Jonathan Frakes talks William Riker, playing trombone with Phish, and more

Jonathan Frakes talks William Riker, playing trombone with Phish, and more

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: At the beginning of his television career, Jonathan Frakes was part of the cast of the daytime drama The Doctors, but it didn’t take long before he departed the soap opera, moved to Los Angeles, and began a several-year stint of turning up in guest roles on series ranging from The Waltons to Voyagers! After securing the role of Commander William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation (the fourth season of the show is now available on Blu-ray), Frakes found himself with steady work for more than a decade, both as an actor and—in short order—as a director as well. Since stepping away from the Star Trek franchise, Frakes has spent the majority of his time behind the camera, but he still makes a habit of popping up in unexpected places, most recently as a guest voice on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.

The Doctors (1977-1978)—“Tom Carroll” 
Jonathan Frakes: Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be: You’ve done your research! In that case, let me go turn the music off. [Laughs, then vanishes for several seconds.] Tom Carroll: Vietnam vet, child beater, bank teller.

The A.V. Club: That’s a hell of a nutshell summary.

JF: And when he had flashbacks, there was, like, a ’50s sci-fi spinning graphic that looked like it had come out of his ass. [Laughs.] That was, what, the mid-1970s?That was my first big gig!

AVC: How did you find your way into acting? Was it something you started as a kid, or did you get into it in college? 

JF: I acted a little bit in high school, but I thought I was going to be a psychiatry major in college…which isn’t that different from what I do now! But I signed up to be an usher at a play—there was a professional company there for the summer—and the director of the show, Richard Adelman, who went on to be my mentor, came down the hall and said, “Hey, you’re a tall guy. How’d you like to be in this play?” I said, “That sounds great!” It was like a dream. And then I watched these people who were living the dream: rehearsing the play during the day, performing at night, working as a team, collaborating. They were creative, interesting, funny, clever. So I changed majors. [Laughs.]

AVC: When you signed on to The Doctors, were you a soap opera fan at all, or did you just go for it because it was a big gig? 

JF: Oh, I didn’t know anything. I just took every gig I could get. I didn’t even know how famous my wife [Genie Francis] was when I started working with her!

Beach Patrol (1979)—“Marty Green”
JF: Beach Patrol! Marty Green, a Jewish cop from Philly, which, of course, is exactly who you’d cast me as. [Laughs.] Out of his element, working the Venice Beach beat in some very sexy khaki shorts, driving an orange dune buggy. The only Aaron Spelling pilot that didn’t sell, I believe. It was just around the time of Starsky And Hutch and Charlie’s Angels, and all their same crew was on it, who were saying, “Oh, man, you guys are gonna be rich! Go out and buy houses, buy cars. Man, this is gonna go just like all his other shows!” You could hear a pin drop when it didn’t. But then, 10 years later, Baywatch happened, which was basically the same show!

The Associates (1979)—“Kip Dunbar”
I’m A Big Girl Now (1981)—“Neal’s Brother” 
JF: I played Marty Short’s roommate in the pilot for The Associates, which was directed by Jim Burrows, who directed all of those episodes of Taxi. It was my first sitcom with a live audience. I loved that.

AVC: Given that you were in the pilot, was there ever any talk of you being a regular or even a recurring character?

JF: No, I think the character was just to help introduce the series regulars. But I also did another show with Marty [I’m A Big Girl Now], where I played his brother, I think. If I had another series in me—which I’d love to—I’d be like the fourth or fifth banana on a sitcom. I think that’s the best gig in acting. You go to work about three or four days a week, you don’t have to carry the show, you get a free lunch. It’s a really good job.

The Waltons (1979)—“Ashley Longworth, Jr.” 
JF: Ah, I remember him fondly, because I played him more than once! I was engaged to the wonderful Mary McDonough, who played Erin Walton. Ashley was a great, well-written, complex, troubled World War II Naval officer who lived in the imagination of the crazy aunts, but then he turned out to be real and fell in love with Erin. One of the great Waltons moments was how, after the great Will Geer died, they kept his chair empty at the dinner table on Walton’s Mountain. The first character asked to sit in his chair was Ashley Longworth.

AVC: I didn’t realize that. 

JF: See? I’ve got a lot of good shit for you today! [Laughs.] We just did a 40th anniversary Waltons reunion last year, and I was presenting to Mary McDonough, along with Michael O’Keefe, who’d also been romantically involved with her on The Waltons, and who I just directed on King & Maxwell. So there’s your six degrees of separation.

Phish Tracking (1994)—himself
JF: My next-door neighbor at the time was a guy named Paul Fox, who produced R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Jakob Dylan, Björk, and Phish. And the guys from Phish were huge Trekkers, and they used to come to his house to rehearse. Actually, I think they may have rehearsed in my guest house! This was up in Lookout Mountain, in L.A. But they got wind that I played trombone, and they didn’t know I wasn’t that good, but they asked me to the studio, so I came out to the studio to play trombone on Hoist. I played some music; I didn’t do it so well, but all of the outtakes from my trombone playing became a song called “Riker’s Mailbox,” because at the time, my mailbox vaguely looked like a cow, with black and white spots, only this one had been beaten up many times by cars running into it and people running by and smacking it. So my outtakes were named after the mutilated cow mailbox that was the identification of the front of our house, the Hoist album went platinum, and, as a result, I am the proud keeper of a platinum record. So there you go. 

The Lot (1999)—“Roland White”
JF: The Lot was a cool show. That was sort of a Howard Hughes character. Actually, it wasn’t sort of a Howard Hughes character, it was based not that loosely on Howard Hughes. He wore a white suit. It was about Hollywood corruption in the ’30s and ’40s, and it was on a then-obscure channel called AMC. [Laughs.] That was short-lived, but it was a very intriguing idea. Period pieces on TV, with the exception of things like Mad Men, really tend to struggle. Oh, by the way, the great Linda Cardellini, who went on to E.R. and so many other things, was also on the show.

AVC: As was Holland Taylor.

JF: Oh, really? I didn’t even realize that. But she, of course, just did the one-woman show in New York about Ann Richards [Ann], which was produced by the leader of our church in North Hollywood. There are six degrees of separation with all this stuff!

The Dukes Of Hazzard (1981)—“Jamie Lee Hogg” 
JF: Jamie Lee Hogg! “A Hogg marrying a Duke?” [Laughs.] That’s what people would lean out of the window and scream. I was Boss Hogg’s lawyer nephew from Atlanta, and I say with great pride that I was cast in a role where I actually got to roll in the hay with the beautiful Daisy Duke while she was wearing her Daisy Dukes. And the hay—or straw—that we rolled in got stuck in her pantyhose! A couple of years ago, I worked with John Schneider, who is, if anything, better and more handsome than he was then. He was the villain of an episode of Leverage that I did, and he was spectacular.



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Gargoyles (1994-1996)—“David Xanatos”
Adventure Time (2013)—“Adult Finn” 
JF: [Intoning.] Xanatos. I tried to do my Michael Dorn voice for Xanatos. Peculiarly, they’d done the art for the show in Japan, and the character already had a beard like mine and a face not unlike mine. It was very strange, because they had drawn the characters before they did the voices. It’s as if they knew! [Laughs.] Gargoyles has a real strong cult following.

AVC: It does. Anytime we do a Random Roles with someone who was on Gargoyles and it isn’t brought up, we hear about it.

JF: Yeah, it’s interesting, because a lot of Star Trek people came through there. The show was really too smart for television. It made a lot of Shakespearean references. I wish that show was still going.

AVC: How was the experience of voice acting? You really hadn’t done any prior to that, had you?

JF: Well, no. I’d always aspired to it. And I still do. I do a lot of voiceovers on History Channel shows now, and that sort of thing. I used to be the official spokesperson for the paranormal when I did all the Alien Autopsy-type stuff. [Laughs.] I just recently did Adventure Time, which is a cartoon show, if you’re not familiar with it.

AVC: Oh, yeah, that was on the to-ask list. Talk about your obsessive followings.

JF: I know it! And it’s sort of like when I got to play with Phish. You find out that your cool factor goes up by virtue of being on a show that’s a brand-new audience that has nothing to do with Next Gen. And it’s great to keep working!

Alien Autopsy: Fact Or Fiction? (1995)—host
JF: “The footage you are about to see is extremely graphic. Good evening. My name is Jonathan Frakes.” Alien Autopsy. Highest-rated TV special on FOX television up to that point. Completely fabricated. I think the guy who wrote it was sued. I mean, it was just amazing, the audacity of trying to create this hoax, or trying to justify this hoax. But the show was a huge numbers success.

AVC: What were your thoughts when they pitched it to you? 

JF: What were my thoughts? I thought it was a great gig. [Laughs.] I’m a skeptic, man. But I think we’re naïve to pretend to be the only sort of life forms out there. But nor am I convinced that the Roswell incident involved this alien that was on this operating table, as they showed in the TV special. But I’m attached to a couple of different Roswell things, you know. It’s all part of what I mentioned earlier, about being the official spokesperson for the paranormal.

Roswell (1999-2001)—himself, executive producer and director
AVC: Speaking of Roswell, not only did you direct several episodes of that series, but you also appeared as yourself on a few occasions.

JF: That was a very strange experience, to play yourself in a show. That was Jason Katims’ idea. I originally sold the show, too—I was the executive producer on that show—and Jason was and is this wonderful writer, who went on to Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. So I was sort of elbowed out, because I wasn’t a writing producer, but the bone they threw me was to ask me to play myself on a number of episodes that had a sort of sci-fi bent. That always seemed kind of peculiar. Kind of like William Riker playing Thomas Riker. [Laughs.]

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1994)—“Thomas Riker” 
AVC: Being able to play Will Riker’s transporter-created double is part of the way you ended up appearing in four different Star Trek series, which puts you second only to Majel Barrett, doesn’t it?

JF: I think I share that honor with Armin [Shimerman] and Jeffrey Combs, don’t I? [Actually, they only appeared in three. —ed.] But, yes, I did indeed play Thomas Riker on Deep Space Nine, then I also did Voyager, Enterprise, and Next Gen. I’ve been very fortunate.

AVC: What did you think when they originally pitched you the Thomas Riker concept?

JF: Oh, I liked it. And I loved going over onto Deep Space Nine. I was one of its fans. I thought they were very underappreciated. But, you know, the doppelganger is a tried-and-true sci-fi theme. I was just disappointed that they left me in the Cardassian jail, where I’m apparently still sitting, rotting to hell. 



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Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)/Star Trek: Voyager (1996)/Star Trek: Enterprise (2005)—“Commander William T. Riker”
AVC: How did you first end up on the radar to play Will Riker?

JF: I was just submitted, you know? I went in to read for Junie Lowry, who cast the show, and seven auditions later, I was lucky enough to be cast in spite of the rumor being that they’d wanted to get Billy Campbell to play it.

AVC: What was your Trek background at the time? Had you been a fan of the original series?

JF: No. I’m not much of a sci-fi geek. I was certainly aware of the original, but I wasn’t quite aware or prepared for the iconic place that it had in popular culture. And I didn’t have any idea that it was going to change my life in such a positive and substantial fashion.

AVC: How did you feel about the way Riker evolved over the course of the series? Were there any particular missteps that you asked them if they’d change? 

JF: Gene Roddenberry, the late Great Space Bird Of The Galaxy, had asked me originally not to smile, that he wanted Riker to be played with what he referred to as a Gary Cooper, Midwestern glint—not a scowl, but not smiling. And my nature is to smile, so I looked, or thought I looked, very uncomfortable—certainly in the first season—because I was playing Roddenberry’s wish, his note. But Maurice Hurley came on the show and sat me down and he said, “So what do you do?” And I told him about the trombone and the jazz, and then all of a sudden the character started to have a few of the qualities that I could relate to personally. And then after the writers’ strike, I’d grown a beard because I hated to shave. And Roddenberry fell in love with the beard, and the beard became a part of the character in a way that was, as Gene described it, was a nautical, decorative beard, which he took great pride in designing on my face. [Laughs.] So somewhere in there, I sort of found my legs, and I felt like we were really off and running.

AVC: As far as the whole “Will they, won’t they?” with Riker and Troi, did you feel strongly about it one way or the other?

JF: Marina [Sirtis] and I were very convicted to keep the characters’ relationship alive. The writers seemed to forget that we were introduced as former lovers, that in the pilot we’d spoken to each other empathically, but in spite of the best efforts by the writers to sweep the Riker/Troi relationship under the rug, Marina and I steadfastly and consciously found times in every possible episode to play that subtext of our love affair, of our relationship, of our imzadi. Then you fast-forward to Nemesis, and all of a sudden it seemed like such a great idea, so we got married! [Laughs.] But we were very proud of holding onto that relationship in spite of the fact that… Well, they wanted to free us up, obviously, to have relationships with alien lovers.

AVC: Do you still hold out hope that there might yet be a Captain Riker series? 

JF: I keep pitching only half-kiddingly this half-hour called The Rikers In Space, which would certainly wouldn’t be quite like [the book series] Star Trek: Titan. But, no, I’m an optimist. I never give up hope!

Voyagers! (1982)—“Charles Lindbergh”
JF: Oh, that was with the late, great Jon-Erik Hexum. Do you remember that story? I was doing Paper Dolls right next door when he accidentally took his life. God, this Cory Monteith story is horrible, too, isn’t it? 31 years old. I don’t think Jon-Erik was much older than that. [Hexum was 26 when he died. —ed.] But, yeah, on Voyagers! I played Charles Lindbergh, and after I was cast, I was sent to a place called the Western Costume Company, which was close to the Paramount lot, and deep in the bowels of the building, the costume designer pulled out a one-piece leather flight suit and said, “Try this on.” And as I was trying it on, I looked in at the label, on the collar, and it said, “James Stewart, Charles Lindbergh.” How cool is that? I told you, I’m giving you some good shit today! [Laughs.] 

Bare Essence (1983)—“Marcus Marshall” 
JF: That was certainly very important in my life. That was the first time Wendy Fulton was my wife—she was also my wife in North And South—but more importantly, my real wife, Genie Francis, was the star of Bare Essence. I remember coming to work and kibitzing with her at the makeup trailer about what she was listening to on the radio, and she seemed far too young for me. Then we flash-forward a few years to North And South, and I fell head over heels in love with her, and we’ve been together for 28 years now.

Bare Essence, not unlike Beach Patrol, was sort of the one nighttime soap opera that didn’t quite catch on. We did a miniseries with Lee Grant and Linda Evans and Donna Mills, but they of course all had regular television series. But then the show was recast and picked up as a series on CBS. I think we did the miniseries on NBC, and then we went to CBS for the series. John Dehner played my father on the show, Joel Higgins and Bruce Boxleitner were part of it, a lot of people I still see and still keep in touch with. It was a classy, wonderful experience and, as I said, it’s where I met Genie. Oh, and Ian McShane was the villain in it! Yeah, that was a good cast. Good company. 

North And South (1985)/North And South, Book II (1986)/Heaven & Hell: North & South, Book III (1994)—“Stanley Hazard”
AVC: You played Stanley Hazard in three North And South miniseries.

JF: Spineless Stanley Hazard. We were on the road for almost a year with that show, to film all that. That’s when miniseries were huge—just after Roots, I guess—and we were shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, or Jackson, Mississippi, or somewhere. I don’t know if it was David Wolper who made it, but there was a decision made during the shooting of the first six hours that they should try to keep the company together and do a second six hours. So they made deals with us that we’d stay on the road and do North And South, Book II.It was a great gig, and in addition to falling in love with Genie and the beginning of our relationship, I worked with James Read, who played my older brother, and who I got to work with again not too long ago on a show called Persons Unknown. That was great, because I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. And then I worked with another one who died too young, Patrick Swayze, with whom I almost shared a birthday. We were only a day apart. He was fabulous in that show. And the late, great David Carradine. There were some great people in that show. I’ve got a picture—I’m looking at it right now—of Genie with Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln. Johnny Cash did the show. I mean, it was one of the great spectacles. They don’t do miniseries like that anymore. It was pretty epic. And a lot of people still talk about it, because there’s so many history buffs out there who go back and revisit it.

Futurama (2002)—himself
Family Guy (2005/2009) —“Commander William T. Riker,” himself
AVC: You’re responsible for one of the great one-liners in Futurama history.

JF: “Front row?” [Laughs.] I’m reminded of it regularly, but I never actually saw it! Tell me about it.

AVC: Basically, an alien kidnaps the heads of the entire cast of the original series, and as a result, your head gets moved up in the display. And that’s when you go, “Yes! Front row!”

JF: [Laughs.] It’s all coming back to me now. Yeah, that was great. And so was Family Guy. I wish I could do some more Family Guy! I recorded one episode from here in Maine, and I remember I went into their studio in L.A. to do one, but we were never all together in the same room do to them. [Seth] MacFarlane’s a huge Trekker.

The Librarian: Return To King Solomon’s Mines (2006)—director
The Librarian: The Curse Of The Judas Chalice (2008)—director
Burn Notice (2010-2013)—director
Castle (2012)—director, “Richard Castle Fan”
JF: Well, if we’re going to talk Castle, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Nathan Fillion, who’s like my brother, and the beautiful Stana Katic, who I was lucky enough to direct in the Librarian series that I did with Noah Wyle. The women from those Librarian movies… I did one in Africa that starred Noah and Gabrielle Anwar, and then she comes back to L.A. and books Burn Notice, which has now been on for seven years. I directed several episodes of that. The next one we did in New Orleans, and Noah’s guest star was Stana Katic. She comes back to L.A. and books Castle!

Rob Bowman, who was one of our directors on Next Gen, is a producer-director on Castle, and he asked me to come over and direct. And then they called me and said, “We’re going to do a murder at a Star Trek convention, so we’re going to shuffle the schedule so that you get to direct it.” And then Andrew Marlowe, who’s the producing director on the show, said, “Would you make a cameo?” I said, “I’d be thrilled!” And it never really got decided on when it was going to happen or what it was going to be, but then I saw the set where Castle was going to be signing books, and I said, “Oh, this is the perfect opportunity.” So I wrote myself a line and said, “I’m your number one fan,” which I thought would play on many levels. And then Nathan wrote his own line, which was, “How far they’ve fallen.” [Laughs.] So it was a collaborative effort that will go down in infamy. I love doing Castle, and I look forward to going back over there. It’s an amazing show. It’s an old-fashioned show, but it’s a huge success. Nathan and Stana are both delightful, and they’re finally giving Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever more to do. The company over there is spectacular. They’ve got a hit on their hands, and they appreciate it, which makes it a real pleasure to go to work with them.

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