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A Hell of a Life: The Nine Lives of John Ashley

John Ashley’s never been a particularly well-known name, even among film buffs. He’s best remembered by aficionados of AIP car flicks, beach party musicals, and/or Philippine mad doctor movies. This is a shame because he had one of the most fascinating show biz careers in the second half of the twentieth century–one that encompasses four decades, two continents, several professions, a few classic movies and heaps of cult favorites. Stephen Vagg looks at the nine lives of John Ashley.

1) Wrestling Star

Ashley was born in Kansas City in 1934, to an unwed couple who gave him up for adoption. He never knew his biological parents, being raised by a gynecologist, Dr Roger Atchley, and his wife Lucille in Tulsa, Oklahoma. John Atchley, as he was originally known, became a champion wrestler at high school and earned a wrestling scholarship to Oklahoma State University.

He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-fifties intending to study at UCLA. Fraternity connections led to an introduction to John Wayne’s press agent, which led to an introduction to John Wayne, which led to an introduction to William Castle, which led to Ashley being cast as a guest star on the TV series Men of Annapolis as… a wrestler. This got him an agent. If it hadn’t been for wrestling, there’s a chance we might never have heard of John Ashley – his new stage name.

2) AIP Star

Not long after the Men of Annapolis appearance, Ashley accompanied a lady friend to an audition for a film being made by American International Pictures; while he was waiting, writer-producer Lou Rusoff asked Ashley if he wanted to read for a part as well. The young man agreed, and wound up doing an Elvis Presley impersonation; AIP were delighted: they was looking for a handsome Elvis type to play the villain in a juvenile-delinquents-and-hot-rods movie, Dragstrip Girl (1957). Ashley got the part (his girl missed out) and in January 1957 signed a four picture contract with AIP.

Dragstrip Girl is great fifties teensploitation fun, with Ashley a terrific delinquent, full of scowls and swagger; he’d never had an acting lesson, but he has a natural presence and easily steals the movie from the “good guy”, Steve Terrell (though in fairness, Ashley has the better part). AIP liked the idea of developing their own in-house talent, and all the film’s leads – Ashley, Terrell, and Fay Spain – were placed under multi-picture contracts. However, this arrangement was non-exclusive, enabling Ashley to make his second movie outside the studio: Zero Hour! (1957), a mid-budget airplane thriller at Paramount, in which Ashley had a small role.

Dragstrip Girl was well received, so AIP promptly remade it as Motorcycle Gang, with motorcycles instead of cars but the same writer (Rusoff), producer (Alex Gordon), director (Edward Cahn), stars (Ashley, Tyrell), and plot: Ashley was again the villain and again gave the best performance. The movie has become an icon of its time – director John Carpenter once listed it among his guilty pleasures – and is a little sharper than Dragstrip Girl.

AIP soon lost enthusiasm for Spain and Terrell but really liked Ashley, who was turning into their own in-house Elvis – he even had a Presley-style stint in the national guard around this time, though Ashley’s service only went for six months. AIP got him released early so he could play second lead in a WWII film, supporting Mike Connors in Suicide Battalion (1958) (the studio’s war movies aren’t very well remembered compared to their teen pics, but they made a fair few). Ashley has his first sympathetic role and is almost inevitably less effective than in his villainous parts, though he does get to romance a local girl and die gloriously. The movie, shot on a studio backlot, was set in the Philippines, a country that was to become strongly associated with Ashley in the future.

Ashley’s fourth AIP feature gave him his first heroic lead – Hot Rod Gang (1958), a more lighthearted kids-and-cars movie, with Ashley playing a rich teen who loves singing rock-n-roll and driving fast, but has to pretend to be “good” in order to inherit a pile of money. A whole bunch of shenanigans ensue – Ashley puts on glasses and pretends to be intellectual to impress his doddery old aunts, he sings, he slaps on a beard and impersonates a beatnik so he can sing in public (he even does a press interview and becomes famous). Writer Rusoff throws in a good girl with the hots for Ashley (Jody Fair), some car thieves, a snobby lawyer, a trashy blonde, a brawl or two, and Gene Vincent as himself. To be honest, Ashley’s limitations are exposed a little in this film – I don’t think he was a great comic actor – but it is entertaining and good-hearted.

Ashley went on to star in two movies that are often assumed to be from AIP even though they were made elsewhere: Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958) and High School Caesar (1960). In the former, his first sci-fi horror movie, he gives a solid leading man performance as a teen whose girlfriend turns into a monster at night; it’s not particularly memorable work but is grounded and realistic, and serves as a useful counter-balance to the extreme nature of the story. In the latter, a juvenile delinquent melodrama, Ashley is excellent as a poor little rich kid who tyrannizes his high school; it’s a real star vehicle for him – he gets to be mean, charismatic, and cry into his pillow – and it’s easily one of his best performances; unfortunately, the movie (released by Roger Corman’s Filmgroup Productions) came at the tail end of the juvenile delinquent cycle and was not that successful.

James H Nicholson, vice president of AIP, was a fan of Ashley’s and felt the actor could become a genuine star – according to author Tom Lisanti, it helped that Nicholson’s two daughters were admirers of Ashley. Indeed, the studio considered him a big enough “name” to insist he make a cameo as himself, performing a song, in AIP’s How to Make a Murder (1958) (he was by now also a singing star, which we’ll discuss more below).

However Ashley clashed with Nicholson’s partner, Sam Z. Arkoff, when the actor wanted to do an episode of Matinee Theatre on a date that clashed with an AIP production. It led to a fight and Ashley elected not to renew his contract with the studio. For any other young actor this might have been a disastrous career move, but Ashley already had another career up and running by this stage…

3) Singing Star

In the late fifties, there was a lot of crossover between singing and acting among teen idols – Elvis, Tommy Sands, Pat Boone, and Fabian wound up acting, while Tab Hunter, Jeff Chandler, and James Darren tried singing. Not long after Dragstrip Girl, Ashley was signed to Dot Records and had a brief career as a pop star. He wasn’t huge – there were no top ten hits – but he did okay. Ashley claims his single ‘Pickin’ on the Wrong Chicken’ sold a couple of hundred thousand copies. He would often perform with Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent, who were on the same label.

The singing dovetailed neatly into Ashley’s acting career – he sang in Zero Hour!, How to Make a Murder, and Hot Rod Gang, as well as episodes of shows like The Millionaire and Ashley’s own series, Straightaway (see below). A compilation album of some of his songs was released in 2001, and it’s worth seeking out if you like late fifties rock music; Ashley can put over a tune, and some of the numbers are quite catchy.

Every actor’s career has its ups and downs, and the more versatile you can be, the more options you have. While Ashley never became as big a pop star as, say, James Darren, the singing helped keep his profile high, brought in extra income, and ensured he didn’t slide into the obscurity of, say, a Steve Terrell.

4) Television Star

Ashley guest starred on TV series from the beginning of his career, but it was not until he left left AIP that he really focused on the small screen. Westerns were hugely popular at the time, and Ashley could ride a horse, so he was often cast as juvenile delinquent types on shows like Frontier Doctor, The Deputy, Death Valley Days, and Wagon Train; as mentioned, he also played a singer on The Millionaire.

The ABC network, who specialised in adventure series with handsome young leading men (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, etc) cast Ashley in the co-lead role of a TV series, Straightaway (1961-62). He and Brian Kelly played partners in the Straightaway Garage, where they designed, built, and serviced racing cars; Kelly was the designer while Ashley was a mechanic who occasionally sang. Although the concept was unusual, it wasn’t particularly strong (how many stories are going to be generated in a garage for racing cars?), and it isn’t that well remembered. But it did run for 26 episodes and had guest stars like Diana Dors and Gloria Swanson.

When Straightaway was cancelled, Ashley’s career was at an awkward stage – he had not established himself as a movie star, and his singing career remained in minor gear. He maintained a profile in the fan magazines through his marriage to a fellow second-tier teen idol, Deborah Walley, star of Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) (I’m not saying that’s why he married her, but it was a consequence). He also had a role in Hud (1963) with Paul Newman, directed by Martin Ritt, playing Hermy, a town bully. This turned out to be a genuinely superb film, the first one Ashley had been associated with, but… although Ashley was billed sixth, his part was eviscerated in the cutting room, and he is barely in the final movie; it had little impact on his career.

Fortunately, AIP came calling again…

5) Beach Party Star

Ashley was invited back to his old studio to play Frankie Avalon’s best friend in the musical comedy Beach Party (1963), which was so popular it created an entire sub-genre. He was the only actor from AIP’s juvenile delinquent period whom they used in the Beach Party movies. Tom Lisanti puts this down to Nicholson’s affection for Ashley and the fact he was not taller than Frankie Avalon (actors who overshadowed Avalon tended not to be asked back apart from Jody McCrea). The fact Ashley could sing and still had a bit of profile due to Straighway and being Mr. Deborah Walley may also have had something to do with it.

It was only a supporting role but Ashley was liked enough to be asked back for several more in what became a series: Muscle Beach Party (1963), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), as well a role in AIP’s Beach Party-style service comedy Sergeant Deadhead (1965). The only ones he missed out on were Pajama Party (1964) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

With one exception, Ashley doesn’t do much in the films other than play Frankie’s friend. His character’s name is usually “Johnny,” though in Beach Party it was “Ken” and in Sergeant Deadhead it was “Filroy.” He generally just hangs around, doing a little bit of exposition and the occasional line of dialogue, having minimal impact on the storyline. The one role where he had something to do was Beach Blanket Bingo where he plays “Steve,” a non-friend of Avalon who clashes with him over Deborah Walley (the only time they acted together, incidentally) – but even then he doesn’t get much screen time. Although the films were musicals, the only one Ashley got to sing lead vocals on was How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. He couldn’t surf and had to be doubled in those scenes. When Avalon wasn’t available to play the male lead, AIP brought in Tommy Kirk or Dwayne Hickman, rather than promoting Ashley.

Having said that, Ashley does bring something to the series. Firstly, he and Avalon genuinely seem to be friends – they look the same age (though Ashley was six years older), have similar height and hair, and convey a true camaraderie which is part of the series’ charm. The films weren’t all about songs, sex, and surfing; they were also about friendship, and you really notice the entries where the lead male isn’t good friends with Ashley – in Beach Blanket Bingo it’s downright stressful to see him and Avalon as strangers.

Secondly, Ashley is the one person in the beach party movies to play it straight, which helps provide sort of verisimilitude; all the other regulars – Frankie, Annette Funicello, Jody McCrea, Harvey Lembeck, Candy Johnson, etc. – tend to ham it up, doing double takes to camera, running around frantically, overacting, and so on, but Ashley hits his marks and says his lines sincerely without any antics, which actually serves to center the storylines. For instance, when he (briefly) kicks Frankie out of the group in Muscle Beach Party, it actually feels real. The only film where Ashley went “wacky” is Sergeant Deadhead where he put on glasses and plays a geeky soldier; it’s disconcerting – it feels as though the role was originally written for Jody McCrea – and helps sink what is already a poor movie.

Around the time of Beach Party Ashley was (coincidentally?) offered more comic guest star roles on television series such as Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. He also guested on Dr. Kildare and Wild Wild West, played a supporting part in a low budget “B” at Allied Artists, Young Dillinger (1965), then had a lead role in a “C” science fiction flick, Larry Buchanan’s The Eye Creatures (1965) – again doing solid leading man work, grounding an outlandish premise, though by now he was far too old to play a teenager.

Ashley’s second stint at AIP resulted in six movies – seven if you count The Eye Creatures, which was made for a subsidiary – before they let him go. In 1966, the studio signed a multi-picture deal with another Elvis-like actor-singer, Fabian, and many of the roles he played for AIP would have suited Ashley – for instance the stock car racer in Fireball 500 (1966) alongside Beach Party alumni Avalon, Funicello and Lembeck – but Fabian simply had a higher profile.

Ashley supported singer Marty Robbins in a cheap stock car film, Hell on Wheels (1967), which features a large amount of musical numbers but none from Ashley. He auditioned unsuccessfully for the Gary Lockwood part in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and wound up cast in the movie as a clerk… but the part is cut out of most versions. (Having said that, it’s still pretty cool to be in 2001, even if on the cutting room floor.)

Ashley’s acting and singing career were clearly on the downhill slide… but once again, he had an ace up his sleeve. He had gone into exhibition.

6) Motion Picture Theater Owner

Ashley was no dummy with his cash – he studied economics at college – and he invested in theaters back home in Oklahoma in partnership with a man named Earl Snyder. Together they ran a business called Snyder/Ashley Enterprises until Snyder’s death in a car accident, which prompted Ashley to move to Oklahoma in 1968 to take over operations himself.

The business grew slowly but steadily, and by the mid-seventies he had interests in forty theaters . For a lot of people this would have been an ideal note on which to finish their career – exhibition, while still risky, was a far more stable way to earn money than singing and acting. However Ashley’s career had a few more twists and turns to go…

7) Philippine Movie Star

In the sixties, movie producers in the Philippines occasionally hired a quasi-American name actor in order to give films some chance of distribution in the US – actors like George Montgomery, Kent Smith, and Jock Mahoney. Ashley received an offer to appear in an Eddie Romero horror movie for Hemisphere Pictures called Brides of Blood (1968), and he took it – in part because his marriage to Walley had ended and he wanted to get out of the country. (She was having an affair with Elvis on the set of Spinout (1966), which in its own way was kind of cool – if you’re going to be cuckolded by anyone, why not Elvis?)

The shoot went for three times longer than anticipated, but Ashley didn’t mind: he enjoyed life in the Philippines and got along well with Romero. He also played a small part in another film for Romero, the World War II flick, Manila Open City (1968), starring James Shigeta. But the movie that changed his life was Brides of Blood.

Ashley’s role in Brides is a straight up leading man part, and as in Frankenstein’s Daughter and The Eye Creatures, he’s solid and professional rather than outstanding, but he brings a believability that is vital in a movie with such an outlandish plot: a mysterious beast is killing women on the island; the beast turns out to be created by radioactive explosions; the killer beasts are hot for women; a woman’s lust for sex leads her to be punished by being torn apart by a monster; Ashley saves the day.

The picture was surprisingly popular in the US, helped by an energetic advertising campaign – and the fact it starred a vaguely familiar American like Ashley would not have hurt. Ashley’s theater connections meant he was friendly with some distributors in the Midwest who, impressed by the movie’s production values at low cost, offered to help finance another Philippines horror story. He returned to star in The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1969), again for Romero. Ashley’s actually a little awkward in this film, but it had even more violence and another strong campaign, and did did well enough for a sequel: Beast of Blood (1970). After over a decade of leading roles, Ashley had established himself as a genuine box office draw, albeit in a very specific genre.

Image from the trailer for Brides of Blood (1968).

8) Philippine Movie Producer

Romero suggested that he and Ashley try financing these movies themselves. It was a risky move, but the films were not expensive, they were coming off three hits, and Ashley had his own theaters as a safety net. He and Romero formed their own company, Four Associates.

Their debut feature was Beast of the Yellow Night (1971), which was one of the first movies released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Ashley stars and has one of his best roles as an escaped convict who sells his soul to the devil (Victor Diaz) in exchange for the chance to live. He possesses the body of a man married to a beautiful woman, then turns into a creature that runs around killing people (meaning Ashley has to wear a lot of creature make up

The film is a lot of fun, and Ashley’s performance is good – he’s not playing a stock leading man character this time, but a tormented killer redeemed by love for his new wife. It was a financial success and launched Ashley as a producer, while confirming his status as a draw in horror movies.

Over the next four years he would produce around two films a year in the Philippines. Most of the time he would also appear as an actor, but on some occasions he worked solely behind the camera. His efforts were integral to the Philippines film boom of the early seventies, captured in the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010), and earned Ashley a special award for his contribution to the industry from the Filipino Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Ashley starred in and produced The Twilight People (1972) (a variation of The Island of Dr Moreau), The Woman Hunt (1972) (a variation of The Most Dangerous Game), Beyond Atlantis (1973) (a variation of Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Savage Sisters (1974), and Sudden Death (1977); he also appeared in but did not produce Black Mamba (1974). Ashley played a relatively stock leading man in Twilight People, Beyond Atlantis, and Black Mamba, but had a more challenging part in Woman Hunt, where he’s a mercenary who helps kidnap the women then changes his mind. He had supporting roles in Savage Sisters and Sudden Death. He’s especially fun in the former as a mustachioed, cigar-smoking conman type figure, doing push ups in leopard print underwear and bedding the three leads, indicating Ashley might have enjoyed a decent career as a character actor in later years had he so chosen.

The Twilight People and The Woman Hunt were very popular, but Ashley’s two biggest Philippines hits were the productions in which he did not appear: Jack Hill’s classic The Big Doll House (1971), which kicked off the seventies’ women-in-prison cycle and made a star of Pam Grier, and Black Mama White Mama (1973) (a variation on The Defiant Ones). Both films were driven by female characters, a hugely effective formula in the exploitation field; indeed, The Woman Hunt and Savage Sisters might have performed better if they’d focused more on their female leads instead of giving time to Ashley.

Ashley worked with the leading American exploitation companies of the time: Beast of the Yellow Night, Big Doll House, and Woman Hunt were released by New World; Twilight People and Beyond Atlantis by Dimension; and Black Mama White Mama and Savage Sisters by Ashley’s old employer, AIP (now run solely by Sam Arkoff after Nicholson left the company).

By the mid-seventies, Ashley was losing enthusiasm for producing in the Philippines. Box office receipts for Beyond Atlantis and Savage Sisters were disappointing, costs were rising, and Sudden Death struggled to find decent distribution in the U.S. (Black Mamba was never released theatrically in Ashley’s lifetime.) Eventually he decided to wind up his operations… but not before helping Francis Ford Coppola make Apocalypse Now (1979) as an associate producer.

It was natural Coppola would approach someone with Ashley’s experience to help in the Philippines. As has been well documented, it was an extremely difficult shoot – so difficult that Ashley claims after a year of working on the movie, he sent himself a fake telegram saying he had to go home to Oklahoma so he could show it to Coppola and quit. The resulting movie, however, was a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest Ashley was ever associated with.

9) U.S. Producer

When Ashley returned to the U.S. he decided to sell his movie theaters and take a year off. He seems to have lost his enthusiasm for acting by this stage – he had only appeared in one American film during the past decade – a mediocre Western, Smoke in the Wind (1975), which was little seen and is remembered if at all for being the last movie of Walter Brennan. “Acting was something I fell into,” Ashley later admitted. “I enjoyed it. It was fun. But I have to be honest with you, I was never terribly devoted to it…. To get up at six am and drive out to Indian Dunes and get hit with a face full of sea air, then slam on makeup… I don’t miss it.”

However, he had fallen in love with producing. “Producing is so rewarding, so all-encompassing,” he said. “To be involved in the production of something, it’s the whole thing. From the script and casting, which I really enjoy, then the physical production and the post production, which is the most fun. Hiring composers, scoring, the dubbing, mixing… I find all these elements more enjoyable than acting.”

Ashley decided to move to Los Angeles, where he produced some TV films for Robert Conrad, a fellow sixties teen idol and an old friend (they had acted together several times): Coach of the Year (1980) and Will: The Story of G. Gordon Liddy (1982).

This led to an offer to work for Stephen J Cannell, one of the leading writer-producers on television at the time, resulting in Ashley producing the TV series, The Quest (1982), which only had a short run, and The A Team (1983-87), which became a spectacular hit and (over time) an icon of eighties popular culture. Ashley provided the narration for the opening credits and made an occasional cameo in the show, which is probably the most commercially successful project he was ever associated with.

He never recaptured the success of The A Team but kept busy producing until the end of his life, notably on series in collaboration with Frank Lupo; his credits included Werewolf (1987), Something Is Out There (1988), Hardball (1989), Gladiator School (1990), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1993), and some seasons of Walker Texas Ranger.

Fred Olen Ray, an admirer of Ashley’s who became a close friend, lured the producer out of acting retirement for a small part in the comedy Invisible Mom (1996). Ashley was producing a feature film, Scar City, when a heart attack killed him in 1997. He was only 62 years old, but he had packed in a hell of a lot during that time.

Conclusion

In many ways John Ashley was extremely lucky. He was raised by a well-off family in a first world nation, and was blessed by nature with beauty and a decent enough singing voice; he had a “look” that Hollywood was interested in at the time (i.e. a quasi-Elvis appearance), and he was fortunate to make relationships in the Philippines right before the film boom there.

But other people have also been given these sort of opportunities and failed to take advantage of them the way Ashley did. He worked hard, was smart and not afraid to try different things, whether it was acting, singing, exhibition, or producing. He wasn’t a hugely-talented performer, but he made the most of what gifts he had. He was clever enough to go into business with more experienced partners he could learn from – Earl Snyder for exhibition, Eddie Romero for film production, Frank Lupo and Stephen Cannell for television production – and what’s more, he did it in territories he knew well (the Philippines, Oklahoma, Los Angeles), instead of unfamiliar environments.  He was incredibly important to the Philippine film boom of the seventies – it was his contacts in distribution that led to a second Mad Doctor film there, and then it was his experience in the country that encouraged Roger Corman to shoot The Big Doll House there.

Ashley was rewarded with a career that not only made him rich and semi-famous but left him with a CV that includes three genuine classics (Hud, 2001, Apocalypse Now), one of the most iconic TV series of all time (The A Team), and key movies in some beloved cult genres (delinquents-and-cars AIP films, Philippine horror movies, the Beach Party series).

A hell of a career.

A hell of a life.

References

About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

2 comments

  1. This is a fantastic look back at a pop culture personality who’s not as well remembered as he should be. Thank you for writing it.

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