|Claude Earl Jones GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Thursday, 01 February 2007|
Some time ago Mike Egnor caught up with Claude Earl Jones, better known as LaCerta, the finger snapping boss of Red Eye in the western episode "The Lost Warrior" of Battlestar Galactica 1978. Just after the beginning of the call, Jones said an earthquake was occuring, but even that couldn't stop us from talking to him about his career and his part on Battlestar Galactica for the first time in almost three decades.
If I could start out, could we go back to what got you started into acting, where the bug hit?
Ok. Well gosh, I started, I had my first professional job onstage when I was seventeen. I have been on a number of community theater plays long before that. By the time that I turned pro, at seventeen, I had some fifty plays behind me as an actor. So, that's where I started, in community theater. I studied it on and off my whole life. I hold a doctorate in theater.
I trained at the Pasadena Playhouse. I was there at the same time Dusty [Dustin] Hoffman, and Gene Hackman, and those guys were there.
Did you know them?
I knew Dusty, I didn't know Gene. He was gone by the time I got there.
And I knew Dusty only really [well enough] to say "Hello" to. He was in the class ahead of me.
Do you remember any stories about him that you'd like to share?
Only that nobody ever expected him to go anywhere. (Laughing) Because he was a tiny little hook nosed man, swarthy...That was in the era of the pretty boys as far as leading men were concerned. Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue, and people like that, and nobody figured Dusty to wind up being a leading man, of course he's not really, he's a character actor, but he's still a major star. That certainly wasn't foreseen at the time. Not that it wasn't quite recognizable that he was immensely talented, even there, he obviously was.
Have you spoken with him since he made it big?
I've never seen him since, never had a chance to work with him.
Claude Earl Jones
Ok, lets go on. IMDB lists your first television or movie role as a detective in an episode of Kojak.
Yeah, that's not true at all.
Ok, what was the first?
The first thing I ever did on television was a Night Court, and not the recent one but the old one [Night Court USA 1958], and it was live. Then I did the United States Steel Hour, and Playhouse 90, and stuff like that long before Kojak. I probably had, jeez I don't know how many credits under my belt by the time I did Kojak, but I'd been around quite awhile by then.
You have to understand that that thing [IMDB] is very incomplete, that thing you are talking about. The what is it, IMDB?
International Movie Data Base.
Oh, ok. That thing is not at all accurate. I mean it may be accurate in what's there, it just doesn't have all of the stuff. And of course it doesn't have any of my stage work, and I was a stage actor for 10 years before I ever did television or movies.
Ok. So by the time that you started in Night Court, where you nervous at all?
No. I was going to the Pasadena Playhouse at the time. In fact, I wasn't even supposed to be in on the interview. I went over there with a friend of mine (laughing) just for the hell of it, and as we were passing this door I saw a pile of scripts sitting there, and he was in for something else, wasn't even for Night Court. And I walked in, and there was a young lady sitting there, I supposed she was the casting director, I don't remember, and I said "What's going on here?" (laughing) because I was so stupid I didn't know you couldn't do that.
I was so young at it. She says "We're casting for Night Court", and I said "Well can I read?" (laughing)
Just out of the blue, "Can I read".
She looked at me for a couple of minutes, she said "Yes, look at Daniel Bender there". And Daniel Bender was kind of the same kind of character that Marlon Brando played in The Men . He was a paraplegic in a wheelchair. And I got the role, and when I wheeled in the first time, the judge was Jay Jostyn. I doubt if you remember him. You are too young to remember him, but he was Mr. District Attorney on the radio and I grew up listening to him. And I come in, I had my head down and I heard this voice and I said "Holy Shit, that's Jay Jostyn" (laughing) and he laughed! So anyway, that was my first experience, and they liked what I did so much that they wrote a couple of scripts for me.
Yeah, but I was still in school at the Pasadena Playhouse. I wasn't really very serious about career at that time. I mean, I was really serious about [an acting] career, but I wasn't ready for it, you know.
At what age did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
Is that right?
Yeah, but mainly I was singing in those days. I was a boys soprano and I did a lot of choir work and stuff like that. Mainly with church stuff, and later on, the first acting job I did, was like most people in school. In grammar school and then later in high school, and I became very hooked on it in high school because I had a wonderful teacher named Bill Jakeo. He'd been a former professional actor and moved to Phoenix Arizona, where I was raised. He was a very well informed man, and he liked what I did, and he gave me several leads in the school plays and so that summer, I went out and started doing Summer Stock. I did four or five seasons of Summer Stock between school times. So by the time I got to be, as I said, seventeen, I was pretty well versed.
It sounds like you had a wealth of experience when you were going in.
Yeah, I did. I've done over a hundred and fifty plays, and at least that many movie and television things.
So to answer your question, yes I've had considerable training (laughing).
Ok, lets move on. Had you heard of the show Battlestar Galactica?
No, not before it happened. And if I remember correctly, and I'm not sure of this, but I think I had done something else with Rod Holcomb somewhere. I can't remember whether it was Tenspeed and Brown Shoe or what. But I did some show with Rod Holcomb, and so, apparently when this role came up on Battlestar Galactica, he sent for me. You know, he had the casting director call my agent and said "I want to see Claude on this". So I went in and read for it, and Rod told the producers "I want you to experience Claude." (laughing) "He's quite a special actor".
What did he mean by that?
Well, because I'm not an ordinary actor (laughing) Mike. I'm different, and I'm unique, and I don't play the same thing twice. I'm a true character man in the sense that I play what's written, not what they don't write for me. I adapt myself to the script. At least, that what I assumed he meant. The point is that I had played a very strange thing for him, off the wall kind of role, and LaCerta was certainly off the wall.
Although he was nothing like the other character that I played. So I read, the producers liked me, they cast me, and that was the end of the story.
Claude Earl Jones as LaCerta on Battlestar Galactica 1978
I bet it felt awfully good that he thought of you to call you in for this part.
Yeah, he did. I've done several things with Rod Holcomb. There's probably a dozen directors in Hollywood that I worked with frequently because they like me and they call me in. Corey Allen, I don't know if you know who that is or not.
Corey Allen, did you ever seen the James Dean thing, Rebel Without a Cause?
He was Buzz, the guy that went over the cliff in the car.
Yeah, he was an actor in those days, and he's a fine director now. He's won several Emmys, one for the original Star Trek, and so on. And Corey and I've done plays together, and movie and things together for years. Over 30 years. Then there's Russ Mayberry used me frequently, I do a lot with him, do a lot with Rod, and other directors. You know the thing is like any other business, you hire the people you know. They knew me and knew I could handle the roles they threw at me. The first real acting job I did after Night Court was United States Steel Hour, and I was hired for that out of a play. Because Elliot Silverstein, the director of Cat Ballou saw me in a play in Hollywood, and cast me out of that, and I played a lead on United States Steel. That was really probably the first real good acting job I had.
Ok. You said that you had worked with Rod Holcomb before. Had you worked with any of the other guest actors?
Yes I had. Lance LeGault [and] I'd done several things with. I can't remember exactly what they were. I think it was A-Team, and of course Dirk Benedict was on that as well. Red West [and] I worked several times since then. I had worked with Lorne Greene on Bonanza a number of years before that, but I did have any scenes with Lorne, so I'd never met him.
Yeah, so that's pretty much it. I don't keep in touch with them, I know I wasn't friends with them, I didn't know them. You know. Half the time when you work with people in this business, in films anyway, you never see them again, or if you do it's down the line, and you know, you don't become close to them besides
I'm a pretty private man anyway.
If I can, let's go on. If I could go through a list of the actors and actresses that you worked with on the show, I know it's been 27 years ago but if could...
Well, Lance LeGault and Red West and Dirk Benedict are the only ones that I had worked with either before or since then. I got along great with Rob Holcomb, obviously. Rod is a very fine director, and he's one of those smart directors who hires good actors and gets the hell out of their way.
So he's an actor's director?
He sure is. And that's one of the reasons why I liked to work with him. He entrusted me to do my job and he didn't really direct me so much as he just points me in a way. I know when I first worked for him for the first time I would do a scene or something and I'd say "Now is there anything else what you want in there Rod that I'm not doing?" he said "Claude, you're the one that I want to do just that." You'd asked about the suit
You had this fantastic looking full white suit
Jean Pierre Dorleac was one of the top designers in Hollywood, made that suit specifically for me. I went in for several fittings, they literally tailored it on me. He's won a number of Emmy's in films and things as well for his costume design. The answer to that is that it was created especially for Battlestar Galactica and especially for me.
Do you remember how long before shooting or where you had it fitted at?
Well, it was where we shot it at, which was at Universal. The office of the costume designer had a shop there and I went in there, drove in there several times for fittings. So it was at Universal.
LaCerta was a character who seemed like a just pure evil villain...
...without any redeeming qualities except for maybe humor. He was deliberately soft spoken, but you could tell that he had a temper that could burst at any time.
Well, that's the way I conceived the role. That's pretty much the way it was written I think. The thing is the whole thing was a spoof, in a way, in that particular episode. It was a kind of takeoff on Shane and all those other kinds of movies and westerns. I played him, at least I tried to play him, with a great deal of humor, but I didn't set out to make him funny either . He was a very lethal man and one of the things that I found in playing heavies and playing bad guys, and I played a lot of them, is that the ones that I find frightening and most frightening are the ones that are very quiet who don't rage and scream and yell and all of that, but who are just very, very quiet and very lethal. Some of the most lethal real people that I've known in Hollywood and I know guys who are Medal of Honor winners like Audie Murphy. Anyway the quiet, soft spoken people, they don't have to prove they are tough. They don't have to prove they are rough and mean and that they can kill you (laughing). They know they can. Quietness and the lethalness will deliver it. I don't really know what else to say, but to answer your question directly, that's the way I tried to play it, so I'm glad that's what you got out of it
Claude Earl Jones
Ok. Let's move on. The playing cards that you used in the episode...
They weren't real cards. They were made by the prop people I guess for that particular scene. They had regular numbers and things on it like that but they were also sort of Tarot looking type cards.
Ok. During the scene where Apollo shoot Red Eye and the cylon's thrown backwards through the salon doors, did you see this? Do you know how they accomplished that?
I didn't see them actually film the actual stunt. I was not on the set that day, so I really can't tell you.
I wonder, and I know that you were only given the script, but I wonder what LaCerta did before finding Red Eye. Was he just like everyone else...
Oh no. He was the boss of that town, at least in my backstory, the story I made up about him.
Could you tell us more about the story that you made up for him?
Just that he was a man, who was probably not too big a man, and then by hook and crook and the sneakiness and the crook that he was, he kind of took over the town. But he didn't have the power that he had until he got Red Eye. See he had in essence a killer that all he had to do was snap his fingers, which I did (laughing). So that gave him tremendous power and he ran the town
Do you remember any scenes that were shot that didn't make in into the episode?
You know there were some, Mike, but I must tell you in all honesty I don't remember them. Once those things are taken out, or put in, or whatever you deal with what's there. You don't worry about things that aren't there. I don't think you can do that because you can't second guess them anyway. Actors to some degree, unless you're an awfully big star, are pretty powerless as far as the scripts are concerned.
Was there anything you didn't like about the show?
Oh I thought it was fun doing. I thought it was a lot of fun doing the damned thing, and when Rod first told me about it I said "Oh, that sounds fun, that sounds good."
Well that's wonderful.
Yeah, and the result [was that] I think it was one of the better episodes of the show. I must tell you in all honesty I don't think I'd ever seen the show before I did it. I don't know that I saw more than 2 or 3 of them even after I did it, including the one I did of course.
Let me ask you this, when was the last time you saw "The Lost Warrior"?
Oh gosh, (laughing) I have no idea it's been a lot of years. I do have a clip of it on my demo reel. The scene in the card room where Lance gets killed. Where I snap my fingers and Red Eye shoots him. That's on my demo reel, but the whole thing, I haven't watched it in years. I don't think I have it anymore.
What do you remember about the set where the episode was shot? You said it was a space western.
Well, you know we shot it on the back lot at Universal in the western [lot]. You know they have a whole western town back there.
So they just borrowed it.
Yeah, they just changed it around and took it from different angles and other places. And that was really the back lot of Universal.
Ok. Were you able to visit any of the other sets?
No, I was too busy...I had a lot of scenes in that film and usually when I'm there on the set I don't go wondering away. You never know when they are going to get to you, so you kind of got to stay available.
As we've been talking about this, are there any memories or stories or anything you can remember, behind the scene stories that you can share?
Not really. As I said I'd done a lot of work by then and it was kind of old hat, the back stage part of it, for me.
Ok. Are you still acting?
Oh yes. But mainly these days I'm directing now. And I have been for a number of years. I've been a director for 40 years.
Is that right?
Mainly stage work, although I did do some film work early on in my career, and in these days I'm primarily a stage director. I go where they pay me to go. I do a lot of visiting things in television theaters, places like Ashland Globe. Places like that I go down and direct a play once in a while. And there's a small theater in my area which brings me in once or twice a year, if they do a play that I want to do. I started out in the theater, so I'm finishing up in the theater, but I'm primarily a director these days. Although I occasionally act. Usually under duress (laughing). I did a production Of Mice and Men about two years ago and the guy that was playing Lennie in it didn't show up the second night of the performance and I had to step in with a book in my hand. Well, I'm hardly a Lennie, to say the least. But the audience didn't seem to mind, and I went on to play the rest of the show, cause he never came back. We found out he was in the emergency ward of the hospital about 15 minutes before the curtain went up. So I had to act, I had no choice.
But otherwise generally speaking, these days, I don't act anymore. But frankly Mike, I've done most of the roles I've wanted to play onstage. There's only maybe two or three that I'd still like to play that I haven't played. Whereas directing, I've directed over 70 plays in the last 20 years [or] 30 years.
Do you enjoy directing more than acting?
Yeah. In fact for the last 10 years, I think I've only been on the stage maybe twice, and I've probably directed 20 plays in that amount of time. I still do the occasional film thing when it drops in my lap. When Rod sends for me or Corey sends for me or whatever. But I don't really seek it much anymore. I call myself semi retired. Actors don't really retire. There's kind of a joke in Hollywood "Actors don't retire, they just go out of town." (laughing). Anyway, I don't do much acting anymore. Don't want to really.
Claude Earl Jones
Do you have any hobbies?
Well theater has always been my hobby, but I have [a new] one now, because about five years ago I started playing International Backgammon online. And I play competitive backgammon and [play in] live tournaments as well. I just got back from Vegas about 4 weeks ago where I was in the World Championships.
How did you do?
I placed third.
I'm a pretty good player, but I haven't really played until about 5 years ago.
And you did that well that fast?
Yes. I've been writing a lot as well. I just finished writing a one-man show about a month ago. It's called Tale Swapper. It's a series of stories about my childhood. I think it's pretty good [and] the people who have heard it and seen it seem to think so. So I've been writing a lot as well.
That's the only thing as I said I just finished it.
Mr. Jones, I'd like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with your fans. I'm sure they will love hearing from you again.
Well thank you. It was a pleasure.
On January 29, 2007, I asked Mr. Jones again what he was doing these days. Here's his response:
I directed and played [Of Mice and Men onstage] in New York a few years ago. Mainly these days I direct, primarily for the stage, but whatever they pay me to do! (LOL) Last year I was the opening director for a new theater here in California and will be directing and playing the lead role of Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind (that's the Spencer Tracy role from the film) for them, next season. I started in theater and fortunately for me I've returned to it. They tell me I have "retired." hah! Busier now than I've ever been! Many regional theaters seem to think the old fellow is a pretty fair director, and I love being back in the theater where I started, not that I ever went away from it. I have tried to do a stage play at least once a year all my life. It's the only way to keep your acting skills sharp! Live action with a live audience is irreplaceable. While I certainly enjoyed some of the better roles I did in film like LaCerta, the stage has always been my home. And now that I have the time (and the money), I can afford to do what I prefer. As you know when you have family you may do a lot of crap stuff to pay the bills. (I put five kids thru college on an actors salary, kinda proud of that, not many actors have done it) But now I'm free of those financial obligations so I can be picky and I am!
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