Jack McKenzie (Cal Alder)

Jack McKenzie
Cal Alder (The Empire Strikes Back)
Interview: May 2010

How did you get started in the movie business?

After service in Her Majesty’s Royal Marines I joined the Lothians and Peebles Constabulary and it was whilst a serving officer that quite by accident I was introduced to the acting profession. I became Chief Constable Willie Merrilees’ driver and aide. The Chief was a keen patron of charities for the disabled and disadvantaged and he encouraged his officers to get involved. The police escorted the annual taxi drivers’ cavalcade to the seaside or country for their picnic for children from many children’s homes in and around Edinburgh and I found myself having to entertain the youngsters. I was approached by a BBC Producer, a friend of his Chief’s, and invited to make a demo tape for BBC Radio. Willie saw this as “great PR for the police, lad!” and I became a regular broadcaster in his off duty hours, and, living in the city of Edinburgh, this led to fringe theatre during the Edinburgh annual International Festival of Music and Drama, and then on to television and film.

How did you get cast for The Empire Strikes Back?

I had worked for Richard Attenborough on A Bridge Too Far in the Netherlands and the same film crew, with whom I had a very good relationship, was on The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel, as you know, to Star Wars. When working in The Netherlands, all of these American actors arrived from Pinewood Studios. They kept talking about Star Wars, and as several films were being made at the time all with WW2 subjects I just assumed it was yet another war film, never thinking it would turn out to be the iconic film that would hit the world. My agent contacted the casting director who had me interviewed at Elstree Studios and I was offered the role of Deck Lieutenant Rebel Forces.

What do you recall of the filming of your scenes?

Irvin Kershner came to me and asked if l could do an American accent. I said I could and he said, “Right Jack! Here’s your dialogue!”. “Sir, all the patrols are in. No sign of Skywalker or Solo”. Ho made me repeat it several times, softening the emphasis on the second sentence to a conspiratorial tone, in order that we conveyed to the audience that the Princess was being spared the agony of their disappearance. This was after several weeks of inactivity whilst production decided how the shoot was going to go. I had sat around quite a bit chatting with my American counterparts whom I had met in the Netherlands; John Ratzenberger, John Morton, Norman Chancer and Bob Sheedy. When he was satisfied I’d got it just right he said, “Right! Let’s shoot it!” Can you imagine? Suddenly I was thrust in front of the whole production team and crew, to deliver my “immortal” lines. Quite a daunting task I can tell you.

During the several takes required to get a shot I exited as directed from one take and thought I heard someone say “Cut” so I wandered back on the set whistling to myself. After all, they were going for many takes and this was just another. Wasn’t it? Nope, It sure wasn’t. They were continuing with John Ratzenberger’s and Carrie Fisher’s dialogue. Whoops! I looked around and there was Irvin Kershner behind the camera mouthing the words “What the f… is he doing”. My moment of extreme embarrassment. However I was forgiven with Kershner’s words, ”You’ll never work again” echoing in my ears. Happy to say he was kidding.

Did you get to meet ‘the big stars’ like Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher, and if so: what impression did they gave you?

Meeting the principal actors was, as always, a great pleasure. They were all gracious and despite their heavy schedule took time out to chat to us and make us feel at home and part of a most remarkable team. A very enjoyable experience and something which stays with you always as in fact do unpleasant experiences, and you learn a lot from both. But there were no unpleasant experiences in The Empire Strikes Back. It was a joy and immensely exciting.

Were you familiar with the Star Wars hype when you got cast? Had you seen the previous movie and were you a ‘fan’?

I knew nothing about Star Wars. I had never seen it and frankly, science fiction just isn’t my thing, although when you look at the scripts they could just easily be scenes from Shakespeare. Just change the period and the sets. It’s good versus evil and good prevails, with a huge bit of excitement in between. ‘A funtering good tale’ as they used to say in the old days. Strangely, though, I’d already been in Space 1999 and Blake’s 7, and my only other experiences of that genre were seeing the old 40’s/50’s black and white Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon films in my local Roxy cinema in Edinburgh when I was a child at Saturday morning movies. I actually met Buster in Hollywood in the 60’s whilst on a visit there. I also listened to Journey into Space on BBC Children’s Radio, and read Dan Dare in the Eagle comic.

In the mid nineties your character finally got a name: Cal Alder. How did you find out about this and what do you think of it?

I only found out about Cal Alder when I started receiving trading cards from fans wanting me to autograph them, and to this day I receive them from all over the world, including one from an Inuit in Northern Greenland and another request from a prisoner in The Orange County Los Angeles Prison Correctional Center. Then came invitations to conventions which, frankly, terrified me. I had no idea how to approach that kind of event. Eventually when I did, it was a huge pleasure to meet so many lovely people and travel around this country and to the States and be given such warm welcomes from adults and children alike.

You have done some conventions where you got to meet the fans and sign photos. What do you think of these events and what is the weirdest thing that happened to you on such an event?

I don’t know if it’s weird or not but one poster I had to sign whilst in Dallas was about 14 feet long by 8 feet wide. Also, we were invited by the organizer of the convention and his wife to join them afterwards for a get together at their Star Wars museum and manufacturing base where they turn out thousands of characters, space vehicles and creatures as well as costumes, masks and props which are sold all over the world. It all took place in a building about the size of your average B&Q. Typically American, and absolutely charming people.

What are you currently up to? Do you have new projects?

I was in an episode of Eastenders on June 3 and there are other projects coming up, possibly The Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama, and there is another film and TV project on the horizon.

This year The Empire Strikes Back celebrates it’s 30th birthday. Please finish the following sentence: “When I look back at my work on The Empire Strikes Back, I…”

thank my lucky Star (Wars) that I was privileged to be part of a film project that has become a global phenomenon which has brought so much pleasure and excitement to so many people of all ages and I have had the immense honor and equal pleasure of meeting many of them.