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Brad Harris, Trash Icon - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2008

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Of all the bodybuilders who shot to fame in Italy in early 1960's sword-and-sandal movies (or peplums, as they're called), it was probably Brad Harris who had the longest career after the decline of the genre, and his fame was also the most enduring. And it was not because he was such a good actor - actually he was pretty bad, but in an enjoyably camp way - but because he had a certain weird charisma, because he chose his roles more wisely than his conemporaries, never restricting himself to the sword and sandal genre, because accepting supporting roles was never below him - and because besides an actor he was also a versatile stuntman and stunt coordinator, and such a two-in-one package was - hardly surprisingly - welcomed with open arms by his employers, most of them from lower budget production outfits. Plus, Harris was never one averse to travelling, so he, a born US-American, popped up in many a film from all sorts of European as well as Asian countries, and in films of almost every genre, from peplum to Western, from Eurospy to horror, from martial arts to soap opera (!) ... and thus over the years, his filmography has come to include many a trashfilm-classic, which is why bad movie fans tend to have a soft spot for him ...

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Born Bradford Jan Harris in 1933 in the small village St Anthony, Idaho, Brad Harris became interested in sports, and especially football, at a fairly early age, an interest that eventually landed him a football scholarship at UCLA, where he played fullback while studying economics, with the intention of keeping up the family tradition and later embarking on a banking career.

 


His stint at football however was cut short by a nasty knee injury, and to make up for it, Brad started getting involved in martial arts of all kind, and bodybuilding, inspired by Steve Reeves, Mister Universe of 1950, whom he met in the early 1950's and became acquainted with.

 

Soon, young Brad would scrap his plans to go into banking and instead became a stuntman in Hollywood. doing uncredited work on many an Elvis Presley film and the like. From the late 1950's onwards he also played small roles in films like Monkey on my Back (1957, André De Toth) and Li'l Abner (1959, Melvin Frank), but nothing big, his role was usually that of a muscleman or a hulking figure of sorts.

 

The most important film Brad Harris worked on during his early years was without a doubt the sword and sandal-epic Spartacus (1960) by Stanley Kubrick, in which he was one of many stuntman and also had a small part as a gladiator, and in a way, this film was a precursor for the films with which he would rise to stardom only a short time later.

 


 

Rise to Stardom - Brad Harris and the Peplum

 


Flix.com

After the success of Spartacus, Brad Harris made the wise decision to go to Italy for more moviework - Italy, where since the success of Le Fatiche di Ercole/Hercules (1958, Pietro Francisci), starring none other than Harris' inspiration Steve Reeves, bodybuilders were in high demand. And what made Harris even more bankable than most other bodybuilders of his time was that he had a background in stuntwork, which was ideal for peplums, which never relied too much on acting but all the more on action - which was totally alright with Harris since his acting skills were, shall we say, limited.

 

Brad Harris' first peplum was Goliath contro i Giganti/Goliath against the Giants (1961, Guido Malatesta), in which he of course played the lead. The film is pretty much your typical genre outing, based on a naive storyline that makes good and evil a bit too easily distinguishable, it features many a grande idea (like sea serpents of giants) that is let down by the film's modest budget, but on the other hand, the film is carried, for better or worse, by its muscular hero (that would be Harris), its beautiful sets (which were re-used again and again to cut costs), some wonderful European landscapes, and a certain naivité that seemed to be missing from Hollywood-produced epic movies from the time. And if you're able to overlook the film's shortcomings, you might even find Goliath against the Giants enjoyable - and it sure enough was successful enough to grant Brad Harris more lead roles in the genre ...

 





 


Sansone/Samson (1961) and La Furia di Ercole/The Fury of Hercules (1962) were shot back to back in Yugoslavia by Gianfranco Parolini, which is why the two films share much of the main cast, sets and even costumes. And by the way, besides the name, the lead characters in these two films (of course played by Brad Harris) have little to do with the actual Samson or Hercules - so little in fact that the German distributor for whatever reason interchanged the names of the films' title characters. 

Within the peplum genre however, both films rank among the lesser efforts, they are just a little too cheaply made and too uninvolvingly told to really leave much of an impression. The films' director Gianfranco Parolini however, who has also co-scripted Goliath against the Giants, would team up with Brad Harris time and again throughout the 1960's, making some of his most entertaining movies in a variety of genres ...

 


And really, Gianfranco Parolini was right back for Harris' next film, Anno 79: La Distruzione di Ercolano/The Destruction of Herculaneum (1962), a historically totally inaccurate blend of Christians, gladiators and all that jazz culmitating in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, with Brad Harris of course playing your friendly neighbourhood muscle-bound hero.

By the way, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was a subject fellow muscleman Steve Reeves [Steve Reeves bio - click here] also tackled in Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei/The Last Days of Pompeii (1959, Mario Bonnard).

 



Il Vecchio Testamento/The Old Testament (1962) was also directed gy Gianfranco Parolini, but despite its epic title it doesn't even try to cover all of the Old Testament but merely a tiny portion, depicting the fight of the Jews against their Syrian oppressors, with - in true spirit of the peplum genre - a muscleman (Brad Harris of course) thrown in and any faithfulness to its source material thrown out.

 

By 1962 though, the general audience's interest in peplums has already begun to die down, and Brad Harris was among the first bodybuilder-turned-actors to realize that, and as a consequence he bailed out before he had outstayed his welcome, seeking fame and fortune in other genres ...

 


 

Action, Adventure, Eurospy, Westerns - Brad Harris All Over the Place

 

Brad Harris' first film away from the peplum was the German/Italian adventure flicks Heisser Hafen Hong Kong/Agente 310 Spionaggio Sexy/Hong Kong Hot Harbor/Secrets of Buddha (1962) and  Der Schwarze Panther von Ratana/La Belva di Saigon/The Black Panther of Ratana (1963), both by Jürgen Roland, rather insignificant escapist features set in Hong Kong and Thailand respectively in which Harris only had small roles - but still, the films proved to be important to Harris inasmuch as they were his first German films, and back in the day in Germany, stuntmen or even stunt coordinators were a rarity - and since the German film industry started to focus more and more on action-oriented fare in the wake of the James Bond-series, actors with a background in stunts were suddenly in high demand ... so soon enough, Harris found himself in similar action fare like Weisse Fracht für Hong Kong/Da 077: Criminali ad Hong Kong/Mystery of the Red Jungle (1964, Helmut Ashley, Giorgio Stegani) and Diamantenhölle am Mekong/Sfida Viene da Bangkok/Mission to Hell (1964, Gianfranco Parolini), more escapist flicks set in exotic locations, in which he never had the lead role but always provided able support and of course stunts.

 

Das Geheimnis der Chinesischen Nelke/Il Segreto del Garofano Cinese/Secret of the Chinese Carnation (1964, Rudolf Zehetgruber) by contrast is a film that has more in common with the then incredibly successful German Edgar Wallace-series, being an over-convoluted murder mystery set in foggy London Town starring Paul Dahlke, Dietmar Schönherr, Klaus Kinski and Horst Frank. The film though is not all that important for Harris' career because it was a certain change of pace in Harris' output, nor because it was such an significant film (it quite simply wasn't), but because on the set of this film he met Czech actress/sex symbol Olga Schoberová aka Olinka Berova, one of the few actresses from behind the Iron Curtain who made films in both the East and the West back in the day with at least reasonable success on both sides of the curtain - quite apart from her being the first Czech model to appear in Playboy-magazine.

Eventually, Harris and Schoberová fell in love on the set of Secret of the Chinese Carnation, appeared in a few more films together and married in 1967. The marriage though, which produced a daughter, Sabrina, came to a divorce after only two years ... before the last of their films together was even released.

By the way, Rudolf Zehetgruber, director of Secret of the Chinese Carnation, is another name that will pop up time and again in Harris' biography ...

 

With Die Flusspiraten vom Mississippi/Agguato sul Grande Fiume/Pirates of the Mississippi (1964, Jürgen Roland), Brad Harris turned yet another page in his filmography as he made his first Western. In Germany in the early to mid-1960's, well before the spaghetti Western boom, Westerns were hot stuff after the amazing success of the Winnetou-series, so for a while, German producers were adamant to get their Westerns into the theatres, and of course, an actor who could also do and coordinate stunts was someone who was always welcome on a set of an action-oriented film like a Western. The film itself is rather insignificant of course, but it marks the first collaboration of Harris and Tony Kendall, his most frequent co-star in some of his funniest movies ...

By the way, besides Harris, Pirates of the Mississippi also featured fellow former Hercules Dan Vadis in a small role.

 

After Pirates of the Mississippi, Brad Harris remained with the (German) Western genre for two more films, Die Goldsucher von Arkansas/Massacre at Marble City (1964, Paul Martin) - which besides Harris and Olga Schoberová also featured many a familiar face from German movies of the time including Mario Adorf, Horst Frank, Dieter Borsche, Ralf Wolter, Marianne Hoppe, plus former British matinée idol Anthony Steele - and Die Schwarzen Adler von Santa Fe (1965, Alberto Cardone, Ernst Hofbauer), which reunited Harris with Kendall and also featured Olga Schoberová and once more Horst Frank.

 

None of these Western left too big an impression on the audience and they are by now largely forgotten - and the same can actually be said about Harris' next two films, the Eurospy-movie A 001, Operazione Giamaica/Scharfe Schüsse auf Jamaika/Our Man in Jamaica (1965, Ernst R. von Theumer), in which Harris has only a small role and for which he was mainly hired as stunt coordinator, and the crime film Supercolpo da 7 Miliardi/The Ten Million Dollar Grab (1966, Bitto Albertini).

 


Hot on the heels of these films though followed a role in a series of films that would pretty much become Brad Harris signature character - for better or worse -, that of Captain Rowland in the Kommissar X-series.

Kommissar X was actually a German pulp series that ran from 1959 to 1992 and was conceived by Karl Heinz Günther alias Bert F.Island for the Pabel-Moewig publishing group as a competition to the popular Jerry Cotton-series by publisher Bastei-Lübbe. Essentially, the series chronicles the adventures of private eye Joe Walker alias Kommissar X going against all kinds of criminals, aided by his friend Captain Rowland of Manhattan homicide.

In the mid-1960's, when the phenomenal success of the James Bond-series triggered all kinds of producers to churn out their own (low budget) espionage films, an already established James Bond-like character must have meant box office gold, and thus in 1966, Kommissar X first saw the light of day (or rather of the projection room) in Gianfranco Parolini's Kommissar X - Jagd auf Unbekannt/Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill. The title character in this film was played by Tony Kendall in a too-cool-to-be-true manner, with Brad Harris playing his sidekick/accomplice Captain Rowland, who disapproves of X's methods but can't help but help him, since after all X is on the right side of the law. The film was successful (and cheap) enough to spawn six sequels in the next five years, which hardly strayed from the formula of the first film, a combination of exotic locations, sexy girls (including occasional nudity), plenty of action and a tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre as such - which makes the Kommissar X-series one of the most entertaining Eurospy-series of its time.

 


Later films of the series were Kommissar X - Drei Gelbe Katzen/Death is Nimble, Death is Quick (1966, Rudolf Zehetgruber), Kommissar X - In den Klauen des Goldenen Drachen/So Darling, So Deadly (1966, Gianfranco Parolini), Kommissar X - Drei Grüne Hunde/Kill me Gently (1967, Rudolf Zehetgruber) - this one once again also stars Olga Schoberová -, Kommissar X - Drei Blaue Panther (1968, Gianfranco Parolini), Kommissar X - Drei Goldene Schlangen/Island of the Lost Girls (1969, Roberto Mauri) and Kommissar X jagt die Roten Tiger (1971, Harald Reinl [Harald Reinl bio - click here]).

 


But while the Kommissar X-series was only slightly over-the-top, Gianfranco Parolini opted for all-out-camp with the next film in which he teamed Brad Harris up with Tony Kendall - and threw in Nick Jordan for good measure: I Fantastici Tre Supermen/The Three Fantastic Supermen/The Fantastic Three (1967), an action comedy combining Eurospy and superhero motives to hilarious result - even if the funniest moments are often those not intended to be funny and the actual jokes are often terrible.

The Three Fantastic Supermen was soon followed by Tre Supermen a Tokio/Three Supermen in Tokyo (1968, Bitto Albertini) but with an entirely different trio of superheroes (and no Brad Harris), and Che fanni i nostri Supermen tra le Vergini della Giungla?/The Three Supermen in the Jungle (1970, Bitto Albertini), for which Brad Harris returns to the series, this time siding George Martin and Sal Borghese.

There were actually more Three Supermen-films made after The Three Supermen in the Jungle, including Süpermenler/Three Supermen against Godfather (1979, Italo Martinenghi), a Turkish-Italian co-production starring Turkish superstar Cüneyt Arkin in the lead, but Brad Harris did not return to the series.

 



The Eurospy-movie Mister Dynamit - Morgen küsst Euch derTod/Spy Today, Die Tomorrow (1967, Franz Josef Gottlieb) is ineresting inasmuch as just like Kommissar X it is based on a pulp character created by Karl Heinz Günther alias Bert F.Island - but Brad Harris only plays a small role in this one which is actually a starring vehicle for Lex Barker [Lex Barker bio - click here].

 

Harris would again play bigger roles in the action flick Cin... Cin... Cianuro (1968, Ernesto Gastaldi) and the Spanish-Italian Western Un Hombre Vino a Matar/Rattler Kid (1968, León Klimovksy) ... however, in 1968, Harris would also make (and even executive-produce) a movie that many - me included, regard as the ultimate Brad Harris film: Eva, La Venere Selvaggia/King of Kong Island (Roberto Mauri).

 




King of Kong Island is pretty much a highlight of jungle trash and so-bad-it's-good-moviemaking alike: It starts out as a pretty routine adventure flick in fake jungle sets, but soon, your typical neighbourhood jungle girl (Esmeralda Barros) is thrown into the proceedings, wearing very little to sex things up a bit. She does not have all that much of a dramaturgic significance in the film though because eventually, the whole thing turns out to be about a madman (Marc Lawrence) trying to conquer the world with mind-controlled gorillas (!). Add to this pulp cliché upon pulp cliché, bad gorilla suits, a way too low budget and a scene in which Brad Harris shows off his dancing skills (really!) and you've got one bad movie ... but at the same time amazing entertainment.


By the way, international schlock producer Dick Randall had his hands in producing this one.

 

Both the sex-peplum Le Calde Notti di Poppea/Poppea's Hot Nights (1969) and the racing movie Formula 1 - Nell'Inferno del Grand Prix/Maniacs on Wheels (1970, both directed by Guido Malatesta) reunited Harris with Olga Schoberová on screen, with the latter being the more interesting film inasmuch as Harris once again had his hands in production and co-wrote the script, and it features real life Formula 1 star Graham Hill and motorbike champ Giacomo Agostini.

 


Flix.com



Flix.com

Over the next few years, Harris could be seen in quite a number of films from war films - Quando Suona la Campana/When the Bell Tolls (1970, Luigi Batzella - in this one, Harris plays a priest) -, spaghetti Westerns - Wanted Sabata (1970, Roberto Mauri), Arriva Durango, Pago o Muori/Durango is Coming, Pay or Die (1971, Roberto Bianchi Montero - Brad Harris also had his hands in production of these two films), Seminò a Morte ... Lo Chiamavano Castigo di Dio/Death is Sweet from the Soldier of God (1972, Roberto Mauri) -

and action flicks - Questa Volta ti Faccio Ricco/This Time I'll Make you Rich (1974, Gianfranco Parolini), the Italian-Turkish co-production Antonio e Placido - Attenti Ragazzi... chi Rompe Paga/Firtinalar Istanbul'da - Kiranlar Öder (1976, Giorgio Ferroni) - to a quite amusing attempt to revive the pelum genre - Il Ritorno del Gladiatore piu Forte del Mondo/Three Giants of the Roman Empire (1971, Bitto Albertini) -, a hilarious Tarzan-like jungle flick - Zambo, il Dominatore della Foresta/Zambo, King of the Jungle (1972, Bitto Albertini) -, a giallo - the Dick Randall-production La Casa della Paura/The Girl in 2A (1973, William L.Rose) - and two outright horror flicks - the vastly underrated Lo Stranglatore di Vienna/The Mad Butcher (1971, Guido Zurli) starring Victor Buono, and the decidedly weird The Mutations/Freakmaker (1974, Jack Cardiff) starring Donald Pleasence [Donald Pelasence bio - click here], Tom Baker [Tom Baker bio - click here] and Julie Ege.

 


 

The Long Decline

 


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By the mid-1970's the filmworld as such started to change: With the creation of the blockbuster, brain- and lifeless American movies along the lines of Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg) and Star Wars (1977, Geoge Lucas) were starting to take over theatres on an international level not so much thanks to their inherent quality but to their enormous advertising budgets and their ability to flood whatever country with enough copies of whatever film to squeeze out the competition, and suddenly, B-movies from whatever genre and whatever country became a less and less profitable business venture - and the direct result was that B-movie-producers a) produced less films and b) tried to cut even more corners to make their films as cheap as possible ... which explains a Brad Harris starrer from 1977, La Bestia in Calore/SS Hell Camp (Luigi Batzella), a film Harris (whose name isn't mentioned inthe credits) didn't shoot a single scene for and which revolves around a Nazi scientist (Macha Magall) and her raping and killing monster - but which was padded out with whole sequences from Batzella's own When the Bell Tolls from 1970, with Harris playing a priest, to bring the whole thing to feature length on a budget.

 


But even apart from SS Hell Camp, Brad Harris's star was on the decline - like that of so many B-movie stars from Europe actually - and he was forced to play more and more supporting roles, like that of a villain in Rudolf Zehetgruber's final Superbug-film Zwei Tolle Käfer räumen auf/Return of Superbug (1978) or that of the investigating cop in the German horror comedy Lady Dracula (1978, Franz Josef Gottlieb [Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here]) - which stars Evelyne Kraft in the title role, Stephen Boyd as Dracula, and which is not even a bit funny despite the involvement of German comedy actors Theo Lingen, Eddi Arent, Walter Giller and Roberto Blanco. Interestingly, Brad Harris was responsible for the story of Lady Dracula - but he simply can't be made responsible for the lack of humour of the script of this proposed comedy.

 

Brass Target (1978, John Hough) is another film in which Harris only plays a supporting character, but at least, this one - an American production by MGM - has a fine principal cast, including Sophia Loren, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn, Patrick McGoohan, Max von Sydow and Ed Bishop.

 

Still, after the relatively high-profile Brass Target, Brad Harris went to television for a guest spot on the highly propular German crime show Derrick in Besuch aus New York (1979, Helmut Ashley).

 



Flix.com

In 1980 though, Brad Harris played a supporting role in what can only be described as a trash gem in its own right, Challenge of the Tiger (Bruce Le, Luigi Batzella), a piece of bruceploitation so funny it simply has to be seen. The film, a Hong Kong-Italian co-production headed (once more) by schlock maestro Dick Randall, is basically an over-the-top blend of martial arts and espionage motives starring Bruce Le and Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here], with Hwang Jang Lee, Nadiuska, Bolo Yeung and Brad Harris providing able (?) support, but what sets this film apart from most chop-socky and bruceploitation flicks of its time is its sheer number of crazy setpieces - and Brad Harris trying his hands on Kung Fu is only one of them - that totally put the film into a league of its own. To put it shortly, Challenge of the Tiger is a must-see for all bad movie enthusiasts ...

 

Unfortunately, after Challenge of the Tiger Brad Harris decided to return to his native USA, where he tried to break into the movie business as well - but only with moderate success, since he was reduced to playing minor supporting roles in films like the Melissa Gilbert-starrer Splendor in the Grass (1981, Richard C.Sarafian) and the comedy Good-bye Cruel World (1983, David Irving) ,and the TV-series Dallas (1984, 1988, 1989), Falcon Crest (1984, 1985, 1989) and Hunter (1988, 1990).

 


Only one of Harris guest spots on a TV-series seems to have any siginificance for his later career, that on The Incredible Hulk (1982), since it was his first collaboration with Lou Ferrigno [Lou Ferrigno bio - click here], with whom he would soon make two movies back in Italy, both Cannon-produced attempts to revive the Italian peplum in the wake of the newly created barbarian genre - the rather disappointing I Sette Magnifici Gladiatori/The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983, Bruno Mattei [Bruno Mattei bio - click here]), which also stars Sybil Danning [Sybil Danning bio - click here] and Dan Vadis, and Hercules (1983, Luigi Cozzi), again co-starring Danning, plus Eva Robins and William Berger ... and Hercules, in which Harris plays the foster father to Ferrigno in the title role, is quite simply put a revelation, a self-conscious, entirely tongue-in-cheek piece of low budget 1980's trash with some of the trippiest special effects there are and one of the weirdest plots ever. Quite simply put, a masterpiece ... though I have to add, to really enjoy this film, you mustn't take it seriously for even a single minute!

 

In 1987, Brad Harris made his last German film, the adventure flick Der Stein des Todes/Death Stone/Kiss of the Cobra (Franz Josef Gottlieb [Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here]), but despite its relatively stellar cast - Heather Thomas, Elke Sommer, Serge Falck, Albert Fortell, Christian Anders, Siegfried Rauch, Katja Flint and Harris' old partner Tony Kendall, the film failed to leave too much of an impression, especially since the old school German adventure cinema seemed already horribly out-of-date by 1987.

 

In the 1990's, Brad Harris only returned to the movie-screen twice, in the Italian comedies Vita da Reussio and Boom (both 1999, Andrea Zaccariello), neither of them a remarkable film.

Away from movie work, Brad Harris had started his own business called Modern Body Design, successfully designing and selling exercise machines - with Harris himself, who has kept in perfect shape over the years, being the company's ideal spokesperson.

In 2001, Harris received a special achievement award at the Muscle Beach Bodybuilding Championship for his filmwork, along with Mark Forest, Ed Fury, Mickey Hargitay, Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here], Reg Lewis, Peter Lupus and Gordon Mitchell, all bodybuilders also having had careers in Italian 1960's sword and sandal cinema.

 

In closing, I can't but repeat that Brad Harris was not a good actor, and he did not make any big contributions to cinema history - but that said, in his career as an actor spanning approximately 40 years, he has acted in some of the most entertaining pieces of trash there were, several of which were made special exactly because of his lack of acting skills - and at least for a trash movie conoisseur like myself, at least some of his filmwork is simply put priceless.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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