Don Pedro Colley is one of the legends of acting, with a diverse career in television and movies that goes back almost fifty years including shows like “Daniel Boone“, “The Dukes of Hazard” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” After a recent appearance along with Linda Harrison (Nova from “The Planet of the Apes” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”) I had the opportunity to share a couple meals with Don Pedro and Linda. After a fine dinner at Don Pedro’s God Daughter’s home, we turned on the camera and had a chat. This is a transcription of the first part of that interview.
(JNC): Here we are in Youngstown, Ohio, and I have Don Pedro Colley. A marvelous actor, who—was ‘Beneath The Planet Of The Apes’ your first film? .
Don PedroColley (DPC): First official big studio film, yeah. Really big studio.
(JNC): And did you ever have any idea what a classic it was going to become?
(DPC): I was so concentrated on not doing anything that would come back on me as, you know, make me hard to work with, or whatever, and yet do the very best job I could. No, we just did our job the best we could. I’m working with Charleton Heston, I had to work with not being intimidated by that thought.
(JNC): (chuckles) I imagine.
(DPC): And realized that Charleston is just a guy, just like the rest of us, y’know. And we had a couple of interesting moments and years later when they screened the play at the academy of motion picture arts and sciences, and I went by to say ‘goodbye’ and ‘hi’, and he (said) ‘Don Pedro!’, reached out and gave me a big ol’ brother hug, and everything. It was beautiful, just beautiful. So, that really set the course for me, of being a professional, working in a big studio situation where, if you were lax, everything still was taken care of, for you, but if you brought something and added it to the pile, boy were they happy about that. ‘Cause you’re bringing something, you’re not taking something out of it. Like, ‘I’m a movie star. Make me, and do me, and whatever.’ No, I’m saying ‘let’s do this project together.’ Let’s put the best of our ideas together.’ And the director would even come to me and say, ‘Don, how do you wanna approach this scene?’ I said ‘Well, what if we try this?’ And they said, ‘Well, yeah I like it. But how would that work? Yeah, I like that, let’s do it.’ So it became a collaboration instead of a—you’re just there to do your thing and then blow the Hell off. And we like, or we don’t like it, and whatever. It became a collaboration and kind of carried over through all the rest of the things I’ve done over the years. We’re there, it’s a collective group, you’re not there by yourself. Some people: ‘I’m a movie star. Look at me on my right side.’ Like, for instance, Joan Collins. We did a two-hour Starsky and Hutch in Hawaii.
(DPC): And we met up at Twentieth Century Fox in the green room. And they started out with tomato juice and vodka. At 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. By the time I got on the airplane, I fell asleep on the way to Hawaii. But teaming with Joan Collins, she had the cigarette, she had her hair, she had her husband, who was doing her luggage: ‘Put my luggage over there! No, I don’t want it there, you’re too close to the water, I want it over there!’ So we get to Hawaii and I have the scenes with Joan Collins, and she tells the director in no uncertain terms: ‘You will only photograph me from this side of my face! This is the only side of my face that you will put on film. Everybody kind of looked at each other, like: ‘Okay’. And I have scenes with her! So I say ‘Okaaaay, I’m gonna make this real for her too, and she’s not even gonna go about it.’ So when the director said ‘action’, I started sliding very slowly so that she doesn’t realize this side of her face is being photographed. And frustrated her so much that she stopped. ‘Stop the scene! Cut! I can’t do this. I can’t do this.’ ‘What can’t you do?’ ‘I told you, this side of my face. Only this side of my face.’ ‘Okay, what’s happening?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, he’s…’ ‘Don, would you please stand still?’
(JNC): So y’got the wink (from the director) too. Oh no!
(DPC): So he said ‘Action’! I went eeeeeeh. This side of her face got photographed. It was all I could do to keep from punching that…not there in the face, but right there in the chest. The kind of hit that knocks your breath out. Wham! Right in your chest.
(JNC): Oh my.
(DPC): She was a horrid person. Horrid, horrid, horrid. And can’t act! I mean, she’s so stiff and so wooden, and unforgiving. It was absolutely ridiculous, so I said ‘who is this’? ‘This is Joan Collins, let it go. Do your job, and don’t worry about the rest of it.’ By that time, I really was worried about the total content. Y’know, if I’m gonna be involved with the project, I don’t wanna be in junk.
(DPC): I mean, y’gotta give everyone a chance, so we’re involved with the total project, and that’s all I could worry about. Was doing my best to set everyone else so it would come out and be a really nice thing.
(DPC): It would.
(JNC): Planet of The Apes, Beneath the Planet of The Apes, I have to say, that the scene where you revealed yourself…that was, as a kid, watching that, as you said in your Q & A earlier, going from the old Buck Rogers with the spaceships hanging from a string and such, to…
(DPC): Giving little fart-puffs of cloud.
(JNC): Exactly! To that. That scene was just, just mind-blowing to a kid.
(DPC): What set me up, really, was the very first movie. When the apes come riding out of the cornfield on these huge black stallions, gee whiz, I just, like everybody in the movie theater, it just, was such a total shock because it was so different from everything else we saw. So by the time we got to our movie, “Beneath The Planet of The Apes.” The viability of creating the situation and the character based on the time that this movie has laid out, 3,035 or some dog gone thing—I don’t know what year it was. It became a lot easier to envision what might be happening and how you—the approach is, you are a human being caught in this society, trying to survive. All these energies that are bombarding your soul and your body, and all you’re trying to do is survive it. Whether it’s today ,or in the year 3000 something or other. That way your audience has a chance to connect with you, and just say, ‘Yeah! You’re surviving and I’m surviving right with you.’ That’s how it works. That’s what they tell you in acting school, when you’re starting out, y’know? How you allow your audience to get involved. They are the voyeurs. The camera’s just a voyeur. So many young performers, especially now, play to the camera. The camera is a voyeur. Just another face in a crowd. You know, as an actor, where the camera is. What it’s recording, but you’re playing. It’s your whole surroundings that are involved, and people are coming and going. And the camera’s like, ‘Wow!’ And it’s getting closer, and closer, and closer ‘cause we’re interested in what’s happening, and that’s the way you have to treat it. You really have to treat it that way. ‘I’m pretty! I’m on camera! I’m in Hollywood! Oh, come stroke me some more! I’m so pretty!’
John N Collins (JNC): Okay, now you’re turning my stomach.
(DPC): Thank you! Thank you!
(JNC): Now I don’t know where to go from that. Actually, you’re talking about young artists, and do you have any, this is a question that I like to ask, what do you do for inspiration and creativity as an artist?
(DPC): It’s usually embedded in the material. If you know how to read it, and see it, and get a glimpse of what the writer’s mind is about. And there are usually crews throughout. And that’s where the inspiration is for creativity, if you’re from an acting school, like Stannis Slosky, it gives you homework that you have to do. And he says there are six questions you have to answer: ask yourself and answer when you’re creating a character, and every time you can answer one of these questions, it creates another question, which takes you another level into the character, and pretty soon when you get all that information together, and squeeze it out in the juice, you throw the chaffe away, and drink the juice, you got the inspiration in your body, and then it can be organic. And whatever energies that come at you from various angles, you can react to. Like you’re in the middle of a scene and the guy’s eyeball falls out and rolls across the floor, you don’t immediately go ‘Ah! What’s my line? I forgot’. No, you go with the energy. His eye fell out, and hit the floor. And you look at the guy, and pause for a moment and decide, ‘Is my dialogue going to go on and fit this? Or should there be some kind of new reaction with the same dialogue?’ And I learned a lot of this from Duvall. If you’re doing it one way and something happens to cause you to veer off, but you’re still doing it, and then you come back and do it again, and something is still causing you to veer off, you go with it. Each time. Don’t fight it. So many kids get so confused. It’s not like we planned it. Nothing in filmmaking—you plan, and give it a form, and then go from there. That’s how you bring in your colors and—what’s the word I’m looking for? Like Vincent Van Gogh, he didn’t use a brush, he used a palette knife. And not only did get colors and shapes, he got depth and forms, yeah. And that’s what you hope for.
(JNC): Very cool.