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Exclusive interview with Don Stroud and his work on Licence to Kill (1989)

By: Mark Cerulli
Don Stroud, Licence to Kill, interview
From Sweden with Love contributor Mark Cerulli, our man in Hollywood, has spoken with American actor Don Stroud about his role as Heller in Licence to Kill (1989) directed by John Glen in an exclusive interview for FSWL.

At 80 Don Stroud is a man at peace, living in his favorite place in the world – Hawaii. “Man, I love it here,” he enthused during a recent Zoom call where he turned the computer around to show his stunning view in the afternoon sun. The Island’s sun and surf have always played a big part in his life – raised in Hawaii, Don began surfing at age 3, calling Waikiki Beach his back yard. Some of the older native Hawaiian surfers, men who usually didn’t warm to outsiders, took the kid under their wing and taught him how to surf. He was a natural, and by 1960 he was ranked 4th in the Duke Kahanamoku World Surfing Championship. His childhood was idyllic - his friends were native islanders, he played bongo drums (“That saved me in high school!”) and practically lived in the island’s lush jungles, way before development cut them back. “They were the best times of my life,” Don recalls fondly.

From The Beach to Bond and Beyond

Every actor looks for a Big Break – some get it, most don’t. Don’s break found him as he was on the beach, a producer of the new ABC series, Hawaiian Eye spotted the big, tanned kid and asked if he knew how to surf. “Why... yes!” Don began doubling for star Troy Donahue. “The closeups of Troy were filmed in the studio,” Don explains, “But the shots of actually surfing were me.” He enjoyed being on set so much, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. His size (6’2”, 200lbs) landed him a bouncer gig at LA’s iconic nightclub Whiskey a Go Go where he saw (and partied with) acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Doors. “Great days, I gotta tell ya!” His bouncing experience would prove helpful in a key role later on...

One club regular was Sidney Poitier and Don told him about his ambitions. In a selfless act, Poitier took him to meet influential agent Dick Clayton who repped the likes of Burt Reynolds and Harrison Ford. Clayton landed him a $300 a week contract with Universal Studios and suddenly Don was a working actor! “I did The Virginian, Marcus Welby MD, The Name of the Game, Barnaby Jones, Cannon,” usually playing a villain. If a series was filmed in Hollywood, chances are, Don was on it!

He made two films with Clint EastwoodCoogan’s Bluff, “It was a great part for a starting actor and the film did really well.” However, Don almost blew his part before the cameras even rolled! “We were all staying at the Essex House (hotel) and I knew Susan Clark from LA so I thought I should bring her flowers. I go up to her room, knock on the door and who answers but Clint Eastwood! I just handed him the flowers and said, ‘Welcome to New York’ and walked away.” He and Eastwood worked well together – including in a fight scene where Eastwood hits him in the face with the stock of a rifle. “We didn’t rehearse, we just did it!”

Clint invited him back for his next film, Joe Kidd. That shoot was tense due to conflicts with director John Sturges. “You could feel it,” Don remembered. Then something unusual happened – “We were all suited up, all the stuntmen and waiting for Clint when we heard a little noise coming, getting louder and louder – and we’re up in the mountains of Montana. Suddenly an ice cream truck shows up – Clint had ordered it! So here we all are, machine guns strapped on, eating ice cream, but it changed the mood.”

Don Stroud, Clint Eastwood, Joe Kidd
Don Stroud with Clint Eastwood in a scene from Joe Kidd. Copyright © 1972 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

Sadly, Don’s success with Clint precluded him from being part of Eastwood’s most famous franchise, Dirty Harry. Lew Wasserman (then head of Universal) wanted Don to play the psycho villain role in Dirty Harry. However, the director, Don Siegel didn’t want to use the same actor in three back-to-back Eastwood films. (The part went to Andy Robinson and proved to be a break-out role for him.)

With all his opportunities came temptations – “Unfortunately I started living the Hollywood life and began drinking a lot, among many other things.” Word got out and the jobs stopped coming. “I wasn’t working and my whole life was working.” He began dabbling in drugs, stopping our interview to issue a stark warning: “Anybody listening, stay away from cocaine!” Fortunately, he found AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), embraced sobriety and was able to pick up the pieces of his career. “Things turned around for me.” One of his best-known roles was as the drummer in The Buddy Holly Story (1978). “I was a half-assed drummer,” Don laughs, “but I had two months to prepare, and I practiced for 12 hours a day on a soundstage by myself and I played that song over and over and over... Gary Busey and I played that song live in the film!”

Before his brush with Bond, Don worked with an alumni of Dr. No (1962) – Jack Lord, making 4 episodes of Hawaii Five-0, a hugely popular American TV series that ran for 12 years. He had such a good relationship with the mercurial star, that he was one of the few guest-stars Lord had lunch with in his dressing room. “He was a friend, he was a good friend,” Don said.

In 1977 Don did an ensemble police film with Charles Durning and Louis Gossett Jr. called The Choirboys, based on a Joseph Wambaugh novel. “I thought that was going to be a blockbuster and it wasn’t.” He attributed that to the studio’s reluctance to shoot on location and instead everything was shot on a soundstage, “And you could tell that it was phony!”

About his work on Licence to Kill

And of course, the role you’ve been waiting for – Heller in 1989’s License to Kill. Don originally was up for another villain role but word came back he didn’t get it. Instead of accepting defeat, Don turned that loss into a win. “So I said, what about the part of ‘Heller’?” He landed it and found himself on Cubby Broccoli’s Lear jet flying down to Mexico to do the film with Timothy Dalton and other cast members. “You’re on jets, riding in limos, you’re doing a James Bond film. Money was no object!” He had the chance to talk with legendary Cubby Broccoli. “He was really a cool guy,” Don enthused. During his time on the film, Don was in the exclusive Bond Club, going out on the town (Mexico City) with Cubby, Michael G. Wilson and John Glen, talking about the story and living large. “I loved those guys, they were really, really great.” He also recalled a good camaraderie with director John Glen, who was helming his 5th and final Bond film. “I liked John very much.” The part of Heller was very familiar territory for Don, “I basically played the bouncer at Whiskey a Go Go!”

He has fond memories of the entire cast, especially the chief villain, Sanchez, Robert Davi. “Robert’s Robert,” Don laughs. “He thinks he’s pretty hot and... he is pretty hot!”

Dalton, making his second and final appearance as 007 also left a positive impression. “He worked hard and was quite a gentleman... I think he did a good job with what he had.” Sadly, there were no epic nights out on the town with 007. “You have to remember, it was a working gig and actors don’t hang out with other actors when you’re working.”

Anthony Zerb (Milton Krest) “did great work on the picture... very good actor” and he remembered a 21-year-old Benicio del Toro (Dario), “Great actor, and man he’s had a good career, hasn’t he?” In summing up LTK, Don said, “The entire shoot was a real privilege - to be part of that class act.”

Don Stroud, Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill
Don Stroud with Timothy Dalton in a scene from Licence to Kill. Copyright © 1989 Danjaq S.A. & United Artists Pictures Limited. All rights reserved.

A real-life hero

Although he played villains on screen, in real life Don is a hero – in 1990, he saw a man being mugged in New York City and jumped in to help. He was stabbed in the face, almost losing an eye and causing partial facial paralysis. “I thought it would really, really ruin my career.” With some skillful surgery, Don was able to resume acting, using his injury to his advantage. “I’d put makeup on, or an eye patch and I was getting these interesting parts, these offbeat parts. I worked for another ten years!”

By 2000, Don was retired and living in Hawaii, catching waves and out of the Hollywood grind... but in 2012 his phone rang. Quentin Tarantino was on the other end, “I have a part for you,” the auteur said, offering Don the role of the Sheriff in Django Unchained. Don jumped at the opportunity. “It was nice to be back in the saddle again, it was like coming home and I got to work with all these great actors - Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz (Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spectre and No Time To Die), Jamie Foxx, and Don Johnson.”

Django Unchained capped an incredible career – over 100 movies and 200 television appearances. Although he’s proud of all his work, he knows making License to Kill was a special experience. “It was a feather in my cap as an actor. You’re in a Bond movie, the whole world is going to see it!”

Don Stroud, Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Christoph Waltz and Don Stroud as the Sheriff in a scene from Django Unchained. Copyright © 2012 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

Written by Mark Cerulli. Copyright © 2023 From Sweden with Love. All rights reserved.



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