Showing as part of the Kids Camp series this month at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, Clash of the Titans was the last feature to bear the stop-motion work of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. And the role of Titans’ heroic Perseus was the first big-screen lead for actor Harry Hamlin—who was excited to work on a Harryhausen project, having grown up a huge fan of the artist’s creations for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. However, the actor reveals that his professional relationship with Harryhausen and the rest of the Titans team had its own share of disputes.
Recalling Titans during an interview at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (where he was promoting Karl Mueller’s satirical thriller Rebirth), Hamlin confesses, “There was one scene in particular that Ray got angry with me about: the one with the gigantic scorpions. They had these wind machines set up, and I was supposed to go up on this big rock and imagine these things attacking me. So I said to Ray, ‘Listen, I’ll tell you what I want to do, if you can imagine this: I’m fighting with the scorpions, and the tail of one of them is going to come down to sting me, and I’m gonna put my arm up and catch the tail and cut it off.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, please do not do that, that’ll never work.’
“But I got out there, and the wind machines were going, and I imagined the scorpion’s tail coming down and went like that [mimes catching it and cutting it off]. And they yelled, ‘Cut!’ and Ray said, ‘What are you doing? I told you we’re not doing that, it’s not appropriate! You’d never be able to catch that thing!’ Well, if you look at the movie, they kept it in and it’s part of that scene!”
A more serious conflict arose when it came to Perseus’ climactic confrontation with the Gorgon Medusa. The actor, who did his thesis on mythology at Yale University, had been impressed by the bronze statue “Perseus With the Head of Medusa” by Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, which depicts the sword-wielding hero holding up the snake-haired noggin. Hamlin wanted to recreate this indelible image, but the filmmakers had other ideas. “When I first got the script, it contained pages of storyboards,” he says. “I got to the scene with Medusa, and it had me throwing a shield, and then the shield bounces off a rock and cuts off her head. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not cutting off Medusa’s head with my sword?’ I went to them the day they wanted me to sign to do the movie, and said, ‘I’m all for this, guys. This is great, Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, but…I gotta cut her head off with my sword!’ [Laughs] And they said, ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry about it, when we get to that scene, we’ll do that, it’s not a problem.’
“So we were in Malta, and the day we were going to shoot that scene, the director and Ray came up to me and said, ‘Harry, here’s the thing. We were really going to have you cut her head off with the sword, but we got a telex last night from London, and they said we can’t do it. We’ve got to go back to the storyboard.’ I was like, ‘What? Wait a minute, you promised me,’ and they said, ‘We know, but they just determined that if you cut her head off with the sword, the movie’s going to get an X rating for violence in England, and all these kids aren’t going to be able to see the movie.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s really too bad, guys, because you’re going to have to find another guy to play Perseus!’ And I went into my trailer and locked the door.
“They were all freaking out, and they unplugged all the electricity to the trailer to try to smoke me out! I had no food or water in there, and they were just waiting for me to come out, and I wouldn’t do it. They were saying, ‘We’re going to sue you!’ and I said, ‘Go ahead! Sue me! I’ve got nothing!’ Every hour or so they’d send in another person, and finally, the line producer came in and spent half an hour with me, and by the time I’d finished talking to him, he was on my side. And then the director came in, and by four in the afternoon I had all these allies, all these people who were now saying, ‘Wait a minute, he’s right! That’s the whole point of the myth, that’s why he’s got the sword!’ So finally, they caved and said, ‘OK, you can cut her head off with the sword.’ ”
Even having won that battle, Hamlin still wanted to homage that particular sculpted pose that had so inspired him. “I told them at the very beginning, ‘We’ve got to do the Cellini thing,’ and they said, ‘Absolutely not, that’s just pandering to…’ I don’t know what. They were just adamant against doing it. So at the end of another day, we had finished a sequence in a Greek temple in Italy, and I had the head with me. I was in my toga and had my sword, and the guy in front of me had the camera on sticks [a tripod], because it was starting to rain a little bit and he was trying to get back to the truck quickly. So I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute! Stop right here. Put the camera down—does it have film in it?’ ‘Yeah, it’s got film in it.’ ‘OK, don’t tell anybody, but I’m gonna do this, and I want you to roll the camera!’ Nobody was around—it was just me and the camera guy—and he got five seconds of me [holding up the head], and thank God it made it into the movie. It was done completely on the fly; nobody knew we were doing that.”
That moment became one of Clash of the Titans’ iconic moments, helping the film to become a hit upon its U.S. release in summer 1981. When it came to taking the film to other countries, however, yet another dispute arose. “Ray and the producer, Charles Schneer, called me up and said, ‘We’re going to do a worldwide tour,’ ” Hamlin explains. “We’re going to start off in Africa, and we’re going to go to Brazil and all through South America, and then Europe and Asia; it’s going to be a month-long trip to promote the film.’ I said, ‘That’s fantastic, when and where do we start?’ ‘Well, we start off in Johannesburg on such-and-such a date.’ And I said, ‘Whoa, this is a problem for me, because I’m a member of a de facto anti-apartheid group in California, and I cannot go to South Africa. I’ll go to all the other places, but I will not go there.’ They were like, ‘But Johannesburg is funding it, South Africa is underwriting the whole tour!’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, guys, but I can’t.’
“So the tour was cancelled, and they thought they lost tens of millions of dollars because I didn’t do the tour. And they never spoke to me again after that. Well, actually, Ray did; after about 25 years, he got ahold of me. He was coming to LA to do one of his talks, and asked me to come down with him. By that time, Charles Schneer had died; this was maybe seven or eight years ago. So I did get together with Ray a couple of times after Charles passed away.”
Hamlin recalls one more disagreement he had with the Titans creators, this one involving the animated metal owl sidekick that has become a fan favorite. “The owl is called Bubo, and that year, I had read The Plague by Camus, so I knew that there’s only one thing in the English language that is a bubo: a bleeding pustule that develops under the arm in the later stages of the bubonic plague [laughs]. So I said, ‘You guys can’t name the owl Bubo, ’cause it’s a boil!’ And they said, ‘Well, the only people who will know that are doctors. No doctor’s going to see this movie!’ ”