Austin Stoker’s career has taken in more than his fair share of landmarks and cult status roles. To many, he is Lt. Ethan Bishop from John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. To others he is Virgil from the landmark television series Roots. Apes fans had the good fortune to have had Austin Stoker play two major roles in the simian pantheon, MacDonald in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Jeff Allen in the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Whichever a part of his career you were a fan of, you were undoubtedly saddened to hear the news that the actor had passed away on October 7, 2022 at the age of 92.
Austin was born October 7, 1930 in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. His professional career began in the 1950s, and included the 1954 Broadway production of Truman Capote’s House of Flowers. His greatest fame would come in the 1970s in such Blaxploitation films as Abby (1974), Combat Cops (1974) and Sheba Baby (1975). His most recent roles were in the films 3 from Hell (2019), Double Down (2020) and Give Till It Hurts (2022).
Some years ago, Austin took the time out from his hectic schedule to answer some questions for Simian Scrolls, where this interview originally appeared and from which it’s reprinted with permission.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is a cult classic. How do you feel about Lt. Ethan Bishop possibly being a career-defining role?
I would definitely say ‘Ethan Bishop’ was a career-defining role for me — so far. I say “so far,” because I always look forward to future roles that will also be distinguished by creative, defining moments.
What are your recollections of John Carpenter?
It was on absolute joy to work with John. What I remember mostly about him was how he always kept a cool head and focused on the work, despite certain hardships that may exist in making a feature motion picture on an “Independent” basis. He was always approachable if you needed something explained, or any other form of help. This is something all involved appreciate, because it is not always so easy to get. Although he was also the writer and understood the material better than anyone else, he was always open to discussing any ideas.
We filmed an interview together in January, 2002, which has been included in the new DVD version of Assault. I can still remember the events of practically each day we worked, that’s how much I enjoyed it and would welcome the opportunity to work with him again, anytime.
Another legendary movie director, J. Lee Thompson, sadly passed away last year. Can you share any of your memories of Mr. Thompson with us?
He was a wonderful director. I was still in acting school in New York when The Guns Of Navarone came out and of course, we can’t forget his Cape Fear with Bob Mitchum and Gregory Peck the following year.
Can you tell us what it was like working with him on Battle?
Unfortunately, I did not get to know him too well when we did Battle. That was a far different experience and relationship compared with Carpenter. Perhaps the age difference, and reputation, too, may have had something to do with it. Battle was on a far bigger scale, of course, in every way. We came onto the set each morning and the work was always “critical.” In the sense that it was not a common place genre. There was so much “detail” to deal with, I was certainly in awe. Thompson had his hands full and was mostly quite serious so that you could almost “see” his brain working all of the time. He called me Austin (Orss-tin) and I called him Sir.
You were described as “to star” in Battle. Seeing as your role stretches virtually from start to finish and was pivotal in carrying much of the plot, do you think it was a little unfair that you didn’t get “star” billing?
It definitely would’ve been wonderful to have had “star” billing, as any performer in a similar situation would agree, and needless to say I would’ve proven myself worthy of it. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with fairness but rather how much one can bargain, which was not in my favor at the time. It is strictly a matter of “sale ability,” regardless of talent. Also called “track record,” “marquee value,” or “TV-Q,” all of which spells “popularity.” That is what gives your agent, or whoever negotiates for you (nowadays it often includes a manager as well) the bargaining power.
How did you get the part in Battle?
Simply by auditioning for it: When I arrived for the audition I was introduced, by an assistant, to Mr. Thompson, Mr. Arthur Jacobs, the producer; and another gentleman, all of whom were completely unknown to me at the time. The reading took about three or four minutes, they thanked me and I thanked them, turned and started to leave. Before I got to the door, one of them called out and stopped me. It was Mr. Thompson. He asked if I could come back in forty-five minutes. (Of course, I could!) He made a point of telling me not to “hang around,” but to actually leave and later come back. There were about five or six other actors waiting in the outer office by then. When I returned, I noticed there was no longer anyone else waiting. (Was I suspicious? Sure. I figured something must be up!) Mr. Thompson said they were pleased with my reading, but they were also taking into consideration my resemblance, they claimed, to Hari Rhodes. (MacDonald in Conquest) both in features and voice quality. And that’s how I became “MacDonald.”
Were you already aware of the Apes phenomenon?
No, I had not been aware of the Apes series as a “phenomenon.” The fact is, I had not seen any of the previous films. But my agent called and told me they were getting ready to do another one and that I was submitted for a part. So I went over to the office to pick up a script in order to look at the scene I was expected to read for the audition the very next day, which was a Saturday at 11:00 AM, at Twentieth-Century Fox Studios.
Are there any difficulties for an actor in relating to other actors wearing appliances?
I really couldn’t speak for anyone else, but for me, personally, there was no difficulty at all. In “acting” terms, it was just one more “adjustment” that had to be made. Of course, I know it is Roddy dressed and made up as an ape — to suggest otherwise would be insane. Or the wonderful, beloved Claude Akins (God rest his beautiful soul) as the evil, volatile, obnoxious “Aldo” (whom I used to call “Pussycat” off camera). But, to use an old cliché, it’s my job… from the creative standpoint, to accept and believe the “circumstances” of the story as they relate to my character. Add to that the convincing performances of Claude, Paul, Roddy and all the others, and it becomes easy to feel that you’re dealing with gorillas, orangutans and chimps who have intelligence and can talk. It also has to do with having an ability which children can so easily command, of “suspending their disbelief” so that they can accept the idea of monsters and cartoons, etc., as “real.” If we don’t suspend our disbelief, then we won’t get the audience to suspend theirs.
Here’s another interesting point: Every single day we worked together, my call-time was always 7, 8 or 9 A.M. while theirs, because of the complicated appliance makeup, was always 4:00 A.M. And at the end of the day I always went home at least an hour before they did, because it took that long to remove the stuff. Even at meal times, they had to take their nourishment through a straw. I almost forgot what Roddy, Paul and all the others actually looked like.
Can you tell us anything about what it was like to work with Roddy McDowall?
There isn’t really much to tell. He was friendly, very quiet, but everyone stayed more or less in their own “space.” The work was so concentrated and often demanding, so it was important to conserve energy and stay focused all of the time. For that reason, there really was no occasion for socializing, except for when we all attended the “wrap party” (at a house Malibu) after filming was completed.
Mention of Paul Williams as Virgil brings us neatly to another character who shares the very same name. How do you look back on your role in Roots? Lynn Moody (Irene Harvey in Roots) has commented on the special anniversary DVD release of the program that she didn’t know how important Roots was, or was going to be, when you were actually making the program. Was it the same for you?
Looking back on Roots. I have to echo what Lynn said. I don’t think any of us — meaning the actors — realized it was going to become so important and so popular around the world, even as we grew to understand and appreciate its historical significance.
Do you feel that Roots changed not only attitudes in television, but also attitudes in society generally?
There has been no overwhelming evidence of that. Or. If there were, it didn’t last very long. I would admit, however, that as landmark programming, it certainly changed television by setting the trend, or being used as the model, for the “mini-series” type of shows that followed. What I do find interesting, though — almost phenomenal, in fact — which I don’t necessarily applaud, is that “Rap” has done more than Roots to “change” (note quotation marks) attitudes and the quality of television.
Are you recognized much by Apes fans?
Yes, I do get recognized. Not much, only when they happen to be around, and I still receive lots of fan mail.
Turning to your role as Jeff Allen in Return to the Planet of the Apes do you feel that the program was just kids’ stuff or do you think that the producers were trying their best to present something with a little more substance than the usual Saturday morning fare?
I would agree that Return, though not to exclude kids, was attempting to appeal to a more mature audience as well. I cannot say to what extent it may have succeeded, if in fact it did, but I would agree that that was the producers’ intention.
Eric Greene, in his thought-provoking book Planet of the Apes as American Myth — Race, Politics and Popular Culture, has seen in the series a possible commentary on the US involvement in Vietnam (for example the astronauts, as outsiders, intervene on behalf of the weaker humans against Apes and ultimately, with superior technology, triumph). It is also suggested that the character of Urko at times, was used as a parody of President Nixon, even to the point of having facial characteristics such as eyebrows drawn in a similar way. Were you at all aware of any of this political commentary?
Eric Greene and I met and became friends after his book on the subject come out. We have discussed the subject as it is addressed in the book and I can clearly see, as a kind of allegorical approach, how parallels to real-life aspects can be drawn. However, while working (strictly as an actor) on both projects, it was natural to sense, in every scene — and I am sure all of us could — “similarities” that would call for analysis, or commentary, if you will, on real-life politics. But it was always subliminal…
Let me try to explain this, if I may, so bear with me: the only way, in the “acting” process, that we could use such subliminal commentary — which is not quite the same as “subtext” — is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then immediately ignore it. We couldn’t dwell on it, because it would get in the way, since our obligation is to “to be” and not “to analyze.”
Did you have a “feel” for the character of “Jeff” and, for an actor, did he feel as “rounded” as a normal role?
I suppose I did have some sort of “feel” for ’Jeff’, but no, I don’t think it was quite as rounded as a normal role since it was a vocal characterization without a physical or any substantively visual side. But sometimes you just have to strive as much as you can for that “truth,” and do the best you con.
Was the look of “Jeff” in any way based upon your own appearance?
I don’t know for sure, but I would tend to guess that it was not.
When recording your lines for Return, were you acting alongside the other actors or were lines recorded individually?
There were instances in which I worked alongside other actors and once or twice I was alone. But as “voice (over) acting” it’s a different set of dynamics, up to a point, compared to acting together physically.
What are your memories of co-stars, Claudette Nevins (Judy) and Tom Williams (Bill)?
We worked on separate mics, often separated behind a screen or sound baffle and didn’t even get to see one another. Plus, it was, as voice jobs usually are, fairly short-term so that we hardly got to know each other. For that reason, I’m sorry to say, I cannot recall any memories of the other actors. It Is much more impersonal than film.
Did you speak lines when looking at images or were the Images created around the lines?
We had no images to look at while recording — which would otherwise be known as looping or ADR (Additional Dialogue Replacement) — which means the images were created to fit the lines.
Do you have any memories of working with Doug Wildey, supervising Director for Return?
Doug Wildey was one of those recording industry directors who could hear a pin dropping to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I don’t know if he’s still around, but I haven’t seen him in many, many years. We had met on more than one occasion and spoke at length before the work actually started, but once it did he seldom, if ever, came within reach as he had to communicate with us from inside a control booth. I never forgot what he said to me the very first day I went in to record. I was by myself that day and I asked him to let me know if he ever hears my West Indian accent (Caribbean) coming in too strongly, so that I can adjust it. He knew that I was born and raised in Trinidad. He told me that he wouldn’t say I had an accent. He said, “What you have is a cadence — and that’s fine.”
Was there ever talk on set of a 6th movie?
It’s not that I was deliberately eavesdropping, but I once overheard, while within earshot of a conversation Arthur Jocobs was having on the set one day. Reference was made to the possibility of a sixth movie, but due to his untimely death, unfortunately, it never materialized.
Can you recall any off-camera practical jokes going on? It seems to be that the Battle set was a pretty happy place to be – what were your recollections?
As I said before, the work on Battle was serious and concentrated, but that is not to say it was an unhappy set by any means. Everyone was very congenial, but I recall no practical jokes ever being played, except one: It was close to the end of Principal Photography, with about two days of filming left, and this particular evening we were about to shoot the final set-up of the day. It was the Council Meeting scene, that very crowded scene which takes place on a barren-looking hillside with all the apes, gorillas, orangs and a handful of humans, including me.
Everything was set, camera ready to roll, for “Aldo” to come rushing in growling, “No humans. No humans in council … ” etc., or words to that effect. Up high on a rocky ledge in the background, facing the crowd, three orangs were seated by themselves, with “Virgil” in the middle, on a large rock that served as a bench. That was the scene, ready to shoot. The A.D, called for “Quiet,” then “Roll Camera,” then Thompson, in his very cultured, inimitable fashion, called action: “Ehhk-Shuni …” Our three orangs up on the ledge sprang to their feet and instantly broke into a Supremes number, with ’Virgil’ as Diana Ross. No one expected it, everyone fell about. I didn’t think Mr. Thompson had it in him to laugh that hard. It must have taken over five minutes to recover and finally get the scene in the can.
In the final two movies (Conquest and Battle), it has been suggested that Ape power was an allegory for “black power.” Certainly the script for Conquest led to a lot of problems with the censor. Was this idea ever stated whilst you were working or are people reading too much into the movie?
As I indicated earlier, we do address the “sub textual” meaning of what our character has to soy, but that does not include paying attention to allegories and underlying themes. Ideas of that sort, meaningful as they may be, seldom, if ever, come up in filming. It’s a moment- to-moment process … in which we have to “live” in the “present.” In other words, the actor certainly may be aware, intellectually, of “underlying themes,” but the approach has to be that the character being portrayed certainly will not be.
Having said that, however, I also take the position that, no, absolutely no, I do not think people are reading too much into the movie. If you can’t find significant, contextual meaning to read into a movie, then what’s the story? What is there to hold it up? Being able to read so much into a movie means two important things. One, there’s some depth and substance there. Two, it’s making people think. My only “criticism,” and I’m not sure if that’s the proper word, is that the actor, as I’ve said before, cannot, in the process, be concerned with that.
Finally, do you have any thoughts on why Apes has proven to be so enduring? Is there a central message or theme that you think sums it up?
The reason why the phenomenon of the Apes stories has lasted so long, to me, is very clear: No other animal but the ape — theory of Evolution aside — so closely resembles Man. Which means, the stories sprang from that basic premise of “Man-compared to-Ape-compared-to-Man.” Now, insert in that comparison the notion of a conflict. A conflict to the death, which never existed in the “basic premise.” In real-life. That conflict becomes the contrivance, if you will, which drives the stories. But since it is Man who is concerned about origins and that resemblance, while ape couldn’t care less about — why we look and behave like him — and could be counted on to maintain that attitude for yet another billion years, if this thing they’re living on with us lasts that long, the stories set out to explore the “vice versa” possibility … by changing the words “compared to” to the one word, “versus,” and therein lies a tale! Add to that, the fact that practically every human alive has pondered the burning question, “Where did we come from, how did it all begin?”
Then, finally, there comes to the screen this group of stories that just burst right out of that basic premise and go right to the heart of that persistent question. They do not supply the answer, but they take us on a most engrossing fantasy journey of phenomenal worldwide appeal — whether one holds to Darwin’s theory or the Biblical accounting — chronicling a “history,” not of one man, or one family or one group to the easy exclusion of the rest of us, but of all humanity facing aggression, and we end up liking the aggressor(s).
That, I believe, is the reason … And is there a central message that sums it up? Definitely: They’re warning us to curb our greed, celebrate each other’s differences or “this thing they’re living on with us’ will not survive the lunacy at the rate we’re going … even as we speak.