Professor Jimmy Douglas in episode 13 of the Submersion of Japan TV series (1974-75), Scott in episode 8 of the Super Sentai series Himitsu Sentai Goranger (1975-77), and Professor Lou Douglas in Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (1976), among many other credits.

These days, on top of being a volunteer for the homeless, Mr. Cetera is the husband of his wife of more than 40 years, Kayoi, father of three daughters and one son, and grandfather to a seven-year-old girl. In May 2020, Mr. Cetera answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his lengthy acting career.

Brett Homenick: Let’s start at the beginning. Could you tell me, just for the record, where were you born and when were you born?

Tony Cetera: That’s a good question. Someone said Poland/Czechoslovakia area, where Poland touches Czechoslovakia. 1938 — some people say 1928 — November 9. Some documents at that time — I don’t know — said 1928, but now the American passport says 1938.

BH: So you were born in Czechoslovakia?

TC: I really don’t know. Some records say America, Philadelphia. Some say Czechoslovakia/Poland. It gets confusing.

BH: But your parents were from there?

TC: Somewhere that area, yeah. Polish/Czech, yes. Because my name is C-E-T-E-R-A. That’s a Czechoslovakian name — Cetera. The name of the Czechoslovakian news agency is Ceteka. I’m Cetera — one letter different, you see.

BH: So tell me about growing up. Where did you grow up?

TC: Philadelphia, Roxborough. We had a small home in Roxborough, then we moved to a bigger home in Roxborough. I went to Roman Catholic High School. I was teased in school because I was a little bit thin. So I met one man, and I looked. He had big muscles. So I decided to train. I started training, and after two years, the people who used to tease me respected me.

BH: So exercising, weightlifting was one of your hobbies at that time.

TC: Yes, and I joined the Army Reserve, doing weightlifting in the Army. I joined the Army Reserve for six months, but [during the] Berlin Crisis time, I told the military, “I want to serve my country.” They said, “Then you sign up another six months.” So I signed up for another six months and two weeks. So I served active duty one year and two weeks. So I performed my duty for my country. But so many Americans went to the Vietnam War, Korean War, and they’re in heaven now. They didn’t come back. They really tried hard for our country.

BH: Going back to when you were young and in Philadelphia, did you have other hobbies? What else did you like to do?

TC: Collecting coins. I had a hobby, collecting coins. I collected many coins. I still have them now, as a matter of fact. Silver dollars, I collected, in mint condition — usually in a case. I still have them, and they’re worth a lot of money compared to before — 10, 20, 30 times more.

BH: Did you go to college?

TC: No, I didn’t go. I went to Temple University only — night school. I didn’t graduate from college. But I came to Japan. I found an envelope, and [after calling the company, I discovered that] they needed a teacher. And I said, “But I didn’t go to university.” The company’s lawyer said, “Oh, no, I wrote down you graduated from Harvard,” or something. Well, that’s OK. He was a famous lawyer who defended the former prime minister of Japan Kakuei Tanaka — Dr./Professor Haruo Abe.

He pushed me up because he said some American or somebody was in trouble. I said, “Can I go to court and help?” He said yes. So I went to court. And this is very interesting. There were two Americans arguing in court, and the judge was there. One man was at the podium speaking, an American man. To me, he looked like, I’m sorry to say, Italian Mafia. I’m sorry to say, but I have to say it. His name was Mario — oh, boy.

The judge was looking down, and this Mr. Mario was at the podium or something, speaking. He had a document in his hand, and the judge looked down. Every time the judge looked down, this Mr. Mario took his right thumb[nail], and he was scratching the paper. So I shouted to the judge, he’s destroying the paper. The other lawyer really respected me, you see. So we must not destroy your documents. It looked like where the signature [was]. Well, he definitely did something. Go ahead, next question, sir.

BH: At Temple University, what were you studying?

TC: Business.

BH: Around what age were you when you were going there?

TC: I don’t know — 19, 20.

BH: So what brought you to Japan?

TC: That’s a good question. I really don’t know. I have been thinking, “Why did I come?” And I’ve been thinking and trying to get the answer, but I couldn’t. Just that something told me to come. When I came here, I went to Ueno Park. I was sleeping in some kind of youth hostel or something — bunk beds, four people sleeping, so very cheap, little room. I went to Ueno Park, and I saw many people lined up. There was a gentleman standing there.

I asked him, “Excuse me, what are these people here?” He said, “They’re homeless.” “Homeless? Oh, my God.” Anyway, the man that I was talking to, he gave me his telephone number — I guess I asked him. I called him, and his secretary answered. She said, “Oh, you want to speak to His Excellency, the ambassador!” And I said, “Oh, my goodness! He’s a great man; I met him.” “Oh, yes, he told me about you.” So, anyway, he said, “Can’t talk talk to you,” but he connected me to some other nice gentleman.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What was the name of the ambassador?

TC: I don’t know.

BH: So what year did you come to Japan?

TC: Exactly 59 years ago — ‘64 or ‘65.

BH: But you don’t remember why exactly you decided to come.

TC: Something just told me to come. And something told me to go to Ueno Park, and the American ambassador and the homeless. And I’m feeding the homeless. We’re feeding the homeless any time they’re there — Saturday, it was 1:30; now we’re there about 11:30. But I haven’t been there for about a year because of my bad knees.

BH: One of your earliest movie roles was apparently Ghost Story: Foreign Ghost (a.k.a. Ghost from the Continent) back in 1963.

TC: Then I came here [that year]. I don’t know what happened, but I was maybe standing on a corner with my hat, and I looked like gangster or something. And a movie truck — somebody came to me. He said, “Are you free?” I said, “I’m free.” “We’re going to go to the park,” and [they shot] me just with the hat, looking behind a tree like a gangster, with a cigarette and a little moustache here. So I don’t know. Natural flow.

BH: So that’s how you got involved in the movies.

TC: Yeah, yeah. Somebody said, “Yeah, we’ve got work for you,” and I got big parts. I was a Mafia from America gangster came to Japan, and the Japanese famous movie stars, they all killed me! I was in about 90 movies, not yet 100. I won’t lie — not 100 — around 90 movies.

I was in a park, and the man was selling movie posters. And there’s a poster with my name on [it] and my picture! Come on. I found two posters with my name on [them] in Japanese. Oh, my goodness.

BH: So why are you staying here in Japan?

TC: Japanese have very high morals compared to we Germans, Polish, or Americans, I’m sorry to say. Very high morals. They helped me so much, I’m surprised myself. And also, that’s why I’m helping the homeless.

One man at the station — I don’t know, maybe some station — I [was] giving food to the homeless, and the station man saw me. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, these poor Japanese, I’m just giving them food.” And I showed him a few pictures. I [said], “I try to help the homeless because Japanese are kind to me; I’m going to be kind to them.” So OK. He said, “Where do you come from?” I said, “I came from far away.” He said, “Oh, OK, good. Go pass through,” and he shut the window. He didn’t take my money.

He sees me; he calls me and my wife: “Oh, how are you doing? Long time, no see. It’s OK; I have it,” he said to my wife. “I have it.” My wife’s surprised, you see. If you do good, good will come back to you. It’s like the famous story: Russian soldiers came through Poland in the war, and Germany or something, and then one Russian soldier — maybe he was arrested; I don’t know what happened — but anyway, somebody said, “No, he helped my mother. He gave [her] food.” And they let him go free. You know these stories.

BH: At the time, there were a lot of other [Westerners] who were doing movies, such as Osman Yusuf.

TC: Yeah, he was my boss! God bless him — Turkish gentleman. He was born in Manchuria, he said. But he couldn’t speak Turkish, so not born in Turkey. Very nice guy, very honest. Big and strong, and wife Japanese. His son, they live somewhere in Nakameguro. Son is about — I don’t know — about 50 now, 60, maybe. I went to his grave where he’s resting. I said a few prayers for him. Nice guy.

BH: Are you still in touch with his son?

TC: No, I’m going to.

BH: Do you know his name?

TC: I don’t know the son’s first name. But Nakameguro — I know the house somewhere. I have to go stretch my memory. It’s been so many years. But he’s a nice guy; wife is nice. He was a really good man.

BH: Do you have any specific memories of doing something with him, or maybe something he told you — any advice he gave you?

TC: Yeah. Save money, he said. Work hard. And I think he said, respect the Japanese. But I really respect the Japanese because they don’t carry knives; they don’t buy guns.

I’m sorry to say, I said this on television. My wife and I were on a show, and they asked me, “What do you think about Japan?” “Japanese,” I said, “takai dotoku aru!” “Japanese have high morals.” After the show, in Nagoya or somewhere, the producer-lady came to my wife, and she talked to [her].

My wife was surprised, and my wife said that the producer-lady said, “If you go home tonight, it’s too cold. Take a rest. We reserved a hotel room for you.” So we went to the hotel room; it was a high-class hotel — big hotel! They paid for the Viking smorgasbord, [as] we say in America. I was so happy. I just said the truth: Japanese have high morals compared to we, I’m sorry, Americans.

BH: Do you remember Robert Dunham?

TC: If I see his face… Name sounds a little familiar.

BH: How about Ralph Jesser?

TC: Ralph! German! Yes! He called me the Polish Jew, and I called him the Gestapo! Yeah, he’s in Germany now. I’m 82; he’s about 90.

BH: Is he still alive?

TC: I hope so. My German Gestapo friend, I hope he’s alive! I don’t know. I remember he was a big guy [with] muscles. He’s a bit stronger than me. Nice guy.

BH: Do you have any other memories of him?

TC: Oh, no, things like that. I try to forget things like that. He didn’t like me. He said I was a Polish Jew. I thought I said he might be a Gestapo, you know.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: So it wasn’t a friendly thing…

TC: No, we were very friendly.

BH: But he didn’t like you?

TC: Well, I think so. I think he liked me, but not really.

BH: Is he kind of like a Nazi type of a person?

TC: It’s difficult to say. I don’t think so. But we really don’t know because once I met a man in a movie shooting somewhere — big man. I’m Polish-American, so I speak a little Polish, which is similar to Russian. As you know, it was one country 1,000 years ago. I looked at him, and I moved up to him close. I looked in his eyes because I thought he might be working for the KGB.

I looked in his eyes, and I said, “Excuse me, sir, are you a Russian spy?” And, in that next second, he moved his eyes to the right, he moved his eyes to the left, and he looked at me. He said no. He didn’t blink. Normally, he would have blinked. But if you go like this and go like that with your eyes, you can’t blink. So he lied. He was a Russian gentleman.

BH: Was he in the movies?

TC: I think so. I’m not sure. I’m trying to forget the past. I hate to say that.

BH: Do you remember Enver Altenbay?

TC: No.

BH: You were in a couple of big movies. One of the most famous is with Shinichi Chiba (a.k.a. Sonny Chiba).

TC: Yeah! Maybe a couple with him. He caught me somewhere at the embassy. We filmed at the Philippine embassy, but they changed it to [the] something embassy. He quickly took my right hand and twisted it around, and I went down on a floor. And I’m begging, “Oh, I’m sorry,” you know. Then, when they cut, nothing hurt. He did it in a manner without hurting me. God bless him. If I see him, I’ll bow down and shake his hand.

BH: Do you have any other memories of Mr. Chiba?

TC: Well, nice guy, honest guy. Yeah, some memory that he was very good at moving his body. He was very good to move and flip around, you know.

BH: Like a gymnast?

TC: Yeah, like gymnastics.

BH: In one of those other movies with Chiba, there’s Ryo Ikebe [and] Makoto Sato.

TC: Makoto Sato — that name is really familiar. I wish I could see his picture. I think I was with him, yeah. I played a role in one movie, and they asked me to get one guy. So I was at the station, and there was a big black American gentleman. He’s taller than me, and I said, “Do you want a job in a movie — a small part?” I told him to call Mr. Yusuf. He called, and he got the job. We were in a movie [as] gangsters. Yeah, I remember.

BH: Do you remember the movie Prophecies of Nostradamus (a.k.a. The Last Days of Planet Earth, 1974)?

TC: I was something in that movie.

By the way, I was in the Army, but we had a meeting of former American soldiers and Japanese soldiers about 55 years ago at the Akasaka American military hotel. One Japanese man was there. I wasn’t there, but he said, “I was a machine-gunner in Iwo Jima.” He took the lives of so many American soldiers. You know, Iwo Jima, first landing, 100% didn’t make it. Second landing on Iwo Jima — I don’t know, 80% didn’t make it. It was terrible. Then an American soldier came up, old-timer; they both were crying on a stage. They both sent a lot of soldiers to heaven.

BH: So tell me about the Army. When did you join?

TC: I joined the United States Army Reserves for six months active duty — I don’t know — maybe 1962 or something, before I came to Japan. Berlin Crisis time. But then they stopped the Berlin Crisis, and people who were temporarily drafted for Berlin Crisis all left.

A few people were only in the military base, Fort Eustis, Virginia. I [did basic training at] Fort Knox, Kentucky. And then I joined up for another six months. And then they said: You have to make it two weeks, so one year and two weeks. Then your military [service is] completely finished because you joined. Then you won’t be drafted, you see. So I served my term in the military [at] Fort Eustis, Virginia.

I was in a stevedore outfit.

BH: The Army had nothing to do with your coming to Japan. You were not stationed here.

TC: No, no. Something told me to come.

BH: What do you remember about working at the studios?

TC: Well, it’s sometimes easy, sometimes hard. But once, working in a studio, we worked late — I don’t know how late. But they said, “Tomorrow morning, you gotta come here early. We’re shooting early.” So everybody left; I left the studio. I went back to the studio side door, went into bed. There was a refrigerator there. I slept in the bed.

Early in the morning, I woke up, and I opened up the shutters. I [was] just stretching, and the movie truck came, and they saw me there. They’re so happy because two people quit or something, and they said, “We’re going to shoot even earlier.” I said, “Let’s shoot!” So we just try our best. That’s it. Try your best; that’s the thing. Don’t think of money.

BH: So you would sleep at the studio?

TC: I slept at the studio, yeah! Because if I go home late at night and come back early in the morning, I wouldn’t even be able to get up in the morning. You see what I mean? So I slept at the studio, and it’s OK. There’s a refrigerator there was some milk in, you know.

BH: Where would you sleep, exactly? What type of room was it?

TC: Anywhere. It’s a movie studio. There’s a sofa on a side. Look — oh, there’s a bedroom. You sleep in a bedroom. Anywhere — on a floor; it doesn’t matter. Japan is a clean country and safe country. You know that yourself.

BH: Did you have permission to do that?

TC: I think a kind of permission. They said, “Yeah, you can sleep here,” after they found out I was so loyal. They came earlier. Instead of coming at nine in the morning to shoot, they came at six in the morning to shoot. Well, of course, everybody’s at home — but not me. I opened the shutter, and they saw me. They were so happy. That’s why they used me many times in movies. And I’ve been killed many times by famous Japanese actors.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How about Submersion of Japan (1974-75)?

TC: Yeah, I think I was in that one. I was a professor or doctor or something — I don’t know.

BH: Any stories from the set?

TC: No, but Japanese actors were very good.

BH: Were you in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)?

TC: I don’t think so, but I might have been in a different scene, but not with Godzilla, the monster.

I’ll tell you this. Last movie I made was Machine Gun no Ryu — The Way of the Machine Gun (a.k.a. Yokohama Underworld: Machine Gun Dragon, 1976). But I was in the newspaper; it said “Machine Gun Dragon.” Not “dragon”; Ryu is The Way of the Machine Gun.

He [Bunta Sugawara] forgot his rifle out there! It was wintertime; I took and I gave  my rifle to the director, and the director gave it to him. And they said, “Where’s your rifle?” Then I went, “I had two!” They said, “Where did you get two rifles?” I said, “In this business, you gotta use your head.”

It was snowing in Tokyo the day we were shooting, and we went out to the mountains, but it didn’t snow in the mountains. But he [Mr. Sugawara] shot me. He had a machine gun, and I had only a rifle. Yeah, I remember. I had a rifle or two, but he had a machine gun. He was a very nice guy. There was a big black man with me — nice gentleman. I forgot his name — American, tall. He was six inches taller than me.

BH: Dorsey?

TC: Bill Dorsey. I was with him many times. But I try to forget the past because I’m thinking about the future.

Bill Dorsey — he was very, very honest. I remember him.

BH: Any specific memories of Bill Dorsey?

TC: I remember something very good and interesting; I don’t know. I think maybe he helped me or gave me some advice or something. I don’t know what, but I remember that I liked him. Something he did which made me like him; I don’t know. He did some favor for me or something.

BH: Going back to the story about the machine gun, do you remember how you had two rifles?

TC: From the…

BH: Prop department?

TC: Yeah, they have many things there. I think so; I guess so. I have a lot of experience. Sometimes they forget things. Once, I was in a movie, and the famous Japanese actor, he got the first script book, but the second script book was different, so I told him.

I remember one movie — a guy came. For some reason, they said, “OK, you say what you’re supposed to say.” He said, “I don’t know. They didn’t tell me.” So they took the camera off him, and they put the camera on my face, and he read what he was supposed to say. Of course, he practiced many times. He read, and I just [made] facial expressions. I’m on the screen for five minutes, close up, and he’s reading because [of] some mistake. But Japanese are good people. I never went back to America — never went back.

BH: Do you have any other memories of Bunta Sugawara?

TC: Yes, I have a picture of me, the black man, and Bunta Sugawara. He [was] a very nice guy, but not friendly. He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t talk; he keeps to himself. I shouldn’t say it, but God bless him, he should be more friendly. He was not sociable, just sticks to himself too much. I wouldn’t say bad, but normally, we try to be friendly to anyone.

You know, 42 years ago or 45 years ago, I was in the newspaper as a Soviet spy. Did you know that?

BH: No, I didn’t.

TC: Well, anyway, at that time, I went to the American embassy. I just said, “I’m stupid, I’m not educated, I’m almost an idiot. The Soviets wouldn’t hire me as a spy.” Or maybe they would!

But it’s the old story — in the Soviet embassy, the man cleaning the toilets and scrubbing the fences and cleaning outside, they said he was the ambassador. He was a famous Soviet spy. He’s cleaning the toilets and washing the windows; he couldn’t be a Soviet spy, but they said he was.

When I was sick, I went to Dr. [Eugene] Aksenoff. His office was across from the old Soviet embassy. Aksenoff is, of course, a Russian name.

But nobody accused me of being a Soviet spy. But I went to the embassy to tell them I’m not a Soviet spy. I mean, I’m so stupid, they wouldn’t hire me! I’d foul up, you know. And they said, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” So, apparently, the American embassy people, they know everything.

BH: Which newspaper was that in? Was that in a Japanese newspaper?

TC: A Japanese newspaper. Then, another story, it said, “And there was some Soviet spy, like Tony Cetera,” me. I don’t know what the hell they were doing, you know. But the lawyer said, “Don’t believe the newspapers. They do anything.” If you take them to court, this is what they say: “I’m so sorry. Somebody at the office just gave me that. I just published it.” That’s all.

BH: How about The Last Hero (1982)?

TC: I was in The Last Hero. But I forgot. Where was that — Toho? Toei?

BH: That was Haruki Kadokawa.

TC: Ah, I know him. He was in trouble or something. Yeah, he’s a nice guy. The Last Hero — I had some part in that.

BH: Do you have any memories of Mr. Kadokawa?

TC: Yeah, I was in the set outside. We were looking at something. We were shooting. He and the assistant director or director came to me, and the assistant director was standing next to Mr. Kadokawa. The assistant director said something, and I kept my mouth shut: “Yes, I try my best.” And then Kadokawa said in Japanese, “Your acting before was good, but now it’s terrible!” And I bowed down, and I was worried something… Kadokawa, then we found out he got in some serious trouble.

I just try to be friendly with all people because I love the Japanese, and I think they love me.

BH: Do you have any other movie-related memories or anything else that you’d like to share about your movie experiences?

TC: People were very kind to me. And I remember Toei, Toho. They gave me extra [box lunches] which I gave to the homeless. Somebody saw me giving to the homeless, you know, 10 boxes. This is 40 years ago or something. Then I started feeding the homeless.

BH: Which was your favorite studio to work for?

TC: All of them. They were all kind, no problem — Toei, Toho, both.

BH: Do you have a favorite movie that you were in, or a favorite project?

TC: Maybe The Way of the Machine Gun with Bunta Sugawara, maybe. He killed me; he had the machine gun, and I had only one rifle. Almost all of them. The Japanese were so kind to me. I don’t want to say, but I heard a rumor that some Americans were in a movie. They made a movie [for] a couple days, and then they didn’t come. So they had to shoot all over again with me and another guy. We came. That night, I slept in the studio; I opened the shutter, and the truck came! It was 5:30 in the morning. They were so happy; he hugged me. I guess it’s a serious business, isn’t it?

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