An Interview with Henry G. Saperstein


An important person associated with Godzilla and Toho movies in the United States is the late Mr. Henry Saperstein (1918 – 1998) who was president and chief executive officer of UPA Productions of America. UPA has owned the licensing and merchandising rights to Godzilla since the 1960s, and Mr. Saperstein had been responsible for the release of several Toho movies in theaters in the United States. In 1995, Mr. Saperstein was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to meet with John Rocco Roberto.

Roberto: The first obvious question is: How did you get involved with Toho?

Saperstein: I was approached (at UPA) by some of the marketers and they were looking for solid, theatrical-quality monster pictures. So I went to the Motion Picture Academy (MPA) to find out which MPPA company made the most. They told me the most prolific were Hammer Studios in England, and Toho Studios in Japan. I had no desire to deal with Hammer, so I spoke to Toho.

JRR: How did Toho react?

HGS: Well, they were wary of any gaijin, it doesn’t mean foreigner, it means outsider. You’re outside of their “kingdom oft he sun,” they’re wary of anyone coming in who wants to be involved, in any meaningful way. But I came in, and I offered up some ideas that made the pictures more viable in the international marketplace, and I was willing to put money on the line, this appealed to them, and I guess that’s how I broke through. They thought it was interesting.

JRR: In regards to your involvement in the films and the actors chosen to star in them, is it true that David Janssen originally signed to the Nick Adams contract, and then backed out of it due to his commitment to the TV show The Fugitive?

HGS: He never signed a contract. We had discussions. We had to get somebody who was willing to go there and live there for a while, not just drop in for a couple of days. I can tell you, in the 1960s, that wasn’t easy. I had convinced Toho that they needed an American actor to star in their kinds of films, so I brought Nick Adams there and we did Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. The Russ Tamblyn picture was after that. I wasn’t involved in any of the production process or consulting of the earlier film (Frankenstein Conquers the World). They already had that picture underway and I just participated in the financing and co-distribution. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero was my first full involvement.

JRR: Did you have any input into the script of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero?

HGS: We made suggestions. For example, most of the pictures made before then always opened up with a press conference or a government conference of scientists and officials. The exposition always went on forever from there, telling the viewer all about what the story was and what was about to happen. That seemed to be a typical way of Japanese storytelling. We convinced them that we needed to get into the picture a lot quicker. The conference could take place later on, but at the beginning, the essence of the picture, the characters, the reason for the picture, what the French call the “raison detre” needed to be developed.

JRR: I hadn’t thought about it before, but Godzilla vs. Monster Zero really does start in the middle of the action.

HGS: It jumps right in. Otherwise we might lose the attention of the American TV audience, which doesn’t want to wait for all that. They’ll tune you out and go to another channel. The theatrical market is different. Once people have paid their money and sat down with their popcorn, they’ll let you play around with the development of it, but not on TV. That’s zap time.

JRR: Did you witness any of the filming of the special effects sequences?

HGS: That was one of the joys of my life, the pleasure and the honor of meeting Mr. Tsuburaya, the genius who created the special effects. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have said publicly they were inspired by Tsuburaya’s work. He had a special effects stage where everything was in miniature yet everything operated, cars moving, traffic lights going on and off. The water ran in the river. I walked in there and I felt like Paul Bunyan walking around the stage. I watched Tsuburaya work and he was a genius. Consider what he worked with in his day: there were no electronics, no computers or anything like that.

JRR: What was your impression of Tsuburaya personally? Did he seem very shy to you?

HGS: Tsuburaya? Tsuburaya was in his own world. I wouldn’t say shy. He was always thinking of the next thing he was going to do. It’s like asking was Einstein shy? Who’s gonna find out, he was always in his own world.

JRR: There’s a story about him. He’d been working non-stop on the set for a week or something, and a woman came up to him and asked him if he was okay. He didn’t recognize her. The woman turned out to be his wife.

HGS: That would not be unusual for Tsuburaya. He was always lost in thought and planning; how can we do this differently, better, more advanced. It was fabulous. Toho had an unusual, wonderful team working together. Tanaka as producer was very, very knowledgeable. Honda was really a good, what I’d call a workmanlike director. That combination with Tsuburaya is what made those pictures what they were.

JRR: What kind of input would Tanaka make?

HGS: Tanaka-san was the father of Godzilla. I mean there’s no question about it. He had a resolute idea about what Godzilla does and doesn’t do. I wish the modern-day filmmakers could have as clear an idea going in as Tanaka always had. Tanaka was very much on the ball.

JRR: When was the last time you saw him?

HGS: About five years ago, six years ago. He’s in semi-retirement now. I have great respect for him.

JRR: Did you ever visit Ishiro Honda’s set?

HGS: Oh yeah, I was on the set many, many times. The beauty of watching a Toho crew under Honda was that, when he got the shot that he wanted and he said “cut”, you’d better get out of the way, cause you’d get killed in the rush as they were striking a set and setting for the next shot. I mean it was “hustle hustle!” On a Hollywood set, the director says “strike” and everybody will goes for coffee, sit down and shoot the breeze, call their bookie. Boy, you’d better get out of the way when Honda yelled cut! They had a ten-our workday as opposed to our eight hour day. Only a half hour for lunch, and no coffee beaks. In a Hollywood day, if you get three minutes of film out of eight hours, then it’s a big day. A Toho crew would work ten hours a day, six days a week, and they really got out the footage.

JRR: Did you observe any Japanese directors other than Honda?

HGS: No. Honda was the only one I observed at work.

JRR: Getting back to the films, how did you come to be involved with Godzilla’s Revenge? Wasn’t it originally called “Minya Son of Godzilla”?

HGS: We only distributed it. There was a confusing thing there. Toho had already released a Son of Godzilla made in 1967, so we released it as Godzilla’s Revenge instead.

JRR: Does the “Godzilla vs Gargantua” story come from this same time period? Supposedly Reuben Bercovitch wrote a story.

HGS: He was one of my executives. The treatment was written, but we didn’t co-produce it. I’ll have to scratch my memory pretty hard.. . This had to be in the early seventies.

JRR: Speaking of War of the Gargantuas, I’m a bit confused by the number of writing credits on the film.

HGS: I think we added material to the film, stuff we thought would be more appealing to the American marketplace. Like, we’d take a scene from the middle of the film and put it up front, as a prelude, and write new dialogue for it that would carry you much easier and quicker into the story. So the writing credits on the American prints are not necessarily the same credits that are on the Japanese prints.

JRR: Would these scenes be written by the same people that wrote, for instance, Russ Tamblyn’s or Nick Adam’s lines on the set?

HGS: In many cases yes.

JRR: What was it like for the actors involved?

HGS: Nick Adams was terrific, a real professional. Very cooperative, always on time, ready with his lines, available, totally cooperative. He loved being there. He stayed on after we left. He fell in love with a Japanese actress. He was enjoying the whole Japanese experience and being with her, so he worked in pictures there (including The Killing Bottle, 1967). An actor works in pictures any place. Russ Tamblyn was a prima donna pain in the ass. Sharp contrast to Nick Adams or Kipp Hamilton. We had to re-shoot and re-record almost everything Russ Tamblyn did. He wasn’t a Nick Adams and I don’t want to pursue that any further! There are professionals, and people who think they’re professionals.

JRR: Did you on Godzilla vs. Monster Zero or War of the Gargantuas ever request any special effects scenes just for the American market?

HGS: The one that I did request in Gargantuas was the hand going into the nightclub, lifting Kipp Hamilton right off of the stage I wanted kind of a King Kong-style sequence, so that’s what we suggested.

JRR: I remember Kipp Hamilton from the James Mason movie Bigger Than Life. How did she get this particular job?

HGS: I was looking for a singer with a certain kind of look to her. I knew her brother Joe Hamilton, the producer who married Carol Burnett. He suggested her. I auditioned her; she was a very personable and very cooperative young lady, and we hired her. She was a professional.

JRR: Why did it take so long (until 1970) for Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and War of the Gargantuas to be released in this country?

HGS: Well, Toho doesn’t always put a picture into quick release internationally. They make a picture and put it into release usually in December in their own theatres. Depending on what their international division wants, they might not put it into quick release. The last three pictures they made haven’t been released (referring to Godzilla vs King Ghidorah through Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla).

JRR: In other words, Toho made the decision.

HGS: When they make a picture available, that’s a contract point. There’s a lot of technical work to be done: sending in interpositives, soundtracks, effects and music tracks, and then there’s the things that we have to do with them here, there’s a lot of preparation necessary. So if they (Toho) drag their feet, for whatever their reasons are, it just impacts on how much longer down the road it gets pushed.

JRR: You put money into Terror of MechaGodzilla. Did you also have any influence in the hiring of Ishiro Honda to direct?

HGS: I liked the idea of it, I liked the idea of cloning Godzilla as a robot, to go against Godzilla’s primitive weapons. I thought it made an interesting contrast, but I had no say in hiring Mr. Honda. I had a consulting relationship with them but no influence. I did not visit the set, I was in Europe at the time.

JRR: Did you go to them or did they come to you?

HGS: It never really happened like that. It was kind of an ongoing relationship. When they had a project at a certain level of realization, they would tell me about it. I passed on some of the Godzilla films, the latter-day ones, because I didn’t think they had the potential some of the others did. For example Biollante, Megalon, Hedorah, Gigan, I didn’t think they were in the same class with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, Godzilla vs. Mothra, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

JRR: So did you have any involvement with the first MechaGodzilla film?

HGS: No, just Terror of MechaGodzilla.

JRR: I’m curious as to what you think of the Paramount Video version of Terror of MechaGodzilla? (Mr. Roberto furnished an explanation of its defects.)

HGS: … (Simply, gravely) I will check that out.

JRR: How would you compare Toho’s executives and producers today, compared to back when you collaborated?

HGS: Well, I have very little to do with Toho’s producers these days. The Toho executives, they’re top-notch professional people, like Mr. Matsuoka, the head of the company. A very bright man.

JRR: What do you think of the new cycle of films they’re making?

HGS: No comment.

JRR: How did you come to acquire the video rights to Godzilla, King of the Monsters?

HGS: The distribution rights were held by RICO Pictures. I acquired the rights from RKO, and when their rights expired I acquired the right of renewal directly from Toho.

JRR: Have you, or do you intend to pursue other pictures in the series, such as Destroy All Monsters?

HGS: No.

JRR: What’s your involvement with the TriStar Godzilla?

HGS: I brought the project to TriStar, set up the negotiations. The deal was concluded between Toho and TriStar. My involvement is strictly in the merchandising licensing.

JRR: And in closing, what do you see as the future of Godzilla in the United States?

HGS: I think Godzilla’s an icon that has been established, and that Godzilla will continue to remain an icon with the public. The public has been going through all these periods of reality being a little too much to take, it’s too harsh. So the fantasy of something that’s bigger than life… Godzilla’s a morality play; good guys against bad guys, and Godzilla, like the Lone Ranger, coming forth, reluctantly, to strike down the bad guys, is something that appeals to the psyche of a public that is beset by problems of poverty and homelessness and AIDS, and government pressures and the stock market and all those other things. It’s kind of nice to sit back, kick off your shoes, open your belt and watch Godzilla do his thing… it feels good.