Sadly, I have to report on another passing. Actor Don Edmonds died on May 29, 2009 from Cancer. I interviewed him for my book, Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969. He was a great guy and we stayed in email contact for awhile. I had the pleasure to finally meet him in person at a Chiller Convention in New Jersey. Don was very humble regarding his acting and directing careers and enjoyed talking with fans. Click here for his web site that his fans will continue and below is my profile on him from my book:
Tall with sandy blonde hair, Don Edmonds was attractive with fine features but he lacked that leading man look. Consequently, he was saddled playing the goofy sidekick most notably in three surf/beach-party movies. Edmonds made his film debut as Larry in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) after knocking around Hollywood since 1958. Friendly with actor-turned-producer Bart Patton, Don was cast in two of his beach movies. He went from the shores of Malibu in Beach Ball (1965) to the slopes of Sun Valley in Wild Wild Winter (1966).
Don Edmonds was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His father relocated the family to Long Beach, California in the thirties and got work as a timekeeper at the shipyards. Soon the elder Edmond’s entrepreneurial son began offering to shine shoes for military men at the Pike an amusement park in Long Beach earning more money than his father. The cute-looking youngster also had a talent for singing and appeared in local USO shows singing “Mammy” in black face.
As a teenager Edmonds spent his time hanging out on the beach. “The first surfboard I ever saw was in 1950 when my friend Terry McGelrand who was this wild guy brought one back from Hawaii,” recalls Edmonds. “This board must have been fifty feet long and it had no fin on it. We loaded it up on his Woodie and took it down to the beach. We had always been belly floppers before that. He took it out into the water and stood up on it. We gasped, ‘Whoa, check that out!’
“We all began surfing after that,” continues Don. “A couple of legends came from our group. Hobie Alter had this shack out there where he was experimenting with different kinds of weights and woods. He began designing surfboards. Later he was famous for the Hobie Cat [which Matt Warshaw described as being “an easy-to-use 14-foot catamaran designed to launch from the beach and ride over the surf’]. The other guy who I really grew up with was about three or four years younger than us and he’d plead, ‘Can I hang around with you guys?’ We’d say, ‘No, go away! We’re going to look for girls.’ He was always the kid we’d chase away. His name was Bruce Brown who went on to make The Endless Summer.”
Though he was surfing around the same time as Mickey Dora, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracey, Mickey “Mongoose” Muñoz and Kathy “Gidget” Kohner, Edmonds did not encounter them in the ocean. “We never went up to Malibu because we’d end up in a fight,” states Don emphatically. He revealed that surf wars were common between the surfers from various beaches. The guys had their own turf to surf. You were expected to stay on your own beach and not invade anybody else’s.
After graduating high school, Don Edmonds joined the service and became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. While stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina he joined the Spielhaus Players and appeared in works by such renowned playwrights as Tennessee Williams and William Inge. Returning to Long Beach, he was cast in several local theatrical productions before joining the Estelle Harmon Actor’s Workshop where his classmates included BarBara Luna, Bill Bixby, Millie Perkins and Ty Hardin. From there Edmonds was able to finagle an agent to represent him and began landing work on television most notably in five episodes of Playhouse 90.
While working on Playhouse 90, Edmonds became fascinated with directing. “I’d sit and just watch the director,” reveals Don. “I just knew I wanted to direct. I never just hung out in my dressing room. Instead I would come out on the set and observe gentlemen like Ralph Nelson and John Frankenheimer work. They were young guys back then making their bones too. This was the only schooling that I had. I was just so interested in the directing process.”
Edmonds made his film debut in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) playing a college guy who along with Joby Baker and Bart Patton befriend Deborah Walley’s Gidget on her island vacation. He landed a much smaller role as a doctor in his next movie The Interns (1962). In a wild New Year’s Eve party scene, he does The Twist with dancer Carroll Harrison. A photographer shot stills of it and they appeared in most of the popular fan magazines to publicize the movie. This and Edmonds friendship with a club reporter named Rona Barrett kept his name alive in the movie rags for years despite his small output of film work. Though he was being cast on TV in such series as Combat and McHale’s Navy, Don was only able to land minor roles on the big screen in two Walt Disney features, Son of Flubber (1963) and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964).
Television offered more opportunity for the struggling actor and he landed a regular role on the sitcom Broadside (the female version of McHale’s Navy) in 1964. But half way through the season his character was phased out because they had nothing for him to do. He recalls, “I really liked working with Joan Staley. She was neat and a very sexy girl. Sheila James was one of the brightest people I ever met. She graduated from one of the Ivy League schools and is now part of the Legislature in California.”
Edmonds’ friendship with Gidget Goes Hawaiian co-star Bart Patton came in handy when Patton became a producer and hired the young actor for lead roles in Beach Ball (1965) and Wild Wild Winter (1966). Though he worked with some heavy weight talent on Playhouse 90 in his early days in Hollywood, acting in beach movies did not diminish the work ethic Edmonds learned from them. He says, “When you are starting out in show business there are certain ethics you must learn. If you worked with people who had those ethics you either picked them up or got out. I was taught that you always show up on time and you know your lines. You’re a pro and never come in with a B-game. If you do that you are never going to make it in this town. No matter if it is one line of dialog or the lead, you act like a pro. So by the time that I worked in the beach movies that ethic had been ingrained in me. Also I was never an actor that had so many choices—I took what was there and did my best.”
Edmonds post-Wild Wild Winter acting career trailed off with appearances on the TV series Green Acres and a return to the beach in Gidget. “I did a few of episodes of Gidget with Sally Field,” recalls Edmonds. “She was only about 15 years old. The first time I ever stepped on set with this little girl, I had the lame idea that I was just going to work with another kid star. Well, I was never so wrong in my whole life! The camera rolled and suddenly I was saying lines to a consummate pro. Her eyes popped into mine and I could feel the connection, which I’ve only felt with very few actors I’ve ever worked with in my entire career. She absolutely blew me away. I knew right that second that she was going to be huge. Not just because of the Gidget series but because I was working with an ultimate actor. It was absolutely thrilling to get that feeling. I’ve worked with actors from Boris Karloff to Andy Garcia and as great as they were I never have worked with anyone that outdistanced her. That time proved me right and that she took the Oscar absolutely didn’t surprise me. It thrilled me but it didn’t surprise me. She’s as good as they get in movies. I just wish she’d work more.”
In the late sixties Don Edmonds stopped acting for a period of time. “I gave it up because of my desire to get onto the other side of the camera,” reveals Edmonds. “I’d been around it a lot. I liked directing but nobody was going to hire me. Who was going to give me a chance? They just considered me a dumb actor. So that’s when Rick Rogers and I paired up.” Rick Rogers used the stage name Steve Rogers and had worked with Don Edmonds in Wild Wild Winter.
“Rick and I had these great offices on Brighton Way in Beverly Hills and we wore suits to lunch at La Scala. But we weren’t making any movies. We walked around with business cards convincing ourselves that we were producers for about a year and a half. Finally, I said, ‘Rick, we’re bullshit! We’re looking good and doing nothing!’ He didn’t care because he was wealthy and living up on Stone Canyon in a colonial mansion with his wife and two children. His family owned American Linen Supply Company and Steiner Products. But I’m over there on Orchid Avenue in an $85.00 a month pad and I can’t make the rent. I told him we were going to go out and make a tits and ass movie. He said, ‘My wife would never allow me to make a tits and ass movie.’ I said, ‘Yes, she will.’ And that’s how we made Wild Honey.” Edmonds directed and wrote the sexy comedy about a country girl who comes to the big city and gets in all sorts of trouble. But he and Rogers had a falling out due to “creative differences” and have never spoken since. “I don’t bare him any ill will but I think he does me,” says Don with a sigh.
Wild Honey (1971) made money at the box office and the film’s success led to more behind-the-scenes work for Edmonds during the seventies in soft-core sex films. He wrote Saddle Tramp Women (1972) starring porn actress Rene Bond, directed Southern Double Cross (1973), and wrote, produced and directed Tender Loving Care (1974) starring Donna Desmond as a nurse investigating the mysterious death of a boxer. Edmonds most infamous movies though were the cult film favorites Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) and Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976) starring Dyanne Thorne as Ilsa, a sadistic Nazi warden. These low budget violent exploitation movies are still talked about to this day and have been called everything from “sleazy,” “tasteless” and “dreadful” to “amazing,” “superior” and “legendary.”
Regarding Ilsa, Don Edmonds says, “I appeared at the Chiller Theatre Convention in the fall of 2003 and people would walk up to me and tell me that I was the godfather of all the trash films that they love. I’ve never gone to a cult movie convention before and the reaction I received from the fans literally stunned me. These guys were practically kissing my ring. You wouldn’t believe how many web sites are dedicated to Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS—hundreds! It’s amazing!”
Don Edmonds returned as a triple threat with the violent bounty hunter film Bare Knuckles (1978) starring Robert Viharo and Sherry Jackson. During the eighties he was vice-president at Producers Sales Organization where he was involved in getting such big budget movies as Short Circuit (1986) and Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) produced. More recently Edmonds (who described himself in a recent interview as being “a film doctor”) worked in production on more mainstream films such as True Romance (1993) with Christian Slater, Val Kilmer and Brad Pitt, Fast Money (1995) and the direct-to-video Larceny (2004). “I was one of the producers of True Romance,’ states Don. “Quentin Tarantino wrote it but I didn’t know who he was. He came to lunch with the director, four suits, and me. We all introduced ourselves, shook hands, and sat down. Quentin whispered to me, ‘What’s your name again?’ I said, ‘Don Edmonds.’ He said, ‘The Don Edmonds?’ I replied, ‘I’m the only one I know.’ He asked, ‘Did you direct Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS?’ I hesitantly admitted that I did and he proceeded to list all the movies that I directed including the ones that I had forgotten about. He just floored me!”
In 2003, he returned to acting playing Uncle A in Killer Drag Queens on Dope starring Alexis Arquette and Omar Alexis in the title roles. “I’m brilliant in this, by the way,” jokes Don with a laugh. “I played the head of a family of mobsters. I can’t put two thoughts together. The character is confined to a wheel chair and I wear a patch over one eye. This is a silly, dumb movie that will probably never see the light of day.”
Today Don Edmonds is working once again with producer David Friedman on a new Ilsa movie about her daughter. Fans have been clamoring for another sequel for years. Looking back on his beach movie days, Edmonds remarks, “I am not embarrassed to have worked in these films but when I see them now I groan, ‘Oh, man!’ But it was a wonderful part of my life. I would not trade that experience for all the money in the world. It was a terrific time and era—the tenor of the country was much different then. Hollywood meant everything to me. I was in the movies. I was successful. Those times were the best. It was just fun. I would wake up each morning and think ‘what’s next for me?’”
Film credits: 1961: Gidget Goes Hawaiian; 1962: The Interns; 1963: Son of Flubber; 1964: The Misadventures of Merlin Jones; 1965: Beach Ball; 1966: Wild Wild Winter; 1980: Getting Over; 1986: 8 Million Ways to Die; 1995: Last Gasp; 2003: Killer Drag Queens on Dope.