Exclusive Interview: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock with Stephen Manley (Part 1) by Kimberly Moore
I am very fortunate today to have a special guest star via/Telephone Interview with Stephen Manley. He is known for his roles in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Little House on the Prairie. I am only naming a couple of his starring roles throughout his extensive career in the 40+ years of his acting experience. His newest debut, Ghosthunters, by The Asylum was released on July 5, 2016, and is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
What inspired you to become an actor?
Stephen- "This is like a novel full in and of itself. I am adopted. I'm an only child. The woman who adopted me, my stepmom, her father was from Naples, Italy. He and his three brothers lived in New York in the early nineteen hundreds. The older brothers took off, and after awhile one of them joined the Navy. My grandfather, Stephen Soldi, worked in a shoe factory for a while and didn't like it. When he was old enough, he joined as a bill-boy in World War I. They sent him over to France and when he got there, the war ended. So, they put him back on a ship and sent him back to New York, and now he's an American citizen. He then joined the circus. He didn't want to go back to the shoe factory. He traveled by train with the circus taking care of the Lions at night time and working as a clown, you know, during the shows.
In 1917, he ended up in Los Angeles, and B.W. Griffith was gearing up to make that big silent film Intolerance, the one with those huge Babylonian sets, and there's a Roman sequence to it. He got a job. He was hired as one of the Roman soldiers. And, Griffin wanted Italian speaking people to play the Italians and the Romans. I still have Grandpa Soldi's costume test picture. It's a hand-printed photograph of him in a Roman uniform on that set. He said, 'Boy I love this!'
He stayed in the movie business from 1917 all the way until 1966. You can catch him all over the place. I mean, he was in Gene Kelly's, 'Singing in the Rain'. At the end of the routine, my grandfather bumps into him and Gene Kelly hands him the umbrella, that is my grandfather; When the Marx Brothers are crowding into the state room in 'Night at the Opera', he is in the picture all squashed up inside there with them. I've got pictures of him with Charlie Chaplin and Boris Karloff. He loved the movie business. He loved being an actor. He specialized in bit parts and small things. Eventually he was also a stuntman. He was Peter Lorre's personal stuntman, and he was Edward G. Robinson's personal stuntman.
Because he was from Naples, Italy, he wasn't the tallest fellow in the world, he was like, you know, Al Pacino and Edward G., but he loved it. He loved the industry. He retired in 1966. His last gig was a drama on Disney film called Bullwhip Griffin. In the 50s', he had tried to get Stella, his daughter, to take her contract with 20th Century Fox seriously, but the only thing that Stella took seriously was flirting with guys at the beach. So, they retired her from her contract, which drove my grandfather insane.
So when I was adopted, he looked at me and he put his insights on me. You know, I love my parents, but Grandpa Soldi was everything to me. When his wife passed away, since he lived with us, I spent all my time with him. It was not uncommon for me to just get up in the morning as a little boy and walk into grandpa's room and find him going through his stills of all those pictures that he would then explain what every single one of them were, 'Here I am as a German soldier. Oh, we're getting ready to run over ...'" he trails off. "You know, 'Here I am as a cowboy, hey, gettin' in a gunfight...Here I am as an Oregon grinder, and I'm, you know, taking tips. You know, here I am with the dead-end kid.' He was also the original live version of J. Wellington Wimpy of Popeye and Wimpy, and they did short films and live appearances. So, I have pictures of him eating White Castle hamburgers and holding Spanky McFarland in his arms. So, I learned all that stuff.
And then, he taught me to read, but he taught me to read by using film strips. And so, I would learn how to read dialogue and memorize the lines. I learned how to read stage direction, all that kind of stuff. He put 15- millimeter films on his projector, and he would show me the things he was in, or something would come on television and he would say, 'Here I come,' and there he was. He was one of the students in Frankenstein at the beginning of the movie. He tried desperately to get my mom to be little Maria, the little girl that gets thrown by Boris Karloff into the water to see if she floats like a flower. The director James Whale wanted her, but Stella was so terrified of Boris Karloff that they couldn't get her near the set. So, it went to the other young lady.
So, when I was five years old, he stuck me in his 1949 Packard, which was in immaculate shape. He kept everything beautifully. We drove down to the Screen Actor's Guild, and he spoke in Italian to the head of guild at the time, and I walked out with a side-cart. And, that's how I got started. A few months later, I was on a talent show called Juvenile Jury, and an agent named Dorothy Peyote saw me and she took me on. She thought I had enough personality that she could push me, so then, I could get work. And, sure enough, I started to book jobs. I went on auditions. I went out on interviews, and the unique thing was, I recognized all of the studio lots and all of the buildings because they were in the still pictures that my grandfather would show me when he would do show and tell all the time. And, I felt such a heavy responsibility to make my grandpa proud and to utilize the work ethic that he instilled in me.
I was cast all the time as a heavy, dramatic kid. I died all the time. The first thing I died from was a tuna fish and ice cream combination food poisoning. I was kidnapped in the streets of San Francisco by James Macy who was my dad returning from Vietnam, and you know, that crash on the Hindenburg in 1974. I had a concussion on Emergency. I did all kinds of stuff. I was the young Carradine in Kung Fu for a year. The last year in the series, I started to do a lot of pilots and stuff. I was a working actor from the time I was six years old until the time I was eighteen; I didn't stop, and I basically worked on the Universal Lot. That was my home base all growing up. What a wonderful place to grow up. They had all those great T.V. shows going at the time, Columbo, Emergency, and Adam-12, I did one of those. I mean what a great place to be.
I did a series called Sara. It's a place in the western era, and Brenda Vaccaro plays Sara Yarnell, and I was one of her school kids every single week. I was then in what they call The Four Corners Area on the Universal Studios Back Lot where the four western streets come together. It was a wonderful thing, but unfortunately I lost Grandpa Soldi while I was shooting the motion picture The Hindenburg for four months. I carry him with me. I still got his Wimpy costume from the thirties. I still have his makeup kit, and his make-up kit is one of the models Ron Chaney had. He had several make-up cases. One of them is an actual history museum, the famous on and the taller ones as well. I remember he had one that was identical to my grandfather's, and there was some of the same stuff in it that grandpa had, that Chaney had. I still them, brand new, not even opened. Back from the thirties, and it is still in its kit. It's my prized possession. I think about him every single day. So, that's how I got into the film industry, and uh, he was the culprit.
What role would you like to play?
"Well, that's an easy one. Kurt Russell has always been a big hero of mine. He was a child actor who broke through and became a really macho guy. I love his character in Escape from New York. Kurt has always been a big champion of mine. Always in the back of my head when I saw him doing some acting, 'There's a guy that went from child actor to now. I wonder if I could have done that too. As of late, I have been quite a mean, nasty bad guys. I am playing a good guy in thing as well. I did a western. I have done a biker thing, and now I've got Ghost Hunters on the horizon. So, I've got some things that are unique to myself. Tom is a wonderful guy over there in Pittsburgh. He does stuntwork. He loves acting. He's done a lot of theater. He's also a make-up artist. He is a hero as well, and boy, does he love his community in Pittsburgh, the Italian Community. He's been there all his life. That's what he's been loyal and faithful to. He is a champion over there. He's a great guy too."
Who would be your dream crew to work with?
"A lot of the guys I would have loved to work with have died, unfortunately. Everybody that was in The Magnificent Seven, the exception of Robert Vaughn who is still alive. I did get to work with James Coburn when I was very young. It's a funny story. Blake Edward made a movie out of a Michael Crichton novel, called Cherry Tree. James Coburn was the star of it, and so was Jennifer O'Neill, a beautiful lady who played my mom. There was a scene in there where he goes to pick her up for a date, and of course her kid's there which is me. They leave me with a babysitter, and they take off for their date. The scene actually got cut from the movie. I was devastated at the time. I thought it was a superfluid scene, but I got to spend two days with James Coburn. Talk about his voice, and talk about elegance, the way he moved and the way he handled himself. There's a funny bit on that-I disappeared for a little while on that set, and my mom said to the teacher on the set, 'Do you know where Steve is?' She said, 'No, I can't find him.' And so, my mom was walking around, and they were looking for me. James Coburn's dressing room was inside the soundstage. It was this really cool futuristic modern chrome with black leather. The door was open, and my mom heard this voice talking from a Batman comic book. She heard James Coburn saying, '-and Batman was climbing up the fire escape because Two-Face was there.' She came around the corner, and she saw that he was reading out of the Batman comic book. She said, 'Is he bothering you?' He said, 'Absolutely not. We are going to find out what Batman's gonna do next,'" Stephen says as he recalls this fond memory from his past. "He was a champion to me!"
I worked with Tommy Lee Jones when I was twelve years old. He played Howard Hughes in a T.V. movie about the late Howard Hughes at the time, and I played him as a young guy. There was this surrealistic scene where he was talking to himself as a younger man, and I remember working specifically with him and Tommy saying, 'Stephen come on over here. Let's go sit on this railroad track while they're doing there thing for an hour or so. I want us to get to know each other. It's going to benefit our performances,' and that was my future in method acting. I remembered sitting on the side of the road with him and first getting into character and that whole process. I remember him vividly soaking up things that I was saying and trying to digest being sensitive to make a better performance out of it, and also, so I could learn from him. Great experience!
I worked with a wonderful famous Broadway stage actress. She is still with us, Dora Lambert. She was cast as a gypsy fortune teller in a series that I was in. A friend of mine, David Jacobs, cast me in that series in 1978 called, The Married Machine. I had a speech impediment, but I did these wonderful sculptures out metal that were like kinetic. They turned them with a crank, and then they eventually put a motor on them. It was a beautiful touching show that went for a year. And, later on as a gift, he wrote me into this other series called, Secrets of Midland Heights. David was the creator of the original Dallas, a wonderful writer. Him and his wife and Diana are still close to me to this day. There was a full episode in the series that he wrote that centered around me trying to come to peace with my mom, who died while I was away on a trip, and I didn't get to say goodbye to her. The fortune teller was played by Dora Lambert, who was not vindictive but passionate and warm, just trying to get me over this issue I had with her conjuring, her mysticism. Gosh, I spent a week with Dora, and it was a very touching scene, very difficult scene. They couldn't have casted anybody better. My God, what an actress.
There are more great people I have worked with, including Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek. Leonard casted me in Star Trek III because of that scene, you know, those sequences with Dora. That's where he saw me and when he called me. So, Dream Crew, all of the them did wonderful. And, when you realize that everybody is there to quote, 'make the show' and to make it happen-if an actor can open themselves up to the crew and realize that their jobs are just as difficult as yours- under a lot of pressure to get things done-and when you do that-the crew is on your side, and you're all working together to make a really, really good experience, so it won't be stressful.
I don't have anything bad to say. The Hindenburg was a very dangerous set during the sequences where the Zeppelin was crashed, but at the time there was no CGI. Everything was real, and then when they were done working with the set, they'd burn it down. That last day I walked out with third degree burns. I was grateful that they healed, but it took an awful lot of treatment for that. But, my wife and I, we were just watching the film the other day, and I haven't seen it in maybe twenty years. I saw it in the DVD section at Walmart for a couple of bucks, and it's a great film. It's a mystery. A lot of things came back while watching it, just the art direction alone and the family, and I was there. I remember the guy putting the set together, even all the way to the point of all the details on the China that they bought. They were also wonderful to work with. I could sit here and talk forever. I got talking a lot from my grandfather, and you know, he loved to talk about all these things."
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview with Stephen Manley. We will be talking about his role on Little House on the Prairie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and others.