The Strange, True Story Of The Guy Who Played Godzilla 12 Times
Sweating in a 220-pound suit.
Connery played Bond six times. Tom Baker was The Doctor for seven years. Hell, Dan Castellaneta has been voicing Homer Simpson for nearly three decades. But perhaps no actor has enjoyed a stranger longevity than Haruo Nakajima’s commitment to Godzilla.
The story starts in 1954, when the actor was offered a role in something known only as “Project G.” Nobody could tell Nakajima much about the part. Any questions, they said, should be aimed at the special effects director (and future superstar) Eiji Tsuburaya.
But when Nakajima questioned the SFX guru, that guy didn’t have many answers, either. The actor recalls that Tsuburaya produced a few photos of the film’s storyboard, then said, “We’ve come up with the character, but I’m not really sure about how it’ll work out. I’ll only know once you get in the costume and walk around. We can iron out the rest of the game plan later.”
It seems that game plan panned out — the character in question was the first-ever iteration of Godzilla. The monster was too grand in scope to apply the normal special effects (like stop motion animation from 1933’s “King Kong”), so Tsuburaya and his new guinea pig opted for a different approach: Nakajima would wear a heavy suit and go HAM on some miniatures. Sounds fun, no?
Nippon’s 2014 profile of the actor describes the challenges posed by a hot ’n’ heavy monster outfit:
The costume was made out of hard rubber, like that of a car tire, and weighed about 100 kilograms. On top of this, he had to wear thick wooden sandals, or geta, inside the costume. All of this contributed to making every movement a chore.
Nakajima studied elephants and bears to inform the way his giant lizard would move. “No one should ever see the monster’s heels,” he said. “Godzilla wouldn’t look strong without that shuffle.” The effort paid off. The release of “Godzilla” in 1954 introduced the reptilian terror to nearly 10 million Japanese moviegoers. From there, the big beast’s popularity ballooned into a global phenomenon.
At Tsuburaya’s request, Nakajima reprised his role in the 1955 sequel “Godzilla Raids Again.” And then again in ’62. And then in ’64, twice. And ’65. And so on, until his 12th and final stomp as Godzilla in 1972.
Then, in 1973, after a career that included more than 50 films (in which he played other monsters, too, like Baragon and King Kong), Nakajima retired from the movie biz completely. Well, almost — he ended up working at a bowling alley on the Toho Pictures lot. Strange fate for one of the most fearsome freaks in cinema history.