Don Frye is an accomplished Ultimate Fighter and mixed martial artist who made the transition to movie star with Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), the Big G’s 50th anniversary film. Mr. Frye, as Captain Douglas Gordon, won praise even from Final Wars’ harshest critics for his witty one-liners and his commanding screen presence. When it comes to the world of Ultimate Fighting, Mr. Frye won the UFC 8 tournament, was a runner-up in the UFC 10 tournament, and then went on to win Ultimate Ultimate 2. He also wrestled in New Japan Pro Wrestling as the top gaijin for a few years. In 2003, Yoshihiro Takayama and Mr. Frye battled in what came to be known as the Fight of the Year, and was even voted #1 in Fox Sports Net’s “Best Damn 50 Beatdowns.” In July 2008, Mr. Frye spoke with Brett Homenick in their second interview regarding his starring role in Godzilla: Final Wars.
Brett Homenick: Maybe you should say a few words, a few introductory words, just to let the people know a little bit more about you.
Don Frye: Hell, I was just lucky to be in a Godzilla movie. I tell ya, it was an honor and a thrill. I was a fan of Godzilla since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. And, when they gave me the call, I jumped right on it.
BH: How did you get involved with Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)? What’s the story behind that?
DF: Ryuhei Kitamura, the writer and director, I guess he was a fan of mine from pro wrestling, fighting. We made that movie together, just kind of tweaked that role for me. He had a little problem trying to chase me down for about six or eight months, then he finally got me. Like I said, they offered it to me, and I jumped on it.
BH: Once they finally were able to cast you, do you have any memories of any pre-production meetings or some of the initial discussions?
DF: We had a pre-production meeting. I’d done some movies before, just small parts where I get beat up, get killed, and you leave. This is simple; this is an easy way to make a living! Walk in, one day’s work, go home, cash a check! Got a meeting with Ryuhei, and Ryuhei said, “We’re gonna do this and this and this, and [we’ll give you] your lines.” “Lines? What lines?” And then he said, “What’s your idea about Captain Gordon?” I said, “Idea? I’ll just follow what you tell me to do!” So, apparently, it was a bigger role than I was prepared for. If there’s a weak spot in the movie, it’s me.
BH: I don’t know about that.
DF: It was a lot of fun.
BH: You mentioned Ryuhei Kitamura, the director. Why don’t you talk a little bit more about him, from a personality standpoint, what he was like when he wasn’t directing, and also what he was like as a director.
DF: The first day, we traveled out of town a couple of hours outside of Tokyo. They rented this blue building, and he remodeled it and and all this. It was the jailhouse scene. Actually, that jailhouse scene is probably about two minutes long. By the time I got done butchering it up, it’s about two seconds long in the movie. I saw him afterwards; he was just standing over there shaking his head, wondering what the heck he got himself into. He ended up cutting my part down to where I didn’t embarrass anybody that much.
BH: I understand you’re being a little self-deprecating, but you also have to give yourself a little bit of credit here because your role is much more popular than you might think.
DF: Like I said, I wasn’t really prepared for [it]. Ryuhei pretty much took me by the hand and walked me through it — saved what I was there to destroy.
BH: I suppose one of the dreams for everybody [here] would be to meet some of the classic Toho actors like Kumi Mizuno and Akira Takarada, and [you] got to do just that. What was it like to work with these golden age Toho actors from the 1960s?
DF: They were great. They were truly professionals, and everything they did was just top-quality. You know, when they walked onto the set, you knew you were dealing with a professional. They didn’t have 20 people following them around; they didn’t have a bunch of trouble or anything like that. They just went in there, did their part, didn’t cause any problems, and got it done. So it was a real thrill to be with somebody like that.
BH: Not just the older generation, but a lot of the new generation was featured in this film. I’m talking about the likes of Kane Kosugi, Masahiro Matsuoka, and of course Kazuki Kitamura, who played the leader of the [Xiliens] in a very interesting role. Why don’t you talk a little bit about working with all of them individually and what they were all like?
DF: Kazuki’s a blast. That guy’s just wired for sound at all times. That guy’s like a walking, breathing cartoon character. You just want to sit back and watch him act. Just watching him breathe is something different than seeing a normal person breathe.
BH: What about some of the others, like Kane Kosugi, as I mentioned, and Masahiro Matsuoka?
DF: Kane’s a good guy. Kane’s a real intelligent fella. His father was…
BH: Sho Kosugi.
DF: Yeah, a great actor. So Kane grew up in all that stuff. So he comes in with a lot of knowledge. Masa’s a good guy. He’s just a rock star. (laughs) Kind of like me, they just threw him in there for a certain section of the audience, I guess. He’s a good guy. I don’t think he was really prepared for the amount of role that he had, sort of like me. His last day, when he was done, [and] they called wrap, he ran upstairs to the hairdressers and shaved his head so that he wouldn’t have to go back and do a reshoot!
BH: There was a story about some people on set challenging you to an arm-wrestling contest. Do you have any memories of any of that?
DF: Naw, they were pretty much a bunch of good guys. We had that party, and we got drunk, you know. A couple of times, [Masakatsu] Funaki — Funaki’s in the movie, too — and he’s a fighter. So we got into a choking competition. We would just grab people walking by and choke them out. [We had] a pile of bodies here and there. Ryuhei got a little bit mad about that and took away my katana!
BH: As you are one of the world’s greatest fighters, if I may say so, there’s a lot of fight choreography, certainly involving you. How much were you involved in choreographing the fights with the other actors?
DF: I just tweaked my scene a little bit. Maybe we weren’t doing a big fight scene. The stunt coordinator, he wanted to do this, and I wanted to do this. Then he wanted to do this, and I wanted to do that. So it ended up going from here [hands stretched far apart] down to there [hands much closer together]. So it probably fit the role a little bit better. It was hard fighting in that big old coat, too. That coat weighs about 75 pounds, and then I had those big riding boots on, too, on top of that. So it was a little cumbersome to fool around.
BH: Of course, when you’re involved with professional fighting, and perhaps other actors were not professional fighters, there are bound to be accidents that happen. Could you talk about some of the accidents that happened on the set when fights were involved?
DF: We had the scene with guns. We’re going like that [crosses his arms over his chest], swing them out, and popped a guy right in the eye! I think that was the last take on that move. But they were pretty good about it. They all stood back when I had the sword. Keep away from that one!
BH: What was it like to work with the sword on that film, having to shoot many takes with an object like that?
DF: That was nice. They gave me about a week, week and a half, for training. The Japanese are real serious about their swords, so they weren’t just gonna turn some dumb gaijin loose with a katana, just be swinging it around. So we spent a lot of time working on that. Wasn’t a lot of moves in there, but we practiced it to get it down, drilled it, because, like I said, they’re very serious about their swords, and they’re not gonna let you to goof off.
BH: One of the most prominent aspects of the film are your one-liners and just your dialogue in general. Did you have any freedom to tweak any of your words, or did you basically just say everything as it appeared on the script?
DF: Naw, Ryuhei’s smart. He’s smart enough to know that there’s a little difference in the Japanese language and the English language, and the translation doesn’t come out right. Like in the one scene where the aliens are talking about cultivating us to eat us, and it says, “captivate you.” So, when it [came to] my lines, he would let me have a lot of freedom.
BH: You spent a lot of time on the Gotengo set. What do you remember about working on that set?
DF: The whole thing was a blast. The whole thing was interesting. The whole thing was a blast. I just try to keep from falling over on my sword sometimes.
BH: Sometimes purposely, too, I’m sure
DF: Right, right. They were hoping I would. One scene where I’m holding my sword, the whole ship is supposed to be bouncing [shaking] and stuff, so I start bouncing [shaking] my sword like this, and they said, “No, Don, stop it. Just hold the sword still.”
BH: We’ve talked about many stories from the set. Is there anything else that may have happened on the set that stands out in your mind that you would like to share?
DF: [In] the scene where I throw the space alien, and then I shoot the other guy, like I said, the translation was a little bit bad. I’m a fighter, so, when you tell me to do something now, I do it now. Whereas, in the movies, “now” can be 10 minutes, 20 minutes, a half hour. So [they hand] me the gun when the crew is there, and they’re resetting the camera and all that.
They hand me the gun, and they said, “All right, you can shoot your weapon now; you can test-fire your weapon now.” OK. Bang! Everybody looks at me like, “What the heck’s wrong with [you]?” “Well, she told me to shoot it now!” So they said, “No, not now.” So I said, “All right, fine.”
About a minute later, she says, “OK, we’re ready for you to test-fire your weapon now.” “What?” “We’re [ready] for you to test-fire your weapon now.” OK. Bang! Everybody’s looking at me again! So I said, “Just take the damn gun!” The whole thing was a lot of fun. It got me off the set, and everything got a lot safer.
BH: Japanese filmmaking differs from American filmmaking in a lot of ways, and the shooting schedule on a typical day can often be very different. I know that you’ve got some stories to tell about that.
DF: Easy days were 16-hour days. One day, we did a 24-hour shoot. That’s on the set. It doesn’t include an hour to get there and an hour to get home and then the makeup and the hair and all that. We were on set for 24 hours.
BH: You were there in Hollywood for the world premiere of Godzilla: Final Wars once it screened for the first time. What sort of things would you remember about that? Did you meet any celebrities? I heard Steven Seagal was there. Did you challenge him to a fight?
DF: No, Seagal’s in his own little world. Actually, he was in front of us; he had a seat in front of us with four or five of his men. About halfway through the movie, they got up and walked out. So there was no class. You don’t get up and walk out of somebody’s movie when you’re a special invitee. The guy’s just a piece of trash.
BH: At long last, once you saw it at the premiere, or even if you saw it before then, what did you think of the film once saw it for the first time?
DF: I thought it was great. The first time we saw it was at the premiere.We did the whole thing there at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It’s funny; we stayed right around the corner [there]. My wife and I, we’re a couple of hicks. We’re ready to walk over there. He said, “No, no, we’re gonna take a limo.” So we take a limo for about a 30-second drive! And we get out, and all the lights and all that stuff [were there].
It was a good time. We saw the movie, and it was awesome because it was just such a big event.
On seeing the monster suits in person in Final Wars.
DF: They gave me the big tour, and it was great. I saw the whole set, the scaled-down model of the city. So I saw all the monsters. Then I brought my family over, my wife and my two daughters. They got to come over for a week. I think they were about three to four then. They were going to take them over and show them the monsters, and the Japanese were [saying,], “Now, listen, these are just pretend, toy monsters. They’re not gonna hurt you. They’re fake, they’re rubber, and they’re just toys. So please don’t get scared.” My girls were over there, poking them in the nose, pulling them by the tail! Next thing, these guys, they’re getting scared!
On whether he will do more acting than fighting going forward.
DF: It depends on how bad I’ve done in the past. I just got done filming here in Chicago for the last couple of months, doing Public Enemies. It’s about John Dillinger with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. So I’ve been doing that for a couple of months. I just follow Stephen Lang around. He [does] all the talking, and I just shoot people. Obviously, somebody who made that movie saw Godzilla — cut my lines right out!
On what it was like to speak English in Final Wars when the other actors were speaking Japanese.
DF: At first, it was real difficult, like I said. The jailbreak scene was a lot longer. They didn’t know how to work with me, and I didn’t know how to work with them. It was the first day in. I said, “Look, Masa, I’m trying to listen, and I just can’t get it,” because they wanted me to interrupt him at one point. “So, listen, when you get to that, give me a hand signal.” So he’s over there, going like this, this, then it’s getting like this [making an up-and-down arm gesture that’s getting increasingly vigorous]. I’m like, “I’m not catching on, man.” After a while, though, once we got into it, everything ran pretty smoothly.
On his martial arts background and the importance of it for kids.
DF: It’s important both physically and mentally. We gotta to get kids up off the couch, get away from these video games. Nothing against video games! The hand-eye coordination thing from the video games is tremendous. But they need the whole mind and the physical aspect of moving around. I think, unfortunately, we’ve peaked physically as a nation. You can just see that it’s just sliding downhill, even in the professional sports world. So we’ve got to get back into it, or we’re just going to get bulldozed over by the rest of the world.
I’m a third-degree black belt in judo, and I wrestled in high school and college at an international level. In ‘88, I went over to Las Vegas to compete in the Southwestern Regional Olympic Qualifiers, and I won that in both Greco and freestyle. Then I went to the final Olympic trials. I should have just stayed home!
After college, I did about a year and a half of pro boxing. Got out of that and got a real job as a fireman for seven years. On my days off, I was a farrier, a horseshoer. I did both those for seven years. Then got a divorce. I [got] back into sports, so I went back into fighting. Just bulldozed into this. Real lucky.
On working for New Japan Pro Wrestling.
DF: I tell ya, it was fun. [Keiji] Muto [The Great Muta] and I, we sold out Tokyo Dome over our world heavyweight championship. Then Kensuke [Sasaki] and I sold it out. I know that, when I did Antonio Inoki’s retirement match, we sold it out. It was a 70,000-seat arena, sold out. Then they sold 5,000 standing tickets.
The event was like four, five, six hours long. I know I was getting tired in the back room — couldn’t imagine the people who were standing up the whole time. I’ve got a picture of my wife; she was, like, second row, and I got a picture of her falling asleep! (laughs)
She says, “Honey, I was sitting there, and there’s this black gentleman in front of me, and all these photographers would keep coming up taking his picture. Was he famous?” I said, “Well, honey, that’s Muhammad Ali.” (laughs)
My wife’s kind of a geek. She worked in the Census Bureau before we met. I was the first athlete she’s ever dated. Here we take her from the Census Bureau and then just slam-dunk her into the fight game. It was a whole different world for her.
Who’s your favorite monster in the movie?
BH: Other than Godzilla.
DF: Other than Godzilla, I like Ghidrah. Ghidrah’s always had it together. My dad was in the Air Force, and the other kids would come back from Okinawa and Japan with the old 8mm films.
BH: Super 8.
DF: Yeah, Super 8 — of Ghidrah and Godzilla. It was fun watching that. The film’s jutting along like this. [makes quick, chopping hand gestures] It was a blast back then, just to see the metamorphosis of the monsters from then to now is just incredible.
On whether Captain Gordon was something of a human version of Godzilla in Final Wars.
DF: Yeah, Ryuhei said that to me. So I get all puffed up and start strutting around like a barnyard rooster. Then they had the fight scene with Masa beating up the leader of the X-men, and he’s on top doing the [pounding], and then they show Godzilla on top. I’m going, “Now wait a second! I thought I was supposed to be Godzilla!” So that hurt my feelings. (laughs)
On whether he’d do voice work in the movies.
DF: Yeah, if somebody’d give me a call and give me a job. Hell, I’ll do anything as long as the check don’t bounce. That’s another thing. We talk about our people need to get back in shape. There’s no job that’s beneath you. The whole thing is, get out there and work. That’s the most proud thing anybody could do, is have a job. It doesn’t matter what the job is. Just work.
Were you allowed to keep any props from the film?
DF: No, I wanted to, though. I wanted that katana! Yeah, I wanted that katana and that necklace, but they gave me a wooden, practice katana. They wouldn’t even let me leave the studio with the katana. We would practice at the studio with the sword, and then they gave me a wooden sword to take home back to the hotel, and I would practice that a couple of hours. Then they gave me that at the end of the shoot, [so I got to] take that home.
Is it harder to be a fighter or an actor?
DF: Well, I think it’s harder to be an actor. I’m making this Public Enemies, and, like I said, we’d be on there 16-, 20-hour days. Some of these actors start complaining, and I’m like, “Man, this is the easiest money I’ve ever made. Try getting punched in the face for a living.” So, in a lot of ways, being a fighter is a lot rougher.
Have you recovered from your recent injuries?
DF: Well, last November, early November, I had a shoulder operation. I had messed up my shoulder — probably’d been messed up for a couple of years and didn’t know it. Last year, I fought in Japan, probably April, on about four days’ notice. One of those things where [you go,] “Yeah, I’ll go. What the hell.” But this guy beat the tar out of me for eight minutes.
So, in November, I had the operation and did the rehab and all that stuff on it. I fought in January, and, when I fought in January, I hit the guy and ended up tearing a tendon in my wrist. That coupled with the shoulder, you start thinking, “Well, maybe I better not take this next fight.” Then I didn’t take it and got the phone call for Public Enemies, and I was real happy about that.
It was March. I was over in Japan, shooting a commercial. And my wife calls me and says, “You know, Michael Mann called you, wants you to come do a movie.” OK. I didn’t believe it. So I get home, and it starts getting closer and closer to April 1. So the phone calls started, and I told my agent, “You know, if this is an April Fool’s joke, it’s a great one. It’s elaborate; you went all-out. But I’m gonna kill ya.”
What was your most difficult or memorable fight?
DF: Well, most memorable would be [Yoshihiro] Takayama. That was a great fight. I guess that whole card was kind of slow, and that night also was the World Cup of soccer, the Japanese versus South Korea. For mine and Takayama’s time slot, we beat them on TV ratings. That Takayama, he’s a hell of a fighter.
How do you feel when you go to Japan and stick out there due to your size?
DF: Heads above everybody else. It’s a good time. I’ve been in Japan since ’97. The people over there are just a class act. They treat me with great respect, and I treat them with great respect. I can get a little tipsy and act like an idiot; they let me get away with it — they just turn their head. I only act as stupid over there as I do here. They’re good people, and I don’t want to mess up my role in life over there.
Aren’t you looking at the tops of their heads over there?
DF: No, they’re getting tall. Since World War II, they discovered beef.
How much Japanese do you speak?
DF: I don’t speak a lick of it here in the States. But, when you get over in Japan, it comes back to you, and you start speaking it without realizing you’re speaking it. I don’t speak a lot of it because they provide an interpreter, always. Then also everybody over there wants to learn English, so they use you to practice their English. So sometimes it could take a while to get through a conversation.
How come we never saw a Douglas Gordon action figure?
DF: I don’t know. You’re talking to the wrong cowboy. You have to call up Toho and find out about that.
Where did you go to high school and college, and were you a football player?
DF: Well, I was All-State in football in high school and a state champion once in wrestling. Then I was an All-American on the high school level. Then went to wrestle for four years at Arizona State and got injured my last year and sat out and rehabbed it. Then I went into the Olympic trials in ‘88, then transferred over to Oklahoma State for my final year and wrestled there.
Met Randy Couture there. He was a freshman when I was a senior, and he was a year older than me. He had went from high school into the Army, and he wrestled for four years in the Army. My problem in college was, I tended to enjoy my social life a lot more than I did enjoy the athletic [realm]. Everybody else was more dedicated than I was, so I didn’t do what should have done.
Everything works out for a reason. If I’d made All-American, I’d probably be a junior high or high school wrestling coach somewhere — never would have had this opportunity. Maybe one day I’ll end up being a high school wrestling coach when everybody gets done and tired of me.
What position did you play in football?
DF: I was an inside middle linebacker and also a guard on offense. Played the whole game.
Why did you decide to go to Japan, and did it change you in any way?
DF: I fought in the UFC all of ‘96, and then in my last fight in the UFC, December ‘96, against Tank Abbott, I broke my hand. So, obviously, I had to sit out, and they stick a pin in it, and you’re out for so many months. They wanted me to fight in February, but they pulled the pin out a week or two before the fight so the doctors would clear me.
While I was sitting out, Antonio Inoki was looking for a new shoot fighter, American shoot fighter. They were gonna hire Ken Shamrock. Ken took the contract from them, ran over to WWE, showed it to them, and they hired him, which left open the spot in Japan. So Inoki and Masa Saito called up Brad Rheingans, who’d worked for them for a decade. Brad called up Jeff Blatnick, and Jeff recommended me, so, boom, we all met up there in Minnesota. So they hired me. Next thing I know, I was working in Japan for about 13 years.
What was a typical workout for you like in your prime, and whose mustache would win in a fight — yours or Burt Reynolds’?
DF: Mine — don’t ever question my mustache! I’m attached to my mustache, but my mustache is not attached to me. My wife’s an aerobics instructor, so she’s a real sadist. She made me get up, and I had to run three miles, and then come back and get breakfast — nice, hot shower and breakfast — go out, hit the bags for about an hour and a half, then come in and get a little snack, go out [and] jump-rope for — whatever a CD was — I just jumped rope for the CD, come in, take a shower again, get a snack, take a nap. Get up, go to the weight room, come back, eat again. Drive an hour and a half to the training facility. We would get up a certain morning at about 7:00, and I’d come home at about midnight, 12:30, 1:00.
My second daughter was getting ready to born. I was training for a fight and trained all day long, come home, took a shower, walked in, “Hi, honey, how ya doing?,” flipped back the covers [to the bed], just put my foot in the covers to lay down. She sat up: “Oh, my water broke!” Gotta get up and drive her into town! That’s a 45-minute drive, and I was tired.
On the “Dear Don” videos that were posted on the Internet circa 2007.
DF: I guess the IFL [International Fight League] had to figure out a way to get their money’s worth out of me. They weren’t happy with my coaching inabilities, so they had to come up with some silly idea. They were trying to market anybody and everybody any way they could. So they said, “Do you want to do an advice column?” I says, “You people are stupid.” Anybody out there that’s willing to take my advice, I’ll give it to him. It turned out pretty good. I mean, that’s about the only thing anybody remembers about the IFL. Every Friday, I’d do radio. “Don Fridays” is what they called it. [It was] radio on the Internet.
BH: I do have a question about that. I did see one where Ken Shamrock asked you a question, so how was that all arranged?
DF: They came out to my house just to film some “Dear Don” stuff, and they said, “We got this question from Ken Shamrock.” OK, let me see it. I said, “All right, give me a minute to think about it.” Dear old Ken, I don’t think he ever asked me a question after that. Don’t insult the mustache!
After Ken Shamrock signed with WWE, did you ever consider working for them?
DF: It might have been ‘96. Scott Ferrozzo and I went down to WCW and interviewed with them and then interviewed with WWF. Scott Ferrozzo was a used-car salesman. So he went in there with a used-car-salesman mentality and started telling them how they were gonna change their company to suit us. So they never called us back.
BH: Who did you interview with at WWF and WCW?
DF: At WCW, it was [Eric] Bischoff. And then WWF was Jim Ross and…
BH: Bruce Prichard?
DF: Bruce Prichard — and made ‘em all mad! They didn’t want anything to do with us.
On the differences between how the American and Japanese MMA and pro wrestling fans perceive him.
DF: I don’t know if I’m perceived in the United States anymore or not, [if] they remember me or not. The basic difference of the fans is, you go back to the old speech [General George S.] Patton gave in the movie Patton. “America loves a winner. America hates a loser.” That’s the way it is. When somebody loses over here, you get rid of him; you get the next guy. There’s nothing wrong with that. It keeps you on top. The Japanese over there, they just appreciate you for having the balls to get in the ring and fight. Win or lose, just get in there, and you do it, and they’re happy with it. They appreciate you being a man. Me, I don’t always win.
How long have you had the mustache?
DF: It was born about two days before I was.
How long did it take to grow it?
DF: Three days, buddy! You can kill it, and it’ll rise in three days!