An Interview with Marvin Paige
Marvel's POTA magazine issue 7 April 1975
Hey, did you ever wanna be an ape?
Well, if you did, Marvin Paige would be the fellow to look up in Hollywood, because Marvin is the casting director for Planet of the Apes! It's his job to seek out simian stars for use as extras and recurring role players on the series, as well as auditioning ëhumans' for roles as astronauts on the show.
How does Marvin make a monkey out of someone... or... more correctly, see if somebody's got the stuff of which monkeys are made?
"It's amazing what we look for," he says. "There are certain restrictions we have to adhere to in all the primate characters: the orang-utans, the chimpanzees, and the gorillas. There are more gorillas on the series, really, than chimps, the gorillas being the military, the police, the heavies. One pre-requisite, we must have brown-eyed, not blue-eyed, apes and chimps. Then it's difficult to use an actor who's 6’4” because some of the costumes won't fit him. So we try to gauge them.
The chimps either run between 5’7” and 5’8”or a little smaller. The orang-utans, which are the council members, are about 5’10” and the gorillas about 5’11" or 6’. We'll even, stretch to 6’2”if we have to, because the actor's portraying those things have to, in those characters, develop almost a slouch. There’s a specific walk, and I run a piece of film for the actors we hire.
Did you ever realize being a "primate" was so complicated? It really is, and walking in an ape-like Manner is a prime consideration in the casting offices. Marvin explains, “There is a certain movement. Now, the characters do not move their hips technically. They walk from the bottom right up-if they turn, the whole body turns. There's a certain way they turn the head and tweak the nose. People say it certainly should be easy to cast because you don't have to worry about what anybody looks like to play an ape. It's a more difficult show to cast, because what comes through in the eyes and what comes through vocally is all you have to work with.
You really need super-extra-good actors. And most of them have to be able to ride. The humans do not have horses, but the gorillas do. The gorillas and chimps do have horses. And if the actor does not make that mask come alive, the whole, characterization falls apart."
Sex matters, even with monkeys. That is, a man cannot play a lady ape, nor can an actress, buried beneath mounds of costuming, be a believable male gorilla. The chimp ladies are shorter than the males, but the main difference is that the walks and the bone structures of the faces have to be correct. "The faces on the females are different from the males," Paige notes
If casting Planet of the Apes is a challenge, it's certain Marvin Paige is the kind of man to jump at it. In the business for approximately twenty years, he has cast such films as TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, HARLOW and THE HONKERS, and television series like Garrison's Gorillas (with Ron Harper, now on Apes), Lassie, Combat and General Hospital. Needless to say, he considers his present position at 20th Century Fox Studies one of the meatiest.
"Another problem in casting this show," Marvin, says, “is that every once in a while you'll find an actor who has claustrophobic problems with wearing the mask. And that has to be determined before you can bring them in. We're trying to keep tabs on actors that work well under those conditions and sometimes we can repeat an actor in one of those roles.”
The make-up in the series is one of the most complex features, of course. It takes make-up artist Kenny Knight three hours just to do the face of star Roddy McDowall. Roddy has a special contract with Fox, which stipulates his face will be given a "rest" every few days, since the heavy make-up is hard on the skin and can be gruelling for the mind, too.
While some people might call casting the series, gruelling, also, Paige is very excited by the challenge of turning men into monkeys. He had never expected Apes to turn into a full-time job for him. "I was brought in as an independent," he notes. "I was out at Fox the previous year - they’d made a deal with me to cast pilots and a couple of Movies of the Week. As a matter of fact, we started on a presentation for Planet of the Apes at that point. And then the network, I think, had to decide whether they were going to put Planet of the Apes on that season or Perry Mason. They decided to go ahead with Perry Mason, which unfortunately didn't make it." He shrugs. "Or fortunately, depending on how you look at it."
As far as that original television concept of Apes is concerned, Marvin says he worked only on the initial stages of it. “Then they ran the five features on television to see what the ratings would be. And the ratings were so tremendous that they decided to go for the series. And that was the beginning of Planet of the Apes."
In the beginning, casting of the major astronaut roles was one of the biggest decisions. "The network had certain specifications as to what they thought these guys should be," Marvin recalls. "And as with anything, you want to make sure that your people are going to be fellows who catch on. Now, as far as the chimp, we had begun looking at actors for that role, never feeling that Roddy would be interested at that point or that a feasible situation could be worked out. Then Roddy, kind of through his representatives, approached us and indicated that he would certainly be in interested in discussing the situation, and we finally did get it all worked out.”
Signing McDowall to the show was certainly a high point for everyone. As Paige openly admits, “I think he's a tremendous asset to the series. And he's playing a character that's really different from the other characters he's played in the features. In other words, on the features he played several different roles. In the various different features it wasn't always the same part. And Roddy now stars as a young chimp that's sort of broken away from his mold and become a friend of the astronauts."
The job of casting Ron Harper as the leader of the astronauts was also a real Challenge. "It's very difficult," Marvin explains, "when you take a series, when you're trying to build a series, and you have a prototype of, say, a Charlton Heston kind of guy (who was very successful in the first film). You've got a lot of looking to do. I'm not trying to say we want to find a copy of Charlton Heston - we want the actor's own identity."
Getting a contract for Ron Harper's identity involved calling him away from his honeymoon with actress Sally Stark! “We tested something like 53 actors for the astronauts," Marvin remembers, "for the two main roles. Then, for Ron Harper, we flew him in to test (from New York City. This was on a Thursday; he flew back on Friday; was getting married on Saturday and going to Ireland for his honeymoon. The network felt there were certain things in the test that they hadn't captured and wanted to retest him with other people and try him With Jim Naughton to see how that combination was. So I had to get hold of him - I think I was up half the night tracking down Harper's agent in New York, tracing him in Ireland, getting everything co-ordinated and eventually having to bring him back from Ireland right in the middle of his honeymoon!"
As things so often do in Hollywood movies, this story ended happily -but in real life, Ron's bride was very understanding about having her new marriage disrupted and Ron ended up with the coveted role of the astronaut leader.
And casting director Marvin Paige ended up with one of the weirdest jobs in show business - casting men to play monkeys on TV!