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A Chat with Roy Thinnes (“The Invaders”)

As architect David Vincent, Roy Thinnes spent a couple of years during the ’60s feeling as though a significant percentage of the population was out to get him…but as the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you, and “The Invaders” most certainly were out to get David Vincent. It’s been quite some time since the series went off the air, however, and it’s gotten precious little airplay in the States in recent years. (Although the 1995 revival is best forgotten, in the absence of the original, we did at least get a series that resembled it at various times: “The X-Files.”) At long last, CBS-Paramount has made the decision to release “The Invaders: Season 1” on DVD, and the set – released on May 27th – features new episode introductions by Mr. Thinnes and a new interview with him. As it happens, we had an opportunity to interview him as well, and in addition to his work on the classic sci-fi series, we also asked him about some of the upstanding films on his resume. Stay tuned for…

Roy Thinnes: Hello?

Bullz-Eye: Hello. This is Will Harris with Bullz-Eye.com.

RT: Hello.

BE: Pleasure to speak with you.

RT: Thank you. Same here.

BE: I’ve been devouring “The Invaders: Season One.” I’m still working my way through it – I didn’t get it in enough time to get the entire thing down – but I‘ve read about it for years. I have a book about cult TV; it’s called…so I’ve definitely been enjoying it.

RT: Yeah, well, I don’t know how cult it is in the States. Those who saw it in the beginning remember it, but that was forty years ago. But it was cult in France; it still is. In fact, they even show it on the big screen in the movie theaters. It’s much like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” I was astounded that the audience knew the dialogue that the characters speak.

BE: How did it come to be so big over there? Was it something they were airing just constantly for years?

RT: Well, back in the early eighties, Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who is a star anchorman with Télévision Française 1, he had a four hour show on Sundays and he did a survey with the audience and asked what they would like to see from…well, because they love American television, what would they like to see again. And they got a lot of calls about “The Invaders,” so TF1 bought a few episodes and tested it and got a huge response. So they began running the series. Thereafter, it moved to a cable channel where they ran the series a couple of times, and then to a MTV equivalent, where they ran it again. It’s moved from one media to another for the television broadcasts for well over the last twenty years.

BE: Whereas I’m not sure if it’s been rerun in recent years in the States.

RT: No, it hasn’t. The Sci-fi Channel, at one point, attempted to begin…they ran a couple of episodes, and then something went awry. I don’t know what it was, but they stopped running it. So here it is now on DVD.

BE: At last! I appreciate the fact that you did the intros for the episodes, because a lot of the classic TV sets don’t necessarily have extras. But this looked like it was a labor of love.

RT: Well, it’s due in large part to a man named James Finch, who I met first as a fan by telephone, years ago when the show was new. He was a radio broadcaster out of Pennsylvania, and he’s quite talented; he does Jack Nicholson perfectly. But he, through the years…in fact, he has a site up about “The Invaders,” and he knows more about me and remembers more about “The Invaders” than I could ever possibly do. I have five kids who barely know what I’m talking about when I talk about ‘The Invaders,” but he came in for the recording, and bless his heart, he was so astute. They can change Teleprompters now digitally, whereas in the old days it took hours to change words; they would paste words up on them. I don’t know if you know that.

BE: I did.

RT: So he was there, and he would stop every now and then and say, “Well, that’s not exactly what this episode is about.” And we were rewriting right there. He was rewriting right there and then. So I’m thankful to him, because the introductions are somewhat accurate now.

BE: Well, I think it’s going to be a revelation to a lot of current sci-fi fans. I mean, even to myself, because I’d never actually seen it before. I’m 38…or getting ready to be 38…and my biggest experience with you was from your guest stint on “The X-Files.” When you were on there, my mother was, like, “Oh, he was in ‘The Invaders’!”

RT: Good for her! She remembered! It’s funny how I ended up on “X-Files.” A friend had sent an article that Chris Carter had done, an interview from a magazine. In it, they asked him if he had been influenced by “The Invaders” in any way, because they noticed that the inside story of “The X-Files” resembled the concept of “The Invaders” in some ways. He didn’t answer that question directly but he said, “Well, I sure would like to have Roy Thinnes on the show.” Well, a dear friend who was working at Fox TV at the time had his number. So I called his number and caught him in the middle of a writing session. He was a little bit awed that I should have found him at that number, but he said, “Why are you calling?” And I said, “Well, I just want to reassure you that I have all my limbs and some of my facilities are still left. I would love to be on your show.” He said, “Well, what kind of a role would you like to play?” And I said, “You’re a great writer, and I’ll do whatever you think should be done.” Lo and behold, he wrote an alien character. It had an interesting possibility for the future, but the story didn’t go that way. It lasted for two episodes, and then it changed. But it was, in fact, almost an extension of what Quinn Martin had in mind. He proposed doing “The Invaders” much like “The Fugitive.” A study in paranoia: one man knows the truth and he can not convince anyone else. So that’s how the shows were written. He didn’t want a lot of special effects and toys in it. He wanted to have drama, so he got the best writers he could find. A lot of the episodes are really very good.

BE: Yeah, I was going to ask actually what the origins were of the show. I know you had worked with Quinn Martin before. You were on “The Fugitive” and you were on an episode of “The F.B.I.,” too.

RT: He was one of the first to hire a female director for a TV show. (Hesitates) Oh, dear, she was a big movie star…Ida Lupino! Ida Lupino directed episodes of “The Fugitive.” She had her hands full. She also had Lee Marvin, Jimmy Caan and me on “The Untouchables” as a family of brothers!

BE: That’s quite a family.

RT: She was wonderful. She did a great job. There was never a breath out of place; she was on top of everything. She was wonderful.

BE: Do you know what inspired Quinn Martin to go the sci-fi route? I mean, obviously he had a bigger picture in mind, but was he a sci-fi fan to your knowledge?

RT: I don’t think so. I was surprised. He had read a thing Larry Cohen had written; Larry Cohen was the creator of the show. It had been around for a few years, Larry wrote it when he was very young. He had lengthened it for a movie, then he had shortened it for a possible television movie, and it would never make the grade. They would never go into production. That’s when Martin saw the possibilities of doing, as I say, the study in paranoia. He liked the drama of one man knowing something and this, more than “The Fugitive,” was something that endangered the entire planet. And it finally got done.

BE: Did you envision how long the series would go on? I mean, I know how long it did go on, but was there a game plan for how long they wanted it to go on?

RT: No. I’ve always been of the belief…in fact, I especially admire the British, who will do a series as long as the story lasts. I mean, if it’s eight episodes or four episodes or twelve episodes, that’s it. I never saw…of course, I began to realize the economy of it, that it’s a very profit making proposition if you can get five, six years out of a series, but to me, if you’ve got a great story, you tell the story and when it ends, that should be it. So I wasn’t really looking for a long life. That wasn’t in my catalog. That is to be decided by the networks, obviously, and in so many cases they don’t give a series a long enough life. I had joined on for the new “Dark Shadows” back in the early 90’s, and Dan Curtis had a great new story prepared, because lord knows “Dark Shadows” had a huge following from its daytime presentation. But the network said, “We want you to tell the original story.” And he said, “Well, you’ve got to be kidding me. Half the audience knows the original story, why would I repeat it?” He had a whole thing where he was going to voyage to the other side into…what shall we call it? Hell or death or afterlife…and come back again. He really had some wonderful ideas. And he had to hold up on those in order to honor the network’s request for the original story. Well, sure enough, he told the original story, and the show was cancelled after ten or twelve episodes.

BE: Ironically, as a TV critic, I’m currently dealing with people who are writing me and complaining about the cancelation of “Moonlight,” another vampire show over on CBS.

RT: Well, in so many cases, they don’t give it enough time to really connect. It’s hard to write science fiction to begin with; to make it believable and dramatic. It needs some time, and they don’t often do that with some shows that really have promise. They cut them off too soon.

BE: When they did the 1995 TV movie version of ‘The Invaders,” what did you think about the way they brought back your character of David Vincent for that?

RT: (Hesitates) Well, after I read the script…it came with a very healthy offer, so I had to think about it, but it was clear that they didn’t have a clue about what “The Invaders” was about. But, you know, I did the appearance thinking it might have a life and gather some interest. You know, I don’t know everything; I think some producers and writers have better ideas than I. But the audience response was the same as my original responses: no, this is not “The Invaders.” And if you’re going to do “The Invaders,” why not cling to the original concept? They had this great beginning with Dominic Frontiere’s music… (Stops cold) Well, I don’t have a lot to say about it, because I thought it was a silly attempt.

BE: But given the concept…the original concept, not the TV movie version…do you think it’s ripe for revival, given today’s paranoid climate?

RT: Oh, I would say definitely. In fact, there are a couple of people working on it right now. You know, we’re living in the original premise. We have to assume that there is other life in the universe. In fact, I think it was the Catholic Church, back in 1947…and this was before the Roswell incident. Are you familiar with the Roswell incident?

BE: Oh, absolutely.

RT: The church…I don’t think the pope said it, but it was the spokesman for the papacy who, when asked about life in outer space and is there a possibility that we could be observed or visited, said that the universe must be teeming with life. Have you ever taken a look at it? It’s endless. They soon pulled back and said no more about that because the special interests…and I’m not even talking about government or intelligence agencies but, rather, the big bucks people who run the world…considered it would be chaotic on this planet if people believed we were being invaded or visited. Who would pay the taxes? Who would respond to the laws? They envisioned chaos. I don’t think there would be chaos. I think that we’re all bright enough in this technological age to realize…if anybody has ever seen, I don’t know if you’ve been to the American Museum of Natural History.

BE: I have, indeed.

RT: Have you seen the space show?

BE: Yep.

RT: That beautiful film, where it goes into the universe, coming out of the Milky Way, and you’re seeing countless other galaxies like this…there’s got to be something going on out there. It’s just foolish to think we’re alone here.

BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple other projects you have worked on over the years, the first being “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.”

RT: Yeah, that was an interesting one. I thought that was an interesting premise, although now we know that there isn’t another planet on the other side of the sun, through our space exploration and telescopic abilities. But at that time it was conceivable, and it could have been scary. Yeah, that was an interesting…that was done by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who were…

BE: “Thunderbirds”!

RT: There you go! Alright, and that’s what I was leading to. They were vastly successful, but always with puppets. In fact, they had a studio, their Century 21’s studio, outside of London, that was the first to have a computerized warehouse, because they had standing orders with all of the manufactures of war toys. They would use these things in miniature photography. So they had a few stages where they did all this…well, the same thing that was done in the film. It became an amusement for all the big film makers who were there at Pinewood Studios. Cubby Broccoli was doing a James Bond film, he was there at our dailies everyday. Six months previous to our principal photography…for instance, Ian Hendry and I, being astronauts in a weightless condition, we were actually suspended by wires…you know, nothing was digital in those days…and we would have to match what they had previously filmed with puppets. A few times, we would…and this really amused the other film mavens who were there at the daily…we would reshoot principal photography, which is massively expensive, rather than change the special effects that were done with the puppets. So we all had to get into that mentality and just, “Okay, well, we’ll do it again.” There was one day, for instance, where I had led with my right hand as I was pulling myself across a large, cavernous interior of the spaceship…and the puppet had used the left hand. Well, there you go: the reshoot order was issued, and it brought a howl from the audience who was sitting there.

BE: Have you heard anything about a DVD release for “Charley One-Eye”?

RT: I have not, no.

BE: I’ve never actually seen it; I’ve just read about it online, and it sounds like an interesting film.

RT: Yes, it was an interesting film. It was very well written. Keith…I don’t have his name in my mind right now.

BE: Keith Leonard.

RT: Keith Leonard, yes. I thought he had a wonderful idea and it, too, was mainly a two-character film, about an African-American Union soldier who got into a scrape with a white lieutenant’s wife and had to run. Out there in the middle of the desert, he finds a half breed Native American who has survived out there alone, with his pet chicken. The chicken is called Charlie One-Eye, he’s literally a chicken with one eye. He realizes that the only thing that is going to save his life is hooking up with this Indian, because he knows how to live out there, away from civilization. And he knows he’s being hunted. So it was a funny character relationship.

BE: How about “The Hindenburg”?

RT: Wow, “The Hindenburg,” that was working on a masterpiece. You know, (director) Robert Wise was originally a film editor. In fact, he edited films for Hitchcock. He, like Hitchcock, thought and prepared a film like…he treated cinema like an art. You don’t do a shot unless you know it’s going to be in the film. So everything was done by artist rendering long before the film came to shooting. So he had these trailers on the stage and before every set-up, the crew, the key personnel would move to the trailer and see what the artist rendering looked like, because it designed the lighting scheme. Well, essentially, he shot only what was needed. So that was like going into a time warp, that was amazing. The only area that had facilities for…well, then I think it was called a Zeppelin…was El Toro Marine Base. They had a couple of hangers there that were large enough for dirigibles. So it was a long ride out to the base, and they were already filming when we arrived. There were Nazi children with their dogs, and guards with their high boots, and kids playing cards on the tailgates on Nazi trucks. It was like going into a time warp. The atmosphere was fantastic. The interiors of the Hindenburg…the prop masters had located dinnerware that had been designed for the Hindenburg, so it had signatures underneath from the manufacturers. They were original. They had an aluminum piano. Everything was thought of in the Hindenburg about being lightweight, so they had an entertainer aboard, but he played on this aluminum piano. And, of course, the cast was phenomenal, too; that was a joy. It was a lesson in film making just to watch how Robert Wise had thought about and engineered everything before he ever stepped on the stage.

BE: I also have to admit that I get a certain amusement out of watching “Airport 1975.”

RT: Well, I know how to get out of an aircraft, don’t I? (Laughs) I did it fast!

BE: Also an impressive cast there, though the film was, uh, not perhaps up to the quality of “The Hindenburg.” All right, well, I guess the last thing that I wanted to do was jump back to our original subject and ask you about your favorite episodes of “The Invaders.” Is there a particular one that stands out? I mean, I know you said that you are not the expert that some are, but if you have any one particular episode that really stands out in your memory.

RT: Well, we did a couple of episodes with the same character, and that was with Suzanne.

BE: Pleshette?

RT: Yeah. I love the idea of their…by then, we had known that the aliens, although they looked like us, didn’t have the same emotional, organic makeup that we had. She was an alien who had a flaw, and that was that she had affection. In fact, there was a love relationship developing there, only to be discovered later that she was an alien and was here for mischief. But I thought that would be interesting to some how bridge the gap between humans and extraterrestrial beings through a love relationship. I don’t know that the writers knew where to go with that, or maybe Suzanne didn’t want to continue.

BE: Well, she had a lot going on.

RT: While we were filming one of the episodes, she really saved my life. We had finished filming way out in the desert; out past Vasquez Rocks, if you’re familiar with the L.A. area.

BE: A little bit, but not very.

RT: It was pitch dark. There was no moonlight at all. And all of the equipment had left, all of the big machinery. The one thing that remained was my dressing room trailer. Suzanne and Tommy (Gallagher), her fiancé at the time, had stayed behind and we were chatting for a couple of hours and finally we said it’s time to go. I locked up my trailer and they drove off, and I got into my car and realized I didn’t have my keys; they were locked in the trailer. Now I’m thinking, “What am I going to do? Sit out here? I don’t even know which direction to go!” It was just blackness around. Well, about a half hour later, I saw headlights coming…and it was Suzanne and Tommy. She said, “I never saw him come out of the desert.” They had gotten back to the hotel, and they decided to just double check. Sure enough, they gave me a ride back to town. There was nothing I could have done. So it was a good instinct of hers.

BE: Definitely. Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I also wanted to mention that I’m looking forward to this film “Leadcatcher.” I was checking it out online, and it looks very interesting.

RT: Well, it’s a superb script. I haven’t even seen the final cut, because it has taken a long time, but it’s written in genius. Hero films are real big these days, and this one could have been the very biggest because it’s about retired superheroes. They are requested by the legal community to stop vigilantism, so they do retire and then they go into business together and they open a chain of restaurants called Superhero, selling you know what. And they become fabulously wealthy. What they are involved in in the story is trying to save a young superhero from getting into trouble with the law, because he’s on to a criminal and he’s going to take him down. They said, “No, no, you have to let the law handle this. Try to understand.” But he’s feisty and he’s going to go after this guy. So they all team up to help him out, to save his life. They try their gifts again. Each of these heroes has a special gift. My character had the ability to fly. Here he’s an older man now, but he still has his costume and he sure enough can still fly. Well, the rest is…it’s a good story. I hope it comes out soon; I would like my kids to see it, because they always ask about it. I talk about it so much.

BE: I’m a sucker for a good superhero movie, so I stand ready to see it.

RT: Alright.

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, sir.

RT: Thank you. Same here, Will. Good luck.

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