A Mighty Morphin Oral History: The Original ‘Power Rangers’ Cast Speaks
It began, as most great tales do, with a 10,000-year-old space witch who’d been mistakenly set free from a buried dumpster.
For millennia, the universe was safe from the entombed Rita Repulsa and her crusade for dominion, but in an instant, Earth (more specifically: Angel Grove, California) became susceptible to the villain’s seizure.
Sensing doom would follow, an enchanted sage named Zordon sprang into action and commissioned his bumbling robot assistant to scout for five teens stalwart enough to serve as the planet’s protectors. A collection of skin-obscuring spandex suits later, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers were in full swing, and dedicated themselves to staving off Rita’s many goons without letting their GPAs sink.
The heroes’ identities would stay secret to classmates and parents, but where millions of captive, adolescent TV-viewers were concerned, Jason, Kimberly, Zach, Trini and Billy were unmistakable.
Quickly upon its summer 1993 debut on FOX, Haim Saban’s and Shuki Levi’s series — which paired scenes filmed with American actors against souped-up battle sequences borrowed from Japan’s Super Sentai — enchanted young fans. The first season alone cranked out 60 episodes in only nine months, and by the time the Power Rangers Season 1 finale aired in May 1994, a phenomenon had taken shape. Soon there were trading cards to collect, toy conventions to swarm and even a movie with national distribution to screen on a muggy summer day. “It’s morphin’ time!” was suddenly as ubiquitous an observation as “It’s noon.”
Twenty-three years after its stateside premiere, Power Rangers has undergone 19 transformations (the franchise’s 20th installment, Power Rangers: Ninja Steel will premiere next year on Nickelodeon) and cast Elizabeth Banks and Bryan Cranston for a 2017 reboot film. The Rangers have, indeed, gone Hollywood. Still, the story’s fundamental totems — discipline, the quest for peace — haven’t wavered. As far as longtime fans are concerned, the mold, while now available in HD, has remained unbroken.
Mighty Morphin’ Origins
Amy Jo Johnson had moved to Los Angeles less than a year before she booked the role of Kimberly, the Rangers’ requisite ditz-with-a-heart-of-gold. Rather than hound agents for representation, she sought out student films and workshops to get her Hollywood feet wet. It just so happened that Kate Wallace’s commercial class accelerated the process — Wallace, who knew Johnson was a gymnast, encouraged her to audition for the role.
Saban was looking for skilled athletes, Johnson noted, and after filming the pilot, the train was in motion.
“I had no idea what I was doing, neither did anybody else — all of us actors,” Johnson joked. “We had this whole year of shooting the series and not knowing if it was going to be popular — really not thinking it would be, because it seemed like it was gonna be some cheesy little TV show where half the footage was Japanese and half the footage was us. So when it first aired, it was a real shock, I think, to everybody.”
Her sometimes-clueless affectation considered, Kimberly was fearless, and Johnson, whose stunt work on the show included flips that would make a pinwheel dizzy, is proud (if not still a little surprised) to have played her.
“When they cast me, I pictured her as somebody else, and I was like, ‘Oh, really, me?’” she recalled. “Because I’d never thought of myself as ditzy, I thought of myself as really naive.”
David Yost, too, was thrown off by which character producers saw as his best match.
He originally gunned for Jason, the group’s no-nonsense leader, but learned to adapt to Billy, the resourceful nerd, instead. An average student, Yost couldn’t identify with Billy’s genius — the character was a tech wizard with a flying car. So, he treated the audition like a personal test.
“I greased my hair down, put on a pair of glasses and wore my shirt buttoned wrong and played into it a little bit and made the character somewhat goofy,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be an actor and be able to create characters, and I looked at Billy as a character instead of playing something really close to myself.”
It worked, and Yost was ultimately cast alongside a group of fellow nonunion actors. At first, he said it made sense that Billy was the Rangers’ outsider — the other characters were avowed athletes for whom competition came first. Still, it was important to Yost that the character had the potential to evolve, and that the tropey communication gap between Billy and his friends would ultimately close.
“It’s funny that Billy’s friends didn’t understand him, but that joke can only be played for so many episodes,” Yost said. “I thought ‘Wow, that has to be frustrating as a human being to not have even your friends understand what you’re saying.’…I wanted him to be relatable to the audience.”
Yost added he had to sometimes sublimate his own naturally confident inclinations to keep status quo around set.
“I can remember when I was first cast, and we were training in martial arts before we started filming, I started getting pretty good, and I remember Saban coming in and being really upset because he thought I looked too good,” he said. “He didn’t want my character to look good. When I saw him get angry it kind of put the fear of God in me — I was like: Oh, s–t, I don’t want to piss him off.”
Carla Perez, then 21, originally caught Levi’s eye for a movie he’d been working on. The role ultimately went to someone else, but after inviting Perez to test for a different part —the evil Rita — he knew he’d found the Rangers‘ consummate bad guy.
Rita had originally been played Machiko Soga in Japan, whose image is still plastered on the show’s opening sequence.
“Before I went into the room, he had me watch these videos of a Japanese actress,” Perez said. “I remember seeing it like ‘What?! Are you serious? This is the character I remind you of?’ I was fairly new and this woman is a lot older than me.”
Still, with the right makeup and a hulking costume that included a 10-pound headpiece and mile-wide breastplate, Perez eventually found her inner-villainy. And while the look was all Perez’s, Rita’s voice belonged to character actor Barbara Goodson. Goodson had dubbed over Soga’s original footage, and Perez said she got the impression the show’s creators wanted to stick with it for the sake of continuity.
Either way, Perez said she could sometimes very closely identify with Rita’s plight.
“That costume was crazy,” she said. “As long as I got to rest without the helmet, it was fine. It just takes a toll on you, so those lines where I was like ‘I have a headache!’ it came from something and I’m pretty sure it came from that.”
And Rita’s constant gag headaches were a very crucial part of her appeal, Perez said. Yes, the actress wanted to evoke a sinister quality, but one that was balanced by levity, too.
“She was evil, obviously, but I didn’t see her as someone who was so frightening,” Perez said. “She had a likable aspect to her — the part where she was humorous in her ways, so I always tried to expand on that. I wanted to make her evil in a way that she can’t help but like her.”
With the success of the show came the dissolution of anonymity. Press tours, conventions and TV interviews thrust the young actors into the spotlight without the luxury of progressive fame. It was fun, Johnson noted, but it also came at a cost: her very first big-time fan engagement event incited anxiety that took a long while to manage.
In the ensuing decades, though, Johnson’s learned to embrace the following. She just attended her very first Comic-Con earlier this year, and was met with a type of love that mollified her fears.
“In the early ‘90s there was no internet really or social media, so it scared me more than it does now,” she said. “It’s sort of a way of life now. People just have more of an opportunity to connect with people they admire. But I really went in digging my heels for a long time. I was doing Flashpoint was when I got my Twitter account, and it just sat there for two years before I even touched it.”
Yost, who’s still routinely recognized, understood his life would change with any sort of success in the TV industry. Still, that many fans’ connection to the show will not wane with time has been surprising, he said.
“When the show was in its prime we couldn’t go to the grocery store or the mall without being recognized, which was fine,” he said. “As time goes on, I get older, I look different. I still get recognized every day at least by one person who’s like ‘Oh, my god, you’re that guy!’ And that’s cool. But in terms of meeting fans, it’s been awesome because all the people who loved us when they were children are now in their 20s or 30s and it’s just been really humbling to listen to people tell us how Power Rangers influenced their lives so much. Its crazy for me to think a TV show that I was involved with had such an impact on people.”
The experience of fame has sort of worked inversely for Perez. Years ago, without Rita’s costume or makeup, she could pass for a civilian. But now that she’s begun to embrace her old role, closet fans have come out of the woodwork, and she’s only recently experienced residual celebrity. She was nearly bowled over by admirers at a recent Villains Con, she said.
“With me, I would say at the beginning, I didn’t realize there was a big fan base,” she said. “At the time, it was for the good guys, because our fan base was children. Now, I believe I have more fans than I did back then because everyone’s grown up and the meanies aren’t so bad anymore. I get really interesting groups that are into villains, they love villains. I would have never known it existed, but it does. It’s wonderful.”
All things considered, the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie, which hit theaters in 1995, was a success. It grossed $70 million on a $15 million budget, holds a 50 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was enough to convince 20th Century Fox to commission a 1997 sequel called Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.
Still, now that Lionsgate has acquired the rights to a reboot that boasts a $120 million budget and some serious A-list talent, the stakes are unprecedentedly high. Johnson said the original cast couldn’t have conceived of the newly ballooning hype.
“The casting seems to be quite spectacular. Huge names!” she said. “When we were doing our movie, they kept trying to get a big name to play Zordon, but they couldn’t. I wish them all luck and I hope it lives up to everybody’s expectations, because I think people are really excited.”
And as far as Zordon’s concerned, Yost admitted he isn’t too thrilled with Cranston’s casting. In a 2009 interview with IGN, Cranston, who voiced a number of the Power Rangers’ original villains, said the Billy character was effeminate and insinuated he was gay.
Yost, who said in a 2010 interview with No Pink Spandex that he ultimately left the show after being allegedly harassed for being gay by crew members, has since lost respect for the actor.
Still, Yost said it won’t chip away at his excitement for the new film.
“That’s his issue and my issue I guess and that’s all there is to it,” Yost said. “I can respect Mr. Cranston as an actor. I think he’s a fine actor. He’s probably a good choice for Zordon. On a personal level, I’m not a fan.”
“It doesn’t change me wanting to see the film and it doesn’t change me thinking anything about the film,” he added.
Perez, who’ll watch Banks tackle Rita on the big screen, said she’s excited to see Banks add a new dimension to the iconic witch.
“I cannot wait to see what Elizabeth Banks does with Rita,” Perez said. “I hope it’s different. I want it to be a little different. I hope she keeps her evil, yes, but also a humor quality. That’s the appeal of Rita, is you can’t help but laugh at her. As long as she keeps that, she’s gonna do a very good job.”
Still, Perez won’t lie about having had a few initial reservations surrounding Rita’s completely changed look: a green bodysuit lousy with spines and sharp edges.
“When I first saw it, I was seriously expecting like a Rita costume, obviously not exactly — maybe more modern,” she said. “Everything threw me off.”
Still, Perez is confident the context will come, and that Rita might even have additional, more identifiable looks.
A Fallen Hero
Look to any former Ranger actor’s Instagram feed, Twitter account or Facebook page and it’ll be clear: The crew is, once again, completely united. Still, where six warriors once stood, fans are reminded that there remain only five.
In 2001, Thuy Trang, who played Yellow Ranger Trini Kwan, died in a car accident on a stretch of highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As Trini,Trang played the Rangers’ champion of discipline and resolve, qualities not at all unfamiliar to the actress, herself.
Born in 1973, Trang and her family were forced to flee their native South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, and boarded a cargo ship ultimately destined for the United States. Two-year-old Trang nearly died during the journey — her mother had to repeatedly plead with other passengers who were intent on tossing the child off the crowded vessel to spare her. The journey wasn’t in vain, though, and Trang eventually earned a scholarship to study civil engineering at the University of California before chasing her dreams of acting, instead.
Johnson, who spoke at Trang’s memorial service, said her late friend would have been thrilled by the prospect of the original Rangers story resurfacing. And as far as Johnson’s concerned, Hollywood was unjustly denied a rising star.
“Me and Thuy were very close and had many funny adventures together,” she said. “Sometimes I go back and I watch some of the episodes because I’d never watched them before — she was really good! I didn’t realize that at the time. She had a real spark. She had something special. It’s a real shame.”
Yost added that sometimes, when he’s sorting through old set relics and photographs, he’s struck by how beautiful Trang was — her energy was twice as arresting.
“She had the most amazing hair — always brushing it, always putting hairspray in it,” he said. “I just remember her laugh. That’s the one thing I remember the most — the most infectious little laugh. It sucks when we lose people, but she would be having a lot of fun with us if she was here. I bet she’d be having so much fun with us right now.”
The Rangers have survived Rita, relentless copycat projects and a leap to cable TV — how? Nearly a quarter-century after the show’s premiere, Perez says Power Rangers pioneered the idea that adventures didn’t have to be rooted in fantasy — sometimes, they were most appealing when they unfolded inside a classroom or food court.
“The only way I can explain it is it was just a different kind of children’s show,” she said. “It empowered children and taught them that you can be a hero no matter how young you are. It wasn’t a cartoon — it was live people, you could see their faces.”
“That’s why I think it took off and still continues to take off, is because it’s a children’s show, but it’s treated so seriously and it’s presented so seriously,” she added. “All the issues, and every time they have a show, when I’ve seen it, they seem to integrate the pop culture of today. Kids are worried about that stuff, too, so when they have a story line of their own and they can follow it, I think that’s how it relates to children; it includes them.”
Johnson’s a little less sure of how to explain the phenomenon. It’s been encouraging, but almost inexplicable, she said.
“I’ve cried and had goosebumps from so many stories of people and their lives and how Power Rangers have touched them,” she said. “It’s been really overwhelming and kind of awesome to get to know all these people.”
“Honestly, I don’t know because — I’m trying to think if there’s something that I love as much as the people I’ve met love the whole entire Power Rangers series,” she added. “I don’t know if I do, besides my daughter. I find it fascinating.”
Yost said the following has unexpectedly connected him to a sense of humanity, and added he feels a certain responsibility to act morally to validate his fans’ investment in Billy’s goodwill.
“We hear stories about people being in bad, broken, abusive homes but their one saving grace was they would watch Power Rangers every day and that gave them hope,” he said. “That took away their pain. That taught them morals. That taught them principles. That got them into martial arts. That kept them away from drugs. That kept them on the right path. It’s just so mind-boggling to me.”
“I feel like I have to be a better person now, knowing that,” he added. “When people tell me that, I want to always be the best person that I can be…to listen to their stories and always make sure they’re proud of who they are.”
And that Yost helped self-professed nerds find heroic alter-egos is a very proud feather in his cap.
“I think a lot more people would be open to admitting that they relate to Billy if the show premiered today,” he said. “Back in the day, it was sort of like ‘Oh, I don’t want to be considered the nerd.’…Maybe Billy would finally get a lot of the recognition that he deserved. He really saved the Rangers so many times.”
“I just really liked to see all the different girlfriends Billy had, that was fun,” he added of Billy’s legacy. “It’s just interesting that his character — he got around a bit.”
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