In honor of the return of Nova to the rebooted Planet of the Apes movie series in War for the Planet of the Apes, I am sharing a revised interview with the original Nova Linda Harrison that ran in Filmfax magazine.
Linda Harrison will always be remembered as the beauty among the beasts. She left an indelible impression on 1960s moviegoers as the mute Nova, opposite Charlton Heston’s lost astronaut, Taylor, in the classic sci-fi films, Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). With her long, dark hair and big, brown eyes, Linda had the perfect qualities to bring Nova to life on the big screen. “Nova means new,” reminded Linda Harrison. “I felt very comfortable playing her. I didn’t even have to audition. Dick told me I had the look they wanted.” Dick was Richard Zanuck, then head of 20th Century-Fox. It was on the studio lot that Linda met Zanuck, whom she married in 1969.
Beauty pageants led to an introduction to a young agent named Mike Medavoy who helped Linda get signed by 20th Century-Fox. The studio was restarting its acting school program for its contract players. At the time, the acting roster included Jacqueline Bisset, Tom Selleck, Christina Ferrare, Lara Lindsay, and Corinna Tsopei. After playing small roles in the unfunny Jerry Lewis comedy Way…Way Out (1966) and the better received comedy The Guide for the Married Man (1967) with Walter Matthau and Robert Morse, Zanuck then handed the brunette beauty the role she would become world famous for that of Nova in Planet of the Apes.
Before she was given Nova, Linda was part of the make-up creations by John Chambers who would go on to win a special Academy Award for his ingenious work. “I was used as a model for the make-up. That is what contract players did back then. You were being paid a weekly salary so sometimes you had to do things like this. The studio heads wanted to see if the makeup was doable. At that point they hadn’t green lighted Planet of the Apes yet. I had to lay back and be perfectly still as they put this plaster mold on my face. You had to know how to control your body. The whole process took about three hours.”
Lucky for Linda and Charlton Heston, they didn’t have to go through this process daily unlike co-stars Hunter and McDowall. Recalling the cast, Harrison remembered, “He [Heston] had a quiet quality about him. Charlton was gentle and was always looking after me. He taught me how to favor the camera. As an actor, I was someone he kind of took under his wing, which was good for the film. Sometimes, simple things like that transfer to the screen, and are very dramatic.”
“Roddy and Kim were great people and fabulous troopers. I’m not just saying that; they were pros. They had a difficult time with all that makeup. And they had to report to the set at 3:00 am!”
Director Franklin J. Schaffner (who would go on to win a Best Director Academy Award for Patton) was chosen to direct and per Linda had his own vision for the movie. “He was a very interesting man—very quiet. I remember Dick and I would have dinner with the assistant director on the movie. He and Dick were best friends. He would tell us nobody knows what the next shot will be, because Schaffner keeps it in his back pocket. He would only tell his cameraman, Leon Shamroy. But that lent itself to this kind of picture. It gave the actors a very interesting edge, not knowing what to expect next. I think his directly style worked very effectively.”
One of the film’s many standout scenes and one that remained vivid in Linda’s mind was when the audience first sees the marauding gorillas on horseback hunting the humans in the forest backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting Oscar-nominated score. It was a very complicated action piece per Linda. “We had the humans running one way, some apes beating the bushes, and some others on horseback. I’m sure this scene was dangerous, but I wasn’t aware of it. I had total trust in the people in charge. This was shot in Malibu on the 20th Century-Fox ranch. They also built Ape City there. I remember it was always extremely hot. Even though I was scantily clad, my costume was made from real bark, with a rubber backing. I still felt the heat.”
After hurling through space for over 2,000 years, four astronauts land on a planet where humans are mute primitives, and apes are their masters. Of the space travelers, only Taylor (Charlton Heston) survives their first encounter with the apes, but he is shot in the throat by the marauding human hunting gorillas on horseback. He is taken to Ape City (along with other humans including an intense beauty he dubs “Nova”) where he tries to convince a sympathetic psychologist Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archeologist finance Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) of his intelligence. When he regains his speech, he proves his superiority, but is thwarted by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) who has always been aware of man’s intellect as well as being the harbinger of death. The film climaxes in the Forbidden Zone with Taylor proving that apes evolved from humans only to have Zaius cover up the proof. Zaius allows Taylor to go off with Nova deeper into the Forbidden Zone only to discover the horrible truth: the planet of the apes is actually Earth, whose civilization was destroyed by mankind. Taylor is on his knees in the sand yelling, “You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you to hell! The camera peers up to reveal a wrecked Statute of Liberty in the film’s final shot.
Planet of the Apes was a critical and popular smash. Linda quickly agreed to reprise her role of Nova in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, because “I was to be featured more prominently in this so, as an actress, that suited me just fine.” Heston, however, would only agree to five days’ work because it felt a sequel was a bad idea. James Franciscus was then cast as astronaut Brent, who is sent to find Taylor and his crew. What he finds is a planet of talking hostile apes (“The only good human is a dead human!”) and Nova, sans Taylor. After help from Zira and Cornelius (played by David Watson filling in for Roddy McDowall who was committed to another project), Brent and Nova venture beneath the planet of the apes where they discover the ruins of New York City inhabited by a race of masked telepathic human mutants who worship the atom bomb. After reuniting with the missing Taylor, Nova is sadly gunned down by the invading apes. The battle between ape and human ends with Earth being blown to bits, killing everyone. Or so it seemed.
For Linda Harrison, one of the biggest differences in the film was that Nova gets to speak, albeit briefly, in the sequel. “She says, ‘Taylor.’ Nova was very loyal to him. They bonded, and he was her man. That was an endearing quality about the character. She never forgot him.”
It seems like Nova’s loyalty to Taylor carried over Linda’s loyalty to Heston in real life. When asked to compare her leading men, Harrison replied, “Charlton is a visionary kind of actor. He truly inspired me while making Planet of the Apes. I felt that Jim Franciscus was more of a cerebral guy. He was an Ivy League graduate, and was more mental rather than inspirational. I thought Heston was a more caring and special guy.”
Recalling the shoot, Linda said, “It was more relaxed on Beneath the Planet of the Apes due to director Ted Post. It was also for me a more physical shoot. I had to ride a horse, and there was lots more running and being chased by the apes. At one point I was racing down this hill, and one of the stunt guys had to jump in and stop me. I had picked up too much speed and couldn’t stop.”
Though she had a bigger role and enjoyed working with Ted Post, Linda knew this was going to be inferior to the original. “It was fun but it wasn’t the first picture. Though Ted was a wonderful TV director, he wasn’t a Franklin Schaffner.”
Despite the Earth’s destruction, one year later Escape from the Planet of the Apes hit the big screen, followed by two additional sequels, a prime time TV series, and a Saturday morning animated series. The millennium brought a Tim Burton not-so-good remake of the original Planet of the Apes (2001) starring Mark Wahlberg with Linda Harrison in a cameo role and then an entire reboot of the series beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and now culminating with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).
For more on Linda Harrison’s career off the Planet of the Apes, pick up a copy of my book Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema.