Naomi Kahoilua Wilson insists that making "Johnny Lingo" in 1969 was more like a huge Polynesian luau — fun coming above film formalities.
She's a reliable witness. She was Mahana.
She still is, since the role of the shy outcast Mahana has become what Wilson terms a "full-time church calling" as opposed to a character she once played for a 24-minute film.
"People have asked me what it's like to be a Mormon icon," Wilson, now 60,
said, laughing. "But I think it's more like a Mormon relic."
Many would protest Wilson's modesty, since "Lingo" hasn't decreased in cultural popularity even 40 years later.
"Lingo" tells the story of handsome Johnny Lingo (Blaizdel MaKee) who comes up against the ridicule of his fellow islanders, skepticism of old shopkeeper Mr. Harris (Francis Urry) and the stubbornness of Moki (Joseph Ah Quin) when Johnny pays eight cows for Moki's daughter Mahana's hand in marriage.
Wilson was cast in the part at the last minute. In fact, she didn't even read for it at all.
As a little girl growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, Wilson shared that she had had a recurring dream that she was walking across cobblestones toward a light, struggling to see the face of Christ.
Fast forward to 18-year-old Wilson standing in front of director Wetzel O. "Judge" Whitaker, who was searching for his leading lady — Wilson being the last to audition.
"Judge didn't give me a script," she said. "He just told me to stand on one side of the room and walk slowly toward him."
Whitaker gave Wilson various "scenes" to react to, noting the subtlety of her expressions and body language.
"Right before getting to him, he said, 'Now look up and pretend you see the face of the Savior,'" she said. "I was surprised, but when he said that, my dreams came flooding back. I knew I had the role. It was very spiritual."
The story is indeed Mahana's as she blossoms from an ugly duckling into a swan because Johnny Lingo believes in her — to the shock of the entire village.
Wilson admitted that a year hasn't gone by without her having some kind of speaking engagement about her role in the film; she has never turned one down.
She and her husband, Brent, married in 1970. They met at the Church College of Hawaii — now BYU-Hawaii — and moved to Spokane, Wash., in 1975.
They have three children: son Mai, son Wika and daughter Melanie. The years have given them a daughter-and son-in-law, as well as a grandson.
Wilson is a classical pianist who works with advanced students intending to major or minor in music.
For the past 20 years, she has helped prepare students to face college juries that will determine whether the students will be accepted into music programs or receive prestigious scholarships.
The normally reticent Wilson hasn't consented to do a news story for 15 years, sometimes finding it hard to believe that "Lingo" still matters to so many people.
"You can tell by looking in their eyes," Wilson said. "They start heading toward you and they want to recite the entire script, verbatim. It's amazing."
Wilson has received letters from places like Ghana and the Philippines, asking her about Mahana. "I went for a long time not understanding that this was my role, that years later I would still be talking about her," she said.
Once at an airport, Wilson met an LDS man who worked at the Pentagon. He told her the U.S. Army has shown "Johnny Lingo" to communities in Third World countries that are trying to rebuild after enduring some disaster.
"The psychology of the film speaks to people," Wilson said. "They can identify with Mahana, with feeling worthless but realizing they can rebuild their inner strength."
Wilson spoke several years ago at a fireside in Sacramento, Calif., where her daughter, Melanie, introduced her to two women in burqas visiting from the Middle East.
One was an elderly woman, the other younger and able to speak to Melanie in broken English. At one point, the younger woman turned to the older and began speaking rapidly in their native tongue.
Wilson caught one word: Mahana.
"This older woman, so elegant, walked up to me and repeated 'Mahana,'" Wilson said. "I became emotional. I couldn't believe it."
Mahana, Wilson's only film role, became a compass for her through her life.
She recalled being approached to do a TV commercial that she would have been handsomely compensated for — but was for a local beer company.
"I thought about it," she said. "The money. But I immediately thought, 'Mahana can't do that.' So I turned it down."
Despite not entering the entertainment industry, she kept in touch with the late Blaizdel MaKee (Johnny) for a while.
"He was such a nice man," Wilson said. "So easy to work with. He came to introduce himself to me before we started shooting and he was definitely Mr. Hollywood on campus. Everyone had a crush on him."
But the person she's stayed closest to might be a surprise: Joseph Ah Quin, who played Mahana's ill-mannered, infamously shaggy-wig-wearing father, Moki.
Ah Quin, an accomplished singer who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, even sang in sacrament meeting when Wilson's son left on a mission.
"I do look to him as a father figure," Wilson said. "He's a wonderful man. I know that if I need to seek him out for anything, he is there. We have a real, treasured friendship."
The experience of playing Mahana to Ah Quin's verbally abusive Moki has led many to seek Wilson out for advice.
"I don't have a secret formula to good self-esteem," she said. "It simply will come to you as a natural extension of following the commandments."
She tries to remind those who listen to her to be open to extraordinary, unexpected possibilities.
Perhaps like being known, permanently, for a single, significant film part.
"The Lord has a plan for each of us," Wilson said. "And it is always so very much more than we would have ever imagined for ourselves."
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