..at 90 years of age Klein has spent more time filming sharks and underwater in general than arguably anyone on this planet
“Jordy has filmed so many sharks they make a week about him!”
This was the line I heard several times over from people describing pioneer underwater filmmaker Jordan Klein Sr. The joke is certainly fitting, at 90 years of age Klein has spent more time filming sharks and underwater in general than arguably anyone on this planet. His lifetime of dedication to underwater cinema has changed the way we see below the surface on the big screen today. Semi-retired these days, Klein spends the majority of his time at his home/office compound on Lake Weir in Summerfield, Florida. One early March day I decided to head up for a visit and pay my respects to the Oscar winner and find out more about his life.
Jordan Klein was born in 1925 and grew up on Miami Beach, FL. His love for being underwater was apparent early on, “I was only just a little shitkicker, probably 11 or 12, but I wanted to figure out a way to stay underwater longer. Some friends and I figured out how to combine the old 5 gallon milk cans with a refrigerator compressor to make a working breathing apparatus. We also found out how to make masks by cutting a section of inner tube and then clamping a piece of glass into one end. For fins we took old tennis shoes and attached a piece of tire each shoe for more push underwater”
Jordan’s savvy didn’t necessarily translate to the classroom though, as a kid as he was more interested in speed whether it was by boat, car, or plane.
“I built a race car with some friends when I was really young and took it to a race in south Florida. I didn’t want to get in trouble with my parents and I was too young to enter the race so I registered for the race with the fake name, Bill Jordan, and even painted that name on the side of my race car. I think I got second in the first race and then crashed and totaled the car the second race. I was 16 at the time and got kicked out high school for some other reason shortly thereafter. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life at the time but I remember a pivotal moment happening at that age. One day I heard a loud plane landing at the Miami municipal airport behind my house where I had started to take flying lessons. It was the Pan Am Airline’s DE-3 landing to refuel on it’s way to Cuba, and everyone was checking out the plane. I’ll never forget that day, everyone stood around in amazement examining this plane baffled that anything so big could fly, I was allowed to walk inside to check it out as well. As a kid it was a changing point in my life, it made me realize I wanted to be some type of engineer and also fly planes.”
Jordan was drafted by the Navy soon after and hoped to be a pilot but his color blindness kept him grounded and mainly working on ships. He was stationed in Jacksonville before being shipped to California where he worked on a light cruiser (Trenton CL-11) and late a Destroyer Escort. After his years of service he returned to Miami where he worked as a car mechanic and went to school at Embry Riddle where he learned how to work on planes. With the money he had saved working on cars and planes he decided to follow his passion and start a dive shop, only the second one in Florida.
“I payed 5,000 for a piece of property on Biscayne Blvd, my gosh what that piece of property must be worth now.” It was the second dive shop in Florida at the time and I remember people telling me I was crazy and that it would never work. I offered diving tours on my boat that quickly became popular because I was the only guy doing it. I took all kinds of stars out back then, William Randolph Hearst, Jackie Gleason, Gary Cooper etc. Most everyone wanted to spear dive, but when I brought along my cameras with my homemade underwater housings people started taking notice. People decided they’d rather shoot fish with a camera than a spear gun. I started selling camera housings to people who would come on the dive tours and then one day I got a call from Abercrombie & Fitch in New York. They were an upscale outdoor store at the time and one of their buyers had seen one of the housings I made and asked if he could place a big order for their New York store. Soon after a film company in Ft. Lauderdale, Ivan Tors Studio, commissioned me to make a water housing for one of their 35mm motion picture cameras and also build underwater props and sets. I was there only a short time before Ivan asked if I wanted to help film the underwater scenes for the TV show Flipper. That was a huge break, that kind of started it all.”
Major motion picture companies began to tap him to make their cinema housings and to work as an underwater cameraman. His love for underwater photography and specifically filming sharks led him to create the company Mako. He designed a logo, hired some of his colleagues, and got to work on all kinds of different projects and products. Mako built almost all the dive housings and underwater props used on motion pictures in the 1960′s, 70′s, and 80′s. Mako is also credited with co-inventing the Cryo-Lung, an underwater liquid breathing apparatus that is one of a kind. In 1959 Jordan designed the MakoShark Camera, the first underwater camera sold to the public. It’s simple but genius design made it cheap to manufacture and it sold over 55,000 copies at Rexall Drugstores nationwide. ” Every person in my family was working on those cameras almost 24 hours a day, I had no idea how huge of a success that camera was going to be.”
Jordan quickly became a must have on any underwater movie set, he was notorious for his hard work and at times, his short temper. Jordy Klein, his son, fondly remembers some of his Dad’s antics, “Most of the films we worked on were shot in the Bahamas, Dad would buy a return ticket to Miami without a name on it. He would put the ticket in a plastic bag, put it in his pocket, and pull it out underwater to warn whoever was messing up on set. There was definitely a time or two when he sent people up to the surface with a return ticket in their hand. He didn’t put up with much.”
In the early 60′s after filming over 30 episodes of the TV show Flipper, he was hired on for what would be the biggest project of his lifetime, James Bond’s Thunderball.
“I got an offer to build some underwater submersibles for some of the scenes in Thunderball, they were going to pay me $35,000, I was beside myself, that was a whole lot of money back then. I hired another guy and we built all day everyday for a year, I slept at my desk almost every night. It was not an easy task at all, I had to not only design sci-fi looking underwater vessels but they had to be functional as well. It seemed impossible at times but when we finished the results were pretty impressive, it was a pretty slick deal.” Jordan worked on the movie as a cameraman as well but it was his title of Director of Underwater Engineering for Special Effects and Props on the movie that earned himself an Academy Award. The popularity and success of the movie had a huge amount to do with the underwater scenes in which Jordan was instrumental. Jordan even developed a close bond with star Sean Connery.
“Sean and I worked on all the underwater scenes together, he wasn’t a huge fan of some of the situations we put him in but back then a lot of guys were doing their own stunts. I remember the Thunderball pool scene when it was just him, I, and the shark in water. After one take he jumped out and told us we were crazy, we had to put in a piece of plexiglass between him and shark and I was on the side with the shark. I think you can tell in some scenes there is plexiglass in there but they kept those cuts in the movie, not my choice! We worked on all kinds of shots together in not only Thunderball but Never Say Never Again as well. Sean and I are friends to this day, it was a pleasure watching him going from an unknown to a superstar and handle himself so well.”
Jordan also developed a close bond with Ron Howard and worked close by his side on the movies Splash and Cocoon. He was even tapped by James Cameron to help him concept the first scenes of the Abyss. In 2002 Jordan received an academy award for technical achievement for his pioneering efforts in the development and application of underwater camera housings for motion pictures, a fitting end to and illustrious career. Jordan is credited with having worked on over 75 feature films, many major TV series, and countless documentaries. After a lifetime of filming I had to ask him, what was your most memorable moment?
“Well it’s declassified information now, but I used to help film nuclear submarines in the 1960′s. A friend and I had a 12-month contract with the US Navy. We’d take our boat to a coordinate we were given in the Gulf Stream and then design a sort of huge figure 8 course underwater for the submarine and we’d position ourselves along the course to film. We didn’t know which way the sub was going to come from, we just had to be in the water and ready at a certain time and all of a sudden out of nowhere a big black shadow would show up hauling ass. We were asked to film the propellor and the cavitation it created as it cruised by us underwater at around 24 knots. It was hard as hell and scary as hell to be in the right position. The sub would show up out of nowhere, run a few laps, we’d film it and then get back into the boat and head to Nassau where we’d get on my plane and go straight to Washington D.C flying at a low altitude so as to avoid getting the bends. The Nuclear subs at the time were completely stealth except the noise coming from the cavitation from the propellor, that could be picked up by passive sonar. They would analyze our footage of the cavitation, make some adjustments and then send us back out a week later to a different coordinate to film the same thing. It was so dangerous with those huge nuclear subs hauling ass right by, not to mention the cavitation if you were too close would put you in a spin and make you forget which way was up. The cavitation looked like 3 15 foot braided ropes coming off the back of the propellor. On one of the last dives we did the nuclear sub actually surfaced after we had filmed, an officer came out the top and said an Admiral would like to talk to the filmer who was filming on the port side. I realized that it was me so my friend stayed with the boat and I swam over to the sub and climbed in. I was escorted to the office of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the highest ranking Navy Admiral and the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” I knew very well who he was and recognized his face right when I walked in, his face was on the cover of Time magazine the month before. He asked me about various things like our equipment, what I’d seen underwater, and even a few questions about my personal life before dismissing me. As I walked out I realized all the sailors were looking angrily at me as they had to clean up the trail of saltwater I brought in. I crawled out the sail(top of the sub) put on my flippers and slid down the side and swam to my boat. It was a crazy moment I had to keep to myself for some time.”
Jordan’s work can be seen in movies and TV shows such as Creature From The Black Lagoon, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Sea Hunt,The Aquarians, Flipper, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, Never Say Never Again, The Day of the Dolphin, Chips, Splash, Jaws, Cocoon, Miami Vice, The Abyss, China Moon, X-Files, Bermuda Triangle, and SeaQuest too name a few.
Jordan at 90 years old today has never stopped working. He’s currently dreaming up an airboat/front end loader concept that he can use to remove all the weeds in the lake behind his house. His son, Jordy Klein, carries on the cinematic tradition working on major motion pictures as well and specializing in providing world class aerial footage.