Gymnast Breaks Out of His Shell : Acting: Former Bruin Mark Caso is best known for his work in Ninja Turtles movie.


While former UCLA gymnast-turned-actor Mark Caso was performing in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II; The Secret of the Ooze,” a problem arose.

The script called for his character, Leonardo, to do a back-handspring. Caso wanted to do it, but the director did not want to risk an injury, preferring instead to have a stuntman perform it. The only problem was the stuntman didn’t know how. Then the movie-making brain trust decided to hire an outside party to do the routine.

“I was like, well I want to do my own thing,” said Caso, a member of UCLA’s 1984 NCAA championship team. “You are going to go out there and look for someone worse than me. You cannot find somebody to do a better back-handspring than I can. I want Leonardo to have the best one.”


Caso won out. He did his spring and the movie went on to gross more than $78 million.

If Hollywood-types were sports fans, they might have known better than to try and stop Caso from doing gymnastics.

On Jan. 31, 1980, Caso, who was a freshman, broke the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in his neck while practicing a tumble. He was paralyzed for 90 minutes. Using a bone from his hip, doctors surgically fused his spine together. To create a support for his neck, they drilled four holes in his skull and constructed a halo brace.

“After the accident, the only thing we were concerned with was that Mark would be able to walk again,” said Art Shurlock, his coach at UCLA. “Anything after that was a bonus.”

Before doctors removed Caso’s brace four months later, he was doing rudimentary maneuvers on the pommel horse. He conquered physical weakness with weightlifting and pushups. Mental fears were attacked from many angles: psychiatric therapy, a daily diary, studying psychology and immersing himself in inspirational sayings his mother sent him.

Ten months later, he was competing again. In 1981, he made the U.S. National Team. His sophomore year, he won five gold medals at the U.S. Olympic Festival. In 1984, Caso helped UCLA win the NCAA title. That summer, he finished two spots out of the running for a place on the U.S. Olympic Team. Caso was not overly disappointed at not making the squad, he was just happy to compete.

In truth, Caso’s life story has been more dramatic any Ninja Turtles movie. Eventually, it may be more profitable for him. So far three production companies have contacted Caso about turning his memoirs into a screenplay.


“I knew absolutely nothing about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I did not even know what one looked like,” Caso said. “I thought they were just going to put some makeup on my face. . . . Before I went out for the part, they told me that these are New York street kids. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ I did a New York street kid, and it was a turtle. Little did I know that they were going to put these New York street kids in huge latex rubber and sweat them to death.”

Caso’s costume weighed 70 pounds and took an hour to get into. It was designed for a skin-tight fit and Caso figures he sweat two pounds of water a day into his “shell” and compensated by drinking eight quarts of Gatorade.

The suit’s eye slits were also shut during the filming, so that the camera would not pick up the people inside. Of course, this meant Caso was blind while acting out his scenes. Puppeteers gave him directions through a radio remote in his helmet.

“It was magic the way things worked out,” Caso said. “To start out with, we’d walk through each entire scene with our turtle heads off, seeing what we are supposed to do. As soon as we put our heads on, all of a sudden we are blind. Now, we go through the scene and we are practically tripping over each other and falling over one another. We are bumping into each other and missing chairs and listening to the puppeteer, who is saying, ‘Mark, you have to be two steps over to the left and then its three steps to the chair.’

“After we do this a couple of times, we film one shot,” Caso said. “Then we all take our helmets off to watch it and see what things look like. At this point, the instructions those puppeteers have been telling me start to make sense. Then we put our heads back on and really go for it. I’d say one scene takes about 30 takes.”

Caso, in truth, was one of four people who combined to create Leonardo’s screen role. Dubbers looped in the turtle’s voice afterwards. The puppeteers controlled his facial expressions through remote control and stuntmen replaced him in martial arts scenes.


The part may not seem like a major breakthrough, but to Caso, it represented a chance for exposure and a chance at other roles.

“It’s funny because I tell Mark that what he did is famous, but nobody knows who Mark Caso is,” said Shurlock, who acknowledged he did not see the entire Turtle II film but sneaked in for part of it at a multiplex movie theater.

Since his retirement from gymnastics in 1984, Caso has been looking for a big acting break. From 1985 to 1988, he appeared in 30 commercials. When work was slow, he taught gymnastics and enrolled in the JoAnn Barron acting school.

“Now I can put my foot in the door, and say ‘I’m Mark Caso. I was in this film.,’ ” Caso said. Toward the end of the year, he is scheduled to go to London for a costume shoot for Leonardo’s part in a third silver screen Turtle adventure, which begins filming next year.

Of course, there is the ominous thought of spending another two months with a 20-pound weight on that neck for 14 hours a day.

“I have a sore neck all the time now,” Caso said. “But, you know, I promised myself I would never complain about my neck if I ever got out of the hospital. And you know what? People who know me don’t ever hear me complain about my neck.

“I may (gripe) and moan about other things. But not my neck.”