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PostPosted: Tue May 17, 2011 4:17 pm 
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Joined: Thu Apr 06, 2006 8:14 pm
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I've posted here before about my sideline writing articles for Filmfax, Movie Collector's World etc. A couple of years back, my writing partner Paul Parla and I conducted a career interview with GIANT GILA MONSTER star Don Sullivan for Scary Monsters {"Scary Monsters Magazine" (USA), June 2008, Iss. 67}. It was nominated for a Rondo (coincidentally, the same year the Ohio Marathon was nominated for best fan event for the Patricia Neal appearance!). Don was a gentleman, and he appreciated that GILA MONSTER is still a fan favorite.
We showed GIANT GILA MONSTER at the Boston Marathon and we had fun with it (scheduling it 20+ hours into the Marathon...I don't know...).

Here are some excerpts from our interview for your reading pleasure:

(An Interview with ‘B’ Monster Movie Hero Don Sullivan)

copyright 2008 Paul Parla/Anthony Di Salvo
Interview by Paul & Donna Parla.
Edited and Introduction by Anthony Di Salvo.

With appearances in such films as THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, TEENAGE ZOMBIES, CURSE OF THE UNDEAD and MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, Don Sullivan is one of those names that shows up in genre surveys, but, about whom little is known. Bill Warren’s well-researched KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES books notes and critiques his appearances but simply adds that he “vanished after 1962”.

Paul Parla followed Don Sullivan’s vanishing point and here, is a rare full length interview with him.

Don Sullivan was born in 1929 in Salt Lake City and went to the University of Idaho after the Korean War on the G.I. bill. After moving to L.A., he met an actress named Judy Meredith (JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962), QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966)) who urged him to participate in acting. Actor-Director Hugo Haas saw him in a play and Sullivan was ‘discovered’. His first filmed acting bit was in TV’s MEN OF ANNAPOLIS with Doug McClure.

Although his career was relatively brief, Don Sullivan worked with a cross section of interesting personages of that era of independent filmmaking. People like Jerry Warren, Edward Dein, Special Effects man turned director Ray Kellogg, Gene Fowler Jr., along with actors such as Marie Windsor, Margaret Hamilton, Mike Connors (with whom he was to costar in a failed revamp of the series TIGHTROPE), Chester Conklin, Jeanne Carmen, Les Tremayne, Lon Chaney Jr. and more.

In addition to his acting, Don Sullivan also wrote and performed songs in THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (and a recent CD has been issued of a pair of those tunes – “Little Lover Girl” and “Tell Me Why”).

After some success as an actor, a series of bad luck and bad breaks with failed Film and TV projects (including being the runner-up to Richard Chamberlain for the iconic role as DR.KILDARE) combined with an actor’s strike forced Don Sullivan to seek work to pay the bills outside the industry. Eventually, this led him to a then emerging Hair Care product company – Redken Industries (which is still successful to this day, though Sullivan retired from the company in 1983). Mousse in a can? You can thank Don Sullivan for that! Sullivan moved on to help found another hair care giant, Vidal Sassoon Product Company. Sullivan’s own private companies included Unique Products and New Concepts, Inc. Currently, Sullivan works for another hair care firm. Sullivan also briefly returned to acting with a performance in Ahmen Aksas’(aka Actaris Aksis) short film, THE DATE in 2001

Later generations may know Don Sullivan only as a name in the titles of some of their favorite cult films (which had a brief revival in the form of spoofed editions of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000), but now he can speak for himself.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about your involvement with the music for THE GIANT GILA MONSTER.

SULLIVAN: Ken Curtis and I got talking early on in the production of THE GIANT GILA MONSTER and he said that GILA MONSTER was to be my tour de force – with the music and me being the lead. Curtis told me that I might as well suggest some of the background music for some scenes. I suggested a style of music to jazz up the hot rod scenes and the climax. Plaz Jackson came into the studio on Santa Monica Boulevard and we did it in one day. Plaz was the premiere saxophonist in those days in Hollywood. So I suggested the wild drums and the single guitar chord that leads in the crazy sax solo when everything is climaxing at the end of THE GIANT GILA MONSTER.

QUESTION: And, the songs?

SULLIVAN: Jericho Brown, who produced my songs “LITTLE LOVER GIRL” and “TELL ME WHY”, knew Plaz Jackson and just called him up to come down to the studio. He must have paid him $50 – that’s how things got done in that period. I think if “LAUGH CHILDREN LAUGH” had been recorded in a studio with an arrangement, the scene in which I sing it with the ukulele would not have been as genuine and heartfelt. I liked the way I did it, and how it turned out in the film. On the song “I AIN’T MADE THAT WAY”, which you hear Steamroller Smith introduce in the film, the concept was to record with musicians one song for the movie. So, we did this one song at the recording studio. I can’t remember the name of the studio. When we began shooting, I think it was the director [Ray Kellogg] who liked it enough to have the song play out in the film. I liked the arrangement on that one. I also went into the same studio with Jericho Brown in 1960 and recorded “LITTLE LOVER GIRL” and “TELL ME WHY”. Back in those days, I was a very shy young man and I never made an effort to bond with anyone or stay in touch. On, “I AIN’T MADE THAT WAY”, I sang to the soundtrack at the studio, but did not originally sing the words with musicians in the studio. Just the music by the studio musicians on that one. I was disappointed in the way the song played out in THE GIANT GILA MONSTER because they dubbed my voice onto the soundtrack and then made a single track out of it, so therefore, if you wanted to raise the voice it also raised the music – or lowered it. So, what you got, is what you got. And, my voice was overpowered by the music. They didn’t use a different track for my vocals.

QUESTION: Getting back to THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. It’s not only a classic in it's own respect, but probably your most remembered film? And, your best one because it has a big following and it was a very slick production. It had all the elements. Everything meshed so well on that film. How did you get involved in it?

SULLIVAN: My agent at the time, and I don't remember who it was, gave me the address for Ken Curtis. I went out to his house. It was in the San Fernando Valley as I recall, and I auditioned for him. I read a little of the script, and didn't sing any songs for him. He just asked me if I sang. I said I had some songs, too. He thought that was good!

QUESTION: It certainly doesn't have the look of a quickie film - TEENAGE ZOMBIES, it wasn't! But, it probably came off better then they expected.

SULLIVAN: It did come out better than what they expected, they had budgeted it around $175,000 or $200,000. We brought it in for $60 thousand under budget.

QUESTION: It’s always great when you bring it in under budget. But, why did they shoot it in Texas?

SULLIVAN: Gordon McLendon of Dallas Texas, owned a chain of drive-in movies. 500 to 600 across the country. When he would take a major film like FROM HERE TO ETERNITY he had to have a second film with it at the drive-in, so he was paying the money for the second film where as the first film was a draw for the people coming in. Then he came up with the idea of making a couple movies and we can use those as the bottom half of a double bill, and save ourselves a lot of money. So that's how it came about. How he got involved with Ken Curtis, I don't know.

QUESTION: Did you ever meet McLendon?

SULLIVAN: Yes, we had a party at his house after we finished and I met him, very nice gentlemen.

QUESTION: So they flew you, or did you drive out to Texas?

SULLIVAN: They flew me out to Dallas Texas. I stayed at the Adolphus Hotel, which gives rise to one of my favorite stories of all time. One of the mornings at the Adolphus before I took the car to go out to the set - I always got up extra early and had breakfast in the hotel. I walked down to the restaurant, and it’s totally empty except for one man sitting at a table. I had a lot of verve in those days. I got my breakfast from the buffet, and I walked over and asked the man if I could join him. He said yes. So I sat down, and we started eating, and started talking and it was Edgar Bergen of “Charlie McCarthy” fame! We had a nice breakfast, nice conversation. At the end of it he said I should meet his daughter. He told me she's younger than I was, but he thought we would like each other. I looked across the table, and here's this senior citizen sitting there with a bulbous nose. No hair. Suddenly, I transformed that picture onto a seventeen year old girl and I thought: “Oh sure, I wanna meet your daughter.” So I took a pass on Candice Bergen!

QUESTION: Instead, you wound up with a giant gila monster! [Laughs] On the credits it says the outdoor footage was filmed in Cielo. I would imagine this is outside of Dallas?

SULLIVAN: It was all in close proximity. I don't know where Cielo was, but it wasn't too far. It was within 30 minutes of Dallas.

QUESTION: Was there a stunt driver or did you do your own driving? What was that hot rod like?

SULLIVAN: The two hot rods that we had were National Hot Rod Champions. They were really hot. I did all the driving. In order to start and move out, all I needed to do was tap the gas pedal. Otherwise, if you pushed down on the gas pedal the wheels would just spin in the gravel. In some of the scenes you see the wind blowing and my hair flying. We're doing like 70 miles an hour! You have to picture this: I had the window open so I could glance out to the side at the edge of the road to know where I was going. Because on the hood of the car, they had mounted the camera. The cameraman and the director right directly in front of me on the hood! I could see little driving at 70 mph plus!

QUESTION: Just to clarify, they were on the hood of the car, blocking your view?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I was going at top speeds and they're on the hood of the car. I'll show you how clever I am. I never asked, but I assumed that they had the traffic blocked off up three or four miles ahead. We were really rippin' along there and it's a wonder we weren't all killed quite frankly.

QUESTION: Didn't you say you almost had a mishap when you jumped out of the car?

SULLIVAN: I was just ready to take the automobile into the gila monster. I've got nitroglycerin inside the car and I had to leap out of the car. Now, they could have gotten a stunt man, but macho Sullivan says, “Oh no, no, no…I can do this!”

QUESTION: I'm surprised they didn't insist on a stuntman.

SULLIVAN: I'm an ex Marine. I can take anything. I was only doing about eight or ten miles an hour when I jump out, the side of the car. Well, when you hit the ground at eight or ten miles an hour out of an automobile it is a... it would probably kill me now, but at the time, it really banged and bruised me up pretty good. When I was ready to jump from the vehicle I just turned the ignition off, and the car gradually came to a stop – off camera. We were shooting in a big open field. Then, of course, they cut to the miniature model of the car crashing into the Gila Monster. Frankly, I don’t think they planned some scenes as well as they should have. One scene that comes to mind is where my buddy and I are in the ravine hooking the winch on to the crashed car. When we attempted to haul it up the slope, the car began to turn and shift and I knew that this was very dangerous. At one point, the car shifted as if it was going to tip over. You can see a few camera cuts. They had to adjust the camera to prevent the car from tipping over. McLendon’s daughter Jan was the girl with the guy in the other hot rod.

QUESTION: Anything else come to mind regarding the filming of that movie? How did Lisa Simone wind up in the film?

SULLIVAN: I have no idea because she seemed to be miscast. McLendon was filming the THE KILLER SHREWS there at that time as well - with James Best.

QUESTION: Were you supposed to be in THE KILLER SHREWS? And, wasn’t Ingrid Goude, the Swedish actress, supposed to play Lisa Simone’s part in THE GIANT GILA MONSTER?

SULLIVAN: Initially, all I knew was when I looked at the script the leading lady was going to be Miss Germany - a blonde.

QUESTION: So, that must have been Ingrid Goude who played a Swede in THE KILLER SHREWS? She was Miss Universe, 1957.

SULLIVAN: I think they may have shot THE KILLER SHREWS prior to the THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. Perhaps, they had Ingrid do that, and then they hired Miss France to do my film?

QUESTION: Who was Lisa Simone?

SULLIVAN: They probably didn't even see her.

QUESTION: Simone seemed so miscast. Ingrid fit the bill in THE KILLER SHREWS. She's European. You can accept her more there. But, Lisa Simone seems miscast in this movie. Do you agree?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I actually think the movie could have been several notches better if that part had been recast.

QUESTION: How would you describe working with Lisa?

SULLIVAN: It seemed to me that she was pretty well lost. She didn't speak English that well. Her part was not well defined at all. It didn't go anywhere. She was kind of lost in the film.

QUESTION: She seems lost - and very out of place! Here’s a European down there in rural Texas. It just doesn't make any sense. Do you know how she got chosen for the film? Was she dating somebody?

SULLIVAN: No, she was just Miss France, you know.
Just on that title alone. I think they expected…as I expected when I heard Miss France… I said, “Ooh la la!”

QUESTION: I can just imagine the pictures in your mind.

SULLIVAN: Oh, yes, that was the Brigitte Bardot period.

QUESTION: Yes. But, your role as Chace Winstead was a real heroic guy. You defined the role as a really all around nice guy. Hard working. Honest. How did you like your role overall?

SULLIVAN: I liked it very much because it was so easy for me. It was almost like stepping out of my life at that same period of time when I was that age. Also, Ken Curtis was very nice. He and the director, Ray Kellogg, said if there’s anything about the script I didn't like - Change it, make it my own. Use my own words. However, I never did. But, I knew that I could, which made it very relaxing. That was pretty much me coming out of the same period of time, in the role of Chace.

QUESTION: We were seeing almost the real Don Sullivan in that film? You were playing yourself to a considerable degree?

SULLIVAN: Yes, that's the boring part! [Laughs]

QUESTION; You're very memorable in the film, very memorable. So, you were happy overall with the film?

SULLIVAN: I loved the film. It was a tour de force. I got to play and sing my songs, and do the lead in a movie.

QUESTION: How did that develop? How did your songs work there way into the movie? Who got that done for you?

SULLIVAN: That was Ken Curtis. He asked me if I had songs. I said sure, so I picked the ones that I thought would be the best. The one for Elvis was called “I AIN'T MADE THAT WAY”. Then, there was “LAUGH CHILDREN LAUGH” - it was right for the little girl, who plays Missy. The only place that we made a mistake - and I wish I'd had “LITTLE LOVER GIRL” or “TELL ME WHY” - was for the dance sequence. We needed another song.

QUESTION: The barn dance?

SULLIVAN: Yes, but they had only bought and paid for two. So, that was it.

QUESTION: Ken Curtis more or less got those songs into the movie? A great decision because it enhanced the film a lot.

SULLIVAN: It appealed so much to the teenage league of that period.

QUESTION: What do you remember about Ray Kellogg, the director?

SULLIVAN: Not very much. On an independent film like this with young actors, you can go two directions. Either they can feel very comfortable and let them do their own thing, or, if you've got a bigger budget, then you can get into trying to evaluate the scenes and change and experiment. Go for something really memorable. And they chose, which is what I think I would do if I were making an independent, to just be very comfortable and just get the personality out of the actor. Ray did that, and you have to remember he was a special effects man. This was the first film he ever directed. He also did the special effects for THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. In exchange for that, they let him direct the film as well.

QUESTION: Did you ever see the gila monster that was used in the film?

SULLIVAN: You mean the actual lizard? No, that was done back in California.

QUESTION: So, the special effects for that film, including the miniatures, the train wreck sequence and the monster crawling on the road were all done in California?

SULLIVAN: They may have been done at MGM. I'm not sure.

QUESTION: Having watched the film, what did you think of the miniatures? For that time I thought they were quite good.

SULLIVAN: I did, too. I had no problem with any of it being in a sense, believable. For the time it was very good.

QUESTION: Did you like the screenplay by Jay Simmons and Ray Kellogg at first? Was there something in there that appealed to you?

SULLIVAN: No. ..I didn't have too much of an idea about the film industry at all, so I was just doing it the best I could. I didn't analyze it in terms of whether it was good or bad. I just tried to do the best that I could with it.

QUESTION: I liked the whole thing with the wrecked car. I don't think anybody's gonna miss that headlight. Go ahead and take it.

SULLIVAN: I think they told Fred to just enjoy himself. Be himself. He was just exactly off screen the way he was on screen.

QUESTION: What about Shug Fisher? I love him in the film.

SULLIVAN: I loved that scene where Fred Graham pulls him over and lets him smell his breath. He smells his breath and says, “Ok, you can go.” He thanks the Sheriff and as soon as he turns his back, he takes a swig of whiskey and drives off. I mean it had some great little comedic moments to it that were just so well done.

QUESTION: What is your best memory overall about THE GIANT GILA MONSTER? It is remembered by a lot of genre fans.

SULLIVAN: The best thing for me on THE GIANT GILA MONSTER was being able to sing the songs. It's the one and only time that I ever sang songs, I never sang at another event, another film or anyplace else ever, so that was fun.

QUESTION: Are you happy that a new generation is discovering Don Sullivan and your work?

DON SULLIVAN: When you reach my age, everybody would love to have something to be remembered by instead of dying in a few years and just disappearing. It is such a joy to me to know I have somewhat of a following 50 years later. It’s a joy I wish everyone could have. I’m enjoying it thoroughly and I’m very appreciative. Another aspect I was pleased with was my character of Chace Winstead in THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. He was admirable and honest, hardworking and compassionate. And, best of all, a hero.

Long Live the Orson Welles Cinemas

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