The fuzzy memories are all coming back for Phillip Paley, but sometimes it’s still hard for him to talk about his days as America’s favorite monkey-boy.
“It just changes the way people look at you, once people find out that you were Cha-Ka,” the 45-year-old said of his long-gone career as a child actor on the television show “Land of the Lost.” “I don’t tell too many people. But, well, I guess that’s all changing now.”
It’s changing because “Land of the Lost” has been found once more — and Paley, who now works as a litigation support manager at a Santa Monica law firm, is embracing his semi-secret past.
“I’m appreciating all of it now more than ever,” he said.
“Land of the Lost,” of course, was a 1970s children’s show that became famous (or infamous?) for its cheesy charms and low-budget special effects. Now the brand-name is back with the namesake Universal film that hit theaters on Friday. This time there’s a major star (Will Ferrell) and lavish special effects for the re-imagined tale of three human travelers dumped into a mysterious landscape populated with dinosaurs, lizard-men and the Paku, a sort of ape people.
The most memorable of those hirsute Pakunis was Cha-Ka, played by young Paley and, in the new film, revived by “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Jorma Taccone, with a more ribald take on the beast-boy.
The premiere of the film was last week at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and for Paley, who was invited to attend by the producers, it was the first time he had ever walked the Hollywood red carpet. Like so many child actors, Paley’s odyssey shows how ephemeral fame can be. His face was on lunch boxes in the 1970s, but his memorable spot in pop culture history is still one that requires a bit of explaining.
“My fiancée, Marla, was with me and introducing me to the press and spelling my name, so she was my publicist that day,” Paley said. “But everybody spells my first name wrong [with one L]. It was wrong in the credits of the show, believe it or not, and it’s misspelled all over the Internet. That’s just how it goes I guess…”
Born in Los Angeles, Paley was discovered by a talent agent at 11 months old when his mother was pushing him down the street in a stroller, and he appeared in a national television spot for Gerber baby food. Then in 1973, he earned his black belt in karate at the tender age of 9 at the Chuck Norris karate school in Encino, an accomplishment that made him a bit of a celebrity.
“I went on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Chuck and I flipped Johnny Carson,” said Paley, who still has the muscular build of a martial arts enthusiast. “Going on that show at that age and that time, that was like an out-of-body experience. I was on the ‘Flip Wilson Show’ too.”
Paley’s tumbling skills won him a role on the quirky “Land of the Lost,” which was one of the many surreal Saturday morning creations churned out by Sid and Marty Krofft, the brothers behind “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “The Bugaloos.” The original “Land of the Lost” lasted just 43 episodes (there was a short-lived remake in 1991), but it endures as a campy classic in large part because of its lizard-men and the agile little monkey-boy who befriends the wayward explorers and learns to communicate with them.
“On ‘Land of the Lost,’ the stars of the show were the Sleestaks and Cha-Ka, that’s what people remember, that’s what stuck,” Marty Krofft said Friday. “Without Cha-Ka, it’s not the same.”
Paley remembers the three seasons of “Land of the Lost” as if they were chapters in a story that lost its appeal as the pages turned. The first season was all Hollywood magic for the youngster. The second gave him a sense that he was learning the profession even as the work intensified. The third was pure drudgery.
“I was so ready to be done, it was really hard work and all my friends were out doing stuff and I was a guy with a job,” Paley said. “I was getting up every morning, sitting through makeup, working hard.”
Paley’s Cha-Ka was an innocent but impish little ape-boy (think of the “Quest for Fire” people, or a hybrid of Tarzan’s son, Boy, and his pet monkey, Cheetah) and he spoke an invented language; the late UCLA linguistics professor Victoria Frompkin actually created a language and dictionary, which Paley still owns.
After the show ended, Paley’s career as an actor never really took off, and he turned to other vocations, working at one point as a bartender at a restaurant where his boss called him Cha-Ka all day long. Paley started keeping the background a little closer to the vest. He got another Hollywood job as the star of a raunchy 1988 teen comedy called “Beach Balls,” but the “scattered life” of acting no longer appealed to him. Now, though, after watching another Cha-Ka on the big screen and treading on the carpet of a Hollywood premiere, Paley is thinking it might be time to take the plunge again.
He is also working on a book about his child-acting career, and while it will have some tell-all aspects to it, it’s more upbeat and sprinkled with odd trivia, such as the fact that Bill Laimbeer and other basketball stars were brought in to play the towering Sleestaks.
It’s a tough market, though, and Paley may find his memoir doesn’t make it much further than the autograph tables at Comic-Con International for one-hit wonders of pop culture. That’s fine, too, he said, he has no regrets. Well, maybe just one.
“I wish I could have kept that costume. At the time it wasn’t always fun to wear it, but I’m sure glad I got the chance.”
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Phillip Paley photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times. Vintage photos courtesy of the Krofft Brothers.