Sometimes, it works – instead of casting an already big-name movie star as an iconic character from another medium, an unknown or near-unknown who just happens to fit the description (or, in comics, the image) gets the chance of a lifetime and a shot at a career. See: Johnny Weissmuller, Sean Connery, Christopher Reeve, Kyle MacLachlan, Christopher Lambert, Chris Hemsworth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gal Gadot. But sometimes it doesn’t. George Lazenby is the most famous of the near misses, and has even made a career of being the 007 who didn’t take … which is more than anyone could say for Klinton Spilsbury.
Sam J. Jones is a particular case of this syndrome. With only a few bit parts (the hunk husband in 10 – Jones was cast as Flash Gordon in Dino de Laurentiis’ huge 1980 spectacular comic strip adventure, developed by Nicolas Roeg but eventually directed by Mike Hodges. As is often the case, the producer ‘saw something’ in an actor who didn’t actually look much like the comic strip Flash, so like Buster Crabbe before him, Jones had to dye his hair blond, with the added discomfort of wearing blue contact lenses. Lisa Downs’ film focuses on Jones and what happened to him, with added material from the cast and crew of the movie – Melody Anderson, Brian Blessed (in splendid form, but when is he ever not?), Richard O’Brien, the late Peter Wyngarde, Topol, Deep Roy, Brian May (whose chat-at-the-piano about the score is sweet and informative), etc. Absent, except for a few snippets of an event, is Hodges, but also Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti (too expensive, apparently) and Max von Sydow, but we get some odd vox pops with some relevance, mostly picked up at autograph events or comic cons (Richard Donner, briefly).
I’ve heard slightly different versions of these anecdotes from Mike Hodges, including more detail about why Jones turned up on set with facial injuries, but there’s lots of great stuff about the sprawling production – including Wyngarde’s reluctance to have his character die because he thought there would probably be sequels and wanted to be in them. The original idea was that this would be a franchise – it’s worth remembering that Dino produced King Kong Lives, and kicked himself for passing on The Silence of the Lambs – though de Laurentiis didn’t make follow-up to his earlier comics adaptations Diabolik and Barbarella. However, it didn’t happen – almost certainly because Dino and Jones (or, rather, Jones’ ‘management’) fell out during the production, and he wound up being dubbed (no one quite knows by who). Flash Gordon (1980) is a strange film by anyone’s lights – retro and innovative at the same time, inspired by Star Wars (as a business model as well as a film), which was itself an attempt to do a Flash Gordon-style film, but not very imitative of it. The use of a rock underscore – a collaboration between Queen and an exhausted Howard Blake – is sold here as innovative, but it’s a development of the style of music used on Diabolik and Barbarella, and may even have been influenced by Goblin.
The cast members all seem to have had a great time – Deep Roy, a little person who has credits on everything from Doctor Who to The X-Files, chortles over the memory of being Ornella Muti’s pet – despite the long haul and production problems and – though no one quite wants to be the one to say it – Sam J. Jones. Catching up with one-time Flash now, Downs skims a bit over his subsequent acting career (he was in two short-run TV series, odd efforts like Jane and the Lost City and direct-to-VHS stuff like Night Rhythms and Lady Dragon 2) to get to his Hasselhoff-style self-parody in the Ted films (which, refreshingly, his son owns up to hating). He talks about tabloid-friendly issues with substances and infidelity, but seems to have got on mid-life track with a career change (remember those security guys in cross-border convoys seen in the Sicario films? – that’s what he does now), a stable second marriage, an extended circle of family and friends, and (as is rather movingly and simply conveyed) his church. And if he made a hash of being a screen hero in 1980, he’s giving a better performance of it now – running his autograph stand at cons, being on show at events, charming startled fans and demonstrating a big personality.