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    Interview with Wren Roberts, The Original Live-Action Duke

    Wren Roberts portrayed Duke in a series of commercials in 1991, 1992, and 1993. He can also be seen in the Search & Destroy trading card set, as well as a mail-away poster.

    Interview: Wren Roberts

    Download the entire interview as an mp3! [51:42, 23.7 mb]

    YoJoe: Hi folks, I'm Phillip from YoJoe.com, and today I'm interviewing actor Wren Roberts, who portrayed "Duke" in a series of live-action commercials from 1991 to 1993.

    All right, well good evening Mr. Roberts. Why don't we start with you telling us a bit about yourself?

    Wren Roberts: I started out as an actor probably, I don't know, years ago I did a Pepsi commercial when I was about six or seven years old. And then I moved to L.A. to become an actor and basically I ended up getting married, had a daughter, and I left L.A. And after I left L.A. I kinda went to Vancouver, British Columbia 'cause I heard the acting industry was pretty good up here. I have a sister who lived here. So I came up here, it would've been probably 1989. And I picked up an acting career here. Started out on shows like "21 Jump Street." Jeez, I don't even remember most of the names. "Wise Guy." Oh, I haven't looked at my resume for a while so I don't know!

    YJ: We can look it up on the Internet Movie Database.

    WR: Yeah, somewhere. I ended up doing a lot of smaller roles. And I think in 1990 or '91 I auditioned for Duke of G.I. Joe 'cause I just happened to have the perfect hair. It just, uh, it was the style. I have my hair blond and I ended up cutting it. It has nothing to do with trying to look like anybody. That was just my style.

    So I got called in for an audition. The audition process went on for about five months. Brought me in the first time and basically had a look at me y'know, said "You're amazing, you're great, you're perfect." And then I didn't hear from them. Then I heard they were going a different direction. They were gonna, you know, go older so they were auditioning a bunch of older guys. And then the next I heard they were gonna go younger, so they were auditioning younger guys! All kinds of auditions and I thought, "Oh, well, you know..." One minute I heard I had it, and the next minute I wasn't sure.

    YJ: Kind of all over the place, huh?

    WR: I would meet up with friends of mine at the gym and find out that they'd auditioned for G.I. Joe and oh, okay, great! They're still auditioning for that? And I'd basically forgotten about it. And, um, one morning I went to an audition - I think it was for a Pure anti-perspirant commercial - and it happened to be the same casting director that did G.I. Joe.

    And I came in and she says, "You think you'll be available to do this?" And I said "Of course I will. I mean, why wouldn't I?" She says, "Well, you're doing G.I. Joe." I said, "What do you mean I'm doing G.I. Joe?" She said, "No one told you?!" And I said, "No...." "Well, yeah, they told me last Friday that you got it."

    And I'm like, well great. Thanks for my agent for telling me!

    YJ: So you found out you got the role by going to an audition for another role!

    JC: Well, not really. At that point I found out I got it, right? 'Cause I basically had auditioned once, I think maybe twice. I went to a callback. It went on for months! But then, you know, they were still auditioning people and like I found out, I got the role months down the road auditioning for something else. And it just happened to be the same casting director. It was kind of like, okay, well here I am, I got it, that's great. I didn't hear anything, for like a week or two. Finally, someone called me up and said, "We need you to come in for a fitting. And basically we need you to come in for a stunt course."

    And I'm like, what? And I come to find out that they've been hiring all these stunt guys. Basically, they wanted somebody to be a G.I. Joe who was a stunt man. And I wasn't. And I didn't know it at the time, but Vancouver had a pretty good size stunt community. When these stunt guys found out that an actor had gotten the lead role, had to do all these stunts, needless to say they were less than pleased. So, you know, they basically had to give me a crash course in doing stunts. And none of them really wanted to.

    So they hired a stunt man by the name of Scott Nicholson. Really great guy. At that time, he was fairly inexperienced, or what they call inexperienced. What the rest of them would call inexperienced. He's a rather big guy now in the stunt community. But back then he wasn't, and he was a stunt coordinator. He was about my age at the time. And I gotta give that guy credit, 'cause he basically taught me everything I know about, you know, how to take a fall, how to take a hit. How to do squibs and all kinds of things. Then there was another guy, another stunt guy which would've been on the second round of G.I. Joe commercials. That would've been, ah, I think '92. That's the one where we did the Air Commandos.

    YJ: Yeah, I think that's '92, yeah.

    WR: Ah, see I'm not sure, I don't really remember, but I know it was the second round. We didn't have Scott Nicholson that time, we had Betty Thomas, who was a stunt coordinator. And we were using Betty Thomas, and the guy who basically taught me was a guy by the name of Mitch. He taught me how to do an air ramp. And an air ramp is - I don't know if you know much about stunts, but it's like a giant rat trap. You step on it and it throws you, it's a catapult, like a mini-catapult.

    YJ: That's kinda cool.

    WR: Yeah, so the explosions, where guys were running and the land mine goes off and they fly thirty feet in the air. That basically was an air ramp.

    YJ: They used that a lot in the commercials then!

    WR: Yeah, I learned right away. I mean, I had to. I mean, basically, when we started out they taught me how to fight. And they taught me all kinds of different things that I would, you know, need to know. So, I mean, I probably spent - it would have been about a week rehearsing the stuff we were going to shoot.

    And then I remember the first day I came on set and they had a studio, North Shore Studios. They're called Lions Gate now, back then they were Cannel Films. And they had this whole studio, the largest one there, which was Lot 3. They had all kinds of - they had five sets in there. They had this giant Cobra command center, and they had G.I. Joe command center, and they had this giant pool, and this great big, like, desert scene. And that's where we shot the little helicopters. And the first day - this was the Plasmatox campaign. (Editor's note: these are the 1991 commercials.)

    What I had to do was I had to do this stunt where I get shot in the chest with an air cannon. And basically it's just a giant propane tank with a valve that they open all at once so everything in the propane tank comes out at once. Of course it's a propane tank just filled with air. And then they put a big, like, nozzle on it, like a Clorox bottle, right? And they filled the Clorox bottle that's cut open on the one end. The fill it full of, like, fake debris, which is basically all styrofoam. And then they shoot this at you and it looks like a giant explosion because it hits you all at once - all the air does. And then it's supposed to blast you backwards and then I got shot in the chest with a fire hose which was this little, um, I think it came from the Paralyzer? And it shoots me in the chest and I have to tumble down this little ramp into a pool. Well, I remember I got there on the first day and I saw this on the, ah - what they do is they draw it out on boards.

    YJ: The storyboards, yeah.

    WR: Yeah, storyboards, and they drew all the storyboards up and I'm looking at all this stuff. And I was kinda standing there, it was January, and I'm standing in there in my coat in the studio and the big door's open so it's kinda cold, and I see this little boy pool, you know, like people have in their back yards? And they're filling it up, and it's got all this neat set around it, and I see them, you know, they're filling it up from a fire hydrant. It's January. And I remember the guys looking at me, and he goes, "Whoa, hey, how ya doin'?" And I said, "I'm fine." He didn't know who I was. And I walked over and I said, "What are you doing?" He goes, "Well, I'm filling up this tank 'cause some poor bastard has to go in there today." And I looked at him, and I said, "Well, I'm that poor bastard." And he goes, "Oh, so you're Wren? Oh, well, I'm sorry, pleased to meet you, Wren." And I said, "I don't think you really are because you're getting a kick out of filling up this pool!"

    And they hadn't done it days before, so basically - they'd taken my measurements a few days earlier for a wetsuit because they said I'd be in and out of water a lot. So they made me a three mil wetsuit to put on under all my G.I. Joe stuff. The first day of shooting I probably tried on nine different costumes before all the Hasbro guys decided on which costume they were gonna do. And back then they had this via satellite thing with some of their clients back in New York and I had to go stand in a room for two other people that couldn't be there to agree on the costume I was gonna wear. So that took about all morning.
    I think my first day of shooting was 19 hours.

    YJ: Wow.

    WR: Yeah, and basically I just got a flat rate of about a grand a day. You think, you know, guys who make commercials make a lot of money? I had a friend in Los Angeles that made a Burger King commercial just before I left L.A. and he made about 160,000 dollars. You know, because they get paid every time they show the commercial.

    YJ: Yeah, residuals, yeah.

    WR: Well I don't know how many times they showed my commercial, but I never got paid squat. I got a thousand bucks a day. And so did the kids that worked in the commercial with us about the same time.

    One of the other guys - Cobra Commander was played by a guy by the name of Roger Cross - he's the only one of us that I know that's really famous today. He was on - he's on "24" now, and he was on some movie called "Mad Money" with Queen Latifah, and he also did "First Wave" here in Vancouver.

    YJ: Now there - Cobra Commander appeared in commercials in '91 and '93. Was he in both those years, or just one of them?

    WR: He was only in the first year. Cobra Commander in '93 had this weird mask because they changed him. He had this - kind of looked like Ku Klux Klan, only black - only a black hoodie. And I remember we were all making fun of it - we thought it was quite the joke that, you know, it looked so different.

    YJ: It does kind of look weird [in the commercials].

    WR: Well it was. It looked like a big, black sock on his head!

    YJ: Splays outward at the bottom, too, like it's distended.

    WR: So basically we - yeah, in '93 we had two different guys that actually played him. And I don't remember either of the names 'cause they were both stunt guys. But in '91, the majority of the G.I. Joe stuff was by, let me see, there was me, and there was Gerald Paetz, who is a pretty famous stuntman now. Gerald Paetz played... I don't remember, he was one of the G.I. Joe guys. He wasn't on Cobra's side, he was on G.I. Joe. Ah, this was the little helicopters. (Editor's note: Major Altitude)

    YJ: Yeah, that's one of the ones we don't have, sorry.

    WR: I can't remember the name, we used to tease him about his name, too, because he had a really, kind of, interesting name, his character's name. Something like "Freefall?" He played this character. There was Scott Nicholson who I told you was the stunt coordinator. He actually played the guy I fight most of the time. One of the utility bad guys from Cobra. I broke his nose.

    I had to jump off the helicopter with the Plasmatox and land on this little vehicle, then I had to fight him on this vehicle. We were just rehearsing, so he didn't have his headgear on. 'Cause if he had, it was all fiberglass, right, and pretty hard for him to see or breathe. And I jump down, onto the vehicle. They didn't have the vehicle on a track, they had it on pieces of plywood. The plywood's kinda put down like roofing - one overlaps the next. So as they're dragging it along, 'cause they were pulling it by hand, and three guys on the rigging were pulling a rope. And they're pulling this thing along, and every time it hit a bump, it would kind of stall, and jerk. So I jumped onto this thing, and I was just barely trying to hold my balance while swinging and fighting. And just as I went to swing, it hit this little bump and it got caught, 'cause they yanked it so I lunged forward, and Scott lunged forward at the same time, and it was just a perfect hit. I didn't even hit him very hard, but I hit him so perfectly that his nose was sitting sideways on his head.

    YJ: Yeah, but I bet it filmed great!

    WR: Oh, he was not too happy. I just - I felt terrible, I felt absolutely terrible that I popped him in the nose. So that was his battle scar.

    We had the fight scene, I don't - you've seen all the commercials, I take it?

    YJ: Well, the ones we have. Otherwise, I'm relying on what I remember from being a kid, which really isn't much!

    WR: Yeah, 'cause, I got 'em all on tape somewhere. Yeah, they are on tape, they're not on disk.

    YJ: That doesn't surprise me.

    WR: Yeah, I do have them all. I think there was nine? Seven or nine in the first season. And most of them were that little helicopter. In '93, we did some more with the helicopter, but it was a completely, sorta, different helicopter, new and improved. 'Cause what I do remember and Hasbro's gonna hate me for this, is they did the little helicopter, and they show the kids pulling the string. They had a little pull-string. The helicopter flies in the air.

    YJ: Yeah, I had one.

    WR: Well, you pulled the thing and the helicopter went up and straight down on it's ass.

    YJ: That's how I remember it working, pretty much.

    WR: Yeah, it worked like crap. Well they had this fancy, little helicopter that had been all taken apart and put back together, and they had a little motor in it that turned the blades. And then they had three guys up on the rigging with fishing poles. And fishing line. And the kid would pull the string and the helicopter would soar through the air with the greatest of ease. 'Cause it was on a fishing line. With a little motor turning it.

    YJ: I always wondered why mine never worked quite right!

    WR: They - they didn't work. They didn't work at all because I remember, you know, they tried 'em like, twice or three times and I remember our director just went out of his head. John, oh jeez....

    We all had a t-shirt that said "I Survived G.I. John[ny]." And that was because John, the director - and I wish I could remember his last name. He was from Fireside Film. Great guy. Absolutely a great guy. Tough as nails, and he didn't stop shooting for anything. 'Cause I got injured quite a few times on G.I. Joe and like I said, Scott Nicholson, I broke his nose.

    I ended up with six stitches on the back of my hand. Some stitches in my shoulder for something else I did, I don't even remember what it was, I just remember getting an injury and I had the craft services guy put duct tape over it so it wouldn't bleed. Well we'd been there, like I said, this was really tough. I mean, we'd been there probably, you know, anywhere from 16 to 20 hours. And it was getting to be the end of the day, and at this point, people aren't even, you know, we aren't even mapped into each other any more, everything just became funny because the crew and everybody was so exhausted. And I remember it was that time of day, and we had to get this shot, and there was just basically nothing we could do. So I had him put some duct tape on it and I went to the hospital when they wrapped. And they stitched me up. And I remember coming the next day and the director saying to me, he goes, "You've got some stitches!" And I'm like, "Yeah." And he goes, "Oh, why didn't you tell anybody?" And I'm like, "Well, why should I? We would've been here another seven hours!" So he was like, for days after that, bragging to everybody how Duke's the real thing. Because I'd gotten stitches and didn't tell anybody.

    Those little helicopters, they had this rigging - the guy who actually rigged Broadway's Peter Pan. They brought him in from New York to do the rigging of these helicopters. He was supposed to be the best in the world and the rigging was supposed to be something amazing and now rigging is so different because because, I mean, you see, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger, Flying" whatever it's called.

    YJ: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

    WR: Yeah, they have all that neat, sort of rigging nowadays. See, back then it was all basically pulleys and motors and mechanical. I was expecting the best guy in the world's rigging so this is gonna be some cool stuff. It was just painful, because the rigging worked for about five minutes and then it went down. Then it worked for about five more minutes, and then it went down. The problem was it went down when we were in mid-air. The wonderful effects guy, guy by the name of Al Benjamin, really great guy, he just figures, you know, we'd all be plenty comfortable because we'd be strapped into a rigging and then the helicopter would be strapped into a separate rigging. So our weight wouldn't actually be on the helicopter. So he had a bar with foam on it. Like, literally one little round of foam and it was a bar.

    If you've worn climbing gear, it's right in your crotch, and it pulls up so hard it feels like the world's worst Melvin. Worse than that, the helicopter's weight, with your weight combined, on this little foamy seat was excruciating. I don't think I've ever, ever, ever had so much pain. I think, you know, I haven't had any more kids because of that. The rigging was just nasty, I mean, in '93, Al made - he made some adjustments. Actually, in '91 he made some adjustments. He took mine apart that night when we wrapped for the next day, and he welded an old bicycle banana seat. And then he padded the seat up, so it actually was more comfortable 'cause you could lean back on it a little way. I mean it was a little better, but not much.

    YJ: That's terrible.

    WR: But in '93 he'd revamped the whole thing so the seat, it felt - was actually, you know, like a Harley-Davidson seat with the springs on it. So it was quite a bit more comfortable, plus the helicopter had its own motor in it. The other ones did too, but this was like a whole different thing.

    And I remember our Plasmatox thing actually had back then what was supposed to be the newest, coolest thing, LED. Light emitting diodes. And they didn't have any of that, so this thing was like huge expensive. This stupid little light was like, three grand, that sat inside this thing and the battery for the bloody light was like, one of those batteries that - remember the big flashlights used to have the great big square batteries in them?

    YJ: They looked like gigantic nine volts? Yeah. (Editor's note: A 6-Volt Lantern battery.)

    WR: It was something like that, and it had a battery that they basically took apart and had to put back together to fit in the bottom of the Plasmatox container so it would light up, 'cause this was the only thing that could give it enough light to actually make the thing glow green.

    So I remember the - you know, they were bragging about how the Plasmatox thing cost like, ten grand. So don't drop it, 'cause it's the only one we have. They had a stunt one that was made out of rubber, but it didn't light up or anything, but I remember on the real one that, like, they just freaked every time like, the second they would yell "Cut" a guy would run up and that was his whole job, was to take care of the Plasmatox. And he'd snatch it away from me so quick I didn't have a chance to sneeze. I remember thinking that was pretty cool, the little Plasmatox thing, and so they were forever fixing it and yelling at me because I was snapping the little... kind of like little, sharp spears' heads on the outside of it. You know, like a dog collar, sort of. They were all plastic, and those little things kept snapping off. This thing had four handles on it and they were constantly - it was changing hands all the time. In mid-air, it was flying through the air, someone was catching it, I was grabbing it, and I was fighting with it in one hand, and you name it that poor, little Plasmatox thing got all kinds of beatings and we had one little model guy who had a complete headache doing this Plasmatox thing.

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    Editor's Note:
    Like what you saw? Hated it? Post about it in the YoJoe! Forums!

    Interview by: Phillip Donnelly, 01/30/09
    Images from the collections of: Wren Roberts and Phillip Donnelly

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