Saturday, December 8, 2018

Robert Z’Dar: End of an Era By Scott Shaw

Here is an article that I wrote about the passing of Robert Z’Dar back in 2015 that you may find interesting. This article can also be found in my book, Zen Filmmaking 2: Further Writings on the Cinematic Arts.

By Scott Shaw

Sadly, my Zen Filmmaking brother, the Jaw of Cinema, Robert Z’Dar passed away at the age of sixty-four.
I first met Z-Man, (as we came to call him), on the set of Samurai Cop. It was a strange meeting in that I knew him from A-films like Tango and Cash but was surprised to find him on this No-Budget set.
Samurai Cop was a film created by Amir Shervan. Shervan operated out of a junky, cluttered house on Beverly Blvd. in East Hollywood. He had called me in on the film, when I was first getting into the industry, because he didn’t like the swordplay in his film and wanted me to make the samurai work look more realistic. He also offered me a roll in the film, as well. The cast was all very nice.
The cinematographer on the film was a man named, Peter Palian. Previously, Palian had been the personal cameraman for the Shah of Iran. But, as history tells us, the Shah was deposed. Peter was one of those interesting people in that he always wore a leather sport coat, a dress shirt with an ascot tie perfectly tucked into his shirt. He had a perfectly trimmed goatee and smoked a pipe. I would periodically bump into him around Hollywood. Nice guy.
On the first day I was on the set, instead of filming we went and had lunch at a burger joint. There is where Z-Man and I sat down and talked. Immediately, I understood he was a great guy!
The problem was, at least in terms of the film, we ate instead of filmed. It was getting late. By the time we got up to steal the hilltop location in Silver Lake, we were losing the light. As the movie was shot on 16mm film, this was problematic. Though I tired to guide Z’Dar in proper samurai sword usage, there wasn’t time. Post that, I realized the film was just too clusterfuck for me to be a part of and I didn’t return.
Soon after that, Z-Man and I worked together on the film, Divine Enforcer. We were the bad guys. We had a big fight scene with a bunch of opponents. It was fun.
After that Z-Man and I would sometimes hang out at places like The Rainbow on the Strip in the late hours of the evening, throwing back a few. He would always ask, “You got any nose candy, Scotty.” The man did like his intoxicants.
Our paths, both as friends and as actors, continued to cross, whether it was on auditions on in films. He, of course, was the lead in Frogtown II. There were a lot of problems with that film. Not the least of which was the director, my Zen Filmmaking buddy, Donald G. Jackson. Sometimes he would get in a mood and treat the actors and crew very badly. This, when the fault was actually always with him. At one point Z-Man took his Texas Rocket Ranger helmet and threw it at Don.
Things also went sideways on my film, The Rock n’ Roll Cops, where Don was the executive producer and the cinematographer. This event is discussed in an article written about the film that made it into my book, Zen Filmmaking. To tell the story, Don was in a mood. He apparently knew he was going to be an asshole and hired a professional bodyguard to go out with us. There we were on the roof of a parking structure in Burbank, stealing the location. We had a lot of people with us, most of us with loaded guns. So, this was no joke and the vibes, due to Don’s behavior, were very tense. He was yelling and screaming at the second cameraman, just treating him like shit. I asked the guy why he didn’t leave. But, he wanted to be the, “Better man,” as he put it. At one point Don starts screaming at Z-Man. “I wish we could get a decent fucking actor on this set.” Z’Dar, always the gentleman, simply replies, “I take exception with that, Donny.”
And, this is the thing, Z-Man was a great actor. I think some people never understood that, all they defined him by was his face. But, he was a really good actor!
He was also the consummate professional. He could have kicked Don’s ass and I would not have stepped in. I doubt that Don’s paid-for bodyguard would have helped either as he got freaked out by all that was going on and eventually bailed. But, Z-man worked with us until the early morning hours of dawn, when he finally got paid his $300.00 and went home.
You can see Don’s obsessional camera work and Z-Man doing and redoing this one scene over and over again in the Zen Documentary, Cinematografia Obsesion, if you want to. Even after all this he remained friends with Don. I remember Z-man calling Don when he was in the last days of his life at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. Don apologized to him. Z-man told him not to worry about it.
Z-Man certainly etched his name into the world of Cult Cinema. I believe had he walked a slightly different path he could have maintained a career in the high budget market. But, he went astray of SAG. I don’t know if he ever resolved that problem. The thing is, SAG, now SAG/Aftra, controls the mainstream industry. If you are not a part of it, you cannot work. As they are a union, they do not let their actors work in nonunion films. Yes, one can follow the path of Financial Core status, but that is only limited SAG membership and there are many detriments to that status. Z’Dar got caught working nonunion. SAG, if they find this out, expect you to pay all the money you earned on any film to them, plus a fine. The last I heard Z-man never paid that. But, he did have a wide spanning career.
Z-Man eventually moved back to his home in the Chicago area. He had inherited his mother’s house. While in L.A., he, as many actors do, spent much of his time near penniless and couch surfing. Surprisingly, it was once he returned to the Midwest that he began to get tons and tons of work. I remember Joe Estevez telling me one time, “He owns that town.”
I believe with the passing of Z’Dar it again signals the ending of an era. I wrote about this maybe a year or so ago when I discussed the fact that no new Scream Queen were moving to center stage to take over for the aging girls of the previous era. This too is the case with Z’Dar. It is a signal. And, I guess that’s life, times and trends move on.
I look to the filmmaking that is going on, and yes there are tons of movies being made. But, few are following the path of true Cult Cinema. Some are imitation of, some are just bad movies, but few illustrate the market that Z-Man was one of the Kings of.
There are so many stories I could tell about Z-Man. But, I will leave it at this. You will be missed, Bobby. You were one of the greatest actors I have ever met and had the pleasure of working with.

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