Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not worried about Ray

I mentioned Ray Harryhausen in my last post. Well, a little while ago, I got the opportunity to meet the great man. Here's the story ...

A journalist friend of mine recently interviewed Ray Harryhausen at his home and I’ll admit that I was envious. There are very few people whom I regard as 'heroes' but Ray is definitely one of them. You may not know the name but you'll know his work. He's the pioneering animator who gave us those great stop-motion adventure movies of the 1960s and 70s like Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, One million Years BC, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and It Came from beneath the Sea. It was thanks to Ray that we got to enjoy Jason and his Argonauts fencing with an army of skeletons, Sinbad battling the multi-armed iron statue of Kali and Raquel Welch in a pair of fur knickers (Incidentally, it's also Ray we have to thank for Tom Baker getting the role of Dr Who. The BBC chose him after seeing his performance as the bad guy in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). Ray's films are a fondly-remembered part of my childhood. Joel was quite happy to pass on Ray’s address to me but I needed a good reason to meet him. I couldn’t just turn up and say I was there because Ms Welch’s hirsute undercrackers had filled me with adolescent joy. Or because he’d been the first person to show me what a living dinosaur could have looked like (I was dinosaur mad as a kid – I still am).

A few weeks later, I found that excuse. I won't go into details because it relates to an as yet unpublished book project but it was a good reason and, I'm pleased to say, the great man was more than willing to accommodate me.

Ray Harryhausen lives in a very big house and I know enough about London house prices to know that he’s sitting inside a lottery win’s worth of bricks and mortar. Originally from California, Ray has lived in the UK for nearly three decades and he loves us Brits. Maybe that’s because he married one. Diana was certainly very welcoming as she opened the front door. I’d heard that’s she’s quite fiercely protective of Ray so I made an extra-special effort to be on my best behaviour.

Ray is a delight. He has a permanent twinkle of excitement in his eyes and he was twinkling fit to explode as he showed me around his house like I was the first person he’d ever had visit. In some ways his house is more like a museum to his career as it fairly bulges with references to his films. To begin with, there are bronzes, all sculpted by Harryhausen himself, displayed on every available flat surface. He explained, as we climbed the two flights of stairs up to his study, that many of the original models from his films have deteriorated.

“I wanted to create a permanent record of them”, he said, “So I resculpted some of the figures and had them cast in bronze. They’ll be around long after I’m gone.”

As he said this, we passed a superbly detailed bronze of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms attacking a lighthouse.

“I cast the lighthouse from the actual prop we used in the movie”, he explained. “I kept them all you see.”

Ray is a rarity in the film industry in that he’s hung onto most of the models and props used in his movies. The shelves and glass cabinets in his study were groaning under the weight of them: Medusa (Clash of the Titans) enjoys a case with a rather moth-eaten and threadbare Pegasus. Across the room, a group of Selenites (First Men in the Moon) share their home with a couple of skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts) and a dinosaur from Valley of Gwangi. There are octopus tentacles and Cyclopes, Big Bad Wolves and Dragons. A saucer from Earth versus the Flying Saucers sits incongruously atop a pile of rubber legs. The models are old and worn and I could see what Ray meant about their deterioration. Many of them offered a glimpse of their metal skeletons; the wires poking through the rotten rubber flesh like steel bones. But they are in good enough nick to still show off the man’s sculpting ability. Ray – who drops famous names casually into the conversation like he’s talking about the guy from down the pub – told me that Peter Jackson flew him out to New Zealand during the filming of King Kong because he’s a huge fan of his work. While there Jackson said that he’d like to establish a Museum of Film Animation. If he does get it off the ground, Ray may well donate his priceless collection. And it’s not just the models either. Ray is an exceptional draughtsman too and his original sketches, drawing and paintings are everywhere, framed and hanging on every spare inch of wall. I’ve been deliberately coy about where Ray lives as a burglar could net himself millions in swag from just one good rummage.

The day ended with tea and a chat in one of the several downstairs reception rooms. I was distracted momentarily by the sight of a maid wandering around with some kind of parrot on her shoulder. But then I saw the plaque commemorating Ray’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And the golden knight standing on the sideboard. There, in front of me, was a real Academy Award - the Gordon E Sawyer Award for outstanding scientific and technical contribution to film - presented to Ray in 1991. A photograph next to it showed Ray accepting the award from (his words) that ‘nice guy Tom Hanks’.
“That’s an Oscar”, I said. “A real Oscar.”
“Yes”, said Ray. “Please be careful. It’s heavy.”
He was right. It weighed a ton (well, eight and half pounds anyway). Dark visions of clubbing him over the head and running off with it flitted through my starstruck brain. But I could never do that. Not to such a genuinely nice man. And anyway, Diana was watching me like a hawk. I placed it back on the sideboard and finished my tea.

I thanked him for his valuable time. He signed my copy of his biography and we posed for a photograph together. It was the only photo I took that day as Ray is very strict about that. Firstly, there's the fact that someone may recognise some feature that could identify where he lives. Secondly, he had a bad experience with a reporter a few years ago who took lots of pics and then used them and sold them indiscriminately.

So ... I’d met a childhood hero; a genuine Hollywood star and movie genius. And I’d been allowed to hold an Oscar.

Not a bad day's work, eh?

Visit Ray's site here.


Michele said...

Oh. My. God. I'm so utterly jealous...I actually had to read your post twice to understand what you wrote! LOL! It's good kind of jealously, though. I'm such a HUGE fan of his. Clash of the Titans (an all-time favorite movie of mine!), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad...Wow.

And you held an Oscar as well? Good grief. Now, that's what I call a cool day! :-)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Yeah, it was a good day! He really is an amazing guy and a real gent.

alabaster stone said...

I love Ray Harryhausen's work. i already have a statue of the 'Ymir' and of Medusa. I'm still choked that the limited edition of the statue of 'Bubo' from Clash of the Titans is completely sold out everywhere.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Alabaster - That's a shame - he gets more collectible by the day. I may pop back and see him soon. I promised him a book once published! Thanks for popping by.