- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - This is a tale of passion, talent, perseverance, foam rubber and William Shatner.

Also - and perhaps most important - this is a tale of the Gorn.

When I decided to tell this tale, I was not planning to become a Gorn. Really.

I had not intended to squirm into a skintight latex lizard suit, don a blinding and suffocating rubber head, and stalk clumsily through the hallways of the Pink Palace.

Would Woodward or Bernstein dress up as a Gorn for a story? No.

On the other hand, Dave Barry sure as heck would. So would Stephen Colbert, in a Warp Factor Five heartbeat.

So who was I to say no? As an editor and a photographer both said to me, with the slightly sadistic tone of voice that demonstrates that peer pressure never ends: You know you want to.

The Gorn, as many of you know and most of you don’t, is the 6-foot grunting green alien monster that battled Shatner’s Captain Kirk on a rocky desert planet in the classic first-season episode of “Star Trek” titled “The Arena,” which made its television debut on Jan. 19, 1967.

This means that the Gorn celebrates his 50th birthday Thursday, which makes this a good time to talk about Tony Hardy, the Memphis man who resurrected the Gorn.

Hardy, 57, is manager of the CTI 3D Giant Theater at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. He’s a lifelong science-fiction enthusiast whose museum office is crowded with vintage as well as replica props from “Jurassic Park,” ”Star Wars,” ”The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and other movies and TV programs.

In 1962, Hardy, who grew up in Louisville, attended a reissue of Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” ”It blew my mind,” he said. “I’ve never been the same since.”

His young mind was blown again when “Star Trek” premiered in 1966 on NBC.

“I watched 'Star Trek' from the get-go,” he said. “We were one of the first families in my neighborhood to have an RCA color console TV. What a revelation it was to see something in color.”

Especially something like “Star Trek,” with its bright red and blue and yellow Starfleet uniforms, its avocado-hued Orion slave girl, its silver-haired salt vampire and, of course, its frog-green Gorn.

A creative and artistic child of the Space Age, Hardy never lost his sci-fi high. He became an active collector of vintage props; he befriended movie industry professionals (including makeup artist Greg Nicotero of “The Walking Dead”); and he learned to create “screen-accurate” models and makeup effects.

For years, Hardy had toyed with the idea of making a Gorn mask from scratch, as other fans have done. But in 2012, he acquired something truly rare that had been discovered at the old Don Post Studios in Hollywood and that gave unprecedented legitimacy to his Gorn plans: a latex rubber 1966 “safety casting” of the original Gorn head, manufactured as a backup in case of a Gorn emergency.

Originally, the Gorn was created for “Star Trek” by the late Honolulu-born artist Wah Chang and his Hollywood effects company, Project Unlimited. (Chang also designed and built the “tricorders” and “communicators” used on “Star Trek,” as well as the title object in the 1960 classic “The Time Machine.”)

At the time, two Gorn suits were built, one to brawl with Shatner on location at the Vasquez Rocks national park near Los Angeles, the other to appear solo in footage shot by a second-unit crew.

Since then, the Gorn’s body parts pretty much have vanished. The only known surviving original Gorn head is owned by Ben Stiller, who bought it at auction in 2006 for a reported $27,500.

But from his safety casting, Hardy was able to cast an “authentic” Gorn head that essentially exactly matched the 1966 originals, especially after he added the fly-like eyes (actually, inexpensive hobby beads) and fearsome choppers (actually, coyote teeth).

Hardy shared the news of his achievement with his friend, Mike Scott, an artist and prop maker who works for Acme Design in Elgin, Illinois. As one does when one has a buddy who is in possession of a Gorn head, Scott immediately replied: “Hey, let’s go to Vasquez Rocks and take the head!”

Even in a state of decapitation, the return of a picture-perfect Gorn mask to the original “Arena” location caused a stir, especially after photo evidence of the 2012 Vasquez Rocks pilgrimage was posted on social media.

In 2013, Hardy was hired by a Las Vegas auto show promoter to create a full Gorn suit for a car convention for science-fiction and comic-book fans. The suit was intended to be used in a TV commercial in which Shatner, driving through the desert in a convertible, would come across a hitch-hiking Gorn. The ad was never shot, but Hardy made the suit and sold it to the auto show.

Because Hardy didn’t have copies of the original molds for the Gorn’s body, feet and hands, those elements were adapted from body suits and commercially available monster appendages. For reference, Hardy used high-definition images captured from the “Star Trek” Blu-rays, to ensure everything was sculpted and painted to be as “screen-accurate” as possible.

The Gorn’s signature tunic and gauntlets were created by another of Hardy’s friends, Bill Early of Cannelton, Indiana, an industrial electrician and science-fiction hobbyist who “learned my way around a sewing machine” while working in the parachute shop during a stint with the Air Force.

Early said finding material that matched the “shimmery, supple, oily good look” of the Gorn tunic was a challenge. “You can’t just go buy that material off the rack.” In a painstaking process, he added the somewhat Flintstone-like dye pattern of the Gorn uniform to the fabric by hand.

Of course, nobody makes just one Gorn suit, so in 2014 Hardy made a second, with Early supplying another tunic. A year later, Hardy and Scott returned to Vasquez Rocks, where they were met by other “Trek” fans, including some Industrial Light & Magic professionals, many wearing Starfleet uniforms so they could “fight” the Gorn.

“A lot of people who work in the industry are some of the biggest nerds of all,” Hardy said. “They geek out - ‘It’s the Gorn!’ “. (And in case you’re wondering how you get a Gorn suit through airport security, the answer is: You don’t. You ship it ahead.)

At the rocks, Scott wore the full Gorn suit. (Hardy, who is not skinny, won’t fit inside his signature creation.) “Even as a kid, I liked being the monster,” said Scott, 55. “It’s constricting and its hot but it’s totally worth it. I’d do it again.” (He admitted he occasionally had to stop, remove the head, “and find some shade and drink some Gatorade” - or, as it should be called in this case, “gator aid.”)

Early also donned the Gorn suit, in 2014, when he met up with Hardy at Wonderfest, an annual Louisville genre convention. “I work in a steel foundry, so I’m used to the heat,” he said of the stifling costume. “It’s such an iconic figure, when you put on the costume it’s hard not to get into character. You make the snarl, the snarfling kinds of sound. You think about what it’s like to be able to tear Captain Kirk into two pieces and then nosh on the halves.”

Like a man-sized snakeskin, the Gorn suit lay empty from 2015 to Wednesday, when it ingested a third victim: me.

Or, as I said Tuesday: Here today, Gorn tomorrow.

As readers may have noticed, The Commercial Appeal has begun to add videos to the stories posted to the newspaper’s online edition. So when they heard about the Gorn, it was inevitable that sports/features editor David Williams and videographer Mike Brown would “suggest” I put on the suit.

I reacted with mixed emotions. I felt torn between the fear of professional humiliation and the yearning to be a ham, stoked by a childhood of classroom-disrupting clownery and high-school comedy-skit participation. Also, because I’m not exactly built to movie stunt man proportions, I worried I would look insufficiently “Gorny” (“Not an adjective I expected to hear today,” said Brown).

But the reality is this: I’ve been humiliated many times, but I’ve never been Gorn for a Day. So with Hardy acting as a sort of sci-fi valet, I squeezed my way into the sculpted musculature, claws and headpiece of the alien.

The body suit was comfortably snug, but without my glasses and with no way to see except except through the slit of the Gorn mouth, with its picket fence of coyote teeth, I was more or less blind. My voice was muffled, which was just as well, because I kept thinking of yet more puns: “Gorn Free.” ”Gorn to Run.” ”Gorn with the Wind.” ”There’s a sucker Gorn every minute.” (Particularly apropos in this case.)

Unfortunately, no school groups were touring the Pink Palace, so we encountered only a few random tourists as the Gorn wobbled - like a Black Lagoon creature with a case of the bends - past the similarly toothy animal skulls and similarly gruesome shrunken head in the museum’s exhibit cases.

In “Arena,” after Captain Kirk gets his first glimpse of the Gorn’s crocodilian jaws, grasping talons and glittering multifacted eyes, he admits - in classic “Star Trek” fashion - to a sort of racial prejudice: “Like most humans, I seem to have an instinctive revulsion to reptiles.”

But as I tottered past, people at the Pink Palace weren’t revolted. Instead, they laughed.

“Is that a Sleestak?” one museum-goer asked, referring to the lizard-people from the 1970s Saturday morning program “Land of the Lost,” while Hardy bristled.

Hardy, for his part, seemed happy to show off his work. “A lot of people will say, ‘Well, gee, why did you do all this?’ It’s just that childhood passion. It’s odd but it’s fun.”

Meanwhile, as I stood encased like a Gorn sausage, wearing a fixed Gorn grin and swaying on knobby Gorn feet, I remembered the words uttered by movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) in a most un-“Star Trek”-like movie titled “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Asked the secret to his career longevity, Lockwood offers this reply: “Dignity, always dignity.”

___

Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com

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