"Massassi Blessings"The Bothan Spy's interview with Derek Lyons, published March 22, 2007
Perhaps most recognized in the UK for his portrayal of PC Craig Lovell in The Bill, Derek Lyons is also a veteran of franchise blockbusters such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. Star Wars fans will know him best for his role as a Massassi Temple Guard and a Medal Bearer from the final ceremony in the original Star Wars.
I would like to begin by asking a little bit about how you broke into show business and your experience with Star Wars.
You worked on A New Hope before you even saw your 20th birthday. How did you enter the entertainment industry and did you do any professional acting training?
Ever since I was a small boy, I would entertain family and friends with impersonations of my favourite actors and comedians, such as, Groucho Marx, Burt Lancaster and Jerry Lewis. At Christmas and family occasions, I would be asked to sing for friends and family. I always dreamed of being on the stage in a musical or an actor on the big/silver screen. I was invited to audition for the National Youth Theatre, but was so nervous I didn't go (silly me). However, later in my teens I attended a local theatre school. I trained at the Trinity College of Music, London with Jean Marshall. I am a tenor and have a two octave range. It was my dear friend Marvin Gaye who complimented me on my voice and offered that I record with him in the near future. He said I had a ballad voice and really liked it. Sir Nigel Hawthorne was a friend and neighbour of mine. He was kind enough to sponsor me when I joined British Actors Equity. He was a great source and knowledge.
Actors who have inspired me are Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen, and actors from the golden era of Hollywood, the likes of Tony Curtis, Errol Flynn and James Stewart. Musically, the films of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
To be complimented on your voice by the legendary Marvin Gaye must have been a tremendous thrill. Were you ever able to record with him before his tragic death?
No ... just assist him at Odyssey Studios, Marble Arch, London where he was working on his last album for Motown called In Our Lifetime. He would ask for my opinion on certain tracks. It was amazing to be in a recording studio with a Motown legend, just me, the engineer and Marvin. How cool was that?
What a way to break into films, by debuting in what would become one of the most enduring, biggest box-office hits of all time. How did you get involved with this film?
I got a call from my agent, asking if I was available to work on a film being made at Shepperton Studios called 'The Star Wars'. I was told to go for a fitting at the studios a few days later. When I arrived for my fitting, I met the assistant director, who thought I would be good to play the Massassi Temple Guard and Medal Bearer.
You played not one, but two characters, although both were in the same scene. First, you appeared as a Massassi Temple Guard to the left of the screen next to Han Solo as the Rebels entered for the medal ceremony. You were seen again, this time without a face-covering helmet, presenting General Dodonna with the medals to be given to Luke and Han. What can you recall about filming these scenes, and how long did you spend on them? Do you have a favorite of the two characters?
It was all I ever dreamed of being, an actor on a movie set at Shepperton Studios and thinking of the history of film-making there. I still remember being there, as if it was yesterday, a visceral experience even now after 30 years. I enjoyed playing both parts, but if I had to pick a favourite of the two characters it would be the Medal Bearer, as I was involved in the final scene of the movie with the main characters. I worked for two weeks on the movie at Shepperton Studios. We filmed the medal bearing scene first, this taking over a week, and the Massassi Temple guard scene took only a few days. The medal bearing scene took longer because of the logistics involved with the special effects. There were approximately 100 actors playing the rebel soldiers, pilots, etc and these had to be made to look about 1000.
You are in a scene with the three primary cast members (Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher). Although they were relatively unknown at the time, what was it like to work with these stars, and do you have any memories of any or all of them?
Mark Hamill became a friend during the two weeks I was at Shepperton. We found out we had the same birthday, 25th September, but he is a few years older than me. We explored Shepperton Studios together one lunchtime, looking at the other sets, including the set from the musical Oliver and the castle set from The Pink Panther Strikes Again. We had some photos taken on the Oliver set with Mark and Peter Mayhew (who played Chewbacca) I used to have lunch at the The Shepperton pub with Peter, most days.
Harrison Ford was a man of few words. He smiled and said hello to other members of the cast.
Carrie Fisher was very sweet and I remember one day helping her remove a splinter from her foot! She was in some discomfort. I can't remember which foot it was. I was very shy in those days but offered to remove the splinter nonetheless. She kissed me on the cheek and said thank you.
You are in the final, celebratory shot of the movie. Was this scene also filmed last that you are aware of? If so, what was the overall mood on the set as filming wrapped up, celebratory or otherwise?
The medal bearing scene was not the last scene to be filmed. As far as I can remember, the main characters went onto other locations to film further scenes. They were only based at Shepperton for three specific scenes, the Massassi Temple ceremony, the Rebel briefing room and the monitoring of the attack on the deathstar scene. The reason they used Shepperton was because the sound stage was much bigger for the Massassi Temple scene. The main base for the film was at Elsetree Studios, Borehamwood. I don't remember there being any wrap party at Shepperton.
Many actors have said in the past that they could not understand the script, yet were blown away at the size and scope of many of the sets. Was there a sense of being a part of something special, or was there general confusion over the type of movie George Lucas was making?
As it was the first movie I ever worked on, I was extremely excited about the whole process. Upon reflection, there was something very special about being part of this movie. There was talk amongst the crew of further movies. George Lucas was very clear in his vision and I encountered no confusion whilst filming.
What was it like being 20 years old and part of what, at the time, was the biggest box office success of all time? Surely it passed everyone's expectations and must have been a shock.
I was actually 18 when the film was made. We did have a feeling on the movie that it would be successful, but I never imagined it would become the iconic film it is today.
You didn't stop with Star Wars. You're next feature film was The Who's Quadrophenia. From there, it was hit after hit, from The Shining, to Superman II, to Academy Award winner Ghandi, to four different James Bond films to the last Indiana Jones film. That is an impressive resume. Which was your favorite role and which film is your personal favorite to watch?
My favourite role was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I really enjoy watching it, apart from Star Wars, of course. The reason this is my favourite is that it was great to meet George Lucas again, and have a chat with him. He even remembered me from Star Wars, which was a great honour! I got to meet Steven Spielberg and John Rhys Davis ... whom I worked with on Victor Victoria and Ivanhoe. He is such a lovely man. I had the great pleasure to chat with Sean Connery about his son Jason, who is an old friend and was a fellow actor on Lords of Discipline. It felt like a reunion. Watching this movie brings back some wonderful memories. I'm hoping they will bring out a special edition with some out-takes. There were some very funny moments which I was involved with ... but unfortunately, I can't tell you what they are!! Maybe another time! We even sang happy birthday to Harrison and shared some cake with him. He was taken aback, but loved it!
Concerning the Bond films, you have had roles in films with three different actors portraying Bond. Interestingly, you worked with the most famous Bond of all, Sean Connery, in an Indiana Jones movie. Provided you saw them all directly, what was the difference in the way Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan approached the title character? Do you have any interesting stories about these films?
From my observation, each actor brought their own individual personality to the roles. Roger Moore is always great fun to work with. He makes jokes and likes to make people feel at ease. Timothy Dalton is a friendly man, but studious in his approach to the role. I worked with Pierce many years before Bond on Mirror Crack'd (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson). We didn't know each other at that time however ... both of us having very small parts. He is a charming man and at ease with his fellow actors. I'm sorry I don't have any negative stories to report!! My favourite Bond, which you didn't include, is George Lazenby from OHMSS. I was a friend of the director of this film, Peter Hunt. We kept in contact over the years. He was a charming man.
Considering the films you have been in, you may have shared screen time with quite a number of high profile actors. Among them are Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Christopher Walken, and Val Kilmer, among many others. Do you have any favorite stories to share, or interesting bits of trivia? Which actor were you most excted to be cast alongside with?
Having been a fan of Jack Nicholson for many years, I was very excited to work on The Shining. I worked on the movie for two weeks at Elstree studios and was cast as a one of the hotel staff ... a bellhop.
Towards the end of the shoot, I asked Jack if I could bring in The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest books for him to sign, he agreed.
On the last day of the shoot, after the filming had wrapped, Jack came over to me, put his arm over my shoulder, and asked me to come up to his dressing room. Whilst there, I sat down and had a drink with him from his mini-bar. He put on a tape of Ry Cooder, and told me he was using this on the soundtrack of a film he was directing called Going South, a comedy western starring John Belushi. Jack talked about how he had started at MGM in the cartoon department and how he'd worked his way up from there. He signed my books, and in one of the books he wrote "to Derek, warmest regards, Jack Nicholson". I then gave him a gift for good luck and he seemed taken aback, and asked "if I was sure". He accepted the gift and told me "it was the nicest thing anyone had given him". It was such an honour to meet Jack and remains a treasured memory. I would love to meet him again.
Robert Mitchum was another one of my heros. I worked on a TV movie called Reunion at Fairborough where I had the pleasure of meeting him. He was a charismatic and imposing man, a great raconteur who recounted some incredible and hilarious stories about people he worked with and his early life. I was lucky enough to have a picture taken with him. He said to me that he did not like the BS surrounding acting, stating "I have two styles of acting, with or without a horse". As we were talking outside one of the sets, he said "Derek, see in there, there's enough flatulence that if I lit a goddam match, the whole goddam place would blow up!". I found that very funny! However, he was always very professional on set and watching him act was a great privilege. He made it look so easy. He was so irreverent about the business! He also had a very good ear for accents and would sometimes go into a London accent ,impersonating a London cabbie: "Awight mate, where can I take yer?" and tell a joke in that character. I also talked to him about his singing and told him that I loved the album he recorded in 1957 which was called 'Calypso is like so...' which I had on an LP vinyl. He said he enjoyed a couple of martinis and singing with friends into the early hours. Mitchum, the Pop Star!!!
You have also done several stand-ins and stunts. Do you approach these jobs any differently than pure acting assignments? What is the major difference going from one type of work to the next?
As an actor who wanted to gain as much experience of the film industry as possible, I would take on stand-in work as well as acting roles. Standing-in gave me an insight into the technical side of film-making, as well as working closely with major stars and brilliant directors of photography, such as Jack Cardiff (DP on African Queen) and John Coquillon (DP on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), and learning from them. With regard to stunt work, I did train briefly as a stunt-man, but didn't get all the qualifications needed. Over the years, I have worked with several stunt teams and have been involved in fight scenes and driving. I have been a martial artist since 1974, training in various styles including wu shu kwan, and aikido. I am also a fencer and boxer. I have used these abilities on film.
In 1976, I had the privilege of meeting Mrs Bruce Lee, Linda Lee, having been a big fan of the great man himself. I loved his skill and philosophy of life. Linda gave me a signed book which I still have. I was lucky enough to carry her cases, which were monogrammed with Bruce Lee's initials.
Your film career was in full swing, and you were still involved in major box office hits, yet in 1987, you took on the additional recurring role of PC Craig Lovell in the police drama The Bill. What prompted the sudden move to TV work, even though you did remain in films?
I was offered the opportunity and it was regular work which paid the bills! I'd rather be acting than resting!!
I have worked on several TV shows, including The Bill, from 1987 to 1991 as PC Craig Lovell, and was featured in 12 episodes.
I also was invited to appear on ITV/LWT'S The Six O'Clock Show and impersonate Stan Laurel which was a great honor for me ... having been a fan of Laurel and Hardy.
An old friend Michael Leader rang me the next day and said he was very impressed with my Stan Laurel impersonation. Michael was, and still is, a friend of Stan Laurel's daughter and a founding member of 'The Sons of The Desert', a Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. Bernard Breslaw, who was on the show, thought my Stan was excellent. Bernard was one of the 'Carry On' stars!
After appearing on stage, in films, and then on TV, which is your favorite type of acting, as all three present different challenges? What are your personal favorite aspects of each style?
Acting is acting and it's adapting to the medium. Basically, I love to perform and would take on any challenge. My favourite quote from Shakespeare is:
"All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
I believe you have only recently begun attending fan conventions. What strikes you the most when you are a guest, having fans coming up asking for your autograph and to speak with you?
I had been approached by promoters asking me to attend their signings and have also been getting quite a lot of fan mail through British Actors Equity. I decided that the time was right to start appearing at conventions ... my first being Empire Day 16 in early 2006. This was organised for me by Aurelien Lukowski of The Luko Agency with Mark Dermul, President of Star Force Events and Publisher of the Autograph Bounty Hunter. Mark also made up most of the pictures that I use at my conventions and has done a wonderful job too. I really enjoyed meeting the Star Wars fans. Every single one of them was polite and very interested in my role and experiences on the movie. I was taken aback by their enthusiasm and excitement in meeting me. I recently traveled to Paris for a convention. I was invited by a french based agency called The Luko Agency, run by Aurelien Lukowski. He has been very helpful in my convention career. The French fans were just as enthusiastic as the English and very keen to meet me. They had a great knowledge of the movies, the world of Star Wars and the role of Massassi Guard.
I have also just appeared at the Darksidecon (Markus Tschenschel and Mario Belverato) on 24th to 26th November with my friends Barrie Holland, Joe Robinson and Stephen Fitzalan. This is a Star Wars and fantasy convention which was in Bottrop, Germany. This convention was great fun for me as I got to sing on stage with a famous German celebrity, Klingolaus, as well as the usual question and answer sessions. The promoter told me that I had been a hit and had won the hearts of many German fans! This has been my favourite convention to date.
What are your upcoming appearances and do you intend to travel overseas to the United States or Canada any time soon?
I have been invited to the Netherlands on the 9th April 2007 for the Sonopromotion International Film Fair (Kees Blokker). I hope to be attending the Star Wars Celebration Europe in July 2007. I am attending a Bond convention in Germany in August/September 2007 organised by Darksidecon .
What is next for Derek Lyons? Do you have any more films or TV work in production you can tell us about?
At present I am working with Graham Dixon at the Michael Chekhov Studio, London. I am working on two book projects at the moment, one on my friendship with Marvin Gaye - I have many interesting stories to tell, and the other is an autobiography. I am going to be performing in 2007 on stage.
There is an action of figure of the Massassi Temple Guard, named the Rebel Honour Guard, coming out in March. It is made by Hasbro, their Star Wars wave two collection, celebrating 30 years of Star Wars. I may be doing some promotion with this.
What venues will we be able to see you on stage next year and what role will you portray? Can you give us some more information on the plot of the show you will be in?
I cannot say at the moment, but I will say that I will be on stage singing and doing what I love best. I just keep open and positive about life and acting, who knows what the future may hold.
Do you have any final words for your fans reading this interview?
Thank you for all your kindness and interest in me. I appreciate everyone who has taken the time and effort to see me at recent convention appearances. I look forward to future Star Wars gatherings where I can share my experiences with the fans. To all the fans - "May the force be with you all". Massassi blessings. Peace and love, Derek.
Thank you ever so much for your time.