Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  Aug. 29, 2002 at 6:33 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- Never in movie history has a nameless, faceless, voiceless performer gained as much immortality as Dan Richter garnered with a single film performance.

Richter was a professional mime, which for anonymity is second only to being an NFL mascot in a chicken suit. But Richter has become something of a cult figure unlike any other.

He has been seen by uncounted millions of moviegoers in the opening episodes of the "The Dawn of Man" sequences in the most celebrated science-fiction movie ever made -- "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).

Richter's performance as man/ape Moonwatcher is so memorable it sticks in the minds of everyone who has seen the classic drama in whatever country or culture it has played in the past 34 years.

Now a successful Los Angeles businessman, Richter has written a book titled "Moonwatcher's Memoir: A Diary of 2001: A Space Odyssey."

The erudite former mime provides an intimate account of Kubrick and the film, his legacy as performer and significant contributor to a breathtaking moment in motion picture history.

This week a talkative Richter revealed how he helped bridge the gap between beast and primitive man with scientific verisimilitude, impressing Kubrick -- who insisted he develop the ancient Moonwatcher and play that character.

"We searched for ways to make something look real rather than BE real," he said.

"I had no interest in being a Hollywood performer; I went to see Stanley so he could pick my brain. I wasn't looking for a job, and he hired me on the spot.

"We hit it off from the beginning, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe we had the same crazy minds interested in many different things. He became my mentor.

"I was only 28 and greatly impressed by Kubrick."

How could a 20th century man like Richter invest himself in the persona of a man/ape when so little is known about Earth's earliest men?

"My job was to bring to life the script that Stanley and Arthur C. Clarke had written," Richter said.

"I approached it using models and studying the works of (anthropologist) Louis Leakey in South Africa on his studies of early man in the Riff Valley 3 million years ago.

"We knew the creatures were bipedal, that they were our ancestors and they were physically quite different from us, with much smaller heads."

"I studied and met with researchers and Maurice Wilson, who did skeletal reconstructions, and absorbed his insights," Richter explained. "I knew I had to tie all this research to something kinesthetically -- and Jane Goodall's chimps were perfect."

"I got a tribe of 20 chimps -- the beautiful, ugly, wonderful mother flow, the noble graybeards -- all the characters and activities I could use," he said. "It changed my whole life. I always had a love of animals and this research increased my interest in them. Bipedalism is still a gray area."

After many months Richter, who choreographed the "Dawn of Man" sequence, took his research to Kubrick.

"Stanley worked very much the same way I did; he'd start with the reality and then make an artistic leap," Richter said. "I used the social structure of the chimp tribe, their behavior and character.

"It was necessary to apply Erskine's laws of unity: Basically you've got to establish the unity of audience to identify from the very beginning.

"Because it was such a huge problem we were able to solve it big time. Great problems create great opportunities," he added.

"Stanley agreed you have to be real in terms of feelings and emotions; that this was really happening. Yet at the same time we couldn't deliver it physically realistic," Richter explained.

"You have to come up with a bunch of conventions; moving in certain ways, slow motion from the waist down and from the waist up we used a combination of a chimpanzee with an overlay of gorilla very effectively."

The performance needed fine attention to detail. "If a performer did one little thing wrong, then the whole scene would fall apart. For instance when we squatted, we had to keep our butts down because primates have short legs and long arms, Richter said.

"If we had stood up we would have looked very human. As a mime one of the rules we followed was kinesthetic empathy. Once you ride a bicycle you know how to do it, but if you try to think about it you fall off."

"If you can do that in performance the audience will go along without having to intellectually find out why they're going along," he added. "We knew if we could get the audience to believe the concept we'd have their confidence. It was hard to do but it resulted in a very big payoff."

Kubrick made the difference. "Most directors wouldn't want to go to those extremes, but Stanley was deeply involved," Richter said.

Richter's book reveals many fascinating facets of Kubrick's moviemaking under pressure, ending in superlative triumph.

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