The Early Films of Andy Sidaris
This piece was originally published in Cashiers du Cinemart #17 in June of 2013.
As cinematic immortality goes, there are certainly worse ways to be remembered than as “the guy who made Hard Ticket to Hawaii.” That’s likely to be just how film history will remember Andy Sidaris, the softcore action auteur whose L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies series of films provided many a late night of entertainment on premium cable from the mid-’80s through the late ’90s. Before Sidaris became the top name in late-night action cinema, he had a long career in television: he moved from directing a Los Angeles children’s show called The Magic Land of Alakazam in the late 1950s to a 25-year run on ABC’s Wide World of Sports (1961–1986). He won an Emmy for his coverage of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. In the ’70s, Sidaris directed Monday Night Football, a handful of episodes of popular television series such as Kojak and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, and he was even hired to do (un-credited) football choreography for Robert Altman’s Vietnam War classic M*A*S*H (1970). He also did un-credited work on the boxing kangaroo film Matilda (1978).
Although Sidaris is best known for his iconic ’80s features, he first flirted with feature filmmaking during his prolific period of television work. Sidaris directed three features during this phase of his career: The Racing Scene (1969), Stacey (1973) and Seven (aka Sevano‘s Seven, 1979). After Seven, Sidaris would not direct another feature film until 1985’s Malibu Express, which kicked off the era of his career for which he is best known.
The Racing Scene (1969)
At first glance, The Racing Scene seems the most unusual film in Sidaris’s oeuvre. Given his background in sports broadcasting, though, it seems a natural choice for his first venture into feature filmmaking. A feature-length documentary about professional car racing, The Racing Scene follows actor James Garner through what turned out to be his final season as a race team owner. Garner had starred in John Frankenheimer’s epic Grand Prix (1966) and was fascinated with pro racing. During the season depicted in The Racing Scene, Garner’s team announces development of a new Formula 1 car (The “Garner TS-5”) and Garner has two cars in most of the races. A notable exception is the final race in the film, the Continental Championship at Saint-Jovits, Canada, in which a massive eight-car pile-up knocks Garner’s only Formula 1 car out of the race before the first lap is over. Garner mentioned in a later interview that this was pretty much the end of his career as a team owner, both because of the expense involved — replacing the wrecked car would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — and because of his fear for his drivers’ safety.
The style of The Racing Scene is reminiscent of that in Wide World of Sports, which used many innovative visual tricks that Sidaris helped develop under the supervision of Roone Arledge, the pioneering head of sports programming at ABC who first hired Sidaris to direct sports television. One notable carry-over from Wide World of Sports is the copious use of split-screen to show the action from multiple angles at the same time. Usually this means one camera is mounted inside the car and another is capturing footage from a helicopter, although there are sequences in which cameras are clearly mounted on car hoods and even drivers’ helmets as well. Garner narrates the film in a voiceover that occasionally wanders into Ron Burgundy territory, giving the film a somewhat unintentional comic tone. The film opens with footage of Garner driving to an endurance race while quoting Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” to which he will return throughout the film: “I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes… rough prizes over smooth, that’s for me.” To his credit, Garner allows Sidaris free access to both the action on the course and in the pit, and in a few scenes Garner is depicted somewhat unflatteringly as he gets into heated, wild-eyed discussions about the actions the team should take. Still, for the most part Garner comes across as genuinely passionate about the sport and respectful and grateful for his team and their work.
A few items immediately signal a typical Andy Sidaris film: fast cars, remote control toys, explosions, and lots of ladies. For the most part these are absent from The Racing Scene. There are fast cars, but only one notable explosion, and it is considerably less impressive (although truly more dangerous) than any explosion shown in his fiction films. There are absolutely no remote controlled vehicles or toys of any kind. This leaves one “Sidaris film” aspect left: ladies. While The Racing Scene is mostly concerned with Garner and his team, Sidaris seizes every possible opportunity to put pretty girls on the screen. One of the most well-known bits of trivia about Sidaris’s television sports career is that he invented the “honey shot,” a cutaway to the cheerleaders or attractive girls watching the game from the stands. There are a few honey shots in The Racing Scene, including footage of a marching band with majorettes at one race and a montage of girls at another. The most characteristically Sidaris scene comes late in the film when the morning routine of James Garner is intercut with that of Miss Continental Racing Queen, Majken Kruse. This scene is goofy, fun, and utterly gratuitous: in other words, it clearly points toward the style and tone of Sidaris’s later work.
The screenplay for The Racing Scene was attributed to screenwriter William Edgar, who had previously worked on television documentary series such as Biography, Men in Crisis, and Untamed Frontier. Edgar is worth mentioning for several reasons, not least of which because he provides a tangential link between Sidaris and two other wildly disparate filmmakers: cult legend Ray Dennis Steckler and big-studio stalwart William Friedkin. William Edgar co-wrote the screenplay for Steckler’s 1969 film Body Fever, which was released around the same time as The Racing Scene. Before his work with Steckler, Edgar worked as a film researcher on a 1966 television documentary titled The Thin Blue Line, directed by William Friedkin (who at that time had been working in television documentary for several years). Edgar and Sidaris must have worked well together, since Edgar’s next (and final) film credit was as writer for Sidaris’s follow-up to The Racing Scene.
Sidaris remade/reworked much of Stacey as his 1985 film Malibu Express. Playboy Playmate Anne Randall plays “The Centerfold Private Eye”/race car driver Stacey Hanson, who is hired by aging heiress Florence Chambers (Marjorie Bennett) to determine whether any of the close relatives living in her mansion are worthy of including in her will. Her nephew John (John Alderman) is a discreet homosexual, his wife Tish (Anitra Ford) is sleeping with Frank the houseboy (James Westmoreland), and Florence’s grand-niece Pamela (Cristina Raines) has some dubious friends. Stacey uncovers a number of family secrets and one night after a lavish party, the scheming Frank is murdered. The focus of Stacey’s investigation then turns to uncovering the identity of the murderer before they can kill again. Given that Frank was sleeping with and/or blackmailing nearly every member of the family, there is no shortage of suspects. Her investigation climaxes with a helicopter/race car chase and a fair amount of gunplay before a photograph accidentally taken by the murder victim provides all the evidence needed to identify the killer: Pamela, the seemingly innocent young niece, who was attempting to frame John for the murder and get all the inheritance for her and her Manson Family-esque cult.
The similarities between Stacey and Malibu Express are obvious, but the things that Sidaris changed from the 1973 film for the 1985 film are intriguing. The character of Stacey is split into two characters in Malibu Express: the first is private detective protagonist Cody Abilene (Darby Hinton), and the second is one of his many girlfriends, June Khnockers (Playboy Playmate Lynda Wiesmeier). The opening of Stacey and Malibu Express both follow their respective female race car drivers as they finish up a practice race and get out of their racing uniforms; the only difference is once the ladies are in “civilian” clothes, one of them goes on to be the protagonist of the film while the other is the source of a recurring joke: “Knockers with an ‘h?’” Still, June plays a pivotal role in the action of the film when called on, proving that she is more than just a pretty face that can drive a high-performance race car at a professional level. Cody, meanwhile, performs most of the functions that Stacey performed in the earlier film, and serves as a point of identification with the film’s (presumably) male audience. Not only is he barely competent at actually being a private eye, he is also a notoriously bad shot. These shortcomings were perhaps designed by Sidaris to make Cody less of an outsized hero and more of a “regular guy,” although still a “regular guy” who is constantly on the receiving end of aggressive sexual advances from beautiful women.
The rest of the cast of characters retain their gender and sexual orientation between films, although a few of them are changed in other ways. The gay nephew, played as fairly subdued in Stacey, is a full-on drag queen in Malibu Express. Both films include a scene in which the detective follows the nephew to a gay bar: in Malibu Express, however, by the time he reaches the bar in his limo, he gets out in full drag. Cody laughs while dictating notes into his microcassette recorder, but admits that the nephew Stuart (Michael A. Andrews) has “a great pair of legs.” This is the only scene in which the character appears in drag, but his demeanor throughout the film is much more of a cartoonish gay stereotype than the same character in Stacey. The only other character that is notably changed is that of the young niece Liza (Lorraine Michaels), who is a bit older in Malibu Expressthan the niece Pamela in Stacey. This change was almost certainly made entirely with the idea of adding another nude woman to the cast, as she has a sex scene in Malibu Express with the houseboy Shane (Brett Clark).
One major addition to the cast in Malibu Express is Contessa Luciana (Sybil Danning), a character with no analogue in Stacey. Contessa contacts Cody Abilene and meets up with him for a romantic night out before he moves on to his new assignment. Luciana’s relationship to the family is unclear, but in order to tie up the story neatly, it is revealed in the end that she murdered Shane. This is a very odd ending, in that Luciana is apparently beyond the reach of the law and the murder charge is basically shrugged off so that the young niece can get the inheritance and the film can end with a champagne toast on the Malibu Express. Nearly every Sidaris film after Malibu Express ends with a similar champagne toast among all the beautiful agents (a tradition established at the end of Seven).
Beginning with Stacey’s Anne Randall, virtually every major female role in subsequent Sidaris films was cast with Playboy Playmates or Penthouse Pets. Randall was Playboy’s Miss April 1967, and she also appeared on the cover of the November 1973 issue following the success of Stacey. The film featured some other noteworthy talents both in front of and behind the camera. Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, one of the biggest producers of drive-in exploitation films of the 1970s, released the film. Co-star Anitra Ford had made quite an impression in Jack Hill’s The Big Bird Cage (1972) before appearing in Stacey, and she would go on to star in the cult favorite Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and the Burt Reynolds vehicle The Longest Yard (1974) before moving to television with appearances in such popular series as Baretta, S.W.A.T., The Streets of San Francisco and Starsky & Hutch. Stacey marked the film debut of Cristina Raines, a young actress who would appear in a number of films throughout the ’70s and early ’80s including Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and Michael Winner’s bizarre horror film The Sentinel (1977) before making the move to TV. Raines appeared in numerous popular 1980s television series such as Simon & Simon, T.J. Hooker, Fantasy Island, The Fall Guy, Moonlighting and Hunter. Race car driver Lothar Matschenbacher, who appeared in The Racing Scene, appears as himself in Stacey (as Stacey’s driving coach), and this film was the first time Sidaris worked with actor Richard LePore, who would appear in both Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) and Picasso Trigger (1988) as well as Seven (1979).
Seven prefigures the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies films of the ’80s and ’90s, and may actually exist in the same universe in which those films take place. There is a character in Seven called “Professor” (Richard LePore), who appears to be modeled after Q in the James Bond films. He specializes in gadgets and advanced technology that makes his job easier. In Sidaris’s Picasso Trigger (1988), LePore again plays a character called “Professor” who provides the L.E.T.H.A.L. Agents with some gadgets they will use later in the film. It seems fair to assume LePore is playing the same character in both films, thus tying Seven directly to Sidaris’s later films. Seven also features the first iteration in Sidaris’s films of the concept of a group of heroes and heroines working together, although in this film they are a group of mercenaries rather than a government-run operation.
Seven opens with three quick scenes in which prominent federal agents are murdered by the henchmen of a criminal organization run by seven villains, each with their own specialty. After losing three agents and a senator in less than 24 hours, an indistinct authority figure, Harris (Robert E. Relyea), calls in Drew Sevano (William Smith), a hired killer who moonlights for the government. Harris tasks Sevano with assembling a team of six specialists in order to take down all seven of the organized crime syndicate’s heads in short order. Sevano scouts out the targets and employs a group of characters who are very different in their methods for the assignment: “It might be the greatest mismatch of the century,” Sevano observes when he finally brings his team together in one place, “but I think I sense some real brotherhood here.” This ragtag group of lone wolves is dispatched to take out the crime bosses, an action that doesn’t start until the film is almost half over — it takes time to introduce such a large cast, after all. Additionally, Seven is something of a misleading title, as the female operative Alexa (Barbara Leigh) insists on bringing her “professional” friend Jenny (Susan Kiger) along, making the team eight people. And given the screen time it gets, the Professor’s life-size blow-up doll should probably get a credit as well.
Just as he did with Stacey and Malibu Express, Sidaris reused and reconfigured material in Seven in some of his later ’80s and ’90s films. One particular character from Seven would go on to be an iconic feature in Hard Ticket to Hawaii: Skater, the skateboard-riding assassin (played in both films by professional skateboarder Russell “Russ” Howell). In Seven, Skater is a bodyguard for the man central to the crime organization, codename Kahuna (real name: “Daniel Sakura Carmine Hoffman”). In one scene Skater rides by a federal agent and shoots him point-blank with a crossbow. Later, Sevano runs Skater down with his car. This latter scene was restructured as one of the most famous scenes in Hard Ticket to Hawaii, in which a skateboard-riding assassin (carrying a life-size blow-up doll) is run over by heroes Jade and Rowdy Abilene (Harold Diamond and Ronn Moss) after Rowdy observes that he “must be smoking some heavy doobies.” Thrown into the air by the impact with the car, Skater is then shot with a bazooka, and then the same fate befalls the sex doll. This outrageous sequence naturally found its way online, and is possibly the most famous scene in all of Sidaris’s films.
The opening and closing credits of Seven are displayed as text being printed on a dot matrix printer. Throughout his films, Sidaris would find excuses to show off computer displays, but the most direct reference to Seven’s credits are those of Malibu Express, which are shown being typed by an anonymous female in business attire. The opening credits of Malibu Express alternate between close-ups of the text displayed on the computer screen and shots of the woman typing and licking her lips. The closing credits of Seven are also intercut with a sort of “hits reel” showing off the best moments of the film, another device that Sidaris would frequently reuse throughout his ’80s and ’90s work. Sidaris rarely had an opening credits sequence that was not framed with action setting the tone or getting the story rolling, and the opening credits of Seven are also the first instance of this practice.
The opening sequence in which assassins kill the three federal agents is repeated at the start of Picasso Trigger. One of the targets in the opening of Seven is identified when a lei is put around his neck, a concept that returned near the beginning of Guns (1990). In that film, a pair of cross-dressing assassins are informed that their target will be wearing a blue lei, and when they come to do the job they unwittingly kill the wrong person after the lei is switched. Mr. Lee (Tino Tuiolosega), one of the seven crime bosses in Seven, has an office in a tall building that looks suspiciously like the one used by the villain in Hard Ticket to Hawaii, and both of them are thrown out a window after one of the good guys poses as a janitor (Seven) and a telephone repairman (Hard Ticket to Hawaii). The scene in which Mr. Lee is thrown out the window also features a gag that would be repeated in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): after an impressive show of swordsmanship, Mr. Lee’s bodyguard (Tadashi Yamashita) is simply shot by Ed (Ed Parker).
Ed Parker plays himself in Seven, which is a curious choice as the rest of the cast are playing fictional characters. Parker was a major proponent of martial arts, and in addition to training many actors and stunt men in karate, Parker served as Elvis Presley’s bodyguard in the last years of Presley’s life. Working with a large cast of characters, Sidaris packed Seven with many similarly familiar faces. William Smith had been acting since he was a young boy, appearing in dozens of films and television series starting in the 1940s. Smith appeared in many low-budget films throughout the 1970s, including appearing with Stacey co-star Anitra Ford in Invasion of the Bee Girls. Blaxploitation fans will likely find him familiar from his roles in Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973), Black Samson (1974), and Boss Nigger (1975). Smith has worked regularly ever since, racking up nearly 300 film and television credits, making him one of the most established actors ever to appear in a Sidaris film.
There are some other familiar faces in Seven. The villain “The Hermit” is played by Reggie Nalder, who horror film fans will best remember as the vampire Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem‘s Lot (1979). Martin Kove plays an assassin named Skip; while Kove played in many films in the ’70s, he is best known for his portrayal of John Creese (sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo) in The Karate Kid (1984) and its sequels. Similarly, Tadashi Yamashita (who played Mr. Lee’s sword-wielding bodyguard) would become the go-to martial arts expert of low-budget ’80s action cinema, appearing in films like Gymkata (1985) and American Ninja (1985). Terry Kiser, the actor who plays the senator who is murdered early in Seven, is ironically probably best known as Bernie in the Weekend at Bernie‘s films. Art Metrano plays a terrible comedian named Kincella, the only one of Drew’s team to die. Metrano would go on to star as Mauser in the second and third Police Academy films. Lenny Montana, who plays the Kahuna, played Luca Brasi in The Godfather (1972). Christopher Joy plays one of Drew’s team named T.K., and had appeared in blaxploitation hits Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Sheba, Baby (1975).
True to his female casting tradition, Sidaris cast nearly all the female speaking roles in Seven with Playboy Playmates. Alexa was played by Barbara Leigh, who was famously cast as the original live-action version of comic book vixen Vampirella. Leigh appeared in the May 1973 and January 1977 issues of Playboy. Leigh also appeared in Stephanie Rothman’s films The Student Nurses (1970s) and Terminal Island (1973), as well as appearing with William Smith in Boss Nigger. Alexa’s friend Jennie was played by Susan Kiger, Playmate of the Month for January 1977. Kiger was the first Playmate to have performed in a hardcore porn film before her appearance in the magazine, having appeared in a film called Hot Nasties (1976). Kiger also starred in H.O.T.S. (1979) and briefly appeared in Galaxina (1981), the film that infamously opened the same day its star, former Playmate and aspiring actress Dorothy Stratten, was murdered. Sybill, a female character who is spending time with Sevano when Harris arrives, was played by Carol Needham, who was Playmate of the Month for February 1979 under the name Lee Anne Michelle. Seven was her only film credit.
The Racing Scene, Stacey, and Seven all helped to establish some trademark Sidaris techniques, motifs and traditions that became iconic and essential in his later L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies films. Unfortunately, Sidaris’s pre-’80s films are not currently available on home video, but for the dedicated Sidaris fan they are well worth searching out, both for completist reasons as well as for how they reflect the formation of Sidaris’s distinctive style. In the meantime, fans are encouraged to watch the listings of their favorite sports networks for possible re-runs of The Racing Scene, and to keep an eye out for news that Stacey and Seven may be about to resurface.