Retrospace Confidential #2: Hong Kong Phooey
Last September, the True Retrospace Confidential post rocked some readers' worlds. It seems the tawdry information compiled on The Great Gazoo was just a little too raw for the reading audience. But journalists don't turn a blind eye to the truth when the truth isn't pretty. In the grand tradition of The E! True Hollywood Story and VH1's Behind the Music, this series of posts will bring you the harsh reality, warts and all. Stories should never be candy coated for mass consumption, and this exposé is no exception.
This is a tale that is well familiar to those in the acting business: you pretend to be a character so well, that you eventually become that character. The line between the actor and the part he plays becomes blurred. In this case, the line between Penrod Pooch, the actor, and Hong Kong Phooey, the part he played, was not only blurred, but erased altogether.
Prior to the role he is known best for, Penrod paid his dues playing second fiddle to small time lounge acts like the Pease Door Industries Singers shown below. In this rare photograph you can make out a young Penrose at the lower right.
It wasn't until the posse from "The CB Bears Show" noticed Penrose (or "Penry" as he was often called) doing a comedy routine at a Sunset Blvd. strip joint, and recommended him for the part of Hong Kong Phooey. And for the first few months of taping, things couldn't have gone better.
The trouble really started to become noticeable midway through the 1974 season. There was speculation that his trailer had become a hotbed for drug use and wild sex. His costar, Rosemary, said in Rolling Stone, that "the smell of marijuana from his trailer was unmistakable..... He would blare Foghat so that we wouldn't hear the moaning and screaming, but we still could."
It all became public on July 12, 1974, when Penrose was caught with a 16 year old in the changing room at an Encino shopping mall.
The judge gave him a slap on the wrist, and Penrose was back to his old ways as soon as he left the courthouse. It's rumored that none other than Bob Crane paid his bail.
Veteran actor, Sergeant Flint, tried to intervene, but it was to no avail. Said Flint: "I'd seen it a million times before. You play this superman, this character that's larger than life, and eventually you start to believe that you're indestructible. I'd seen it with McQueen and I'd seen it with Elvis.... and we're seeing it today being played out by Charlie Sheen But, just like with Sheen, nothing I said got through to him."
In October of '74, a piece came out in the LA Times that Penrose had actually begun hanging around with Saudi billionaires. The sheiks had everything money could buy.... except street cred in Hollywood. They wanted the inroad to the Hollywood high life, and Penrose was more than happy to give it to them.... at a price. The LA Times article alleged that the Saudis supplied him with a seemingly endless supply of loose women and cocaine.
As the year came to close, one of the most bizarre actions ever played out in Hollywood began to take place. Residence near Plummer park awoke one chilly December morning to the sounds of jackhammers. Penrose was using Saudi funds to construct a massive 4 story monolith dedicated to himself!
Ed Asner, then president of the Screen Actors Guilde, had this to say: "It was an affront to everyone who calls himself or herself an actor - whether it be a big budget film or local theater house. This made a mockery of our profession. I mean, Jesus Christ, he hadn't even had his star on the Walk of Fame yet, and he's building a f***ing monolith?!!"
Granted, the giant structure did bring plenty of tourists, but the shame hurt worse than the extra revenue could compensate for. Penrose had officially been blackballed by the Hollywood establishment.... and no amount of money could ever buy his way back in.
Hong Kong Phooey was cancelled after only one season. Despite the high ratings, the show was quickly replaced by The Bionic Three Stooges and Penrose found himself looking for work. Unfortunately, the Plummer Park incident had labeled him a egomaniac and a disgrace to the acting profession. And the Saudis turned out to be no more than fair weather friends - when Penrose could no longer get them in at Studio 54 or backstage at the Roxy, they dropped him like yesterday's news.
His last film was a little known B grade movie called "Death of a Hooker". His co-star, Sam Waterston, has said that Penrose rarely talked while on the set. "Every once and a while you'd get that old glimmer from his Hong Kong Phooey days," Waterston recalls. "But, you could tell this was a dog on his last leg. The flame had gone out. He mostly mumbled through his lines, and he'd gotten severely out of shape."
Before "Death of a Hooker" could make it to VHS, Penrose had died. A neighbor found him in his bed, ironically, with a dead hooker. They had been freebasing and did not know the cocaine had been laced with Levamisole.
At his funeral, Elton John sung a the Hong Kong Phooey theme song (some speculate he was paid by Penrose's former friends, the Saudis); but his death went largely unnoticed. The life of Penrose Pooch should be a cautionary tale to any young actor being swept away by fame. He shall be missed.