Ron Pinkard article from the Rocky Mountain News
submitted by Jeff Blecha


He's had drinks with Sean Connery and Jack Webb. He's been to the Planet of the Apes. He's worked as a brave police detective. He' s performed open heart surgery and been murdered at least once.
Now he's your public servant.

Ron Pinkard, deputy director of the Denver Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, is better known as Dr. Mike Morton on Emergency or Detective Sergeant Dodson on General Hospital. He walked away from 25 years as a TV and film actor to work for his boyhood buddy, Wellington Webb.

``I wouldn't say we were backslapping buddies, now,'' says Pinkard. ``But Wellington and I knew and respected each other.''

It's Pinkard's job to act as liaison with the film and TV production companies that want to shoot in Denver. He's perfect for the job because he's heard every story, excuse and lie a director or producer can invent. He's a hard sell, the last man to be impressed by Hollywood glamour.

``Don't buy me lunch. I've spent almost 30 years having lunch on film sets,'' says Pinkard. ``I don't want to meet any stars. I've met enough. If you film in my city just tell me where you want to be, when you're going to be there and when you're going to leave and don't lie about it. That's all I ask.''

Pinkard sounds tough, and it isn't acting. Aside from his acting career, he's a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He's also seen plenty of active duty, and thinks of himself as a Navy officer who also happened to star in a couple of major TV series.

Like Mayor Webb, Pinkard grew up in northwest Denver, attending Whittier Elementary School, Cole Jr. High and Manual High School. After high school he spent four years in the Navy as a medical corpsman, then enrolled in pre-med at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Then he took a drama class.

``I did it just to get away from the science for a bit,'' says Pinkard. ``And I found I was very comfortable and enjoyed it a lot. So I auditioned for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and was awarded a scholarship. It was just a wonderful experience.''

In 1967, with drama degree in hand, Pinkard went to Hollywood. He thought he had a connection.
``In the Navy, I was stationed at Long Beach Naval Station,'' he recalls. ``One day Raymond Burr showed up filming an episode of the original Perry Mason series. They needed a Navy ambulance to pull up to a submarine. I had a Navy driver's license and driving an ambulance was part of my job, so I volunteered. When they gave me the signal I popped on the cherry and turned on the loud old siren and blew the scene. They were in dialogue, and I ruined the take with all that noise. But Raymond Burr was very, very nice about it.''

An acquaintance at Universal's publicity department got Pinkard on the set of Ironside. With the courage of a true believer, Pinkard knocked on the door of Raymond Burr's trailer.

``I spent an hour trying to explain who I was between his scenes, '' says Pinkard. ``He said he remembered me, but I don't think he did, he was just being kind. But he offered me a job as a gofer for one season. He wouldn't allow me to act. He said just help out and watch and learn how the business works.''

After months of careful observation on the Ironside set, Pinkard went out on his own. His first job was a bit part as a cop on Dragnet.

``It was a one-liner, and that's the hardest job an actor has to do,'' says Pinkard. ``If you can sell it and sell it sincerely, not hit too low but not go over the top, then you're a good actor. It takes a lot of concentration, especially if you want to do it in one take. I got quite a good reputation doing one liners.''
Indeed, on Quincy, Adam 12 (where he played a corpse), The FBI, Matlock, Knight Rider, Matt Houston, The White Shadow and a couple dozen other shows, Pinkard worked his way up in the business. As a black actor he was proud to play professional men instead of robbers and junkies. Of course he did torture monkeys in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but no one's perfect.

Pinkard's big break came when Jack Webb cast him for a one-day shoot for the pilot of a series about paramedics and an ER team called Emergency.

``I was supposed to help Robert Fuller in an operating room scene, '' says Pinkard. ``They didn't realize how much I knew. After my Navy training twirling instruments around and using bloody sponges was natural. So when they said ``Action,'' I just went into it like I was treating a patient in crisis. It sold the scene and that one-day job turned into eight years as Dr. Mike Morton.''

The star of Emergency was Fuller as Dr. Kelly Brackett, a sanctimonious, patronizing character that would shamelessly condescend to Pinkard' s Morton, saying things like ``You'll be a fine doctor someday, Mike.' '

``The most difficult part was avoiding tokenism,'' says Pinkard. ``I strove to show a black physician with a professional attitude, with some integrity. And Emergency was ahead of its time. We had an Hispanic in the cast, Marco Lopez, and an American Indian, Randy Mantooth.''

Working with Jack Webb was no picnic.

``Anyone who says he was a lovely, sweet guy did not know Jack Webb,'' says Pinkard. ``He was exactly as he presented himself, Joe Friday on Dragnet, his character in the movie The D.I. I saw him berate actors to the point they would break down and cry. When he gave you a direction, you had to do it exactly the way he did it. He'd say `Here's how you do it, pal.' It wasn't the best acting in the world, but he had a formula and it worked.''

With his high visibility as Dr. Morton, the U.S. Navy decided Pinkard could be an asset. On July 4, 1976 he was commissioned an officer on board the USS Constellation. His witness was fellow actor / naval officer Jackie Cooper. His reserve duties were with the Navy's Hollywood Liaison Office. Most actors assigned there just did public appearances, but Pinkard loved hands-on work. He acted as an adviser to various TV series, and in a move that made headlines withdrew Navy cooperation from the series Supercarrier when he felt the service wasn't being treated with proper respect. The show included on-board love affairs and cocaine use.

``I told them to go build their own aircraft carrier,'' he laughs.

Pinkard also served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild.

``I was a fighter,'' he says. ``We'd picket Universal, asking for equality. Jews didn't always have to play Holocaust victims, blacks didn't have to be hookers and pimps, Hispanics didn't have to be Taco Bell. That was a bad time in the film industry for minorities. It still isn't that great.''

When Emergency was canceled, Pinkard went on to five years as a detective on the soap General Hospital. After that, he'd split his time between acting and active duty. The Navy made him logistics officer on the set of The Hunt for Red October. He became friends with Sean Connery and ended up acting in a small role. He also was Navy liaison to Flight of the Intruder.

When Wellington Webb became mayor of Denver he asked Pinkard if he could use his influence with Raymond Burr. After shooting some Perry Mason movies in Denver, Mason and his production company Viacom relocated in Canada, and Webb wanted them back. Pinkard talked with his old friend Burr. Perry Mason came back to Denver, and Pinkard applied for a job with Webb's administration.

``Raymond brought $40 million to this community single handed,' ' says Pinkard. ``He was proud of me, working with the city, and we gave him full cooperation. That led to the Father Dowling series and Diagnosis Murder with Viacom. We were very busy.''

When Pinkard joined the new Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film as liaison to the film and TV community, he discovered there were no ordinances on the books that governed TV and filmmaking on Denver streets. It wasn't clear that it was even a legal activity. His first weeks were spent writing those regulations.

Now, in order to film in Denver there's a mandatory $1 million in liability insurance that a company must carry. Filming permits are free, but how much cooperation you get from the city depends on Pinkard.
``We read all the scripts in advance,'' he says. ``We don't practice censorship, but based on a script we can decide to give full or minimal or no cooperation. I read the script and give one to the Manager of Safety and one to the chief of police to see if it gives them heartburn. If our police are being represented in the worst possible way, or someone wants to blow up the 16th Street Mall, I'll say the hell with you, take this movie to Chicago.''

Features such as Switchback and Stephen Seagal's Dark Territory got full cooperation. There were initial problems with the script of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, but Pinkard says he worked it out with the producers.

``We have a new picture coming in, I can't say what, but it's a good sized Hollywood movie,'' says Pinkard. ``They need some city buses, interiors at the police station, a lock up cell, things like that. Since we like the project we can provide these locations at no cost. That's the incentive for producers. It saves them a lot of money to work here.''

And they spend money here, too. During Pinkard's first year film companies spent only $7 million in Denver. Last fiscal year the figure was $37 million.

Pinkard says Hollywood money and glamour is great, but what we really need is to develop and support our own independent filmmaking community. To that end he gives locals all the breaks he can, and even helped organize an evening of independent film screenings in City Park a couple years ago. Last year eight independent features were shot in Denver.

``I really take pride in the small stuff,'' he says. ``Having Stephen Seagal or Danny Glover in town is nice, but having the Denver International Film Festival and active local artists, that's what's really valuable."

Copyright © 1998, Denver Publishing Co.


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