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Interview de Mel Novak

Si nous aimons rire d'un certain cinéma déviant, nous sommes très loin de mépriser les hommes et les femmes qui s'y sont impliqués ou compromis. Il nous a ainsi paru enrichissant de faire raconter le nanar et son univers par les gens qui l'ont vécu de l'intérieur. La diversité des intervenants et de leurs réponses nous a rendu encore plus proches du cinéma que nous aimons : vous découvrirez, au fil des entretiens que ces différentes vedettes ont bien voulu nous accorder, des informations précieuses pour le cinéphile et le cinéphage, des anecdotes cocasses et, en esquisse, le portrait attachant de personnages souvent hauts en couleur.
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Mel Novak

Mel Novak became for us a familiar presence thanks to his work for the Cine Excel production company. A serious and professional actor, Mr Novak was nonetheless a recurrent guest-star in the lowest-budgeted american b-movies. As we tried to know more about him, we discovered a most remarkable man, actor but above all man of God, whose commitment to the B-movie cause is only a side to his dedicated activity towards the poor and the suffering.

Interview menée par Nikita

Dear Mr Mel Novak, thank you for agreeing to this interview. As we know very little about you, could you please give us some basic informations about yourself? Where were you born ? Was acting your first career choice ?

Well , here goes... My real name is Mi'lan Mrdjenovich & I was born in a little town ( 12 miles west of Pittsburgh ), Wall, Pennsylvania , went to Wilmerding High School & lived in Turtle Creek before I moved to California. I had 60 scholarships in American football from major universities, 16 in basketball, but signed a professional baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which was always my desire & first career choice. My baseball career ended with a severe rotator cuff injury to my right shoulder, & the surgery crippled me. I was a gimp for several years. My career was gone & I was a cripple at 19. It was at this time I also had throat surgery ( I had 10 throat surgeries from 19 to 29 ), so I was at the crossroads of my life, sinking in dispair. I was told by a Christian friend who was a counselor that at my age when all the dreams collapsed & being a gimp on top of it that 93 % would turn to drugs or alcohol to medicate the pain. I turned to God & thankfully, I never drank nor took drugs.
It took 7 years to overcome the crippling effect on my shoulder as I spent long & difficult days, months, & years in a gym & weight room. I then went to an N.A.I.A. small college ( Geneva College ) with a partial scholarship. I was barred from the major universities ( N.C.A.A. ) because I had signed a professional contract. I made the first team as a flanker & kicker, & was 3rd in the country as a pass catcher & kicker . CarnegieTech turned me in for being a professional & I had to leave college. This was when I moved to Ca., but it wasn't to act.

"I was a gimp for several years."

How did your acting career begin ?

I had done some plays in school & a couple in small theatre, but it was to meet girls. In L.A. I got a job with an insurance company as a bodily injury claims adjuster. I just wanted to pay off all the medical bills & the loan for the money the scholarship did not pay. It was there that I met a gal that set up a meeting with her cousin that was a modeling agent. I worked as a model for several years, ramp shows & photography, while still working as an adjuster.The agent had me go to an acting school & I studied with some excellent acting coaches. I became very good at cold reading & camera technique.
My first big role on T.V was Mannix, as a hit man. I worked on Baretta, Mod Squad, Ironside, FBI, etc.& got my first big movie role in Black Belt Jones as" Blue Eyes", a hit man. It was the first time I met Robert Clouse who was such a nice man & talented director-writer.They had all the stuntmen & karate guys ,but he used my big fight with Jim Kelly in slow motion. He said it was real & natural.They increased my role because my partner "Tuna" couldn't handle the dialogue . When the producer & Mr. Clouse called me in after 2 days of shooting, I thought I was going to be fired. They said, "no, no, we want to give you most of his dialogue, plus what you have...can you do it." I said, " Oh yes !!!"

The shooting of "The Game of Death" was interrupted by the tragic death of Bruce Lee and the movie was completed later on without him. How did you get to work on this production ? How was the atmosphere on set ?

Mel vs the fake Bruce Lee.

After the Black Belt Jones wrapped, Robert Clouse came over to me & said he had a role for me in "Game Of Death", to be shot in Hong Kong. (This was after Bruce died.) He said they were going to finish it. It was great to work with Hugh O'Brien, Gig Young & Dean Jagger. Robert Clouse was a man of his word. I've had dozens of promises that were never kept, but that is Hollywood. He liked the fact that I was so natural & could do my fights & stunts. I was an athlete & hung out with the stuntmen, learning from them, always asking questions & practiced. In karate, experts like Pat Johnson, Bob Wall, Sonny Barnes, Lou Cassassama, & Tadashi Yamashita taught me.
Clouse hired me in the "Ultimate Warrior", & I did the 2nd toughest stunt in the pix according to the stunt co-ordinator, & I was made an honorary stuntman. The fight to the death with Yul Brynner, with a lit torch & knife, ending with the stunt I'd never do again. Yul was great to work with & he was brilliant in one of his last roles. He was certainly a big star, as was Max von Sydow. Mr. Clouse also had me play another assassin in " Force-Five".

"Robert Clouse liked the fact that I was so natural & could do my fights & stunts."

You played in movies along some of the most famous actors in the world like Steve Mc Queen, Jim Kelly, Christopher Lee and Chuck Norris. What memories do you keep of these people ? Any memories/comments about "Tom Horn", "Black Belt Jones", "Eye for an eye", "Cat in the cage" with Sybil Danning and Garry Marshall's"Exit to Eden", for example?

Mel with Steve McQueen.

The biggest star I worked with was Steve McQueen. When he was on screen it was magic. He did not like the " Hollywood I, me & my actors", he liked down to earth people. Years before I was in Horn, I went trap shooting with an attorney buddy & Steve was there along with Steven Spielberg, Ken Hyman, & John Milius. He never shot trap & with my shotgun, he nailed them all. Coppola sent Milius to talk Steve into playing in Apocalypse Now the role Duvall eventually did. Two weeks in the Philippine for 1 million & he turned it down.Years later he remembered me. I ministered & prayed with him on the phone many times while he had that horrible cancer.I liked him!

Mel bites the bullet in "Capital Punishment".

Garry Marshall is one of the nicest human beings you would hope to meet. His talents are in every field of entertainment. It was a terrific time for me to work with Dan Aykroyd, Rosie ODonnell, & Stuart Wilson. Garry had Dan & I do an improv in a scene & we got an ovation. As you know not everything gets up on the screen. In fact when Garry filmed "Dear God", he wanted me to play a street minister ( he knew I have a Skid Row & prison ministry) where I had a lot of dialog. It almost all ended uo on the cutting room floor. Think of this . Garry is a mega star in movies & TV, producer ( films & his playhouse), yet he took time out & sent me a letter saying I was excellent but he shot 35 minutes more than he needed. He said he was sorry , that it could not be helped. What a guy!
In " Eye For An Eye", I packaged this film & was able to get it funded . It was nice working with Steve Carver & Frank Capra Jr. ,but I was betrayed. I will not go into this. I am not a Chuck Norris fan! Christopher Lee is such a professional. In " Cat In A Cage " , I really enjoyed working with Sybil Danning. We had starring roles. Unfortunately, it was my last screen kiss. As you know, villains do not get love scenes. On the other hand, I have died 19 times, 13 different ways.

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