When gods walked the sidewalks of the ’WonAmong its many other wonderful attributes, Itaewon is a great place for celebrity sightings. If you’re here and your timing’s good, you’ll see famous foreign politicians, athletes and movie stars.
A year ago, I passed former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm on the sidewalk. Another time I just missed the pop star Usher. Other celebrity visits are in evidence at Itaewon’s tailor shops, with their photos of Luciano Pavarotti, Magic Johnson and Steven Seagal getting suited up by our local guys.
But the very best time for stargazing in Itaewon was late 1978 and early 1979, when half of Hollywood was in Korea working on what turned out to be, some critics say, the worst movie ever made. They included ― brace yourself ― Laurence Olivier, Omar Sharif, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, David Janssen and Ben Gazzara. The crew included a son of Marlon Brando and a son of Audrey Hepburn.
The movie, “Inchon,” is described on the Internet Movie Database as a “noisy and absurd re-telling of the great 1950 invasion of Inchon.” And ― get this ― it was financed by the Reverend Moon Sun Myung’s Unification Church.
I had never heard of the film until Tom Casey, an American who’s lived in Korea for decades, told me about it the other night. Mr. Casey, a retired military serviceman from Rhode Island, used to run a pub and disco in Itaewon, the Sportsmans Club, that was the premier place to be for foreigners and Korean VIPs. Old-timers speak of it in reverential tones.
When in Seoul, the “Inchon” cast stayed at the Hyatt, but most nights they hung out at the Sportsmans. Regulars included Bisset, then a major sex symbol, Roundtree and Janssen, whom Mr. Casey describes as his hero.
All were friendly and graceful, Mr. Casey said, but Bisset really impressed. “She was amazing; she would effortlessly speak Italian to Gazzara one moment, French to Hepburn’s son the next, then German to somebody, then English to me,” he said. “And she was so at ease with everyone she met, foreigners and Koreans alike.”
Roundtree was amicable too. “I got a wedding invitation from Richard a few years later,” Mr. Casey said. “I didn’t go, but I sent him a present.”
Also a Sportsmans regular was Marlon Brando’s son Miko, an “Inchon” production assistant. “He would tell me that his father was coming out, and that I could meet him,” Mr. Casey said. “For me, that would have been like meeting the Lord.” Unfortunately, it never happened.
As for Laurence Olivier and Omar Sharif, it’s hard to know whether they ever graced Itaewon’s sidewalks. Sir Laurence, according to Mr. Casey, was in poor health at the time ― perhaps due to the strain of playing MacArthur. Mr. Casey did meet him, though, during a shoot at the Blue House. Mr. Casey, in fact, can go on and on about other celebrities, foreign and Korean, who visited his club. But we’ll save that for a future column.
by Mike Ferrin