"A better gorilla than, well, a gorilla!"
Once Don McLeod wrested an acting job away from a primate, there was no looking back for him.
By Nicole Hutcheson, Times Staff Writer
Published July 14, 2007
Fortunately for Don McLeod, there is no actors guild for gorillas.
When Otto, the beloved 500-pound gorilla that lived at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, died a few weeks ago, McLeod couldn't help but reminisce. It was Otto who, in some ways, gave McLeod his big break as an actor.
Otto, who died at 42, famously starred in a print ad for American Tourister luggage. But McLeod stole an acting gig from Otto for the award-winning 1980 television commercial. McLeod, wearing a gorilla suit, played Otto better than Otto.
Nearly three decades later, McLeod is still putting real gorillas out of work.
We talked to McLeod by phone from his home in California.
You essentially stole the role of a gorilla from an actual gorilla. That must have been pretty rewarding in a professional sense.
Yeah, they had a lot of problems with the gorilla going to the center of the stage and picking up the suitcase and smashing it. But with me, I'm so hot in the costume, they had no problem. I wanted it over quick. Plus, things changed and they couldn't use gorillas because they became an endangered species. I think that was one of the last times they used an actual gorilla.
Wow, who knew that was a problem facing Hollywood?
People all over the world will have an advertising agency come up with a concept of a gorilla using a GPS system or a laptop and make a storyboard and they get down there and say, "Where do we get a gorilla?" They'll call the zoo and they say, "No."
So, then they go into Google and type in "gorilla" and, eventually, I come up.
When did you decide you wanted to become an actor?
When I did my first play in high school in the 11th grade. I played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
When did you discover you preferred playing an animal to a human being?
It happened by accident, really. I had trained at the School of Performing Arts San Diego. I studied movement and Shakespeare and got a chance to be in a low-budget movie in 1979, The Galactic Connection. It was a really terrible movie. Luckily, it was never released. Then, from that, someone recommended me to audition for the American Tourister gorilla. Because I had a lot of training in mime, I got the job. The animal rights groups challenged the commercial. They gave the American Tourister suitcase to a real gorilla named Willy BoBo from the Miami Zoo, and he ripped the cover off of it in a few seconds. That got released to the media, that American Tourister luggage was presenting a false image - that it didn't really hold up to a gorilla.
Did the company come out and say you were actually a human playing a gorilla?
I ended up being put on the publicity talk show circuit. I did The Today Show with Jane Pauley, NBC News with Tom Brokaw - everything from print to commercial. I did over 100 interviews in three months. I was in People magazine as this unusual man who plays primates, and that's how I went from a regular actor in Los Angeles to doing 10 commercials over the next three years internationally and nationally. It was a full-time job, being this spokesgorilla.
Where do you buy your suits?
My suits are custom-made by a very select group of people. The suits can be extremely expensive. When I did the American Tourister suit in 1980, that suit cost about $50,000. You can still get a good suit for that price, but it depends on how authentic the parts are. They have sculpting of the face and chest, and then there's mechanics that go into the head, so it's really quite a process. So, I have a mix-and-match suit. One part was made by one person, and I needed arms. So I bid it out like a contractor. I'll routinely be bidding on gorilla parts with placement and repair.
How many do you own?
I have two suits: a working suit and a stunt suit. There are two kinds of suits, one that has mechanical eyes where the person looks through the nostrils. Then another one uses the human eyes. I wear these big contact lenses the size of a quarter. It makes the pupil brown and it makes it not humanlike. They make a pinhole in the contact lens, so it's like walking around with two roles of toilet paper stuck on your eyes. It's like having tunnel vision.
What does it feel like inside all that fur and makeup?
It's hot. It's dangerously hot. Gets up to 125 degrees depending on the outside weather. I've been to the hospital two times in my career. They have cooling suits that we wear underneath that have medical tubing sewn into a spandex unitard. You plug in a hose, and it circulates ice water. I usually lose 8 to 10 pounds in immediate water loss every time I do the gorilla.
You live in California, a place where "hello" is replaced with "So, what do you do?" What's your answer?
I'm a Butoh dancer, mime artist, Living Statue at night, and my "day job" is playing gorillas in movies, TV shows and commercials.
What are you currently working on?
I'm almost finished with a book on my life as a gorilla. It's called Gorilla Tales.
And when it comes to the dating scene, what do you tell women?
I hope you like gorillas.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or email@example.com.
Don McLeod's career highlights
- The Howling, lead werewolf
- Trading Places, oversexed gorilla
- The Man With Two Brains, physicist/gorilla
- Witches of Eastwick, Jack Nicholson's double in the devil transformation scenes
- Hook, Peter Pan's shadow
- Mom, Can I Keep Her?, star gorilla
- Tarzan: The Epic Adventures, Bolgani the gorilla, all creatures and monsters
For more, go to McLeod's Web site at www.zenbutoh.com.