Tampa Bay Comic Con: John Rhys-Davies has soft spot for Sallah, Gimli

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) tells Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) how to get out of the Well of the Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) tells Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) how to get out of the Well of the Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Published July 30, 2014

John Rhys-Davies — better known as Sallah or Gimli, depending on your age and level of geekery — had a chance to be in the fourth installments of not one but two Hollywood franchises he helped launch: 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and 2012's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

He said no to both, which means he also said no to both Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, the powerful directors who made him famous.

In his rich rolling voice, a British-accented basso profundo as iconic as his large welcoming face, the Welsh-born Rhys-Davies tells me he had his reasons, mainly based in his respect for Sallah and Gimli.

"They offered me a cameo in the fourth Indy," says the 70-year-old who played Indiana Jones' sidekick Sallah, "the best digger in Egypt," in 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. "They were going to green-screen me in Hungary where I was at the time, and then cut me into the wedding scene at the end. I just thought that the character deserved more than that."

Rhys-Davies worries that current divisive stereotypes of Middle Easterners, coupled with "studio considerations," will leave no place for Sallah in another Indy flick. He hasn't been approached about a rumored fifth installment.

"A lot of people are fond of ol' Sallah," he says. "I'd obviously love to have one last go at him. The last time I saw Steven, I said that the first and third movies are the most successful ones. There must be a common factor!"

As for his role as Gimli the dwarf warrior in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Rhys-Davies adores the character and didn't want to lessen his power in a smaller role in The Hobbit.

Oh, and there's one other problem: "I couldn't stand that makeup. They used medical adhesive, and the skin under your eyes is about the thickness of two cigarette papers. I stripped the skin under my eyes! My girlfriend at the time said, 'This sounds horrible, but I can't bear to look at you anymore.' It was hideous. It was just hideous."

Rhys-Davis has put together a diverse careerlong resume as an actor. He's also been in a Bond movie, the sci-fi TV show Sliders, even a recurring guest spot as villainous Man Ray on SpongeBob SquarePants. He just signed on to voice Frozen-inspired troll king Pabbie in ABC's Once Upon a Time drama.

And yet, when he appears at the Tampa Bay Comic Con on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, most fans will approach him looking to connect with Sallah or Gimli.

And not only is he fine with that — and will dutifully recite such Sallah catchphrases as "Bad dates" and "Asps. Very dangerous. You go first." — he's moved by the rabid affection.

"Sallah or Gimli: Who they like very much depends of the age composition of the audience," he says. "Although three generations of Raiders fans are now coming up to me. The other day, a dad said he saw it when he was 11. When his son was 11, they saw it together. And they both just took a grandson to see it."

Although he appreciates that family dynamic, Rhys-Davis has an 8-year-old daughter, and won't yet let her see his best-known work. "She hasn't seen Raiders yet, nor has she seen Lord of the Rings. That's pretty scary stuff. But the children I meet who have seen those movies seem relatively unharmed with no psychotic tendencies so far. And I guess a trilogy makes for a pretty good babysitter."

• • •

One of the greatest lines in Raiders of the Lost Ark is when a worried Sallah asks his buddy Indy, who has just escaped the snake-strewn Well of the Souls with Marion Ravenwood, what he's going to do next to secure the titular relic. Harrison Ford, with comic weariness, quips, "I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."

Rhys-Davies says that was also the vibe on the set of the first film: "Steven was making it up as he goes along. The script was endless pages of action description. A lot of the dialogue was (improvised) by Steven; Steven and Harrison; or Steven, Harrison and myself. By the time of the third Indy, Steven knew what he was doing and we didn't have the freedom we once did."

The actor is routinely asked about the differences between Spielberg and Jackson, and he often points to the lightning-in-a-bottle feel of Raiders. "When I first worked with Steven, he was like a young Mozart, effortlessly creative. He had a measure of brusqueness at times, his mind and creativity operating at full throttle. Please keep up!

"Peter's genius is different," he continues. "He's endlessly patient, but I think circumstances have made the scale of his achievements quite different. Steven has built an empire, but he had the support of studios. Peter basically built a studio in New Zealand (where Lord of the Rings movies are filmed) from scratch. They're both giants, though. A great director has to know it all, has to have the answers to all the questions."

Actors, on the other hand, need to have something entirely different from directors: "good fortune." And as far as Rhys-Davis is concerned, Sallah and Gimli have been very good fortune.

"Actors are always looking for actor-proof parts," he says, bubbling into that thunderous Sallah laughter. "A part so good you can't screw it up!"

Contact Sean Daly at Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.