Interview with stunt actor/coordinator Carl Ciarfalio
For over 40 years, stunt actor/coordinator Carl Ciarfalio has been in the business of making you believe what you see. Whether it’s falling from a building, jumping onto a moving car or lumbering around in a bulky superhero suit, Ciarfalio has often played an integral role in the believability of the movie’s he has worked on. One particular role was fitting into the orange, rocky hide of Marvel’s Thing in the 1994 Roger Corman-produced “Fantastic Four”, a low-budget movie that was completed, but never released theatrically. That’s what Marty Langford’s enlightening documentary “DOOMED: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four”, which sees a digital release today, is all about. Ciarfalio and the rest of the cast as well as Oley Sassine (pictured above with Ciarfalio in costume), the director of the cheesy-yet-charming movie, all appear in this documentary as they reflect on the fandom for the movie as well as their experiences and thoughts on filming the fiasco that plagued the movie.
Ciarfalio wore the cumbersome suit, while Michael Baily Smith played Ben Grimm, the Thing’s human alter ego and provided the voice of Thing. Together with Rebecca Staab as Susan Storm/Invisible Woman, Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood as Johnny Storm/Human Torch, they played the Fantastic Four, while Joseph Culp played villain Victor Von Doom aka Dr. Doom. These actors were the first to play Marvel’s first family and iconic megalomaniacal baddies, respectfully. All of them appear in Langford’s documentary, reflecting on fandom and the making of a still-unreleased superhero movie that mainstream audiences don’t even know exists.
Ciarfalio’s extensive career is quite impressive and frankly all over the place. He’s worked with the likes of – Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Garner, Halle Berry, Sylvester Stallone, Woody Harrelson, Mila Kunis, Denzel Washington and Chuck Norris, to name just a few. He served two terms as President of the Stuntman’s Association of Motion Pictures; as Governor at the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences; he helped to establish the first Emmy Award for stunts; and he was a co-creator of the Taurus World Stunt Awards. He’s the kind of touch guy who will continuously show up in movies and television and you probably didn’t even know it. Recently, I had a chance to talk to Ciarfalio over the phone about this documentary, his role as the Thing and a few other roles that stick out from his long and currently still busy career. Just from our friendly and informative conversation, I could tell that Ciarfalio is a hard-working and committed talent, who takes great joy in talking about what he loves to do. Check it out….
The “Fantastic” cast (from left to right): Jay Underwood, Joseph Culp, Michael Bailey Smith, Rebecca Staab, Alex Hyde-White and Carl Ciarfalio.
David J. Fowlie: Alright, so based on your extensive career, I feel like I can talk to you for three hours….
Carl Ciarfalio: Wow. Well, you know it’s one of my favorite subjects….
DF: It’s amazing. We don’t have that much time. I’d definitely like to double-back with you later on and discuss your career in more depth….
CC: Of course.
DF: We’ll touch a little bit about your stunt career, but obviously we’ll start out talking about “DOOMED”, which brings me to my first question – did you ever think that there would be a documentary about a movie you were in twenty years ago that never got released?
CC: Yeah, you know what? No, I never thought that. It’s so funny. I never gave it much thought after I pretty much got done with the movie. It was a great experience. I worked with some great people and I did some things that I had not done before and I moved on. I stayed very busy and fairly uninvolved with the promotion, you know, after we got done with it – let alone thinking that I’d get a call from Mark (Sikes, the movie’s executive producer) and Marty about a documentary that they wanted to put together. No, I never thought much about it for years.
DF: Since that time has passed, why do you think this “Fantastic Four” movie has such a strong fan base and does it surprise you?
CC: I think it has a really strong fan base because it stayed so close to the character in the story of the original comic book. I think that it tells the story better than the newer ones do. I also think that the characters are more true to the way they were written. So, I think that’s why it has the fan base it does. I mean, I think the resurgence is because the other Fantastic Four movies that have come out and probably not done as well as their producers had hoped for and then it just gets out into the universe about talk about the Fantastic Four, so our movie comes up. I just think it’s kind of woven into the structure.
DF: Are people surprised when they learn that you played the Thing?
CC: Yeah (laughs), a lot of people are. They think, you know, it’s kind of a cool thing and so do I, by the way. It’s very unique. I was the first one to be able to play the Thing and to have it be so anatomically correct for the character was also a plus. I think, too, the fans that watch the movie, don’t get caught up in who these stars, the movie stars, are supposed to be and are able to get into the story of the characters. They’re not watching a name, they’re watching a character. I think that might be an element as well.
DF: That’s a good point. I never thought of that. It allows the audience a chance to get lost in the characters rather than thinking about who’s playing them.
CC: Yeah, correct. Even back then, you know, twentysomething years ago, the people who were portraying the characters were good solid actors and most of us had a pretty good resume behind us, though we weren’t A-listers. You know, we were all working in the industry. I think that shows a lot with Oley, the director, and you know, it’s too bad what happened, but I think, all in all, to answer your question, I think when you watch the movie, you get the idea that this isn’t, you know, people who make twenty million dollars per picture. These are people who work for scale (laughs) and worked their asses off.
No sweat: Carl Ciarfalio in the hot suit
DF: On that note, was the costume unbearable?
CC: Can I be really honest?
CC: That’s the hottest fucking thing I’ve ever been in. (both laugh) First of all, I gotta tell you that the guys who built the suit were so concerned with it being so precise, which was wonderful for me because it allowed me to not have to do anything special to make the suit work. The facial movement was controlled elsewhere. The problem being is that they didn’t have enough money for a cool suit to go underneath the rubber. And I had worked with guys who had used cool suits way back on the original episodes of “The Flash”. Way back when, the guy who wore that Flash outfit had a cool suit on underneath. You know, with cold water running through it….
DF: The one with John Wesley Shipp?
CC: Yes, yes – and his stunt double as well. And so, when I said to these guys, “hey, are we getting a cool suit?”, they laughed really hard, because all the budget went to making the suit that we had. It was a couple inches of fake rubber and I wore a thin-skinned dive suit underneath it so I could get in and out of it. But, yeah brother, I sweated a lot in that suit. The only way to get in and out was to have somebody help me. I’ve got a photo of myself leaning up against the wall on set, holding the mouth open and they have a little fan blowing into the mouth, just to get a little air in there.
DF: That’s awesome. You’re gonna have to email that picture to me and any others you got from the set. I love that stuff.
CC: Alright. I’d be happy to do that. It was a pretty tough thing to wear. They made two heads. They made a rubber head that I used in fights and one part where I had to go through a wall. And the other head was used for the dialogue pieces – they actually made this really incredible motor, remote-control motorized head that sat underneath the mask and they pulled the mask down over it. So, they made the mouth move and the cheek bones and the eyebrows move for expression, which really really helped. Then I would do the dialogue and the only thing I could hear was “Vudip vudip, vudip”, you know, the sound of these motors going on in my head (laughs) and then they looped in Michael Bailey Smith’s voice over the mouth movements, because he played Ben Grimm.
So, yeah, the suit was hot. It was, um – here’s another thing about the suit – I’ve got pictures of everybody on the set, men and women and they brought their children in to take their picture with the Thing in the suit and they couldn’t get enough. And once I took they suit off, I’d walk by the same people and I’d go, “Hey, how ya doin’?” and they go, “Yeah”. (both laugh)
DF: Who are you?
CC: (laughs) Well yeah, without the suit, you ain’t nothing. So, I had a great time. It was a great experience for me. And I get to put a Roger Corman picture on my resume, which is kind of a nice talking point as well. Then I worked with some really wonderful and great people, both behind and in front of the camera. Michael Baily Smith and I became fast friends and, you know, all and all, a pretty good experience – except that the movie never came out and never got paid for and all that stuff. I mean, we got paid for our work, but you live on your residuals in this industry.
The same person: Carl Ciarfalio as Thing (below) and Michael Bailey Smith as Ben Grimm (above)
DF: So, let’s go back to you getting cast in the role. Were you cast in the role of Thing because of your stunt work and was it odd that another actor was playing Ben Grimm?
CC: The call came in through my office from casting. They were looking for a stunt man. They were looking for somebody about six feet tall and weighed about 220 pounds or so. The were trying to stay within the realm of the reality of Ben Grimm’s transformation. And I believe in the comics, it’s said that he’s six feet tall and five-hundred pounds of rock. So, they thought that somebody that size would fit well in the suit and I happened to be that size. So, I went to the audition and we talked a little bit and they thought I was the guy, which was, you know, very cool.
And as far as someone else playing Ben Grimm, it was a little odd because Mike is such a fine actor. I believe they had already started on the suit and Michael is six-foot four and he played football for the Dallas Cowboys for a while and, you know, he’s just a big, long-bodied guy. The size of the suit didn’t fit though, so character-wise, it just wouldn’t have worked. And there you have it again, how they tried to stay so true to the character – they didn’t want to make Ben six-foot four with the sculpted body. They wanted to make him six-feet tall with a thickness to him and that’s what they did. You know, Mike and I had a great time with it. I’d check with him about my mannerisms, asking him how he wanted to play the character. I tried to do the best I could by him, so he could jump in and feel comfortable looping it.
The biggest problem I had with the suit was I got this wonderfully large Italian nose (laughs) and the nose on the head piece fit about half way up where my nose is, where my nostrils are. So, I pretty much had to mash the tip of my nose against my face to wear my mask.
DF: Did you have to tape it down?
CC: Nah, no – by this time in my life, it had been broken enough time, it was kinda pliable. (both laugh) So, I just kinda pushed on it more and I thought that would work and it did.
DF: That’s great. So, you’re hired first and foremost for stunt work. How challenging was it to actually do action scenes in that costume?
CC: Well, it was certainly not as free-flowing as I would have liked it to be. But, what we did was that we made it work for the character. Have you seen the film?
CC: So, the fights and the labs and stuff like that, Ben is big and lumbering as well as strong and the suit lent itself to let me make those kinds of moves. My eyeline was good. They were really good about that. This thing was excellent to wear – just hotter than hell. And, you know, breaking through the wall and everything else – I seemed to be doing okay with it. It was a challenge but not impossible, plus I worked with a slew of really talented stuntpeople that adapted to my what my movements were as well.
DF: In this documentary, there’s a clip – and I was totally floored to learn this – that you were in Scorsese’s “Casino”. I was surprised to learn you played the guy who got his skull readjusted, shall we say, by Joe Pesci….
CC: Yeah, I played Tony Dodd, yeah.
Carl Ciarfalio getting pressured in “Casino”
DF: So, you worked on “Fantastic Four” in ’93 and then “Casino” came out in ’95 and you had a ton of stuff that you did that came out in ’95, when did you get the call for “Casino”?
CC: You know what, I got the call for “Casino” about two or three weeks before we shot it. And I’m sorry, I don’t even know when that was. It kind of all lumps together. The stunt coordinator, Doug Coleman, on that film, convinced casting that they should probably have a stunt person in there. And, of course, casting says, “Oh my God, stunt people can’t act. They just drool and blah blah blah”. So, he said, you know, lemme give you a shot here. So, he sent a few of us in – and I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve studied acting since I was twenty years-old, so I kinda get what they’re looking for. You know, I do a lot of roles and stuff.
The funny thing was that, casting, they bring you in this little room, 10×10, and there’s these two women in there – a casting woman and one assistant – and the casting woman said to me, “Mr. Scorsese would like to know how many ways you can tell somebody to eff-off” (both laugh). And, she said, “they’re hurting you, but you’re belligerent to them and do you mind saying that?” And I said, “Well, fuck no.” (laughs) I can do this all day.” So, you know, I blerted it out all the effin-heimers I knew and they said, “Well, we’ll send this to Mr. Scorsese and we’ll see what he has to say.” And I guess he liked it. So, I got the part.
And I really had a wonderful time with Scorsese as a director and working with Pesci and Frank (Vincent, known to most from “The Sopranos”), who was one of the guys who cut my throat. I’d been his henchman for years and years on other shows. So, it was a nice little Italian family night. I got a pretty nice chapter about that in my book, as well as one on “Fantastic Four”, that kind of steps through all that.
DF: I had no idea you had a book. I’ll have to check it out. What’s it called?
CC: Oh yeah, I’ll have to send you one. It’s called Stars, Stunts and Stories and available through Amazon. It’s forty years of my stories and some fun stuff. So, I get to talk about all that.
And “Casino”, it’s so funny, because “Casino” is one of those movies where people go, “Oh my God, that was you?” (both laugh) So, every now and then, you get the gems that stand out in your career. I spent hours in makeup for that scene and it probably took me nien to ten hours.
DF: Oh wow. Afterwards, everybody finished off with some pasta and….
CC: Ha ha! That’s so funny, cuz it was seven o’clock in the morning when we finally wrapped. We were in the warehouse district in Vegas and so there it is about seven-thirty and, you know, “thank you very much, we’re wrapped for the day” and I’m full of blood. I’ve got gallons of blood on me at this point, because Scorsese kept yelling, “More blood! More fucking blood!” and so we did just that. So, one of the production assistants, “well, we got a hotel right across the street and we can take you right over and you can shower off right there” and it’s just like, cool, cuz I’m a mess. I got a fricking eyeball hanging from my head and everything else. So, he walked me across the street, right as everyone was going to work and a lot of cars stopped (laughs). A lot of people gawked and screamed. It was a pretty horrific sight. And then the shower looked like someone got hacked up in a Hitchcock flick.
So, yeah it was a mess. But you know what? I had a great experience. Another great experience working for a wonderful director and surrounded by many many talented people.
DF: That’s amazing! I’m sure we could go through your experiences on the many many movies you’ve worked on and find stories that are just as fascinating. I’m looking forward to checking out that book. Now, this is the first time I’ve ever spoken with a stunt guy. One thing that I’ve always been amazed at that career choice. I know this is probably a common question, but what’s the craziest stunt you’ve been asked to do?
CC: I’ve done a couple of things that really scared the hell out of me. I did one in a movie in 1984 called “Against All Odds” with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward….
DF: Yeah, you were Sully’s double!
CC: Yeah, that’s right. I was Sully, Alex Karras’ double, which by the way, Alex Karras was my hero, my football hero, growing up. When I played ball, I took his number. So, how bitchin’ it was, you know and X amount of years later, to meet the man, double him and actually spend a week or so with him and making friends with him.
DF: So cool.
CC: You know those little nuggets that you get along the way are really priceless, because I’m still a fan of, you know, movies. But the gag was he gets messed up in a shooting and….
DF: ….in Chichén Itzá, right?
CC: In Chichén Itzá, right – with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward, when Karras as Sully had to go down there and hunt for them. She shoots him and they try to hide his body. They wrap his coat around him, put a rock on his chest and push him off of a cliff or a well. And that was about sixty-five feet and I landed flat in the water, because I was supposed to be dead. Jeff had to roll me off. And the last thing I said to Jeff was, “Jeff, be sure you roll me off straight, because if you turn me, I’ll start turning like a helicopter blade and then I’ll move. I’m supposed to be dead and I don’t want to do this twice.” (laughs)
So, he was wonderful to work with – he pushed me off straight and flat and that’s just how I landed. It knocked the crap outta me and, you know, my safety guy pulled me out of the water and they hoisted me up to the top. The doctor up top, some cute little Mexican guy with a big needle, gave me a shot in the arm for pain and then from there on, one of the production assistants took me back to the hotel – showered me off, changed my clothes, packed my bags and put me on a airplane. And when we arrived at LAX, ten or twelve hours later, I finally came to and realized where I was. I don’t remember anything after the shot. I just remember waking up in L.A.
DF: It was that much of a shock to your system.
CC: That was quite a pump. You know, I was young and indestructible (laughs) and happy to do it and proud that I made it through. And again, that story actually opens my book, that’s the first chapter in my book.
DF: Over the years, you’ve kind of transitioned into the role of stunt coordinator. Is that kind of the natural progression of a career of a stunt person?
CC: I think it’s something that most of us try to attain, because there’s a reality about how long you can really fall down for. My career has almost always been the guy getting hit by the car and not so much driving the car, you know? So, that’s just (laughs) kind of the way that shit worked out.
DF: …yeah, a shovel to the head….
CC: Yeah! Stuff like that. I always thought when I was younger that coordinating might be really above my pay grade, but you know, through my experience and through the people who’ve guided me through, it felt very comfortable and like a natural progression for me. I enjoy it. I went to college wanting to be a coach and this gives me the ability to coach on another level, on a performance level. The deal with actors and stunt people is that we all want the same goal. So, it’s very satisfying. I’ve been really fortunate to learn from some really wonderful people as far as directors and producer and learn that way.
DF: I can imagine. Now, I noticed that you won an Ensemble Award for your work in “The Amazing Spider-Man”. Was that stunt coordinator work or were you actively involved in stunts for the movie and what sequence did you win the award for?
DF: I was on camera on that. The coordinator was Andy Armstrong, a most talented and wonderful stunt coordinator and director. You know, those are the kind of things that if there are twenty or thirty or forty stunt people on the set, you’re gonna be a bus passenger getting a virus, which is what I got so I started turning into a lizard type character. You’ll do that and then they’ll go, “okay, get him outta that and now he’s driving a cab and then you’re an army guy”. So, what comes to mind there is that the majority of stuff I did was with makeup on. Dodging through cars, there’s a little bit of a fight in that. The overall action though was pretty incredible.
DF: I bet. In the career of a stunt person, are there misconceptions as to how you’re viewed or how your career is perceived?
CC: Yeah, I’ll revert back to some of the casting people thinking all we can do is drool and fall down. I think they’re short-sighted in recognizing that for every episode of television or every movie an actor does – if you’re a guest on a TV show and you’re probably burned out after you’re character is done, so you get one, two, three episodes and you’re out – whereas a stunt person will shoot twenty episodes of something compared to an actor’s two or three. Our ability to be on set and witness what goes on and how it works, how actors act and what directors and producers are looking for, how the lighting works – we’re on set all the time and as a stunt coordinator, you deal with every aspect of the industry, from makeup and hair to lighting and props. So, I think that’s a big misconception of who we are and what it is that we can actually bring to the camera and to the set.
DF: I always think that either stunt men (or women) are taken for granted or not perceived as a whole talent. You know?
CC: Well, we’re definitely expendable and I think that at the end of the day, that is a reality. We’re there because of that. If an actor goes down, usually production goes down. If his or her stunt double goes down, we get another stunt double. So, the expendability is there, but it’s harder – it’s much like being an athlete. If you’re first string tailback on a football team and when you get hurt, you go get that fixed while they get another tailback – that’s pretty much who we are. But, we also bring the reality of what the written word is. It starts with the writer and then by the time it gets to set, it needs to be, whatever the action needs to be flushed out. If the writer has something like, “and the character runs up the side of the building and then jumps onto a moving car”, well that’s for me to work out or for me to tell them it’s not going to work out and for me to fix it. It’s about working cohesively with everyone to make those things work, you know, you’re part of the production team at that point.
DF: Hey Carl, it’s been really cool and very educational to talk with you today.
CC: My pleasure. You know, this is all fun for me and hopefully some insight for your readers.
You can pick up Carl Ciarfalio’s book here and purchase or rent “Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four” on VOD, iTunes and Amazon.