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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 conducted in March 2006 by 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.
I was a gimp for several years.
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.
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.
En 1974, Mel Novak is "Blue Eyes" in Robert Clouse's "Black Belt Jones".
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?
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.
From left to right: Dean Jagger, Mel Novak, Hugh O'Brian and Robert Wall in "Game of Death" (1978).
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.
Mel Novak vs. the fake Bruce Lee.
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 McQueen in Tom Horn...
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 with Steve McQueen.
You also worked several times with director Garry Marshall...
Garry Marshall is one of the nicest human beings you would hope to meet. His talents are in every field of entertainment. On Exit to Eden, 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 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!
You also worked with some actors very much appreciated on our website, like Jim Kelly, Christopher Lee, Chuck Norris or Sybil Danning. What memories do you keep of these people? Any memories/comments about Eye for an eye and Cat in the Cage for instance?
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.
Mel Novak and Sybil Danning in "Cat in the Cage" (1978).
In Cat in the 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.
Mel bites the bullet in "Capital Punishment".
Your website www.giveforgod.com/novak and our earlier correspondance show that you are a deeply religious man and an ordained minister. What kind of influence did it have on your acting career?
In my acting roles, I play villains, who get their just due in the end... like God's justice. However I will NOT play a role where I would rape a woman, molest a child, do nudity, kiss a man, or use God's name in vain. I don't do it in life & after 10 throat surgies, not dying, I will not do it. So, it narrows the chances to do roles, but my real calling is what I'm doing, a ministry where people are broken & wounded. In the Skid Row of LA, you have thousands of homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics, & mentally disturbed people, where 66% have AIDs, hepatitis, & T.B.. 7 out of 8 prostitutes have AIDs. There is a great deal of murder. On Easter, I will have been ministering there for 24 years. I preach sermons at the chapel services to encourage, edify, uplift & point them to the cross of Calvary (John 3:16; John1:1-3). It has nothing to do with "religion or denominations", but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is simple faith, walking from one kingdom (of darkness to a kingdom of light) to another. I have myriads of testimonies of people who were snatched from the jaws of hell & are healed, delivered & set free by Jesus Christ (Isaiah 61:1). People could check out my website at www.melnovak.com & see the marvelous testimonies. Unfortunately, the percentage is small, but I keep on, in His strength. I average 22 services a month. The fact that I've played mostly villain roles has drawn thousands to hear me in the penitentiaries that normally do not go to chapel services. I give out an Arsenal Prayer (over 51,000 so far) that prayerfully dresses you for the war against the devil (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). I also give out a flyer with my testimony & pix from movies that draws multitudes. I have to sign a paper that if I am taken hostage, no deals will be made. They call me "Machine Gun" in the prisons because I back up everything I say with God's Word.
They call me "Machine Gun" in the prisons because I back up everything I say with God's Word.
What is your exact status as an ordained minister? You apparently work "without paycheck" in skid row, prisons and mental hospitals, does that mean that you make a living with your acting work alone, or do you have other paid ministerial activities? Could you elaborate about your work in mental wards, and with the homeless?
Yes, I am an ordained minister, but do not have a church building. My church is the Skid Row & prisons. I've preached in 12 different states, Ireland, & Mexico prisons. See Matthew 25:34-40. No, there is no paycheck. I send out a monthly newsletter every month & there are some faithful people who make contributions & believe in what I do. My non profit corporation owes Mel Novak $50,763.09 since 1993 as of January 2006. When I am a guest speaker, I get an offering, & generally, on a 2 week prison ministry trip, I'll minister at churches to take care of expenses. I made a lot of money from 1987 thru 1991 & wisely invested it so it all works out well for me. The monthly checks help & God provides & promises to take care of my needs, NOT my greeds. (Philippians 4:19) He does!
Faith is an amazing thing. It is trust. (Nahum 1:7; Psalm 91:2) I have almost died 4 times, & the last 2 times I said "Lord, I'm just going to trust You." I have had amazing miracles that doctors could not explain. I trusted & did not doubt. I have lived with brutal pain for over a third of my life, EXCEPT when I preach a sermon. They want to do surgery in 4 parts of my body, but I've already had 21 surgeries. I'm praying for miracles. I can tell you one thing, pain keeps you humble. There are times when I see women & their children at a Skid Row mission, or see someone OD on drugs & die, the "tough guy from Hollywood" weeps. I get many letters from prison inmates that said if it were not for me & the hope I brought them thru Christ that they would be dead. At the Los Angeles County Jail (officially the worst jail in our country) I counsel inmates who desire to talk to a chaplain, & do an hour church service three times a month. In almost 24 years, over 57,000 have invited Jesus Christ into their hearts as Lord & Savior or rededicated. (1 John 1:9) It was God who drew them. (John 6:44) My home church is The Church On The Way, an interdenominational fellowship in association with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
I've preached in 12 different states, Ireland, & Mexico prisons
The mental wards are difficult. There is one in most all of he prisons I go to, & the devil is at work in these places. I've been attacked on Skid Row by demon possessed people, & only the power "in the name of Jesus" saved me from harm. (Philippines 2: 9-11; Matthew 18:19) Some of the people I took to Skid Row with me never went back. It is not for everyone. The mind is satan's playground, but the Christian life in not a playground, but battleground. (Ephesians 6:10-17) Yes, I get flak from some Christians, usually from someone who does not serve the Lord (Matthew 20:28).
You acted in some films which contained violence and/or supernatural themes, like vampires or demonic possessions. You also played some very evil characters. How do your beliefs influence your choosing of a role, if at all?
These roles opened up areas of ministry that never would have happened. God knows what He is doing. I've gone thru brokenness, pain, suffering, & heartache, spending a third of my life in the furnace of affliction (Isaiah 48:10), but God was training me for this ministry. Yes, I played hitmen, assassins, psychos, demon possessed, & a vampire, but I always got it in the end. I take my Bible on the set & will not compromise my position in Christ. Many times I got a role where God used me to help someone, & to be honest, I don't care what they say. I need God's approval, not man's. (Acts 5:29)
In Sword of Heaven, they looked at every heavy in Hollywood, & finally me. They liked my work in other films & offered me the role. I told the producer, Joseph Randazzo that I will take it if I can take all the God's name in vain out, along with the F's & MF's. He said "wait, you will kill 7 people but won't take this lead role unless I OK your request?" I said, "correct". He did & later on in the pix he asked me to pray for his mom which I did. I led the wardrobe gal to Christ who was almost having a breakdown & one Sunday, when I was a guest speaker at a church, 16 cast & crew came to hear me. It blew them away. They saw the real Mel, not a villain actor.
Mel Novak in "Sword of Heaven" (1985).
During the later part of your career, you worked almost exclusively with Cine Excel Entertainment and the company's producer David Huey (or David Hue). How did you start working with them?
In 2002, my manager wanted me to go to read for a Michael Douglas movie, & I was on my way to Skid Row. I said," how big is the role?" He said" 2 lines." I said "I won't do 2 lines for my grandmother & she's in her grave." He said,"we are not on the same page" & the Holy Spirit in me said leave & I said "I'll be down tomorrow for my pix etc. & wish to leave the agency." In the next 4 years I did 4 starring roles for David Huey of Cine Excel Entertainment. A few years before, David hired me for a co-star role in Capital Punishment. Gary Daniels was easy to work with, & is excellent in his fight skills. David Carradine is always a wonderful performer. I liked working with them, & David Huey said he had some ideas to work with me in several projects... all different characters.
Future War by Cine Excel (where you had a very short cameo as a policeman) had the somewhat dubious honor to be the most recent film featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000 TV show. How do you feel about this?
David Huey knew I was ticked about Future War. He hired a special effects guy to direct because he could do the fake dinosaurs [Nanarland: Anthony Doublin, who notably worked on Carnosaur 2 & 3]. He did not have a clue. I had a 5 day window to shoot which David agreed to because I was going on a 2 week ministry trip with a confirmed flight. The director screwed around wasting time & I called David who was in Florida, telling him that this director is making a disaster, that there is no way he can get all my scenes in. He said "I'll make it up to you." I said I don't want any credit, as this is embarrassing. Well, my name was not deleted, & I'm still embarrassed. It was the first & only time in my career that I started to go after someone & thankfully Bill Clifford stopped me saying ," Mel, he's not worth it". This pix deserved to be on that Science Theatre 3000.
Cine Excel usually credits you as a "guest star", in movies in which you only make cameos (Future War), but also when you play major roles (Vampire Assassin). Is there a specific reason for that? Some films like SWAT: Warhead One and Power Elite for example were apparently shot roughly at the same time for some reason. How do these shooting conditions affect your work?
David signed me to a multi pix deal that worked around my ministry schedule. The roles were very good & the billing was excellent. Not much $. Yes, they were low budget so I got 2 out of 3. Yes, we shot Power Elite & SWAT: Warhead One at the same time with Olivier Gruner & 6 other actors. It was a good move on David's part & he saved money. Olivier & I had many, many scenes together & we worked very well together. We talked about doing another film together but it never happened. I called him 2 times (never 3), but did not get a return. That's how it is in Hollywood. Rarely do people maintain a friendship. I have with David Huey & consider him a friend, a term I do not use loosely.
How much time does it take to shoot an average Cine Excel film? The company's movies seem relatively hard to buy, even on Amazon. Do you know how they are being distributed?
David's shooting schedule usually is 4 to 5 weeks. Sometimes it is difficult but even though I had tons of dialog, I handled it & was always on time & prepared. I think David Huey is very talented, & could direct a big budget film. He does amazing things with low budgets films. I came close to getting $ 5 million for a pix & was going to have him direct me. He gets his distribution at film festivals and markets. As I write, David is in Las Vegas at some film festival.
I think David Huey is very talented, & could direct a big budget film. He does amazing things with low budgets films.
Chinese-Filipino producer K.Y. Lim was an associate of Cine Excel at some point: have you met this person and does he still work with them?
No, I do not know K.Y. Lim, even though he was credited as an executive producer on Capital Punishment.
Cine Excel also relies quite a lot on special effects, despite the obvious lack of funds.
Yes, there are a great deal of special effects on David's films. There is one we finished last October (my last pix in the 4 pix deal) called giANTS & has some really good special effects, especially the ants. David directed it and is in the process of getting a distribution deal. He is going to Cannes film festival with it. I had to do a lot of acting with the green background that was supposed to be a giant ant. I had no trouble. Focus & do it.Mel in "giAnts".
One specific question about SWAT: Warhead One. Your character seems oddly well-informed about quite everything and keeps explaining the plot to Olivier Gruner. One has the impression that some of your dialogue was written in order to cover several plot holes. Did you also have this feeling?
Yes, there was some rewriting on SWAT: Warhead One, as there are on many films. Yes, my voiceover in SWAT was written to cover some plot holes. You just do the best that you can with what you are given.
Any comments about the film Vampire Assassin and its director/star Ron Hall?
Ron is a really good man, & very talented, especially as a writer. He has some excellent projects, & because Vampire Assassin made over $ 2 million on video rentals for Lion's Gate, he has several suitors to direct scripts he wrote. Ron is also loyal. In the 3 projects he is slated to do, I have a very good role in each one. Ron is the one who called me to play the lead in Vampire Assassin. He asked if I could do this pix in his first directing gig. I worked with him in several pix where he was the stunt co-ordinator & he was excellent in his work. A first time director in a VERY low budget film could be a disaster, but I did it because of the man & his passion. Ron had to produce, cast, direct, act, co-ordinate the fights, do his fights, write & rewrite, get locations, & clean up after we ate. For the life of me, I'll never understand how he did it all. It was amazing.
When he went to the Orient to do another film, an editor in NY was used to cut the film, & a major portion of the beginning was cut that would have explained everything. Even though it was a miracle Ron got what he did, it could have been better. Ron vows to do his own cut, & wants to do a sequel. I believe he will make it big one day & I'm glad I said yes to him. As this was a Cine Excel co-production, it was my 4th pix. Why, because I am in full time ministry & these pix kept me sharp in the acting part of my life. I passed on Magma, because of a director that was like Future War, & David fired him before filming started.
What are your current projects and activities?
I just finished a Senior Softball movie called Big Guns with Barry Primus, an excellent New York actor who worked with Paul Newman & Mel Gibson, & directed De Niro. I'm waiting to hear from the producer who is supposed to do Bring Her Back Alive in France. There are 3 other films that I'm cast in but they do not have their money in place. That's Hollywood.
Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Novak!
Lord bless you.