Although Lacking a Movie Deal, the Wadsworths (he-and She-) Find They Still Have the Power
updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
The voice of Morris the Cat.
Well, not exactly. It is the voice of the man ("a rather short, round fella," says Jack Wadsworth) who used to do Morris for those Nine Lives commercials, and now does the voice of He-Man for the Masters of the Universe TV cartoon series. But it is certainly not the voice of Jack Wadsworth. Wads-worth, described by Skeletor (ever the cutup) as "you benevolent beefcake," must bound around the stage in front of all the adoring 4-year-olds and lip-synch his own lines.
"We've been asked," says Wadsworth, doing some surprisingly dainty work on a piece of aged sirloin in an uptown restaurant, "if we think that what we're doing is silly." A valid question, Jack, 33, and his 26-year-old wife, Leslie, who is sitting statuesquely next to him (she is 5'10" to his 6'1"), are people impersonating dolls. That is the cold, hard truth of it. In 1982 the Mattel toy company created a superhero toy and then based a cartoon show on it; some, in fact, claim the show is merely a daily half-hour commercial for the toy. In any case both became immensely, supremely popular. In 1985 $225 million worth of Masters merchandise was sold, more than the gross national product of several third-world nations that year. With domestic sales now totaling more than $1 billion, Mattel agreed to license a touring theatrical version of the show. The plot: He-Man and his sister, She-Ra, have come to (your city's name here) as part of a cultural exchange. They recite the history of their home planet, Eternia, and demonstrate its national sport, "The Jet Skate Power Race," a souped-up roller derby. They are in the midst of presenting a "cosmic circus" when Skeletor, entering uninvited through the Transporter Masterdome, takes the audience in (your city here) hostage. Through guile, innate goodness and their trusty Powerswords, He-Man and She-Ra save the day. There will be rock music, lasers, dancing and much swordfighting.
Inevitably the stars of this show will be mobbed by pint-size fans who dangle from their heroes' arms and legs and proclaim undying love; they will be recognized by bellhops and taxi drivers. Their friends will tell the story of the New York busgirl who stopped dead in her tracks upon seeing them and exclaimed: "Mistah He! Miz She! Is that you?" Yet nobody will know their real names. And because children are so used to the voices they hear on TV, those same voices will run on a tape during every production; the stars won't even speak their own lines.
There is always something elusive and insubstantial about the quality of fame—even more so in the case of the Wadsworths. Although they would never admit it, they are but two replaceable parts, able to memorize intricate battle choreography, but otherwise fated to be removed from the Masters machine as soon as they wear out. And wear out it seems that they must.
•The work is hard. Powerswords are not daffodils. There are upwards of 70 "strikes" per show, not to mention innumerable twirlings and brandishings. Jack sweats off three pounds of water during every performance. Because the production is so popular, the Music Hall has added performances, sometimes requiring three two-hour shows a day. "That kills us," says Leslie.
•It is dangerous. Yesterday a member of the Eternian Court, in the midst of a complex dance-battle number, fell off a riser, suffering a concussion. On Monday night Leslie herself fell down a flight of stairs when a smoke machine began spitting oil onto the stage. She once missed a sword "strike" and smote her husband on the leg, inflicting a gash. "I sliced him," she says. "It was painless," he replies gallantly.
•It is not very remunerative. Together, for the 22-week nonunion tour, Jack and Leslie say they will make $40,000, which he says is below Equity scale, and will not be paid extra for extra performances. Without irony, Leslie says of the show's producers, "It's an advantage to them that we're married and only need one hotel room."
•It is not a job with a future. Originally, when press releases for the show appeared, biographies of the lead performers were deliberately omitted. It was, says the tour's PR lady, "an executive policy decision." If the tour succeeds and is extended, it may be moved to Europe in the summer of '88. The reason: The He-Man mo we will be coming out in the States, and Dolph Lundgren has been cast in the lead. Jack would have loved to play the role himself. "I think I'm a little bigger than Dolph is muscularly," he says. "Also, He-Man comes across as very warm and soothing. Dolph lacks that." But what Dolph lacks in warmth, he makes up for in clout. "Dolph is on the verge of a major film career," explains a Mattel executive. "We feel he has box office potential. Jack at this point is not a household name."
If that's the way Jack and Leslie see it, however, they hide it well. Both are determined optimists; it is a mind-set that has already carried them far. The son of a Hallmark Cards employee, Jack graduated from Westbury High School in Houston, but due in part to family problems and a lack of funds, "I was not," he says, "in a situation to jump into a university status." Instead he made his way to Alaska at 19 and worked the pipeline and oil fields for 10 years, ending up as a construction foreman and Teamster official. He also co-owned a restaurant called the Hungry Dog Café ("As you know, the dog-team kind of atmosphere is prevalent in that area," he says) and played recreational racquetball. It was on the racquetball court that a bodybuilding coach saw him and predicted that, if he applied himself, he could be Mr. Alaska "within a couple of years." So, says Jack, "I did it in nine months." On holiday in L.A. in 1983, he heard that Universal was looking for a few well-built men to play Conan on its famed studio tour. He auditioned, and three days later he was one of three alternating barbarians. "That's how I met Leslie," he says.
Leslie is the daughter of Edward Faulkner II, a character actor who was John Wayne's sidekick in several movies. She left home at 15 to work at Marineland, Florida, where she dove for pearls and played Scooby Doo in a costume number. Later she graduated to a parrot act. "Five shows a day," she reminisces fondly. "They rode bikes and roller skated. I loved it." After some years, however, she hit what she calls "a low point." As part of a confidence-building regimen, she tried out for the part of Red Sonja at Universal. She didn't expect much; there were 1,600 other women there. But when the cloud of sweat had lifted, it was she, along with two other women, who wore the coveted chamois bikini.
She noticed that whenever she rehearsed with one particular Conan, "everybody would stop and watch, because we had a real fine chemistry." One day he offered her a lift home. They dated, and a month later Jack proposed. Universal financed the wedding, on condition it be held on the Conan set. Leslie's gown was designed by a Bob Mackie associate. The cake cost $1,000. If you look closely at the wedding pictures, you will see guests in loincloths and a dragon equipped with a natural-gas flamethrower. The pair moved back to Alaska for a while and then to Hawaii. Then Conan director Tony Christopher called and said he was doing another swords-and-sorcerers show: The Masters of the Universe Power Tour.
Neither Jack nor Leslie has spent much time in New York before; in their brief time off from the Music Hall, they have managed to ride a carriage in Central Park and visit Little Italy, Greenwich Village and the Statue of Liberty. Leslie was especially taken with the last; one suspects she identifies. Jack is amazed that they aren't merely tourists. "We're part of it," he muses. "We're probably the biggest show in town, outside of Broadway. Sometimes you feel like the new Mickey Mouse. Sometimes you feel like the Pope." Recently a friend got him tickets for David Brenner's Night life TV show. Before the taping he met Brenner, who later singled him out in the audience. "I couldn't believe it," says Jack. "He brought attention to me. That's almost shocking. David Brenner really is somebody."
"Have you seen my leather gauntlets?"
"No, I don't see 'em, babe."
"Hmm. They must still be downstairs."
It is a half-hour to showtime. Jack is busy applying Johnson's Baby Oil to his assorted muscle groups, and Leslie is trying to find various stray pieces of her costume. Through speakers in their dressing room filter the sounds of parents towed by their He-and She-kids, the little ones who will brandish their $5 Powerswords when Jack holds up his, and who will become a little quieter when Skeletor takes the stage.
About these moments, the Wadsworths have an admission to make. Three quarters of the way through the second act, the arch-villain, threatening to atomize the audience, demands that He-Man hand over his sword. So he does. Every child in the audience cringes; some cry out. Ever since previews in Baton Rouge, Jack has turned to the house at this point and mimed the words: "It's all right. Don't worry." He can't say this aloud, of course, because the kids wouldn't recognize his real voice. But they get the message. They calm down.
The cartoon figures would never break character like that, would they? Jack shrugs, employing those huge pecs and delts. "They don't have an audience," he says. "We have to protect these guys," says Leslie.
And maybe that is the difference. This is where humans playing before other humans are different from cartoons, or dolls, or Dolph Lundgren on film. This is where the gears in the Mattel machine stop being gears and become people again.
"Look, these kids are up," says Jack. "They're ready for us. Our every move onstage is being looked at in a microscopic way by these children. We can turn it on and we can turn it off. If we feel a moment is bad, we can tone it down. If we feel another moment is good, we can make it great. They are putting so much into the characters for us. And we have to reflect it and give it back to them."
Does that mean, for at least those few key moments, that despite Dolph and Mattel and the short round fella who plays Morris, he has the power?
"It seems like I do at the time," says Jack. "I know that out there are all these kids who believe I have it, so it gives me a chill, it gives me gooseflesh sometimes. Yeah, I've got the power."
And out they go to save the world—again.