One from the vaults. With Zack Snyder’s new Superman movie Man of Steel in cinemas, I thought it would be fun to dig out this interview with Mark Pillow, who played supervillain Nuclear Man in the unfortunate Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. This originally ran in very short form as a Where Are They Now? piece in Empire a few years ago. Here’s the full thing.
Owen Williams: You were more-or-less an unknown at the time, so how did you end up in Superman IV?
Mark Pillow: Sidney J. Furie was the director, and I had met his son at one time, and it was Sidney’s son that suggested me. I was not a theatre trained actor, but I was in Denver doing a small play, and Sidney contacted my agent, and my agent had no idea where I was! The guy came out to the theatre to pay us and he was like, “Oh, by the way, your agent’s been looking for you,” and it was kind of a mad frenzy. I had to catch a flight to LA in the morning to meet with Sidney. It all happened incredibly quickly. Here you are in Denver doing a play, then back to LA, and then in London, where the film was going to shoot, two or three days later, staying at the Dorchester, sitting on the end of my bed going, “What just happened?” Then going to Elstree and meeting Gene Hackman and getting fitted… You never know about life. It can just take these turns so quickly! Always keep an open mind to all possibilities!
Did you already have that build or did you bulk up for the role?
I think my build was a large part of my getting the role. I had hoped to make acting a career, because I was such a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was doing so well by that time. I’d read his bodybuilding book and followed him and knew everything about him. I’d met Lou Ferrigno a few times too. I was always around that culture, and I thought if I built my body up and worked on my voice and took some classes, there might be a possibility of a career like theirs.
How was it, as an inexperienced actor, being thrown in opposite Gene Hackman and Christopher Reeve?
It was nerve-wracking as a newcomer to work with Hackman, but he was very helpful. He teased Chris more than me: “You’d better do something about that body – look at this guy!” I’m a huge fan of Gene. Just to sit down with him at lunch and let him tell stories… He’s a guy who came up through the ranks: him and Robert Duval and Dustin Hoffman had come up through New York and struggled as bread truck drivers and bricklayers. Just to hear that you could come from that and study and be persistent and have a career was fascinating to me. Christopher was a bit different. He was quite Ivy League: very well spoken and intense. He spoke quickly and knew what he wanted, but like most of the stars I’ve had a chance to spend time with alone, he was just genuine and very bright. You see them in public and they put on a persona to guard themselves.
Was it always intended that Nuclear Man would have Hackman’s voice?
No, that was an odd, late choice to have Gene do Nuclear Man’s lines and have me lipsync to them. Gene didn’t expect that and neither did I. It led to a very wooden performance, which made it a challenge. All I was doing was following Gene’s voice, which gave me very little scope to do anything. To this day I’m not completely sure why they made that decision.
It was a famously troubled production: were many of your scenes cut?
I believe the shoot was quite difficult, but I only really felt it through Sidney, who was obviously having a tough time. There was a sense that things weren’t going well. A lot of my scenes didn’t make the final cut, but the wonderful thing about the Internet is you can find all these things now! I found something a few weeks ago where I’m in like this stand-up tanning bed and I come out of it and talk to Lacy [Mariel Hemingway] and she slaps me. I looked at it and thought, “Well, that was interesting, but obviously it didn’t contribute to the story”. And of course there were all those famous lost scenes with the first Nuclear Man, who wasn’t me. I’m sure that was very disappointing for Clive Mantle. That’s when it started to sink in that things were not quite right. That so much was being cut.
What happened to you afterwards? Did Superman IV stall your career before it even started?
I had some interviews for things afterwards. I had an interview with Sylvester Stallone for a role in Rambo 3, playing a special-ops Spetznaz officer. I sat down with Stallone and the Carolco producers and talked about it, although the part never actually made it to the film. I went back to class, did some commercials. National commercials in America pay very well, so I did some of those. It was during that time that I had some chances to move to Europe, and in retrospect it would have been a better choice. At the time I thought the States was the Holy Grail, but looking back I knew American actors who lived in Europe and made five or six films a year. Of course, you never saw them! Shoulda woulda coulda. Things were pretty quiet until the early ‘90s, when I went off for a year and a half to do The Alaska Kid [German/Russian/Polish TV series, based on the stories of Jack London] with James Hill. He was a nice director. I enjoyed my time with him. We shot that in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, and I played the Jack London character.
Was that your final role?
More or less. After that I worked in heavy equipment for a while, doing excavating, bulldozers, front-end loaders, things like that. Then I was a property manager for homes in the mountains in Colorado, and I took care of thoroughbred horses… I was just looking to find things that are interesting to do! I was in the bar business when my daughters were born. The late ‘90s are just a blur! I worked nights until 4am, my wife worked days, and we’d just hand the children to each other as we passed in the hallway. “Your turn!” That was it for a good ten years! I went back on one film in 2000, a remake of the Burt Lancaster / Tony Curtis film Trapeze, filming in Belaruse. I wasn’t the lead. The shoot was for about six weeks, but as I understand it, it’s never been released.
And you’re now working in high-end wines: that’s quite the career trajectory!
A lot of times back in LA, between jobs I always worked as a bartender. I knew a lot about that business, worked in some of the finest places in LA. Then I went and lived in the mountains in Colorado for three years, and then came down to Houston, wondering what I was going to do. And my wife met someone in the wine trade who knew someone and thought I might be interested, so I thought, OK! I kind of bullied my way into a really well known company – Glazer’s, which is family owned and about 100 years old – in their most prestigious division which is only about 3% of the company: the really elite wines! I represent thousands of wines from every wine-making country on Earth… and they’re all good! It’s a constant study, especially with the language barriers in France and Spain and Italy. It’s a fascinating trade because you can never learn all of it.
Do you ever appear on the convention circuit?
I don’t get very many offers. There was one that came up recently, but I think they went with Dean Cain instead of me. I guess he’s not as busy as he has been in the past either! I’d welcome it if it happened, although I haven’t had very much to do with Superman since those days. Someone Facebooked me about doing Comic-Con once. I’m not sure if I’m interested but I keep an open mind. I’m very much a stay-at-home dad, taking care of the girls, who are doing great. I generally don’t get recognized as Nuclear Man. Occasionally I’ve heard people say, “I feel like I know him from somewhere…” but that’s about the closest it gets. I don’t think I look much like that anymore. I don’t have the build, or the hair!