Interview by John Atkin - Feb 2013
The multi-talented Robert Towers is an actor of the stage, screen, radio and television. His diverse career as a talented voice-over artist has included roles in SUPER FRIENDS, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, DOCTOR DOLITTLE, BETTY BOOP, and as Snoopy in YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. His film appearances include MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, LET IT RIDE, SWITCH, DON'T LOOK UP and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. He has performed in numerous television series, including STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, ANGEL, IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, and GHOST WHISPERER.
In MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987), Robert Towers played the part of the devious half-man, half-bat creature known as Karg - a strange, gothic creature with long white hair, pointed ears, and a hook in place of his left hand. Skeletor (Frank Langella) sends Karg and his team of bounty hunters to Earth to capture He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), and to retrieve the mysterious Cosmic Key. I recently had the chance to talk with Mr. Towers about his work on the film, and he was kind enough to share with us some of his memories from his time working on the film…
1 - How did you get involved in the Masters of the Universe movie? Did you audition for the character of Karg specifically, or did you audition for any other characters in the film?
I was performing in Universal Studios CONAN, which had been built by Gary Goddard's company. I was playing a wizard (Kalias), which was the only real acting role in the show. Gary called me in to his office to audition for the role of Karg, and after two grueling callbacks (with lots of physical and emotional stuff not seen in the film) I was fortunately cast. I had been acting since the age of six, beginning in radio (I could read early), through to stage, film and television. My most notable role until MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE was in the Los Angeles production as Snoopy in YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN with Gary Burghoff and Judy Kaye, which ran nearly two years. I only auditioned for Karg, which was written with a short actor in mind, and I am 5''3".
2 - How long did you work on the movie for, and what was the atmosphere like on set?
I worked on and off, depending upon what was being shot, for close to three months. Being that it was an FX movie, it moved quite slowly, and as much of the shooting was at night, we were lucky to get a page a day completed. Mr. Langella had been hired, but did not work (except for makeup tests) for at least the first six weeks. The atmosphere on the set was busy, especially with the physical preparation, and sometimes hectic. It was generally friendly especially amongst us monsters. But we also had friends in Billy Barty and his double (who was his attorney - also a little person), and some of the others. The atmosphere was workmanlike, but as the weeks went on, the slowness began to wear on some people. Even the ever-patient Billy lost it one day, when he had been in full makeup, which took hours like mine did, waited for over twelve hours and was not used for two days in a row. Not good planning for a man of his age and stature and health.
3 - Karg was the leader of the bounty hunters in the movie. As a brand new character introduced in the film, there wasn't any previous material to work from. Did this allow you more freedom to flesh out the character on your own?
I had a free rein with Karg and his wonderful makeup and outfit. Gary gave me some ideas, and I filled in the rest; particularly vocally. I wanted him to believe his size and sound somehow otherworldly. Being in a prosthetic, it sometimes was more like puppetry than true film acting. But I think the collaboration with Gary worked. Once the film was under way, as we were far behind, Gary had to become more of a traffic cop, especially with all the setups and the producers breathing down his neck, so I was generally left to my own devices creatively. Thank God for my Classic Theatre and Mime training. It helped.
4 - Academy Award winner Michael Westmore executed the makeup for Karg, giving the character one of the most elaborate designs in the film. What was it like wearing the makeup in the film, and how long did it take to put on for your scenes?
Once the makeup was on, it stayed on for the entire day, which was usually twelve hours or more. Even during our meals, I tried not to eat anything that might loosen the prosthetic or affect the makeup, although we would all need occasional retouching. The eyes were glass contacts made to resemble animal eyes. They had to be put in just before a take and could only be used for a half-hour without causing damage. One time they were in for a long series of shots lasting over an hour, and I developed a corneal abrasion and was off the film for two days to recover, while my stand-in did some long shots. Mike Westmore was wonderful. He was easy to work with and very creative. I had done a face cast months before and he built the prosthetics from it. I mostly worked with his assistant who carried out his plans. It usually took somewhere between three to four hours to apply the prosthetics and makeup. It was uncomfortable at first, and then I became accustomed to it, though I had mostly tunnel vision. I lived in fear that it would loosen or come off and I would have to start all over again. That never happened, thank goodness, but it was important I made the makeup part of me for the film. I remembered how Roddy McDowall had used his makeup in PLANET OF THE APES and emulated that.
5 - What did you think of William Stout's elaborate costume design for Karg and what was it like to perform in as an actor?
I LOVED my costume. It was so great, with the little daggers and the hook and the cape. I was really inspired by it. Just walking in it gave the character a swagger that I had not considered before. The only negative about the costume was that every time I ran or moved quickly, the little daggers would stab me. I can still feel it. The costume and the makeup made me, for the first time in my acting experience, work from the outside in, rather than the other way I usually developed a character. They inspired and gave me the essence of Karg's character.
6 - What memories do you have of working with Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, and the rest of the cast and crew? Have you kept in touch with any of them over the years?
Dolph Lundgren was friendly, but very busy. When he wasn't shooting, he was being coached in acting, and physically trained while watching his diet. I didn't see him in the makeup room, where you usually get to know your other cast members. On the other hand, the great Frank Langella was with us quite often, as they went through many changes in his makeup (and still never got it right). He was affable and approachable and very witty. Billy Barty had so many stories after fifty years in the business, and I felt like a novice listening to him. The ladies were also very nice, especially Christina Pickles. All in all, there was a nice rapport with the cast members, although the length of the shoot and the days and the slow progress made tempers occasionally short. Anthony DeLongis and I got to be good friends, and we also worked together briefly at Universal. He is a genius swordsman (he doubled as Skeletor in the big fight) and a good human being. I just saw him on a Blu-ray of Jet Li's FEARLESS, doing his usual great sword work.
7 - Did you get to keep any cool stuff from the film?
I saved a prosthetic, but it has recently fallen apart. I would love to have had, at least, something from my costume, but I am too ethical, damn it!
8 - What did you think of the film when you saw it back in 1987? Looking back, have your thoughts on the film changed at all?
I first saw it, not at a preview, but at a theatre with an audience with my wife and friends. Frankly, it seemed derivative, and not very good. It was kind of a B movie rip-off, with Billy Barty walking away with the film and Frank Langella doing what he could with a skull face, but letting us know there is still a great actor in there, somewhere. I was pleased to have done it, and hoped kids would like it. I said, at the time, that it was a film for ten year old boys of all ages. Having watched the movie again recently, it is better than I remembered it. I just wish it were lighter. If it had been lighter and He-Man made more fun and likeable, it might have been a minor classic.
9 - You have played some memorable 'creature' roles on shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Angel. Do you think your work on Masters of the Universe helped lead to any of those parts?
STAR TREK, where I played a Ferengi, also had makeup by Michael Westmore, and it was a nice reunion. And much less time in the makeup chair. I played a Bug King on ANGEL, and a little monster in a film called DONT LOOK UP. I had done Prosthetic roles before MASTERS (including over ten years as Captain Crook for MacDonald’s commercials) but it was certainly my agent's selling point for a long time. What MASTERS did, mostly, was put me in contact with some very good people.
10 - Mattel made Saurod, Blade, and Gwildor into action figure toys, but for some reason Karg never got one. Do you know if there was a toy planned for your character, and where you disappointed at all that you didn’t get an action figure?
I posed on the set, while they photographed me for hours and hours, to make a Karg toy. That never happened. I own a Gwildor toy in honor of my friend who is no longer with us. I was disappointed, but Mattel kept saying that one would come out eventually. I'm still waiting.
11 - Now that there is a new He-Man toy line in production (Masters of the Universe: Classics), would you like to finally see an action figure made of Karg?
I would love to see a new Karg toy come out!
12 - A new Masters of the Universe film is being produced by Sony Pictures. If asked, would you ever want to reprise your role as Karg, or possibly play a new character?
Yes, I would play Karg again, no matter how long the makeup process, in the new film. Or even a taller Gwildor. Always the actor, you see. I love to work, because an actor cannot grow unless he performs. An artist has their canvass, an author has their paper or computer… but an actor must learn lines and create a character and make it real for an audience. For me, that is what life is all about.
...A VERY big thank you to Robert Towers for his kindness, and for taking the time to answer questions for fans at H and www.motumovie.com
Robert Towers personal website can be found HERE.