Interview: Bernie Kopell of Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp

Bernie KopellActor Bernie Kopell is best known for his roles as Dr. Adam Bricker on the 1970s TV smash The Love Boat and, earlier, as the evil mastermind Siegfried on TV’s popular James Bond send-up Get Smart. Kopell also made some noise providing voices for the fondly-remembered 1970 Saturday morning series Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, which is now available on DVD from Film Chest.

Created by Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, two of the minds behind Get Smart, Lancelot Link is essentially, well, a Get Smart-styled action-comedy series starring a cast of chimpanzees. The show revolves around globe-trotting exploits of undercover agent Lancelot Link and his female colleague Mata Hairi of A.P.E. (that’s the Agency to Prevent Evil) as they fight to save the world from the nefarious schemes of C.H.U.M.P. (the Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld’s Master Plan). The  hook is that the all-monkey cast—a very well-trained ensemble—was fully outfitted with top-notch costumes, props and sets, and when they engaged in their Bond-styled storylines (which included chases, brawls and even a pie fight) and talked to each other, the results were very, very funny.

Kopell was on-board for all 17 episodes, voicing the role of the monocled crimelord Baron Von Butcher, the leader of C.H.U.M.P., among other characters. Disc Dish caught up with him earlier this week to chat about his simian legacy.

Disc Dish: I’m sure you’re approached by fans pretty regularly about Love Boat and then Get Smart, but how do you do in terms of Lancelot Link?

Lancelot Link DVDBernie Kopell: Very few ask me about Lancelot Link actually. That’s why it’s great that this collection is coming out.

DD: On the show, You voiced the characters of the villains Wang Fu and Baron Von Butcher, who sounds a lot like Get Smart’s Siegfried!

BK: (laughs) One came after the other, yes. It started with James Bond, which then led to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And then came the parody, Get Smart, where I played Siegfried. Then the creators of Get Smart said, ‘Let’s do Get Smart with monkeys!’ And that’s truly how it began. Then came the chimpanzee wranglers and choreographers, who had the real work!

DD: Getting the monkeys to “talk” with your voice work was the most important part of the production after each episode was shot, I imagine

BK: It was. We dubbed the voices into the film later on. We would sit around in the studio with producers—[voice artists] Joanie Gerber, Dayton Allen and myself—and put in the voices to match the chimps’ mouths on the screen. There would be a lot of improvising and changing around of the lines to make it work. I remember once that one of the chimps let out this big yawn when he was done “talking”. I did my dialogue—which was actually a long monologue—and then at the end I yawned, too. It played like the character had gotten bored with his own voice.

DD: And the monkeys were chewing bubble gum to make their mouths look like they were “talking?”

BK: Some of monkeys enjoyed chewing gum, but others liked peanut butter and some went for good old fashioned bananas.

Lancelot Link's evil Baron Von Butcher, voiced by Bernie Kopell.

DD: How many hours did you spend in the studio for each episode?

BK: I really can’t tell you how long it took it took—the time flew by because it was fun! Really!

DD: Lancelot Link is actually a relatively small blip on your resume. It must be a little strange talking about it more than forty years later.

BK: Not at all! I get a kick out of my old characters and I love it when my kids see them for the first time. I started late—my kids are 14 years old and 9 years old—and seeing them through their eyes is really fantastic. As long as you’re alive, all kinds of good things can happen to you.

DD: That’s great. Okay, now I have to ask you one Love Boat question: What was your single most memorable experience with a guest star on the show?

BK: Without a doubt it would have to be  Juliet Prowse. We had a scene in bed together and I can’t tell you how nervous I was. She was just unbelievable–so gorgeous, with those legs and those lips. She had been with Sinatra years before. I was just hoping everything would go right and I wouldn’t flub my lines and that my hairpiece looked good. We’re in bed as they’re getting the scene ready—fifty people are milling about everywhere—and she tells me this story that Charles Boyer had once told her about a time he was shooting a bed scene with a beautiful woman.  She told me that Boyer had told the actress in bed with him that, ‘If I get aroused while we are doing this, then please forgive me. And if I don’t get aroused, I’d like you to also please forgive me.’ Fantastic.

DD: So I must ask, did Ms. Prowse end up forgiving you?

BH: (laughs) Well, it was a long time ago…I don’t know if I remember…


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.