Born on April 1, 1938, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Benni Korzen served as an associate producer on the live-action Rankin/Bass films Marco (1973), The Last Dinosaur (1977), The Bermuda Depths (1978), The Ivory Ape (1980), and The Bushido Blade (1981). Following his involvement with Rankin/Bass, Mr. Korzen was a producer on the Academy Award-winning Danish film Babette’s Feast (1987), and served as executive producer on the thriller Alone in the Dark (1982), the action flick American Commandos (1985), and the Hulk Hogan comedy Mr. Nanny (1993). In May 2022, Mr. Korzen answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his involvement with the live-action Rankin/Bass films.
Benni Korzen: I must have spent something like eight months in Japan — seven to eight months. That was a while ago, and I know a lot of things changed in Japan since. I have very fond memories of Tokyo, and but we went other places and such. I think one of them [was] near the Mount Fuji area. I think that was [for] the one called The Last Dinosaur (1977). Anyway, it’s an exciting country, no doubt.
Brett Homenick: Could you tell me about your early life, when you grew up, and what your hobbies were when you were young?
BK: I grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark. I had a fairly turbulent first part of my life because, as a five-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was transported from Denmark to Sweden, which is where all the Danish Jews, of which I am one, managed to escape — only a very small number of Danish Jews died. Denmark was the only country which saved its Jewish population.
I had a very normal childhood, and, up till 1964, I stayed in Denmark. And then I moved to New York and got married. I had already started in Denmark working in the movie business. The reason why I went to New York was that I got a job at CBS, the [television] network, and traveled around both in North America and in Europe, working for them. And then, at some point — I forget when it was — around ‘73, I met Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, and I helped them make five movies. One of which I just realized, 20 minutes ago, when I double-checked on [the] IMDb, that I wasn’t listed on, but that was a musical we made in 1973 called Marco (1973) about Marco Polo.
Of the five movies, that was the most remarkable in that it was a rather big production. The most interesting member of the cast was Zero Mostel. That later led to a friendship, and I used him as a producer in another movie much later on.
Even though I don’t remember how I met Arthur and Jules, it was certainly interesting for me to see how they operated. They were a very unusual kind of producing team. You may know, if you look them up, that they had produced a number of animated films that still to this day are being rebroadcast. I think there’s one Christmas one and one Easter one. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) is one; they did several others.
Anyway, they branched into live action in the 1970s, and one we made was called The Last Dinosaur, which we did in ‘77. And then there were three more. Four of the five movies that I worked on with Arthur and Jules were shot in Japan, and one was shot on the island of Bermuda, because at that time Arthur lived there. So we used that as the location to shoot the movie called The Bermuda Depths (1978).
My connection with Arthur and Jules lasted from ‘73 for eight years until ‘81. That’s when the last of the five movies called The Bushido Blade (1981) was made. The main Japanese cast member was Sonny Chiba. [He’s] had a long career. I know that a friend of mine just used him in a movie titled Sushi Girl (2012).
Sonny Chiba was a very skillful stunt person who also then went into acting. When we shot The Bushido Blade, there were several examples of how he managed to both act and [do] stunts at the same time. He was riding on horseback and would lean down and pick up things off the ground.
The Last Dinosaur in 1977 was the first of four movies where they had a very interesting technique in setting up the financing. They had a connect[ion] with the ABC network. What they would do is, they would invite the executives of the company they tried to collaborate with to their conference room where they had on an easel a poster of the movie that they were presenting, and that poster simply explained everything. They had some very talented artists that they had been using for their animated TV series create the poster. It was a very effective way that worked for the four movies that they presented that way.
BH: Shall we go back to Marco? Do you remember the genesis of how this project came about and why you approached the Japanese studios to work on it? Do you know anything about that?
BK: Very little. All I remember is what happened from the time we arrived in Japan and started shooting. The background before that is hazy. We’re talking about 1972, ‘73, so [it was] a few years ago. This was the first time that I did work with and for Arthur and Jules, and I don’t even remember how I met them, how it originated.
But I remember very clearly how we interacted [with] the very skillful Japanese crew members, as most of the movie, pretty much all of the movie, was done at Toho Studios in Tokyo. I believe it’s still exactly there where we operated. It was a fairly large-scale musical, which again had the key person, Zero Mostel.
BH: What are some of the memories you have of working with Toho and even being in Japan at that time?
BK: One of the amusing, to me, memories is that, for every lunch break, the non-Japanese members of the crew would gather at a coffeehouse to have lunch. What I remember distinctly was that the coffee that was served there was the kind of coffee that would make you really be totally awake and very full of energy for the rest of the day of shooting. It was the kind of lunch break that was a very smart thing to have a movie crew enjoy.
At some point, we shot on a small island in the Pacific called Oshima. That island had a volcano and centuries of eruptions had turned the sand dark, almost black. As we were shooting, maybe for a week or so, two or three days into the shooting, a hurricane [typhoon] was announced.
It was not clear it would hit the island, so we were given the choice: We could stay, or we could go back to Tokyo. Some stayed, and some went back. I stayed, and at that time I had my wife and very young three-year-old son. We stayed there, and the key person who stayed was Zero Mostel, who then, that night, gave a one-man show for everybody who stayed. That was one of the highlights of that production.
BH: That certainly sounds like it! Was the hurricane that bad, or how was it?
BK: It did not hit the small island. It came close enough to create enormous waves and all that. The hotel we stayed at, which had the sort of structure that most Japanese buildings had, we could feel it. The reason we were given a choice to stay or not stay was that it was predicted that the hurricane would not really hit us. It delayed the shooting because it took two or three days for everybody to regather and come back. That was the Marco story.
BH: Do you have any other memories from Marco?
BK: In addition to Zero, the cast also included Jack Weston, who is a very amusing person and a great actor. The only other thing was that Desi Arnaz, Jr., played the title [role] of Marco, and his girlfriend at that time was Liza Minnelli. She came over and spent some weeks during the shooting, just as a friend. It was amusing to have lunch, and then she would come waltzing in.
At the very end, there was a cast and crew celebration, the highlight of which was large trays of food, one of which had sashimi. The huge fish that was sitting there started kicking, and Liza started screaming. That was one of the highlights of Marco.
BH: Generally, was Liza Minnelli friendly, or how was she generally when she was there?
BK: Yeah, she was friendly. Have you ever been part of a movie crew when movies are being shot?
BH: No, I haven’t.
BK: Normally, what happens is that, after one day or so, the crew and cast and everybody becomes sort of one large family. Everybody else — visitors, friends, and so on — they’re not part of that inside family. So all I remember is that she was friendly, but there were other visitors. So there is always a difference between the inner family and the outer circle of friends, but there was nothing negative going on in 1973.
BH: When you saw Marco, and when Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass saw Marco, was the consensus that you were satisfied with it, or how did everyone feel about Marco when it was finished?
BK: That’s a very good question. The only thing I can answer is that the company that financed it [was] called Tomorrow Entertainment. The company that owned Tomorrow and financed everything was General Electric, which at that time was a major company. At one point, our headquarters was in Tokyo because we shot at Toho Studios. Everybody who came from the United States stayed at the Tokyo Hilton, which I think is still there.
One day, we got a visit from a gentleman who introduced himself. He said, “I’m a comptroller of General Electric, and I’m in Japan because we are building a big atomic power plant,” or something like that. “So I was tasked to just double-check on how things are going with you.”
So what happened was, having the headquarters in Tokyo meant that we then would be planning for all the shooting outside of Tokyo. Which meant that we also had to have cash because, at that time in Japan, you couldn’t pay with credit cards or checks or anything; cash was the only thing that you could use. So, with my friend and production colleague Masaki Iizuka, I would physically pick up a very large number of bills, yen, that I then put into the Tokyo Hilton vault in the basement area. All this coincided with the gentleman from General Electric who said, “How is your payment system?” I said, “We can only use cash.” He said, “Yes, we know that in Japan that’s the way.”
“Sorry to bother you,” he said to me, “but can I ask the amount of money you have? Just to make sure that everything is OK.” “Sure.” And then I took him down to this basement thing. There were something like $30,000 or $40,000, which at that time in yen meant that there were a huge number of bills that he then had to physically count.
“Look, if I could be of any help…” “No, no, no.” So, two hours later, he came up from that thing and said, “Yeah, everything is fine.” But it was, I think, a very unusual thing for him to experience as a General Electric accountant. That’s one of the things I do remember.
BH: Do you have general memories or perceptions of working with Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass?
BK: Yes. My relationship with Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass started in ‘73, and then it went on for another eight years. In between, I had an office in their office building in Manhattan on 52nd Street. Obviously, before you can start a movie, [a lot of things have to happen first, like] creating a screenplay and all that. So all that took place on 52nd Street in Manhattan. That’s where I had my office right next to Arthur’s and Jules’.
I saw their working style, which was very effective. They rarely agreed, but, by the time they ended up having created a screenplay or having figured out everything else for a movie, it was done in a very intelligent way. They knew exactly how they wanted to tell their audience this particular story they were dealing with.
They were skilled at two things. One was to reach the audience successfully, and the other was that they had figured out a very effective [way] to work together. Because I’ve made many other movies, I have not seen a key creative team working as effectively together as Arthur and Jules did.
BH: Did you ever have a sense that maybe one was perhaps more creative than the other, or would you say it was about equal? What would you say?
BK: They were different in that Jules, in addition to being a producer, also wrote songs. I think he did all the lyrics pretty much for the stuff they had done before, the animated things. He had been working with one composer [Maury Laws] at all times. That composer then was brought into the live-action movies.
So Jules was very much involved in the creating of the story where he worked more with screenwriters than Arthur did. Arthur had more to do with the outside — the marketing and the dealing with financial issues and so on. So, between the two of them, they covered 100% of what was needed to be done.
BH: Let’s continue on to The Last Dinosaur. Would you happen to remember the creation of this project and what led to it?
BK: I don’t remember the creation. Here’s the thing. Everything that Arthur and Jules did, including those programs that are still on the air 50 year later, they had a sense of what the audience wanted. They were very skillful at making successful movies and TV shows. The same thing obviously had to do with The Last Dinosaur where they took a well-known fascination by audiences all over the world having to do with dinosaurs. Arthur at that time had already spent, well, both of them but mostly Arthur, had spent a lot of time in Japan because that’s where most of those animated programs were created. So he knew how he could use a dinosaur concept in these Japanese settings.
BH: Did you also go to Japan for the shoot?
BK: Each of the four movies that we made in Japan — Marco, The Last Dinosaur, The Ivory Ape (1980), and The Bushido Blade (1981) — that’s how I spent, I would say, somewhere between six and eight months for those four movies in Japan.
BH: Let’s talk about making of The Last Dinosaur. What could you tell us about some of your memories on the set?
BK: Richard Boone was the main actor, and we had a lot of fun. His wife was there. Every day, when we left the hotel to go to a shooting location, she had watered down the bottle of vodka that Richard could not be without so that, by the time we got to lunch, he had already had a few drinks. But, because of the wife, he was fine throughout the shoot. We had been warned that his drinking problem might interfere; it never did. That’s one little detail.
My job was always to make sure, as the title that I was given at that time, associate producer, part of my job was to make sure that everybody was on the job that they were supposed to do. So we realized everything was going well. I was nervous in the morning when we all had breakfast. I was nervous about Richard being incapacitated, but none of that happened.
As far as the shooting was concerned, it went fairly well. After we finished the shooting, a company that was part of the ABC network took over and did all the marketing, and all of that was done fairly effectively.
BH: Let’s talk about the division of directors because two directors were credited — Alex Grasshoff and, of course, Tom Kotani [whose Japanese name was Tsugunobu Kotani] on the Japanese side. What could you tell me about having two directors, and how did that work out?
BK: It didn’t. The two credits there — that had more to do with lawyers and stuff like that. Basically, it was an experiment, and it did not work out. Very shortly after the shooting started, Arthur brought in Kotani, who kind of took over. So, basically, the film was made by Kotani; it was directed by Kotani. It was not that Grasshoff was a bad director, but he did not have any experience working outside the United States. I don’t remember how Arthur and Jules found him or started with him. So that’s my recollection.
BH: How about Mr. Kotani, more specifically? What could you tell me about him?
BK: Well, here’s the thing. He spoke not one word of English, so we always had a translator. But he was also a very hard worker. He would not give up on anything that every movie presents as a problem or challenge. That’s why, from then on, he became the director of all the other movies that we did together in Japan. The fact that he spoke not one word of English [is why] we brought in a translator, and then all of that worked well.
The only problem — and it was a bit awkward — was that he had a problem sleeping, so he needed sleeping pills. Which meant that sometimes we had to help him get to the set. That was the only problem. Other than that, he was pretty much a workaholic. So that’s why Arthur and Jules used him for all of the movies they made in Japan.
BH: A few years ago, I had a chance to meet Mr. Kotani and speak with him a little bit about his Rankin/Bass films. And he did say that Richard Boone was very kind and very helpful. In fact, Boone would share his instructions to the cast. Is that something you remember?
BK: Yeah, that had something to do with what I mentioned before — the sort of camaraderie. Very often on movies I’ve been involved in and mostly have heard about, what happens after working a few hours on the first day, everybody in front of and behind the camera sort of becomes like one family. So Kotani would remember Boone’s being helpful. At that time, Richard Boone had obviously — I don’t know — spent thousands of hours in front of a camera, so he knew a few things. I think at that time Kotani was still young, so it sounds like a very correct way for him to remember how that went.
BH: I also had a chance to interview Joan van Ark about the film, and she said that often the cast was told two things as sort of a way to motivate them. One was, “Do it for Arthur,” and then the other thing was, “Benni and the Jets,” based on the Elton John song, but I guess it was a reference to you. I wanted to ask if you had any memories of that or why that was said.
BK: I know that she was in The Bermuda Depths. I don’t recall that she was involved in any other than The Bermuda Depths. So what movie are you referring to that she mentioned [that]?
BH: Joan van Ark was in The Last Dinosaur. She was not in any other of the Rankin/Bass movies, just The Last Dinosaur.
BK: Oh, really?
BH: About The Last Dinosaur, there’s obviously other cast members like Luther Rackley and Steven Keats and so forth. Does anything stand out about working with them on the film?
BK: Luther was very tall, as you know. It was an interesting thing. I don’t know how we found him. It was a lot of fun having a very skillful athlete do something that also required that he had to be acting. He was very worried about being able to do, not the physical things, but the acting thing. I remember it was fun having him there, and I think a lot of the local people were fascinated by him. He was close to seven feet [tall] or something, and very few people in that vicinity had ever seen a guy that tall.
BH: Anything about Steven Keats?
BK: All I remember was that he was a good actor, and then, on [his] off-hours, he was always surrounded by potential girlfriends. He was very popular in that way. He obviously attracted a great deal of female interest, so I think he enjoyed that. He was just a very welcome member of the filming family there.
BH: What about Joan van Ark? Does anything stand out about working with her?
BK: No. The thing that is totally confusing here is that I have her connected with the wrong movie.
BH: Do you have anything else about The Last Dinosaur, anything else about the production?
BK: No, I don’t. The thing is, we’re talking about 50 years ago, so I’m drawing a blank here.
BH: Was there any sort of reaction from Arthur Rankin, Jules Bass, or even yourself? When you saw the finished product, what did you think of it at the time?
BK: Here’s the thing. Every one of the five movies that I was involved in, by the time they were completed, when you cut a movie, you’re a part of the whole detailed work with editing. So, by the time you see a finished movie, in general, it’s the only the very last version that ends up being the finished version.
It’s not that you’re watching [it] for the first time; you’re watching the movie for the thousandth time. So all I remember is that it had a very well-designed system, so, by the time each of those five movies were finished, everything that we did, including adding the music and so on, it was all what we knew it would be.
That’s where Arthur and Jules signed off, having started one of those five movies; they were already into the next one.
BH: How about The Bermuda Depths? Obviously, there was a very different setting for this one, in Bermuda. Let’s talk about your work on this film and what you remember about making it.
BK: The reason why we made that movie in Bermuda was that Arthur had moved to Bermuda and had become a Bermudian. For private and no doubt tax reasons, that’s where he lived. That did not mean that he would not spend time in New York, because he could get from Bermuda to New York in an hour and a half or something. So that’s the reason why we ended [up] on that location.
What I remember is that, my job, more than on the first two movies, was to assemble a crew with everybody from Kotani, who was going to be the director again. The entire crew we put together in New York. The sticky part was, when you audition key crew members, you have to figure out who ends up chosen. So I remember that one example of this was the person in charge of set design.
So the guy that I thought would be the right person had said — I gave him some questions, and one question that I gave him was, “Do you speak any language other than English?” And he said, “No, but I can imitate any other language.” That was not exactly the words, but his answer, for me, gave me the idea that I should hire him because he not only had a sense of humor, but he was also smart enough to do the job. And he did a very good job. One of the very key persons, of course, was the DP, director of photography, and I brought a friend who had worked with me before — his name being Jeri Sopanen.
We were shooting in Bermuda, then sent the footage to a lab in New York. A workprint was then sent to us back to Bermuda where we screened it on a Moviola. At one point, after a few days of shooting, the footage came in, and Jules said to me, “You know, your friend Jeri, he is a master.” Those were exactly his words.
One of the movies that he’d done just before was My Dinner with Andre (1981) — that movie basically was an interview with two guys talking. That was shot at a New York cafe, a restaurant, where, on the walls, there was nothing but mirrors. He managed to shoot that entire thing, avoiding the mirrors but using the mirrors exactly the way he wanted. So those two people stand out in my mind [as] the key members of that crew.
Bermuda is not known as a filming location, and I think there may have been some minor shooting before, but a whole movie had never been shot before there. So the fact that you have to bring pretty much everything to Bermuda was a bit of a challenge, but somehow, I guess, we figured it out.
BH: Speaking of that, do you remember any difficulties shooting there, more specifically?
BK: No, because there was no major problem. It went fairly well in spite of the fact that this was not the easiest place to shoot a movie. In spite of everything, we didn’t have any delays or anything like that.
BH: This movie does have a very impressive cast, as well. There’s Carl Weathers, who was fresh off Rocky (1976). You have Burl Ives, and he’s also a big star. [There were also] Connie Sellecca and Leigh McCloskey. What do you remember about the cast?
BK: I remember that Burl Ives, who at that time was old and a little fragile — he sort of stayed by himself because he wanted to preserve more of the energy for the camera. But the rest of the cast — again, everybody got together and were very friendly. I remember that, I think, Connie had a crush on Jules, or something like that.
BH: Are there any other episodes that you could share from the shooting — anything that stands out about making The Bermuda Depths?
BK: No, nothing that really is important, no.
BH: I’ve read that, actually, The Bushido Blade was shot in 1978. Is that correct? I know in the timeline it’s the last movie.
BK: I think the order [of the films as listed on the IMDb] is correct; it could be that one of the years is incorrect.
BH: Let’s talk about The Ivory Ape. Please talk about what your role on this film was.
BK: Let’s put it this way: Jules and Arthur decided that the next movie they wanted to do had to do with an ivory ape. At that time, doing movies in Japan was established as the way to go, so what they asked me to do was to draw up a budget, figure out how much it would cost, so that they could then go to ABC and say, “Well, we need X dollars.” So that’s how I began.
And then some of the things that I needed to find as part of the budget meant that I had to go to Japan a few times before we started shooting to make sure that people were there that we needed, and I knew what the cost was. That was basically my job.
Included with that was also to deal with casting. We did the casting in New York when we landed Luther Rackley. [As] the associate producer, I ended up getting involved, before shooting, in the financial situation, so we knew how to get the financing.
BH: For [The] Bermuda Depths, you talked about how you hired some key people. Do you have any similar memories for The Ivory Ape?
BK: No. But, as mentioned, every movie we did casting for was done out of New York and picking up local people in Japan. But we didn’t cast Sonny Chiba in Tokyo. As I recall, we knew of Chiba being a good choice before we started in Tokyo. So, in Tokyo, we reached out to him.
BH: What about the filming locations? Was [The] Ivory Ape filmed completely in Japan, or was it also done in other countries? What do you remember?
BK: No, it was done completely in Japan.
BH: How about Jack Palance? He was obviously the big star in the film. Do you have any memories of him?
BK: Yeah, but it actually has to do with another movie that I was part of producing later, a movie called Alone in the Dark (1982) that I did for New Line Cinema where Jack Palance played a major role. I don’t remember anything from The Ivory Ape.
[It was] the movie which was the second movie that New Line produced. New Line had just sort of [been founded] by a friend by the name of Bob Shaye. New Line then grew and became part of Warner, and it’s still in existence.
For the Alone in the Dark movie, a misunderstanding came about so that, at some point, I’m walking next to Jack Palance and Bob Shaye. And the misunderstanding was that Palance thought that he was being cast as the character who was the doctor or something. The movie is about three maniacs who do something terrible, so what Bob, without having told him, had in mind was to cast him as one of the maniacs.
And he discovered that as we were walking down some studio. He turned around to me and hit me. It was just a physical reaction, and he apologized. Then the three of us laughed. [It happened] the minute he realized that he had been cast as a maniac.
BH: Did you say that he hit you?
BK: Yeah, he hit me on my shoulder, or something like that. I mean, it was not that he was trying to hurt anybody; it was just a physical reaction that he could not stop as he realized that he had allowed himself to be cast as a manic, a role that he did not want to play.
BH: Going back to The Ivory Ape, this movie also has Steven Keats, who was in The Last Dinosaur. Derek Partridge is the villain, and Cindy Pickett is the leading lady. Of course, there are others like Earle Hyman and so forth. Does anything stand out about any of the other actors from this cast?
BK: I’ll be honest, no. When I remember things, it is quite often similar to the Jack Palance story, and I don’t have something similar that I remember.
BH: What about shooting? Do you remember what it was like to shoot the film, or any stories from the set?
BK: Going back to the very first one, the Marco musical. We had some enormous scene where in the background there would be many, many, many extras. In the foreground, there would be the main cast. So this was the first time that I had been involved in such a complex production. I think there may have been scenes involving a hundred people behind and in front of the camera. So that was, for me, a big deal, as it also was for Arthur and Jules.
It was the only one of the five movies where the main shooting took place in a studio — Toho Studios. Obviously, it was a very different thing than all of the other four, which were, as we call them, location movies.
BH: Is there anything else you’d like to share about The Ivory Ape before we move on?
BK: No. I have to admit that The Ivory Ape is hazy [compared] to all of the other things.
BH: Let’s talk about The Bushido Blade. This is obviously a very big production. It’s an all-star cast in terms of Japan[ese] and American actors. Let’s talk about this one and what you did on it.
BK: Again, the same thing. Prior to starting it, we had to assemble a cast and crew and all that. And then a budget had to be made, which was part of what I did. So, by the time we then went back to Japan, the key people, then being Kotani, etc., plus a lot of the Japanese crew members we had worked with before, we tried as much as possible to get the same people.
All I remember is that a very skilled production designer — I don’t remember her name — was part of the crew.
BH: You talked about Sonny Chiba a little bit. Also, one of the [other] big stars is Toshiro Mifune, who’s one of Japan’s biggest legends. Do you recall anything about Mr. Mifune?
BK: Yes, but this has to do with the cast and crew party after the movie. What happened was that Arthur had decided to celebrate the completion of the shooting at a restaurant in Tokyo. It that was sort of a Scandinavian-type restaurant. As I mentioned, I come from Denmark, so we had decided that this would be the place.
Mifune was the guest of honor because he was already then a key component of any movie that he was appearing [in]. [There is a] Japanese tradition, which is that, if you’re given a gift, you have to return with a bigger gift, with a more important gift.
So here’s what happened. We assembled at this restaurant, and the very first drink that we had was Akvavit, a Scandinavian drink made in Denmark, Sweden, Norway. Then Mifune, who had been politely sipping this drink, [knew] that he had to top Arthur at this very elegant restaurant.
So Mifune’s outperforming Arthur: On a number of trays, waiters now carried a large number of bottles of the most expensive champagne because that was his way of acknowledging his happiness with whole thing. But champagne and Akvavit do not go together. But that was the highlight of what I remember from that cast and crew celebration.
BH: One name that we haven’t talked about yet who had written most, if not all, these films was William Overgard. Did you have any dealings with him? What do you recall about Mr. Overgard?
BK: He was very much part of all of the movies. Again, Arthur and Jules’ style was one-stop shopping. In other words, once they had found the person for a specific job, they stuck with that person. I remember him very much as a guy who delivered whatever he had been asked to write on time, which often does not happen. He was a reliable member of the Arthur/Jules team.
BH: One local American who lived in Japan — he was involved with The Last Dinosaur as well as [The] Bushido Blade — was William Ross. For American productions coming to Japan, he was often involved. What can you tell me about working with William Ross?
BK: That was fun. I can remember as if it happened two weeks ago when he invited us — at that time, my wife was in Japan — to his home. What I remember, and so does my wife because we’ve been talking about that, was that he was very tall. In the apartment we were invited to, every time he and we walked from one room to another, he had to bend down to get through a doorway.
At some point, his wife [Michie] was preparing something. I think it was some fruit that was going to be [served] for dessert. It took a while for her to come back, and the reason why it took a while was that she had managed to peel the peaches or whatever it was and created a very elegant, huge plate of this fruit that had taken quite a while.
Later on, my wife and I were having a lot of fun remembering that it was important enough for her to spend as much time as needed, whether or not it interrupted the dinner. We had a lot of fun with Bill Ross because he clearly enjoyed having these American movies made in Japan.
BH: You talked about Sonny Chiba already a bit. Do you have any other memories to share about him?
BK: At one point, I’m looking straight forward and standing a little to the right of the camera, and some 30 feet, maybe 45 feet, behind, Sonny Chiba is sitting on a horse. He is supposed to come galloping straight toward the camera, and he did. Something like 10 feet before the camera — I don’t know how to describe it — from the saddle of the horse, he dips down and picks up something off the ground. This is something that a stunt person normally would do because no insurance would cover an actor doing it.
So he did this, and then, at one point, we finally went, “Did we get it, or do we have to reshoot?” We reshot, and he did exactly the same thing using the same timing. Those images of that are seared in my brain as if it happened two weeks ago.
BH: Of course, there’s Richard Boone again, James Earl Jones, and a few others — Mike Starr. Does anything stand out about those actors on this film?
BK: Not interesting enough. In general, when you do a movie, and you bring people very close together, both physically and mentally, you invite all the possibilities of human interaction to go wrong. I remember nothing like that.
BH: Typically, on these films, how long would they take to shoot?
BK: The longest shooting schedule I’ve ever been on was Marco because it was enormous. It had an enormous cast and so on. The standard thing today — and it may also have been back then — is that a standard made-for-TV movie could be as few as, say, 21 shooting days. The standard medium-budget studio movie is probably eight weeks. Then, of course, there is the mammoth thing [that] can have six months. I think the average time that we spent was probably somewhere around, shooting-wise, maybe 35 days, maybe 30 days.
BH: What about retakes? Was there a scene that maybe needed an unusual number of retakes, or was it all pretty smooth?
BK: No. Part of what I did was, I dealt with things like insurance and so on. Not on any of those five movies did we have any issue where we had to reshoot. We were fortunate at that because it does happen quite often, and it has happened to me on other things I have worked on. But the insurance covered something that was either impossible to reshoot or very difficult to reshoot.
BH: Of the films that we talked about, which was your favorite? It could be what you think was the best film or maybe the one that had the best memories for you.
BK: Well, of the Jules and Arthur movies, Marco, headed by Zero Mostel, was definitely it.
BH: Why did Rankin and Bass stop making movies in Japan? Was there a particular reason for that, or what happened?
BK: That’s a very good question. I don’t even think they could answer that. In their career, at that time, when we did the last live-action film, I knew much more about Arthur, his family, and his various wives. Jules was more private about his private life. But I think it had something to do with, although they had made a lot of money, they might have felt that it was time stop. I know that Jules moved to France and probably is still there. Arthur passed away quite a few years ago.
BH: In terms of Rankin and Bass, is there anything else you’d like to share about them? Maybe something more on the personal side because we talked about their professional life. How should we conclude talking about Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass?
BK: To my way of thinking, and, to the best of my knowledge, their creative and business partnership is probably the best and most successful partnership I have ever encountered. As I started saying earlier, when they disagreed, which they constantly did, at the end of whatever they were doing, out came something that really worked, as far as reaching the intended audience. So they contributed from two different sides [to] something that ended up being exactly [what] they had in mind.
That combination of two different opinions quite often leads to problems. But, in the case of Arthur and Jules, it always worked. It clearly had started way before they started doing these live-action movies. It came from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer types of things. At the time they did the live-action movies, those specials had already been aired every year for many years. They also did The Jackson 5ive (1971-72) series and so on.
They had a unique way of making something from two different sides. [Around] my office, which was next to theirs on 52nd Street, there was constant bickering – but with successful outcomes. I’ve worked with many other producers and directors and creative people, and I have not come across anything that beats that.
One of these early ones, maybe Rudolph, has been aired every year for more than 50 years. I don’t know any successful company that has that kind of a record. Every time this is being aired, the rating is usually in the top five or 10. So, obviously, that is the uniqueness of their creative team effort.
BH: As we finish up, do you have any final comments that you’d like to share?
BK: Not really, but it reminds me that I tried some years ago to reach out to Jules, and I failed. But it reminds me that maybe I should try again. He’s still around and maybe lives in France, and I would like to just chat with him.
[After the interview, Mr. Korzen contacted me to add:]
I added the name Masaki Iizuka. Masaki worked on the four movies we did in Japan [as associate producer]. He worked side by side with me. Sometimes, Arthur named him “my son.” So he was an important part of our team.