Simon MacCorkindale might now be more familiar for his role on Casualty, But we decide to remind him of his time when he could turn into any animal he wanted, in his superhero guise of … Manimal!
Possibly the most bizarre of a plethora of superhero action series that Glen Larson launched upon an unsuspecting television audience in the Eighties, Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a tuxedo-clad university professor who helped the police using his unique special power. At the merest hint of trouble, he could turn into any animal he desired. Whether panther, elephant or mouse, a barrage of plastic special effects, throbbing foreheads and elongating fingers signaled his transformation as he stomped or scurried to thwart a dastardly crime. MacCorkindale took to the role with aplomb, a dashing hero with charisma and charm, but alas the combination of his debonair good looks and demented special effects were not enough and the show only lased for eight episodes after its star-studded pilot first aired.
It may surprise many Cult Times readers that despite his performances in programmes such as Quatermass, Hammer House of Horror, Earth: Final Conflict and Poltergeist: The Legacy, MacCorkindale doesn’t consider himself a Fantasy television actor. “I prefer portraying real-life characters; you can base your performance on something that exists, you know? If your playing the man from Hell, what can you base it on?” How then did he get into the character of Manimal, someone who changed into animals? “Yes, now that was an interesting one, and I like that particular Fantasy show enormously for the point of view of the Human element.. There was nothing fantastical about the Human element. He was simply what he was, a professor of animal behaviour and therefore behaved in that way. The conceit of the show was simply that he had the ability to turn him-self in to any animal. When he was an animal he was a genuine animal, so you really went through a fantasy conceit to get from point A to point B. Both of them are from reality, which really satisfied my natural desire for truthful drama, because both sides of it were just that. The fantasy was simply the methodology.
“I absolutely loved Manimal,” reminisces MacCorkindale. “Frankly, on one level it was ahead of itself, but it was marketed badly in America because they decided – for a reason best known to themselves, but I think a lot of it was internal politics – that it was an adult show. So they banged it out on Friday against a show called Dallas, which was in its early days. Clearly what they discovered later was that it was much more of a younger audience show. As soon as they put it into that (type of) time slot it changed absolutely radically, but by this time they had cancelled it because at the time it was the most expensive show on television.”
After battling with JR Ewing and Sue Ellen, the show only lasted eight episodes, but has since gained a cult following. “Yes it is shown on the USA Cable Network, which has a Science Fiction channel, and the French are absolutely potty for this show. For at least 10 years, it not 15, they ran it every single year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it popped up out of the blue again one night.” Enthused by the success of the show overseas, MacCorkindale is hopeful for the future of the shape-shifting sleuth. “There is definitely a market for Manimal and I still believe in the concept, even more so now you can make the transition from Human to animal in a much more effective and dramatic way with everything you can do with CGI nowadays.” A long way from the American Werewolf In London-inspired bladder effects that transformed Dr Chase in the original show? “It was turgid, to say the least. It was hard; we did all that at weekends. I worked a five-day week then went in at the weekends to do the make-up and effects, so it was a massive schedule and that was very laborious; I was five or six hours in make-up. The effects were very time-consuming to create they took me through three or four different masks, then they went through prosthetics and face masks and then the reverse for the animals.
“Now ironically, in 1997, I reprised (the role) in another show called Nightman. I was asked by a friend of mine who was executive producer and a great fan of Manimal, ‘What I want is to have Nightman meet Manimal in the Fantasy comic show,’ and they threw directing a show into the package, so I shot them back to back. In that we used CGI and it was much smoother and so much more dramatic. It really worked, so part of my remit for 2003 to go back to Glen Larson Productions and actually talk about the possibility of re-evaluating the show. I think with all the environmental issues that have now become far more prevalent that in the Eighties, and the subject matter and the methodology of actually putting it out on the screen have all moved so far forward, that I think it would not be a bad thing to do. Particularly as there have been so many comic book heroes hitting the screen.”
The actor’s ideas for Manimal follow on from a succession of shows for which he has taken the role of executive producer. Queen Of Swords, Relic Hunter and the US syndicated action show Adventure Inc have all benefited from MacCorkindale’s producing talents. “I do it all!” he laughs. “I have a relationship with a production company in Canada and they have come to me to be the UK end! The programmes have generally been generated by third parties, but nevertheless I look for a viable concept, that the stories will be fun, and in most cases with this sort of thing, that the stories are totally harmless. They are pure entertainment, frankly. We try to make them with high production values and to get the best images on screen.” Adventure Inc follows all these rules: a team of adventurers hunt for treasure in exotic locations, led by The Terminator’s foe Michael Biehn. “Michael is terrific and the two kids around him are doing a very good job. These are hard to produce in seven days of action and adventure, but we do it, they are fun to make. And as I said, they are reasonably harmless and at the same time there is some value to them. They take these people around the world see some fantastic scenery, some interesting plots and learn a bit about some history. I think it’s pretty good use of television really.”
MacCorkindale is now a regular face on TV in Casualty as consultant Harry Harper, a return to working on a long-running series after his stint in the soap Falcon Crest. “It’s interesting. I’d done a lot of long-running series, but I have not done a long-running series that is fundamentally going into the same place of work every day, and in that scenario all the adventure shows that I have been involved in were like little movies in themselves. You may have had a stock set that you visit once a week, but you were always out and about on location. To be stuck in a studio is a new thing for me that’s a different challenge. Every time you appear on the same set you’re in virtually the same clothes, everything around you hasn’t changed, so you think, ‘How can I be interested today?’ That’s quite a challenge for an actor and I enjoy that.”
As we bid farewell, the prospect of a new Manimal for the year 2003 is a scintillating prospect indeed. With his production work and constant television appearances keeping him busy, MacCorkindale is making the most of his constant role in the UK’s favourite hospital drama. “Right now I’m enjoying the fact that I’m in one place all the time because it means I can organise the other aspects of my life. It gives me a chance to keep all my iron in the fire!”