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Interview: David Hedison

David Hedison

David Hedison

Between stage and TV work, veteran actor David Hedison has maintained a steady career in feature films, from his first film under contract to Fox, The Enemy Below with Robert Mitchum, to his last film roles to date in Spectres and The Reality Trap. Hedison memorably  played CIA agent Felix Leiter in two James Bond films: Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill , but horror enthusiasts will remember him from The Fly (1958) as doomed scientist Andre Delambre, who is transformed into a monstrosity while testing a matter transmitter. In recent years, Hedison has kept busy on the comic convention circuit, participating in numerous panels and interviews.

In March 2011, he headlined a 60’s sci-fi reunion at MonsterMania in Cherry Hill, New Jersey where he appeared with Lee Meriwether, Robert Colbert and Roy Thinnes. In 2013, Hedison appeared as himself in The Green Girl, a feature-length documentary about Star Trek‘s iconic Green Girl: the late Susan Oliver. Hedison was also interviewed in 2013 for Monsters, Martians and Mad Scientists: Horror in the Atomic Age, which discusses the classic films of the Cold War era with the people who made them. Not to be outdone, David Hedison spoke to Diabolique about his career and legacy, as The Fly (1958) makes its way onto US and UK Blu-ray this year…

David Hedison

David Hedison

DIABOLIQUE: During the making of The Fly, you predicted the genetic fusion of man-and-fly of David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake. Did you ask the producers to consider revising the screenplay as such?

DAVID HEDISON: No. I stuck with the script I was given. I did have several discussions with the scriptwriter, James Clavell. He and I were good friends. Clavell knew what the problems were and what I was up against dealing with them. I read Clavell’s script and got terribly excited about it. I knew, from the start, I could play it. Once you know that about a character, you can do it. I did a lot of thinking about this role, coming up with things that I thought my character would do, given his circumstances. And [director Kurt] Neumann let me do most of them.

DIABOLIQUE: Please tell us how you perceived the slow transformation concept used in Cronenberg’s film released 28 years later.

HEDISON:  I just knew it would work better for me, as an actor, to show part of my face, or my eye or anything I could react with – a mask is so confining. The one they made for me showed nothing of my face. I had to use body language to show my agony. Based on the comments I have received at my many panels at the cons I have attended since 1989, I succeeded.

I really wanted to do progressive make-up forThe Fly (1958). I asked Buddy Adler, the head of the studio, and he was interested in my ideas, but Ben Nye, the head of Make-up, was not. I was fought down. Nye didn’t want to do it.

Ben had the idea to do a mask. So he created it, cast it from a plaster mold of me and we used that. It was the first latex mask ever used in film, so we broke ground there, but it was not what I wanted to do. I did not have the clout in 1958 to get my way.

I had Buddy Adler persuaded as to how much better it would be, and how much better I would be, if they used progressive make-up. I had so many ideas. Nye wouldn’t even try. Ben told me; as the actor, I didn’t want to come in at 4 A.M. for make-up – thing is, I would have come in at 3 A.M! They never gave me that chance. Do it their way, wear the mask. But it would have been so much better with each reveal, if they had showed me slowly decomposing, slowly degenerating into the monster. I wanted my eye to pop out at one point; that would have been so cool! But they wouldn’t do it.

The make-up technology was also not there – ten years later, in Planet of the Apes, they made some strides in that direction – but Nye wanted to stay with what he knew. I think it was a time and budget issue as well. No money. They made a plaster cast of my head. They made the mask. I had to wear it for five shooting days.

Ben Nye did offer me the mask at the wrap party; it was falling apart even then. I should have taken it, but I didn’t. Since it was made from a cast of my face, no one else could ever wear it. I told him I appreciated his kind gesture, but I had eighteen [shooting] days with The Fly and that was quite enough. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking ahead. I suppose Ben Nye’s son, Dana, has it somewhere. C’est la vie. I could have sold it for a fortune at an auction by now.

DIABOLIQUE: Please describe your experience working with Kurt Neumann on The Fly. Having just revisited all of Neumann’s genre films, the man was an unsung genius.

HEDISON: Neumann was used to working with little or no budget. He was very easy to work with. He basically left you alone as long as you were doing his set-ups and servicing the story.  Occasionally, he would tell me, “Why don’t you do it like this or why not try it like this?” And I would; he would print it and we would move on. He liked to shoot quickly.

One scene that was my idea was the chalkboard scene. I suggested Andre write “Love you” as I felt that was what he would do. Neumann let me do it. It’s one of the big highlights of the film. I get comments on it all the time, how touching it is. It makes the film a love story.

Neumann did a couple of things that just drove me crazy at the time. He liked to shoot his inserts early in the morning, before I got there, to save time. So he was using his fat hand to turn the dial instead of my long, thin one. “No one will notice,” Kurt claimed. Well, I noticed… but Neumann refused to re-film it. It’s still in there.

Neumann also made me re-dub a scene; there were birds singing in the background and he didn’t like that. I was new at dubbing and the hollow, cold voice from the dubbing booth absolutely ruined what had been a really good scene. But he was the director and I did what I was told to do, even when I didn’t like it.

DIABOLIQUE: Working with Irwin Allen, didn’t he want to cast you as Captain Lee Crane in the 1961 film version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?

HEDISON: Yes, he did. I didn’t like the script, so I passed on it and did a war film with Raoul Walsh instead – Marines Let’s GoWorking with the Master, Raoul Walsh, was a great experience for me, but even Walsh admitted that the script he and John Twist came up with for that film was not up to par.

Irwin Allen always wanted me. He believed I had something that would draw audiences to his projects. Irwin didn’t much care about the quality of the writing, but he always cast good actors. That is why he had so much success. I worked for him in several projects. Allen knew I would show up and give him good work, so he kept hiring me. The goal of any actor is to keep working. Irwin Allen always had a role for me, if I wanted it.

David Hedison

David Hedison

DIABOLIQUE: Tell us about your stint on The Cat Creature TV-movie. 

HEDISON: Doug Cramer was the producer and a friend. He asked me to do this telefilm that he co-wrote. I liked the script and the cast was fabulous. All those old horror stars, like Gale Sondergaard, John Carradine, Kent Smith and Keye Luke. It was a very good part for me. I enjoyed working with Meredith Baxter. We would work together again, later on, on her series, Family.

Stu Whitman and I were old friends from our studio days in the late ‘50s, so we had fun catching up and reminiscing about the “old days.” But the person that I wanted to work with the most was Gale Sondergaard. She was a Warner Brothers studio player and I loved that studio’s films the most when I was watching movies as a kid. I remembered Gale from the Bette Davis film, The Letter. Sondergaard was lovely and told me wonderful stories about her earlier films.

DIABOLIQUE: I read on the Internet that you really did not want to do The Lost World and that you “didn’t believe in the script.” What bothered you about the screenplay?

HEDISON: It was terrible. The alligator with horns and the rhinoceros iguanas were the stars of that picture. Irwin totally wasted the top-notch cast: Michael Rennie, Claude Rains, Fernando Lamas, Jill St. John. We spent the whole film running around from one contrived disaster to another. None of the relationships were thought out or even that conflicted. I got the girl, at least, although if she was truly smart she should have stayed with the money. I was a newspaper reporter and we all know what they get paid.

DIABOLIQUE: It didn’t take long for Irwin Allen to switch from Cold War espionage to monsters in early episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It’s too bad Allen decided to go with the monster-of-the-week format instead. What happened?

HEDISON: I don’t think it was a conscious move. Writers on Voyage came and went. Some were better than others. The writers who wrote those good action adventure spy scripts left us for Mission: Impossible in 1965. We were left with writers who found it easier to write “monster” episodes.

The studio liked anything that saved money – so they would “recycle” stock footage of previous monsters. They would borrow monster suits from the other Irwin Allen show, Lost in Space. We were considered a “kids” show, given our early time slot on Sunday Night, so it was the path of least resistance. It got ratings, the show stayed on, and the studio was happy they were saving money. Richard [Basehart] and I didn’t like it, and said so, but Irwin wasn’t interested in story or developing our characters. He wanted action, action, action. Chasing and being chased by monsters worked for him in that regard.

Originally, ABC was all gung-ho about Voyage – and included our show as one of their favorites of the season on a “premiere” special called ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment. Irwin Allen was equally thrilled about his entry into Television. ABC – as far as I could tell – was jumping up and down with joy. Richard Basehart and myself were depressed and not at all optimistic about their chances of lasting past Christmas.

Voyage premiered on a Monday night. The review from The Los Angeles Times appeared in the Tuesday morning edition with the headline, “ABC sinks to new depths with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. If this is any indication of ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment, then stop the World – we want to get off!”

What can I say? I thought that was obviously the end of the series. But no, the show lasted four years with 110 episodes. Go figure. That’s showbiz!

David Hedison

David Hedison

DIABOLIQUE: You worked with just about everybody, from Hollywood 1940s vets like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre to up-and-coming pros like Robert Duvall! Who was the most promising actor you ever worked with—where you saw the potential, and it was fulfilled in your eyes?

HEDISON: Benicio Del Toro in Licence to Kill. He was just starting out then. We stayed in the same Key West hotel. We would sit out on that four star hotel patio in the evenings and watch the sun go down and talk. He was young and full of ambition. Look where he has gone.

DIABOLIQUE: Who was the most difficult actor you ever worked with? Who was your most challenging co-star?

HEDISON: I never speak ill about anyone. No good ever comes of it. I loved working with older actors like Vincent Price – who became a friend. He advised me about which art I should buy for investment, and I listened to him. Claude Rains was a dear man; he let me camp out in his dressing room on The Lost World and ask questions. Oh, the stories he could tell. They were the only good thing to come out of that film, for me that is.

DIABOLIQUE: “Somewhere in a Crowd” – an eerie episode of the short-lived Journey to the Unknown TV anthology series – was a predecessor to films like The Sixth Sense . This spooky tale allows you to give one of your best performances. Any anecdotes about “Somewhere in a Crowd”?

HEDISON: I was asked to substitute for Lloyd Bridges at the last minute – he was supposed to do it and couldn’t. I don’t remember the reason now. I didn’t particularly want to go to England, as I was newly married, but I did. It was a good part. I had a director who told me what he wanted from me. I gave it to him. Filming in England is so much more civilized: they don’t rush about as much, you get tea breaks… I had a great time doing that one.

DIABOLIQUE: At this stage of your career, do the producers, in this case Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd, have you in mind for the part and it’s offered to you, or do you still have to audition for roles? You’re a busy actor post-Voyage, moving from job to job… What’s the process for landing a role?

HEDISON: At that point in my career, I never had to audition for television. For a major stage role, definitely! Now at my young age of 86, I’m auditioning constantly!

The casting people knew me and my work. They would send me a script. If I liked it and the money was good and I wasn’t doing something else, I would do it.

I never wanted to do any show or series that would tie me down for too long; I tried to do a good mix of film and TV during the fall and winter, so I could afford to do stage work in the summer. I did several east coast tours of plays from 1968 to 2007. I’m theatrically trained. I had my first stage role in 1948. It always pleased me when I could find a role I wanted to play and go back to the stage for a few months. I toured in three different runs of Chapter Two as the lead in 1979-80. I loved doing that.

DIABOLIQUE: You make a great Felix Leiter. Roger Moore’s James Bond and your Leiter shared a very believable friendship. How did it feel to show up on the set of the big-budget Live and Let Die for the first time?

HEDISON: Bond films are amazing to work on. Everything is first class. Cubby Broccoli was a friend; he used to invite me to his legendary Christmas parties in Los Angeles. He was a talented producer and a real gentleman. I was treated very well on both of my Bond films and enjoyed doing them. Roger and I had a great time in New Orleans and New York filming Live and Let Die.

DIABOLIQUE: You co-starred with Anthony Perkins in North Sea Hijack, about 20 years after he starred in Psycho. What do you remember about him?

HEDISON: Tony Perkins was a very nice man. I had brought my family along with me on the shoot, so I didn’t socialize off set with the cast all that much. My off-time was spent doing things with my pre-teen daughters. Tony and I only had a few scenes together. He was easy to work with and had a great sense of humor.

DIABOLIQUE: You play Felix Leiter again in Licence to Kill. Compare working on the second Timothy Dalton Bond film to working on Live and Let Die.

HEDISON: Timothy was very serious about his work, unlike Roger, who liked keeping things light on a set. So we would discuss our scenes and then do our work together. It worked out. The moviegoers believed we were friends and that he would go ‘rogue’ to avenge me. Fans tell me all the time how much they like that film.

DIABOLIQUE: How did they go about filming the scene in which Leiter is dismembered by a shark?

HEDISON: They were very careful with me – if you look closely at the bindings you will see that they rigged them like the gymnasts use, so I couldn’t get hurt from hanging from them. By the way, there was no shark in the tank when I was in it. I think it’s safe to tell you that now.

DIABOLIQUE: The direct-to-video Fugitive Mind – in which you play a U.S. senator – is directed by horror aficionado Fred Olen Ray.  I believe Ray is a great admirer of yours. How did he talk you into appearing in his low-budget action/sci-fi adventure?

HEDISON: He and I were guests at the same DragonCon on July 4th Weekend of 1999. He had a script he wanted me to read. I read it on the plane going home. I liked the part. I agreed to do it. I decided that the character I was playing wouldn’t have a beard since he was a senator, so that’s the only time I’ve shaved mine off for a part since 1991!

David Hedison

David Hedison

For more on David Hedison, please visit his official website. The Fly (1958) is available for preorder now on Blu-ray here, and will hit all major retail outlets on September 10th, 2013. UK Readers, you can preorder your copy of The Fly (1958) on Blu-ray here, as the film releases on Region B on September 16th, 2013. For more on Hedison, The Fly (1958) and more, keep your eyes glued to DiaboliqueMagazine.com!

Also, don’t forget to pick up Diabolique Issue #17, our incredibly great and star-studded horror-comedy issue, which is available for preorder now, available at the App Store now for iPad / iPhone users (Free with a Digital Subscription!) and will be on shelves and available for Digital Download on other platforms soon!

– By Harvey Chartrand

About Harvey Chartrand

Harvey F. Chartrand is a features writer at Ottawa Life Magazine (www.ottawalife.com). Harvey’s stories have appeared in numerous publications including Cinema Retro, Filmfax,Shock Cinema, Rue Morgue, Scarlet: The Film Magazine, National Post, Jerusalem Postand The Globe and Mail. Harvey is a movie fanatic and has interviewed several film celebrities. To contact Harvey, e-mail him at: [email protected]

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