I AM SUPERWOMAN!
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN LAZAR, Z-MAN FROM
THE CULT CLASSIC BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

INTERVIEW BY RANDY WAAGE

Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of the craziest and most entertaining movies you'll ever see. It's jam packed with sex, drugs, campy humor, hip dialog, psychedelic montages, nudity, and awesome retro rock n' roll. John Lazar spoke with us on his birthday about the soon to be released Special Edition Dolls DVD set and we also got the inside scoop on what it was like to play the transgendered, mock Shakespearean spewing killer Z-man.

How did you get started in acting?

My mother took me to see Lord Olivier in black and white Hamlet when I was a very little boy. From that moment on I knew I wanted to be an actor. I happen to have the same birthday as Sir Lawrence Olivier which I believe is today. The question is "When do I finish?" Iíve started. I donít want to finish too soon."

Did you audition for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?
 

I auditioned and I was screen tested. I was doing the French play "Caligula" by Albert Camus. Not Guccioneís. I was doing it as a professional actor at the University of Hawaii and 20th Century Fox was scouting locations for the war movie "Tora Tora Tora" about Pearl Harbor. The night before closing a very wonderful man, the late Phil Benjamin, he was one of the casting agents at Fox at the time came back stage and introduced himself.

I met Russ Meyer and he said basically the Mae West line with Cary Grant, "If he can speak heís got the job." So, I auditioned with the line, "The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!" just before I behead Jungle Boy. Itís like doggerel with no explanation. I read that, had a screen test of the same scene and thatís how I landed the part.

They wanted you to play it seriously?

Thatís the best way to play satire. Iím not winking at the audience. Iím playing it straight, but I know the joke. Some actors in satire donít get the joke and the joke is on them. Hopefully, the audience was in on the joke. A few of my colleagues didnít get it, but most did. I must be kind right?

Did you meet screenwriter/movie critic Roger Ebert?

He was very quiet and he was busy doing his thing, some re-writes of course. This was my first film. I was pretty tied up. It was a great experience. First film as a major lead in a major studio isnít too bad. The Director of Photography was Fred Koenekamp Jr. who had just finished shooting Patton and went on to film "The Towering Inferno". Dick Zanuck put the full creative power of Fox behind us which wasnít too bad.

It was one of Russís biggest films.

It was his biggest film. The rest are independents. Outside of Seven Minutes that was the second film he did. He had a three picture deal that fell apart. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was the biggest one with the biggest budget, and a big studio.

Much of it was filmed in LA?

More than three-fourths of it was filmed at sound stages at Fox. The exterior sequence of my serial killing of my beloved cast was at Trancas Beach just north of Malibu. Most of it was at a studio.

Is "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" a fair representation of what Hollywood parties were like at the time?

Some of the parties I would imagine where like that: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Remember it was the end of a decade. We started shooting in the winter of 1969 and finished in March of 1970. The 60ís were just swinging to an end. The 70ís were just beginning. We released in June, 36 years ago at the Pantages Theatre in 1970. They edited in the spring and summer. In a way the whole flavor of Vietnam was going on. Woodstock had ended and Altamont had begun, it was a tragedy with the Rolling Stones. An even darker kind of period was happening in the beginning of the 1970ís. I think in a way Dolls did mirror that.

Russ was so good with the fast cuts.

He was a hell of a cameraman. The whole process of donít blink or cutaway. The fast cuts and the extremely fast delivery. He had me deliver my mock Shakespeare fast. He had me do rapid delivery almost reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the 1930ís in speed of deliver, not in content.

You must have a great memory.

What did you say again? I canít remember. Bad joke. Itís my birthday. You donít want the A material do you? Yes, I have a good memory.

Had you seen Russís previous movies?

I never had. He did the Immoral Mr. Teas. I was in SuperVixens. I wrote the dialog, but that was after Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I hadnít before, but I remember the good nuns when I was in grammar school saying "Donít go see The Immoral Mr. Teas." You never know who youíre going to end up working with.

You had a big studio behind you.

I told Russ that. I was a good Catholic boy and look what you did to me.

Were you surprised by the script at first?

No, I just thought it was hell of a part. I just loved the part. I said, "Oh, let me go with this."

I heard the costume for the reveal as Superwoman was challenging.

Dan Striepeke was head of makeup. You know the old "Mission Impossible" series? He was head of makeup for the series. He did all of Martin Landauís special fx makeup. He at the time became head of Foxís makeup. There was a wonderful man named John Chambers who did the breasts. He had just won an Academy Award a year earlier for "Planet of the Apes".

Thankfully, that whole segment of Super Woman with the breasts and the gold Lame boots was the last two weeks of shooting. Iíve done two films where you shoot your last scene first. You usually shoot out of sequence. I was grateful my first film was shot pretty well in sequence. By the time I had to meet up to that demand of Superwoman of the Z-man part of the character I was entrenched in the part.

It almost rises to a crescendo at the end.

Itís almost mock operatic. I thought it was paced very well. If you look at it now itís not as risquť as things are today. Back then it was because of the obvious takeoff on the Charlie Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders. That got us into a little trouble. Of course Iím portraying a serial killer. That had the Hollywood power people because a lot of them were on Mansonís list and got a little nervous about that.

Russ pushed to have an X. It could have been an R. Even today some exhibitors wonít show them in the theater. On the negative side that didnít help. On the positive right now itís a hot cult and a hot A film too. With the DVD coming out I was one of the actors doing the commentary and I also introduced the film. The special DVD is coming out June 13th. Weíre going on tour to do Austin, TX, San Francisco, and Phoenix.

When the movie was released it made a great deal of money.

Dolls did alright. Basically, itís been playing constantly for 30 years. The thing is the snitty-ness against Russ, the Manson thing, the X rating that didnít need to be. Midnight Cowboy got an X too, but it was a different set of circumstances. In 1990 we were honored at UCLA. Itís being taught in every film school from Harvard to NYU. Now, weíre respectable and retroHONORED. Thatís why the DVD. Itís going to be a double box set.

Itís almost like they were embarrassed by the movie?

They were embarrassed only because of the Manson thing. Daryl Zanuck came back and he was mad at his son Dick. There was a lot of back story stuff that had nothing to do with the work. Some critics probably were Louella Parsons like people from the 1930ís who didnít get it.

They tore it apart.

Yea, I got a good review.

Youíre a standout in the movie.

Itís my birthday let me be a little cocky. Iím surprised Iíve made it this long. Iím surprised Iím alive. Iím semi surprised Iím alive. Iím feeling my pulse right now.

Was it tough to play a gay role because you appear incredibly straight?

Yea, Iím just glad I came back. You know whatís so funny. Here I am 23 years old doing the part. Some of the interviews after the movie was first released, this I never got. Iíd go into a casting agent's office to read for a part. How often does a part like that come along anyway? At the end of the reading theyíd say youíre nothing like that character.

Iíd say, "Yea, otherwise Iíd be phoning it in from San Quentin. No, Iím not a Serial Killer. Itís called acting the last time I looked." I said this before, but you asked about the character and how I approached it. I kind of got an idea playing it like a really whacked out Richard III. Especially, since I had the part mock classical Shakespeare stuff, and part the hip stuff.

Do you have any other great Russ Meyer stories? Was he tough?

Not with me. Fortunately, I got in the groove right away. I didnít have any major problems. He was the kind of director sort of like I heard John Huston was. If it ainít broke donít fix it kind of thing. If the actor is cooking heíd leave it alone.

Do you think he was nicer to the guys than the women?

Thatís hard to say. No, not in my presence, Iím sure he varied his directing style to some of the other actors that were working a different way or having a problem or two. The only problem we had is during the sequence where I have the 45 and Iím Superwoman. That was without sound. When we got to that there wasnít any shooting.

This is me going down the hall. Thereís no dialog and you get that Michael Curtiz shadow on the wall. We used to do me in one or two takes. He shot takes fast you had to be there with him. We did 15 takes of just me walking down the hall. It was like a Poltergeist Iíd screw up or trip on my cape like an idiot.

Weíd run out of film, the camera wouldnít work. So something that was perceivably easy with all the things weíd done before was far more complicated. That happens. I found that to be an eye opener. I think a little bit of it was fatigue. Thereís an old line in Hollywood, "Who do you have to fuck to get on this movie?" After about three months, "Who do you have to fuck to get off this movie?" That goes back to the silent screen days. At the end you get a fatigue, just like any show live or filmed.

Youíre doing 8 Ė 10 hour days.

Film is usually a 12 hour day. I had to shave my chest because it was 2 Ĺ hours in makeup. The usual 6 or 7 oíclock calls theyíd bump me to 4 oíclock in the morning. It was dark out. Iíd go home dark and then get there dark. I was young and in shape. The only thing is shaving my chest I got some irritations.

I heard they werenít sure how theyíd end up so they threw in Z-man being a woman?

No, we knew that from up front. That was the only thing that worried me. I tried to talk Russ out of it. Iím worried about my first film. My only movie kiss is a guy Michael Blodgett. I had a few concerns Iíll admit. Iíll give Russ credit.

Iíll have to bust myself. I hated the line, "Itís my happening and it freaks me out." Thatís what Iím most famous for in the film. I didnít think it was hip enough. Iím a San Francisco kid who had come out of Haight Ashbury. I was going to balk at that line. Russ finally shamed me into it. He said, "Youíre an actor arenít you?" That shut me up. I didnít think it was hip, but Mike Meyers used it in the first Austin Powers. You know that whole series. Thatís my line. He should give me a million or two because of it.

You have a couple of fun lines in there. Thereís the one about the sperm.

"You shall drink the Black Sperm of my Vengeance." Thatís the line I believe.

The special effects are incredible for the time.

I think technically itís a beautiful movie.

The shooting of Erica in the mouth.

That got peopleís notice. Of course that was a processed shot or did I kill her? I canít remember anymore. Iím too old to remember. This is one of the Russ Meyer stories. Years later I was at Mousso and Frankís on Hollywood Blvd. He loved that place. It was his hangout. Jimmy Ryan was his Army buddy. They were on D-day plus three, Normandy invasion. Thatís where he was a cameraman. Thatís where he got his chops.

We were at lunch. I was with a couple of other actors who were trying to pitch him a movie. It never took off. Out of the blue he goes, "You want to know how I lost my virginity?" Ernest Hemingway got him laid. Heís 18 or 19 and Hemingway was a correspondent for the Normandy invasion June 6, 1944. They were all young kids and there was a French whore house in one of the villages. Thatís how Russ lost his.

Of course I had to ask, "The breasts were big?" He said,"Of course!" I donít think he ever banged Twiggy or Audrey Hepburn. Here we are at Mousso and Franks with the white linen tablecloths knocking back a few Jack Daniels and heís the one who said, "Do you want to know how I lost my virginity?"

Did he have other quirks about him?

He reminded me of a cross between Johnny Carson and Clark Gable. He kind of had that, "Well, Scarlet" kind of delivery. That Gable-esque kind of voice, he could be a very funny and a witty man.

After Beyond the Valley of the Dolls he slowed down a bit.

I consider him in the line of an Auteur. Thatís why Seven Minutes didnít work. He was no good at doing someone elseís book or story adaptation. It was all the Russ Meyer feel. From Teas to Faster Pussycat, Vixens, and SuperVixens.

You think it all came out of his mind.

Itís his own thing. There are some directors that are eclectic. Willie Wilder did "The Best Years of our Lives" and then "Ben Hur". He was a great director. Hitchcock only did Hitchcock. You know who it is right away. With some directors even great directors you may not know who it is. Like Raul Welch was eclectic. I call them the specialist versus the eclectic. Anytime he tried to venture out it wasnít his forte. Thatís a clue to his creative bent and input.

As hardcore porn became popular Russís niche got lost in the shuffle.

At his worst he was a softcore comedian. He spoofed sex and violence. A lot of people didnít get that. He spoofed the big breasts and the over the top violence. He was poking fun at it himself. I think some of it came from his war experiences. I donít want to get Freudian on it. Maybe that was his way of releasing it. Also maybe he was a sadomasochist. Who knows?

Did you see him much after Dolls?

My father just died and I was in San Francisco taking care of business. The lovely Jimmy Ryan called up and said, "Hey John, do you want to do a Russ Meyer movie?" Itís a cameo and weíre shooting out in Simi Valley. Russ will put you up on Franklin. I did three days on that and it was fun. We were chasing the sun. We were losing daylight a lot. He did it without a permit so we were looking for the Sheriffís Office to be after us. That was like shooting from the hip. Like the Republic pictures day. It was a totally comic scene. The lead I pick up and I have Super Cherry my girl. Did you see Supervixens?

I have such a fuzzy memory.

Good, Iíll have you as my next dialog coach. I play this thief, semi-pimp, or whatever and I do this whole comic. Sheís sitting in the middle in the cab of a trunk. I go to the lead, "Donít you think sheís beautiful?" It ends up with this comic punch out and I get bitten by a rattlesnake. Itís one of those traveling comedic scenes. Sheís got to suck out the poison.

He liked to film out in the hot areas.

Well, lucky Iím Mediterranean and I like the heat. The hottest location Iíve ever filmed on was in Crazy Horse, AZ. There was a series for NBC called, "Greatest Stories from the Bible" that was a 120 degrees in the shade. I had a sword fight with Hugh O'Brian of Wyatt Earp. That was kind of funny because I was a little boy when I watched his series.

The great John Dehner the name might not get you. He was a great character actor on that one. Daniel J. Travanti of Hill Street Blues was on that shoot. It was a hell of a cast. The big guy who played Lurch, Ted Cassidy, he played Goliath. Unfortunately, his gigantism killed him. He died in open heart surgery. They were using local Native Americans. They werenít treating them very well. I stopped something one time. They all went Yati. I have some Native American.

It was the David and Goliath segment. I played the general of the Palestines and Hugh OíBrian played the leader of the Israelites. Jeff Corey he was a great teacher. He taught Jack Nicholson. Thatís some of the old timers I worked with. Did Zsa Zsa Gabor die?

Zsa Zsa is still alive I think.

I worked with Zsa Zsa and she was a trip, and Robert Alda. Alice Faye man I had a crush on her as a kid. She worked with Betty Grable. She did some Shirley Temple movies. She was a little blonde chick married to Phil Harris. You know who I really loved was the film noire queen of all time Jane Greer. She was in "Out of the Past" with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. She was great. I have a crush on my lady Margaret and I tell you I have a crush on my agent Siouxsan. Iíll leave the rest of the ladies out of it as theyíre married at the moment.

Why do you think "Valley of the Dolls" this many years later is so well remembered?

Outside of the inside Hollywood at the time, The Sex, Drugs, and Rock N Roll, The Strawberry Alarm Clock. Its youth oriented. Thereís another generation that can identify in a youth way.

Is there anything else youíd like to say to your many fans?

I appreciate their support and please visit my website: www.johnelazar.com. Iím a performing artist. I love to state my case and Iím appreciative I have fans.

Dolls is one of the most interesting movies Iíve ever seen in my life.

Itís getting its retro doís.

People love Z-man!

I think one of the most interesting scenes is just before I behead Michael Blodgett. Heís got these electric blue eyes and I have green eyes.

Youíre quite beautiful in that.

I owe it all to DNA and plastic surgery.

I heard you were quite the fitness guru back then.

I still am. Now I could play my uncle. Iím also a martial artist and a ballet dancer. I had a scholarship for the San Francisco Conservatory for Voice. I approach something by sound, movement, and emotion. All three in one role. Blodgett almost talks me out of it. I get really confused. I was pushing for that moment. The only moment the audience would feel for me a little bit because Iím pretty ballsy.

Iím whacking and controlling people. I like as an actor that moment. Thereís that slight moment or seconds where the audience is thinking maybe heíll come out of this. Then Michael opens his mouth and says, "You look like a broad. A goddam ugly broad." That flips Z-man out and leads to the end. You know itís a satire because they have the epilogue where they get married with the organ music. It all turns out to be good in the end.

Right at that point youíre going from the mental to the physical abuse.

That was really good.

Beyond is almost a hodgepodge of different movies.

The Montages with David Gurian, we filmed that on Christmas Eve.

You also did Death Stalker II.

I did that in Argentina. That was during my Corman period. It was big billing, big part, and no money. Thereís no backend deal with me. Iím not cruising out with that one. I had a ball with it. I co-choreographed the sword fight in it. It was a homage to Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. We shot it in an old silent film studio outside of Buenos Aires.

How long was that?

We shot that in 3 weeks. It was a low budget indie kind of thing. There were three Deathstalkers and that one made the most money. It was the most popular. Itís so funny I did that with my second wife and my son was only 6 months old. I was gone for three months and he wouldnít speak to me for a week, the little prick. Heís going to be 21 and I have a daughter thatís going to be 17 and I have a granddaughter.

Z-man is a grandpa. You had him young though.

I quit at 44. I donít want to be like some of these other celebrities with grandkids. I still look good at 60. I donít want to raise them right now. I canít support the ones I have now. I need some big gigs. I may be doing a film in September after the tour. Thatís about where Iím at right now. Iím looking at the second act of my career. Iíve had some cold times, but things are heating up. If theyíre going to honor me for Dolls Iím very respectful for it. A role like that doesnít come along like that everyday. Maybe it shouldnít.

Is it a love/hate with it? Youíre so associated with Z-man?

No, especially not at this point. Iíve proven myself. Iíve done action adventures like Death Stalkers 2, Sword and Sorcery. Iíve done comedy.

Is there a role youíre most happy with?

Iíd like to say the one coming up. The Z-man part, I still think itís the best part. I believe Iíve done good work in my other films.

Were there a lot of sex, drugs, and rock n roll on the set?

There was some. I donít want to name names. You have to get the work done. I would say it would be off the set. There were some romances. I was a part of one. Hollywood set romances they happen on everything.

Was it one of the leads?

Yea, it was Marcy McBroom, the African American girl. Sheís in New York and sheís a high school history teacher. Everybody seems to know about the affair. It was slightly scandalous because she was with someone and I was married. My first film it was like candy there. Did you see the women? I may have played a hormonal freak, but my god. Marcy was gorgeous and she was beautiful.

Come see us at the shows. Weíre going to do Austin, TX, San Francisco, LA, and Phoenix. "Itís my happening and it freaks me out." Thatís the one signature line from the movie. The one I didnít want to do is the most popular. No matter how good of an actor you donít always make the total choices.

The one you didnít think would do, it turns out to be the best.

-Randy Waage
randy@retrocrush.com


 

Check out John Lazar's official website at: http://www.johnelazar.com/

John loves meeting his many fans! Come see the movie on the big screen and meet the stars John Lazar, Erica Gavin, and Cynthia Myers:
June 10th - Austin, Texas - Rolling Road Show
June 13th - Los Angeles, California - at the Grove
July 7th/8th - San Francisco, California - Midnight Mass with Peaches Christ
July 21st/22nd - Scotsdale, Arizona - Midnight Movie Mamacita
 

 


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