In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ – absolutely our most favorite diabolical film – Devil In The Details is proud to present our interview with actor and performer Ernest Harada, who appeared as a Satanic Japanese photographer in the climactic scene of the 1968 film directed by Roman Polanski. The novel was published in 1967, and the film was released the following year, making 2017 and 2018 the Golden Jubilee of one of the Horror genre’s most classic and influential books and films.
Born Oct. 20 1944, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Ernest Harada studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), class of 1965. LAMDA is the oldest drama school in the UK. He also studied political science at Syracuse University and graduated from Mid-Pacific Institute, class of 1962.
Mr Harada is happily retired in Honolulu. He performs occasional concerts, most recently in Germany and New York and Hawaii. We reached out to Mr Harada to ask questions regarding his career and professional experience and he has been very gracious with his time. We were charmed and intrigued by some interesting insights from one of the last surviving cast members of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ regarding his perspective as an Asian American artist in Hollywood and on Broadway, on working with Polanski, and what was in that black bassinet?
Sonny Gardner: Is this Mr Harada speaking?
Ernest Harada: Yes. Is this Sonny?
SG: Yes, thank you so much for taking my call.
EH: My pleasure.
SG: Good Morning. How are you?
EH: I am good. I am back in Honolulu and recovering and doing my physical therapy and hopefully will be back in shape again.
SG: I’m glad to hear you’re back in paradise. Honolulu sounds marvelous; it’s where my parents met many, many years ago, though I’ve never been there myself.
EH: It’s a great place. I think it’s as close to Paradise on Earth as you can get. I mean weather-wise and ultimately the people-wise. It’s a wonderful place. That’s why when I had to retire I came back home.
SG: So you are from Hawaii originally?
EH: I was born and raised here. I left here when I graduated high school at 18. I went to Syracuse University for one year and, at the University, realized I wanted to pursue acting and was given an opportunity actually by a director from the Royal Shakespere Company who suggested I should be in London studying Drama. Up to that point I had no idea I wanted to be an actor. I was there for Political Science, I mean I was going to become an international lawyer and basically represent the up-and-coming Japanese economy. My father was visiting Japan since the early fifties and he realized what a business behemoth Japan was becoming, and that they would need, once they got big enough, representation in America and that was going to be me.
So I went to Syracuse because they had an excellent school – Maxwell School of Citizenship – which basically dealt with international law. But I got involved in theatrics there and a director of the Royal Shakespere Company who happened to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that I was performing in, he pulled me aside and said that I should be studying in London. He assumed I was studying Drama at Syracuse, which I wasn’t. So he said I should be in London and suggested three schools. He sent me their addresses; of course I auditioned for them, and when I was accepted at all three of them: the Royal Academy, the London Academy and Central School, I decided Yes, this is really what I wanted and I moved to London and studied there for three years.
SG: Wow, that’s fascinating.
EH: Yeah, that’s how I began my choice of being an actor.
SG: I read that you had attended the London Academy of Music Dramatic Art, class of 1965 I believe.
SG: So, what was your family’s reaction? How did your father and the rest of your family react to you going off into the Arts when you had focused on international law?
EH: Well, he always thought I’d outgrow it. He never thought it was a viable occupation. Even when I was supporting myself and making money, uhm.., it just was not a legitimate profession. But they learned to live with it.
SG: I’m glad to hear that. So you grew up in Hawaii with your family there, a family of Japanese heritage.
SG: So you were born right at the tail-end of World War II, were you not?
EH: Yes, ’44.
SG: Right. So, I was just curious, I’ve been living in Japan now for about 8 years and I’ve been coming and going from Japan for more than that, going on 15 years, so, I’m a little familiar with the culture and some of the history. I was wondering about what it was like for somebody who was an American citizen but also of Japanese heritage at the end of WWII ? Especially in Hawaii, you know with Pearl Harbor and all?
EH: Well, basically in Hawaii we were spared the kind of discrimination that they faced in the West Coast of the mainland of the continental USA. They thought about incarcerating the Japanese population here, but wiser heads prevailed. They realized that you cannot incarcerate one-third of the population – which was the Japanese population at that time – and have a viable economy. I mean the entire economy would’ve collapsed. So basically they just jailed or relocated the ringleaders – the ringleaders being anyone who was educated: people in newspapers, community leaders, religious leaders, well-educated doctors… anyone they could think… or they thought could possibly might – might – be dangerous. And in fact absolutely none of them were.
EH: There was absolutely no case of espionage by anyone. And we knew that as Japanese here. I mean we were American Japanese, especially by the Nisei [note: Nisei = second generation of Japanese immigrants], there were some Isei’s that had feelings for Japan, as my grandfather being a first generation always felt very strongly Japanese, but that was his heritage. But anyone born in Hawaii was immediately – this is our loyalty – I think, more to Hawaii than to America.
Hawaii is a very unique microcosm. (thoughtful Pause) I really think Hawaii is going to be the model for the world. We get together and live together with various races and cultures and religions. There was no majority. There still isn’t a majority. We are a community of minorities and we make it work.
SG: That’s marvelous. It really is a unique culture in the world.
SG: And especially in American culture it’s very unique.
EH: Well, I mean it’s only… it’s like having Barak Obama, though he is of mixed parentage, he is himself… I mean they ask him “Why do you bring your family here for Christmas every year?” He said ‘I want my daughters to grow up knowing who they are and where they came from.’ Which means he associates being Hawaiian as much as being a black man, and I think even more so. I mean this is the culture that nurtured him. And what I have discovered – the uniqueness of the Japanese Americans coming from Hawaii and a lot of Japanese that I’ve met – I mean Japan Nationals on the mainland – said there’s such a difference in the Japanese from Hawaii and the Japanese from the (US) mainland. I said, well we were not imprisoned; we are not intimidated. We have a spontaneity; we are a more fulfilled personality. We never were caught and beaten down as so much of the Japanese Americans in California and the West Coast were. I mean a lot of them were afraid even to admit they were Japanese. Even now.
SG: Yeah, you’re right. There is so much fear and paranoia of foreigners these days…
EH: Well, it’s persecution! They were persecuted, you know?
EH: Yes, and I visit Japan a lot.
SG: Oh, do you?
EH: Yes. I’ve been there 8 or maybe 10 times. My father had a company there and we would go and visit. In fact, we were there just maybe a couple of years ago. I took my whole family down; we came from Yamaguchi prefecture. And so we went to visit the valley from whence we came, where my grandfather emigrated from. My grandmother came from Hofu and my maternal grandparents came pretty much from the Iwakumi area; so we visited all of that. My brother and sister had never quite seen it before. And it was lovely, it was a lovely trip. I love Japan.
SG: I’m so glad to hear that. And my (Japanese) wife will be glad, too. (laughs)
EH: Oh, yes, My sister’s partner said, you know after having visited Japan she said, it is absolutely the most sophisticated culture on Earth. They have thought of everything down to the nth degree, and I feel she’s absolutely right. And I’m glad she appreciated that about the Japanese sensibility. Everything is thought of, to the minutest detail, which sometimes can work towards their detriment; I think it curtails their spontaneity.
SG: Right. (laughs) True.
EH: But as a culture I mean it has created a marvel, something I’m very proud of. I’m very proud of my Japanese heritage.
SG: Yes, it really is a pleasure to live here. It’s quite comfortable and people are so polite.
EH: Oh, it’s clean, it’s efficient, and everything works! (laughs)
SG: Oh, yeah… (laughs). Well, moving back to your professional career, you mentioned how you had gotten interested in acting while you were in school, and you were encouraged. I was wondering, from your perspective as someone of Japanese heritage – and of Asian heritage in general, but also of American Hawaiian heritage – your perspective as a performer over these years in the world of Hollywood and show business, if you have anything you’d like to share about that.
EH: Well, by the time I got to Hollywood, here I was totally capable of doing Shakespere, and if you wanted classical theater I was totally capable of doing it, and knowing how to wear costumes from the 17th century on – and basically being slammed into a work environment where you’re going to play waiters and gangsters and things that were totally unchallenging. A handful of us started an organization first called Brotherhood of Artists advocating for Asian-Pacific American actors; and later it became the Association of Asian-Pacific American Artists and I was one of it’s founders and it’s president, oh for too many years, (laughs). And our primary purpose, our sole purpose, was to advocate for better roles for the Asian artists. Also, I was one of the founding members of the East West Players, which is still going, a professional theatre company in Los Angeles. I was a founding member there because we needed someplace where we could act and stretch our muscles and become better performers.
And that was pretty much all of my career there. All the while I was active in Hollywood I was in an advocacy group, most likely heading it, and of course supporting the East West players. At a certain point I dropped out, I could no longer perform with them, I was just too busy. But it doesn’t matter, you know, it was successful and thriving and we created something that was wonderful.
SG: Yes, that’s true. I had asked you before if ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was your first film but you mentioned you were in ‘Valley of the Dolls’ from the year before ‘Rosemary.’
EH: I was…, I think I opened a door; I don’t even know whether I said anything. What had happened was I had gotten to Hollywood, I was on route to New York to become a starving artist, I mean this is after Europe.
SG: Right. After your studies there.
EH: But I had a friend who was involved in the Columbia new talent program, Studio Players, and he got me involved so I immediately got an agent. One of the very first people she set me up to meet was Joe Scully who was a casting director at 20th Century Fox, and he was working on a film called ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ and at that point they were screen testing and he liked me and I liked him and we hit it off and he said “You’re going to need your Screen Actors Guild card.” So he got them to basically write me in on screen tests. So I had like a week of screen testing with Patty duke and Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate and when the film came around he put me in it! (laughs)
EH: Right. I mean, basically he was just helping me to get my screen actors guild card, not that there was a specific role that was called for. And in a sense that’s also what happened with ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ My agency was the Bessie Loo Agency. My agent was Angela Loo her daughter, who began her career at the same time as mine. I got a call from my agent and she said “Oh, you have a job on ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.” It was a bestseller in every showcase in the bookstores so I immediately rushed out, read the book twice, I called her back, I said there’s no part for an Asian in this, are you sure you have the right movie? And she said “Yes, I have the contract right here in front of me!” I said well, what part do I have? She said “Well, I don’t know. I went in and tripped and fell – I was supposed to meet Roman Polanski and your picture was lying on top at his feet – and he said “Him. I want him.”” (laughs) And she said “Oh, but he’s my most expensive actor.” At that time I was her only actor (laughs) . So I mean, if they say that’s what luck is, that’s what luck is. But, literally she tripped and fell, and my picture was on top because I had just met with her a couple days before, and she was a brand new agent and we both got our first jobs together with Roman Polanski.
SG: How lucky!
EH: And that’s how I got the job for ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and I walked on set and still didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do!
SG: And the scene you were in was filmed in California, I believe.
EH: Yes, it was filmed on the Paramount lot.
SG: Right. Do you recall around how long it took to film that final scene that you appear in in the film?
EH: You know, I think the original contract was for a week, but I think we went ten days.
SG: Wow! Ten days!
EH: Not that I knew much about film making; I mean I was a total newcomer. But what Roman was doing with the hand-held cameras without any kind of break… I mean I had worked on ‘Valley of the Dolls’ so I knew what dolly shots were, and close-ups and how they set up a shot, but what Roman was doing with ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was having the camera on somebody’s shoulder walking through these elaborate sets all in one take! And even during the scene itself when Rosemary finally comes in, rather than using a tripod or a dolly, he had the cameraman literally over her shoulder filming reactions on people. That’s how he could get really, instead of fast cuts, he would get an unbroken feeling from the audience viewpoint – Rosemary’s point of view – of reactions. It was, as I discovered later, a trend-setting kind of a thing he was doing.
SG: Yes, it’s really a unique perspective. Everything in the film is from Rosemary’s point of view or the camera is always on her face or what she’s doing. There’s just something so enchanting or enthralling about that film with the camera work and the point-of-view.
EH: Exactly. Yes. And only someone who really understands how to put a film together appreciates what the camerawork was, and that’s what took up so much of the time. But in the film it was seamless, it was flawless. I think that was his secret to making it as horrific as it turned out to be; there’s an absolute smoothness about the whole thing and a reality – a different reality.
SG: So, what was your impression of the role you were given in the film?
EH: Well, I asked him finally. I said my part isn’t in the book at all. He said “No, but if you look around you see these Japanese business men all over the place and they all have cameras – they’re like in groups of three and four and five, and they’re running all over the world – Europe or America – and they all have cameras! So he said “I wanted to put that in, so you’re it!” (laughs)
SG: Wow, what a stroke of genius.
EH: Well, he is. I think he is. A bonafide, certified genius.
SG: Your character is quite conspicuous in the final scene. It’s kind of an odd character to discover there in that scene of the story.
EH: Yes. (laughs). Every character in that scene is kind of odd! (laughs)
SG: True. (laughs)
EH: It’s not a usual assemblage of folk.
SG: True! This selection of character actors and theater folk was really, I think, another example of Polanski’s genius; they all appear odd yet somehow familiar at the same time, all of these people.
EH: Right. I mean individually you look at them (and you think) “Oh, she’s a nice old lady,” but in that setting suddenly that nice old lady has another dimension. It was making what was normal extraordinary. And a lot of those people – the older people – were extras but he cast them extremely well. Even I was kind of creeped out whenever we were on the set.
SG: What was it like meeting with and working with the cast and crew there? Do you have any interesting memories of working with the actors?
EH: By the time they filmed that scene Mia [Farrow] was already getting divorced from Frank Sinatra. So she was experiencing an emotional trauma. Between takes she’d rush to her trailer, and she had a dressing trailer right in the middle of the sound stage, so we never saw her. But I became good friends with Sydney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon. And sometimes, I mean we had a lot of lunches together, Sydney was trying to bring me in and telling me I have to get to New York. That’s of course primarily where he was, he was a great matinee idol on the Broadway stage. And Ruth, Ruth Gordon hadn’t become the big star she was then. I mean she was primarily known as a writer. But she had just been to New York and seen ‘Cabaret’ the musical so she was singing the songs and tried to teach them to me. We were having a great time. And sometimes Patsy Kelly would join us. And that was pretty much it, I mean Sydney, Ruth, Patsy Kelly and myself; we hung-out around a lot during the filming.
SG: That’s so great! I mean, getting to hang out with these great actors. I was born in 1970 so I recall seeing a lot of Ruth Gordon and Patsy Kelly while growing up in the ’70’s.
EH: Yeah! They’re delightful people. I mean I love actors. I’ve spent my life with them!
SG: (laughs) Good people!
EH: Yes, they are.
SG: Was there any particular direction you were given for that final scene?
EH: No, it just was “Say this” or “Do this” and it would change on different takes. He (Polanski) never… part of it was – and I’ve worked with other directors like that – who just say “Do it the way you feel it; that’s why I hired you. You’re the actor.” And Roman was pretty much working with the camera people or whatever. I don’t recall him giving much acting direction – to any cast members, per say. I mean privately he may have said something, but not on the set. Everyone pretty much knew what they were going to do and he pretty much let us do what we wanted to do with it.
SG: Marvelous. Your character, like you mentioned before about the (common sight of) Japanese tourists with cameras, and your character really does seem like he just stepped off the airplane and just arrived and is there; and your Japanese accent is perfect. I live in Japan so I was really intrigued by your character because I wondered ‘Did they just run to the airport and pick up this guy and hire a taxi to take him to the set? I mean he’s just flawless! But you must have been familiar with a Japanese accent I think.
EH: Well, I was good with a lot of accents. I certainly heard enough of it! (laughs) That was not a big stretch. Later on I’d go to interviews and they’d said “We need this part and we need it in a Japanese accent.” So I’d do it and this one producer said “That’s not a Japanese accent.” Excuse me? I said, What do you think a Japanese accent is? And he said “Well, like Richard Loo in all the World War II films.” I said, well I hate to inform you, I know Richard Loo, he’s from Maui in Hawaii, and the accent he has is basically a Chinese accent. His name is Loo, that’s Chinese. That’s a Chinese accent; that is not a Japanese accent you are hearing! All of the Japanese American actors were incarcerated at various relocation camps around America [during the war].
But then that was symptomatic of all the kind of stereotypical things that we were demanded to do that we, and I personally, fought so hard against. I said, why can’t I speak the way I speak? I mean, you want the Queen’s English? I’ll give you that. (Mockingly as a perturbed producer): “Oh no! No!”
SG: (Laughs) Wow! Now, I have a question: in that final scene, when you were on set, did you look in the bassinet? Was there a baby or a doll prop in that bassinet? Because in the film we never see a baby.
EH: They later, I found out, tried to do a baby in the set and they realized that it was not horrific. But no, there was no baby in the bassinet. Mia did a fabulous job!
SG: She really did! When you read the script, and when the movie came out do you recall any reactions from family or friends as to the story or the content of the film?
EH: Basically my people were actors and people involved in film, and this is in California and Hollywood, and they realized what a great horror film it was. My family was just happy to see me working. (laughs) But then they were not movie buffs or critics in any sense of the word. But no, even when it was first released there was a sizable group who realized that it was a great, great film. The fact that there was no blood; it was Hitchcokian in that sense, it was so suspenseful. Horrifically suspenseful with no blood or anything, it just slowly built into this horrendous ending. And it’s really a very unlikely story! (laughs) The Devil’s child! He [Polanski] made it happen! It became real! And that was really Ira Levin and Polanski. And really the story is kind of preposterous.
SG: Yes, truly. It’s almost a little humorous; like darkly humorous, in a sense.
EH: Exactly! But they made it very real.
SG: And without all the blood and violence. These days every horror film I see relies way too much on graphic effects and gore. Rosemary’s Baby is such a perfect film without any of that; the horror is all cerebral.
EH: Yeah, and the other film that’s always drawn, as far as horror films, is The Exorcist! And Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t have all that slime all over the place or the heads turning 360 degrees, and green people and bodies flying out windows… You know as an artist I realize the artistry in ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ I mean the effects it got from so little was extraordinary. I mean I can’t think of a horror film on that kind of a caliber.
SG: Me either. Do you have any opinions on the cultural impact of Rosemary’s Baby?
EH: The cultural impact is when people say “What films were you in?” and I’ve done a number, I mean I starred with Tom Hanks and John Candy [as the powerful drug lord Chung Mee in Volunteers 1985] but the one I mention is ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and everybody instantly knows it. It’s certainly become a classic. And they say “Oh, what part did you play in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’?” and I tell them ‘The baby, of course!’ (They say) “What?!”
SG: (laughs) That’s funny!
EH: Yeah, well then they say “Hey wait a minute! There wasn’t a baby!” But I’ve seen, subsequently, maybe on Youtube, them trying to put a baby together that was properly horrific. And I’m glad they didn’t because the baby that your mind creates of course is even more frightening than anything they could show you practically.
SG: I agree; that was another stroke of genius on the part of the artists who worked on this film was ‘do not show the baby.’
EH: Exactly. Your mind creates that baby; but that was the entire film, you know?
“…they say “Oh, what part did you play in ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘?” and I tell them ‘The baby, of course!'”
SG: Right. Now, I kind of skipped over your appearances on Broadway. A few nights ago my wife and I watched ‘Pacific Overtures’ on Youtube on our television so we got to enjoy that. You seem as comfortable in front of the camera as you do onstage; so, do you have a preference for working onstage in theater or in front of the camera for film?
EH: I have always loved the stage. Mainly because when you are performing onstage it’s you and the audience, with film it is never that. With film it is always the director’s eyes and the actor really has no control over anything. You come up with a performance but whether that performance gets on the final film is another matter; I mean it’s filtered through the director. Whereas on the stage, once you’re onstage, it’s you and the audience, and I’ve always loved that. In fact I’ve used my film and television career to finance doing my stage work. The stage does not pay. And I did a lot of stage like Milwaukee and La Jolla, um… and basically I was losing money, going out of town and doing these plays, but that’s where my heart was.
SG: You’re a true artist.
EH: Well, it’s what I loved, and I believe in pursuing what you love. Do it! And I didn’t get rich and famous but I had a very fulfilling, fulfilled life as an artist. And even on Broadway at that time, when it was offered to me, I had another offer umm… “Stay in town, stay in town. I’m doing a pilot you are perfect for.” This writer-producer said “I’m doing this show [TV series] and you and [well known movie star] would be perfect together.” And I told him, you know I’m an actor, how can I turn down Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim? This is a chance of a lifetime. Until then the last show was ‘Flower Drum Song’ twenty years before, and after ‘Pacific Overtures’ the only show that used Asians was ‘Miss Saigon’ twenty years after. So if ever I was going to do Broadway I had to take it. Of course I could not call myself an actor and turn down Broadway for television. And maybe that was a dumb move, I don’t know. Later on that producer-writer wrote a couple of pilots where I would have been one of the major characters but they never sold so… But then I’ve never regretted doing Broadway; it’s one of the crowning achievements in my life, more so than anything in film.
SG: I agree. I imagine it’s a really wonderful experience.
Link: Ernest Harada performs Welcome to Kanagawa from Pacific Overtures.
EH: Well, to be on Broadway you’re on the creme de la creme; you know? I mean just many people never even get there. Film – you can take somebody off the street and make a star. With Broadway it requires work. It’s discipline. It’s the art of acting and performing. And no, there was no way I could turn it down, and wisely so. I mean twenty years later ‘Miss Saigon’ comes into town and we had to protest it because the lead role – this supposedly Asian man – was cast with Jonathan Price! – a white man – and we stopped the show from coming to Broadway.
EH: It was a big hit in London. Cameron Mackintosh is as big a producer as you could possibly get at that time; he was going to bring it to New York, it was going to be a smash hit. So we went through Actor’s Equity; they would all need to be permitted by Actor’s Equity to bring the London people over. And Colleen Dewhurst was then president of Actor’s Equity and we explained to her our plight. The claim was there were no Asian stars, that’s what Cameron Mackintosh said. And our argument to Colleen and the Actor’s Equity Board, was how can there be an Asian star when we are never even given the opportunity to play the Asian roles?
“…how can there be an Asian star when we are never even given the opportunity to play the Asian roles?”
EH: So I said, you tell me any Asian who’s played ‘The King And I’ and they couldn’t! Because it had never been played by an Asian. And I said it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that there’s no Asian stars if we are never given the opportunity! Not even to audition! We’re not even in the consideration if it’s an Asian lead role; and this was in films also. There were no Asian leading men! The last one was Sessue Hayakawa from way way back; I mean the ’30’s!
SG: Wow! That’s so great. Now, I have a Devil In the Details question which I would like to ask you, and anyone who I get the chance to interview: What do you consider evil in today’s society?
EH: I think evil is any deliberate act of cruelty. It is selfishness and greed. Evil is what you get when you lack empathy and altruism. In our current society I would say that we, as a country, have focused on the wrong things. Money and greed at the expense of everything else. I don’t see how you cannot provide healthcare for everyone and how you cannot protect the environment that we exist in. I don’t understand how you can dismantle environmental protection and not think of your grandchildren down the line. I don’t see how you can believe money will protect you from a totally diseased and totally polluted world. Evil is selfishness and greed.
SG: Very well said, Mr. Harada and thank you so much; this has been not only an honor and a privilege but a real pleasure to be able to call you and speak with you and to ask these questions and you have been so kind and generous with your time.
EH: You are very welcome. Aloha.
This interview took place on April 7th, 2017 Tokyo time, April 6th Honolulu time.
Want to know ALL the witches in the Castevet’s coven? Read our article: All of Them Witches: A “Who’s Who” in Rosemary’s Baby