POTA TV's Ron Harper (Alan Virdon)
interviewed by Jeff K on July 27, 1997. Mostly it deals with his prior career, but also some interesting POTA comments (it was quoted in Joe Russo's book "POTA Revisited").
JEFF: Can we start with the early years of Ron Harper?
JEFF: You wanted to be a lawyer, right?
RON: That's right. I was gonna be a lawyer. Well, actually, I wanted to be a cowboy. But I had a scholarship to Princeton. Thank goodness, what a wonderful school. While I was there I thought, "Well, I don't want to waste my college education on acting (little did I know), so I thought I'd go to Harvard Law and become an attorney and, you know, live that kind of life. But Princeton was wonderful. I'd always loved acting. In high school I was in the senior play, the junior play, the high school play. And when I got to Princeton, I was in some theatrical productions there. Theatre On Team, which is a little theatre there. And Triangle Show, which is a musical comedy show.
So as a scholarship student I was required to work during the summer and make $400 - 500 to suppliment the rest of my income. Then the producer of the summer theatre there called the University Players invited me to come and join the summer theatre company there, which did about 10 plays, one a week. Rehearsed one during the day and put another play on at night. We'd always end with a Shakespeare and usually started with a Tennessee Williams. So I thought about it and I said,"I'd love to but I'm supposed to work and earn some money". And (the theatre) didn't pay us any money, I think we got a daily allowance for food and we stayed in one of the clubs there so we didn't have to pay any room and board. So I went to the Dean of Admissions and I told him the situation. He said, "Would you like to do that?" I said,"Yeah, but I won't be able to earn any money". So he said,"Well, here the purpose of a college education, at least how it should be, is to learn how to best enjoy the rest of your life. That's to help you find out. And so, if this will help you find that out, how to best enjoy the rest of your life, we'll consider it part of your curriculum, we'll increase your scholarship, and if you need a student loan after that, you'll be entitled to it". So I thought that was wonderful. I did a season of University Players, everything from Tennessee Williams, "Camino Real" and ended up with "The Tempest", Shakespeare, and did all these plays in between and it was terrific. The following summer I came back and did another season of summer stock, we were about 45 minutes from New York, various people came down and saw me in productions, encouraged me to come to New York. And I went to New York, started studying with Lee Strasberg. And had an offer to go to Harvard for a law fellowship, decided I wanted to be an actor, that was it. I studied with Strasberg for about a year and a half, was drafted into the Navy, came back out of the Navy, studied with him a couple of more years.
JEFF: It was the '50's?
RON: Yeah. Late '50's. Well, that's how I got out of being a lawyer.
JEFF: What did you like about acting as opposed to being a lawyer? Did anyone pressure you into being a lawyer?
RON: No. It was just something I thought I would probably do, you know? I was on the debating team...
JEFF: It's pretty close to acting.
RON: Some parts of it certainly are.Yeah. But there was nothing like the thrill of being on stage doing a play. No matter what, I loved it. So that did it. I've played some lawyers but I don't regret it. I've had a wonderful time being an actor over the years.
JEFF: What was it like working on "Sweet Bird of Youth" (the play, starring Paul Newman and directed by Elia Kazan)?
RON: Wonderful. Elia Kazan directed it.
JEFF: I hear he's going to do a movie soon. He's going to come back and do a movie.
RON: You're kidding. He's about 80 years old, isn't he? Is he going to direct another movie?
JEFF: That's what I heard, yeah.
RON: That'd be great. He was a wonderful director.
JEFF: He was a legend for the time, the '50's.
RON: Oh yeah! The best interpreter of Tennesee Williams and Arthur Miller that we ever had. Wonderful director. I was cast in a small part - - Luke, one of the town's boys down in St. Cloud. Rip Torn played Tom Jr. and understudied Paul Newman. And after a couple of weeks, Rip talked to them about replacing Paul Newman when he left the production and they said no. So he wasn't interested in continuing to be the understudy. So they had an open call for understudies. And I read for it. And I was really amazed because I think I read for it about 4 times, the last time was like on a Sunday afternoon. And I came into the theatre and there was just Kazan, Sheryl Crawford the producer and Tennessee Williams, and I read for them. And I got the part as an understudy. I understudied him (Newman), and when it was time for Paul to leave they interviewed as many actors as they could find, including some from the West Coast who would have enough name to "fill the balcony", as they say. And they interviewed Tab Hunter and John Ericson and various other actors who really couldn't quite cut it. So they gave the part to Rip. I understudied him and I went on the road with it, came to Hollywood and we played out here, MCA saw me in it and signed me.
JEFF: How many times did you get to play it (the lead)?
RON: I guess about a dozen times. So, that was it. Kazan, I was very fond of Kazan. I thought he was a terrific director.
JEFF: Were you in "Splendor in the Grass" (1961, directed by Kazan)?
RON: Yep. He cast me in that because of my work in "Sweet Bird of Youth". It was about the high school kids, you know, and I was the boyfriend of Sandy Dennis and I worked on it for about 3 or 4 weeks. And when the film came out, I couldn't see myself. And I talked to Kazan about it and I said,"What happened? How bad was I?" And he said,"No, it wasn't that. It's better to be cut out of your first film so the next one will say, "Introducing Ron Harper", instead of a small part like this. You'll be better off".
JEFF: Yeah, I watched that because I heard you were in it and I didn't see you.
RON: You didn't see me either, huh? No, they cut me out.
JEFF: And you've done several series since then. What would you say makes a good series?
RON: There's no question about it: the writing. Writing and the casting. First the writing. "87th Precinct" was my first series (one season, 1961-'62). It was a superb series.
JEFF: What's your opinion of the "Apes" series?
RON: That's exactly the point. I don't think the writing was good enough. It's just not interesting. The basic plot was one of us would be captured by the apes and the other two would rescue him. We took turns week after week seeing who was captured, who was rescued. And after 16 repetitions of that, it was no longer fresh or interesting. They needed some more imaginative writers to go some other direction, give us more of a scope. And eventually, it just bored itself out, is what I think.
JEFF: What were the producers like? Usually a good series comes down to who the producer is and how much interest they have in it.
RON: I think you're right. I liked our producer. Stan Hough, who's no longer with us, was a pretty good producer. And I don't know if it was him or the network that couldn't find more imaginative writers for the series. The basic premise of the apes ruling the world was almost totally exhausted with the 5 movies that proceeded us.
JEFF: You heard recently that Mark Lenard died?
JEFF: Do you have any memories you can share with us about working with him?
RON: I was very fond of Mark. He was a very good actor, had a beautiful voice. He was in my voiceover agency, too, after that. Well, the other funny thing is, you know, I never knew what he looked like until the show was over. We went to our wrap party or something. I hardly knew what any of the apes looked like because by the time I got in around 7 o'clock, they'd been in makeup since about 4:30. So I could hardly see him. I loved his voice. I thought he was a very good actor.
Back to what you were saying, Jeff, "87th Precinct" was a wonderful series. It was based on the novels by Ed McBay. He was a mystery writer, perhaps you've heard of him?
JEFF: Not of him, no.
RON: He also writes under the name of Evan Hunter, he wrote "The Birds" and "Strangers When We Meet", but he writes at least one, sometimes two, "87th Precinct" novels a year. At the time when we did it there were about 30 already. All of which we adapted. And they were full novels adapted into a 1-hour time frame and they were EXCELLENT. Also he wrote 3 original scripts, one of 'em I did, about this young detective I played killing his first suspect and it was a young girl. That was excellent writing. And that was a wonderful series that got on long before "NYPD Blue" or any of these other ones. And the writing for "Garrison's Gorillas" (one season: 1967-'68), a Second World War series that I did, that was also good writing. Good stories, good plots. The "Apes", I'm afraid, didn't have the good writing. "Wendy and Me" (his one season 1964- '65 series) had very good writing, that was a comedy.
JEFF: You said one of the times I talked to you that you didn't like the James Naughton character.
RON: Well, the Naughton character, Pete, was conceived of more or less as a comic foil to Alan Virdon, who was the hero, the straight hero theoretically. And I read with, I guess, about 10 or 12 actors for the part that Jim did, who's a very fine actor.
JEFF: He's won a couple of Tonys.
RON: Yeah, well, he's a good singer. He's a very good singer. But he doesn't have that much of a light touch. So instead of having something that we could have bounced off of each other, it was really like 2 heroes and it was less interesting. Pete Burke when it was originally conceived was a very reluctant hero. He didn't want to risk his life for anybody, including apes. He just wanted to get back into his spacecraft and get back to Earth and leave the heroics to somebody else. Pete Burke as it evolved was very heroic and I think we missed some opportunity to take some lighter touches. I always try to find humor in drama and drama in humor. I did not dislike him, we're not very close, you know, we worked together, we never saw each other after socially or anything.
JEFF: Do you have any favorite episodes that you did?
RON: I liked "The Horse Race". That was my particular favorite because I got to ride a horse instead of running over all those boulders and rocks that we had to climb over.
JEFF: Did you like the physicality of the character?
RON: It was exhausting, to tell you the truth.
JEFF: You seem to be in good shape, do you work out a lot?
RON: Yeah. I still work out about 5 times a week. Thank you. But it was physically exhausting. Our director would say,"OK Ron, go up there about a half a mile and run into the camera". He'd say,"We're a little short on the script this week". (Groans) And, you know, the apes were the only ones who were allowed to ride. And they were always chasing us on the horses and Jim and I were falling over the rocks and twisting our ankles! (Laughs)
JEFF: Well, they would have sweated up all that makeup. They had a lot of makeup so they couldn't run.
RON: Yeah, that's right. That's right.
JEFF: Any others besides "The Horse Race"? How about "The Legacy"?
RON: Yes. My particular acting ones were "The Legacy", where they had me in the castle with the blonde who represented my wife, and the little boy. That was probably my favorite acting one. And "The Good Seeds", which is the first one we shot, where I'm teaching this farm family about farming. Because, you know, Virdon was a rancher and a farmer. That didn't go anywhere. (Laughs) CBS wanted that action, get those apes shootin' at those boys! Put some sharks in the water. So that's where they wanted to go.
JEFF: The Nixon resignation happened around that time. Do you remember if you were filming anything in particular on that day? In August (1974).
RON: The only thing I remember was I was at the studio and they announced that he was going to make a very important...I think they suggested resignation speech. This is archaic, because I can't remember having a TV in my room, which is strange. Usually I do. But I went over to my ex-girlfriend's house, who lived right around Culver City, to watch the resignation. That's all. I was delighted that S.O.B. was finally out of office because I didn't care for him at all.
JEFF: One last thing: What do you think they should do with the new ("Apes") movie? The big stumbling block seems to be the script.
RON: It is, isn't it? Yeah, of course, as we said, the writing.
JEFF: They lost Oliver Stone.
RON: He didn't like the script? And then some other director came in?
JEFF: Chris Columbus went in and out. And maybe James Cameron now.
RON: James Cameron, right. Oh, I'd love to see Cameron do it. I'd love to get on it. Probably take a year to shoot it.
JEFF: Or more.
RON: It'd be interesting.
JEFF: It'd cost $200 million.
RON: I know, like the "Titanic". I would also like to see Oliver (Stone) do it because you know he'd give it a very interesting spin. It would be much weightier. It would look like the original book, which was much heavier than the lighter touches that they put into the movie, I guess to make it more palatable. I wish he would. I wish somebody would do it so I could do a cameo.
JEFF: I know you want to go, so thank you.
RON: Jeff, it's always a pleasure. Thank you. Good luck with this.