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The Kong and I



By Harlan Kennedy


“It’s show business,” says Mr. “King” Kong, swiping a pensive banana from a passing hospitality tray.  “Doing interviews is part of the game, but so is keeping the mystique.  That’s why I do so few.  In fact I haven’t done any since I was on location fifty years ago.  And even then it was only to Time, Film Comment and Der Spiegel.”

When King Kong’s agent rang me from The Ritz in Paris – he and Mr. Kong were en route to Berlin – he swore me to secrecy.  “The world’s press is going ape, Harlan,” said Harry Nyklewicz, who also represents Godzilla, Orca the Killer Whale and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. “That’s why officially the King won’t be in Berlin at all.  We’ll taxi him quietly to your hotel, the Kempinski, while everyone’s looking at the effigy being raised outside the Zoo Palast.  How much time do you want?”

“An hour?”

“Fine.  We’ll bring him through a rear door of the CineCenter.  He’ll be wearing a turned-up raincoat and dark glasses, so it’s best if you wear something distinctive in case you miss each other.”

“I’ll wear a gorilla suit,” I joked.

“Fine” said Harry, who thought I was being serious.

So I wore the gorilla suit that I had in my suitcase.  But I got more than the hour I’d asked for.  Kong is quite a raconteur when he gets going.  He’s shorter than you expect and insists the towering height he conveyed in the original film was due to his acting alone. “Tall, full-bodied acting!” he growls.  “The kind you don’t see anymore.”

At sixty, he has put on weight since 1933 and the cigar habit has attracted criticism from his doctors.  “Cigars!” he shrugs.  “What’s life without a few vices.  I was once told I’d be ruined by my weakness for blondes and tall buildings.  But who’s perfect?  You, for instance, obviously have a weakness for wearing gorilla suits.”

 I ignore this.  How, though, I am bursting to ask, did this primate superstar first get into show business?  Was King Kong his debut movie?

“No.  Not really.  I was lighting stand-in for Lon Chaney on Hunchback of Notre Dame;  I did over-the-shoulder shots for Marie Dressler.  I was a heavy-breathing voice on the sound track of several Val Lewton movies.  And I modeled for Marlene Dietrich’s gorilla suit in Blonde Venus.  Oh and I was a chimp wrangler on Bedtime for Bonzo.  That’s how I met Ronald Reagan.”

And as few know, he was a frequent White House guest during the Reagan years and still stays with Ron and Nancy in their California home, offering astrological advice.

But what – I have to ask this – of  Fay Wray?  There were rumors of an off-screen romance between the diminutive screaming blonde and the towering ape.  True?

“Fay and I were good friends, but there was never anything more.  She was a feisty gal and quite a handful when she got excited.  People say I was a big thing in her life.  I don’t know.  But it was only friendship on my side.  Still, I had a lot of fun with Fay and Ernie (Schoedsack) and Merian (C. Cooper).  That’s why I wouldn’t do the remake.  That and the script.”

You mean, of the Dino di Laurentiis film?


So what ape did they use?

“I think they used models and trick effects,” he answers.  But so did the original KONG surely?  “No. No tricks at all.”  But film historians have documented the special effects and stop-motion model work…?  “No. No tricks at all.” he answers with a new steeliness in the tone.  “Do you want me to say it again?”

Kong is a moody ape and I decide not to pursue the matter.  Two more questions.  First, what does he think of King Kong’s cult status in cinema history?  “It’s fully deserved.  I think it was the semiologist Roland Barthes who best anatomized the blend of nostalgia de la barbare and the comic book paradigm that singled Kong out as an almost classic interbellum text of American cinema.  Praxis and theory came together in a remarkable variant on the Beauty and Beast story and its mythic templates.”

And my final query.  Any further movies planned?  “It’s so difficult to find the right script,” coughs the ape over a new Havana.  “I was offered Jurassic Park by Steven (Spielberg), but I said I can’t play dinosaurs.  He said, we’ll write in a role for a big tall hairy beast with long arms and staring eyes.  I said, you’ve already got Jeff Goldblum.

“That’s a joke.”  Kong adds, chuckling.  “But no, times change, fame is no longer a spur.  I’m as big as I ever was, but who said, ‘It’s the pictures that are getting smaller?’  I’m ready to write my memoirs, take my lifetime achievement Oscar (planned by the Academy for 1994) and win that small Golden Animal – what is it, an ant, an amoeba? – that I think they’re going to present me with at Berlin this year.”




This article appeared in the Official Journal of the 1993 Berlinale Filmfestspiele.  King Kong was made and released in the USA in 1933.  It’s director’s were Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper.  The film was honored with a gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival.


© Harlan Kennedy.  All rights reserved.