In the short-lived 1983 series Manimal, college professor Jonathan Chase used his ability to transform into animals to assist law enforcement.
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SIMON MACCORKINDALE was the perfect choice to play the wealthy, cultured Chase. “I thought the concept for Manimal was excellent,” says MacCorkindale. “I also appreciated the fact Chase was a very cerebral individual and that Glen Larson [series creator and producer] had decided to make the show very stylish by having my character be an Englishman who wore expensive suits and drove around in a Rolls Royce. All this was quite unusual for television at that time, so we really were exploring new ground.
“Back in the early Eighties the only other English actor on American television was Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele. Then I got Manimal and a year or two later there was a massive influx of English actors hired for night-time Soap Operas, but Pierce and I started that whole trend. So that, of course, was very much an exciting part of getting the job on Manimal because I knew I had found a foothold in an area that was pretty much virgin territory for Englishmen.
Turning back into a human can have its own problems
“Prior to Manimal I spent two full years in California going to auditions and getting very close but always losing out on parts because I was English,” he continues. “We were regarded, really, as foreigners when it came to primetime television, and, in fact. there was an immortal phrase expressed by ABC in 1981 when someone challenged them as to why I kept being passed over for all these shows. They said that I was not an eight o’clock actor. That meant at that time of night they didn’t want viewers watching someone who sounded intellectual or who had an accent that was alien to their ears and, therefore, hard work when it came to listening. Fortunately, this type of prejudice began to fade thanks to Remington Steele and then Manimal.”
The show’s pilot reveals that Jonathan Chase inherited his unique powers from his late father, who acquired the knowledge while exploring a remote jungle. The dashing young man teaches animal behavioural sciences at New York University and also serves as a consultant to the police department on its use of animals in criminology. However, Chase keeps secret the fact that he can change into any animal he desires and, while transformed, helps authorities track down assorted saboteurs, arsonists and murderers and bring them to justice. MacCorkindale easily recalls his early days working on the programme.
“It was a very enriching time for me as well as a learning curve,” says the actor. “I never had my own series before and I quickly found out what it was like to have everything centred around you and discovered some of the network nonsense that accompanies it. Expectations are high when you’re making a pilot and there are pressures coming at you from all sides as well as demands constantly being asked of you. Everybody is already counting on the series to run at least three years so that it can then go into syndication and make a fortune for them. So there’s a tense undercurrent going on all the time.
“The show had been conceived, but, of course, it hadn’t been fully conceived,” continues MacCorkindale. “There were all kinds of discussions taking place while we were filming the pilot as to the direction in which to take the series. This was a brand new venture for all of us and everyone was excited to be part of the creative process. What made this whole concept work was the character, Jonathan Chase, but very little of who he was supposed to be was really on the page. We had to invent this character as we went along and that was quite an invigorating process.”
Taking a break from the make-up process The Transformation
In his pursuit of law and order Chase morphs into a menagerie of animals, including a black panther and a hawk. The transformation is quite dramatic and begins with his breathing, which becomes rapid and heavy. His hands then start to show ripples and contractions followed by his nose becoming, for example, a snout or a beak. He sprouts whiskers and fangs or wings and talons. From the viewers perspective this all happens in a matter of seconds, but for MacCorkindale it was more time-consuming.
“With any television programme, particularly new ones, you tend to put in incredibly long hours,” he explains. “We were working 14- to 16- hour days on a regular basis and then they’d pull me in on the weekend to do all the prosthetics for the animal sequences, so it was a very tough shoot. At the same time there was certainly great joy in what we were doing. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that we were working with animals and dreaming up ways to use them in the show.”
Only two people were privy to Chase’s secret, his old army buddy Ty Earle (Glynn Turman in the pilot: Michael D Roberts there after) and Detective Brooke McKenzie (Melody Anderson), both of whom worked with the professor on cases. McKenzie was also supposed to be Chase’s romantic interest, but Manimal was taken off the air after only three months.
“We were canned for several reasons -partly, I feel, because of internal politics at NEC and the fact that some network people were not behind the show from the beginning,” says MacCorkindale. “It was also an issue of economics. When we were doing Manimal. Twentieth Century Fox had a tremendous number of shows going and many other actors besides myself lost their jobs on the same weekend. The studio realized that they were over-extended financially and the fact that Manimal was the most expensive series on television at the time didn’t help. We were going over budget at a substantial rate per episode because of the fact we were shooting three full units simultaneously. Our main unit filmed the actors doing the actual story, a second unit handled the animal sequences, and the third all the prosthetics. That was pretty much unheard of in television back then.
“NBC made the further mistake of putting us up against Dallas on Friday night. I’m not quite sure how all this happened because in those days I was far less savvy about the mechanics of the business, but they actually believed we were an alternative to Dallas. In fact, we were much more of a younger-based series and going out at 9 o’clock on a Friday night was basically suicide. When they rescheduled the show for Saturday afternoon the ratings went up radically, but by then we had already been cancelled.”
The Manimal pilot and its seven episodes were eventually sold around the world and, thanks to the advent of cable television, the show became a cult hit and further boosted MacCorkindale’s popularity worldwide. “The series has a phenomenal following among black people, which probably has something to do with the black panther and the image it conveys. It’s also enormously popular in such territories as France, Germany, Italy, Israel and Scandinavia. I can’t move in France without people of all ages spotting me and that’s from a show I did 16 years ago. which is quite remarkable and also touching.”
Born in Cambridgeshire in 1952, MacCorkindale planned to follow his father into the air force and train as a pilot, but his eyesight began to deteriorate when he was 13. He then considered joining the diplomatic corps and possibly becoming an ambassador, but became fascinated with the theatre and decided to be a stage director.
“I persuaded my family that I didn’t want to go to university but, instead, straight to drama school so I could get on with trying to find out whether or not I could make it as a director. My dad and I made a deal, though, that if I wasn’t happy or sustaining myself by the time I was 25 he would exert parental pressure on me to get a sensible job,” chuckles the actor.
“I went to a very small drama school in England called Studio 68 and while there I also learnt a little about acting so I could better understand actors and, hopefully, be a more competent director. By accident, I became the star pupil, or at least one who could walk and talk at the same time. However, when it came time to graduate I realized I still didn’t know enough to direct the world’s top actors.
“I decided to continue acting as well as directing until I felt confident enough to say to a seasoned performer, ‘OK, I think this is what you should do.’ So I ended up with an acting career,” he laughs. “Now, whenever I think about permanently going over to the other side of the camera another nice part seems to come along, and that’s how it’s been throughout my career.”
MacCorkindale toured in regional repertory theatre before making his West End debut in Pygmalion, starring Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg. The actor went on to work extensively in British television and appeared in, among other things, I, Claudius and Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. He also played Joe Kapp, a young astronomer who teams up with Professor Quatermass (Sir John Mills) to fight an alien force that is harvesting Earth’s children in the 1979 ITV Science Fiction series Quatermass.
“One of the interesting things about Joe Kapp and his family was they were Jewish and I’m not,” says MacCorkindale. “Now, Jewish is not necessarily something you can play but it is an attitude. I’ve always been fascinated by the Jewish religion because it’s a very strong faith and very binding for a family which, of course, was a key issue with Joe’s story line. He and his family were extremely close and when he learns they’ve all been killed by the aliens he goes mad. Trying to find this extraordinary sense of faith that was constantly driving him proved quite a challenge for me.”
Riddle of the Sands, Death on the Nile, Jaws 3-D and Cabo Blanco are just a few of the feature films MacCorkindale has appeared in. He spent 1980 to 1985 in the United States working as an actor and director in the theatre, while on television he guest-starred in series including Dynasty, Hart to Hart. Matt Houston and The Dukes of Hazzard and portrayed English aristocrat David Clement in the acclaimed mini-series The Manions of America. Besides his regular role on Manimal, MacCorkindale played Greg Reardon for two seasons in Falcon Crest and also directed several episodes.
MacCorkindale and his wife, actress Susan George, returned to Britain in 1986 to fulfill his ambition of creating his own production company and in 1987 they formed AMY International. Since then the actor has developed, produced, directed, written or co-written a variety of projects. In 1990, he acted as executive production consultant and also starred as ex-Scotland Yard inspector Peter Sinclair in the USA Network cable series Counterstrike. The show ran for three years and still receives high ratings in syndication.
In the summer of 1998 the actor went to Vancouver to direct an episode of Nightman. He also guest-starred on the show in an episode entitled Manimal in which he reprised his role of Jonathan Chase. “We were able to use computer graphics for the animal transformations rather than make-up and prosthetics, so we brought Manimal up-to-date.” enthuses MacCorkindale. “I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about reviving the show and with syndication more popular than ever the timing seems right. So, who knows, Manimal might just have a rebirth.
“It amazes me the impact that the series has had on my life,” he muses. “Because of Manimal I was invited to a children’s hospital in St Louis to meet a young boy who had cystic fibrosis. He was going to die and wanted to meet Manimal. I brought him a bunch of presents and we spent the whole day together and, eventually. I made him laugh. He passed away a short while later and I received a letter from his mother telling me that that day was the first time he had smiled in two-and-a- half years. She was there in the room to see it and will always have that image of him to remember.
“You don’t realize what an enormous responsibility you have as an actor and how you can affect people,” says MacCorkindale. “Even if it’s just one time and one person in your life it justifies your entire career.”