Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Trek Through the Forest

Today's featured actor was one who scared the bejesus out of me as a very young child, but then as I grew up he caught my attention in other ways. Despite having worked for decades in hundreds of projects, he remains lesser-known to those outside of certain genres. I speak of Gerald Michael Charlebois, who ultimately came to be known as Michael Forest.

Forest was born on April 7th, 1929 in the North Dakota town of Harvey. Before he'd had much of a chance to get used to the punishing climates of that state, his family moved west to Seattle, Washington, where the rain (and genetics!) helped him to grow to an imposing 6'3". Inspired by a childhood friend who excelled in acting (but who didn't later capitalize on it), he proceeded to act in local theatre and went to San Jose State, earning degrees in English and Drama.

Settling in Los Angeles in 1955, he made some TV appearances under his own name (and rubbing elbows on Lux Video Theatre with people such as Dorothy Gish, Otto Kruger and Grant Williams.) He also appeared briefly on Broderick Crawford's series Highway Patrol as shown here. A few bits came to him in films like The Deadly Mantis and Shootout at Medicine Bend (both 1957.) He had begun studying acting with famed instructor Jeff Corey and ran into a visitor there who would change the path of his career.

The visitor was producer-director Roger Corman. Corman, who specialized in cheap, but often vastly entertaining, quickies almost immediately put him to use in the instant camp classic The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957.) The story had a boatload of the title women (and one subservient blond man) washing ashore on an island run by barbarians, one of which was the newly-named Mike Forest. The inexperienced actor nonetheless displayed an instant physical presence on-screen.

At one point during a brawling, boozy feast, the blond guy decides to man-up and fight Forest, jumping on him and attempting to pin him to the floor, but Forest quickly rights himself and flips the hapless opponent to the floor, then picks him up between the legs and carries him to the banquet table, tossing him onto it like so much venison the way Errol Flynn did with a dead deer in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)!

Forest, as a handsome, well-built (he was once a boxing hopeful, but opted to save his face from destruction) young actor was put to work in many TV shows of the time including The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Zorro, Have Gun, Will Travel, Lawman and The Rifleman. In between, he continued to work on Corman quickies like Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), by which time he'd been promoted to leading man status.

In 1960, he starred for Corman again in the wintry war flick Ski Troop Attack, which, like Haunted Cave before it, was filmed in South Dakota, not such a far cry from where Forest had been born. The 63-minute film benefits from a generally realistic approach to the story and a lack of unnecessary padding, though - like most of Corman's output - it was made on a shoestring budget. (This was how Corman made, as the title of his autobiography reads, "a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lost a dime!")
Many more parts on screen followed. He landed a role in the Ed Nelson movie Valley of the Redwoods (1960) and popped up on One Step Beyond, Bat Masterson, The Westerner, Maverick and, as seen here, the Richard Denning private detective series Michael Shayne.
Corman upped the ante a bit with his next venture featuring Forest. He and some of his regulars went to Greece to film the sword and sandal feature (in color, finally!) Atlas. Forest portrayed the title figure (who in no way resembled the person illustrated on the poster!)
Faced with the specter of having to pull the movie off all on his own once his co-producers suddenly backed out of the deal, Corman worked with what he had. (One story has a parade of Greek soldiers intended to be 500, but actually only 50, running behind the camera once out of sight and getting back in line!)
Forest, always in great shape, but never a "body-builder" as one expects to see in these gladiator style films, is mostly seen in sleeveless tunics, but during a wrestling sequence he dons a teensy, one-armed toga which in time begins to come apart, revealing his gorgeous chest. This 1961 run at playing a prominent mythological figure of Grecian history was not the only time he'd head down this road.
Westerns ruled the television airwaves and Forest was on most all of them. He appeared on Cheyenne, Wagon Train, Frontier Circus (as seen here), Laramie and Tales of Wells Fargo. There were other programs, too, which afforded him some variety, such as 87th Precinct, Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey.

Other notable appear- ances at that time included a guest shot on The Twilight Zone in 1964, playing one of a trio of leather jacket wearing motorcyclists who mysteriously show up in a small residential neighborhood where they rent a house together (and, no, they don't film porn inside...!) While not considered a prime example of the venerable series, it's still an important credit on his TV resume.

Equally key was his guest appearance on the highly-popular (then and now) sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. Here, he played an old college love of Van Dyke's wife Mary Tyler Moore who happens to wind up playing golf with Van Dyke. This stirs up some comic jealousy and miscommunication between the couple which is finally, humorously resolved when Forest is invited to their home for dinner and it is revealed that he is now a priest! (Hmmm. Dorothy Zbornak wasn't the only one to get caught up in this sort of mishap!)

Parts on Perry Mason, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Rawhide, I Spy and even Gomer Pyle, USMC followed. In 1966's Death- watch, he was one of three cellmates condemned to life in a cramped cell together, with tensions (some of which were homoerotic) simmering between them. This was based upon a 1947 Jean Genet play. He worked alongside Leonard Nimoy for what would not be the only time.
Now the glory days of TV guest-starring was in full swing. There were (basically) only three networks in the U.S. broadcasting series and audiences made their choices and were glued to their favorites. Apart from four appearances on The Virginian, a hit western, he also worked on Mission: Impossible (as seen here) in a first season episode.
Other shows included a two-part Combat! and an installment of Laramie and one of his TV parts that used to send my childhood self scurrying under the afghan! On that scary, scary show - LOL! - Gilligan's Island, Forest showed up as a headhunting native who challenges Bob Denver in a fight to the death over a girl Denver has rescued.

Obviously there is nothing whatsoever terrifying about the hunky Forest, but as I've noted here many times, as a child I was petrified of practically anything and everything and exotic looking natives who cut peoples' heads off and shrank them were high on the list, though I don't know how I thought they were going to make it to Southgate, Kentucky! Ha ha!

Thanks to his dark good looks and imposing features, Forest was often cast as natives and Native Americans or other ethnic types. He worked on a few episodes of Bonanza and Daniel Boone - seen here - as Indian characters (as they were commonly referred to then.)
But one of his all-time most enduring roles was not Native American, barbarian, Eastern European or anything else of this earth. In 1967, he appeared on Star Trek in the episode "Who Mourns for Adonais? as none other than the Greek god Apollo! He won the part when his on-stage work in Taming of the Shrew and Othello proved that he could handle the type of authoritative period dialogue that the part called for.

This is (yet) another role of his that scared me as a child. Forest was so intimidating anyway to my young eyes that when paired with his commandeering manner and loud voice I was uneasy. Then, when he proceeded to grow and grow, towering over Captain Kirk and his landing party I was petrified!

Then he blasted Scottie (James Doohan) with a lightning bolt from his fingertips and I was slack-jawed with fear.

Later, as you can guess, none of this bothered me in the slightest and I began to understand how good-looking Mr. Forest was in his gold lame toga! (For his part, in later years, he would refer to his costume as a "tutu," which isn't accurate, but is remarkably amusing!) Note that the hairy chest he sported in Atlas is now smooth as a baby's bottom.

Fellow guest star Leslie Parrish, a very lovely starlet of the time, caught his eye and he decided to make her his own. First, however, he needed to rid her of her Star Fleet uniform...
The get-up that costume designer William Ware Theiss came up with for her Grecian look was really something. I truly believe that seeing this rerun as a child gave me a life-long love for big hair and slinky gowns. Throw in the fact that at one point he whips up a windstorm that sends everything flowing madly in the breeze and I was hooked.

During this phase of his career, Forest reminds me of another Michael, Michael Nader, who later became a fixture on Dynasty. See any resemblance?

His days as a cinematic lead, brief as they were, seemed to be behind him. He won small parts in minor films such as The Money Jungle (1967) and The Sweet Ride (1968), but television parts on shows like It Takes a Thief and Get Smart were the only things really paying the bills. In 1968, he moved to Italy to try his luck there. (Many young actors with experience were heading there to seek new opportunities, including names like Clint Eastwood and Jack Palance.) He immediately won a part in 100 Rifles (1969) a Spanish-made western starring Jim Brown, Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch.

Seventh-billed, he wasn't exactly causing a stir, but he was working alongside some big names in what was to be a hit movie. Spending days alongside the Raquel Welch of 1969 wasn't exactly difficult either, at least visually. Forest spent the next decade living and working in Europe, occasionally making a jaunt back to the U.S. for one reason or another.

Some of the Italian films he appeared in during his stay had some eyebrow-raising plot lines and characters for Forest. In Master of Love (1972) he appeared in a vignette (one of many in the film) as a towering brute who repeatedly breaks in on a young man when he's in the throes of lovemaking and then proceeds to sodomize him! By the third instance of this, the young man has grown to like it...! (If ya can't beat 'em, join 'em!) In Hector the Mighty (1972) a modern-day take on the Helen of Troy saga, Forest played Achilles as a bisexual, leather-clad biker with a gay sidekick.
Among his American TV credits of this period were a couple of stints on Here Come the Brides, an episode of Lassie and this appearance on The Doris Day Show as a health nut-turned-author who Day must try to interview in-between all his fitness and nutrition regimens. At one point he makes his pecs gyrate up and down, leaving a hapless Day to wonder why she can't do the same with hers!
Around this time, Forest fell into a lucrative niche providing voices for actors in foreign films that needed to be dubbed into English for release in America and elsewhere. He spoke Italian fluently after a time and could be counted on to do a remarkable job in simulating the tone and timbre of the original performer when dubbing. He continued to act in international productions as well, including the highly controversial, mammoth epic Anthony Quinn film, The Message (1976.) He's seen here with costar Michael Ansara.

What made The Message contro- versial was that it depicted the origins of the Islamic religion, which forbade any depiction of its founder Muhammad. The maker of the film took pains to work with various religious leaders and sects to see how best to approach the issue and eventually chose to have the man unseen and unheard throughout the film, with special musical touches signifying his presence. However, it nonetheless generated all sorts of misguided tumult including (reportedly) the deaths of two people during demonstrations! Forest certainly looked striking in his costumes as Muhammad's ally Khalid. The ultimate irony, however, is that while he was busily working as a dubbing artist in-between shooting, his own voice in this film was dubbed over by a British actor!

As Forest's time in Italy drew to a close, he found himself working in the Mexican-made film Shark Hunter (1979) starring Franco Nero. In the wake of Jaws (1975), countless movies were produced that included a shark in the title or otherwise prominent in the plot line.
The inexpensive movie afforded Forest a non-ethnic part as a cohort of fortune seeking Nero, but get a load of the blond wig that was attached to the usually gorgeous Nero's head! Instantly preposterous, he sometimes looked as if he were attempting to play Animal, the drummer in the band on The Muppet Show.

Now back on U.S. soil, Forest went to work on some daytime soaps. First was The Young and the Restless followed by Days of Our Lives. Then he took on the part of Greek mystery man turned restaurateur Nick Andropoulos on As the World Turns.

Initially intended as a romantic interest for Eileen Fulton's venerable character Lisa, he ultimately wound up in a whirlwind romance with the show's heroine Kim (Kathryn Hays.) In a rare move for the time, accompanied by much publicity, the show took the couple on location to Greece for a visually arresting trip. They were wed, amid much tumult as is to be expected on any daytime soap, and in time his character died of a heart attack, leaving Kim a three-time widow! (She eventually married Bob and lived happily(ish!) ever after.

Forest's extensive voiceover and dubbing work continued at full steam. Occasion- ally, he would land a supporting movie role (as in the flop King Kong Lives, 1986) or on TV (Simon & Simon.) In 1990, he joined Charlene Tilton and Michael Ansara in Glenn Ford's final western, Border Shootout, a straight-to-video project based on an Elmore Leonard novel.

A bizarre blip on his resume came in 1993 when he was approached to take a role in an upcoming thriller starring none other than pop queen Madonna, then still (as ever!) attempting to establish a career as a movie actress. Rejecting the script as tasteless and the role negligible, he told his agent to request an outrageous amount for payment. When they came back in agreement (!), he was compelled to work on Body of Evidence (1993.)

His part in the film was to play a corpse, naked in bed, who is seen repeatedly and lengthily having strenuous sex with Madonna while handcuffed to the headboard! The sex scenes are seen only on television monitors as his wealthy character had a penchant for filming himself in flagrante delicto.

While the movie wound up as a dreary flop, despite explicit scenes between Madonna and Willem Dafoe and a name cast of skilled performers, Forest acknowledged that working (intimately!) with Madonna was a pleasure and that she displayed no sense of personal ego with him (something the director would certainly have argued differently.)

By the way, he'd already had experience rather lifelessly lying in bed back in his As the World Turns days when Nick was injured in a fire, as shown here!  LOL

By now, the mid-sixties Forest was entrenched in providing a multitude of voices for commer- cials, Japanese anime, animated shorts and, importantly, the next new level of media - video games. In fact, he no longer felt the need to act on camera as he was kept perennially busy using only his voice. But it was one of his notable past roles that would come calling once more for him to step before the camera. In 2013, he was contacted by a Star Trek fan who was preparing a home-grown continuation of Star Trek, with himself as Captain Kirk and the son of James Doohan as his father's character of Scottie (shown below, not at right.)
The unbelievably reminiscent production values (using the same old-style aspect ratio, lighting techniques, music, costuming, sets, etc...) of Star Trek Continues gave viewers the feeling that the original five-year mission was still ongoing. Granted, the acting ranged from acceptable to egregious (why can so few contemporary performers use their voices properly?) and some of the aspects such as hairstyling could be ragged, one could almost believe they were watching a 1960s television series!

Forest was enlisted to appear as his old character Apollo in the premiere installment of the fan-made program. Though only a couple of years had passed in the timeline of the series, his character's age was explained by the fact that his god character had been seeped of all its glory by the loss of faith and a following amongst his people. Appearing with him briefly as Athena was his real-life wife Diana Hale.

Forest had nothing but good to say about working on the assignment and actually counted it as one of the most enjoyable experiences of his lengthy, extensive career. More episodes followed (eleven in all) up until 2017, though Forest was only in the one. The verisimilitude was remarkable and the makers improved the quality with each passing episode. They also incorporated aspects of the original series (such as torn uniforms, shirtless Captain Kirk, beautiful yeomans, the three-tiered chess board, etc...) to make it that much more fun for viewers.

Marina Sirtis provided the voice of the computer while occasional actors with sci-fi back- grounds appeared as guests, such as Lou Ferrigno, Anne Lockhart and Jamie Bamber. Here, we find Erin Gray of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as a commodore. The less said, however, about the new rendition of Lt. Uhura (played so elegantly and effectively by Nichelle Nichols in the original) the better...
Mr. Forest was eighty-four when he filmed that installment of Star Trek Continues. He's since gone on to appear in a few short films as well as utilize his voice for various projects. Many years after having portrayed countless Native American roles, Forest discovered through ancestry records that he is actually one-eight Sioux and Chippawa! Now eighty-eight, he can lay claim to a sixty-year-long career as an actor on screen. Remarkably well-preserved and still sharp as a tack, he works only when it pleases him. And lord knows his work has pleased us many times over the course of his long career.