It all started in a hotel room. Music producer Haim Saban, now 74, was watching TV while visiting Tokyo in 1984 when he came across the popular Super Sentai franchise.
HAIM SABAN: I was lying in bed, flipping through the three channels that were basically showing Japanese game shows. And then this show came on where I saw five kids in spandex battling monsters, and — I might come across as a bit of a child here — I fell in love. I thought it’d be a great opportunity [to create an American version of Super Sentai]. I’d never seen anything like it on TV in Europe or Israel or America. Action scenes are the most expensive to shoot, but you didn’t see their faces in the battle scenes, so I thought, “You can use the [Super Sentai] footage from Japan.” But it took eight years of trying to convince different people. People would tell me that I should focus on my music because TV’s not my business, that [the pilot] was embarrassing, so bad. But I didn’t give up. Finally, Margaret Loesch at Fox Kids said she’d give it a try.
Thus began a casting search for “teenagers with attitude” — and martial-arts skills. Soon Saban had his team of superheroes who would play the Rangers when out of their helmets and voice them when the Japanese battle scenes were used: Red Ranger, Jason (Austin St. John, now 44); Pink Ranger, Kimberly (Amy Jo Johnson, 48); Black Ranger, Zack (Walter Emanuel Jones, 48); Blue Ranger, Billy (David Yost, 49); Green Ranger, Tommy (Jason David Frank, 45); and Yellow Ranger, Trini (Thuy Trang, who died at 27 in 2001 after being involved in a car accident).
AUSTIN ST. JOHN: I wasn’t an actor. I was actually in high school. I taught martial arts on the side, and I’d been teaching a commercial-acting coach who mentioned this audition for Phantoms, [a working title for the show]. I said, “You know, I’m really not interested in acting. I don’t like cameras. I don’t like large groups of people.” Then after about three weeks, he finally bet me about $20 that I wouldn’t be wasting my time. At the time, I had this beat-up car I was driving to high school, and I thought, “I could use $20.”
DAVID YOST: I originally auditioned for the role of Victor, which was the [original name for the] Red Ranger. I made it through three auditions, but I could tell that the producers were leaning in a different direction. I begged them to let me read for the role of Billy, and they told me no. They didn’t think that I fit the way that Billy was supposed to be. But I went in the bathroom and wet my hair down and borrowed somebody’s glasses and shirt and buttoned it crooked and came back and said, “Please let me read for Billy.”
WALTER EMANUEL JONES: It was the first audition my agent was going to send me on but I was headed to Florida to do Star Search, so I had to miss it. I ended up losing my voice so I couldn’t sing with my group so I went for nothing! But a few days after I got back my agent called and said they still wanted to see me. In the room they asked if I could show them some gymnastics so I do a backflip, I land it, hit a karate stance. And they’re like, “That’s awesome. So can you come back again tomorrow?”
ST. JOHN: When I met up with Walter and Amy and David and Audri [Dubois], who was the Yellow Ranger for the pilot, we started meeting outside of the auditions. [Trang and Frank were cast later.] We’d go across the street to a Bob’s Big Boy and rehearse together. We made it a point to get to know each other and hang out outside of the auditions to really build that chemistry. They were also looking at a taller group [of actors] and a shorter group; we were the medium-sized group, and, you know, we all just kind of jelled.
JASON DAVID FRANK: I wanted to get into acting so I went to an agent and they said, “You’ve got a great look, you’re a great martial artist, but in order to book a role you have to cut your hair, lose your earrings, and all.” I’d had my ponytail for forever — every black belt I knew had a ponytail. But I was like, “Ugh, okay.” So I cut my hair and took out the earrings and went back and they said they were too busy to see me. I said, “I cut my hair!” He just kind of looked around, and said, “Hey man, look, I can’t represent you, but here.” And he handed me a piece of paper with info about Phantoms. At the callback, 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. It was meant to be.
Once cast, the pilot proved to be quite the experience.
ST. JOHN: My first day of filming was at this bowling alley, and I think it was on Ventura Blvd. Walter, he had to teach me some critical things about acting. Little details, like, “Austin, can you remember your lines?” “You should probably be facing the camera.” I was like, “Oooh, yeah! Yeah, that makes sense.” My instinct was always to turn away from cameras, you know? My learning curve was straight up.
JONES: Our original Trini, [played by Dubois,] was more of a tomboy than [Trang’s Trini]. Kimberly was very girly, valley girl but Audrey was very much like a tomboy and super tough, which was cool but it was a different energy. It made us a little more aggressive, because the boys were already aggressive and she was also aggressive.
ST. JOHN: The original pilot was pretty violent. I fought the biggest bully and I had kick after kick after kick right across his face. But Fox kicked back the first pilot. They were like, “This is way too violent.” If you look at that pilot now, you see my feet go up, but you never see it make contact with his head. They cut all that out. So obviously, there was mass debating going on, and then it was reworked.
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After shooting the pilot, the cast and Fox network affiliates were doubtful about the show’s potential.
AMY JO JOHNSON: It was my first acting job, and I remember showing the pilot at my house with a bunch of friends, and at the end we all just looked at each other and they were like, “Well, you know, your next job will be bigger or better.”
JONES: I remember in the original pilot, when we’d say, “It’s morphin’ time!” our faces would morph into our dinosaur, and that was kind of strange. I thought it was kind of cheesy. But we’d never seen the Japanese footage, so it was really cool to see the battles and the Rangers in their Zords.
SABAN: The affiliates went all the way to [Fox chairman] Rupert Murdoch, complaining, “What is this [Margaret Loesch] thinking, wanting to put this piece of nothing on the air?” But she was very courageous…to a point. She decided to air it early in the morning, in the summer, basically in the graveyard time slot.
But soon after launching on Aug. 28, 1993, it was the highest-rated kids’ show on broadcast television — but the cast was too busy filming their 60-episode first season to celebrate.
ST. JOHN: We filmed so hard and fast for the first year. Monday through Friday, filming, it was dark when we got in, it was dark when we left. Saturday was when we were called to do voiceover. Sunday I was usually so tired, all I would do was hit the gym to train, and then go back home and relax. I didn’t go out for almost a year. We finally got a week off for Christmas at the end of the year. I slept for a day to try and get my energy back. At 19 you shouldn’t have to do that, you know?
JONES: I had phone calls from all kinds of people and family and friends I didn’t even know that I had. I’d get home and there’d be 45 messages on my answering machine and I was tired, so I didn’t have a chance to listen to all of them. I’d get home and just fall asleep so I didn’t return the phone calls and some people thought I’d changed. “Walter’s changed.” But I was just really busy.
JOHNSON: I had to learn a lot because I had never been on a set really before. And we worked long hours, even though we were shooting 15 minutes of the show, we shot a lot of episodes. It was quite a grueling show, but at the same time we were all so young. I look back at that time sort of as my college years, in a way. I really wanted to be a good actor. I would break down the scripts, I would really try to do it up. As an actor, you take your job and you make it as grounded as possible.
JONES: I remember there was this one episode where we had to ride ATVs and they were like, “You have to be careful.” At this point, Jason Frank had joined the show [as Tommy] and he was the wild card. The guy would do crazy stuff, so he comes out and jumps on an ATV and he takes off into the wilderness. He just jumps up and you see him go over a hill and he disappears and me and the other Rangers look at each other like, “Let’s go!” So, we all take off and of course the PAs and everybody’s freaking out that we’re gonna kill ourselves and they wouldn’t have a show.
FRANK: They brought me in [during the 17th episode of the first season]. I was told when I was hired, “Don’t get excited. You’re here for 10 episodes, your character dies off on the show.” I said, “Hey, I’m happy to do one episode.” When I first got to set, the first thing I did was lay out my costume on the chair and took pictures. Then, I saw the mouth [on the helmet] didn’t move. I was like, “Man, I probably don’t even have lines in this episode.” But I did and I just did the best I could, and more opportunities just kept opening for me and eventually, Tommy became the leader.
JONES: In the beginning, I thought it was weird Zach would dance in battle. I was like, “My friends are in danger, why would I dance? It’s like I don’t care?” But eventually, I was able to transform it into something that was more about distraction, so watching the hand but the kick is coming.
ST. JOHN: There was this pretty incredible fight scene out at Vasquez Rocks, and we actually had the stunt guys in wetsuits that they had it bad. It was boiling hot-hot, desert, 100-plus degree heat. One guy went down with heat exhaustion. I don’t know how we didn’t have more. Then, the command center [set] used to be freezing cold. Wearing nothing but spandex, we used to hold each other just to stay warm.
YOST: The suits were sort of like wearing pajamas. The uncomfortable part was the helmet. You can’t breathe, you can’t see, your ears are often getting pinched in the sides of the helmet. But in the end, you look cool, you look like a superhero, so you gotta suck it up and take the good with the bad. Because at the end of the day, you’re a superhero and how could you go wrong being a superhero?
Then came their first chances to experience their fame. Adjusting stardom was difficult for the young cast.
ST. JOHN: Walter and several of the stunt guys, we moved into the same house to try and save money because we weren’t paid well at all. It was a nonunion show. I decided to go to the mall across the street to get some new jeans and — I’d never been on TV before, I didn’t know what to expect — I didn’t make it five steps inside the doors when the first scream ripped out. From there, I was mobbed. My shirt was torn off of my back, one of my pockets was torn off the back of my jeans, I lost one shoe, I lost my sunglasses, I lost my hat, and I had some claw marks on my back and my arms from people pawing at me. Security finally got me out of there.
YOST: We filmed almost the entire first season before it even started airing, so we really had no gauge as to what was going to happen or what was going on. We were supposed to do one little, tiny show at Universal Studios [theme park] for, like, 100 people, but we ended up creating a traffic jam for eight miles on the 101 Freeway. Universal Studios had to shut their doors and say, “We can’t take any more people today.”
JOHNSON: I found it incredibly overwhelming. I remember going to Hawaii and getting off the plane to do an appearance there. They’d announced that we were coming on the radio, and 10,000 people showed up at the airport and they didn’t have any security. It scared the heck out of me.
FRANK: That was the point, for me, where I had to focus on today and not tomorrow. I still owned [karate class] businesses, I knew that this was just one of those things where it was just something I loved to do, it was a hobby.
Halfway through the show’s second season, after more than 80 episodes, Trang, Jones, and St. John became the first original cast members to leave the series (most of the cast say nonunion pay was a major factor in their departures). But the Power Rangers brand has lived on (the original seasons stream on Netflix), with the show reinventing itself almost 20 times (Saban’s Power Rangers Super Ninja Steel currently airs on Nickelodeon) and the original cast attending fan events around the world.
FRANK: I’ve heard everything: “You were my father figure.” “My parents used to fight all the time, and the only thing that calmed my anxiety down was watching Power Rangers.” “Hey, I named my baby after you.” The show was campy, it was fun, it was colors, it was karate, but at the end of the day it had a ton of heart and was teaching teamwork.
JOHNSON: Fans will tell me about the struggles they had when their mom was dying or they were figuring out they were gay. Their stories have shown me how [Mighty Morphin Power Rangers] really helped a lot of young kids who just needed a place to feel safe. It’s really cool to have been a part of that.
JONES: I’ve got letters from kids that are Caucasian who didn’t grow up around black people and they say, “I started taking hip hop classes because of you; and when I did that, I got diverse friends and they ended up being some of my best friends. It changed my life and I just wanted to say thank you.”
YOST: Because I played the nerdy smart guy, I have fans tell me, “I went into science.” “I’m a computer IT person.” “I’m a doctor.” I have one fan that’s a paleontologist, which I find fascinating, all because of Billy. And now that I’ve come out as a gay person, every day I get messages from gay people around the world that tell me, “Thank you for coming out and sharing your story because your story helped me come out. I’m able to share your story with my family and help them understand what you went through is what I’m going through. And so, thank you.” It’s amazing.
JONES: What I also get a lot from my fans is “Man, I wanted to be a hero like you, and so this is what I did with my life.” All I did was go and work as an actor on this TV show, but I inspired people to be something. It’s very humbling.
ST. JOHN: I just kind of assumed kids would grow out of [MMPR] and it would be forgotten and we’d move on. I did move on. I taught martial arts around the world. I became a firefighter-paramedic. I spent four years in the Middle East for the war. I was gone for 20 years. And then a few years ago, Walter calls me while I’m on the Iraqi–Kuwaiti border and fills me in on these things called comic cons. I remember saying, “What do you mean they come to see you? lt’s been 20-something years.” He goes, “Dude, they grew up. They’re showing it to their children. Their parents who watched it with them come with them. We have three generations of fans now.” It blew my mind.