Monday, July 20, 2015

An Interview with Ron Harper on Garrison's Gorillas, Planet of the Apes, and George Burns

When Ron Harper was performing in plays for fun at Princeton University, Professor Albert Einstein made an impromptu backstage visit. The famous physicist asked Harper about his future career plans. The young man said he planned to be an attorney. Einstein replied: "You'll have a good life if you decide to do what you love." Inspired by Einstein, Harper changed his career aspirations to acting and the rest is history. Ron Harper was one of the busiest actors in television in the 1960s and 1970s. He starred with Connie Stevens and George Burns in the sitcom Wendy and Me. He headlined the first-rate World War II action series Garrison's Gorillas and co-starred with Roddy McDowell in the Planet of the Apes TV series. He was also a regular in 87th Precinct, The Jean Arthur Show, and Land of the Lost. At age 79, he is still acting (and looks great). I had the pleasure of interviewing him recently at the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention in Winston-Salem, NC.

Café:  I always watched Garrison's Gorillas as a kid. It's often described as "inspired" by The Dirty Dozen--but it debuted within months of the movie and the characters are different. So, was the similar premise just coincidental?

Ron Harper at the Western Film Fair
and Nostalgia Convention.
Ron Harper:  I would have thought The Dirty Dozen came out well before Garrison's Gorillas. The Dirty Dozen was a very successful movie, of course. I knew that we were "suggested" by it, although it was never written and never talked about. The characters were different.

Café:  Garrison's Gorilla's World War II sets looked very impressive. Was it shot on a backlot?

RH:  It was filmed on the backlot at MGM, which was very large and spacious. We did one or two episodes at the beach, but, for the most part, the backlot was big enough for us to do all the work we needed to do. Of course, most scenes were shot so that we could talk and interact, so there wasn't a need for many long shots of people shooting cannons.

Café:  It was a great ensemble cast. How did you get along with your fellow cast members?

Ron Harper (kneeling) and
the "Gorillas."
RH:  My four guys! Brendon Boone, Christopher Cary, Rudy Solari, Cesare Danova, and I got along very well. I would hate to think of doing a series with somebody if you didn't get along with them. Cesare (who played "Actor") was a little upset, though, that he wasn't such a major second star. But it was a great group.

Café:  Despite good acting and tight plots, Garrison's Gorillas only lasted one season. Why do you think it was cancelled?

RH:  It was a well-done series and we had good stories. We had very nice ratings. I think there was a mood prevalent in our country at that time about too much violence on TV. There was criticism about too much shooting and people killing each other on television. We were starting to get affected by that. When you do a war series, there's going to be violence and crime and shooting. It's not just a situation comedy where you tell a joke. The producers were very aware of this criticism about violence and we had to be very careful about it. I remember that once or twice, the director had one of my comrades departing somewhere and turning around and shooting somebody. After we shot the scene, I said: "We don't want to show that. That's exactly what some of the critics are talking about--unnecessary violence. We have to cut down the violence to what's required for the plot. We can't haphazardly shoot somebody."

Café:  I find it interesting that Garrison's Gorillas was one of the first U.S. television series shown in China, where it was very popular.

RH:  I remember that. In fact, I was invited to China and went there to promote it.

Café:  The Planet of the Apes series showed some promise initially, but quickly faltered in the ratings. What do you think led to its downfall?

Roddy McDowell, James Naughton,
and Ron Harper.
RH:  It became very repetitious. Each week, either Roddy McDowell, Jim Naughton, or I would get captured and the other two would rescue him. I had several talks with the producers, stressing this is not reality--apes really do not talk, wear clothes, and shoot guns. We have infinite room to explore more stories than taking turns being rescued from the apes. I knew it would be harmful to the longevity of the series if we didn't start using more imagination. I did a series called Land of the Lost and we did much more interesting stories each week. There was more science fiction--strange things would happen in the plots. Planet of the Apes didn't take advantage of its premise. It was the same routine each week and the audience quickly became aware of that.

Café:  I assume it was a challenging series to film.

RH:  Yes and a lot of hard work, particularly for Roddy McDowell. He had to get there three hours before the rest of us, who arrived a little after dawn. Poor Roddy had to have two hours to put on his make-up. I was so impressed with his ability to stay alert for the rest of the 10-12 hour days. I remember that, after we had done five or six shows, that his make-up had made his skin very sore and red. He had to take off about twelve days before his face returned to normal.

Café:  Was it hard to act opposite the apes given their limited facial expressions?

RH:  No, you use your imagination as an actor. Our actors were very good, so what they missed facially, they did vocally.

Café:  You once told a great story about a gift that Roddy McDowell gave you. Can you recount that for our readers?

RH:  I enjoyed working with Roddy. He had a nice sense of humor. Around Christmas time, he gave me a gift of a director's chair with my name on it--misspelled. (laughs). It read "Rin Hooper." I said: "Oh, that's very nice." And he said: "I do hope I spelled your name correctly, Ron." I said: "Almost, you just missed it by one or two letters." He said: "Oh, good, I'm so glad you like it." So, Rin Hooper became my trademark.

Café:  What was it like starring with George Burns and Connie Stevens on Wendy and Me?

Harper, Connie Stevens, George Burns,
and James T. Callahan.
RH:  It was delightful to a certain extent because Connie and I were very fond of each other. I think we worked well together. George was a whole different story. We were a half-hour sitcom and the stories were about the domestic life of the characters played by Connie and me. George introduced the stories and provided commentary between the scenes. His routine would take up about five minutes of the show, but it kept growing longer and longer as the season progressed. In a half-hour sitcom, you need 18-20 minutes of story and George was writing about ten minutes of funny dialogue for his own scenes. He was a producer, so I remember talking with the associate producers about George using up too much of the time--we were down to twelve minutes to tell our 20-minute story. I don't know if one of the other producers or the network discussed it with him. But someone told him that he needed to cut down his part, that the show wasn't just a monologue for him.

Café:  In addition to the aforementioned series, you also starred in Land of the Lost, 87th Precinct, and The Jean Arthur Show. Of all your TV series, which one was your favorite and why?

RH:  Garrison's Gorillas. The cast was strong and the actors were very good to work with. It had a lot of action and interesting stories. We also had very good writers.

A young Ron Harper.
Café:  You were Paul Newman's understudy in the original 1959 stage version of Sweet Bird of Youth. Did you ever get to play the lead opposite Geraldine Page?

RH:  Yes, I did, for about four performances one week when Paul wasn't feeling too well. In my last performance of it, I saw Paul in the audience. If he was not feeling too well, he was feeling a little bit better. He was a wonderful, sweet guy. I think he probably felt generous enough to say: "Let Ron do one or two of the performances."

Café:  That's a juicy role.

RH:  It's a wonderful role. I was the understudy, so I was doing it every week in rehearsal, but never before an audience. I was a little bit nervous the first time because it was with a live audience and I was doing this Tennessee Williams play. It turned out to be OK. I had some nice comments about my performance and it may have lead to one or two other jobs.

Café:  Do you have any other upcoming projects that you want to share with your fans?

RH:  I just completed a movie for TV about two months ago called Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story (which was shown on Lifetime). It's a true story about a teenage girl that gets kidnapped by this older family friend. I play her grandfather and I mobilize some people to go and rescue her. It was on the air within two weeks of when I did my last scene. Modern technology is amazing.

Café:  Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Mr. Harper.

RH: It was great talking with you, Rick. You're a very good interviewer.

7 comments:

  1. Garrison's Gorillas was a terrific show. If I recall, it was on in the same time slot as Combat. I don't know how you do a war series without showing people being shot! I wasn't a fan of the Apes series for the reasons he said.

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  2. Well, my first comment disappeared, so here goes again -- I remember Ron Harper from Land of the Lost, and I'm sure I saw him in other things because his handsome face is so familiar. I had to laugh at his story about George Burns -- what a ham! I wish I could have seen Garrison's Gorillas, but I'm sure I didn't. Probably my Dad was watching something else at that time slot, and when I was a kid, kids didn't control the TV! You are a good interviewer, Rick!

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  3. This is one of your best interviews, Rick! I saw a segment of "Garrison's Gorillas" and thought it was quite well done. I also saw a couple episodes of "Wendy and Me" and thought George Burns was excessively present. I loved reading about Mr. Harper having the chance to take over for Paul Newman and realizing he was in the audience one night. What an awesome opportunity for Mr. Harper and a classy thing for Mr. Newman to do. I agree with Mr. Harper and Becky, you are a very gifted interviewer, Rick!

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  4. Thanks for the interview, I'm fan of Ron Harper, good to see him attending some events.

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  5. Ron and I write to each other and he is a very private person. I have loved him for over 50 years yet have never gotten to meet him. It is an honor to receive mail from him. He is a great actor and a fine gentlemen.

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  6. Great stuff! Mr. Harper does solid work in the 87th PRECINCT series (1961-62) as Det. Bert Kling, which I'm enjoying on DVD. There's a particular episode where he agonizes over shooting a thief who turns out to be a kid, very strong perf with the support of Robert Lansing, Gregory Wolcott, and the always funny yet surprisingly serious Norman Fell.

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