This next interview came about in a rather unusual, but cool, way. As a writer, I normally reach out to the people I want to interview. Sometimes I get a positive response. Other times, the person I want to interview is too busy. In the case of my next interview subject, a recently added Facebook friend named Joe Williamson asked if I would be interested in interviewing actor Mel Novak.
I took a look at Mel’s filmography, and if you’re looking for a heavy in your movie, Mr. Novak is a man to turn to. He’s acted opposite talents like Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Chuck Norris, and he was featured in what would be Bruce Lee’s last official movie, Game Of Death. With credentials like that, I knew he would be an interesting interview subject. I hope you all enjoy getting to know him as well.
Let’s Flashback once more. Say hello to Mel Novak!
Mel: How are you doing today?
Johnny: Oh, I’m doing good. I hope you are as well.
Mel: Hey, every day above the ground is a good day for me.
Johnny: Yep. First off, thanks for agreeing to this, and thanks to Joe for setting it up.
Johnny: Here we go. I always start my interviews with these two questions. First, what were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Mel: I loved both of them. I loved Elvis. Music really meditates your soul. Movies? I always loved them, never knowing that I would end up being in movies, because I came from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Johnny: My second question is: What were your high school days like?
Mel: Well, I was a big football star, basketball and baseball. I enjoyed high school, going to the dances and dancing to the music and everything. I was popular, and it was a good time for me. There were some people who didn’t like high school. Some of them were bullied, but me being a big football star, they would come to me and I would take care of that for them. That was a good time in my life.
Johnny: Alright. Where did the name Mel Novak come from?
Mel: Well, my real name is Milan Mrdjenovich. I’m Serbian. Because of the four consonants, I knew I had to come up with a catchy name. There used to be a TV series called Mr. Novak, and at that time, the only Novak there was was Kim Novak. That’s what I took. It was catchy. People remembered that and I’m just glad that’s the name that I picked. It’s tough to pick a name when you’re going to go into acting and everything else.
Johnny: Absolutely. What is your favorite memory of your days as a baseball player?
Mel: Well, I signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had 60 scholarships for football all over the country, scholarships for basketball and what not. I really loved baseball since I was, like, three years old. I remember at Forbes Field…They’ve had a new park for a while, but at Forbes Field, they had a bonus baby who got a lot of money. I didn’t get a lot of money, that’s for sure, but I think I hit 25 balls out of the park and he hit 6, so I’m thinking, “Whoa, that dude had a lot of money”. I went from the inhouse to the outhouse because I had an injury. They operated on me and I was a cripple for five years, so that’s all I could say about that.
Johnny: Okay. According to the IMDB, your first film role was an uncredited one as a German officer in the Jerry Lewis comedy “Which Way To The Front?”. As Lewis was both the star and director, did he give you any advice that you would carry into your acting career?
Mel: He was really, really good to me. He was really nice. The problem on that picture was it rained for three straight weeks and Warner Brothers pulled the plug, and it didn’t do very well, but he liked me. He knew I played pro baseball, and he was very good. He told me, “Hey, you’re a good-looking guy, a big guy. You can do well. Just keep plugging away”. I liked him. He was a very nice man, a very, very, very talented writer, actor and director. That was a very good experience.
Johnny: In 1974, you had your first credited film role as Blue Eyes in the film Black Belt Jones. Were you worried that the injury that ended your sports career might impact your ability to do martial arts moves?
Mel: No. It took me about six years to overcome that injury that really crippled me, and those doctors thought it was a miracle that I overcame. By the time I did Black Belt Jones, I was fine, and I was doing a lot of martial arts work. I was really in shape, and I didn’t worry about that injury, because it had gotten healed. I learned from a lot of good guys, like Pat Johnson and Freddy Barnes and Tashio Mashira. I learned all that stuff. As a villain, I made the other guys look good, and that was my job. In Black Belt Jones, the first day of shooting was great. I had a really good day. The guy that was my crime partner there, he was screwing up his dialogue. The next day after that dailies, the assistant director says “Mel Novak”. I go “Yo”. He said “The director and producer want to see you”, and I was thinking “Oh, dear.”. I went in there and said “Did I do something wrong?”. They said “No, you did everything right, and your partner can’t handle dialogue. We’d like to know if we could give you his dialogue”. I said “Give me all the dialogue you want”. It ended up a great, great role. The director, Robert Clouse, I did four major movies with him, and he took me to Hong Kong to do “Game Of Death”. That was a real good experience for me.
Johnny: In 1975, you played Lippert in The Ultimate Warrior, a movie which takes place in 2012, portrayed in the movie as after the apocalypse. As we’re in 2015 now, why do you think so many movies of the time period, the 70s and 80s, portrayed the future as either the end of the world or after the end of the world?
Mel: Well, people loved that. It always got people’s attention, and you got a lot of stuff going on in the world where people say that we’re spiraling into the end times. Those kinds of movies always made money. I love science fiction. I’ve done some of them and it’s always fun. The Ultimate Warrior? You had Yul Brynner, Max Von Sydow, William Smith and Joanna Miles, and you had a really great cast there. I had a lot of big scenes with Yul Brynner, and I did the second toughest stunt in the whole movie. They made me an honorary stuntman, so that was cool.
Johnny: What’s your favorite memory of Mr. Brynner?
Mel: It was the whole thing. He was, like, an iconic movie star, a legend. He and I got along really well and worked well. I remember after I did that stunt, which was just unbelievable, he was up there clapping, going “Bravo, bravo!”. I went to see him in The King And I when he did the play after that, and he didn’t look well. He had the cancer then. He smoked quite a bit. He was up at five packs a day. He went down to three packs. I really, really enjoyed working with him. He was a consummate actor and a nice man.
Johnny: In 1978, you played Stick in Game Of Death. As Bruce Lee’s actual death was rather mysterious, did you feel uneasy about watching the movie when it came out?
Mel: No, not at all. I just really felt bad that he died so young. There will never be another Bruce Lee. I mean, he was it, and there were a lot of people who wanted to be and try to be. I met him when he was doing The Green Hornet. When he smiled, he had that Bruce Lee Smile, he said, “You’ve got a villain’s face”. Little did he know that I would be playing the villain in Game Of Death. Again, Robert Clouse. He told me after Black Belt Jones that “I want to take you to Hong Kong when we get that thing ready”, and he did. He kept his word. It was a great experience with him. I was over there seven weeks, and they had a big, big opening there, which was really cool.
Johnny: What do you recall most about that opening?
Mel: How many people there were, and how many still love Bruce Lee. I was at a red carpet affair on Thursday, and I had, like, three people come up to me and shake my hand. They’d say “because of what you did in Game Of Death with Bruce Lee, that’s why I got into martial arts”. There has to be a million people who got into martial arts because of Bruce Lee. He just had that charisma.
Johnny: Definitely. Also in 1978, you appeared as Ralph Desmond in Cat In The Cage, which also starred Sybil Danning, whom I interviewed through e-mail several years ago, and Colleen Camp, your second film with her after Game Of Death. What are your favorite memories of that movie, and working with Misses Danning and Camp?
Mel: Sybil was great to work with. We had a lot of scenes together. It was fun working with her. She was a very, very good actress, very lovely. Colleen Camp? She was the one, I told this director, that she had a great singing voice. I think she did one of the songs in Cat In The Cage, and he called her in and she got the part. I didn’t have any scenes with Colleen in Cat In The Cage, but I had a lot of scenes with Sybil. I enjoyed every one of them.
Johnny: As for the movie itself, what was your favorite part of it?
Mel: Well, having a lead role. I had a lot of good dialogue, just working with people tat I enjoyed and knowing it was going to do well, having that type of role. I was the bad guy. I killed her husband and we were lovers and whatnot. I had a lot of good memories from that movie.
Johnny: Cat In The Cage director Tony Zarindast was Iranian. As this movie was made during a period of political turmoil for Iran, was there any fear that filming some of the more explicit scenes might have gotten you all in severe legal trouble?
Mel: No, not at all. It was on him. He was the producer/director/writer. I was hired as an actor, so whatever there was, he had his brother come from Iran. He was a very good cinematographer. Behrouz Vossoughi was like the Steve McQueen of Iran. I had no fears whatsoever.
Johnny: In 1980’s Tom Horn, you played Corbett’s Bodyguard. This was Steve McQueen’s second-to-last movie before his untimely death. Similar to the question about Game Of Death, as McQueen was dealing with cancer, did you ever feel uneasy in scenes where you had to fight with him?
Mel: No, I didn’t, and he didn’t, either. He prayed that he would get healed. He had a cough that was really, really brutal, and he wanted me to play the sheriff, but the director had done a movie with this actor from Electra Glide In Blue, and he insisted on him. Two weeks later, Steve fired that director, and I got a call from Fred Weintraub at, like, three in the afternoon. He said “Steve just fired three actors who couldn’t handle the dialogue. He said for me to call you. The plane leaves at 6:00”. That was kind of hectic. The last movie McQueen did before he passed was The Hunter, and he wanted me to play the crazy wacko with the flamethrower. I was set to go to Europe to go on a major movie, and he said “Take that one. There will be other ones”. He liked me because he had spent time in juvenile, and he knew I did work like that. He was a great guy, Steve McQueen. Charisma oozed all around him. It’s tough. He was only 50 years old when he passed, much too young. He was so good, so professional. It was one of my best experiences ever working with a fellow like him.
Johnny: On a lighter note, you played The Assassin in 1981’s Force: Five opposite a murderer’s row of karate greats. As you had done a lot of karate work yourself, did any of the fights you engaged in during filming ever become shoot fights?
Mel: Well, in that movie there, they had this real big guy. It was his first movie. He was real nervous. I was supposed to swing at him, and he wasn’t supposed to do anything. He swung and hit and broke my knuckles, I was all over him, and told the director “Hey, what’s going on here?”. The only other one I had was in Eye For An Eye, where I took on Toru Tanaka. When you choke somebody, you make it look like you’re choking them. Well, that guy had me by the throat. I pushed him away and I said “What the hell are you doing?”. The rest of the day, he says “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. Other than that, no, because I work really hard to choreograph with the stunt people. I hung out with the stunt people, and I learned and learned. It was a really good experience.
Johnny: Was the 1985 movie Sword Of Heaven a remake or an expansion of the 1981 film of the same name?
Mel: The producer said it wasn’t. This was more of a martial arts movie, and Sword Of Heaven was like a meteorite that came out of the heavens. It was a real good martial arts movie, good fights in there. I did a sword fight with Tadashi Yamashita, and there were a lot of other good fights. Joseph Randazzo was the producer and he played a role in it. I really enjoyed making that film. They looked at every villain in Hollywood, and they finally called me in and settled on me, so that was a real good thing. They had a screening at the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, and that was cool, too. It wasn’t a real difficult shoot, but it was real good for me. I killed six or seven people with a garrote.
Johnny: Moving into the 90s, in 1991, you played Mason Dover in Capital Punishment. According to the IMDB, director David Huey was contractually obligated to limit the dialogue to fifteen minutes. That’s not the first martial arts movie I’ve seen that had a minimum of dialogue. I reviewed a 1984 movie called Furious a while back, and that didn’t have much dialogue. Do you think dialogue’s important to martial arts movies, or do you think the action is more important?
Mel: The most important thing is the script. You’ve got some wonderful writers. There’s a writer/director/producer whom I worked for on Checkpoint, Thomas Churchill, who’s an excellent writer. You need the martial arts, but without the dialogue, you just can’t see action. When it fits with the dialogue, it’s a really great marriage. I’m one of those who thinks the dialogue is really important.
Johnny: Speaking of dialogue, a lot of your work in the 80s and 90s was in relatively low-budget films, but in the 90s, you did two major films with Garry Marshall, with your role in Exit To Eden reflecting your action side, and your role in Dear God reflecting your religious side. What did you like the most about working with Garry Marshall?
Mel: Well, number one, he’s really easy to work for, a super nice guy. He does shoot more than he needs, so sometimes you end up on the cutting room floor. With Dear God, he had one of his people call me to play a street preacher, and I said “Thank you so much, but I don’t really want to do that. I do that in real life”. I get a call ten minutes later, and Garry said “I’ll take it as a personal favor”, because he liked my work in Exit To Eden. I said “send me the script”. Well, they sent me what I was going to do. I called them back and I said “You know what? This really has nothing to do with the Bible or anything, so thank him very much, but I pass”. I get a call ten minutes later again, and the guy said “Garry says change it. Do what you want”. I had three pages of dialogue and it really went well, but when the picture came out, I got a personal letter from Garry, and he said “I shot too much”. This guy I knew, Bill Clifford, he was totally cut out. They cut that down to really zilch, but at least I got that letter. He was just a really talented man. My goodness, he had some big hits. You know, those pictures with Robert Clouse, those were major studio pictures. I’ve done some low-budget movies, but I’ve done some very big-budget movies. You do what you think you can do. This year, Joe Williamson, my manager, and I turned down five movies. No distribution, no major people playing. I’ve already done five movies this year, three starring, two co-starring, and that’s a miracle in this business. That is just a real blessing for me. Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance is being released all over the country this month.
Johnny: I’ll most likely be getting the DVD of that since I backed it on Kickstarter.
Mel: Gregory Tanaka is another great guy I loved working for, a very, very talented writer/producer/director and a super-nice man. You always want to work for good people. I just trusted him with everything, because my character was kind of a bizarre character, but U trusted him, and there are other projects he already wants me to do. That’s really cool, you know?
Johnny: Fantastic to hear. Jumping back to the 90s, in 1997, you played Otis in Future War, which ended up being the most recent movie to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. When you saw the MST3K version of Future War, how did you react to the jokes about the movie?
Mel: Well, first of all, that director didn’t know what he was doing. David Huey hired him because he had done special effects for him, and he screwed that thing all up. He literally didn’t know what he was doing all over the place. Whatever jokes were made should have been. I mean, he was probably the worst director I ever worked for, and I’ve done a lot of movies. I did this for David, because I did four or five movies with David Huey, who is another talented director/writer/producer, and that was a bad mistake.
Johnny: Well, on a grander scale, what you say has been the biggest change in the entertainment industry between the 1970s and 2015?
Mel: Special effects. I mean, the things that go on now are absolutely amazing. What they do with the green screen and everything else is absolutely amazing. They had some of that in 2000. I played Jonathan Cain in a film called GiANTS. It was about giant ants, and I helped save the world in that one. They had some special effects there, and it was really well-done. I really enjoyed working on that one, too. You had asked me before about Samurai Cop if I had seen the original before signing on to do the movie. No, I saw the original after I signed on. Gregory Tanaka gave me a copy.
Johnny: As you’re an ordained minister, do you ever find yourself uneasy with some of the dialogue you recite and situations your characters are in when you’re filming the movies you work on?
Mel: Well, there are things I won’t do. I won’t use God’s name in vain and I don’t do nudity. I raised my two daughters, and they understand and work with me on it because they like my work and they like how I am. I just did a film called Syndicate Smashers. It’s going to be another really good action film. I kill 30 people in there with seven different guns. I have the main role and my billing’s above the title. I’m real excited about this film. They’re 40 percent finished with the editing. It’s in post-production. Checkpoint is in post-production, too. They had a lot of big names in there.
Johnny: What’s the one talent you have that you’d like to show off, but you haven’t had the chance to yet?
Mel: One thing I’d like to do is work for a female director, because I have the strength of a man and the sensitivity of a woman. Believe me, I could pull it off. That’s the one thing I’d like to do. The rest of the stuff? I’ve really done most of it all on film.
Johnny: Alright. Now I come to my final question. This is the one I end every interview with, and it’s this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
Mel: Yeah. Instead of playing pro baseball, I would’ve gone to college on one of those 64 scholarships, but I can’t change yesterday. Yesterday’s gone, never to return. Tomorrow’s not promised. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do today. What am I going to do with today? That was a choice that totally changed my life. I learned from it. I didn’t get bitter…I got better. I never did drugs or alcohol, which is another miracle.
Johnny: Once more, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Mel: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I really look forward to another time.
Johnny: Sounds good. Well, thank you, and I hope you have a good day.
Mel: Okay, you too. Bye bye.
I would like to to thank Mel Novak for agreeing to an interview, and I would also like to thank his manager Joe Williamson for reaching out to me about this opportunity. For more on Mr. Novak’s life and career, visit his IMDB profile.
EDIT On 05/02/16: If you want to see Mel Novak in action, check out this reel put together by YouTube’s PolymediaEnt: