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Off-Centerpiece

Dan Richter Still Goes Ape Over '2001'

August 22, 1993|JEFFREY WELLS

A Hollywood anecdote worth contemplating: Dan Richter, the snarling man-ape behind that legendary, slow-motion bone toss in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," is alive and well and working for a major payroll company in Burbank.

Not that anyone particularly cares. Little of the fame and cultural prestige gathered by Kubrick's 1968 mystical sci-fi classic over the years, or the hoopla that has accompanied the film's 25th anniversary (recent showings on TNT, a new laser disc from MGM/UA) has rubbed off on Richter's life.

By 1993 terms, Richter is a 54-year-old vice president of commercial sales for the Burbank-based Entertainment Partners, one of the largest entertainment payroll companies that service the film industry. He lives in Santa Monica, separated from his second wife, has four children, and calls himself "a successful businessman."

But by movie-myth standards, Richter's non-verbal, mime-inspired turn as "2001" tribe leader Moon-Watcher, during the 18-minute "Dawn of Man" sequence, is etched deeply in the public mind.

Two scenes, in particular: The one in which Moon-Watcher is instructed by the black monolith to use animal bones as a survival tool, to the strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra." And the bone throw that results in Kubrick's famous 4-million-year jump-cut to a shot of a space shuttle.

"It was a breakthrough, I think," Richter says about the appearance of the "man-apes." "Up until then, any time a movie tried to fake it, it always looked like a man in a monkey suit." Having trained as a mime at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and under instructor Paul Curtis, Richter was hired by Kubrick in November, 1966, and stayed with "2001" for more than a year.

Richter says he "knew from the time I met Stanley this was going to be special. The whole project had a feeling of grace about it."

Kubrick, he says, "allowed me to do a great deal of work on casting and research and making it look right. I said to Stanley, the crux of the problem is one of performing, not choreography. We will never fool the audience into thinking we're not actors--we have to get them to go along with it."

Richter's other qualification was his slimness, a characteristic that all 35 or 40 man-apes had to possess. Most of his choices came from the Young Generation dancers who appeared on British TV, and from the ranks of male jockeys, he recalls. Each man-ape also had to be short, with the exception of the 5-foot-10 Richter--towering by simian standards.

Richter says he studied films of Jane Goodall's chimpanzees, went "to every zoo I could find" and personally shot slow-motion films of apes.

The actual filming of the Dawn of Man sequence, at MGM's Borehamwood studios outside of London, took a little over one month during the summer of 1967.

"Hitting the bones was a big moment," says Richter, referring to the black-monolith "awakening" scene. "The first time I hit them, I hit the edge of one and it went flipping into the air. That got Stanley really going. He said, 'That's great, can you do that again?' 'Sure,' I said. We did it for hours. Stanley pays attention to detail."

And the throwing of the bone "was a problem because the slow-motion cameras kept breaking down," he recalls.

Richter's life after "2001" until the mid-'80s was marked by ups and downs: He ran John Lennon and Yoko Ono's film operation for four years ("Film No. 4" and "Fly," for example) "until they retired into the Dakota." He worked on the 1975 concert film "Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones." He next formed a New York-based improvisational theater, Absolute Reality, with his second wife, Elizabeth Converse. Next came co-producing with Converse an avant-garde film, "Alexyz" (pronounced Alexis), that ultimately lost money.

"It was a mid-life crisis movie," he recalls.

Richter opted for greater stability in 1984 by designing computer monitoring systems for film production companies and thereby forming his own company, Production Systems. Five years ago he sold his company and was hired as vice president of commercial sales by the West Coast-based Entertainment Partners, a move that brought Richter to Los Angeles.

Starting a business and adopting new disciplines "felt like a down- shift" after living in London in the '60s and early '70s, Richter confides. "London back then was like being in a slow-motion explosion, and you're one of the particles shooting out from the axis," he recalls. "I helped to stage a poetry reading in Albert Hall one time and we sold it out. A poetry reading!"

Richter says he's content with his current situation, his two younger children--William, 13, and Joanclaire, 8--occupying a major part of his time.

Still, a little recognition for past artistic achievements never hurts. "I'm very proud of what we did on '2001,' " he says. "We were taking part in something that was much bigger than any one artist. I was part of that and that can never be taken away from me."

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