[The below interview originally ran on Cut Print Film in October 2013 to celebrate Commando's thirtieth anniversary. It is reprinted here with only minor updates.]
Commando, written by Steven E. de Souza and directed by Mark L. Lester, turns exactly thirty-five years old today, and yet enthusiasm for the film has never diminished. Perhaps that’s because fans who worship Commando are smart enough to know that John Matrix is not the only bad-ass worth celebrating. It is the film’s array of henchmen and the ensemble of character actors who gave them life that elevate Commando to new heights of pure enjoyment.
Joining me for a very bad-ass discussion are three of the greatest henchmen to have ever worked incongruously to exact the scheme of the evil main bad guy: the big Green Beret Cooke (Bill Duke; Predator, Action Jackson), the very mellow Diaz (Gary Carlos Cervantes; Scarface, Wild Wild West), and funny guy Sully (David Patrick Kelly; The Warriors, John Wick). These three men graciously took the time to reflect on their Commando experiences, including their (death) scenes, their memories of the departed Charles Meshack, who played fellow henchman Henriques, and what the film has come to mean to each of them.
So get ready, Commando fans: all hell is about to break loose.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up working on Commando?
BILL DUKE: I auditioned. Joel Silver saw my work. He knew me from my film Car Wash and he liked what I did, so they took it from there. And after that, we worked on Predator together. He liked what I’d done on Commando, so that’s how that got started.
DAVID PATRICK KELLY: The producers were my guys, Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon, who had done The Warriors and 48 Hours with me. So Joel called me up and asked me to do it, and that’s the way it happened. It was a great deal of fun.
GARY CARLOS CERVANTES: It was a question of perseverance, and making the right connections and having the right friends. A friend of mine, Luis Contreras (Last Man Standing), is an actor. We did about ten things together. He’d been up for the part of Diaz and he called me up one night, drunk as a skunk, crying. “I think I blew it. The producer, Joel Silver, doesn’t like me. But you should go after the part.” So I sat there thinking about it, and I got a picture from my scene in Scarface – of me and the other guy in the Babylon Club and we’re shooting up the place. I sent it to [Jackie Birch] the casting director [for Commando] and I wrote, “Dear Jackie, You’re my favorite hit – Carlos.” The next day my agent called me and said, “They want to see you for Commando.”
I walk into the office and Jackie Birch says to me, “I got your picture, it’s clever. We’re still looking for Diaz.” So she read me for Diaz right then and there in the office, and then [after a couple hours] I met Mark Lester, the director and read for him. He said, “Thanks very much,” and I walked out. I didn’t hear anything for two weeks, and then my agent called me – something about them wanting to know if I can put some kind of toupee on or something to match the stunt guy. And I’m thinking, “What the hell is that? You don’t get an actor to match a stunt guy, you get a stunt guy to match an actor.” But my agent said they wanted to see me again, so I go in, and Jackie’s there, and she says, “Carlos, I want you to meet the stunt coordinator.” And he asks, “Have you shot machine guns and guns?” I go, “Yeah, I was in Scarface,” and this and that. And he nods to Jackie. And just then the director walks in and says, “Carlos, what are you doing here?” And I said, “Well, you guys called me and said you wanted to see me again.” And he said, “No, no. I saw fifty guys. When you walked in, you had the part. You got the job.”
So right then and there I had the job.
Q: What was it like working with Arnold?
DUKE: He’s a great dude, man. No ego. Totally professional. Prepared. Just committed. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had, on both Commando and Predator. He’s a good person.
KELLY: Arnold was really great. He was a wonderful guy who gave me a lot of advice about stuff. He was very humble about his acting. He would go to the dailies and then he’d talk about the different scenes [with me]. I remember he used to talk of meeting Maria Shriver, and he used to talk about his mother, who I met, actually. I met Arnold’s mother, and I also met his best friend from childhood, who was still around and part of his posse.
CERVANTES: I remember meeting Arnold up at the cabin. We filmed up at Mount Baldy in the mountains. I saw him standing across the way with his buddy, Sven[-Ole Thorsen], that big, giant stunt actor. Huge guy. Much bigger than Arnold. And I thought, “Arnold doesn’t look that big.” The assistant director wanted to introduce us, so we’re walking across the set, getting closer to Arnold, and yeah man, he is big. He’s huge! He’s standing next to Sven, who was like a foot taller, and maybe 270. So yeah, I got to meet Arnold and he was great. Making Commando was a real special time. And he took off, man. Who would’ve thought he would become such a huge star and accomplish everything that he did?
Q: How did it feel to die at his hands?
DUKE: The only reason he kicked my butt is because I got paid [laughs].
Q: [laughs] Good answer.
CERVANTES: Oh, it was great, man. I was so into that. I was so high just watching it. I remember when they printed it, the producer and director looked at Arnold, and he said, “Terrific!” You could tell that was it – that we’d nailed it.
When we shot it, they had me in the rocking chair and they hooked a wire to it, and the wall behind me wasn’t a real wall. We shot that part in a studio, so it was made of balsa wood, just in case I hit it. They shot a pellet at my head, and three or four grips just yanked that rocking chair I was in. They’d cut the back legs off. When they pulled me back, boom – I hit the wall. I got up and they started talking about another take, and I said, “Guys, you got one take. That was it [laughs].”
I didn’t want to do stunts, man. I wanted to act. But we did it in one take, and it ended up in the trailer, so that was it. And it was just awesome, man.
Q: When you really think about it, the death of Diaz is actually one of the most important deaths in the film. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, his death signifies that John Matrix isn’t messing around. Diaz is so cocksure in front of Matrix and taunting him about his daughter; he feels safe from reprisal, only for him to get his head blown off. That really goes a long way in summing up Matrix’s motivation as a character. He’s not going to negotiate, and he’s not going to mellow out. Diaz basically tells him, “We don’t need guns” and Matrix replies, “Yeah, we do.”
CERVANTES: Yeah, it was great because it was so unexpected. It was a total change from the standard, like [instead of Matrix asking], “Okay, what do I have to do?”
You know, I was in the gym once doing bench presses, and a guy walks up to me and goes, “You died too early in Commando.” That was it. And he walked away.
CERVANTES: I was like, “Wait, come back, man!” I couldn’t believe it. “Yeah! I did die too early!” Son of a gun…
KELLY: [Sully’s death] was a great scene, and it was well prepared. I was on a big cable. I had a harness that went up my leg. It took a long time. I give a lot of thanks to Bennie Dobbins, who was a great stunt man at the time – he passed away [in 1988] – but he harnessed me up there. It was just him, and another guy down below on the cliff who caught me after we did it two times. It took about six hours to film that whole thing.
Q: David, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Sully has become such a popular character. At times he even surpasses John Matrix in popularity—
Q: —and so the death of Sully is a highlight for all kinds of reasons. Were you aware that Sully had such a rabid cult following?
KELLY: No! I’m just kind of hearing about it now. I knew that people responded to the movie and remembered it. They say that line to me quite often – not as much as “Warriors, come out to play!” but they say, “I promised to kill you last.” I’ve never done autograph shows or those kinds of particular venues. I prefer venues like this to talk about these things, because I understand that people are interested in them on a deeper level. I respect those autograph shows and the fans that come, but it’s not my thing.
I based Sully on two former mercenary guys who were charged with protecting Robert Vesco, who died a few years ago in exile, in Cuba. He was a fundraiser for Nixon, but he had done these financial shenanigans. He made millions before Bernie Madeoff did. This guy was doing it way back in the ‘70s, and maybe earlier than that. He was doing these shell-game financial things and he ended up being pursued by the government, and he ended up in exile – first in Costa Rica, and then in Cuba – and he had this mercenary squad who protected him. I had seen an interview on 60 Minutes with these guys, and I thought that was a fascinating backstory for Sully – to be hired by the dictator guy. That’s where that came from; that’s who he’s based on. There’s an important book written by Christopher Dickey about Nicaragua and the contras [With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua], and the CIA’s work to fight against them. In the 1980s, there was the Freedom of Information Act, and so you got to see manuals that the CIA put out to help overthrow the rebels in South America. These were really interesting to read as background for possible scenarios in Commando. So, as cartoony as it was, it was based on real stuff that was going on in the Reagan America at the time.
Q: Within the context of the film, Sully’s background makes a lot of sense. When you look at the group of guys they got together to play the villains, most of them were pretty much the brawns, but Sully was the money guy. He didn’t need the brawns, because he was more of the intelligence gatherer.
KELLY: Yeah, and there’s the scene where he makes the deal for the illegal passports before the big chase scene with Arnold – before Sully meets his demise – so you’re right. Though you never find out what Sully was going to do with those passports, it was for some kind of terrorist something or other! [laughs]
Q: Do you all have a favorite line from the film, whether it was one of yours or that of someone else?
CERVANTES: [Impersonating Arnold] “Sully, remember when I promised to kill you last?” “That’s right, you did!” “I LIED.”
DUKE: “I eat green berets for breakfast!”
Q: I was hoping you’d pick that one.
KELLY: Steven E. de Souza and the director, Mark Lester, let me improvise a lot of my dialogue that Sully says, especially with Rae Dawn Chong, and at the deal-making session where Sully is buying the illegal IDs.
Q: David, I have to ask you: during that scene in the mall when you’re buying the illegal passports, you sort of offhandedly mention to the guy you’re meeting, “This used to be a great place for hunting slash.” Was that improvved?
KELLY: Yeah, that was me. I put that in. I always have music on in the background for my characters, and the song that was sort of everywhere at that time was Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” That’s who this guy thought he was. He just travels around, does his business, and gets what he can on every level. So that was his worldview, which is pretty demented and perverse.
Q: You can tell just by the way Sully saunters around on screen that he’s sexually aggressive, and he thinks very highly of himself.
KELLY: That’s right. So we put that one in, and then the dialogue with Arnold when Sully meets his demise at the hilltop. That was at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, which is famous because that’s where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed, with James Dean and Dennis Hopper. It was the same place where they had the big knife fight – where Arnold was holding me by the foot. That was near another cinematic shrine.
Q: Looking back on Commando, whether at the finished film or of your time on set, what do you first think of?
DUKE: That Commando was one of my first real bad guys. It was an opportunity to work with Joel Silver, who went on to do incredible things, and so did the director. Everyone went on to do great things, you know? It was an experience that I felt very fortunate to be a part of.
CERVANTES: Oh man, it’s Arnold. I remember I was smoking a cigar on the set – just a regular cigar. And he goes [imitating Arnold], “Oh, you smoke?” And he tells some guy on set to bring him a cigar, and he brings back this giant cigar. The thing looked like a stick of dynamite. And he had a cutter that looked like pliers. So that was cool, sitting with Arnold and having a cigar with him.
KELLY: I think of that Porsche – which wasn’t really a Porsche, since they had to wreck it. It was a Volkswagen, I believe, with the shell of a Porsche over top of it.
CERVANTES: I also remember I was supposed to do the Cadillac scene in the car dealer. That’s what I read for. And Joel Silver changed it on the day of the shoot, and I was like, “Aw man, what are you talking about? That was like…my scene.” And he goes, “Well, you know: a black guy…Cadillac.” Aw, jeeze.
Q: [laughs] Oh no. That’s so, so bad, but you almost have to laugh because that’s perfectly typical Hollywood rationale.
CERVANTES: Yeah, and he tells me this on-set! It was a six a.m. call at the Cadillac set to film it. So I had to sit there and watch them film the scene, because I was needed for something later that night – the trash truck stuff. And my stunt guy, who was going to be driving through the window, ended up doubling the guy who was on top of the car. Yeah, Joel… “What the? Are you kidding?” But I couldn’t rock the boat.
Q: From now on, every time I watch that scene, I’m going to picture Diaz sitting in that Cadillac instead.
CERVANTES: Yeah, Diaz, with that puffy jacket!
So that was a total bummer, because that was such a great scene. But I still got to do what I got to do. It turned out to be a great experience.
As it turned out, I got lucky, because Joel Silver put me in the trailer. “You’re gonna cooperate, right?” “Wrong.” Boom. And that little commercial got me so much work. Suddenly I was a hitman in so many movies, getting killed, killing people, getting beat up. It was fun! And I made good money.
Thirty years later, I’ve done a hundred movies, and it all goes back to Commando. I think, “Wow, if I hadn’t put that stamp on that envelope and mailed it…”
KELLY: Because you were talking about the fans and the people who appreciate it, I’m going to share something very personal now. For a period of time, from the time Commando first came out until about ten to fifteen years afterward, I had a little fan named Jamie, from Philadelphia, who had spina bifida, a very serious spinal nervous disorder – you’re always in and out of the hospital – and he was just an exceptional fan. And like you were saying, and I’m very humbly grateful to you for saying it, he saw me as the lead in the movie, and he talked about how Rae Dawn was Sully’s girlfriend. He was just a little boy. His father just cherished him – took him to things, and showed him Commando because Arnold was just an amazing heroic figure. But Jamie really became enchanted by Sully. I have to think there was something in Arnold holding me up in that way, which is so mythic, and so in his own disorder, his own disease, he identified with that somehow. So he came to visit me – his father brought him all the way to New York City – we had lunch at the Plaza Hotel. He wore a little suit, which looked like Sully’s suit, and his father bought him a toy yellow Porsche. To see that there is something in your work beyond the horrific characters that can touch someone – that means something to them, that there’s something they can take away from it – that’s what I think of when I think about Commando. I think about Jamie. Unfortunately, I think it was about ten years ago that he passed away. I went to his funeral and I sang an old Bob Dylan song, “He Was a Friend of Mine.” It was very moving.
Q: That’s amazing.
KELLY: People, over the years, have identified with that and recognized that, and saw beyond the horrific characters – and they are terrible, terrible characters – that we were trying to reflect something of the world that exists and tell the story of how someone can be heroic in the midst of that. If you can help do that, and if people identify with that, it really is just the whole reason for doing this.
Q: The shooting of the film made it look like everyone was having a great time. Everyone on screen had great chemistry.
DUKE: Commando was fun. It was – it was a good time. We had a good director and good people. It’s hard enough to do anyway, but it’s ten times harder when there’s drama. But there was no drama.
CERVANTES: Times like that, and even now when I’m on a big movie, it’s like going to Disney World. It’s so nice to be part of something that you know is going to last through the decades.
KELLY: I really enjoyed the crew: the late Bennie Dobbins, the great stunt man, who worked with me on 48 Hours; the great Matt Leonetti, who did the cinematography on 48 Hours; [composer] James Horner, who eventually won the Academy Award for Titanic – he did both 48 Hours and Commando; Mark Lester, who was very gracious.
I just think about those times, you know? Arnold was the id monster for the Reagan era. He was the dream of “We’re gonna solve the problems around the world, and if we have to do it ourselves, we’ll do it.”
Q: Charles Meshack, who played Henriques, died in 2006. What are your memories of him?
CERVANTES: I never met him on the set, but I did meet him later on at something. Maybe it was at the studio or at the screening, I don’t remember. But no, I never got the chance to work with him on set, unfortunately.
DUKE: Talented, funny, and committed. Very clear and committed to his craft. He’d joke around, but when the camera came on, he was a totally different person. We’re losing a lot of good folks, you know?
KELLY: He was a very quiet fellow. We were filming in 1985 at the LAX airport – that’s where we filmed our scene together – and it turned out that Charles Meshack was a decorated Vietnam War veteran. And it was in 1985 when they finally had a parade in lower Manhattan to welcome home, all these years later, all the Vietnam veterans. And he was very moved by that, so he started talking to me about it. We were filming the scene where Arnold gets on the plane when we saw on the TV that this parade was going on, and he said, “I was there, and there were some really terrible, terrible things that went on.” And he told me about some of those things. It was really a watershed for those veterans. I always felt really amazed by him – how he’d survived and gone into acting, so…it’s all props to Charles Meshack.
Q: I was reading up on Charles beforehand and there is very little information out there about him, so I wonder how many people knew about his history beyond those who were close acquaintances of his.
KELLY: I wanted to personalize our relationship in the dialogue [we shared]. I give it to Steven de Souza – he gives you the opportunity by writing this script and putting all these situations together so you can improvise a little bit within them. Shakespeare has these little subplots that sort of echo the main plot, so I improvised a little bit about my “old war buddy, Henriques.” I don’t quite remember the exact line, but it was something like, “there’s nothing like old war buddies,” about the two of us when we’re walking into the airport. I wanted to build up our relationship a bit and I remember Charles being really happy about that – about the fact that we weren’t just bodies walking through there. So we talk about “old war buddies,” but then you see that [kind of relationship] blown up to when it becomes Bennett and Matrix. But Sully and Henriques were at least on the same side.
Q: What was your impression of the film while you were working on it? Did you think it would be just another action film, or did you have a suspicion that it would go on to amass such a huge appreciation and still have people talking about it thirty years later?
DUKE: I guess the business people knew, but I don’t think any of us knew it would go on to become what it became. As actors, we’re there to do a job, but we’re not the editor or the director or the producer. We’re just there doing our job – it’s another gig. But the studio did a good job of marketing it. They did a good job with the music. All aspects of it, really. The feedback we got was incredible – from friends and everyone else. It was one of those experiences that an actor lives for, because, not only for that film, but it helps you get work in other things.
But nobody really knew. Everybody hoped, but nobody really knew.
Q: I think when you’re working on a film, you can tell that it’s special, but no one can ever really know if something is going to capture the kind of lightning in a bottle that most artists hope for.
DUKE: That’s right. That’s the truth. You can speculate, right? You can do your best, but… If it hits at the right time with the right audience, that’s a whole other situation.
CERVANTES: Well, Arnold had just taken off. The Terminator, I believe, had just come out and was going through the roof. I’d seen Arnold’s other films – the Conans and all that. I hadn’t seen The Terminator yet, but I’d heard the buzz. The buzz was huge. I remember Joel Silver running to the set with a Variety and saying, “Look at these numbers! Arnold’s going to be a huge star! We gotta finish this movie!” And I remember them at night doing dailies – I could hear it through the wall, it was on the other side of my dressing room. And I could hear Joel Silver talking about it. “We gotta wrap this up. Cut this scene and cut that scene.”
So I thought, “I think I’m on to something here.” Just from the way everyone treated me, and the atmosphere on the set, I thought, “This is going to be big, man.”
We finished shooting in June of ’85 and it was theatrically released in October of the same year – and they never do that. They were just pumping it out to jump on Arnold’s notoriety. And Commando only made $35 million in the United States, but it made $70 million overseas [$151 million adjusted for inflation]. It established Schwarzenegger as a major international star.
They had the screening at Fox Studios. It was funny, my brother-in-law, wife, and sister-in-law were there. Afterwards, [my brother-in-law and I] go into the bathroom and we’re at the urinals. There’s maybe ten of them in there. Some guy steps up in between us…and it’s Clint Eastwood [laughs]. Clint Eastwood, man! He must’ve been [at the screening] checking out the competition.
Q: Oh, wow.
CERVANTES: Yeah! But I didn’t ask to shake his hand. [laughs]
Man, I remember when the DVD first came out – just the DVD. I was at Walmart and they had this big cardboard cutout of Arnold from Commando, with all his movies on DVD. I was standing there looking at it and this little kid walks in with his mom and says, “Oh man, Commando! I want it!” So his mother gets it and puts it in her cart. And someone else comes over. “Oh, Commando! I gotta have that!” I thought, “Wow!” Two people bought it during those two minutes I was standing there. It was amazing.
That movie, thirty years later, people still play it over and over again.
KELLY: I think there are a lot of reasons why people relate to it still. There are some really great performances. Rae Dawn Chong was such a charming leading lady. It was the first movie that, I believe, tried to humanize Arnold, like in John Wick, that offered just a basic story that everyone could relate to. And who can’t relate to someone wanting to rescue their child? So it’s this really elemental thing that continues to make people watch it and be interested in it. I know the style was cartoony – well, Arnold is kind of cartoony anyway, just because of what he’s achieved – but there are other reasons, too. [Writer] Steven E. de Souza was very much into political conscience and scenarios of things that could possibly happen, you know, so it pre-stages a lot of stuff that’s still important to the world, whether it’s about mercenaries – and mercenaries are just everywhere these days. And Sully and his gang are these ex-guys and Matrix was a former Special Forces guy. And all these independent armies are doing things for these mercenary reasons around the world now. So I think that’s one of the reasons people still think about it.
Q: Rumors have persisted for a while that 20th Century Fox has been pursuing a remake of Commando [which most recently had Sabotage director David Ayer attached]. How do you react to that?
DUKE: Well, I’m old school and old fashioned, and to me, there are certain things…
I understand the business component of it. There are all kinds of things being remade now, you know? But like I said, I’m old school and old fashioned, and why remake it? You know, why remake It’s a Wonderful Life? Why remake The Godfather? I guess that’s just old-fashioned stuff, but I believe in classics.
Q: It’s easy to remake a film, but you can seldom recapture the kind of magic that makes that film special.
DUKE: Yeah! I feel that. I think there’s something that happens at a point – the right combination of people, the right actors and producers and the director – you shouldn’t touch it.
My daughter, and her generation, thinks I’m crazy. [laughs]
They think, “Why not? Why not redo it?”
CERVANTES: [A remake would be] kind of weird, because Arnold was so much a part of that movie. If you remake it, it’s not Commando. Walter Hill, the director, told me once that he was going to remake The Magnificent Seven, and I was going to have a nice part in it. But later on he said, “I’m not doing it. I can’t do a better job [than the original], so I’m letting it go.”
I mean, who would you get [for Commando]? A karate guy? The Rock? It would be more of the same.
DUKE: It’s almost like [the belief is] anything can be replicated and that’s not my particular belief. There are certain things… Take Miles Davis, or take Tony Bennett, who is one of my favorite singers of all time. He’s in his ‘80s or something and he’s still got chops. When Tony Bennett goes, there’s not going to be another. There’ll be other singers, but how do you replicate Tony Bennett or Whitney Huston or Frank Sinatra or Pavarotti? They have a certain magic, and how do you explain that magic? How do you replicate it?
There are certain things…leave ‘em alone.
KELLY: I think it has been remade, in many, many forms, for thirty years. I think the Bourne movies and the Transporter movies owe a bit to it. Some of Tarantino’s. I think a prequel would be interesting. Where did all those guys come from before the story of Commando?
CERVANTES: There had been rumors, a long time ago, there was going to be a sequel, but it never happened. I don’t know why, because Commando made money.
Q: What do you all have coming up next?
DUKE: I’m directing a number of things now. We just finished a TV pilot called Blexicans, which you guys will hopefully see on TV in the next year or so. I was in Chicago for a while working on that. I’m working on developing my own content and those kinds of things.
CERVANTES: Well, I did [season two, episode two, of] True Detective, where I get my ass kicked, and I just did an episode of Murder in the First. It’s the last episode of season two. It should air either late August or early September. It’s on TNT; I think they did twelve of them. There’s a chance I could come back. I play a fat cat political guy in a suit. I’m doing a lot of suit guys now. I wore a suit in True Detective, even though I was getting my ass kicked.
Q: David, Lionsgate is going ahead with John Wick 2. Will we see the return of Charlie the clean-up man?
KELLY: I hope so! There’s a lot of work to do for John Wick. He takes care of business, and he’s got to have his reliable team there. It was a great deal of fun with those guys. No one has called me yet, but Charlie survived, and I still have the gold coins in the other room, so I hope so.
Q: Last question: If I were to tell you that I’ve watched Commando more than a hundred times, what would you say to me?
CERVANTES: [laughs] Well, I would say that I understand how you can, because I have movies that are personal favorites and I could watch them a hundred times. And I probably have. Like Scarface. Christmas Vacation. I’ve seen Commando at least a hundred times – maybe not in its entirety, but my kids, they loved it, because when I did it, they were young. And they watched it, and got older and watched it again. It’s always on TV, man, and I’ll stop and watch some of it. So I understand.
KELLY: Watching it a hundred times is amazing. It makes me happy that people can find interesting details and appreciate the work that goes into movies. All of those involved go their separate ways developing their skills and when it all comes together to make something people want to see again and again, well, that’s wonderful. It’s like a painter whose work can be appreciated and grow in value as time goes on.
DUKE: [laughs] I think you have good taste! And thank you. Thank you.