Sticking with it

Mel Novak on Game Of Death, Dan Aykroyd, Steve McQueen and what he's doing today

by Jennie Kermode

Mel Novak in Syndicate Smasher
Mel Novak in Syndicate Smasher

A popular action movie villain and sometimes hero both on and off the screen, Mel Novak is probably best known for playing Stick the Assassin opposite Bruce Lee's in 1978 hit Game Of Death, but he has more than 60 feature films to his name and has recently branched out into documentary. He's a member of no fewer than five Martial Arts Halls of Fame, the holder of a Living Legend Award from the Universe Multicultural Film Festival and also the recipient of several humanitarian awards for his charitable work. At a stage in his life when he seems to be busier than ever, the Pittsburgh-born star agreed to talk to us about his long career.

Mel Novak
Mel Novak

Jennie Kermode: What first persuaded you that you wanted to be an actor?

Mel Novak: In LA, I got a job with an insurance company as a bodily injury claims adjuster. It was there that I met a gal that set up a meeting with me and her cousin that was a modelling agent. I worked as a model for several years in runway shows and magazine ads, while working as an adjuster. The modelling agent could see how expressive I was in photo shoots and persuaded me to get into acting and soon after, I enrolled in acting school. I was bit by the bug.

JK: Although you’ve been in over 60 films, you’re still best known for Game Of Death. What was it like to get so much attention at that stage in your career?

MN: It was truly a Hollywood moment. When I went to the première at the Chinese Theatre with my co-star Colleen Camp, we were mobbed by fans asking for autographs. It was an incredible and surreal experience that I was blessed to be a part of and to this day, I still get tons of fan mail regarding my role in that film.

JK: People often admire martial artists on screen without really understanding how much work it takes to get – and stay – that good. How did your martial arts career develop and was it affected by the injury that derailed your baseball career?

MN: My martial arts career developed when I was shooting Black Belt Jones and I was hanging out with the fight coordinators and the stunt men on set and that got me interested in pursuing martial arts. Thankfully no, it was not affected by my baseball injury.

JK: Some actors say that villains are the most fun to play. Is that the case for you or is the large number of villains you’re portrayed more a result of how other people see you?

Mel Novak in Game Of Death
Mel Novak in Game Of Death

MN: I enjoy playing villains as they are multi-dimensional characters and are often the juiciest parts, but I like to play others roles as well. After having played so many famous villains in so many popular films, however, one gets typecast. It was initially challenging to break into playing heroes and more sympathetic and likeable characters.

For example, after I played Stick the Assassin, the villain in Game Of Death and shooting Bruce Lee, everyone hated me and I was offered countless roles but it was mostly villain roles. Thankfully, I’ve made the transition to play all sorts of roles.

JK: You’ve starred alongside some amazing performers. Who was the most interesting to work with and who would you say you’ve learned the most from?

MN: I really enjoyed improvising with Dan Aykroyd and working with Rosie O’Donnell in the popular comedy Exit To Eden. Dan even told me that I was the only one who could keep up with his improvising. Everyone on set applauded. I took that as a real compliment. And there was a scene with Rosie, where she was a stripper who is trying to seduce me and I gave her a disgusted look. After we shot the scene, she said, ”You’re either an amazing actor or you don’t like the way I look.” To which I responded with a laugh, “Oh Rosie.”

I also really enjoyed working with Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior and with David Carradine in another film. Both were brilliant and generous artists. My all-time favourite was working with Steve McQueen in the western Tom Horn. I learned a lot from him. He gave me some great pointers and advice. I learned so much about the art of acting and the importance of patience, emotions, truth, being real, and taking risks. And just being calm, centred, stepping back a little, and knowing that everything is going to be all right, no matter what choice I make. I was fortunate to become close friends with Steve. We had a wonderful friendship all the way to his passing, which was way too early.

Mel Novak and Brinke Stevens in Robowoman
Mel Novak and Brinke Stevens in Robowoman

JK: Which director have you most enjoyed working with?

MN: My top three are Gary Marshall, Joel Schumacher, who were both amazingly talented artists, with Robert Clouse being my ultimate favourite. Robert was an incredibly gifted filmmaker. I owe so much to Robert and the experiences of working with him in his films has given me more than I could have ever imagined.

JK: You’re an incredibly prolific actor and you have quite a few films coming up at the moment. Is there anything you’d like to say about them?

MN: Sure. I have some films that are in post-production. I played the role of the kindly Mr. Pomeroy in multi award-winning filmmaker and actor Harley Wallen’s action sci-fi film Abeyance, which was featured in Variety. This film had a great cast consisting of Richard Tyson (Kindergarten Cop), Scout Taylor-Compton (Rob Zombie’s Halloween 1 and 2), Billy Wirth (The Lost Boys), Kaiti Wallen (Bennett’s Song) and Vida Ghaffari (The Mindy Project). I also played the role of the deranged Dr. Michaels in noted cult filmmaker Dustin Ferguson’s Robowoman opposite Dawna Lee Heising (Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance), Brinke Stevens (The Slumber Party Massacre), Aki Aleong (Babylon 5), Sue Price (Albert Pyun’s Nemesis 2-5) and frequent collaborator Ghaffari. I also played the role of Hank Lancaster, a lonely widower opposite Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Sally Kirkland in the supernatural thriller When It Rings.

I also have three films that have recently been released. In Ferguson’s sci-fi thriller, Nemesis 5: The New Model, I play the sinister leader of the Red Army. In horror anthologies such as noted filmmaker Don Glut’s Tales Of Frankenstein, I play a mad scientist appropriately called Dr. Mortality and in Aaron K. Carter’s An Hour To Kill, I play Mr. Kinski, a crime lord. I’m also featured with Mel Gibson in the popular faith-based documentary, Steve McQueen: American Icon, which had a theatrical run and was distributed by Fathom Events.

Mel Novak in Tales Of Frankenstein
Mel Novak in Tales Of Frankenstein

JK: You’ve also spent many years counselling people in prisons. How did you get involved with that? Do you feel that prisoners are too often ignored by the world after they’re locked up, and has your career as an actor sometimes helped in getting them to connect with you?

MN: I was asked to be a celebrity guest speaker at the Fred Jordan Mission on Skid Row. Seeing all those people suffering that day, the Lord put it in my heart to become a minister and help feed the hungry physically and spiritually, and get people get off the streets and get their lives in order, so they are independent.

Yes, I do feel that prisoners are often ignored and I do feel that people need to reach out to them more and we can try and make a difference in society as a whole. It’s opened a lot of doors and dialogue where I can get my foot in the door and initiate conversations with them on a human level as they are fans of my films, and they often don’t like to converse with ministers.

JK: What kind of films do you like to watch when you’re not busy starring in them?

MN: I enjoy watching sporting events and action films of course!

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