Richard A. Coyle Interview.
Q. Rich, you’re fairly well known for your props, how did you get into propmaking?
A. Star Wars! If I had not gone to see the first showing of the first Star Wars film I might well be living a non sci-fi, normal life now (the Horror!). What did me in was the flyer on the theater window that we saw on the way out: a flyer for an upcoming Star Trek Convention. A convention with some special guests, one that was a must see for me, my favorite author of all time, Mr. Robert Heinlein. That bit got me totally hooked; I HAD to go to that con. Of course, meeting Walter Koenig, George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney was great, but Robert Heinlein… whoa.
Q. So what happened there?
A. Heaven happened. Two days of sci-fi bliss, a hotel full of fans just like me. Watched Star Trek 16mm films projected on bed sheets. Met George and Walter, fell in love with Grace, and was in awe of Mr. Heinlein. Drooled over the dealer’s room, bought StarLog Magazines and wished I could afford more, learned that there was a whole world of sci-fi out there, learned about hall costuming and masquerades. Saw lots of fans wearing costumes of their heroes. If anything lead to my total downfall, hall costuming was it.
A. I had to join in. With funny luck, I found fliers for other upcoming cons. One was being held within a month, another Star Trek con right here in Phoenix, where I was living at the time. So I made my first hall costume and my first ray gun. I did a childhood hero, one that was simple enough to do in a hurry and on the cheap. I did the TV version of Flash Gordon, the one from the 1950s. A “T” Shirt with a lightning bolt, a wide gun belt, bloused black paints, black beetle boots. And a ray gun
Q. What kind of ray gun was this first one?
A. I took a toy Johnny Eagle Mugumba automatic pistol by Topper Toys, pulled off the slide and replaced it with a rounded CD microphone body. I also cut up a Meco Star Trek Communicator electronics board to get the beeping sound part and hooked it up to the insides of the CD microphone body with an aluminum knob from a 10 turn pot, so I could change the sound. Finally, I added an aluminum radio knob drilled out with a plastic rod and a light on the barrel.
My first prop and it had sound and light effects. I then used the CD microphone’s hanger to make a mystery holster, resembling Star Trek’s, and I was off.
Q. How did it go?
A. Well, I was an instant hit. This was back in 1977, so a working ray gun was totally unheard of. Everyone wanted to play with it. I was even talked into entering the masquerade, and that, initially, seemed to have been a mistake, for when I was introduced to the show, hecklers alone seemed interested. I drew the blaster and fired at them, and that drew applause. The audience loved the fact that I had a firing prop. Props to the rescue, again.
Q. So this led to Hollywood and professional work?
A. Almost. The next year I had a convention planned. This one was bigger, called WorldCon. It was going to be five days, so I geared up and went to work making a new ray gun, one I hoped to sell to help defray the costs of attending.
I enlisted some local fans in doing this. We ran short of time and were barely able to finish a few machine gun bodied ray guns for ourselves, along with creating simple costumes to help “display them.” Again, these ray guns had light and sound effects.
The first indicator of how things were going was when my friend, Chris A. Mathews, found me at the end of the first day, and said I had spoiled his day at the con. That is, he had saved all year to buy neat things at the con, and then found that he was WEARING on his hips the neatest thing at the con, the then-named Beldorn Blasters.
The second was that it took me three full days to see all of the dealers’ room. I kept getting stopped and asked to show the blaster, which was like opening an air lock aboard a space ship: I literally vacuumed anyone within earshot to me. Or, to mix metaphors, I would become land-locked in a churning sea of fans wanting to see and hear my little (but loud!) blaster.
Most of the dealers appreciated my mob gathering abilities, and they were sure were to ask for a demo in front of their table, if things were a little slow.
I was hooked on cons and thought I had a way to do them and pay for them. I would make ray guns, become a dealer and do as many cons as I could. And I started that year, building Beldorn Blasters and working cons.
I even struck a deal with StarLog to sell them Beldorn Blasters, (see issue #43, near the back) but in the time it took for the first ads to come out, my wife of 13 years and I separated, and I moved to LA where I kept working cons.
A lot of these cons were in LA. There I meet Tulio Peroni who was trying to run a group called “ Sci-Fi Consultants” that offered to help sci-fi films get the science in their stories accurate, and he knew a company looking for original style ray guns for film work. This was my introduction to Modern Props. They ordered three versions of my Beldorn Blasters with a few minor changes, primarily to remove all sound effects. THIS was the beginning of my professional prop work for films and TV. I soon realized that I had to consider making and selling props to fans a professional job, more so, as fans tend to expect better finishes than the studios. (Pix 3= Blasters) This was where I worked on my first Star Trek Film “The Wrath of Kahn.” I made the wrist com, boatswain’s whistle and medical scanner used within the film.
Q. So you stayed with “Modern Props”?
A. No, it was piece work. I was renting half of a wood workers shop next door and only getting paid by the job, and, as with all new arrivals in Hollywood, I was underpaid and under worked. I started looking around and found another shop called “The Hand Prop Room” in Culver City, so I assembled my most exciting models and arranged an interview.
Q. How do the job hunt go?
A. Very well. I was demonstrating my props to Mr. John Ramsey when the owner, Mr. Allen Levine, came into the shop, saw all my stuff and excitedly asked, “Who made these?” which is Hollywood-speak for “Is he available?”, and John indicated me. I was promptly hired.
With a steady paycheck my wife and I could rent one of those quant Los Angeles converted garage to apartment deals.
This job only lasted for about 10 months because Hand Props had almost no sci-fi or futuristic style props and most productions were not willing to foot the bill to pay for a totally built up and original prop when they could just go and rent from Modern Props. In an ironic twist, I ended up competing with my own earlier work.
Q. What did you do at Hand Prop Room?
A. The only sci-fi show was the opening of the 2nd Season of “The Greatest American Hero.” This show used a few of my props from Hand Prop Room and some of my earlier work from Modern Props. At the former, I made the new instruction book and got a lot of excitement over being able to hardwire an actual radar detector to read out 113 miles per hour.
At the end of ten months I went independent, and one of the first things I worked on was “Ice Pirates” for Ellis Mercantile. Among others.
When word got out among the various prop shops and film and TV people that I was pretty good at electronics, they kept me busy, steadily sending work my way.
In fact, that was the real secret to my success: electronics. I would first get the job to make what Nicholas Meyers called “winky blinkies,” in Star Trek Two, and then I would sell then on the fact I could also make the housing for them; it was the tail wagging the dog.
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