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Eric Hahn was one of made-for-export Filipino B-movies' most familiar, and yet unknown faces : a stuntman turned actor, this thin-faced American was seen in many supporting roles, playing minor characters or just falling dead in the background. Whether he had to stand in Chuck Norris' shadow, stunt-double for Jan-Michael Vincent, be a gweilo for Godfrey Ho or get killed by Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn was everywhere. He has looked back for us on his highly unusual career in movies made at the other end of the world.
Interview conducted by John Nada in August 2005.
To start with, could you tell us about yourself and your background? Where and when were you born? What was the chain of events that made you come to live and work in the Philippines?
I was born in 1954 in Washington D.C. I didn't have a very nice childhood after the age of 9. My parents were drunk often and fought a lot. I ran away when I was 10. I kept being caught and sent home. After the third time the authorities decided to send me away. There was no room in the state juvenile facilities so I was placed in a state mental hospital. I was put on drugs and mistreated. I was there until I was finally released at 15. I became a hippie and travelled around the U.S. hitchhiking. When I was 17 I borrowed someone's draft card so I could pretend I was 18. I got caught hitchhiking in Texas and they found the draft card on me. I pleaded guilty of possessing someone else's draft card, I was also found guilty of intending to use it for false representation, and not registering myself. I was sentenced to 6 years in federal prison. The next 4 years of my life were a nightmare and I spent most of my time in solitary confinement. Finally in 1974 I was paroled. And eventually decided to live overseas. I was bitter over my experiences and didn't trust my government.
I lived in many countries working my way through. I worked a lot on shrimp boats and freight ships. It was easy then. Just go to the docks and ask for work in exchange for transport. I even spent a year in your country. I was mainly in the south. Grenoble, and St Etienne were my favourite parts of France. I went back to the U.S in 1982 and tried to settle down and work. But soon my negative feelings for the U.S. came back. So I worked enough to go to Hawaii. I stayed and worked for 1 year saving up and finally went to the Philippines in 1983. Within a month I got my first extra part. I don't remember which movie. There were sometimes 20-40 productions a year made in the Philippines, and I worked on close to 100. After a while I got my first line in "American Ninja", and little by little, the parts started getting bigger: I started getting supporting parts, and did some smaller roles on major productions.
The first part you're credited for on the IMDB is "American Ninja" (1985). What memories do you keep of this early experience? How was the atmosphere on the set with director Sam Firstenberg and lead actor Michael Dudikoff? Did the fact you were known by Filipino filmmakers help you to be hired in a Golan Globus prod, as Cannon sometimes subcontracted Filipino companies to shoot the films they distributed?
Actually often Ken Metcalfe did the casting for the Major productions, and he did in this film. Henri Strzalkowski was helping Ken on the set and he encouraged me to do the dialog. I was really scared as the cameras zoomed in on me and Michael Dudikoff. The first take I blew because I was terrified and couldn't speak. I finally got it right. I remember the work was easy and the food was good. I also remember that Dudikoff didn't know a thing about martial arts and Richard Norton (Michael's double) did a lot of the fight scenes. When they had to shoot close-ups of Michael fighting, they had to lead him along kick by kick. Sam Fistenberg was frustrated as the film went over schedule and budget because of Dudikoff's lack of fighting skills. It's not rare to see this in films. David Carradine told me that he didn't know any kung fu when he was shooting the TV series "Kung Fu". That's why they filmed so much of his fighting in slow motion. He did learn kung fu after the series was over and still practices today.
Apparently, you have worked as a stuntman on an undetermined number of films, including "Women of Valor", "Hamburger Hill" and "Delta Force 2". Was the making of stunts in those films as rudimentary as it was on some Cinex Films or Kinavesa productions? Indeed, we guess stuntman may be a dangerous job in low budgeted Filipino movies! Do you have some anecdotes about particularly dangerous stunts you performed?
Actually all of us learned on the job the basic stunts like bullet hits, fighting, getting blown up, falling off of roofs, etc. The local Philippine stuntman associations or the foreign production stuntmen did the most dangerous stunts like burning, stunt driving, etc. During one small production, a local actor/stuntman, Jerry Bailey, invited me to join his stuntman group and I started going to classes at their gym. That helped me get into "Hamburger Hill" as a stuntman.
My last couple of years I did a few more dangerous stunts. I did a few car rollovers and other stunt driving. In "Demonstone" I fell through a sky window and landed 20 feet below onto a 40 feet high mountain of raw sugar and then free rolled down to the cement below. I also did a lot of trampoline explosions. That's where you run up and jump onto a mini concealed trampoline and fly through the air at the same time that a bomb goes off under you. On the local Kinavesa type productions we didn't have air bags. We fell onto piles of cigarette cases that were roped together, the air inside breaking our fall. We didn't often have cables for shotgun blasts. We had to propel ourselves backwards by ourselves. We seldom had those fancy remote controlled bullet squibs. They ran a wire up our shirt and connected a firecracker type explosive and a bag of red dyed pancake syrup. The other end was connected to a piece of wood with nails which was connected to a battery. When the effects guy touched the nail, the squibs popped and we danced. The bombs that were always going off around us were also set off the same way. We did often have candy glass and break away tables for bar fights (my favourite). Most of us got shot and blown up almost every day. It was common to play a role and die 100 times in the background.
"No Dead Heroes" (1987).
Viewing your filmography, we noticed you often worked with Jose Mari Avellana, who directed several post-Nam war action movies. Is he a person you liked to work with? As Jose Mari was a long time Cirio H. Santiago collaborator (he wrote scripts, cast the actors and acted in many Cirio's pictures since the 70's), did he help you in your professional career?
We called him Joe. And he was truly a very nice man, on or off the set. He was a good actor also. He was one of the few people that I've met in my life that was totally free of malice. I never heard him say a bad thing about others. He helped me a lot without asking anything in return. In "Fist of Glory", he expanded my role because he liked me. Yes, he helped my career, a lot. He was also an excellent set designer, and did this for most of Cirio Santiago's films.
You also did several films with producer / director Cirio H. Santiago. What memories do you keep of this great figure of Filipino movie industry, and of the atmosphere on the sets?
Cirio was very good to work with. I would do it again if he asked. If you were part of his team you were like family. He took care of people on and off the set. If someone died, he would pay for the funeral and give money to the widow. There were a lot of old people on the set that had worked for Cirio or his father for many years. Cirio never laid anyone off unless they were dishonest. I was very thankful that he gave me a chance to act, and to help with casting on several of his projects. I don't care what some say about his films. With what Roger Corman gave him budget wise I think he did a great job. And he was good to all of us who had the privilege of working with him. How many directors do you know who could make an action film for one or two hundred thousand dollars? If he called me and invited me to do a film there I would do it for free, except for expenses. I wouldn't do that for anyone else except for Joe Mari. I wouldn't be able to run through the jungle with an M60 or get blown up much anymore. But I would enjoy the experience again.
Cirio H. Santiago's "Equalizer 2000" (1986).
You often acted as a soldier ("Behind Enemy Lines", "Code Name Wild Geese"...) and a POW ("Women of Valor", "Return From the River Kwai"...) ; were you specifically "labelled" for those roles or is it just that there were a lot of job opportunities as an extra in war movies?
To be honest, on those productions, there was a need for a lot of white faces in the background. That was one of the attractions of shooting in the Philippines: the abundance of extras whether they were white, Vietnamese-looking Filipinos, or Latin types. They were all there. But while most of the extras were goofing around, working for beer and whore money, I was one of the few who wanted to learn the ropes and get some of the roles that Nick, Romano, Mike and others were getting regularly. I was part of the second generation. Others were Jim Moss, Jeff Griffith, James Gaines, Steve Rogers, Warren Mclean... As I never had any real acting classes, I watched the actors and learned. I learned a lot from the coaching of Nick Nicholson, Henry Strzalkowski, Mike Monty, crazy Don Gordon Bell, and others.
We know very little about Anthony Maharaj, who directed "Return of the Kickfighter : Mission Terminate", with Richard Norton, Bruce Le and Nick Nicholson, and wrote and / or produced a few other films for Cirio H. Santiago. Was Tony Maharaj a Filipino director?
I only worked on "Not Another Mistake" a.k.a. "Crossfire" with Tony, as we called him. No he was not a Filipino director. He was either Indian or Pakistani. I enjoyed this movie a lot. He was very laid back and seldom lost his temper. All of us worked well with him.
Nick Nicholson, Henry Strzalkowski and others used to work in production teams in the Philippines. Have you ever been involved as a member of the production staff in local productions? Actually, it seems you worked as a Casting Director on many more movies than the IMDB indicates. Concretely, in what did that work consisted?
In "Ultimax Force", directed by Joe Mari, I did the casting and helped with as a production assistant. It was the same in "Fists of Glory". I also did the casting for "Bloodfist 1 & 2". Often what happens is that the main casting director from the U.S. gets the only credit and they don't put the local casting on the credits. I also worked a lot on post production, mainly in voice over dubbing. The sound quality on a lot of films was not so good and we often ended up dubbing the whole film. Several of us would be in the sound studio, and each of us would be several different characters, and change our voice for each one. Sometimes, even on large productions that had better equipment, a lot of dialog was drowned out by background noise. Many directors preferred to fix it in the studio rather than do another take. I don't recall ever getting any credits for dubbing. It was a lot of fun and paid well.
Among all the colourful Westerners who were regularly appearing in Filipino war / action flicks during the 80's, a few seemed to be glob-trotters, and many other to have a history in the military. Nick Nicholson was in the US Navy and fought in Vietnam, Romano Kristoff was a former member of Légion Etrangère, Jim Moss was with the Marines in Okinawa as Military Police, Don Gordon Bell was a former member of the US Marines 1st Recon in Vietnam, Mike Cohen was a Colonel in the army, and won the Congressional Medal of Honour during WWII... Do you think casting directors were specifically looking for that kind of men for their war / action flicks, or is it just that most of the Westerners wandering in the Philippines and acting as extras at the time had that kind of profile?
For the roles, they were looking for people that looked like soldiers. Often they would bring in soldiers from the bases to be extras. Another thing they did was to have a mini boot camp before the production started. So even the non-military extras looked more like the real thing. We did this in "Hamburger Hill". It was miserable. On "Full Metal Jacket", they were going to bring an actor from the U.S. to play a drill instructor. So they hired a real drill instructor from one of the bases to coach the actor. While they were waiting for the actor's arrival, the director asked the instructor to show him some of the routine that he would be teaching the actor. He did so well that the director gave him the part and left the actor in the States. The drill instructor was Ronald Lee Ermey, who went on to do many other movies. He was the co-star of "Demonstone" and told me this story.
Among all those Westerners, which ones did you use to see the most, or did you feel close to?
I was very close to Jim Moss, as we did a lot of films together. We were always on some squad or another. I visited Romano Kristoff''s home for dinner a few times. He was from Spain and all the ladies loved him. I saw a lot Mike Monty and Warren McLean (Aussie). One actor who I liked a lot was Robert Patrick. He didn't live in the PI. Cirio H. Santiago brought him over for a few films, like "Eye of the Eagle". He was one of the boys and would often go out on the town with us. David Carradine also invited me out a few times. And he sure had a taste for the local rice wine. I liked Nick Nicholson a lot and looked up to him. He was here for "Apocalypse Now". I especially liked Henry Strzalkowski. He was probably the best actor of all of us. Other guys I liked and worked with often were: Willy Williams, Robert Marius, Anthony East, Archie Adamos, and Kris Aguilar.
Susan Sarandon seemed to be a nice lady. Actually, I didn't know who she was at the time, as she wasn't really famous yet. She was a real hard worker who never complained about the heat or the mosquitoes. She played a nurse in the Philippines during WW2, when the Japanese took over the islands. But we were paying more attention to some of the other, younger nurses!!
Now Jan-Michael Vincent was another story. He was an alcoholic and obviously at the end of his career. He didn't like the Philippines and he had little interest in the movie. I was his stunt double and stand-in for the whole movie. Actually I did more of his part than he did. All his long shots all shot at his back. He only came in for the close ups and dialog. Amazing. He even had a clause in his contract that the production had to provide him with a case of non-alcohol San Miguel beer a day or he was free to drink the real stuff. I don't think he worked any more in the Philippines after that production. [Nanarland: Jan-Michael Vincent would yet do "Beyond the Call of Duty" (1992), directed by Cirio H. Santiago for Roger Corman]
Helicopter pilot in "Demonstone" (1989).
Richard Norton was a very good martial artist. That was his specialty. Because of his Aussie accent some of his parts were not credible. He was supposed to be an American in "Not Another Mistake". But Richard was a hard worker and really knew his fighting.
You got one of the main roles in "Mannigan's Force / American Wardog" alongside with George Nicholas (whose real name is Giorgio Albergo) and Mel Davidson. What are your memories of the film? Mel Davidson doesn't have a good reputation, as John Dulaney said he was always a source of trouble on the sets he appeared...
I don't remember a lot about "Mannigan's Force". But I remember a lot about Mel Davidson. John was right, not only was Mel a constant source of trouble from stealing, fighting and other things, he was also a paedophile and preyed on little boys anywhere he could find them. I once caught him in a shack in a compromising position with a 10 year old. I told some of the Filipino stuntmen on the set and they took care of him. Gave him a black eye and threw him off the set. It was really a shame because he was a good actor, and could have gone far.
One of the few movie posters with Eric Hahn's name on it.
Eric Hahn in « Mannigan's Force » a.k.a. « American Wardog ».
Some of the Western actors in the Philippines also acted in Hong Kong films. Did you ever contemplate on playing roles in HK movies (as a 'Gwei Loh' fighter in kung-fu exploitation genre, for example)?
I thought about it, but I wasn't very good with karate. I preferred bar fights. I did play a businessman who got tortured and ran over by a steamroller in a Jackie Chan film. I don't remember which one. [Nanarland: we found this movie, « Lethal Panther », directed by Godfrey Ho in 1990 and not at all with Jackie Chan. It is a "girls with guns" produced by Filmswell, shot partly in the Philippines, hence the presence of Eric Hahn in it]. I did learn a lot about martial arts in "Bloodfist 1 & 2" as I did most of the casting. I had to bring fighters from all over to audition for the director.
In « Lethal Panther », directed by Godfrey Ho, Eric plays the boss of a money smuggling gang put out of business by the CIA...!
You told us you knew some behind the scenes events that never came out in the news, notably about David Carradine, Oliver Stone and Aaron Norris... Could you tell us about that?
As far as David Carradine goes: we were shooting "Behind Enemy Lines". We had been doing chopper scenes all day. There were 3 or 4 choppers. He was doing dialog in his chopper. Every time we would land he would be in the first chopper. He would get off and walk forward with his head down looking at the ground. On the final take they mixed up the order of the choppers and he was in the 2nd or 3rd chopper. He was apparently unaware as he started walking forward again looking down at the ground. I heard a big commotion and someone shouted a warning at him that he was walking towards the rear rotor blades of the chopper in front of him. He didn't hear the warning and kept walking. Finally someone ran up to him and stopped him just a couple of feet from the blades!! It was a close call and shook us all up.
"Behind Enemy Lines" a.k.a. "P.O.W. the Escape" (1986).
Now Oliver Stone. I only worked on "Platoon" for about 8 days and was in the background, but I did have one close-up rolling a Vietnamese woman into a ditch they were bulldozing. So I don't know how Oliver was like for the rest of the film. But on this occasion Oliver got mad at a Filipino assistant director and either kicked him or insulted him. I heard both stories. So the crew stopped work and went on strike until he would apologize. He later did. I was by the wardrobe truck at the time and saw different crew members talking Tagalog angrily. One of our army security guys was waving his gun around wildly. He then loaded his M16. Several of the crew grabbed him and calmed him down. The crews in the Philippines are very close knit. Many are related. And the Filipinos are very emotional and impulsive when angry. This was Oliver's first real big production and he had a lot of pressure. I do know that after he won all those academy awards and came back to the Philippines with Tom Cruise for "Born on the 4th of July" he was just the opposite. He was friendly and polite.
Now for "Delta Force 2". First I want to say that Chuck Norris was the nicest and friendliest of all the major actors that I ever met. He would spend hours writing autographs and taking photos. He really liked people. And I saw that at times he was ashamed of some of his brother's (Aaron) antics. He would hang around a lot with the extras and bit players. He was always doing exercises. One time he told me that no matter how old you are, muscles have memories, and they will come back soon after starting workouts again. Aaron had a very short temper and screamed at crew constantly. I saw him throw his walkie-talkie at someone who angered him. I know that a couple of crew quit as a result of his rudeness. One day we were shooting chopper scenes. I was talking with the pilot who was also the pilot in the film. He was also the mechanic for our chopper. He told me that he felt that the chopper was sounding funny and needed some maintenance. I told him that he should tell the director. He did. They had an argument. But the director won and shooting continued without maintenance. Later when it was almost dark, Aaron wanted to shoot a couple more shots with dialog inside the chopper. This time I heard the pilot tell him that they should wait till the next day so he could check things. Aaron told him that he would find another pilot if he wouldn't just start flying. The pilot ceded.
As they were setting up the cameras and lights etc. the assistant director said that there were too many people and he started kicking people off. I was one of them. He said he would put us in the background on the next shot. The chopper went up. About 40 or 50 feet. Soon after we heard a pop sound come from the chopper and saw smoke. The chopper then sped off down the side of the mountain we were on. We knew something was wrong and ran up and looked down. We saw the choppers rear rotor hit the mountain and then spin out of control, and finally crash on the road below. Everybody started running down the road to the now burning chopper. Several of us started ripping it apart to get at the people inside. It was horrible. We were pulling bodies out, expecting the tanks to blow anytime. All in all, the assistant director, cameraman, the pilot, and a couple of the actors died. And the survivors were badly wounded and burned. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I heard later that the stunt coordinator got thrown out of SAG. But I knew who really was responsible. There was a similar crash a year earlier when Aaron was directing "Missing in Action 3". So you would think that he would be more careful. There were lots of other things that happened on the sets but these were the biggest that I remembered.
As Nick Nicholson would say, you've worked with some big names and some big losers as well. With the hindsight, what look do you take at this experience in the cinema in the Philippines? What are your best and your worst memories?
My best memories was when we went to another part of the country to film. And we would be there for one or two months, staying in hotels (3 or 4 to a room) sometimes on the beach. The camaraderie between the guys. Doing a stunt well or not screwing up lines. We were big boys playing war and getting paid for it. There were so many good memories I would take up pages writing about them. The friends I made, the actors and crew I worked with. Being part of a project. My worst memories were fewer. The worst was the helicopter crash on "Delta Force 2" and helping to pull the bodies out of the burning chopper. Also when the rope broke during a stunt on "Nam Angels". I fell only about 15 feet but I landed hard on some rocks, busting a couple of ribs and getting 8 stitches over my eye. I got food poisoning during a shoot on location and ended up in a dump of a clinic for 2 days. Sometimes it was bad when I had to start at sunrise after a hangover running up and down hills with full gear, in 100+ degree temperatures. Or pulling leaches out of my boots after wading through rice paddies all day. Or sitting in the jungle at night during the monsoon fighting off mosquitoes. But you know, as Nick says "it was all good". I would do it all over again.
You told Nick Nicholson that "leaving the Philippines was the biggest mistake of [your] life"... What made you leave the Philippines for Mexico? As you acted in several syndicated films, did you join the SAG to have more opportunities in the Hollywood industry?
Well, I really loved the Philippines and have always felt that I made a big mistake leaving. I thought I was going to retire and die there. But after the movies started drying up I left. I didn't have much work experience at anything else and the wages there were pitiful. Now, in hindsight seeing that Nick, and Mike Monty did O.K. I wished I would have stuck it out. I first went back to the U.S. and got a job in telemarketing. I hated it. I had been an ex-pat since 1974 and couldn't stand living in the fast paced dog eat dog society that was called the United States. I've been in over 40 countries since 1974 and always felt that America was living off the rest of the world. I hardly ever liked its foreign policy. And still consider myself a world citizen. SAG contacted me a few years back and offered me membership. But I declined. It's good if you live in California, but most productions shun you because they don't want to pay SAG wages and benefits.
Eric in "Nam Angels" (1989).
I hope to continue working in south Texas on some independent productions. I live in the border town of Renosa in Mexico. I have four kids aged 2-12 and a Mexican wife 15 years younger than me. I also have three other older kids aged 17, 23 and 24 from my other two marriages, and a 4 year old grandson. I work as a clown for birthday parties making animal balloons. I work just over the border in McAllen, Texas. It's not so bad there, as 90% of the people are Latinos.
Is there a reason why the Filipino industry stopped movie productions for Occidental market in the last 80's? Nick told us it was the government's fault and Mike Monty blamed the terrorists... We can also invoke the Mt Pinatubo eruption or the Peso devaluation, as we're living far from Philippines, we don't know exactly what happened. What is your opinion?
I think that Mike and Nick were both right. The government was making new rules that hindered these productions. Also the First Gulf War was starting and there were thousands of Arabs going to school in Manila. Some were radical and getting together with Abu-Sayef and the MNLF in the South. Also I think that the demand for this type of films was on the wane. The Peso devaluation was actually not a problem as most of these films were funded by dollars and other currencies, which were stronger as a result of the devaluations. Mt. Pinatubo only did what the Philippine government was in the process of doing. And that was to get the U.S. military out of the country. The volcano just sped things up. I left in 1991 as the Gulf War was starting and the movies were drying up. I do know that Cirio Santiago still made a bunch of films during the 90's and all of my friends were still there. If I had known that I wouldn't have ever left.
Nick Nicholson told us you were possibly working on some werewolf film in Texas at the moment. Could you tell us a bit more about it? Do you have other plans for the future?
I was being cast for an independent film called "Lycan Rising". I was trying for the part of a detective investigating some grisly murders. I got called back for a screen test and everything was looking good until the director [Melinda Marroquin] quit because of "artistic differences with the producers". So now the project is on hold. I have started to put out my resume on line and may soon get an agent. There are some films that come to south Texas. And I hope to be a part of them. Although I am getting older and my body doesn't respond the way it used to. So I will be auditioning for old guy, non action roles. Well... maybe a little action...