Amongst the hoopla surrounding the recent passing of Michael
Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Karl Malden,and a few others, one
death sadly slipped under the radar. 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. Below is my tribute to him from
Actor 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. 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.
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."
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, the lanky sandy-blonde hair surfer boy
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. 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. Being a real
life surfer, Edmonds had nothing but disdain for the lead actors lack
of surfing ability. "We only did a little bit of surfing out on the
water.The other actors were lumps and couldn't surf.I was the only one out there with the surfing doubles.But
that movie had a lot of processed shots of James Darren, Deborah
Walley, and Michael Callan standing on a box on a sound stage for the
close ups.They inter cut those shots with the shots of us actually out on the water.Michael Callan is a great dancer but he did not take to surfing at all!"
Don landed a much smaller role as a doctor in his next movie The Interns (1962) followed by minor roles 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. "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 heavyweight talent on Playhouse 90
in his early days in Hollywood, acting in beach movies did not diminish
the work ethic Edmonds learned from them. "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. 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."
In the late sixties Don Edmonds stopped acting for a period of time to direct. His first feature 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."
Don Edmonds returned as a triple threat producing, directing and writing 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 worked in production on more mainstream films. "I was one of the producers of True Romance. 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!"
Looking back on his beach movie days a few years before he passed
way, Edmonds remarked "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?’"