Kerwin Mathews, who earned a niche in film history as the handsome hero who battled a Cyclops, a dragon and a sword-wielding skeleton in the 1958 fantasy classic “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” has died. He was 81.
Mathews, who was best known for his fantasy and horror films, died in his sleep at his San Francisco home Wednesday night or Thursday morning, said Tom Nicoll, his partner of 46 years.
The tall, dark-haired Mathews was a Columbia Pictures contract player when he was cast as the lead in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” which featured stop-motion animated creatures created by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen.
“He was very good in it,” Harryhausen said from his home in London. “I get a lot of fan mail saying they think he was the best Sinbad. We’ve had three or four different Sinbads.”
Science fiction and fantasy film expert Tom Weaver said that “as an actor in the 1950s, Kerwin Mathews came across as the all-American, farm-boy-next-door type -- as unlikely a candidate to play an Arabian Nights hero as could possibly be imagined. But for young American monster movies fans, that made him the perfect identification figure, and he became our favorite hero in that fairy-tale-monster genre.”
“Part of the challenge of appearing in those stop-motion monster movies was having to act opposite nothing -- to cower in front of a giant that’s not there, to sword-fight a skeleton that’s not there. All the monsters were added later by Ray Harryhausen.”
If Mathews had not been able to “interact with nothing” as well as he did, Weaver said, “the monsters would not have been believable, despite all of Harryhausen’s painstaking efforts. But Mathews did a fabulous job, which went a long ways toward ‘selling’ those scenes.”
Harryhausen praised Mathews’ ability to maintain the illusion that he was battling the skeleton and other creatures. “His eyes were always concentrated” on the unseen subject, he said.
Mathews also appeared in “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver” (1960), with stop-motion special effects by Harryhausen, and “Jack the Giant Killer” (1962), with stop-motion effects by Projects Unlimited.
In a 1987 interview with Starlog magazine, Mathews said that filming the famous sword fight with the skeleton in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” a low-budget film shot in Spain, was “an exciting experience for me.”
“I believed I was making as valid a contribution to the world of theater as if I had been playing Hamlet,” he said. “We shot that sword fight in a cave in Majorca. We started filming one night at sundown and worked straight through for 24 hours, because they could only afford the cave for one night.”
In a 1989 Starlog interview, “Sinbad” director Nathan Juran said Mathews never complained.
“When we finally finished the sequence, I noticed that his sword hand was covered with blood,” Juran said. “He had worked so hard that he had scraped off the skin on that hand. I marveled that he did all that sword fighting and never said a word about the pain he was in. Kerwin was the epitome of a professional. He gave a hell of a performance.”
An only child, Mathews was born in Seattle on Jan. 8, 1926. Shortly thereafter, he and his divorced mother moved to Janesville, Wis.
In high school, Mathews recalled in the 1987 interview, “a kind high school teacher put me in a play, and that changed my life.”
After two years in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he attended Beloit (Wis.) College on drama and music scholarships.
He stayed at Beloit three years after graduating and taught speech and dramatic arts, and also appeared in regional theater.
He also taught high school English in Lake Geneva, Wis., before moving to Hollywood in 1954.
Mathews was an actor at the Pasadena Playhouse when he met the head of casting for Columbia Pictures and was signed to a seven-year studio contract.
Among his other film credits are “The Devil at 4 O’Clock,” “Man on a String,” “Pirates of Blood River,” “Battle Beneath the Earth,” “Octaman,” “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf” and “Nightmare in Blood.”
His favorite role was starring as composer Johann Strauss Jr. in “The Waltz King,” a 1963 two-part segment of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” that was filmed on location in Europe.
Mathews, who moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, spent his post-acting career selling antiques and furniture.
A celebration of his life is pending in San Francisco.