He’s not just approaching, Flash Gordon is back! 40 years after the New York Jets’ top quarterback landed on the Planet Mongo, he’s returned to cinemas in a newly restored version of everybody’s favourite adventure fantasy.
And now he’s headed into our homes too in glorious 4K as the film arrives on DVD and Blu-ray.
It made a star of actor Sam J. Jones and gave birth to some of the best loved quotes in cinema history, from Dale Arden’s (Melody Anderson) declaration that “Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth” to Prince Vultan’s (Brian Blessed) full throated “Gordon’s alive”. Yet, for some reason, there’s never been a sequel.
We persuaded Sam to shed some light on the reasons why, and to talk about the animated Flash Gordon currently in the works, with Taika Waititi at the helm. He also recalls going through a casting process that took 30 days, and saw him beat off some heavyweight competition for the role.
Zavvi: Flash Gordon celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and it’s a film that’s achieved true cult status. But when it was first released it didn’t do very well either with the critics or at the box office. How did you feel about that at the time?
Sam: When it first opened in America it did not do that well, it wasn’t a huge financial success at the beginning, but in other countries it did do very well. It didn’t shatter records or anything like that. In America it then became top ten of all time for a number of years in video (VHS sales), and in other countries too it became a cult classic.
That early lack of success doesn’t bother me – maybe it did a little in the early years. When we were filming the project, I’d already done some TV projects and things like that and everybody’s always saying – especially the creative decision makers behind – “this is going to be great”.
Well, that’s all nice and dandy and I hope it works out, but nobody can predict, nobody really knows how something is going to turn out.
I’ll give you an example. I did a series called The Highwayman in ’88 and we shattered the Emmy Awards and all the other top shows on TV, but the show only lasted a year. And when I asked why, they said there’s really no rhyme or reason except that some of the networks have contracts with other producers and other actors, so they had to fulfil their contractual obligations.
So here’s my deal. It’s a blessing to get hired, it’s a second blessing if a project does well and I call Flash Gordon a triple blessing because it’s about longevity.
We’re still talking about it 40 years later. You never know how it’s going to turn out but it’s turned out really well for me, especially after 40 years.
Zavvi: So how did you get the part? You beat Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the role?
Sam: A lot of people said that, but Dino De Laurentiis (the producer) was very confidential and there were a lot of non-disclosure agreements. As crazy as it sounds, my audition process took over eight months, and the last part of that was when he sent me to London to screen test for 30 days.
I was told at the time that other actors were arriving – they wouldn’t mention any names – and we would enter through one door and depart through another, so nobody really saw anybody.
Originally, I think Dino’s mother-in-law had seen me on a TV show and said that looks just like your Flash Gordon, so that started it all and then it was meetings and meetings, and then finally being flown to London in early 1979.
We didn’t have video back then so if you wanted to screen test somebody it was a huge production. It was a film crew, and that means everything – camera department, lighting department, wardrobe, hair and make-up department.
It was a big deal and we did that for 30 days until he decided that’s it!
Zavvi: And it’s not actually your voice on the final cut, is it? What happened there?
Sam: It’s about 50%. I went home for Christmas and had another project so Dino had to get somebody to match my voice.
It was OK. I think it was a little bit higher than my normal speaking voice and that bothered me a little bit, but that’s part of the deal in movies. Unless you have creative control that’s just the way it is.
Zavvi: More recently, we’ve seen you in the two Ted movies. How did that come about? You were back in costume, complete with the blonde hair, playing Flash Gordon.
Sam: I got a call ten years or so ago from Seth McFarlane and he said, “Sam, I saw your movie when I was eight years old and it changed my life and inspired me to be a writer and director and a producer.”
And he added, “I’m getting ready to direct my first movie, it’s called Ted and I want you to be part of this production.” And that’s how that came about.
A lot of actors and athletes say they’re not role models, but whether we want to be or not, we are role models.
Here I am at almost 66 and I’m getting these phone calls from people who grew up to be decision makers in Hollywood, and because they had a memorable, enlightening, inspiring experience with Sam J. Jones and/or Flash Gordon, they decide they’re going to use that guy.
And that’s how I got to part of the Ted franchise.
Zavvi: So have you been approached by the likes of Marvel or DC to play one of their super heroes?
Sam: Not yet! We have a vernacular term in Hollywood, “how’s your project?”, “well, it’s in development!” And that usually means that you don’t have the money.
Now here’s the deal. All the people that acquired the rights to make a sequel to Flash Gordon were reputable, major decision makers. The first guy who bought the screenplay rights to make the sequel was Stephen Sommers – I think he did Van Helsing and a few movies like that – but he didn’t follow through on the option.
Then Neal Moritz came along – he did all those Fast And Furious movies – but he decided not to follow through. And most recently – five and a half or six years ago – Fox Studios bought the screenplay rights and they brought big names on board, like Matthew Vaughn – are you kidding me? – who did Kingsman and Kick-Ass, but for some strange reason they decided not to pick up the option.
I believe that last year they were ready to follow through, then Disney came along and bought Fox and said we’re not going to do a Flash Gordon live action, we’re going to do an animated version. I’m not saying that to complain, I’m just giving you the facts on what happened.
So right now the plan is for it to be an animated version and I’ve talked with the Fox people – I’ve not talked with the Disney people – and they know I’m completely on board whether it’s live action or animated. So that’s where it is right now.
But it’s wild! It’s one of the rare cases in Hollywood where multiple, reputable decision makers have acquired the screenplay rights over a period of 30 years and never followed through with the option, and I’m not sure how many other superhero movies that’s happened to. It’s all about timing. Maybe they’re just waiting for me to acquire the rights and do it myself!
Zavvi: And would you do that?
Sam: Of course I would! There’s certain guidelines in this regulatory environment about acquiring screenplay rights and being allowed to pick up the option and actually do it.
They don’t care if you have a billion or two billion dollars. What matters is you can prove your team, your crew, that’s going to create this new sequel – you have to prove that each person is proven. Your director has to be an iconic name, your producer has to be iconic, your lead actors have to be iconic.
If I could afford the screenplay rights, then yes, I would bring those people on board, but you need to bring on a top ten director, top ten stars – I’m not a top ten star, nowadays I’m a bargain and I understand that – but I’m viable as this character.
So you’d have to bring on the younger supporting cast. And it’s all about timing as well.
Flash Gordon is available on Blu-ray, DVD, collector’s edition, steelbook and digital from 10th August.