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Thursday, November 19, 2009

THE TED NEWSOM INTERVIEW


(NOTE: This interview originally appeared in May 2007.)

Ted Newsom is a showbiz powerhouse--just check out his extensive credits on IMDb sometime--and to describe him requires scads of hyphens to separate words like producer, writer, director, and actor. He's worked with some of the greatest names in the horror/sci-fi genre, and his films include titles such as THE NAKED MONSTER and WHISPERS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE.

With all this to his credit, I decided to interview him about his appearance as an extra in an episode of the Saturday morning TV series "Jason of Star Command" back in 1978, because I just watched and reviewed the entire series on DVD and there are certain things that I just "gots to know." Ted, being the gentleman that he is, asked, "You're who, now?" and then graciously offered his recollections of this and numerous other fascinating experiences for us to enjoy. Why, I remember it as though it were only yesterday...


porfle: How did you wind up as a space cadet? Were you familiar with the previous series, "Star Academy", from which "Jason" was spun off?

TED: I'd seen the previous show in passing, but I wasn't hugely interested. An over-the-hill Jonathan Harris was not my idea of something I gott-sta watch. However, I did think Pamela Ferdin was cute. She's big into animal rights now. I've never met her, but I've married her several times in my imagination. We have three kids and seven dogs. She was called Pamela Franklyn for a long time as a kid, you know, but when the English actress Pamela Franklyn started working in Hollywood, apparently she had a prior claim to the name or something. I've met her, but we don't have any kids or dogs.

Seriously, I didn't pay a great deal of attention to the show, though I liked the idea of having a wholesome live-action superhero kid's show on TV. That was the time when Filmation was doing Shazam and Dyna Girl and all that. I thought they shoulda, coulda done far more sophisticated shows, even on the level of the old SUPERMAN show, instead of writing down for kids. But times had changed. Networks had strict do's and don'ts. I have no direct experience with this vis a vis Filmation, but I did slide into it years later, very briefly. Wayne Berwick and I got a chance to go into Marvel Productions to pitch some stories for their animated show that was going to have Mandrake the Magician and a bunch of King Syndicate characters. The first question I had for the exec was, "Can we kill anybody?" "Oh, yeah," he said, "We're syndicated." Meaning they weren't limited by network restrictions on violence in kids' shows. But it turned out to be nonsense. They couldn't kill anybody, even in syndication.

Still, Filmation made the attempt to do some sort of quality work for a specific market, under restrictions of budget and censorship. If JASON is out on DVD twenty--no, thirty--years later, apparently they succeeded.

porfle: As a diehard Trekker, I have to ask about the beloved James "Scotty" Doohan (JASON's "Commander Canarvan"). Did you get to know him?

TED: Briefly interacted with him, and I wish I hadn't been so shy about it. When I started, I think they'd already been shooting for about a week or two, and most of Jimmy Doohan's stuff was done. Likewise, Sid Haig's stuff. But I did chat with Scotty, cadged cigarettes off him when I was out (I smoked Marlboros, but I settled for his Winstons). I was happy to see him working, and I got the idea he was happy about it, too.

The next year, before I learned I'd become persona non grata at Filmation, I briefly saw Doohan's replacement, John Russell, at Filmation. Unlike Doohan, he didn't look happy at ALL. I'm sure the thought ran through his head, "I used to be a star. I was at Warner Bros., for keeriist sake, and I'm at some rinky-dink little outfit in the Valley with my face painted blue." There was none of that attitude from Jimmy Doohan. But then, his face wasn't painted blue, either.

Understand, there's a hierarchy on a set, and you pick up the vibe quickly. Extras are on the bottom rung. Don't bother the actors. Don't bother the crew. Just listen to what the AD tells you and do it.

I just remembered that he'd said he had a job lined up after he wrapped JASON. And I think that may have been the STAR TREK movie, the first one...in one or the other of its incarnations.


porfle: It seems as though it would take a good sense of humor, collectively, to put this kind of stuff over--not to mention a healthy appreciation for the absurd. Was it a light-hearted set?

TED: It was business-like rather than a constant party. I can't remember any big gaffes or bloopers; I don't recall anyone busting up over blowing a line, nor any grand practical jokes or anything like that. The director (and, I believe, co-creator of the show) was a guy named Art Nadel, and I really wish I would've been able to talk to him. He did one of those dreadful latter-day Elvis films. But he was working and I was a space cadet.

porfle: What was the layout of that big warehouse where all of the sets were built? And how much of the post-production and visual effects were done there?

TED: Filmation's main offices were in the San Fernando Valley in, I think, Reseda, on Sherman Way, with a big ol' sign flashing that said "Filmation!" In contrast, the Filmation live-action studio was a rather smallish industrial building in Canoga Park, which is a suburb in the far west end of the San Fernando Valley. This particular area was industrial, with assorted nondescript office buildings with mid-sized companies. One, across the street from Filmation, was a cosmetic company which, I learned later, was where Gloria Jean worked as a receptionist. She was briefly a big kid star in the 1940s at Universal. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is the only one anyone remembers. No, I never met her.

The front of the live-action place was a very anonymous, one-story block building. You'd never know they made sci-fi stuff in there. The front rooms of the building were offices: the reception area, an office for Lou Scheimer, probably one for Art Nadel (although I can't remember ever seeing him anywhere but on the floor).

The rear of the building was the production area. There were basically two sets when I was there, the Space Academy set (which I thought was pretty neat), which was just the main room and an adjoining L-shaped hallway. I don't think there was any "practical" equipment in the big control room. That is, none of the buttons and levers and switches worked; the blinking lights were operated by the FX guy or the gaffer.

The other set was the "planet" set. It was neat, although of course I never worked on that set, since I was a lowly peon space cadet and there was so much to do back at Space Academy, like walk down a hall or look at a clipboard. But the planet set was neat. It was probably thirty-five or forty feet long and about twenty feet deep. The cyclorama was changeable, and I seem to recall there were several, all hanging and semi-permanent. To change the planet, you changed the sky, from black to blue, or orange, or whatever. There were often phony rock pieces used there as well.

The effects department was Adjacent of Star Command...sorry...adjacent to the big stage. That's were they did the miniatures. It was a separate, and very small, production unit from the live-action crew. A great guy called Chuck Comisky was the head effects guy, and I liked him. I thought the miniatures were great. As I recall, I may've actually gone there originally to get a job on the FX crew rather than as an extra.

In the back of the building was a small scene dock and storage area. There were more prop boulders and things, some assorted sci-fi-ish things which I can't recall, and, I think, some unused flats.

On the south side of the building was the shuttle set. I think this may have actually had its own enclosure. THAT was cool. Leather seats. Neat chairs. Lots of switches and buttons. In retrospect, the interior looked and felt like a big RV. I remember I wished I had access to it to make a space movie. And it was a complete prop, inside and out. It wasn't as if the exterior was one thing and the control & passenger set was a separate deal.

It was probably very hot during that time, since it was summer in the San Fernando Valley, but I can't remember anybody passing out from prostration, or even complaining.

porfle: Can you remember any shots you were in that ended up on the cutting room floor?

TED: Yes, dag blast it. One and only one time, I was in a tight two-shot with Charlie Dell at a control panel. I think he was supposed to be looking below frame at a panel showing the Space Academy was being drawn into the Sun (or some other foolish melodramatic gimmick). Anyway, I actually was asked to do a silent bit, such as it was. We both looked at the screen seriously. I looked at him grimly and walked off, and he had some dialogue. And yes, they cut it out. I asked the editor if I could get a clip or a frame or something of the shot, but he didn't have it (I may've asked this the next year, actually, and all those trims would have been vaulted or tossed away long before).

The other thing that got cut out had nothing to do with me, but it happened while I was there, and boy did Scheimer raise a stink! Understand, Roseanne Katon had a couple of weeks on the show as a space princess. Beautiful girl, and that summer, she was PLAYBOY's Playmate of the Month. Apparently none of her people had bothered to tell Filmation that this was pending. Ol' Scheimer raised holy hell. He thought the network would cancel the show or something because of bad publicity.

So, there were these guys animating the stop-motion creature, a thing that looked kind of like a Harryhausen mooncalf. And to do this properly, you take photographic tests for exposure, running the camera for a few feet at one exposure, then another, then examining it to see what's best. Well, they had cut out a small photograph of an exquisitely nude Roseanne Katon from PLAYBOY and put it into the model set, standing by a rock where the live action would be inserted later by optical printing. So the test shot showed this multi-armed insectoid glop monster and this gorgeous young black woman, stark naked and smiling. Yeeeoowwee!

Scheimer raised hell again.

Oddly enough, I saw her years later on the set of a CBS nighttime soap opera where a friend of mine was doing extra work. I didn't say hi--there's a question of protocol, and here I wasn't even a space cadet, just a visitor. She was playing a "nice" girl who was revealed to be "bad" because she'd modeled nude. And I think they actually used the interior of the Playboy shoot inside a dummy generic men's magazine. Never saw her again, although, we've married several times and have five kids and three cats in my imagination.

porfle: What were the craft services like? Were you well-fed?

TED: The spread was generally pretty good. Again, there's a hierarchy. The main production people and the cast get fed first, but that just makes sense. But I don't remember that ever being an enforced rule. Lunch was picnic style, mostly sans tables. We'd all go outside where the catering people had set up the food line, then find a spot under a tree or something.

The most memorable lunch I had at Filmation was the next summer, when I was visiting. Julie Newmar was the guest villainess, evil queen of one thing or the other. I've always thought she was one of the sexiest beings with two or less legs, and whatever it was she had on showed a great deal of them. I admit to the old "drop the pencil on the ground and crane your neck to see" trick. Yes, sadly and memorably, she was wearing underwear. I can't remember what was served for lunch.

Susan O'Hanlon was nice, as I recall. I think she was pretty enough and well-built enough to have gotten far more work than she did. I didn't speak a lot to her, just a few minutes doing bits of interview for a story I was writing on spec for Starlog. I was smoking a pipe off and on during this time, trying unsuccessfully to stop smoking cigarettes. Late in the game, I noticed she'd taken up smoking a pipe, a corncob, of all things. She was far too young and pretty to be L'il Abner's Mammy. I think she was married, at the time, to the son of George O'Hanlon, who was the voice of George Jetson.

porfle: Did Charlie Dell, who portrayed "Professor E.J. Parsafoot", ever show up on the set drunk, or under the influence of powerful prescription medications?

TED: His colossal bouts with alcohol and drugs are Hollywood legend. Or San Fernando Valley legend. There was the time he tied two old ladies together to Johnny Weissmueller, using a half-hitch knot. The Las Vegas episode where he used a stolen Apache string-bow to fire a flaming arrow into the open mouth of the giant waving cowboy at the Frontier Hotel. Many's the time he would berate the director with language that would make a sailor blush. He and Brod Crawford used to hit each other in the face with shovels for fun while guzzling Sterno straight from the can. Throwing an epileptiform fit in front of the Viper Room. Vomiting on Hugh Hefner's carpet slippers.

No, that was all somebody else. Charlie Dell was a very sweet guy. It was a silly and stereotypical role, as I guess they all were on the show, but he was very polite and kind to me. In one of my more or less politic and sensible moments, I complimented him on a scene. I said something like, "Given the material you were working with, I thought that was a really nice performance." He said thanks. Actually, that may have been the scene in the show that I'm actually in (in the background, out of focus, of course). That seems to me about the longest single scene the "Parsafoot" character had.

I saw him in something else on TV a couple years later, a brief, rather Franklin Pangbornian role, and I remember thinking, "I'm glad he got some work. He's a good actor."

I hope it's not cause and effect, but doing a live-action series for Filmation seems to have been the kiss of death for anyone who ever did one, except Sid Haig, and even he spent about two decades in the wilderness. Ever see the guys who played Captain Marvel? Nope, except at autograph shows. Dyna Girl? And I think Les Tremayne's last notable gig was on SHAZAM. It's not a reflection on anyone's talent, it's just weirdly consistent.


I thought Craig Littler ["Jason"] did pretty well within the circumstances. They tried, on their little budget, within their limitations, to make an old-fashioned swashbuckling, Errol Flynn hero, a ready smile and (badly written) quips, stalwart, quick-witted. And I think he deserved more. The only other thing I know of that he starred in was a Filipino horror movie called SUPERBEAST, where he did a Jekyll & Hyde character. That, and a very long-running TV commercial for an upscale mustard. Two expensive limos are driving 'way out in the boonies, and one pulls along side the other. The windows roll down, and inside each is a millionaire, one old, one young. The young one was Craig Littler, who says, "I beg your pardon. Do you have any Grey Poupon?" That ran for years, nationally. I was happy for him, because an actor gets paid every time those things run. But other than that, nothing. I'd think he, and Charlie, and Susan, would probably do OK at autograph or sci-fi shows nowadays.

porfle: Does anyone ever come up to you and say, "Hey! You were the guy over Professor Parsafoot's shoulder in that one scene"?

TED: Oh, all the time. ALL the TIME. Sheesh. Fans. I have to beat them off with a stick. If that's your idea of a good time.

Heck, I don't even know if people ever went up to Littler or Dell and recognized them, even at the time, with or without the Parsafoot eyebrows. I'd see these guys on TV and recognize them, but the show had this little niche-quality, disregarded status. It was a Saturday morning kids' show. I'd imagine the very low profile of the show was what the guys involved in SUPERMAN in 1951 were imagining. People telling George Reeves or Jack Larson, "Oh, it's a kid's show, nobody'll ever see it. Take the money and run." In that case, of course, it turned out just the opposite. But also, in that case, it began with some meat to the scripts, which was not the case with JASON.

porfle: You weren't given much to do in that scene, but I noticed that in one shot you raised your right eyebrow. Was that scripted, or was it an ad-lib?

TED: My idea. That's acting. Seriously. I thought about picking my nose and flicking the booger onto the back of Charlie Dell's head, but he was too nice a guy.

I really did want to do SOMEthing, because I'd been acting on stage since I was about 15. But when you're an extra--"atmosphere" players, to use the more polite term--your job is to be anonymous. And I think it was a SAG show, which means if you give an extra something extra--like specific physical business, or heaven forbid, a line of dialogue--the person has the right to expect you apply to SAG for membership, or at the very least, expect a bump in pay. And that never happened once while I was there.

There was some question, by the way, about me shaving off my mustache. I was about 26 or 27, and someone questioned whether a "space cadet" would be old enough to shave, I guess. Like anyone would ever notice...

porfle: So, what's the story on that blonde space cadet? She's only shown in long shots, but as far as I can tell from my DVD player's zoom-in and frame-advance functions, she seems rather, as Mr. Spock would say, "fascinating."

TED: I noticed her, too, when a friend gave me a bootleg copy of the series a couple years back. Beats me. I do remember a girl named Noe, because I worked with her a couple of weeks. Vietnamese, petite, very quiet. Given when the series was shot, about 1978 I think, I'd expect she probably came over here with her parents after the war. Her name was pronounced "Know-ee." Well, my last name is Newsom, and invariably when people spell it, they spell it "Newsome," which has always annoyed me. I drove Noe home one night and said, "We really ought to get married. You'd make the perfect wife for me. When they asked you your name, you could say, 'Newsom, Noe.' And they'd spell it right for a change." I think she laughed. And I think, in that, she was being polite.

I was happily married at the time, by the way. My wife Marsha and I lived about six blocks from the Filmation studio, so I could walk to work. On the days I did work, anyway.

porfle: Is Sid Haig ("Dragos, Master of the Cosmos") really an evil megalomaniac in real life?

TED: He's really a certified hypno-therapist. Seriously. I loved him in SPIDER BABY. Really and truly, he's terrific. I met him years later at some con and told him I'd "worked with him", or at least on the same show, and said, in all seriousness, he's always been one of my favorite actors. I'm happy for his resurgence in popularity through the Rob Zombie films.

porfle: What was Filmation boss Lou Scheimer like?

TED: Nice to me...when he thought I was going to help him. While I was doing this extra work--which by the way was not every day, it was maybe two or three days a week, stretched out over a month or two--I got the idea to do an article on the show for a new magazine that'd come out, something called STARLOG. So he had me into his office, was very open and nice, showing me the storyboard sketches he'd done for one sequence (the stop-motion monster sequence, I think). And I believe it was he who actually drew the sketches. He seemed like a very nice man. Then. So I wrote a little five or six page article and made copies to give to him and a couple of the other actors as a courtesy. I think Susan O'Hanlon read it. In fact, I recall her puffing that corncob pipe while reading it. This was near the end of the shoot. The tone of the article reflected Scheimer's stated goals for the show, filtered through my on-set experience. It was generally fun and upbeat: gee whiz, here's a company that's going to try to bring the fun of a Saturday afternoon serial back to TV.

But there was one line, one lousy line, in the story that set him off. I wrote, "Though the science in the stories wouldn't fool a seven year old (floating down to the surface of a planet without being burned up on re-entry, for instance), the show looks like a promising return to the fun and excitement of CAPTAIN VIDEO and BUCK ROGERS." Apparently Scheimer went through the roof. "What's he trying to do! Ruin my show!?! I never want him anywhere near here again!!!" I didn't know this at the time. Only a year later, when they started up production on the second season, did FX guy Chuck Comisky explain to me that I was utterly unwanted around Filmation, on orders of Scheimer. I was the guy who tried to torpedo the show. Sheesh. And the irony was, the article never saw print, ever. I think Fred Clarke rejected it for CINEFANTASTIQUE as too minor a show to bother with, and I don't think I ever heard from STARLOG at all. So this guy had this great big hissy fit over nothing.

I saw the guy once, a few months later. I was working in a multiplex movie theater nearby, and he came in with his wife or something. I think he recognized me, because he glared at me. I've always thought that was incredibly petty. The one line was so innocuous--and not untrue--but he was furious. I'd needed the money, too.

I think they sold it. I know it doesn't exist anymore. Tough.


porfle: Have you run into any of the old cast or crew over the years?

TED: There was a guy named Berwick, I forget his first name. Tall, good looking, very polite. He was either one of the rare featured players on the show (like, one line every six shows or something), or whatever. He was engaged to Art Nadel's daughter, either then, or slightly later. I remember him, because he worked as an assistant director on a little film for Irv Berwick, who was a teacher of mine, and through Irv, I got to know Irv's son Wayne. Wayne's become a good friend forever; we co-directed THE NAKED MONSTER. But the JASON OF STAR COMMAND Berwick guy was no relation to Wayne and Irv, it was just a coincidence of names. Or maybe he was actually acting in the film for Irv. But that was the only person I've ever run into after the fact. Except Sid Haig. And I've already exhausted my one Sid Haig anecdote.

porfle: What were the immediate benefits of your appearance on the show?

TED: A much-needed check for anywhere from seventy to a couple hundred dollars. I was just married, living on the GI Bill while going to college, and my wife Marsha was working full-time. The fact that we had an apartment within six blocks of "work" was very nice, and I got such a kick out of "working in the business," even in such a minor and forgettable capacity.

I went down the next summer to see if I could continue in some capacity. That's when Chuck Comisky told me I was not wanted at all, not as a space cadet, not as a member of the FX crew, not as an air-breathing entity anywhere in the building. Elephants never forget, and neither did Lou Scheimer. I did get a job for my friend Ram Anand, though. He did a day or two as an extra (with a beard, for goodness' sake), and several days in a big hairy snow monster costume in the series of shows with Julie Newmar and Angelo Rossito. At least I got to meet with and speak with Little Angie. I asked him about working with Bela Lugosi, and he said, "Oh, Bela was nice. We did lotsa pitchures together. He said to me, 'Angie, from now on, I want you in all my pitchures. That way, when they see you on screen, they'll think of Lugosi!'" And he laughed.

Funny thing about that. Years later I interviewed a guy named Johnny Legend, who knew Tor Johnson. He said Tor recalled Bela saying to him, "Tor, from now on, I want you in all my pitchures. That way, when they see you on screen, they'll think of Lugosi!'" Lugosi's lucky he didn't work with Prince Randian or the Hilton Sisters.

porfle: This being early in your career, did you learn anything that helped you later on in your own film endeavors?

TED: Seriously? Yes. The very businesslike atmosphere on the set was impressive. Actors should know their lines (they all did on JASON); you can make something big look much grander if you've got talented people around you. And I learned not to give courtesy copies of articles to the subjects. I hope I learned NOT to be a big jerk if you're a producer.

From the sweat I saw pouring out of the monster costume when Ram did his snow-creature bit, I learned the obvious. Do not wear a rubber monster suit yourself when it's the middle of summer. That lesson held me in good stead when I shot the effects for THE NAKED MONSTER.

porfle: Did you have any idea whatsoever that, almost thirty years later, this little Saturday morning sci-fi show would even be remembered by anyone?

TED: Seriously, I am not surprised at all. My "part" in the show is so marvelously minor, I get a perverse kick out of even bringing it up. I thought the show had the potential to be more successful than it was. It was well-cast, they had some good writers (even working within the non-scientific children's fantasy restrictions), and it was competently directed. Some of the aspects were cheesy, like the limited amount of sets, but I thought what WAS there looked as good on screen as vintage STAR TREK. I think the chintzy synthesized music score makes it SOUND rinky-dink and very much of its era. They could have done better. If it were me, I'd have farmed the music out to somebody to record with an orchestra on the cheap in Europe, or just used stock library music to make it feel BIGGER.

Obviously the first incarnation of JASON was successful enough to spawn the second season, where they did a full half-hour. I'm not privy to the machinations of why this was re-cast. It was probably a question of availability and price negotiations. As you know, they only brought Charlie Dell and Craig Littler back, and Sid Haig, of course. I believe Jimmy Doohan, by that time, had already done the first STAR TREK movie, so price-wise he was probably out of the question, or disinterested in devaluing whatever cache his name had. I don't know if they asked Susan O'Hanlon back, but having watched these things, there was so little in the scripts for her to do as an actress, I wouldn't begrudge her taking a pass.

porfle: Since then, you've enjoyed a long and varied career on both sides of the camera. What are you working on now that we can look forward to?

TED: I've spent months re-editing and re-mixing FLESH & BLOOD, THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR for English release. This should dovetail with the recent (as of May 2007) purchase of Hammer. Other than the one broadcast in 1994, it's never been seen in England--or most of the world, for that matter.

I started a project about a year and a half ago called IDOL PURSUITS, a screwball comedy on a deceptively low budget, considering what kind of production value we've got so far on screen: action in Sedona, Arizona, with beautiful scenic backgrounds, sequences on a cruise ship at sea, locations in Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan, a biplane, hang-gliding. It's sort of like THE LADY EVE. Brinke Stevens, whom I've always loved as a performer, does a sort of Barbara Stanwyck turn in a double role. She's always been wonderful in those, like TEENAGE EXORCIST (which we co-wrote) and NIGHTMARE SISTERS. I play the lead, a professorial nerd. I never expected anyone else to cast me in a Cary Grant role, so I figured I'd better do it myself. (Cary Grant in BRINGING UP BABY and MONKEY BUSINESS, that is.)

Last year I did a number of acting jobs for Fred Olen Ray, and he's a joy to work with. Acting is fun. Writing is, too, when you get paid. I still have a script I need to finish, a Sinbad adventure, which I'm writing with Ray Harryhausen and a partner as yet to be publicly announced. There's another very unique script I need to finish, too, but the past year or so has been frenzied.

porfle: If you were me, what would you have asked you that I neglected to ask?

TED: You covered everything.

porfle: Thanks for spending some quality time with us today, Ted! It's been a pleasure.

TED: Is that a question? Very hard to answer. But we got married several times and had three kids and four cats.
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