Ron Harper is an American actor who played the role of Alan Virdon in the 1974 Planet of the Apes television series. Harper, a known television actor, along with co-star James Naughton, appeared in all fourteen episodes of the series.
After graduation from Princeton University, young Harper - from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, where his father worked in a steel mill - turned down a fellowship to the Harvard Law School in favour of becoming an actor. He performed two seasons with the Princeton University Players, then went to New York to study with the noted dramatic coach Lee Strasberg for about a year and a half (it was Strasberg's Actors Studio that produced such talent as Marlon Brando). Harper served an enlistment in the US Navy, after which he studied with Strasberg again for a couple of more years and was signed by Universal for a 3 year contract. After appearing in such television plays as Studio One and The Armstrong Theatre, Harper starred as a regular on police drama 87th Precinct (1961-62, based on the novels by Ed McBay), comedy series Wendy and Me (1964-65), and as Lt. Craig Garrison in the World War II action series, Garrison's Gorillas (1967-68). Beyond guest-starring in many television shows, Harper appeared on Broadway in Night Circus and Sweet Bird of Youth (where he served as Paul Newman's understudy), and toured the country in the latter production. He also appeared Off-Broadway and worked on stock and soap operas, appearing in Where The Heart Is (1970-1973) during the day while playing a supporting role every night for about ten months in the Broadway comedy 6 Rooms Riv View at the Helen Hayes Theatre with Jerry Orbach and Jane Alexander. Planet of the Apes was his fifth TV series as a regular. He and actress Sally Stark, a regular on the Love of Life daytime TV series, were married on June 1st 1974.
"I was living in New York at the time, and I got a call from an agent on the West Coast who said that the producers of 'Planet of the Apes' were interested in having me come and test for it. I was then about to get married, for the first time, to my sweetheart, Sally Stark, in June 1974. Fox wanted me to fly out and test on a Friday. The wedding was going to take place in a little church in Riverhead, New York, the following day, Saturday! I knew I could just barely do it. But I emphasized to the producers, through my agent, that I had to be finished on Friday because I was getting married early Saturday morning. With trepidation, I kissed Sally goodbye and I got on the plane and I went out and I did the test... They had sent me the test material, which I had looked over and worked on. I did the test and I got out of there in time to get on a plane at six o'clock at night... I was very hyped-up because I thought I had done a fairly good test, and 'Planet of the Apes' looked like it was going to be an interesting project. I knew that Fox had done five movies that had been very successful. And this series was a pre-sold series - there was no pilot, it would be going right into production, which was pretty unusual... The five 'Apes' movies had made millions and millions of dollars." "I just saw the first two... They showed them to me [during production of the TV show]."
"We were going to Europe for our honeymoon - we planned to spend a week in Majorca relaxing, just forgetting everything, and then a week in Ireland because she was half-Irish. I got a phone call from my agent saying, 'They need you to come back. They want to test you again. And they want to lighten your hair'." "We were staying in this beautiful old castle in Ireland. So, I said, 'show them film from Garrison's Gorillas, anything, and tell them I'm having a good time'. We went on to Killarney the next day and they called back and said that they had to see me, it was just too important; they postponed the production date twice but this scene was with the other astronauts and they had to go shoot starting Monday and it was a pre-sold, expensive series and one test wasn't enough. So I said, 'all right'. But I said I want round trip for Sally and me and I want a car at the airport and I want a suite at the Hilton, and they said, 'okay', They paid a lot of money for this. So we flew back. We had, I think, ten days of the honeymoon; we had almost six days we were gonna stay. Sally flew here [to LA] with me when I tested." "Once I got back to Fox, they lightened my hair and I tested again - I was still testing for the part, [up against] five or six other guys." "We went back to New York on a Sunday; we were looking for an apartment on Monday and I got the call that I got the part, would I fly in the next morning so that Roddy and I could test with five other astronauts for Jim Naughton's part? So I tested... Roddy got into his make-up, costume; we tested I think, five or six other actors the next day." "Jim Naughton was one of them - I think it was his second audition for the part. Then I flew back to New York, and within a week I was told, 'They're ready to start shooting, you’ve got to come back'. So I said, 'Hey, Sally, listen, good luck with your married life - I’ll be out in California!' ...She was on a soap. So I went back and we started shooting immediately. That's how fast it all happened. It was a harried but very exciting time."
"Before they would shoot the first episode to reach the air ['Escape from Tomorrow'], they wanted me and Jim to be comfortable and experienced, and they wanted everything running smoothly. So we shot 'The Good Seeds' and then another episode, maybe 'The Gladiators' and I think the third one we shot was 'Escape from Tomorrow'. The thinking was, "Ron and Jim will be better, they'll know their way around, they'll know each other. It'll be an easier and a smoother production." By the way, the spaceship in that first episode, where we crash on the planet - that was left over from the first 'Apes' movie. We used a lot of the stuff from the movies. I think our uniforms were from the original movies too... I liked 'The Good Seeds' - I liked it a lot. It was warm, and it was not terribly violent. But once the series was on the air, we were told that the network [CBS] wanted more action. "All the sentimental, warm, folksy stuff is great, but that ain’t 'Planet of the Apes'. Get those apes out there with the guns and have 'em start shootin' some people and fightin'. Get some action going. Forget that sentimental crap!" ...As a matter of fact, one of the associate producers talked to me at one point about 'The Good Seeds' and about my voice. As an actor, you don't think about your voice when you’re trying to do good acting, you just do what you're feeling and you try to get that feeling across. He said, about my voice. "You’re a very good actor, and you did that sentimental scene with the young boy so beautifully. But we would like you to use your deeper voice, your masculine, he-man voice." I said, "Really?", and he said, "Yeah, we want that deep-chest voice." And I thought to myself, "Oh, Christ .... Here they go again!" [My favorite episode was] 'The Horse Race', in which I competed in a race against an ape. I knew how to ride pretty well because, years earlier, I'd worked on a ranch out in South Dakota for one summer."
"Roddy McDowall was a wonderful gentleman, and an excellent actor. And, God, such patience, such endurance! He had to come to work at 3:30 in the morning because it took three hours for the makeup people to put those appliances on his face. He couldn’t sleep while they put the appliances on, so he listened to classical music. He was a sweet guy and a bright guy, and I found him very interesting. He even had a sense of humor... Poor Roddy! After about two or three episodes, his face looked like raw hamburger. Raw, red hamburger. They had to give him like two weeks off to let his skin breathe and come back to normal again... Whatever he got paid, I’m sure it was not nearly enough for the amount of work that he did. I mean, consider his reputation, his body of work and consider what he endured, which was three hours of makeup every morning... Jim was married and had a very nice wife and two little kids. One of my most vivid memories of him: we were on location on the back ranch at 20th Century, shooting something around a lake, and he was on one side of the lake and I was on the other. Suddenly he started singing with this beautiful baritone voice. I said, "Jim - I’m surprised - where'd that come from?" He was an excellent singer! Years later he won a Tony, Best Actor in a Musical, for 'City of Angels'." The two human stars did not become very close during the making of the show. "I think a big part of that was the result of us not being together very long. We respected each other as actors but, away from the set, he was a little cool. Jim's part was originally intended to be funnier than what he turned it into. The producers conceived of the role of Pete as a comedic foil for my character since they didn't really need two heroes in the show. But I don't think Jim was interested in playing the comic guy which had to make his stay on the show a little uncomfortable."
"Mark [Lenard] was wonderful... But I didn’t get to know the gorillas very much at all. They were there three hours before me, and at night I'd be gone while they were still getting out of make up. Those poor sons of... It got to be like 120 degrees underneath those masks, particularly out on location at the 20th Century-Fox Ranch in Malibu. I don’t know how those ape actors could stand it. So, you see, I had no idea what my [co-workers] looked like, because some of 'em I never saw out of their makeup. Booth Colman's another one that I don't remember seeing out of makeup for the entire series. I see him a lot now at autograph shows. He goes to a lot of the shows, and I’ve sat with him a couple of times. He’s very active with that, I think he’s got a nice little second career going! ...By the way, it was kind of funny: I thought the gorillas would be big but when we did the show, it seemed to me the gorillas were very short. But then I realized, most of our stuntmen were short, and so they couldn’t do anything about it! ...Glenn Wilder doubled me, particularly on very difficult stunts, or intricate ones. I had at least two others: one was the son of the actor John Ireland [Peter Ireland] and he was a very good double, he had blond hair and looked like me a little. And there was one other young guy."
"['Planet of the Apes' was shot], apart from the studio, generally on the 20th Century-Fox Ranch out in Malibu. At that time, they had maybe 50, 75 acres. It was a good location because there were no telephone poles or anything, so it looked 'natural'. The original sets from the 'Apes' movies were still up at the Ranch, so of course we took advantage of that. Then another favorite spot was north of Malibu, on the Pacific Coast - the episode with the hang glider ['Up Above the World So High'] and the shark episode ['Tomorrow's Tide'] were shot over there. There’s one that took place in a castle ['The Legacy']. A castle right in the middle of what was supposed to be Oakland, California - that was very strange! Anyway, that castle set was left over from a Mel Brooks movie, 'Young Frankenstein' . It was going to be torn down, so Stan Hough, who was a hands-on producer, asked, "When do you have to tear it down?" They said, "Next week." He said, "All right, we're gonna shoot it." So we shot it that week! To save money, they tried everything they could do! ...Do you remember the episodes set in the wrecked city with the huge piles of rubble? We shot that on the back lot of MGM, when they were tearing it down! ...MGM had that beautiful back lot - the back lot where we shot 'Garrison's Gorillas', by the way. But in 1974, MGM sold it off, and now they were destroying those city street sets. So, of course, 20th Century-Fox jumped in and said, "Hey! You mind if we use those rubble-strewn streets?", and we did. Those streets became our 'destroyed cities'. So, yes, it did look authentic - because it was real!"
Ron Harper explained, to Australia's Sunday Observer reporter Hal Edwards on the set of the Apes show, the differences from working on a soap: "The only rehearsal you do is just before you shoot the scene. On a soap you rehearse the day before: then you come in the next morning at about seven-thirty and you rehearse all day until you shoot it at about one o'clock or two. It's a lot more rehearsal. You know what determines how much rehearsal you get on a TV show? The lighting man. The cameraman. Because the only time you rehearse is while he's lighting. And if he's very fast, then you don't rehearse really well. If he's slow, you can rehearse it more... I topple at times when you get into a deep scene - and we do have them occasionally, important scenes - strangely enough, because the format is not apparently the early one... it's not Chekov or Shakespeare, that you really have to figure out a lot of the mysteries underneath the character. It’s sort of, basically, I sort of know what the character is, how he would react - which is basically a matter of choices. No, [the lack of rehearsal] doesn't really bother me. I'd much rather err in that direction than I would of boring myself to death by doing something I already know." He enjoyed the location filming at the Fox ranch in Malibu: "It's kind of fun when you're on location, because you ride horses...", but cautioned, "It's ridiculous to do [your own stunts]. Number one, you're putting some stuntman out of work, which is not very nice because they need the work and they do it better. They make it look better. And most of the time they won't let you do your own stunts, because it's just economically ridiculous."
Harper remembered some of the show's many guest stars with affection: "Royal Dano, who was in 'Escape from Tomorrow', I always admired because somewhere along the line I'd seen him play Abe Lincoln - and he looked like Abe Lincoln! He was gaunt and everything, and I always thought of him as Abe. Beverly Garland ['The Interrogation'] has a hotel out here, and that's where they have celebrity autograph shows two or three times a year. She was on my first series too, '87th Precinct', as a guest star. William Smith was in 'The Gladiators' and, boy, was he well-built. I'm still friends with him - in fact, I've become better friends with him in the last five or ten years. He's an interesting guy because he's such a weightlifter with those arms and that chest, but he's also very bright. He speaks, I think, five languages. Isn't that amazing? And a nice guy. Sondra Locke ['The Cure'] I liked. I have to tell you something: after acting with her in a couple of scenes, there was something so feminine about her that I could picture myself easily falling for her. So I can see why Clint [Eastwood] was interested! She's one of those women who exudes femininity, and you just become so attracted to that."
What appealed to Ron Harper about Planet of the Apes at the time was that: "The complete reversal of animal and human roles is full of possibilities. I think that’s what interests people and holds their attention." Though, as he also pointed out, it certainly wasn't heavy science fiction: "We had Pete Irwin, one of the Apollo astronauts, on the set one day. I was doing a scene where I took a magnetic disk out of the spaceship and explained that we might find a pocket of technology where we could run the disk through a computer and go back in time. Afterwards, I went over to Colonel Irwin and asked 'Does what I’m doing make any scientific sense?' And he said 'You’re in big trouble!'"
It became clear to Harper and to all the crew fairly quickly that the show was not going to be the runaway success that they had anticipated: "I had seen the writing on the wall. About three or four episodes before the end, I'd realized, "This is a boring series." CBS wanted more action in 'Planet of the Apes'. After a while, in every episode, one of us, Roddy, James or me, would get captured by the apes and the other two would rescue him. We took turns. Whose turn is it to get captured?, is it Roddy, me or Jim? And I thought, "This is getting to be monotonous." This was a science fiction thing and we could have gone anywhere in the world we wanted with our imaginations. I wished we were doing something more interesting than capture-rescue, capture-rescue. I think that's one of the things that curtailed what should have been a longer run... The character Jim played, Pete Burke, did not like being on a planet with the apes, he didn’t like what was going on at all. Some people felt that, if the part of Burke had been played with a little bit more humor, the combination of a hero and a 'reluctant hero' on the series would have been a better combination. I think, had the series gone on, as they intended it to, they may have brought in some more imaginative writers. I wanted it to be a little bit deeper than it was... We needed [some continuing story arc] because, obviously, the way we ended up going was not very successful. I mean... 14 episodes, y'know? But somebody up there was thinking, "let's not get into the homey, dramatic, heartwarming stuff. Forget the wife and the kid, go out and fight a few gorillas!" If a show does that kind of thing often enough, people will think, "This is gettin' boring." Early on, Alan Virdon did carry around a computer disc and he thought that if he could get it to a computer, that might give him an idea how to travel back through time. By the third or fourth episode, one day I said, "I can't find the computer disc [prop]," and they said, "Never mind, we're not gonna use it any more!" ...They expected to sell a lot of merchandise off of this series. I did a lot of interviews for the show, but there wasn’t time to go out on the road. I would have done anything they’d asked me to do, but [the show didn't last]. Everybody expected it to be a big hit, everybody expected it to go five years, and then..." "Our producers, I think, never believed that the show - so hyped and shot without a pilot - was really going to be cancelled. So they wanted to leave their options open. They even did the last two episodes after the network told them to stop."
After the Apes' cancellation, Harper became recognized for his role as the character of 'Jack Marshall', a replacement father figure in the third season of the Syd and Marty Croft Saturday morning Sci-Fi children's series, Land of the Lost (1976). He has since starred in soap operas Love of Life and Another World, as well as TV shows such as Hill St. Blues, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Walker Texas Ranger and The Equaliser, and played supporting parts in the movies Splendour in the Grass, Savage Season, The Soldier, Freedom Strike, The Odd Couple II and Pearl Harbor, and in recent years has made appearances in genre flicks Venomous and Glass Trap and played the character of 'the Chairman' on The West Wing. He is an excellent oil painter and his diversions include tennis, sailing and horseback riding. A tall man - 6' 1" - but not a huge, muscle-bound type of man; 185 lbs., built well, with long, sleek lines that go straight up and down; and handsome with blue/green eyes. Oddly enough his hair wasn't as blond as it looked on-screen, it was a little browner.
- Harper thought the 2001 Tim Burton Planet of the Apes "was crappy. My daughter and I went to see it, and I kept falling asleep. And that ending! I didn’t understand it, so I asked my daughter, and she didn’t understand it either. It didn't make any sense." He jokes that he would make himself available for a project revisiting Alan Virdon, "unless it was to be directed by Tim Burton".
- Planet of the Apes:
- Ron Harper article at Wikipedia
- Ron Harper profile at TV.com
- Ron Harper profile at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Interview with Ron Harper - 'Planet of the Apes Magazine' #4 (January 1975)
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews With 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi by Tom Weaver (2008)
- ↑ Ron Harper Interview, by Marc Shapiro - 'TV Zone Special' #17 (June 1995)
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 'Planet of the Apes' Sunday Observer Special (Australia, 1 June 1975)
- ↑ No Escape from the Planet of the Apes - 'Smash' Vol. 1 No. 3 (1974)
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 Down To Earth with Rin Hooper - 'Simian Scrolls' #8
- ↑ Planet of the Apes Newsletter, July/September 1976, at Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive