By Charles EP Murphy
The initial plot of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is summed up in the title sequence. The space witch Rita Repulsa is free after 10,000 years and it’s time to conquer Earth. Interdimensional floating-head Zordon asks his robot Alpha 5 to recruit a team of teenagers with attitude. You have serious martial artist Jason (Austin St John), cool guy Zack (Walter Jones), popular valley girl Kimberly (Amy Jo Johnson), 90s sitcom nerd Billy (David Yost), and calm collected Trini (Thuy Trang). And messing them about are the school bullies and comic relief, Bulk (Paul Schrier) and Skull (Jason Narvy).
All of this is set in stone as how Power Rangers is.
And various butterflies in casting and pre-production could have changed all of this!
Twenty-Somethings With Attitude
First off there’s the fact that, as stated last time, pitch videos were still using the old Bio-Man character bios and names from 1986. The change to the characters we got seems to have been late in the day and likely to fight contemporary trends.
That could always have not happened. Some later seasons of Power Rangers, starting with Lost Galaxy, would sometimes have the Rangers as professionals in their vague twenties, and VR Troopers would do this too. What if this stuck? Suddenly over half the plots of Mighty Morphin are in the bin: no school dances and talent contests and plays, no school food fair turning into a food fight, no Rangers trapped in detention with Bulk and Skull. The trend of greater adaptations of the sentai, which started with Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue –both it and the sentai GoGoFive featuring government backed rescue workers – could start with Power Rangers Zeo instead to go with Ohranger’s plot of military forces fighting invading robots.
Even when the change happened, this doesn’t mean it had to end up the way it did. Once everyone is a teenager, you can’t have the Black Ranger being a detective or the Pink Ranger an aerobics teacher (though she’s teaching a dance class in early ep “Different Drum!”), but Billy could have remained a “athletic heart throb with a body of steel”. That means the intellectual Trini could’ve been upgraded to the school nerd, making her one of the lynchpin characters for plots to work – inventing all the necessary gadgets, and giving 90s girls a smartie superheroine. We know from Audri Dubois, who auditioned for Trini (and more on her later), that the Yellow Ranger was originally meant to be “scared of her own shadow” and not know karate, which better fits a nerd role.
But the choices were made, and the characters as we know them we being created – or were they?
Let’s start with Jason. His nature as a very serious brawler, intense in battle, comes in part down to how Austin St John looks and how he plays him & yells in fight scenes. And twenty five years after the fact, St John admitted to Entertainment Weekly that he almost didn’t bother auditioning at all! “I taught martial arts on the side, and I’d been teaching a commercial-acting coach who mentioned this audition… I said, “You know, I’m really not interested in acting. I don’t like cameras. I don’t like large groups of people.”” The entire reason he went is the man bet him $20 he wouldn’t be wasting his time, and St John wanted $20.
Who was trying for the role and got through three rounds of auditions? David Yost. He told Entertainment Weekly that he could tell the producers weren’t going to pick him after three audition rounds and so “begged them to let me read for the role of Billy, and they told me no.” They thought he didn’t “fit” the character, so Yost “went in the bathroom and wet my hair down and borrowed somebody’s glasses and shirt and buttoned it crooked and came back”.
If there was no St John, would Yost have got the role? That changes the character considerably – in the third series of MMPR and in Zeo, after Yost was able to get out of being a cartoonish nerd, he portrayed Billy as a very reserved figure and that could be how Jason would be played. Add in his less powerful voice; and that while Yost is more muscular than Billy is clearly meant to be, he isn’t as built as St John, giving you a different type of physicality. Consider him the Clint Eastwood to St John’s more traditional sheriff.
Who else was auditioning for Billy? Jason Narvy! He never got a callback for that role, but it’s interesting to imagine how that might have turned out – a much gawkier, dorkier character, played by someone who would’ve had a lot more experience with acting (in theatre) than the other Rangers and is adept at physical comedy.
As for the other Ranger cast, Walter Jones had to miss his audition but got called back later – he could have been out as well. Amy Jo Johnson told podcast No Pink Spandex that she’d been on the verge of giving up and leaving LA until she met her future acting coach “the night before I was moving”, without which she’d be out.
A tape of the “runner up” auditions VS the winning ones, aired at Power Morphicon 2007, give us a look at the unknown actors who could have been Kimberly or Zack. Runner-up Kimberly is quite bland, and would be unlikely to be as popular a character as Johnson’s Kim. The runner-up for Zack plays him more as an egotistical braggart and ‘sports jock’, as well as being bigger than Jones is – if he’d made it through, Zack’s stories are going to change around him. A running plot in the first year was about pursuing his crush Angela, with good-natured yearning and in “An Oyster Stew” his attempt at a date goes disastrously wrong, but with the runner-up Zack would this be happening because of him rather than an escalating comedy of errors?
The fifth Ranger is Trini. And now we’re back as promised to Audri Dubois, the original actress cast in the role. She was giving acting a go and made it through to the pilot, due in part to her nerves in auditioning (that “scared of her own shadow” angle), in part due to her karate skills, and in part due to her chemistry with the other cast.
At this point, the casting had narrowed to three groups of five people and Saban Entertainment wanted to see who could show the most chemistry. (St John told EW they “made it a point to get to know each other and hang out outside of the auditions to really build that chemistry”) Power Morphicon’s footage includes the winning auditions with the runner-up, and the runners-up had visibly worse chemistry. Can any other line-up work as well or does any change throw it off and leave all the originals out?
But in the end, these five were chosen and went through to the pilot. In fact, it had three pilots! The first would officially air on Fox Kids in 1999 as a Lost Episode, with a number of different details and monster voice actors – after Dubois, the oddest is how early Zordon is called Zoltar and has moments of being a sarky git (which would have been a quite funny element to have kept for the Rangers’ mentor, instead of him being a one-dimensional wise sage).
Despite the casting for Trini as timid, the Trini you actually get in the pilot is an extremely assertive girl with fast reflexes and the first to land a blow in the opening fight scene. Soon after filming, Dubois got skittish about the Saban contract and the nature of the job – what if the show didn’t last long and she was stuck in California for nothing afterwards? Were these terms actually that great? As she wasn’t that invested in being an actor, she bowed out.
If she hadn’t, Trini is a very different character and all her plots change – you can’t really see Dubois’ Trini as having a beloved Old Europe doll collection, like she needed for the “For Whom The Bell Trolls”, and her being scared of heights in the second episode would play differently if she seems confident normally.
Trang’s casting as the replacement coincided with Jason David Frank’s casting as Tommy the Green Ranger, which itself was just as arbitrary as St John’s – quoth Frank to EW, a casting agent seemed to have been trying to fob him off and gave him the MMPR audition information to shift him. Once there, “it was me and a bunch of girls and they asked if I would pair with a girl and teach her a routine. I was confused and thought I’d lost the part and they just wanted me to teach. Out of everyone, I actually picked Thuy.” Frank not being in the specific place at the specific time likely means no Trang. What type of Trini do we get instead? (In terms of representation, what happens if a white girl is cast as the new Trini and Walter Jones is the only non-white actor, the biggest craze of the 90s is almost all white?)
And the big elephant in the room: the non-unionised Power Rangers are paid terribly. St John, Jones, and Trang will eventually walk out in the (doomed) hopes Saban would up their pay. What happens if there’s different actors in the roles, does that affect who leaves? Yost did not walk OTL but maybe he will if he’s the Red Ranger & being underpaid. Or does nobody walk, if they’re different actors?
One notable thing about the first pilot is that it’s far more violent. The Rangers have a brawl with a gang of generic, sneering punks whose leader tries to creep on Kimberly. These punks go unnamed and there’s no bumbling Bulk & Skull, though Schrier shows up as Punk #4 and gets a line threatening Billy. This violence against humans was too much, and so Margaret Loesch mandated the addition of more humour – leading us down a long and winding road to Bulk and Skull.
The original gang leader actor did not come back for Bulk or Skull. In the midst of a lengthy (and chaotic) 2018 podcast interview, Schrier and Narvy discuss that Saban Entertainment thought the man couldn’t play the heavy well enough (and they felt Schrier could while also being funnier) and then found he didn’t work as a sidekick either, being too tall. Narvy got a callback to see if he’d work as a sidekick (“I know another jerk you’d work well with!”)
In the second pilot, Bulk is a more menacing figure and indeed more of a heavy than the original leader – though knocked around and humiliated far more easily. He’s also leading a gang, who are similarly thwarted, though only Skull gets to show any personality. They aren’t really a double act here. Tony Oliver told Sakuracon that this pilot was also rejected due to violence, as Saban Entertainment had misinterpreted that Kimberly and the girl punk in the gang could still fight. The third pilot became the finished episode. Here, Bulk and Skull are on their own and while still being creeps to the girl Rangers, they’re less threatening and more annoying. (They then show up in a later scene being nastier, and they’ll veer randomly from heavies to bumbling losers throughout the first half of season 1.) Schrier and Narvy turned out to have instant chemistry. They had, as Narvy said it in the podcast, “the same vernacular”: the same interests in slapstick, the same community theatre background, and the like. It helps that when the show began, Schrier and Narvy were the most experienced actors and got very committed to their work. Schrier told IGN “we got to build the characters as us, essentially”, and talking to the Chicago Tribune in 2017, Narvy said he and Schrier “worked so well together… we made our characters indispensable.” ‘Indispensable’ is right: they lasted for six years of the show, longer than all of the original Rangers and many of their replacements. (“Like watching the generals get shot off their horses,” quipped Narvy to IGN) They go from bullies to bumbling but well-meaning-ish, and serve (badly) as Junior Police and detectives. Skull gets a genuine drama scene in Zeo as h’s unveiled as a classical music maestro and admits he’s scared of being public – “I don’t want anyone to laugh at me”, including Bulk. In the grand finale of Power Rangers in Space, Bulk and Skull plead with the conquered populace to have hope, pretend to be the Rangers in a “I am Spartacus” moment, and then rally the people to assist the Rangers in fighting. They get to appear in the tenth anniversary episode “Forever Red”, Bulk is mentoring Skull’s son Spike throughout Power Rangers Samurai, and Schrier got to be a Ranger in the semi-canonical D&D streaming series Power Rangers Hyperforce. All of this depended on two actors having instant chemistry, and being good enough actors to utilise it and any other scene they were given. All of it depends on these specific people being cast. In contrast, in two early episodes, “Teamwork” and “Food Fight”, Bulk and Skull do have the remnants of their gang: one girl punk (played by Stella Angelova) watching them, and the same girl and a black hooligan who help them throw pies. They then are never heard from again. What would later come out when early scripts got online was the girl punk had a name: Sharkie. Not only that, she was in the cast lists and was making appearances in episodes right up into the early Green Ranger appearances! In a script for “The Trouble With Shellshock”, she’s clashing with Kimberly – as she does in the second pilot – and accused of “playing tough girl”. But Schrier and Narvy evidently had enough chemistry on their own, and so Sharkie is a third wheel to be phased out. If Narvy and Schrier hadn’t got the roles, maybe Sharkie would have stuck around as a secondary antagonist. Maybe it’s the Bulk, Skull, and Sharkie trio. You can see this working as she picks up on the girls while Bulk and Skull focus on the boys, or her being disgruntled Skull has a crush on Kimberly. But as the show went on, the bullies would likely be dropped as unnecessary and different comic relief brought in. You won’t see them getting big chunks of an early episode as they did in “Switching Places”, a bodyswap comedy that requires the bully actors to be competent enough actors to play each other and land it. And then Power Rangers isn’t known for having comic relief characters that end up with greater story arcs than the original Red Ranger.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.