Judith Hoag Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The 1990 film was plagued by violence and injuries

This weekend, Megan Fox plays April O’Neil in Paramount’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” but she’s not the first actress to portray the character. In 1990, Judith Hoag originated the role of the intrepid reporter who befriends the pizza-loving heroes, although she almost turned down the part. “When I first heard of it, I thought it was a horror film,” Hoag recalls on a recent telephone call with Variety. “‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ is such a strange name. I wasn’t into the comic books at all.”

Hoag, 22 at the time, was in the middle of shooting the Robin Williams comedy “Cadillac Man,” and her schedule prevented her from committing to “Ninja Turtles.” Then the producers were able to make it work, and Hoag had to fly from New York to Wilmington, North Carolina, on the weekends for production. “People would be wondering where I would racing off to on a Friday,” says Hoag, who is now 46. “I bashfully said ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ Robin was like, ‘Are they making a movie of that!?’ He was so excited. I’m a brand new actor, my career was just starting off and I had Robin Williams’ seal of approval. After that, I would proudly say the ‘Turtles’ name.”

The first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie was an astonishing hit, which grossed $135 million in 1990, making it the fifth most successful movie of that year (after “Home Alone,” “Ghost,” Dances With Wolves” and “Pretty Woman”). For many millennials, like myself, the film is still remembered with the same grade-school nostalgia as “Alvin and the Chipmunks” or “Scooby-Doo.” “There’s something that resonated with kids at the time period — they just loved the movie,” says Hoag, who has since appeared in dozens of TV series (“Big Love,” “Six Feet Under”), movies (“Bad Words,” “Armageddon”) and currently co-stars on “Nashville” (as Connie Britton’s sister).

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Unlike the reptile heroes of the new film, which are brought to life by motion capture technology, the original turtles were complex puppet creations made by the Jim Henson Co. (Brian Henson, Jim’s son, was the film’s second unit director.) “All the puppeteers from Sesame Street worked on that movie,” Hoag says. The film’s director Steve Barron, who had primarily made music videos, tried to put her in a yellow jumpsuit, like the one her character wears in the comic books. It turned out to be a disaster. “They had this really horrifying white jumpsuit and dyed it yellow,” Hoag says. “It was nixed.” Her hairdo was also complicated. “I remember just hating my hair in the movie,” she says. “They gave me this really horrible perm and it never cooperated.”

The first “Turtles” spawned two other sequels — 1991’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” and 1993’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III,” but April was recast in those films and played by Paige Turco. Hoag says she was never asked to reprise the role, because she had complained to the producers at Golden Harvest about the lengthy six-day shoots and the intense violence added to the action scenes of the New Line Cinema release. “Everybody was beating everybody up,” Hoag says. “I thought the movie suffered because of that. It was something I spoke to the producers about, I think they thought I was too demanding, and moved on.”

Hoag says she was also upset by the number of injuries she witnessed onset. “It was a really challenging shoot,” she says. “They had all these stunt people who came in from Hong Kong, who had no union protections. They were getting hurt. As soon as they were injured, they were shipped out of there. It was not the safest set to be on. That’s a little distressing. People are doing the movie, doing the best they can on the budget and I think producers lose sight sometimes there are actual human beings involved.”

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But when the sequel came out, her absence was noticed. “The kids were upset,” Hoag says. “When the third movie came around, they came back to me and asked if I would consider it. I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then they said, ‘Nah. If the kids got confused the first time, they might get confused again.’” Nevertheless, she’s grateful to be part of “Ninja Turtles” history. She watched the film with her 18-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter when they were younger. “I think my son sort of liked it,” Hoag says. “He was more of a ‘Toy Story’ guy.”

Hoag recalls an afternoon where she was asked to visit a 3-year-old boy with leukemia who was so determined to beat his cancer like a ninja, he wore a Raphael mask in his hospital bed. Hoag made herself up to look like April, and stopped on the way to buy some action figures for him. “I go to a Toys ‘R Us dressed as April O’Neil at the height of the movie on a Saturday afternoon,” she says. It almost caused a mob scene. “People are looking at me. I thought, ‘Oh dear!’ This is surreal.”

After “Ninja Turtles,” Hoag became a character actress who also played the mom witch on the 1998 Disney Channel TV movie “Halloweentown” and its sequels. She says starring as April definitely boosted her career. “Oh, it totally helped,” she says. “I didn’t know it at the time. It’s amazing to me that people still treasure the movie like they do. I have workers in my house now doing construction, and one of them came back and said, ‘You’re April O’Neil!’ This happens every day. It happens at airports and at supermarkets. People loved this movie.” And she might even sneak into a showing of the new film. “I will see it out of curiosity,” Hoag says. “You want the franchise to keep going forward and do well.”

FILM REVIEW: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

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