Interview de Don Gordon Bell
Don Gordon Bell
So far, the little we know about you come from people like Nick Nicholson, Mike Monty or Richard Harrison. Could you tell us about your background? It seems your search for identity has not been very easy...
My name at birth was given to me by my Korean mother, Jun Yong-Soo. Jun is the family name of my Korean mother and Yong-Soo means "Excellent Face". I know, what happened to you, my Korean wife asks. LOL. I was born during the Korean War, called by media a 'war child'. I use the term 'Korean War Baby'. My birth father, a U.S. soldier, came to Korea not really knowing why America was helping the Korean people. He may have been a high ranking NCO or Top Sergeant. I know that he served about four years in country, fathered two children, first me then my younger sister. It was only years later, at 38 years old, that I found this out.
I was born on January 25, 1952, and my sister was born on June 9, 1955, three years five months later. A woman with two mixed-race children, would have had an almost impossible task to take care of us because of the dislike, even hatred for our like, unlike some countries such as the Spanish colonies where being a mestizo (half-Spanish and local Native) was a good thing. Recently, through DNA testing, I found out that my father was of Apache, Mexican, and Spanish blood-lines. Together with my Korean bloodlines, I have a multi-ethnic mix.
By High School I was ready for some action, I was very conservative and felt that Vietnamese people were so similar to my birthmother's people in Korea. They needed a chance to be free from Communism, so I knew why we had gone to Vietnam, or so I thought.
Could you tell us about your experience during the Vietnam war?
Like my father before me, I joined up to serve. I chose the Marines because I was impressed with the 'Esprit de Corps'. I was in the best unit because I did not want to be in a war zone with draftees. Uncles and cousins had served with the Marines, so it was a natural choice. I was off to the war, ready and willing to kill for God, Country, and Rock 'n Roll. I was assigned with elite Reconnaissance units of the US Marine Corps in Vietnam. 1st Recon Battalion and 1st Force Recon Company were the 'elite of the elite', the Marine's Marine. My units had one of the highest Kill Ratios (few of us, many of them: Killed In Action-78 USMC vs. 25,000 NVA/VC). I experienced some of the horrors of war, fought and killed for a good cause... my fellow Marines beside me on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, one of the most dangerous jobs in-country.
Since I did not know my own biological father, I tried being extra careful not to 'father a bastard', but I still took part in 'indulging in exotic women'. I took three trips to Thailand, rewards for my Recon team's having the highest number of monthly enemy sightings and kills, yes paid by the government. I discovered the special 'steam and cream' saunas, and the 'Redlight' areas full of bars and brothels, 'Streets of Passion', such as 'the Jungle' in Danang, TuDo Street in Saigon, catering to the needs of both armies, theirs and ours. Once while in a roadside brothel, my favorite Vietnamese 'boom-boom girl' suddenly whispered, 'No talk! VC, here now'. I heard several Viet Cong speaking, they had apparently arrived for their R & R (Rest and Relaxation)! I slipped out with my weapon on full auto in case, of course after first 'getting my money's worth'. Vietnam introduced me to a wild life in the fast lane. It also prepared me for the film industry several years later.
What's the chain of events that led you from the Vietnam war to the Filipino film industry?
After getting out of the Marines, I went to college without direction or purpose. Then by fate I took a trip to the Philippines with my college roommate John R. Silao, a Filipino immigrant who came to America at 12 years old. It was late 1975, the Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now", starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen, was in preproduction and casting extras. John's cousin worked in Filipino films and told me about the casting call for foreign extras. The Local Casting Director, Ken Metcalfe, noticed my USMC tattoo on my right forearm, found out that I had served in-country, been in combat. Ten minutes later, Ken took me to met Director Francis Coppola. When Francis heard I had been with Marine Recon, in-country Vietnam, 'been shot at', and actually fired weapons in combat, I was hired immediately as a Casting Assistant for the foreign extras, at a hundred dollars a day! From just an extra, I had been promoted to Production Assistant, Local Casting Dept. First thing I did was organize the casting call by using my strong voice, speaking like a Drill Instructor, to get the rabble organized and forms filled out, I.D. photos taken, etc. I asked for anyone who had served in the Military to step forward, told the ten who did, they were now my assistants, at double pay $50 dollars a day. Everything went smoothly and Ken Metcalfe was happy to have me on board.
Later, I was the one who trained extras on weapons, safety, infantry tactics, exiting helicopters carefully but quickly, made sure they wore their uniforms and equipment correctly, hold onto their weapons for they were very valuable to communists rebels. On the whole help them to look and act like real troops at war. I am upset that I did not get on the credits as being on the Casting Dept. I have a letter from 2nd AD Larry Franco attesting to my promotion later to Set Production Assistant in charge of all extras- Ifugao, Filipino, Foreign, Vietnamese extras ON the Set. I originally went to the Philippines for a 3 week vacation, that turned into almost ten years of working in the Filipino local and international productions. It was the greatest years of my life.
Apocalypse Now, The Boys in Company C, Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July etc. Most of the greatest movies about the Vietnam War having been shot in the Philippines, there were indeed some work opportunities...
During the filming of "Apocalypse Now", director Sidney J. Furie, of "Lady Sings the Blues", came visiting on the set. Ken Metcalfe introduced me to Sid as his main assistant, and both of us were hired to prepare for Sid's production, "The Boys in Company C". Shooting was due to start in the summer of 1977. Sid also met Director Francis Coppola, telling Francis, "Hello, I am also making a Vietnam War movie". Francis glanced around gesturing with his hands, with literally 2,000 extras, cast, and crew, preparing for the Hao Phat USO Show sequence.
To trace your film career can be a real headache, as you are sometimes credited as "Don Gordon Bell", some other times simply as "Don Gordon" or "Don Bell", not to mention the existence of another American actor named "Don Gordon"... Could you help us clear it up?
My complete name when I was adopted was Donald Gordon Bell. When I first worked in films I just used Don Bell on "Apocalypse Now", "The Boys in Company C", and as an extra in local Filipino films, documentaries, television. Those of us that worked on both war movies now scrambled to find work on other films. I found that contacts with Filipino crew members remembered that I had worked with both films in the casting department under Ken Metcalfe. Ken also introduced me to Bobby A. Suarez where some of us got regular parts as "minor goons/bad guys".
Bobby's film with Marrie Lee of Singapore, "They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong", was one of my first "international films". At this time after a couple of years I began to use Don Gordon (my middle name) as my 'screen name'. I began telling everyone on sets that I was using this name, this was about 1978 when I "became" Don Gordon.
In 1980 or 81, I was working on "American Commandos" a.k.a. "Hit Man" with Christopher Mitchum and John Phillip Law. When I met John Phillip and Christopher both of them were expectantly looking forward to meeting "the real Don Gordon" of "Papillon" and "Bullitt" fame! John Phillip Law said, "you ain't Don Gordon!" I replied, "Well, I am really Donald Gordon Bell, I used Don Gordon for a screen name the last five years. There is a REAL Don Gordon? Didn't know about him at all!"
That's not all. Sometime late in 1981, the 'Real Don Gordon' played the elderly advisor of the Anti-Christ played by character 'Damien Thorn' in "Omen III: The Final Conflict". Hell, he had second billing, 'above the Title' credits, and all over Manila were BillBoards/flyers/advertising "Starring Don Gordon". Writers that I actually paid monthly put out that it was ME. I tried without success to deny and even had some articles written. But everyone said, "we saw you, with a beard, congratulations... When did you do the filming?" I could not convince anyone that it was not me! I finally just agreed with folks, yeah, that was me.