Mel Novak is a name you might not initially recognize, but you will know his face. With nearly sixty television and movie credits to his name in a career spanning 45 years, Mel is in more demand now than ever. He has made a name for himself in the industry as a humble, polite and congenial man who is highly adept at playing onscreen villains.
Mel was presented with the Spirit Award by the Multicultural Motion Picture Association and has starred with some of the screens greatest sex symbols, including Gloria Hendry in Black Belt Jones (1974), Sybil Danning in Cat in the Cage (1978), Bai Ling in Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015), and Laurene Landon in the upcoming Syndicate Smasher. For doing the most dangerous stunts himself in The Ultimate Warrior (1975), Mel was made an honorary stunt man. He is the only actor to have starred with the top eight blaxploitation stars of the 1970’s: Jim Kelly and Gloria Hendry in Black Belt Jones; Isaac Hayes and Yaphet Kotto in Truck Turner; Richard Roundtree in An Eye for An Eye; Ron O’Neal in A Force of One; Rudy Ray Moore in Vampire Assassin; and Fred Williamson in Check Point.
Mel shot Bruce Lee in the face in Game of Death, beat up Steve McQueen in Tom Horn, set up Chuck Norris in An Eye for An Eye and almost put Yul Brynner on fire in The Ultimate Warrior. He’s the recipient of numerous entertainment, civic and humanitarian awards including the Golden Halo Award presented by the Southern California Motion Picture Council (the MMPA’s pre-Emmy awards presented by the Multicultural Motion Picture Association). He has been inducted into The Martial Arts Hall of Fame in London, The Academy Awards of Martial Arts/Action Martial Arts Hall of Honors and the All-Pro Tae Kwon Do Hall of Fame.
Although he plays a bad-ass in these movies, in reality he’s one of the warmest and most personable people in the industry. You would never know it, but he is an Ordained Minister and works as a Skid Row and prison minister doing his best to spread God’s word and help people. Mel was gracious enough to speak with me recently about his work and his career.
Jonathan Stryker: Tell me about your background. You were born in Pittsburgh, PA, which is known to genre fans for being where George Romero settled after he went to Carnegie Mellon University. How long did you live there?
Mel Novak: Well, I moved out here (Los Angeles) roughly when I was about 25, and naturally I’ve always considered Pittsburgh home, the place where my friends and family live. I have great family roots there. I’m actually Serbian. My real name is Milan Mrdjenovich. They’re great people back there, they’re really just wonderful. I had a wonderful mother and father and a great brother. I had 60 scholarships offered to me for football; all from major universities all over the country. These were scholarships for basketball, track, etc. So, I signed a pro baseball contract with Pittsburgh and had a massive rotator cuff tear. I was 19 years-old and basically crippled for five years.
JS: Wow, I am so sorry!
MN: Thank you. This was really, really difficult for me to handle. I had nightmares for a very long time. And yet people had told me at the time that I should’ve taken the football scholarship, that I would’ve been pro football ready, etc. I was a kicker and punter. So, it was a difficult period. But, the good news was that when certain people at that age have a major calamity, they usually turn to drugs and alcohol and what have you, but I didn’t do that. If I had, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m very stubborn, I never give up. I was told that I would be crippled for the rest of my life. It took me about six years to get myself back on my feet.
JS: Wow, that’s amazing. Did you set out to be an actor?
MN: No, I moved out here, and I got a job. My signature is that I wear suits all the time and really nice shoes. And a woman who noticed me told me that she thought I looked great in suits. She had a cousin who was a modeling agent and she asked me if I wanted to meet her. I said yes and that’s pretty much how it all started.
JS: Caroline Munro started that way, someone wanted to take her picture because she was very photogenic.
MN: Exactly! I began modeling and one agent sent me to acting school. I went to some great acting schools. But, I also had a job on the side. A lot of people out here were panicking to pay their rent, so I was working for an insurance agency and I got a free car. I was an outside adjuster for them. It was perfect for me. It took me many years to pay off the medical bills for the massive surgeries that I needed. But, I did it.
JS: What was your first acting job after arriving in Los Angeles?
MN: Well the first television role that I got was on Mannix, I played a hit man. As you probably know, I always play villains. I really enjoy that!
JS: They must be fun to play.
MN: They are! The first big movie role that I got was in Black Belt Jones in 1974.
JS: I watched that at a friend’s house when he bought a used copy of it in the Warner Home Video oversized clamshell box.
MN: Yeah, those were huge! When I went to meet (director) Robert Clouse, I wore my gangster hat, my gangster suit. I went to read for the role of Blue Eyes.
JS: The hit man.
MN: Yeah. I was learning back then, I was a really good cold reader. I could say the lines. I was in-character. At the end of the scene, I had to say, “Look at him. He’s sweating like a pig.” So, when I did the line, I grabbed the director by the shirt and said it to him, right in his face. At the end of the scene, he told me thank you for my time, etc. On the way home, I was beating myself up and asking myself why in the world did I even do that! As I pulled into my driveway, I lived in Canoga Park, I heard the phone ringing from the house. I ran inside and answered it. It was Oscar Williams, the screenwriter. He told me that the director loved me and that I got the part.
JS: That’s Hollywood!
MN: When we were shooting, it was the first day of shooting, I had a lot of dialogue and I had to punch this guy out. This guy named Pinky. And the actor who played my gangster partner was really screwing up on his dialogue. And I’m thinking that this guy had better get it together. So the next day, I’m on the set and the first assistant director tells me that the producer and director want to see me. I’m thinking Oh no, did I do something wrong? When I went to see them I asked him if I had done anything wrong. They said no, that I had done everything right, and told me that my partner couldn’t handle all of the dialogue. They asked me if I could do more dialogue. I told them to give me all of the dialogue they wanted! And that’s basically why Robert Clouse took me to Hong Kong for Game of Death.
JS: Yes, in addition to that, you worked with him on The Ultimate Warrior (1975) and Force: Five (1981).
MN: Yeah, with Yul Brenner and Max Von Sydow. Yeah, so he just always loved how I worked and I was always on time. I don’t have any kind of ego problems. I’m very easy to work with. In life, I should’ve died about seven times, I’ve been crippled, I went through a tremendous amount of adversity. So, I don’t let things get me down. I’m dealing with one actor right now, and I won’t mention any names, who talks about how great he is. And I’m thinking to myself is this guy kidding? He hasn’t had any big movies released that he’s been in! What’s he talking about?
JS: I interviewed John Carpenter five years ago and he confirmed what you are telling me now. He was really stunned by how some of these young performers behave. They want to sit in on the dailies and even have a say in what takes are used!
MN: Unbelievable! That fight scene than I did in Game of Death, that started at eight in the morning and we finished shooting at eight at night!
JS: Oh, easily!
MN: The cinematographer, who was from England, said to me the next day, “I wanted to tell you that when I was driving back to the hotel with the gov (director), he told me that he was so glad that he brought you, because you gave him more than he thought you would give him.” That made me feel really good because certain people behind the scenes didn’t want me. They wanted some big-name actor. So, after being there for two or three weeks, they came to me and told me that they were wrong and they shook my hand, and told me that I was that character.
JS: Going back to Black Belt Jones, can you talk a little about Scatman Crothers? He played Louie Wilson, my favorite character on Chico and the Man, on television.
MN: Oh, I loved Scatman! He had that great big smile. He used to tell me, “You’re gonna go far, man. You’re good lookin’. You’d be a bad dude. You have eyes that are piercing. They go right through you.” Scatman was just a delightful human being.
JS: The Shining is my favorite horror film and he was just terrific in that.
MN: I’ve made very many friends over the years, and in this business people are always telling you that we’re going to get together, but it just never really happens.
Mel as Stick in Bruce Lee’s Game of Death
JS: I do think that people mean that when they say it for the moment, but let’s face it, life happens, things get in the way and we tend to get very distracted. I think that is only amplified in the film industry because everyone is running around trying to get work.
MN: Yeah, I agree with you. That’s perfectly put. And then you get these guys who just run around and get high all the time. I remember years ago, I did one of the biggest modeling jobs in the world. It was for men’s apparel. A bunch of the other models called me up and told me to come meet them at the hotel and that we would all go out afterwards to get something to eat. I agreed. So, I went over to the hotel room and they had so many different drugs there. It was crazy. It’s always a choice, and I chose not to take any of that stuff. I’ve known people who have overdosed on drugs and died. The big drug of choice for teens in this country today is heroin.
Mel and Chuck Norris in An Eye for An Eye
JS: That astonishes me because I’ve never even smoked a cigarette! Not unless you count second-hand smoke, of course.
MN: Heroin is just so brutal. The big problem is that it’s so affordable and so available now. I was just reading in the newspaper about a former NFL quarterback, who was born and raised around here. And he tried to commit suicide. He had an 18-year-old son who died of a heroin overdose. That has to be brutal! Next Sunday…I actually go to these juvenile halls in East LA and talk to kids who are 10, 12, 14 years-old, I want to get their attention and tell them how bad this stuff is. I’ve appeared in over 30 movies. And talking to these kids, it’s just heartrending, when I go talk to them, I’m down for the count. And this is how it is out here. I see these women imprisoned and when they smile they’re missing some teeth because they took crystal meth.
Lovely But Deadly, with Rick Moser, Lucinda Dooling, Irwin Keyes and Mel
With Sybil Danning in Cat in the Cage
JS: It’s far worse than Orange is the New Black. Tell me about some of the projects you’re working on.
MN: On October 9th is the release of Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance, which I play a part in, as well as Bai Ling and Laurene Landon. I also recently finished Syndicate Smasher which is in post-production. It was directed by Benny Tjandra and Doug Tochioka. These two guys wanted to work with me for over 12 years! They loved Game of Death. Syndicate Smasher also features Laurene Landon and Joe Estevez. My billing is above the title and I get to kill about 30 people in this one! (laughs) I got a call from my agent, Joe Williamson, who told me that he got a call from a director, William Lee, for a movie called Bad Fellaz. Well, this is a story about the Mob and the first black Don. And I Iove working with Joe Estevez, he and his brother Marty (actor Martin Sheen) are just great people. And this director, William Lee, is another guy who loved Game of Death! They wanted me to play this role and asked me to go out to Cincinnati to do it. They also want to sign me to do the sequel, for which I would have a starring role. I thought to myself, I really don’t want to spend a lot of time going back to Cincinnati just for one day, and then spending 12 hours in the airport. So, they worked it out so that a second unit director shot it and it came out really, really well. He was very happy with it. So, it’s onward and upward. I signed to do another picture called Darling Nikki.
Bai Ling and Mel behind the scenes of Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance
JS: The video revolution that began in the mid 1980’s saw an explosion in a new business model for studios, specifically the direct-to-home-video market. Films that would never have been made and shown in a theater were now optioned and green-lighted for consumption by VHS viewers, and later on DVD and streaming over the Internet. This was my generation’s drive-in theater which was popular 30 to 40 years earlier. Do you prefer this type of form of entertainment over theatrically exhibited films?
MN: Well, it’s good. Truth be told, of course, you want your work to be distributed. Another movie I did called Checkpoint is scheduled to be released in AMC theaters, and it features Stephen Geoffreys and William Forsythe. Thomas J. Churchill is gonna be an incredible director, you know, well-known. I love this guy. But, there are other films that are going to go straight to DVD or Blu-ray or Netflix or whatever. And the reason why that’s good is because you’ve got people in these movies who have never been seen wherein the opportunity for them to be seen never came up. I’ve also done roles for friends that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. There are certain things that I will do and things that I won’t do. For example, I will never use God’s name in vain. I had 10 throat surgeries in 10 years. From the age of 18 to 28. It was brutal. I couldn’t talk for seven weeks at a time. So, that’s just not negotiable for me. So like I said, you may go on Netflix and end up seeing a lot of people you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Also there are movies out there with big-name people in them that, for one reason or another, they just never got distribution.
JS: It’s really amazing to me to see just how expensive movies are nowadays. You take a movie, like James L. Brooks’ 2010 film How Do You Know. This had a budget of $120 million, but the studio managed to get tax breaks and bring the price down to $100 million. Half of that budget went towards the salaries of the four lead performers in the movie. The overall domestic and worldwide gross of that movie combined was just shy of $50 million. So the film was a financial disaster. Now, I honestly would have thought that the other half of the budget of the film would have been significantly less simply because movies are no longer shot on and exhibited on printed celluloid anymore.
MN: I know, some of these budgets are just out of control. I do a lot of low-budget films, but I’m so easy to get along with that directors seek me out and hire me. I remember I did a film, and the lead actor in the movie was always stoned on cocaine, and I was so dumb. I noticed that he kept sniffing a lot so I wanted to give him vitamin C! One of the crew members told me not to waste my time, because he knew that he was stoned on cocaine.
JS: I don’t think you were dumb, just naïve and not used to that. That’s crazy.
MN: It is. You have people who have incredible talent and work for years and years and just never get a break. I remember one time in an acting class, this guy had been going to acting classes for 20 years! I asked him if he had his SAG card. He told me that he was “gonna get it real soon.” A woman in the class told me that he was a career student. People ask me for advice about being in the business. I tell them to be realistic and if they really want to try it then they should give themselves at least three years, five years maximum. And if nothing is happening whatsoever, then go do something else. I have given acting lessons, but not in a long time. I just don’t have the time now. People come in and pay me good money, but after a couple of times I tell them that I don’t want to take their money and that they really need to see what they want to do because people in Hollywood will take your money no matter what. There are all kinds of people in Hollywood who will tell you that you’re going to be a star.
JS: What are some of your anecdotes of working for Jonathan Kaplan in Truck Turner (1974) with Isaac Hayes?
MN: Oh yeah, Jonathan! I haven’t seen him in a while. At the time that we made that movie, he was very hot. A lot of these directors make just a couple of movies and then they just disappear!
JS: I remember the ads on television for A Force of One (1979) and An Eye for an Eye (1981), both with Chuck Norris. Tell me about your experiences on these films.
MN: Yeah, Steve Carver directed An Eye for an Eye. I thought he was a really good director, I really liked him. He directed a handful of films, but then he just kind of disappeared.
JS: I think what happens is a lot of directors, actors, and actresses who make a handful of films here and there suddenly decide to leave the business and go into something else.
MN: Yes, that’s true. Very true. One of my acting teachers, Stacey Harris, told me that I had the best notes that he had ever seen. He was on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp on TV. But anyway, that class I was in had about 50 students in it. And you know what? I’m the only one I know who is still working! You never know what happens. People get sick, people overdose on drugs, a whole host of things can happen. I’ve been very lucky, though. I’ve had a really good run. I’m able to do all these movies and also reach out to people who are broken and help them the best that I can.
JS: What are some of your favorite films by other directors?
MN: I really love Gone With the Wind, I just watched that again recently. This is a little off-topic, but I would really love to work for a female director. I’ve never had the chance or the opportunity to do so, but that’s something I would really love to try. I just saw the new Mission: Impossible movie. That director did a really great job on that movie.
JS: Yes, his name is Christopher McQuarrie. He did Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise a few years ago.
MN: Yeah, he’s great. I would also love to work with Martin Scorsese. There are so many people! What I really love about working with certain directors is I find myself on the same page as that director. I’m really good at taking direction and they know what they’re doing. When I take a film role, I always write up a background biography on the character I’m playing. When I show it to them, they love it. In Game of Death, when I have a matchstick, it was my idea to have a matchstick in every scene. I wanted the tip of the matchstick to match the color of my suit. I told Clouse about it, it was my suggestion. I wanted to make sure that it was okay with him. He told me that he liked it. He also told me that he wanted me to be in shape and bring some of my best suits. Then he had me working out with all of these famous world-wide famous black belts who were kicking my butt. I really loved working with him because he really blessed me, working in all these major movies. He would just tell me what he wanted in a scene, and I would give it to him. He was always so pleased. On The Ultimate Warrior, he told me that he fired a stunt man because he just didn’t look the part. He asked me if I could do the stunt, and I told him that I could. Now, I knew the stunt coordinator and he asked me if I knew what I was going to do. I told him that I did, that I was going to fall six feet. He said, “No, no, no… You’re six foot two, and you’re going to fall six feet which means that you’re gonna fall twelve feet and two inches. You’re going to have a lit torch and you’re gonna go in, at the last second you’re gonna turn to your left and you’re gonna go through two-inch balsa wood with your left shoulder and your pebble is your mark because there’s all sand there and then you’re gonna go down another six feet…” So I said, “Lord! Lord! You need to help me out here.” I shouldn’t have agreed to that! (laughs)
Director Thomas J. Churchill with Mel and William Forsythe behind the scenes of Check Point
JS: Good heavens. What did you do?
MN: Well, we did a rehearsal with the torch not being lit. So, I did it and he told me that it worked out well. So, the next day, and mind you that this is a crucial scene, where we’re fighting with a knife and everything and the guy stabs me and I fall forward and then boom. So now, the two producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller, they were all over Clouse because he was getting behind. So, Bob told me, “Mel, don’t f— this up!” I said, “Thanks a lot, Bob. I didn’t really need that!” They were getting ready and they had three cameras rolling. They call action then we start the fight scene, I’ve got the lit torch, it came out great. I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t get scratched, and I didn’t get burned. The cast and crew were shouting “Bravo!” They were all clapping and I was telling them, “Get me out of here!” And that’s when they put the live rats on me.
JS: Who did you work with that you really enjoyed working with?
MN: Well, one of the all-time greats was of course Steve McQueen. He really liked me because he had spent some time in juvenile detention trying to help kids. He knew what I did. It’s not easy, going into prisons and penitentiaries.
JS: No, I know. I have done it.
JS: Yes, several years ago I was working with a gentleman who does school programs for students and during the summertime he does lectures for at-risk juveniles who are in halfway houses and jails. I handle his computers and he did a lecture in a place where all the students were in orange jumpsuits and were shackled.
MN: I’m going to Pelican Bay next month for the tenth time. That’s the worst penitentiary in the country.
JS: I know! They have the Security Housing Unit there.
MN: I have to sign paperwork for them that says that if I’m taken hostage they don’t negotiate with the prisoners. Steve (McQueen) really wanted me to play the sheriff in Tom Horn (1980). Well, the director had worked with Billy Green Bush on Electric Glide in Blue (1973) and insisted on having him. Steve called me and said, “Mel, I’m really sorry, but he wants Billy.” Well, Steve fired that director and two weeks later I get a call from Fred Weintraub. He says, “Mel, Steve just fired three actors and he said, ‘Go call Mel Novak.’” Now, it was three o’clock in the afternoon, and he told me that my plane would be leaving at six. Well, I’m about an hour from the airport. And I was wondering when on earth I would even be getting my lines. So now I fly to Arizona, where they’re shooting, and I’m wondering where are my lines? So, I finally get my lines. I’m on the set, and I’m getting into wardrobe and a guy comes in and tells me that Steve and the director want me to play a different character who has a lot more dialogue. He then tells me to hurry up because they’re ready to start shooting!
JS: Oh, my gosh.
MN: “Are you kidding me??” So, now we’re in the middle of the street rehearsing with the script and they’re getting ready to shoot. Fortunately, we had John A. Alonzo on the picture…
JS: He was a great cinematographer. I loved his work on Conrack, Chinatown, and Norma Rae.
MN: He was great. He said, “Mel, that’s great!” So, I told him, “John, they just switched roles on me! I was supposed to play the sheriff.” Steve loved it, too. He told me that he wanted me in every picture. After that, I did The Hunter with him, that was his last film. By that point, he had cancer. Really bad. When he coughed, I got chills. I never heard a cough like that in my life. I prayed very hard for him. Even so, I don’t let things get me down. When you go down to Skid Row in Los Angeles, you just see people who are dumped there, people who are just completely and totally broken. People living on the sidewalk in tents. If I don’t get a role in a movie, I’m not gonna let that get me down. I got a friend who, if he doesn’t get a role, he gets drunk for almost five days. I keep telling him, you just can’t do that. You can’t hurt your body like that. I’ve seen really attractive people in this business, actors and actresses, who drank a lot and their looks are just taken away from them. I went to my 20-year class reunion, and I wore a new black suit. One of the women there remarked that I was the big shot from Hollywood. (laughs)
Laurene Landon, Mel, Jon Miguel and Olya Lvova in Syndicate Smasher
JS: Will you be wearing that suit to any film premieres? (laughs)
MN: I just got a brand new suit for Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance, that’s the one that premieres on October 9th. I’m wearing my new tux!
You can read more about Mel Novak can be reached through his IMDB page.