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The actor who claims he co-created Mortal Kombat

Artist's conception of the legal claims from some <em>Mortal Kombat</em> actors who sought "co-creator" status in court.
Enlarge / Artist’s conception of the legal claims from some Mortal Kombat actors who sought “co-creator” status in court.

Today, on the 30th anniversary of Mortal Kombat, we’re bringing you an extended excerpt from the upcoming book Long Live Mortal Kombat by David L. Craddock. The book, due for publication this fall, goes behind the scenes to reveal untold stories from the killer franchise’s arcade era and explores how it impacted popular culture. This excerpt details the exaggerations and falsehoods of one of the original game’s most prolific character actors.

Anthony Marquez was at a martial arts tournament in Florida when he heard the news.

It was 1994, and Mortal Kombat was blowing up. Midway’s game had become the highest-grossing coin-op of the summer of 1993 and then lit up sales charts on consoles, selling over 3 million cartridges worldwide during the first three weeks of Acclaim’s “Mortal Monday” event that September.

Daniel Pesina held court before Marquez and their other friends, fellow martial artists who had portrayed characters in Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II. Pesina said John Tobias had told him a Mortal Kombat movie was coming down the pipe, along with droves of merchandise. This was beside the inevitable home versions of Mortal Kombat II, which had been inhaling quarters since its release in the fall of ’93. The friends, who had signed work-for-hire contracts promising hourly rates in exchange for Midway’s use of their likenesses and performances, daydreamed of action figures and T-shirts sporting their digital personas.

“We’re gonna be rich,” Daniel Pesina told them.

The ringleader

When Pesina talked, the martial artists listened. It was a habit that, for many, started during their childhood. Growing up in Chicago, Pesina was 10 years Richard DiVizio’s senior. Marquez looked up to him like an older brother. John Parrish, Dr. Philip Ahn, and Katalin Zamiar deferred to him as well. Ahn was quiet, whereas Pesina was loud and outspoken. Ahn, Parrish, and Zamiar felt they owed him their jobs; Ed Boon and John Tobias had hired them to play characters in Mortal Kombat II, but Pesina had been the one to pluck them from the gym and introduce them to MK’s co-creators.

“Danny has always been our ringleader,” Zamiar says. “I’ve always called him that. He’s the one that’s kind of kept the group together. He was the oldest. When you’re in your 20s and someone’s in their 30s, that’s so much older than you, so much more experienced and wiser.”

Pesina drove home one message over and over: As Mortal Kombat swelled into a global phenomenon, Midway would take care of the characters, as the group referred (and often still refers) to themselves. “Danny was the one who told me they were going to take care of us,” DiVizio says.

“Nothing was set in stone,” says Marquez regarding Pesina’s secondhand promises of wealth. “This was all coming from Danny.”

But the “characters” didn’t know everything about Pesina’s relationship with Tobias and Boon.

Dan Pesina as Johnny Cage in <em>Mortal Kombat</em>.
Enlarge / Dan Pesina as Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat.

Recording for Mortal Kombat’s characters began in the fall of 1991 and continued into early 1992. There were six recording sessions for the first game, each lasting a day or two. Except for the Johnny Cage shoot, one of the performers was present to assist the one in front of the camera. Boon and Tobias were fine with that arrangement; it gave Tobias’ friends a little extra cash, and a seasoned martial artist could coach performers such as Liz Malecki, who had less experience in martial arts, and help with things like balancing on the small staircase everyone sat on to pose for flying kicks and punches.

Mortal Kombat II’s character sessions took place in 1993. This time was different. Almost from the moment MKII began shooting, Dan Pesina had commandeered the role of coach and was a constant presence on the set. Tobias and Boon were fine with that arrangement, as long as the other performers didn’t mind. “Danny was the one that kind of took it upon himself to be there on every shoot,” one of the actors says. “I was told that they never asked him to do that. He just kind of did that on his own.”

Tobias and Boon viewed performers assisting one another on set as helpful but less necessary on MKII. The first game’s production had taught them how to direct their cast. Still, having an experienced martial artist on hand could be helpful, and at the very least, the guys were fun to have around.

But as recording progressed, Pesina overstepped boundaries. He would give performers unsolicited feedback or tell them to do moves a different way, as if he, not Tobias and Boon, knew what the game needed. Some performers approached the co-creators in private to complain. When they were alone, Boon and Tobias discussed their aggravation with Pesina’s interference. Something had to be done. Tobias says he eventually had an awkward conversation with Pesina and told him to cut out the unsolicited feedback.

Then, while training one day at the club, Tobias had a conversation with a personal trainer who said he had been cast in MKII. Tobias was confused; this was the first he’d heard about the trainer’s involvement. The trainer was just as baffled—shouldn’t Tobias, as a co-creator, be in the loop? As the conversation went on, Tobias realized Pesina had been passing himself off as a casting director and choreographer for months; even some performers who had actually been cast in MKII believed Pesina wielded authority. “As far as I know, Daniel was our coach, if you want to call it that,” Ahn says, “kind of like a choreography coach for all of us.”

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