The summer blockbuster Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has re-introduced audiences to characters beloved since the 1980s, including the titular fighting reptiles, gutsy reporter April O’Neil, and steel-plated villain Shredder. Missing from the lineup is hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones, the turtles’ human foil (and April’s love interest) in the original comics, TV series, and ’90s film franchise. At Comic-Con, director Jonathan Liebesman and producer Andrew Form told Screen Rant that they were interested in making Casey, originally played on the big screen by Elias Koteas, a part of the 2016 Ninja Turtles sequel.
Around the same time that Ninja Turtles devotees were swarming Comic-Con, Koteas’s castmates from the NBC procedural Chicago P.D. were taking him to a midnight screening of the 1990 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Koteas was 28 years old when he starred as the hockey stick-wielding New Yorker who fights alongside the turtles (played by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop-designed animatronic puppets).
“Most of my [Chicago P.D.] castmates are in their thirties, so they grew up watching it,” Koteas tells Yahoo Movies. “It has nothing to do with me anymore, you know? And I was really just moved by how much joy it brings.”
Koteas, 53, approaches the subject of acting with serious introspection, as befits his alma mater, the Actor’s Studio of New York. So how does a guy like that end up playing scenes with giant rubber turtles? “Quite honestly, my life at that time was in such turmoil. That’s really what I remember,” Koteas admits. “The job was a reprieve from that: going and playing with turtles and pretending I’m this swashbuckling, tree-swinging, rooftop vigilante guy.”
When the Canadian-born actor auditioned, he had no familiarity with the Ninja Turtles comics. What he did have was the start of a very promising career, playing standout characters in films like John Hughes’s Some Kind of Wonderful and Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. For him, the appeal of Casey Jones was the character’s generous spirit. “With whatever was going on in my life, it just felt like, ‘Ah, this is appropriate. Let me live out a fantasy of protecting the weak,’” says Koteas.
Once he was cast, Koteas went through martial arts training, though he stuck with the basics. (“It wasn’t like I was this high-kicking karate guy, you know what I mean? You work with what you got.”) The tough part of shooting, as it turned out, was working with Henson’s complex animatronic puppets. “You could be doing it 16 times, until they get it technically right. So it was a challenge to just try to remain curious and focused while they got the mechanics correct with the turtles’ heads and all these things,” he recalls. “But it was fun. Sometimes you gotta just say, ‘OK, whatever study I did, I’m going to toss it out and play.’”
With the success of the sensory-assaulting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles relaunch, the Internet is full of “Where are they now?” pieces about the original film’s cast. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that Koteas has never gone anywhere (though his flowing Casey Jones locks are gone for good). In addition to his current television work — Chicago P.D. and a 2013 stint on The Killing — he’s been a regular presence in movies, with notable roles in The Thin Red Line, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among many others. In his latest, the independent comedy Jake Squared (in theaters and on VOD Aug. 15), Koteas plays a director whose past selves begin showing up uninvited to his film shoot. Playing Jake at 30, 40, and 50, did he ever picture his Ninja Turtles-era self standing alongside them?
"Yeah, I did think about that!” he acknowledges. But for the most part, the 1990 blockbuster doesn’t cross his mind — except when fans approach him. “I get stopped in the street and it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s Casey Jones!’ There’s nothing but gracious gratitude, if there is such a term,” says Koteas. “So yeah, Ninja Turtles kind of makes me smile when I think about it. But it seems like such a long time ago…. This is probably the most I’ve ever talked about it.”
Photo credit: Photo by Charley Gallay/NBC/NBC via Getty Images, New Line