Bill Duke ('Commando')
'The Duke of Earnest'
Bill Duke has enjoyed success on both sides of the camera in a career encompassing both acting and directing for movies, television, and the stage.
Duke grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, becoming the first member of his family to attend college. He majored in speech and drama at Boston University before earning his M.F.A. from the illustrious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He spent the next few years writing and directing numerous off-Broadway plays, winning the 1974 Adelco Award for the New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of "Unfinished Women."
His films include Car Wash, American Gigolo, Action Jackson, for which he received an NAACP Image Award nomination, Bird on a Wire, Menace II Society, Predator, Commando, Susan's Plan, Black Jaq, Payback, Foolish, The Limey, Fever, Never Again, Exit Wounds, Love and a Bullet, and National Security.
When not before the cameras, Duke studied directing and graduated from the renowned American Film Institute, where his student project, "The Hero," won the Life Achievement Award for Best Young Director and the Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival.
He continued to hone his directing skills on episodes of such television series as "Hill Street Blues," "Knots Landing," "Miami Vice," "Cagney & Lacey", "Hunter," "Dallas," "Matlock," "Starman," "Twilight Zone," "America's Dream," "City of Angels," "Angel," "Fastlane," "Deacons for Defense," and "Karen Sisco."
He made his feature film directorial debut on the screen adaptation of Chester Himes' novel A Rage in Harlem, starring Danny Glover, Gregory Hines and Forest Whitaker. He went on to direct The Cemetery Club, the sequel Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, and the contemporary thriller Deep Cover, marking his first collaboration with Laurence Fishburne.
More recently, Duke directed a segment of HBO's highly-praised trilogy "America's Dream," entitled "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black," for which he won Cable ACE and NAACP Image Awards for Best Director, and the pilot for the series "New York Undercover." As a writer, Duke collaborated with actor Danny Glover on a book of photo essays, Black Light: The African-American Hero, which chronicles the success of ninety notable artists whose achievements have significantly illuminated the African-American experience.
And now, with the release of "Commando: Director's Cut" readied for release this week, we caught up with bad guy 'Cooke' and asked him to explain himself and his vengeful actions against the now Governor of California!
In the very first opening scenes of "Commando" you’re being a very bad man! In truth you don’t give the casual viewer the chance to love you in this flick, do you?! "I think that's not the intent," he laughs. "We discussed in the beginning who this person was and who he was going to be. And as we worked on it he kinda evolved even more into a hardcore person. But, overall I think setting out we kinda described and understood the directional arc of this character and his partners. So, it was a labor of love in many ways. I was working with an excellent ensemble of people - the same with 'Predator' - so we really had a good time. It was a great positive experience."
As "Commando" was one of the first real action movies of its genre, costing only $10 million to make, did you know at the time you were stepping into something big? "In terms of the drama partly yes, because when you read the script there was drama and action, etc. but also there was a lot of tongue in cheek. And also Arnold as a persona never took himself that seriously. So it was always wonderful to see that because people are endeared to him. But, the magnitude of the action is something I think that was one of the first for us. Now to see the car chases, to see the explosions and all the other stuff - not to mention all the dollars that were spent on it and the time it took to really do those things - that kinda was a first for me."
Back in 1985 was $10 million a big budget to be spent on a movie at that time? "Oh yes, $10 million in those days ... that was big stuff. That was no low budget movie."
I know you did a lot of your own stunt work, but was driving out of the car showroom window you?! "No, that ... I'm not crazy," he laughs. "I'm not that much of a daredevil! Jeffrey - I forgot his last name - was my stunt guy for that, but it was a great bit, you know. And what was great also was that Arnold was very caring about the other actors. If there was ever a stunt being done he would make sure the stunt co-ordinater was making sure that the actors who were doing it would be safe. Which is something that he really didn't have to do, you know. For the fight in the hotel he made sure every blow, everything was working for everybody. He cared which is something that was very unique."
So it was predominately Arnold that was presiding over the fight scenes and their choreography more than director Mark Lester? "It was more of collaboration. They would both ensure that everybody was safe. A lot of times actors get hurt on the set if the lead actor really isn't there for the safety of the other actors, you know what I'm saying. So, he took the responsibility saying, 'Look, this is a movie. This is not real life. I'm gonna make sure everybody's safe. Let's try this one more time to make sure we got all the moves down'."
With regard that hotel room fight scene, and the fact that you do your own stunt work, did you still manage to injure yourself in any way? "Yes, there was one time where I wasn't as careful as I should have been and fell back and hurt my arm. Because no matter how much you practice it in the throes of doing it you get a little excited, your energy levels change. And if you're off a couple of inches sometimes you pay for that."
With your role lasted 49 minutes and 19 seconds, from your entire time spent on screen what would you say was your favorite 'Commando' memory involving you? "I think the stand out moment for me was the scene with the car driving through the window. I thought the line was well conceived, well written and I think we executed it very well. So, I felt really kind of like that was the tone of the movie. Because the movie was an action movie but if you look at it carefully it didn't take itself too seriously."
Director Mark Lester has stated that you were his only choice for this role of ‘Cooke.’ Did you know that at the time and how did it and does it still make you feel today to have someone say that about your acting abilities? "Well, it's very kind of him and I really appreciate it and I'm very grateful. It was one of those times that action films of that genre were coming along and to be chosen to be part of that phenomenon was a privilege for me. And I learned a great deal too and luckily after that went on to do 'Predator.' It was a wonderful experience ... and I want to tell Mark that I really appreciate him saying that."
With regard 'Predator,' and as it was the next movie roles for both you and Arnold, did it ever cross your mind that the audiences had just watched him kill you perhaps a quick year before and yet now you were asking them to believe that you were best buddies fighting on the same side, etc.!? "Yes, it goes through your head for a moment, but what goes through your head more is that check," he laughs loudly.
What was filming "Predator" like in South America?! "Man, we were down there in the jungles ... in Puerto Vallarta ... and I'm not gonna lie to you, but it was probably the most difficult environment to work in. We're talking over 100 degree weather, winds, humidity. People were all getting bitten by mosquitoes. Someone had to go to hospital because a scorpion bit him on the hand. Arnold got dehydrated and had stomach stuff!"
"The first week there we had this wonderful caterer in the middle of the jungle. They put up these nets around the catering truck and we'd look in our soup and food and see bugs! So, we'd send it back and tell them we weren't eating that stuff. So, by the end of week two there was no more food to eat other than that. So we'd picked the bugs out and be very glad to be fed!"
Any near jungle misses?! "Oh yeah, you'd be crawling on your stomach in some of those scenes in the jungle and a crawl snake - one of the most deadliest snakes in the world - would just crawl up right in front of your face!"
And what did you do as a professional actor?! "You'd just lift your head and say, 'Wait a minute. There's a crawl snake'," he laughs.
So, what happens if that thing had bitten you? "Well, you know it wouldn't have been good. It would have been the late Bill Duke talking to you today," he again laughs.
Back to "Commando," and did you also join Arnold in his early morning and between takes work out sessions, perhaps? "Yes, I had the misfortune of working with him and his trainer Finn, Jesse 'The Body' Ventura, and Sonny Landham. The first couple of weeks we were there I worked out like all the time. Check it out yourself ... we had to be on the set at 7.00am. They would get up at 4.00am in the morning and they'd run for an hour, then they'd come back and work out for an hour in the gym. Because Arnold had an entire gym in this big tractor and trailer sent to one of the Ballrooms in the hotel! And that became our gymnasium. So, we'd work out for an hour and we'd go to breakfast, and then we'd go to the set and work for 14 hours! I lasted, I think it was maybe a week and a half! And they called me bad names and everything but while they were working out I took my rest," he laughs.
Being as popular from the off as it was, why was there never a sequel, do you think? "I really don't know. I thought that the film was a wonderful film and I thought there should have been. But, for whatever reason ... Joel Silver produced both of those and he went on to do 'Predator' and many other great films after that. But no, I'm not quite sure why."
At the end of the film, where @ 100 soldiers fire @ 3000 bullets at Arnold and can’t hit him; and yet every bullet he fires kills someone, how is that possible please?! "Welcome to motion pictures," he loudly laughs. "That's as far as I can go."
After all the movies and TV series' that you have done to date is 'Commando' still one of you top acting roles undertaken? "Well, I wouldn't say acting as an actor. I think in terms of what I was doing at that time it was something that I really enjoyed and I think I did the job. Because in terms of acting there are some other films and TV series' I think I got to show more of who I was as an actor. Because the role had more depth to the character, etc. But, in terms of the character in 'Commando' and in terms of what I was required to do, within the action genre, probably yes. That and 'Predator' are my favorites in term of the action genre."
Fellow actress Rae Dawn Chong said that in her scenes with you that off set you were noticeably always moody and stern. Is that you in general or is it your way of preparing for what is just about to happen on set? "I stay in character pretty much. For me, that's the way I work. Everybody works differently, but to do some of the things I did ... I mean, I was playing a pretty ruthless, horrible human being - and so to bring that naturally I couldn't be laughing and then all of a sudden make a frowning face. So, you had to bring some of that with you ... but that's just the way I work."
Lastly, please tell us more about your current projects that you hold close to your heart? "Well, I've directed three films in the last two years. I have two causes ... one is Education and the other is AIDS. One out of every seven black men is HIV infected in D.C. And out of all the reported AIDS cases in American women 70% are black women. And so I made a documentary 'The Faces of HIV' which gives you the stats of some of the people who are infected."
"And then I made a film called 'Cover' which deals with the topic too. In addition I made a feature film also with Sony which comes out the first of '08, I think and it's called 'Not Easily Broken.' So, I've been very busy directing these days."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
'Commando: Director's Cut' DVD Purchase Link
Bill Duke's Mission Statement
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