Sam J Jones interview: Flash Gordon , Ted 2, Flash remake

Interview Wil Jones
11 Mar 2015 - 05:36

Flash Gordon star Sam J Jones talks about the impact of the movie, and of a possible appearance in the sequel to the 2012 hit Ted...

Despite working in TV and film for over 30 years, Sam J Jones will forever be known as Flash Gordon. The 1980 adaptation of the classic sci-fi comic strip wasn’t a massive hit on it’s initial release, but over the last three and a half decades it’s developed a loyal following due to it incredible production values, campy acting, thrilling music and overall sense of genuine fun.

Now 35 years later, Sam is the subject of Life After Flash, an upcoming documentary about the making of the movie, and what he’s been up to since. It’s being funded by a Kickstarter, and you can go and back the project now. We spoke to Sam on the phone about the documentary, and if the interview is anything to go by it should be an entertaining film. He told us about Flash Gordon’s chequered production history, how a game show appearance landed him the role, that he paid the bills pre-Flash with nude modelling, and that he now has a second career as a bodyguard in Mexico…

So let's start at the beginning – how did you get the role of Flash Gordon in the first place?

They called me in the meeting with Dino De Laurentiis. It was a long process from the time I first met him. It could have been almost nine months to a year the entire process. I found out later his mother-in-law was watching a TV game show called The Dating Game which I went on. I lost the date, but Dino’s mother-in-law saw that episode and said “Dino, I think that’s your Flash Gordon right there!”

Is there footage of that episode out there anywhere?

I’m sure there is, just google it, “Sam J Jones Dating Game”, it was probably 1977, maybe ’78, 76? Who knows, that’s so many years ago!

Is it true you did you posed naked in Playgirl before you hit the big time? Can you tell me about that?

Oh yes, certainly. Burt Reynolds posed naked for Cosmopolitan. I thought, wow, that’s kinda cool. I was perusing modelling, and they I had this offer on the table, and I said “Yeah, if Burt Reynolds can do it, I’ll do it!” I don’t believe it’s closed any doors, but it definitely didn’t open any doors for me in acting or modelling. They made up a story, I think they said I was a billionaire or something like that, and gave me a different name to embellish it, all that good stuff.

That reminds me of Flesh Gordon, the softcore parody that was a hit in the 70s – did you ever see that?

I think they were actually showing it, in 1979 in London, during the time we were filming Flash Gordon.

Apparently you beat Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role – did you know anything about that?

I guess it’s a rumour. Dino was very secretive about his casting process, I never saw Kurt, I never saw Arnold. I don’t know if he was bringing us in one door, and as soon as we finished we’d exit another door! I heard years later that they were also up for the part. I’ve never confirmed it with them personally.

The film is almost a comedy, but it’s played straight and that’s part of the charm. What sort of direction did you get for your performance – ham it up or do it seriously?

[Director] Michael Hodges came in at the last second, he took over this huge production, when the other director had to leave. I think Nicolas Roeg did maybe a year before Michael came in, so he had his hands full. But I just approached it, I studied up on Flash Gordon. I thought this guy doesn’t have any superpowers, he basically has to depend on his athleticism and his wit. I did it straight. And of course I reviewed all the black and white Buster Crabbe shows, I read some comic books and I said I’m gonna go for it. And here we are talking 35 years later.

Watching it back in preparation for this interview, I was blown away by the incredible full-size, pre-CGI sets and costumes, which are still impressive today. Did you have trouble taking them all in?

It’s a great question. During the making of Flash Gordon I did not have a whole lot of time to enjoy what you just mentioned. I would look at it, and start to contemplate it and really appreciate the artistry in the visuals and the costumes, and all of a sudden someone would yell, “Come on Sam, let’s go, you gotta get in rehearsals.” I was moved from spot to spot with 30 second breaks in between. If I wasn’t shooting a scene, I was rehearsing a scene, or a fight scene. Or learning how to use the bull whip. Or learning how to use another weapon. Or training. It was non-stop, on the go. As I get older now, I think I’ve only seen Flash Gordon a total of eight times. Sometimes I get to see it at special screenings with the fans, and I actually pick up things for the very first time. To answer your question, I am now enjoying it.

So what scenes do you pick up on now?

There’s a couple. The fight scene with Timothy Dalton on the rotating, revolving disc with all the spikes. That took weeks and weeks of rehearsals, we put a lot into it. And of course the lovey-dovey scene with Ornella Muti, where I was trying to pilot the ship and she was all over me. That was memorable!

That scene with the rotating platforms and the spikes looked like it was dangerous in real life – were they real spikes?

The metal shafts were hollow, but the tips were hard rubber. You could get hurt on the metal shafts. There were three operators using hydraulics, and trying to see us at the same time. Of course it was choreographed, but when you’re in the heat of the battle you start to improvise! And then we had the other dynamic of not wanting to hit each other with the bullwhips. They were real bullwhips, and we did take a few hits. I remember he hit me with the bullwhip once and I decided to go right back at him. It gave us some very real reactions!

And what about that big spiky helmet you’ve got on in the prison? What was that like to wear?

It looked as if it was painful and torturous, but really it wasn’t. I think they had it covered in foam, and padding inside, it wasn’t that difficult.

How were you able to keep a straight face around a half-naked Brian Blessed?

{Laughs} He just kept everybody laughing. Just a wonderful man. Crazy, of course, he’s a bit bonkers. We’ve appeared together in London once or twice, and I’m looking forward to appearing with him again. He’s a character, he kept everyone entertained on the making of the film, and he’s still doing it.

Gahhh!!!!

What was Dino De Laurentiis like in person? He’s such a towering figure in film history. There’re obviously stories that you and him fell out…

Dino was a good man because he gave me a great opportunity. Basically he was little bit difficult. Now that I’m a little bit older, [I can see] he demanded a lot out of everybody, he demanded perfection, and spirit of excellence. Anyone who was not performing to that level, he would vocalise it and let that be known. Also, being 100% Italian as he is, and Melody [Anderson] and I being the only two Americans, it was the first time I really spent time around a real Italian person – when they talk, they always seem to be angry, but that’s just how they talk! They’re very passionate people. I figured that out pretty quickly that he was a passionate man and he loved his work. He’s basically a genius because of what he’s done in his whole career.

Is it true you fell out over your voice being overdubbed in the final cut?

I couldn’t go back for looping or dubbing, so they had to hire somebody to try and match my voice. I don’t have the James Earl Jones or Peter O’Toole type voice, but I did think the person they brought in, their octave range was a little bit higher than my own. I think [the disagreement] was more my representatives with Dino, and if I was to do it all over again I would have taken a meeting one on one with him, and told all my attorneys and representatives to back off. After the making of the movie, years later, I called him. I said “Please forgive me if there’s any rift between us because of what happened,” and he said “Sam I appreciate that.” I was 25 years old at the time [of filming], I was just following the lead of my representation and my attorneys. He understood and forgave me, and it was a clean slate. I really, really appreciated that.

There were plans for sequels, right?

That was then, but up to date now Matthew Reilly, VP of production at Fox Studios, acquired the screenplay rights to Flash Gordon last year, and he hired [Predator/ Chronicle/ Man From U.N.C.L.E producer] John Davis and his staff to write the script. They’re looking to bring out a sequel actually. I met with Matt, we’re in talks about that. I’m very excited. A lot of people over the years, including Stephen Sommers and Neil H Moritz, have acquired the screenplay rights, but for whatever reason they did not do a follow up on the option. So I’m very excited about it.

So would you want to play an older Flash, or a mentor to younger star?

However they want to use me, I’m very excited. I told Matt, however he wants to use me, keep one thing in mind: whatever a younger, leading man can do, I cannot only match him, I can do more! If he does 20 pull-ups, I can do 30 pull-ups. If he can do 100 push-ups, I can do 150 push-ups. Just keep that in mind!

How did the documentary Life After Flash came about?

There’s a UK reality show I did called The Jump [Channel 4’s celebrity ski-jumping show]. I think out of 12 celebrities who entered, I think 11 had to drop out! I was the first one with my shoulder! I had shoulder surgery for my ski injury in Austria. But it worked out really well, great crew, working with the English. And that’s how I met these producers, who wanted to do a documentary called Life After Flash. I got so excited about it, I said “Let’s do it!”.

We’re doing it on Kickstarter. I really enjoy the fact we have full creative control, we’re not under the pressure, or the authority of a studio or network. We’re giving back to the fans. For the first time in my life, I’m completely unrestricted, when I’m miked up and the cameras are following me, wherever I go, with no limitations. The fans are going to get some pieces of gold, some nuggets, of my successes and my failures, so a lot of life values and morals – when I faced challenge, what go me through it. I’m really excited about it.

So what’s actually going to be in the documentary?

Life After Flash is primarily the impact that the character Flash Gordon had on the world before the movie, and the influence the movie Flash Gordon and Sam Jones had, and has, on the world, after the movie came out. That’s the concept. Obviously the fans are going to get a lot more than that, because the film crew are following me wherever I go, from San Diego to Texas to New York to Germany to Dubai to Mexico City to Sweden, all over the world. It’s going to be me, on an open platform, just being who I am on a daily basis, and not being anybody different to that.

And you’re planning a Flash Gordon reunion, right?

We’re trying to work on that for London Comic Con, to have that 35th anniversary reunion for the Flash Gordon cast members. We’ve only really had three of us together – Melody, Brian Blessed and myself together. We want to get every living cast member together. We’re still waiting for conformation, but we’ll see you in London!

Do you feel a responsibility playing a character as beloved as Flash? Do you worry about living up to fans’ expectations when they meet you in real life?

Absolutely. I know a lot of people say that they separate the movie industry from their personal life. I think it’s a little bit different if you’re, y’know, a top professional athlete, if you play superheroes and they have this image. Flash Gordon is his own entity anyway, he doesn’t have superpowers, he relies on his own skillset, and he’s one of a kind really. And I do, {especially} when I’m around younger kids – I have five children myself. Anyone who’s going to be a public figure {has to} – I don’t know where these celebrities and actors got the idea that once they decided to be an actor, and very successful celebrity, that they are a private figure. If you don’t want your picture taken by a paparazzi, then stay at home. I don’t understand it!

Of course we don’t want people pushing a camera in our face, or knocking our little two year old child down or something, that’s different. But we owe it to the fans, and the public, especially because of the money they spend on us – at the box office, when we come out to do personal appearances [at conventions etc], and they pay their admission fees to get in. So yes, I have to be very aware that whatever I do in real life, I need to know that there is a telescope on me, people are watching my every move. But I don’t have any worries, because if I just be who I am in real life, then I have nothing to worry about

What’s it like watching the film’s reputation grow and grow over the years, especially since it wasn’t the biggest success on its first release?

It’s wonderful. I think what really complemented it big time, and opened up this younger demographic is the incredible success of Ted. We had my age group before, then we had our children’s, now in their 30s and 40s, and now because of Ted it opened up to this younger age group and it’s wonderful. I get people coming up to me now and it’s a father, a son and a grandchild asking for my autograph and pictures. It’s incredible! Three generations, right in front of your eyes.

How did your cameo in Ted come about?

Seth McFarlene called me! And I’m starting to get these calls at my age. Seth told me specifically, and the same thing happened with Matt Reilly at Fox, Seth told that when he was eight years old and he saw the movie Flash Gordon it changed his life forever. He knew that when he saw it he wanted to be a creative person in the entertainment business. And the same with Matt Reilly. So all these kids back then, who were six, seven, eight, nine, ten, went on and became very successful, and now they’re starting to call me, or call whoever influenced and impacted their lives. Seth is going to be in the documentary as well, and he’s going to talk about specially the influence that myself and Flash Gordon had on him as a young boy.

Being a classic 80s action hero, would you ever want to be in an Expendables movie?

Oh yeah, I actually bumped into Stallone a couple of months ago and…

[At this point Sam was interrupted by someone very military sounding, who spoke to him for a few moments]

Sorry about that, I’m staged in one of my vehicles. I don’t know if you know, but I have this other vocation, we run security operations in Mexico and other high risk environments.

I didn’t know that! You’ve got to tells us more about it!

I was a marine before I was an actor, so all this military stuff is all natural for me. About 12 years ago, the film industry was a little bit slow, and we had a couple of young kids in diapers and my wife was very encouraging – she said “You’re a very talented actor, but now you need to be a talented working man!”. So I put a few calls in, I humbled myself. This is good advice for the world, especially for men! I humbled myself, I listened to my wife and I went out and started another vocation at the age of 50. And because I did that, it not only opened up a lot of financial increase into our house, it also kept our marriage very healthy.

What do you think it did to my film career, committing to this other vocation or protecting VIPs and executives all over the world form kidnapping and assassination? Well after a couple of years I started receiving calls again to make more movies and TV shows. My point is, that’s how this mathematics works. It’s real simple. If we humble ourselves, and get over ourselves and not think so much about ‘me, me, me’. “I’m just an actor?” No. You need to go out, get a job and the next thing you know, not only do you have a brand new vocation doing really well, but also you get to do what you’ve been doing for years, even on a higher level. So since I committed to this, not only do I have a full time status running these operations around the world, I’m doing more movies and TV project than I have for many, many years.

So are you actually out in the field then, or just the boss?

Yes, I’m a field guy, I love it out in the field, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We do have to do our administration work and office work, which I can’t stand, but I learnt that with your laptop and iPhone you can take your office wherever you want. I love [the job], it’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, and a lot of people don’t know that it’s Flash Gordon that is protecting them. And also, when I’m making a movie, I can actually hire myself to protect myself!

You should charge extra for Flash Gordon being your bodyguard.

A lot of people don’t know it. Especially in the corporate world, the executives, it’s a different mindset. Their heads are usually down, they’re looking at their iPhone, on their laptop, and they just don’t watch movies. It’s a whole other world.

Can I ask you about the TV movie of The Spirit you did in 1987? Was that meant to be a series?

I loved it. [Spirit creator and comic book pioneer] Will Eisner came on the set when we were filming it. It was originally scripted to be a television pilot for a series. Eisner came on the set, he liked what he was watching, It’s just one of those things that happens, when you have multiple phases of leadership above you, the studios and networks. It just came out as a movie of the week. For whatever reason, it did not turn into a series. I absolutely enjoyed it. My leading lady was Nana Vistor and she was wonderful, she went on to do a lot of great things in the sci-fi world [including Deep Space 9]

Even though you're most famous as Flash, you’ve been in films and TV for over 30 years. What other roles stand out for you?

I loved doing a lot of characters. I went on to play a lot of different characters. I think when I was 28 or 29 I played an old, old man, with many hours in make up. I even played a woman once, I spent four or five hours in make up. It was hard, I just looked like a big ugly woman, but still I went through the process! That was for a movie of the week with Lou Gossett and that was fun. I went on to do comedies, and lots of different characters. Cops, villains. I played a lot of villains. I just enjoyed it.

You guest starred on plenty of classic TV shows over the years – The A-Team, Baywatch, Walker Texas Ranger – do you have any favourites?

I did so many guest spots. Probably more [guest spots] than anything. A-Team was fun. I did a TV series called The Highwayman; it wasn’t a guest spot, I was actually the star of that show - I think that was one of my memorable moments. I just loved that character, and I loved all the different guest stars that we had. I did Renegade with Lorenzo Lamas, I worked with so many people over the years. A guest star is a funny thing. You come in really quick, everybody’s already established, it’s their show.

It doesn’t matter how big your name is, or what you’ve done, or haven’t. You come on, you’re stepping into unfamiliar territory and it’s not your house. You come in and the bar is raised even higher. When I guest starred on Stargate SG1 it was a great character, one of the most difficult characters I ever had to play in my life - Aris Boch in the episode ‘Deadman Switch’. It was a very difficult role because they wanted all the vernacular and all the dialogue precise, and I’m known for wanting to improvise. I learned a big lesson. It was wonderful, everyone took real good care of me, and welcomed me.

And just before we finish, can you tell us anything about Ted 2?

It premieres June 26; It’s supposed to be funnier than Ted. We’ve done some funny scenes, I’m really looking forward to it. I talk about that in the documentary as well.

Sam J Jones, thank you very much!

Find out more about Life After Flash at www.lifeafterflash.com or on its Facebook page. Sam J Jones' Twitter is @realsamjjones.

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