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Help Support Features Interviews Tales of the Gold Monkey
Tales of the Gold Monkey interview
by Stephen Jared - posted on June 19, 2006

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of James 'Shipwreck' Bradley, I was able to interview a few of the talents that created Tales of the Gold Monkey.
Participants included Stephen Collins who played Jake Cutter, Jeff MacKay who played Corky, Tom Greene who wrote and produced for the show and Harvey Laidman who was one of the series directors. This interview was conducted in early 2006. – Stephen Jared


Stephen, was there a character you modeled your performance after?

Stephen Collins: I was partially inspired by Cary Grant in Howard Hawk's great, but little known, movie, Only Angels Have Wings. Grant plays against type as a tough character who flies mail in and out of a tiny, mountainous country. It's a great film, and a great performance.

How aware were you of the inspirations to this character from the creator and writers vantage point? In other words, were there discussions with you about old movie stars or movies they wanted you to emulate with Jake Cutter?

click to enlarge
Collins as Jake Cutter.

Stephen Collins: Not really. Don Bellisario had a sense of what he wanted and we talked about it, but he didn't ask me to copy anybody. I knew about Only Angels Have Wings, and Don got a copy of it and screened it for me and Jeff MacKay, which was great. From that moment, I think Jeff and I were in the same wavelength.

How close did the show come to matching its ideal and original concept?

Tom Greene: First of all, remember that Gold Monkey was the 100% brilliant brainchild of Don Bellisario. The two-hour pilot, which I thought was amazing, and better than most features of the day (and had up to then, and maybe still, the most amazing set ever created for a TV show) had the look and feel of a more sophisticated action-adventure show. This, I believe was Don's intention ... to create something that had that "Great White Hunter" feel to it, however had a maturity of character and situation, that would get both the young viewer and one who was a bit more discriminating. As Don would say, the next half dozen shows or so, started to go in a different direction, becoming much more comic book than the vision Don had. You had mud people and exotic "monsters", etc. Some of that may have been a nervous network, and some of it may have been just experimenting with different ideas, and also as Don would tell me, some wrong choices in writers. At the time I was producing his other hit series, Magnum P. I., and Don asked me if I'd like to come over and become a writer-producer on Monkey. As much as Magnum was a dream job there was something about Tales that had me totally enthralled. I found myself on the sets all the time, just to soak in the "world" he created. I was also good friends with Steve Collins, and was a huge fan of Roddy McDowell, so to work with them was also an exciting prospect. And then there was the "hands on" aspect of Monkey in that Magnum was shot in Hawaii, and I was their Hollywood producer, which meant I worked on scripts, casting and post production, and obviously wasn't on the set. I love being on the set as much as possible, so I jumped at the chance to go over to Monkey (which was shot on the Universal lot). I had a lot of discussions with Don about how he wanted to get Monkey back on track, and after that, went off, and over a weekend wrote for him, my first script: "Force of Habit".

“Force of Habit” was one of the best episodes, so brilliantly balanced humor and poignancy, the desires of the flesh and respect for religion. Anybody ever say, “Hey, this is a kid’s show! Don’t work so hard!”

Harvey Laidman: I didn’t have any highfalutin’ goals shooting it, just make a fast-moving adventure.

Tom Greene: I'm very proud of that episode. That episode had a two-fold purpose. First of all, Don wanted me to write what is called a "ship in the bottle" show, that is a show that was very "contained", so that we could bring the budget back (it was written so that much of the action takes place in the cockpit of the "Goose"), and secondly, he wanted to bring the show back to a more mature direction, where character and plot took precedent over gimmicks and monkey suits. I think after that the show did get back to Don's original concept, and with his guidance, and the help of our extremely talented story editor, George Geiger, the rest of the shows pleased Don, since they evolved into his original concept. You also have to give Harvey a HUGE amount of credit for that, since he is one of the best directors in the biz, and it was his talent that kept the balance of humor and poignancy. I've used Harvey in virtually every show I produced ... and for good reason. Don never, ever thought of this as a "kid's show", and as I said, he pushed us, to exhaustion and beyond at times, to make the show as good as possible. On the contrary to the idea of: "don't work so hard", Don expected everyone to work as he did: 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I must say, many marriages and relationships (mine included!) were brushed under the carpet because of our dedication to Don's vision. And that's why this show stays so alive with so many fans who feel so passionately about it. They can sense the passion we felt as well. As a writer there are rare and wonderful times when you are truly inspired, and you find that the words just come ripping out of your fingers. It's like you are watching the movie or the TV show and are simply a "court reporter" writing down what you see. It literally unfolds before you in the big screen in your brain seemingly on its own. Those are the moments we live for. This episode was just that. As I said, Don wanted a "ship in the bottle" show, so the obvious idea was to make much of what happened in the cockpit. I then had to come up with an idea of who Jake would be in the cockpit with, and how to make it interesting. Of course, anything to do with a romance is much more interesting than a "bad guy", or just talking to his sidekick, Corky (by the way, one of the great unsung talents and heroes of that series was Jeff MacKay.) If I remember correctly they had an abandoned story that Don hated but it had, I think a Nun in it. He never showed me the story, but he did tell me something about it, and suddenly when he said "Nun", I was instantly intrigued by the idea of Jake in a cockpit with a "Nun". Being a Jewish Cowboy, and not knowing very much about "Nun's", I did call a friend who had been a "Nun" and left and subsequently married. But she had spent years in the "service", so I talked to her for hours, and got all that wonderful dialogue, so that it would be accurate. The other inspiration came from an actress named Elizabeth Huddle. I had just seen her in a one woman show called Sister Mary Ignatious Explains it All For You where she played a Mother Superior. I simply stole her amazing character from that show and brought her to Gold Monkey. So then I had a great character, who was once Jake's love interest, but now was about to take her final vows as my character in the plane. Anyway, it all came together, and because of the reoccurring characters that Don had created, the story worked beautifully. I'm most proud of the scene in the beginning when Jake thinks the Nun, who he recognizes, is pulling his leg, and is just wearing a "nun costume" so he goes up to her, grabs her by the ass and gives her a deep tongue kiss. The expression of everyone around him is priceless, especially Steve himself as he slowly realizes it was no costume! If you look at the shows after that they also had that nice balance. Especially "Last Chance Louie," which is very emotional. In fact I wrote that with our story editor George Geiger, who spoke French (as did his wife), and we basically wrote a version of Tale of Two Cities. We did something very unusual, in that the trial of Louie for murder is written all in French, and Don fought the network to not only let us do that, but without subtitles! Again his inspiration, allowed us to create stories like that. Roddy's performance in that episode is especially poignant as he is willing to die to protect his daughter. One quick side note on that episode: in the story, Steve falls in love with Louie's Daughter. She was played by Faye Grant, and in real life, they both fell in love with each other while filming the show, got married, and are still married!

The vast majority of TV shows that last one season don't have cult
followings years later. To what do you ascribe the lasting value of Gold Monkey?

click to enlarge
Collins & MacKay with
Caitlin O'Heaney.

Stephen Collins: It appealed to people's sense of fun and adventure. The characters were real and cared about each other. It was funny and it had heart. Brandon Tartikoff told me two years after we were cancelled that he thought Gold Monkey could have run as long as MASH. But ABC didn't know what they had. Tartikoff ran NBC.

Jeff MacKay: Good family values. Imagination. A return to more innocent times when integrity and goodwill meant something. Honesty as a norm as opposed to something unusual. People that you could rely on to be the people that you see... not having to look beyond the surface of the personality to see the real human being. We also had a lot of fun making the series. I think that always shows in the final product.

Tom Greene: You'll find cult followings for so many short-lived TV shows, or movies that originally tanked at the box office (of course It's A Wonderful Life being the prime example of that), become classics because the men and women who originally made them had a passion for the subject. They didn't make the show to try and capture a fad, or simply for the money, or because their "test results" and "focus groups" told them it would work. They made it because there was something deep in them that they wanted to share. And they had the strength and conviction of a single-minded vision to pull it off. Of all Don's successful shows, I think Monkey expresses his true deep felt spirit more than any other. And luckily at the time, he had the control to pull it off. That brings me to the second reason something becomes a "cult", and that is that in those situations, the creator had full power to make the show with their own vision. There was no 12 year-old executive to tell him what to do. The artist is given, for the most part, free reign to create their vision. When that is done, and it's rare in TV and Hollywood movies, there is a power that can't be created with all the money and CGI in the world. And people respond to it. That is why, for example, documentaries are doing so well these days. Why did a movie about Penguins walk all over the zillion dollar "blockbusters" last year? Because the passion of the artist was paramount, and people reacted to it. Tell me what passion is involved in the movie version of Bewitched, or all the horrific remakes like The Longest Yard? These are made by media whores who think that they have some kind of recognizable "franchise", and written, directed, produced and acted by embarrassed talent who phone it in for the money. That comes off, and is why people stay away. It's interesting that the famous Hatmaker, Baron Hats, who has made basically every famous hat for movies and TV for the last 75 years, has in their shop in Burbank a "cult wall", where hats from all the great cult classics are displayed. They have a website, where one can go and order reproductions of so many of these and other hats. (Interesting that they made Bogart's hat for Treasure of Sierra Madre, and when Spielberg saw that hat, he wanted "Indy" to wear the same one, and Baron made that one for Temple of Doom... and in fact also made many of the hats for Monkey). Point being, when you look at these cult hats, you suddenly see something in common: a single-minded vision of the creator, a strong commitment to "no compromise", and a passion for the subject. We see this now very strongly at the Academy Awards when the Hollywood grind machine movies win nothing, and the independent films, that are created out of that passion, not only win the awards but the hearts and minds of the audience.

Harvey Laidman: There’s something wonderful about an adventure that is almost like a childhood fantasy. When I walked to and from school, I pretended I was the Phantom. Those pictures in my mind don’t relate to the new “adventures” that feature stunts that exceed imagination. I think we all could identify with Jake.

Jeff, was there a character you modeled your performance after?

click to enlarge
Jeff MacKay as Corky.

Jeff MacKay: Actually, there were three. Thomas Mitchell in It's a Wonderful Life and Only Angels Have Wings, Walter Brennan in To Have and Have Not, and Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. I simply combined the aspects of the personalities of these characters with characteristics of my own personality. I love the helpless, but well-meaning characters such as Mitchell in both movies; I also loved Walter Brennan for his innocence; and of course, Curly Howard for his insane sense of humor. And hopefully, I brought my own personality to the role. That is what an actor does: he brings to a role that which he knows about a personality or traits of a personality. That is what makes a role played by a certain actor unique. Everyone's experiences have been different; not to mention the ways in which the human being playing the part has reacted to such experiences. An actor's job is to bring what he knows about that kind of person (the character) to light. At the time, I was doing a recurring role on Magnum P.I., playing Mac. Don Bellisario and I were great friends and many times we shared a sushi lunch and discussed my upcoming character in Gold Monkey. I told him that I'd like the character to be a cross between Curly Howard, Walter Brennan and Thomas Mitchell. The part was written for me. Don and I had done a couple of series together and he knew what I could do. Another example of 'who you know, not what you know.'

Stephen, I've read that you were involved in bringing Roddy McDowall to the show. Could you discuss the extent to which you were involved in various aspects of the show aside from your performance as Jake?

Stephen Collins: I just talked to Don Bellisario and Don isn't afraid to listen to anyone who has a good idea. When they decided to replace Ron Moody, who played Louie in the pilot, I knew that Roddy was someone who understood the world and style that we were trying to create. Few people understood old movies better than Roddy. And Roddy really wanted it, which is usually a good sign. I always have a lot of ideas, some of which are good and some of which aren't, but Don would always listen, and, like a good editor, keep the good stuff. I also thought that Sarah White should have a middle name, something that would make her sound even more uppity. I suggested my real-life father's middle name, which is Stickney. Don liked it and Sarah White became Sarah Stickney White. Don is wonderfully collaborative that way.

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