Radames Pera (John Sanderson Edwards Jr.) Exclusive Interview!
1. Hi Radames, thanks for being interviewed for PrairieFans.com!
Wow, it's been 30 years now since Little House first aired on TV.
What do you think of its success after so many years? Would you have
thought it would still be as popular today as it was many years ago?
Thank you. It is truly an honor to be in such great company and to have my work appreciated in this way.
I don't think anyone could have predicted, exactly, that the show would end up having such "legs." No doubt a part of its success stems from the fact that several key alumni went on with successful careers of their own after that, and with work evidencing a similar integrity. But even more central to its longevity is the fact that when a creative work comes so clearly from the heart as "Little House" surely did, and so consistently, it becomes part of the landscape of the culture.
When an audience, be they readers or viewers (and a combination of the two in many cases here) connects so deeply with well drawn characters, and are included in so many simulated intimate moments with those characters, well, people like the Ingalls Family become a part of their lives in a real way. Then, as we go about the business of our own lives, opportunities arise when we find moments of resonance with those characters, and they come alive in us once more. It's almost magical. Such is the power and legacy of any great drama.
I have had the fortune to have been a part of two television series' that have endured in such a manner. To this day, people will still tell me how profoundly affected they were by my role as Grasshopper in the "Kung Fu" TV Series, and how watching the show led them to change their lives. I believe that when any character on television or in film goes through a well written and performed transcendent experience, as Laura Ingalls, Charles Ingalls, and Kwai Chang Caine surely did (all in the same historic era, coincidentally) it can't help but live in the heart and mind of the conscious viewer for a very long time.
2. What was it like to be on Little House? Had you ever read the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder before getting the part of John Jr.
That's a real two-part question. Well, I started my appearances on "Little House" in a two-part episode, so I guess it's appropriate. I remember being very excited to know I was going to work with both Michael Landon and with Patricia Neal (who played my Mother in Part I of "Remember Me".)
The fact that John Jr. was a writer and poet certainly appealed to me, I had been writing my own poetry for several years before that, having been inspired by my great 5th and 6th grade teacher at Gardner St. Elementary School in Hollywood, Mrs. Gunther (although in my day she was Ms. Altmann). We would come off the hot playground after lunch and she would have the lights off, just the afternoon daylight reflecting through the windows of our classroom, and once we were all there, she would invite us to put our heads down on our folded arms as she tuned the radio to the local Classical music station for about 5 minutes - to cool us out and get our minds gently focused back into more "educatable" frame of mind after the wild physicality of the "kid culture" of the lunchtime playground. She was, and still is a great teacher, and was so good at coaxing the poetry out of us all.
I realize I've digressed, but I thought it important to recount a profound experience of my own childhood, since so much of "Little House" is about that, and I believe it did help me get the part in some way a few years later. But don't think I've just been stalling from answering the second part of your question: No, I never read the books. (Honestly though, how many boys do you think did?)
3. What was the audition process like for John Jr.? Was it competitive?
Well for whatever reason, I don't distinctly remember that first audition. But I know it wasn't any more or less competitive than others I had been on at the time. I remember being called back to read for Mr. Landon and, now that you've jogged my memory, I do remember being excited to meet him. I also felt that the role was a good fit for me, and I guess I did the best job with it. What I had no idea about was Mr. Landon's intentions for my character. I came on the show expecting it to be just the two-part work on "Remember Me" but hadn't yet realized that if I was becoming the Edwards' (Victor French and Bonnie Bartlett's) adopted son it meant I was also becoming part of the regular cast. This was a pleasant surprise and thrill to me.
4. What could you remember most about working with the cast and crew? What was the atmosphere like on the Little House set?
That production was one of the most closely knit groups I had ever had the pleasure to have worked with. I'm sure others involved have said similar things already, but it was really like working with a bunch of friends. Beside the fact that any well produced show has a large set of dedicated professionals at the top of their field all working together to create a single product, this show had the extra quality of Michael's presence. His charisma, talent, and utter dedication to the project permeated all levels of the production.
During my time on the show, I think I was the oldest teenager of the bunch, an odd age where I felt urges to be both included in the fun and shenanigans of the younger actors, and yet also identified with the older actors and crew at the same time. I guess you might say I never felt like I totally fit in because of that. I remember really enjoying Melissa Gilbert's company, I wish we could have played more scenes together. As the series went on during my tenure, I admit having felt a little "stuck" with Melissa Sue Anderson, who was not a happy camper at that point in her life. Among other things, I think she, too, felt "out of place" in some way.
At the time I was incapable of understanding it, and just thought she was an unpleasant person, but over the years I came to realize a few things about her (...and these are all unconfirmed conjecture on my part. I'll add my own disclaimer here, partly for fun: "The opinions expressed here are those Mr. Pera alone and do not reflect those of the other individuals involved, either living or dead.")
First, she was clearly and deeply unhappy about something in her life at the time. Second, her religious upbringing was in direct conflict with her professional life and experiences at the time, and third (and perhaps not least) was her knowledge that she would never be the real focus of the show, she was always going to be the satellite of the Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert's) character. This combination couldn't have felt very good for a budding young woman. I was so caught up in my own head myself then, it just looked to me that she was being unprofessional. I am referring specifically to the way she treated me and her sense of responsibility toward her character essentially.
We had a scene depicting our first kiss, and she refused to let our lips touch. Repeatedly she tried putting her hand up to her lips where she thought the camera couldn't see as our heads met, but that didn't work. She tried every which-a way to NOT to kiss me. And here we were, 75 people standing around in the hot afternoon sun while she was making a fuss. ("Was I limburger cheese?" I wondered, "Was it something I said?") I guess, in retrospect, it might have clashed with her interpretation of her religion, or... maybe she just didn't like me. Either way, if you're going to be an actor, your job is to suspend you own beliefs, if only for a few moments, in order to portray the truth of the character.
Well, anyway, the Director of this episode, Bill Claxton, had to pretend to yell at ME for not doing the scene right in order to communicate to her. He was in a tough position, Missy Anderson was one of The Stars of the show, and she had a reputation, early on, of being occasionally "difficult" around that fact. So he couldn't call her down for it, that would have been neither politically correct, nor, as he astutely deduced, very effective with her either. Suffice it to say that it was one of the most awkward moments of my career. I was just wondering why the heck she couldn't just do the scene!? But now, I can only imagine the discomfort and pain she must have been in to have felt compelled to behave like that in the situation. Poor thing. Once I got wind of the fact that Michael had decided to develop a romance between the two characters on the show, I did my professional best to befriend her, get to know her, anything a pro would do to create some comfort and trust between us so we might serve the production better, but to no avail. Perhaps I seemed like a "big bad boy" to her in her world at the time, and she just couldn't get past that. I'm sure I don't really understand the half of it, though.
As far as everybody else, I really enjoyed them. Alison Arngrim (Nellie Olson) and I were going to Hollywood High School at the same time, and we were friends, (though I think I may have broken her heart when she tried to let me know how much she cared for me and I was unresponsive.) Okay, I was an idiot, I couldn't see myself going out with the geek she was then, but the irony was I was as much of a geek, too, but I didn't know it. In retrospect, I regret not having had a real relationship with her, it might have spared me several years of confusion in my young adult life. Alison is a very evolved soul, and I surely would have benefited from loving her, but I was obviously incapable of it at the time.
Brian Part was fun to work with as my brother. I was jealous of him because he got to ride motorcycles and my mom forbade it. He went on to become a motocross champion. In the past couple of years we've gotten to know each other as adults and I am proud to be his friend. He is a fine, and quite musically talented individual. Along with his wife they make a powerful musical duo that write and perform some of the best songs I've ever heard. I wish them success in their musical careers. Their work is important.
5. What, if any, affect did your role as John Jr. have on your career over the years? Did it help you land roles in other projects? Are you still associated with or recognized from being on the show?
Well, ironically, shortly after my stint on "Little House" I essentially "left the business" for a few years. At one level of reality though, I was really delving deeper into my craft, and for good reason.
I was taking 2nd year film courses the same year I would have been a senior at Hollywood High (gosh, I hated "regular" school) so I took the Equivalency Test at the end of 11th grade and went directly to L.A.C.C. Back in the summer of 1978, following that year of College, (I took a couple of acting classes with the legendary Stella Adler who came to L.A. every summer from New York to reach some of the actors in Hollywood and let them know what the real Craft of Acting was about.
Well, I was smitten, and realized that in order for me to have a better chance of fulfilling my Big Plan to become a director, I would really have to get some serious chops (no pun intended) under my belt, really become a stronger actor with enough training and Technique to perform the more demanding roles I knew lay ahead in my career.
My big "Plan" was to get into another series at some point and cultivate the opportunity to direct an episode or two, as I had seen many actors do in the 10 years I had been in The Business at that point. Seemed logical: act better, get better roles, move on to the primary pull in my life. "Ahh, Grasshopper, the best laid plans..."
My agents in L.A. begged me not to go to New York. They said that my work on "Little House" had a certain "momentum" to it and they were going to be able to do great things with it for me. But after those few weeks studying with Ms. Adler, I realized there was a whole lot I didn't have a clue about when it came to acting, writing and directing. Stella was not simply teaching an acting technique, but a whole approach to life that made a lot of sense to me. Her belief that the actor could become "an empty vessel" and then fill that vessel with their imagination in order to serve the intent of the writer was a profound revelation to me.
Unlike the Strassberg Technique of "sense memory" where the actor digs deep into their own experience to find the character's truth, Stella's technique seemed much healthier for the whole person since the entire character was constructed from the actor's imagination, and could hence be left in the dressing room with the wardrobe, whereas with Strassberg, the actor carried the whole shebang around with them. She felt that was unhealthy for the artist. I tend to agree. Marlon Brando once said that he studied acting with Stella, but went to Strassberg's Actor's Studio to pick up women, who were all neurotic over there!
So, to make a long story even longer, I left for New York with two big suitcases on my 18th birthday in the fall of 1978 to devote myself to the study of this craft. I felt I owed it to my profession to become as good as I could be instead of resting on the laurels of my "natural abilities." Plus, I really needed to get away from Hollywood. I grew up in it and a little objectivity would be good for my soul. What I didn't realize is that is was curtains for my career. I came back to Hollywood three years later only to find that Hollywood had pretty much forgotten about me. My agents were right, career-wise it was a bad move. But for me, personally, it changed my life for the better... even though it took me a few more years to realize that a career in Hollywood at that time was no longer in the cards for me.
The "child actor" stigma didn't help either. It was so difficult to slowly realize as an adult that my entire career as a child had become an odd liability instead of an asset. My last TV performances were in the shows, "Starman" and "The New Mike Hammer" (where I played a vigilante Nazi-like youth gang leader - I had a great time with that role). For film, my last work was as the Russian soldier, Sgt. Stepan Gorsky in "Red Dawn" in which my platoon gets ambushed and I get tortured and later executed by Patrick Swayze. But when it really came down to it, finally, I had to accept the fact that I was done with acting and that I really wanted to make films, not be in them.
6. Did any of the cast make any impressions on you?
It was the combination of everyone working together as a family that made the biggest impression on me.
7. What can you remember most about Michael Landon and Victor French while growing up? Was Victor as friendly onscreen as he was in person? Was he ever a father figure to you?
Victor: A sweet man tortured by many demons. Very private, though very professional. Had a good sense of humor, but you always felt that he was all the while crying inside. Kept everything and everyone at arm's length, though again, this did not get in the way of his excellent work and fine presence on the set. It was impossible to get to know him more than that. But yes, he was "friendly" as much as such an unhappy person could be.
Michael: What you would call "an actor's actor". In complete command of the set, and all the artists and craftspeople he surrounded himself with. Everyone felt as if they were a part of his extended family, and so did their very best to please him. He was jovial, generous when he needed to be, and told some of the best and bawdiest dirty jokes you (or I) ever heard. When it came time for me to do a particularly difficult emotional scene, and he realized that I wasn't going to "get there" on my own, he told the crew to back off a little bit, "give us a few minutes," is what he said. He put his arm around my shoulder and took me off to the side to tell me a little story about a dear friend of his who was losing their child to cancer. He told this story in such a heart wrenching way, and began to cry himself, that it brought tears to my eyes, and when I "went there" with him, he gently brought me back to the set and rolled camera. That's the level of commitment he had in order to get the results he wanted. He made everyone feel special.
Now, I also heard about his "dark side" and was the indirect recipient (or direct, depending on how you look at it ) of this aspect of his personality. One day, toward the end of my work on the show, Victor French went off to do a pilot for a sitcom called "Carter Country" which then went into production. That was all good for Victor, but he made the mistake of not consulting with Michael before he did so. This made Michael very angry and he wrote Mr. Edwards, and his whole family off the show for a few years until the time that he and Victor patched things up. In fact, he had an entire episode written to put my character in disfavor with the public, having John, Jr. turn out to be two-timing Mary Ingalls, which she only finds out after she and her father come to Chicago where John is going to school. NBC got so many letters from people who couldn't believe John, Jr. would do that, and how out of character it seemed.
But Michael was mad at Victor, and with one line spoken by his character, the Edwards' were gone. It's at a dinner scene with Mary, Charles and John, Jr. where Michael asks me, "So, are you coming back to Walnut Grove, or are you going to visit your folks out in California?" Just like that.
Then, the big irony for me, personally, was years later when I decided to visit the set of Little House after I moved back from New York in late 1981. I caught up with them the very afternoon at Universal Studios where they had just filmed a scene where Isaiah Edwards (Victor) and Charles Ingalls find MY dead body!! I practically ran onto the set shouting, "I'm alive! I'm alive!" But it was too late. Apparently, Michael and Victor had put aside their differences and of course later went on to make the series "Highway to Heaven" together. But John, Jr. was now, as they say, "history." Such is Hollywood. Naturally, I would have liked to return to the show, but by then Mary had gone blind and married another gent (one who could remain faithful apparently) ...and besides, "I" was dead.
8. Do you have a favorite episode of Little House? Why is it your favorite?
Well, I liked the episode entitled, "His Father's Son" where my new step-dad and I go out into the woods to camp and hunt. John, Jr., the sensitive young man that he is, writes a note expressing his appreciation for Isaiah's having adopting us Sanderson kids, and how I'm looking forward to the developing relationship as father and son. Little does John, Jr. know that Isaiah can't read, and so the lukewarm reception of his little note is devastating to the young man. Later, when a bear attacks Isaiah, John is frozen by his suddenly ambivalent feelings toward this man. Isaiah survives the mauling, and Charles tells John that Isaiah is illiterate and that he was too embarrassed to admit it. This of course rekindles our bond and allows a secret out into the light. This was my favorite episode because it focused on our characters, and was an opportunity for me to do some of my best work in the show. And I didn't have to kiss Mary!
9. Going back to John Jr.'s death from the eighth season episode "Chicago" what are your feelings towards the character's death?
I might add that I was sad about the finality of John, Jr.'s death. I admit that in the back of my mind, I had hoped I might return to the show when I learned that Victor was back in. It was truly painful on a personal level that day when I decided to visit the set only to learn of my character's demise. But everybody else thought it was funny that I showed up at that moment, so I had to roll with the punch. It was hard not to feel cast out of a magical kingdom, though, since I did feel like part of the family for those few years. Now on the outside looking in, as it were. Those were my honest feelings at the time, and for some years afterwards.
10. Finally, How are things going for you these days? Are you currently acting, any projects in the works?
I am well. Thank you for asking. Shortly after I met and married my wife in 1984 (going on 22 years now!) I began to question my whole involvement in Hollywood. It had been such part of my life that I thought I could never earn a living any other way. It was all I thought I knew how to do. When I finally faced up to the fact that I was going to have to get a "job-job" in the "real world" it was rather daunting. What could I do. Well, I had been making my own short films and videos at that point and so I found a job as an assistant film editor, then as a video editor, and began acquiring some electronic engineering skills. After working for other people for about 3 years, I decided I wanted to try working for myself. I had always had a passion for stereo systems, speakers, amplifiers, etc. I made up a card for a service to hook up people's VCRs and hi-fis, and started getting business right away. No one knew about my acting background until I chose to tell them, and then it was just for fun.
I built my business and my reputation with my own two hands. This was very important to me, being able to guide my own success, rather than what most actors must face, the fact that their success is much too much in the hands of others, casting people, agents, managers, producers, directors, etc. To be able to make a few phone calls, knock on a few doors and have business which could support me and my family changed my life. I've been doing the same business ever since, and have had clients like Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage, Sharon Stone, Ben Stiller, Charlize Theron and several other notables. I take pride in creating home theaters and multi-zone sound systems for all kind of people.
I didn't need to stay in L.A. to do it either, and this allowed my wife and I to move to Portland, Oregon where we lived for a decade and thrived together. When you grow up in a Big City like L.A. or N.Y., you can easily start to believe that life couldn't possibly go on anywhere else, and
many people can stay trapped in those places their entire lives. But the world is a big place, and life does go on, I learned that it could be even better than I imagined somewhere else. That was my experience.
Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed for prairiefans.com!
For more information on Radames Pera visit his Official Web site at www.radamespera.com
Webmasters Note: Interview was done on June 15, 2005. Pictures of Radames that appear on this page with Alison Arngrim and the recent head shot are courtesy of Radames Pera