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Max Thayer has been a favorite player of ours, ever since we discovered him in an insane and obscure Filipino actioner called "Deadringer". Hero of the most bizarre quickies in underground cinema, Max also had a long career as a supporting actor on stage and in more mainstream movies. Needless to say, we were overjoyed when we were able to track him down and even more when our idol agreed to an interview. Always the perfectionist, Max took the time to answer our questions with humour and gusto, offering us a pretty unique insight on the life of a B-movie actor and on an often-neglected side of cinema. Thanks, Max, and keep up the good work!
This interview was conducted in October 2004 by Nanarland.
Watch also "Max Thayer by Max Thayer" on Nanarland TV.
MAX: THE EARLY YEARS
My real name is Michael Thayer. Max is
a character from a Harold Robbins novel (The Carpetbaggers), or maybe the summer of 72 in Amsterdam or a professional name I took when I joined the Screen Actors Guild.
I was born June 18, 1946 in Detroit, Michigan, USA. I was drafted into the Army in 66, served 3 years and came to Los Angeles, California USA in 69 to try and break into movies. I was twenty-two. After that, New York, Europe, Asia and South America have all been homes for awhile but I seem to keep ending up here in Hollywood where I have been based for the last 25 years.
This was how I was introduced to acting:
I was fresh out of the army when I arrived in Los Angeles, California in 1969. It had never before crossed my mind to become an actor but I thought it would be a cool job so I went to MGM to ask for an application to apply for work as a movie actor. They laughed me out of the office.
Untrained and completely ignorant, my entrée into an otherwise closed world of acting was joining an experimental theatre group and performing street theatre in Venice, California. We would listen to Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica and do improvisations. Absolutely wild ! It was my first step as a performer and the beginning of a life-long adventure.
I began to read plays for the first time and became familiar with Brecht, Joyce, Miller and ONeill. I read books about acting by Uta Hagen and Michael Chekhov. I learned to play Growtoskis Theatre Games. It was the seed planted that would eventually grow into performances on stage in New York and Los Angeles.
Theatre is the basic core of acting and, I believe, it is from theatre that an actor gets their soul. A live audience is the scariest thing this actor can do. I have been more nervous waiting in the wings before a stage entrance than jumping into any movie stunt Ive ever done. But the exhilaration of performing before a group of people who have come to be informed and entertained is incomparable. The more the risk, the bigger the thrill.
Trying to compare film and theatre is like comparing apples and pears. A deeper discussion is required that I am not prepared to pursue. Let me just say that I enjoy them both immensely and will continue to gorge on them as long as fortune allows.
Paris, France. 1972. I have some stories about an experimental piece called Liquid Theatre that was performed at the Espace Cardin. I was a cast member of the New York ensemble that performed it at the Guggenheim Museum before it moved to your fair country. I took the opportunity to join the legion of American backpackers who flocked to Europe in the spring and naturally wound up in Paris, meeting the French ensemble.
As for my early influences regarding film and actors :
Sample Answer Movies : The Pawnbroker, The L-Shaped Room, Jules and Jim
Sample Answer Actors : Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Alain Delon
Sample Answer Actresses : Julie Christie. Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot
It may seem that I remember too much. Hmm getting old, but I really dont care. This is an opportunity to be brutally honest with you and myself.
My first film was, Ilsa : Harem Keeper to the Oil Sheiks. 1975.
There, I said it. Yes that was me, credited under my real name, but not my voice. It was dubbed for reasons I won't go into now [Nanarland: Max would later confess us he was drunk after drinking vodka with Dyanne Thorne, and exhausted after shooting for 22 hours straight] but I learned a great lesson on that film about how to survive acting in movies. Talk about getting thrown to the sharks. The less said the better. A truly atrocious piece of merde.
The biggest star in the film was the tarantula from Dr. No. The most outstanding aspect of Ilsa are the production values. Considering the fact that the Director of Photography was Dean Cundey and the Production Designer was J. Michael Riva (look THEM up and be amazed at their collective bodies of work), it should come as no surprise.
As I mentioned before, Ilsa was my first experience as a film actor. I suppose one of the few consolations of participating in this dance of fools is that Ill never, ever, come remotely close to having to waltz through anything like that again.
Max in Planet of the Dinosaurs (1978).
I followed with Planet of the Dinosaurs, then, Hot Ice directed by the notorious Ted Apostolof and also Ed Wood's last attempt at acting. In 1977, I starred in - along with Frank Sinatra Jr. - Do It in the Dirt, a dirt-biking film that my riding, as much as my acting, skills, landed me the role. I dont know what happened with this film. I dont think it was ever released and I have yet to see one frame of it.
Max (2nd from the right in Kawasaki shirt) on the set of Do It in the Dirt. Indeed, this film was completed and copyrighted 1979 but apparently not distributed.
On an off-day from, Do It in the Dirt, I met with Elliot Hong, who was to direct, The Retrievers. Right now Im too lazy to dig for the records but I think it was 78 when we started the film and I remember meeting and training with Bong Soo Han. He had been the martial-arts coordinator on Billy Jack and numerous other pictures and he was a stern task master. Although since 66, I have been aware of, and practiced some aspects of different schools, I am not a martial-artist. Lets' get that straight right now.
I am blessed with a love of sports and a lot of playing as a child in Detroit. Ice Hockey, Baseball, Football, Basketball, Boxing and Swimming. In the course of doing action-films it has all served me well.
Im also not a stuntman. During a big fight scene on the roof of a building, getting thrown around by the bad guys, I was too ignorant to wear pads. It was only afterwards, bemoaning my aching body to a stuntman pal that he asked me incredulously, You didnt put any pads on? I bought my own pads the next day.
Im an actor, thats what I am.
By the way, The Retrievers and all the movies previously mentioned were shot at various locations around Los Angeles, California USA. Not the Philippines. I wouldnt arrive there until 1983.
MAX DOES THE PHILIPPINES:
In 1980 I suffered an injury that would set me back until a wonderful tip from a friend got me back on my feet, three years later. Buck Flower, a great character actor who I had met on Ilsa
, phoned one day to tell me that some people were looking for an actor to go to the Philippines to star in a movie. This is how I met Hubert Frank, a very nice man and a talented director. I auditioned against many others but a week later Buck phoned me and said, Hey kid, you want to go to the Philippines ?
Again, this is that adventure part about being an actor.
Story of the Dolls was the story of a photographer for a Playboy type magazine on location shoot with centerfolds from France, Germany, Austria and Senegal who discovers a stunning Filipina beauty in the outer islands. The girls were actual European Penthouse centerfolds and Tetchie, Tetchie Agbayani was a real life Filipino Playboy centerfold. There was a delightful scandal going on at the time with Imelda Marcos suing Tetchie for besmirching Filipina womanhood and Tetchie suing back for slander and hypocrisy. That was Tetchie. As fiery and headstrong as she was beautiful. She would later try her luck in Hollywood only to land small, but featured roles in films like John Boorman's Emerald Forrest.
Tetchie Agbayani, on the set of "The Story of the Dolls".
Any place in Manila with her was like being with Mick Jagger. Shooting a street scene would attract thousands in a matter of minutes and create mini-riots. Three or four takes and we were gone. The fact that the entire movie was shot without sound didn't bother me. Disappoint, yes, disturb, no. I concentrated on my performance and everybody was professional in their endeavors. An actors voice is who he is and when you take that away, you take half the performance. In the end its a sappy though lovely to look at movie. I had so many adventures that I won't go into now but when I was asked to return for Deadringer / Laser Force in 84, I didn't hesitate. I was recommended by a friend I had made shooting Story , who knew the producer. Sometimes it works that way.
Besides, how do you turn down playing twins, one good, one evil ? An actor's dream and the first time I would work with Teddy Page (a Filipino director) and producer Mr. Lim.
You asked about the risks involved and I will tell you that I felt confident in the stunts that I did. They were choreographed and set up with meticulous care. The one thing that went wrong was a special-effects scene that involved what was supposed to be a smoke-bomb that turned out to be a phosphorous grenade (stupid special-effects guy).
I was Lucky Luke on that one. Some of the burning material from the grenade blasted past my face and only left a few tiny skid marks that remain to this day. My pants were literally on fire as I ran outside after the blast. Sadly, some people were burned very seriously and we were forced to shut down for a day or two.
The biggest regret I have though is not meeting Richard Harris. I missed him by one day. We were shooting in the countryside and staying at the same place the cast from Richards movie was staying. I was given his vacant room but thats as close as I got. Oh how I would have loved to have just spent some time chatting with one of my screen idols.
As for Deadringer, would you believe Ive never seen it ? If you know where I might get a DVD or video please let me know.
Again, I was asked back in 85 to work for Filipino director Jun Cabreira (Aka Danilo Cabreira, Aka J.C. Miller), on No Dead Heroes, originally titled, Blood Machines. Subtle, no ? It was a very tough shoot but Jun had assembled an incredible crew and all went well.
The cast was put up in the very nice Manila Garden Hotel, that was also hosting the cast of another Filipino production being directed by the great Cirio H. Santiago. Martial-Arts star Richard Norton along with some other actors from Hollywood. We would mingle in the lobby between our time off and I became acquainted with a fellow American actor named Robert Patrick. A few years later his breakthrough role was in Terminator 2.
You asked about the conditions of shooting movies in the Philippines and I must tell you there are some tough things to overcome. I am going to include some photos I took on the various movies I worked on. You will see some astounding sets built by incredibly hard working and industrious crews. The Filipino film industry has a long and unappreciated history. Appalling poverty is countered with a cheerful resource matched by few in the world. I have never seen people do so much with so little.
NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, NO VAN DAMME!
Back in Hollywood, I read a notice in Variety, the trade paper, regarding the search for an actor to play a grizzled ex-pat. Sure, I can do that, I thought to myself.
I met with Roy Horan, an associate of the HK producers who were putting together the project and... Voilà ! I was awarded the role. Did you know No Retreat was originally titled, Raging Thunder ? The movie was supposed to star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
I had met Jean-Claude in Hollywood, where I live, when we had got together with the HK producer who had signed us before we went to Bangkok in 86. No Retreat No Surrender 2 was shot entirely in Thailand except for a day or two in Hong Kong. I stopped in Manila to hang out with pals like Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson and Teddy Page on the way to Bangkok. I love the Philippines and the spirited people that live there.
Nick Nicholson after a stunt on Dead Ringer, where he doubled for Max Thayer. For that stunt, Nick had to hang on to the roof of a swerving car, with a live M16 shot through the rear windshield. Max, Nanarland forgives you for not doing that stunt yourself!
When I got there they told me Jean-Claude had dropped out (he did Bloodsport for Golan / Globus) and would I mind waiting around while they got somebody to replace him ? Would I mind ? This is the part where the great adventure of being an actor comes into play. They are paying me to be there plus a salary and Im on my own in Bangkok. I had a marvelous week. What would you do ?
Cynthia Rothrock and I became fast friends and to this day keep in touch. Did you know that she has a beautiful four year old daughter ? She is also responsible for me appearing in two films with her, shot in Hollywood. Sworn To Justice and Martial Law II: Undercover.
I was given the script and, after months of delays, I was Bangkok bound on No Retreat.... Months with a script is an actors luxury and I must confess to rewriting my dialogue and making the character of Mac Jarvis my very own, I had so much fun and by your questions about the characters humor and comic relief, I will say that I truly crafted it. Playing comic roles is very satisfying to me. Making an audience cry is easy we all can do that. But to make them laugh ah, that is a gift.
Loren Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock and Matthias Hues, goofing around on the set of "No Retreat No Surrender 2" (photo taken by Max Thayer).
Now, as to that cobra blood scene. It was about two in the morning in the middle of the jungle after a long shooting day. At first I wasnt going to do it. Use some tomato juice or something to fake it. Then, through an interpreter, Yuen Kwai (Corey Yuen) explained what he wanted to do. Dolly-track from the snake to the table, no cuts. In the same spirit of performing a stunt I agreed to do it. If the audience can see that it is really you doing it then it adds to the story. Besides, they are going to sacrifice the snake anyway, might as well honor him by drinking his blood. Its considered an aphrodisiac but after they mix it with Chinese whiskey all I can say is it tasted like an emergency room. It was done in one take not four and thats also real beer Im chasing it with. Maybe I take a little pride in the fact that not many actors can say they have done it.
I was called back to the Philippines by Teddy Page for Phantom Soldiers in 88. This picture has been reviewed online but its another one I never saw. If you have any further information regarding this movie please let me know because I think I did some good work on it and I would like to get a copy. Teddy Page told me he suggested me for the lead in Phantom Soldiers but the head of Regal Studios wasnt sure. NRNS2 happened to be playing in Manila and they walked around the corner to see it and, voilà !, I was Philippines-bound again. I dont know why Teddy Page isnt credited for directing Phantom Soldiers. Irvin Magic Johnson is a famous basketball star and maybe Teddy was having some fun trying out a nom de plume. It was my last visit to those lovely islands.
Max on the set of "Phantom Soldiers" (1988).
DOWN AND OUT IN HOLLYWOOD:
1988. Los Angeles, California. I had no idea as I stepped off the plane from Phantom Soldiers in the Philippines, that, not only would I not be back to those lovely islands but I also wouldnt be working at home. I had walked right into the beginning of a writers strike that shut down all production in Hollywood for almost a year. All momentum I had built up died. My agent went out of business and everything slowed down to a halt in what is already a tough way to make a living.
I took long cross-country road trips, did some acting workshops and wrote some scripts. Radio shows helped pay the bills and finally, with the strike settled, I obtained a new agent and started over.
In the next decade, appearances in Visions, Dominion and, thanks to Cynthia Rothrock, Martial Law II: Undercover and Sworn to Justice would make up the bulk of my work.
MAX BACK IN THE SADDLE!
The new millennium saw a resurgence in my carrier. I missed the atmosphere of a movie-set too much and accepted small, uncredited roles in such features as Red Dragon, Pearl Harbor, The Man Who Wasn't There, Collateral Damage and Terminator 3.
On the set of Dominion (1995), with director Michael Kehoe (left), Max, and Brion James.
The work I discussed in Red Dragon and The Man Who Wasn't There is what is known as featured background. Look for me in Red Dragon as the guard admitting Edward Norton and Anthony Heald to the asylum and then, later on, reacting to Anthony Hopkins lunging in his harness at Norton. In TMWWT the Coen brothers selected me to be one of the five witnesses to Billy Bob Thornton's execution. I also landed credited roles in American Gun, the late, great James Coburn's last film, and S.W.A.T.
In 2001, I co-starred in a play in Los Angeles titled The ReBirth which, strangely enough, led me to my next great adventure : China.
Max in "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001).
A friend from the play phoned me in 2002 informing me of an audition for the role of a German industrialist but nothing was mentioned about going on location. I met with Janet Wu, who, it turned out, was the daughter of the renowned Chinese director Wu Tian Ming and a week later I was on a plane to Beijing. CEO is the story of a Chinese manufacturer who helps bring China into the modern world of industrial competition. Needless to say, China is awesome. However, I must point out something first. My dear French friends, if you think your gastronomical experiences are strange, let me assure you that you have nothing on the Chinese.
Back home Janet Wu and I kept in contact and, through her, I met with director Derek Wan about the role of Professor Rudy Steinbeck in the CCTV production of The War of Genes (a.k.a Genic War).
It is the story of a SARS-like epidemic that sweeps through Los Angeles and I am the unscrupulous scientist responsible. A villain, what fun! It is historic in the sense of being the first production shot outside of China by China Central TV and the use of western actors. A 22 episode mini-series slated for airing in, alas, China only as far as I know. There you have it, a walk through my career as an actor. Its been fun.
I must say in closing that I have many fond memories of my time in France as a young man and hope to return someday. Paris... a magical city that requires poems and novels to describe Hitch-hiking to Spain and the kindness of strangers... Macon and my introduction to Beaujolais .
You have asked me to sum up my career in a few words. A battered Citroen that keeps rolling down the road? A magic carpet that has carried me around the world?
Acting has been my mistress and Ive fallen deeply in love with her. Creation is an intoxicating thing. An artist is a story teller. Music, painting, sculpture, dance, writing, acting : we want to show you something. Unfortunately, everything we reveal is not always worth your regard. We risk your scorn for your attention. That is the game. As artists we maintain a life slightly outside of society in order to better reflect it back. Perhaps were just Sacred Fools, keeping it real for the rest of us. As for me, Im still just scratching the surface.
This has been my true and honest recollection, October 25, 2004. So many good smiles and I remain, your humble player,
Max circa 2017.