Sunday, 15 March 2015

Going Ape with Don McLeod

So, there I was, mooching about the Bronx Zoo, minding my own business, not gettin' under any ones feet, doin' my own thing, not botherin' no one, well I say not botherin'...  I do like to taunt the animals, you know?  In their cages like, wrong I know, but I had nuttin' better to do all day and what the hey... Huh?!

Born and bred Newyorker I am and I love this this city, I love the people, I love the food and I love this god damn zoo... I had retired early, I say retired... I was kinda' removed from my old place of employment, shall we say, force-ably?... And that's why I'm here every day...  But that's not my story here, that's for another day... No, this is my story today... 

So there I was screaming at the lions, laughing raucously at those giraffes and their freakin' necks - Boy, it must take an age for the food to get to their bellies - I'd shout at the sloths for being lazy and mimic the penguins and their stupid walk... Boy they do walk stupid! - But the thing I loved doin' best, my all time favourite thing was to watch those Gorillas... Those dumb bums, sitting there scratching'and pickin' at each other... And boy they hate it when I watch them, especially when I sit there, chomping on a ripe, tasty, yella banana... Oh yes, they hate that! They scream and they yell and they bang on that bullet proof glass, but they ain't gonna' get me, no sir... I am safe as freakin' houses, sittin' there on my bench...  I say my bench because when I sit on it, for some reason no one wants to sit near me... "Do I offend you?" I shout as they pass... But I get no answer, but I don't care, they can go and suck a lemon... This is my zoo and I can sit where I want to... But those Gorillas, they can't sit here, oh no, they can't get me, I am safe, I am happy... Or so I thought... Yes, that was until the day when one came and sat right down beside me... 

Ah crap, I thought... I've been doin' this most days for years...  He must have been pissed? Was this was to be my demise?  Oh lord let him be quick and merciful... 

I screwed up my eyes waiting for the pounding sting of the punch, but nuttin'.... I looked up... He was just sittin' there... doing nuttin'...  I knew these creatures were dumb, but come on... and how the hell did he get out anyway?... I stared at him, curious as to how he did it then suddenly he moved his hands to his head... Now at this point, I am big enough and ugly enough to admit that I was scared, I was petrified... 'Was this to be my end?' I thought. 
But no, instead of viciously mauling me as I had expected, the gorilla just removed his head? I am not jokin' around here... I kid you not... as god is my witness, mama mia! that ape took off his freakin' head and you know what was underneath? Do you? A head, a human head! Yes, that gorilla was a man... In a suit... A gorilla suit! But not just any man either...No! No wonder he was so convincing... This was Don McLeod... Apeman extraordinare, and a  man as famous for being an ape as I was for throwing up in the kids play area... Now that, my friend, that was a fun day... 

And he didn't even seem bothered when I started talking to him... Mind you he also didn't seem too bothered when I started itching my butt...

So I aksed him....

So, what do you need to bring out your inner gorilla?
Usually the pay check is a major motivation.  But on a performance level, I remove thoughts as much as possible and just try to be in a more primal state of mind.  I should add that having studied gorillas at the San Diego Zoo was a big help in understand the rhythms of movement and the gentle stillness of these wonderful creatures.

I heard that you stole the part of a gorilla called Otto… Because you were a better gorilla than a real gorilla?
This was when American Tourister Luggage wanted to remake a series of TV commercials, and were no longer able to use a real gorilla.  I wouldn’t say I was better than a real gorilla ... just more able to take direction and also more willing to execute actions on cue.”

Where do you get the suits? Are they specially tailored for you?
 “There are only a few special effects shops in the world that have made a professional anatomically correct gorilla suit.  My first suit (1980) for American Tourister was made by Oscar winner Rick Baker.  The Godfather of gorilla suits I should add.  And yes, the are “tailor-made” for me.  A body and head cast are taken and then a spandex muscle suit is built.  A fibreglass head piece is made from my head cast and then small motors (called servos) are attached to the inner shell.  These control the gorilla brows, nose and mouth.  Arms (both short & long) are made and feet.  The fur used is very costly and is mostly synthetic fibres with bits of Yak hair added for texture.  Add black contacts ... and bingo!  You have a gorilla suit.  The professional suits cost anywhere from $20,00 to $50,000 ... and even up to $100,000 plus for one of Rick Baker’s movie suits.”

What’s it like inside?
 “Very hot!  You sweat like crazy in the suit, as hardly any air gets in.  You are encased in a cloak of spandex, thick foam padding and the outer fur suit, along with a rubber arms, feet and a head full of sculpted teeth, tongue and foam latex topped with hand-punched hairs and no cherry on top!  There is a wonderful sense of loosing the human self ... and really becoming something else, as you have no normal reference points like seeing your own human limbs, or clothing.”

 Have you ever fainted?

 It can get up to 120 degrees on a hot day with a lot of running.  I’ve been hospitalised on several occasions due to heat exhaustion.  I nearly died working on a film (Tanya’s Island) in Puerto Rico.  I had lost most of my body fluids due to lack of sleep, extreme humidity, too many drinks in the bar the night before, and being left in the suit for 4 hours without a break.  I awoke in a hospital with tubes coming out of me and my heart rate was racing to the danger point.”

Do you have any special cooling methods?
 “I have used several.  I cool suit, which is basically Ice-packs inserted into a vest worn under the muscle suit or on a few jobs I’ve been hooked up to motorised ice box which forces cold air into a tube-lined vest.  But I rarely use them as it takes so much time to fiddle with the hookups and sometimes it gets too cold and the dramatic change in temperate can lead to serious health issues ... like pneumonia. 
The actor Kevin Peter Hall who starred as Harry in the TV series Harry and the Hendersons died as a result of complications from being in a creature suit for weeks on end with intense shifts in body temperature.”

How many costumes have you had? 
 “I’m on my 5th costume right now ... with frequent upgrades to head, arms, feet as needed.”

And where do you get the suits? Are they specially tailored for you?
 “I have friends who a major Hollywood special effects experts.  They have built the suits for me ... sometimes for a movie role and then I can have the suit once the job is finished.  My friend David Miller (creator of the original Feddie Kruger makeup) made the first version of the suit I now use, and Robert Devine has done all the upgrades and repairs on the current suit.”

Crap, really?! That's bad man.... 

So, what special mechanisms do you have? 
 “Brows, nose and lips are controlled by Remote Controls (the kind used to run a toy car or mini-drone type flying device  I can control the opening and closing of the mouth and the eyes are my own, so naturally I control those ... most of time.  The materials used have changed a lot over the years.  Better fur, lighter foam padding, and more subtle use of the motors used to animate the face.  But these days most gorillas you see in movies are all done through CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and Motion Capture ... where an actor wears a unitard with sensors and a computer captures his/her movements and then they are generated by a software program that gives the gorilla life.  (Perter Jackson’s King Kong is a prime example).  I did a recent project in Seoul, Korea called Mr. Go ... a film about a baseball playing gorilla.  All done with CGI and Motion Capture.  I trained the actors in gorilla movement, butoh, mime and baseball (I was a college baseball player before I gave it up for the theatre.)”

A baseball playing Gorilla? Sounds crazy... But then again..?

I suppose they couldn't train a real Gorilla to play baseball... Hell in my experience you can't train a gorilla to do anything but sit on his fat butt all day eatin' fruit and scratchin'.... But I wondered why did he think that he worked better than the real thing?
 “Several reasons ... real gorillas are an endangered species and just aren’t available to be used in movement specific projects.  If I’m told to go sit on a rock or jump up and down or open a briefcase ... I can do it.  A real gorilla would just roll over and take a nap or likely move away.”

And when did you decide you liked being an animal better than a human? 
“I’ve always preferred the company of animals to that of most humans.  My first exposure to portraying a gorilla was in theatre school in a mime class.  I was assigned to choose an animal and bring my “animal” to class for a brief improvisation.  Once I got to understand more about gorillas I was hooked.”

Now I knew this guy from all the movies he'd been in... Yes I go to the movies, before they kick me out for being noisy and throwing popcorn that is... So how did that all start?
“There was a low-budget movie being filmed in the mountains of Big Bear in Southern California. They needed ape-like early men for the lead roles.  I tried out and got the job.  That was in the Winter of 1979.”

And you played a gorilla for three months in Japan?! Is that true or are you freakin' kidding me?
“There is a theme park in Southern Japan called Mitsui Greenland.  They had a live show that featured me as The Crazy Gorilla.  I was presented as a real gorilla, and rolled out onto the amphitheatre stage in a huge steel cage by a team of Japanese stagehands.  My scantily-clad assistant Sandra ran me thru a number of tricks:  i.e.  “what is 2 plus 3?” And I would pound the cage floor 5 times to great applause.  Then the tricks got more complicated and the crowd (still thinking I was a real ape) went wild when I could answer complicated math problems or point to body parts etc.  The show ended with me being released from the cage and doing a bit of break dancing to a popular Japanese J-pop song.  In the end I took off my head and revealed myself to be just a sweaty Caucasian actor from Hollywood.”

Then these two chicks walked past the bench, I smiled at them, a big toothy grin and politely said hello... I was an utter gentleman, but then for no reason these two looked shocked and ran off... I think it must have been Don... I'm mean a gorilla with human head? That's the thing of nightmares, I tell you... So I aksed...

So, has anybody truly freaked when they saw you? I mean really freaked?
 “Yes ... many times.  I’ve caused a riot in a Tokyo department store, when I accidentally scared a group of school girls on a tour, I’ve caused people to run into glass doors in American shopping malls, and when
working on the TV series Tarzan The Epic Adventures in South Africa I caused some of the local crew members to run screaming into the bush when I first came out of the dressing room.”

This did make me laugh! I had people scared of me, but they usually just give me the look... You know the one, like they've had a bad cannoli... But I only dreamed of screaming! When I had recovered I carried on with my questions.

And how many times have you been mistaken for a real gorilla? Has it ever landed anyone in trouble? 
 “American Tourister took me to the Miami Zoo for a promotion on time.  I was to be filmed outside the gorilla cage with the real gorillas next to me.  Everything went south when it was determined the male & female gorillas were trying to mate and was a major distraction.  I was rushed away by the zoo staff.  On another ill-fated TV news event, I was snuck into the Los Angeles Zoo and came out of the bushes next to the gorilla compound ... with me on the outside with the tourists.  Everyone panicked and ran in all directions.  The trainers thought a real gorilla had escaped and chased me in a golf cart with a tranquilliser gun.  I ran trying to tear off my ape mask and was yelling “don’t shoot ... I’m an actor in a suit” but they couldn’t hear me due to chaos.  I was detained in the zoo jail for several hours ... and abandoned by the TV news crew as they didn’t have permission to even be in the zoo with a news camera.”

You’ve been in so many crazily fantantastic comedies as a gorilla, including two of my personal favourites… 'Trading Places' and 'The man with two brains', but what was Ackroyd/ Murphy/ Martins’ (and all) initial reactions when they saw you in costume?
 “The reaction is always extreme curiosity mixed with laughter and a hesitation to get to close if though they know I’m a man in a suit.  Eddie Murphy put my ape head on and ran around the NY set ... telling everyone he was getting back to his primal roots.”

Did your they treat you differently in costume?
 “Yes ... the minute the gorilla head goes on I’m no longer Don McLeod the actor ... I’m sort of a semi-real animal that people can talk to and I talk back.  But they all end up cracking up and saying” I can’t believe I’m talking to an Ape.”  Once the suit is on ... actors/directors immediately look for my assistant if they want to ask something specific ... as though I can no longer understand them once the gorilla head goes on.”

Was it hard to keep a straight… ape face?
 “I laugh a lot inside the ape suit, but you can’t tell from looking at me, unless I’m physicalising the body movements.”

You acted alongside so many, what were they all like? Do you have any stories for us?
 “Eddie Murphy, Ackroyd, & Jamie Lee where great fun ... as they all are/were true professionals and very talented and funny to be around.  Steve Martin was very different from what I expected ... very stern and humourless when not filming.  
Robin Williams (Hook) was one of my favourite actors to work with.  He was incredibly humble and very interested in what was going on around him.  He was interested in what others were about ... not just himself.”

I knew it... I just knew it!

Now you and Beeks had a pretty romantic ending to that infamous scene in 'Trading Places', so you like to think that they did end up make sweet music together
 “I don’t want to think too much about
that possibility ... he was never really my type.  I was actually kind of hoping they’d put Jamie Lee Curtis in the cage with me ... but it wasn’t in the script.  But in Tanya’s Island I did indeed get the girl .... both literally and physically.”

Ha ha! But how fun was it to film that scene?
 “Yes ... famous humping scene.  Beeks (the actor) was not at all thrilled to be forever remember on film as the guy who got humped by a gorilla.  I’m being kind ... he was a pain in the ass (pun intended) during the whole scene.  

And what direction did John Landis give you? 

Landis just kept yelling “Hump him harder ... give it to him good!” 


And the laugh! I like to think that’s how all gorillas laugh! Was that your idea?
The “laugh” was mostly done with body language/mime awareness on my part.  Gorillas can be very playful but they don’t laugh as such.  There is a great clip on YouTube of Koko the gorilla being tickled by the late Robin Williams, and she does almost appear to be laughing ... so perhaps I stand corrected.”

Now you haven't just done comedy. or played gorillas... You've also played a werewolf, a shadow and a… Greibbel… ?
“Yes ... I was one of the lead werewolves in the classic film The Howling.  In Hook I played Peter Pan’s Shadow and the Greibbel was a fantasay creature created by my good friend Rob Bottin (Total Recall, Robo Cop, The Thing, Legend).  My friend Mick Garris wrote the script, Joe Dante directed and it was part of Steven Speilbergs’s TV series called Amazing Stories.”

And what was Hayley Mills like to work with?
 “Hayley Mills was a real sweetheart ... as a young boy I had a big crush on her, so it was a joy to work with her after all those years.”

In the howling you played a werewolf! 
“I loved acting in the Howling, as I’d always liked the old werewolf movies and the Howling was (at the time) a ground-breaking special effects wonder with all those transformations by Rob Bottin and his crew.  The makeup did take a few hours each day, but once it was on it really was like wearing a second skin ... you hardly noticed it.  The chango-heads as we called them were puppets operated by cables and condom-bladders which were inflated on cue to give the effect of the actor’s face/neck expanding and transforming into a werewolf.  (All the Eddie Quest changes were done in a single shot, which was a leap ahead from the old stop, paste hair and cut back techniques we saw on actors like Oliver Reed and of course Lon Chaney & others.)”

You also doubled for Jack Nicholson is The witches of Eastwick, why didn’t he perform the character himself? He’s no stranger to prosthetics…
 “Well some of the effects (the devil transformation) were shot after principle filming had been completed.  And there was likely a Laker game on ... so no Jack.  Also a cost factor ... much cheaper to have a day of me in a Rob Bottin chest piece than to have Jack on set for something where you didn’t even need to see his face (just the chest expansion and hands swiping at the 3 witches in the miniature house.)”

I suppose you didn’t technically work with him but...
 “I never met him ... he was long gone when I was brought in by the special effects team (Rob Bottin shop and ILM)”

Do you know what he thought of your version of his character?
“It is very common that a special effect will be done on a “star” without them actually being on the set. I assume he thought I did a brilliant job (lol).”

You were also Quasimodo in Naked Gun 2 ½, that must have been a laugh?! Is Leslie Nielson as funny off camera as on?
 “Leslie Nielson was always cracking jokes, and he even carried a whoppie cushion (rubber fart bladder) around with him, which he would slip under an unsuspecting person when they were about to sit down.”

Bit of a shock about OJ though huh?!
 “OJ was a much better running back than he was an actor ... although he did a pretty good job during his murder trial.”

Ok then, so who do you consider as the best director that you’ve worked with?
 “I can’t really say there’s a best director as they are all very different.  Some are very sensitive to actors and others are more like military field generals.  But the most famous directors I’ve worked with (Spielberg, Dante, Landis) all had a wonderful sense of excitement and pure joy for the
art of film making which made it exciting to be a small part of a big group project.  Being a suit performer/ movement artist in most of my film and television roles, the directors have pretty much left me to my own devices, which is a real luxury for a performer.  “You’re the expert ... just do your thing.  But do it quick as we’re loosing our light.”  These are common paraphrased statements I’ve heard many times.”

What do yo think about other performers of your ilk? You know like Andy Serkis and the like?
“Andy is wonderful ... almost all his gorilla/ape roles have been created through Motion Capture. 
He is outstanding at primate movement and an excellent actor on all levels.  I like his work very much.  I’m more of an “old school” gorilla, the kind of suit performance that still uses the actor’s own eyes as opposed to mechanised eyes that some of the later suits have used.  I lot of the gorillas I’ve protrayed have been either comedy gorillas (Trading Places,  Man With Two Brains, etc) so the movement is more human and the timing is different than you would get from an actual primate.”

I stared in to the gorilla compound, 2 of them had been watching us for the past 10 minutes, they didn't seem disturbed by us one bit... I wondered...

Have you spent time with gorillas? Or did you just learn by watching them?
 “Many hours in the early days ... standing outside the gorilla compound at the San Diego Zoo and filming/watching the gorillas for hours on end.  I have not had the pleasure of going to Rwanda to actually be with a group of gorillas.  But I’ve worked on many projects with chimps and orang-utans, and I’ve been in long training sessions with a primatologist (for the film Born to be Wild).”

So then, how do you'se describe your job to people?
 “I just tell them I’m a professional gorilla during the day, and a Living Statue or Mime Artist after dark.  A professional shape-shifter of sorts.”

And Do you teach Gorilla... you know, just in case I fancy giving it a go...
"I have taught movement in theatre school and master classes in mime, mask, butoh and commedia all over the world.  I have also trained two younger assistant gorilla performers.  Adam Meir is a member of my Living Statue company and is now my main gorilla performer.  He was a former student of mine at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in Hollywood.  I still do the gorilla work on occasion, but for the most part Adam dons the costume for most of our jobs.”

I had heard he was a practitioner of somthin' called Butoh, So I aksed him more about that?
“Sometimes called the dance of the dark soul.  Butoh means earth dance or

stomp dance in Japanese -- Butoh is a little known Japanese art form that is somewhat like Kabuki or Noh theatre without the rules.  In butoh you let the moment, the environment and one’s inner feelings dictate the movements.  It is done with bent legs and performed very slow in an almost trance-like state.  It is all about transformation ... one can go from rock to man to woman to baby to demon to flora & fauna to wind, rain, insect for abstract image found only in the imagination.  It was very freeing for me as a movement artist.  Freeing from all the self consciousness and rules of classic mime, which I had studied with Marcel Marceau and performed for many years.  More info on Butoh can be found on my web site:" 

So with all that under his belt I wondered what he liked best, man, monster or Ape?
“I really like a mix ...monsters are great fun as I get to work with talented special effects people who really create fifty percent of the character through the makeups and suits they bring to the various projects.  Mime is really the key art form for me ... it is the basis for all the creature work, for our Living Statue work, and certainly for the gorilla work.  These days I’m spending a lot of my time on writing.  My autobiographical novel, Gorilla Tales in almost completed and I’m looking forward to getting my stories out to the public.  I hope to do a book tour and signing in the gorilla costume.”

Now I was just about to suggest that he come wid me to put soap suds in the flamingo pool when we heard someone shout behind us... "Hey! Monkey!"

We both turned to see a zoo keeper running down the path towards us, shouting and waving a large net shouting about.

I took my chance - you know just in case something was to happen - and asked one last question...

So, Don do you actually like bananas?
"Yes ... even after having thousands of bananas thrust upon me during photo shoots, commercials or during public appearances."

And with that I jumped off the bench, thanked him profusely for his time and started running, with the keeper hot on my heals shouting "Bobo, you schmuck... How did you get out again?!... Get your ass back in your cage! Now"

I stopped and turned, sticking my tongue out at him, I thought for a moment about throwing more at him than just a banana at him, if you catch my drift?! But there was no time... What a predicament! To stay and talk more, or to run and hope I lose him? But however much I had enjoyed our time together my freedom was calling and if I had to spend one more day with the rest of those dumb apes I would lose my freakin' mind, so I ran and jumped and swang away! A talking monkey is a great attraction for the zoo, but I'd put money on it that they're regretting the day they saved me from that laboratory! 

But as I said, that's a story for another day....

For more info on Don go to his Website and his IMDB page