Brent Spiner on playing Conan O’Brien, Data on Star Trek, and Brent Spiner
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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: Brent Spiner has worked on both stage (Sunday In The Park With George, 1776) and screen (Independence Day, Out To Sea, The Master Of Disguise), but he’s known to most TV viewers for his work as Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Currently, Spiner is starring as himself in the web series Fresh Hell, which begins with the premise that, at some point in the recent past, he committed a still-unspecified act so heinous that he’s forced to rebuild his career and his reputation from the ground up.
Fresh Hell (2011-present)—“Brent Spiner”
Brent Spiner: I’ve played myself before this—and I’ve played myself since, for that matter—and playing yourself one of the most difficult characters you can play, ’cause God knows most of us don’t know who that is. [Laughs.] The one on Fresh Hell is a little easier, because we make it up. It’s a strange kind of hybrid of the real me and… Well, obviously it’s me standing there, and it’s my voice and my face, but it’s also kind of filtered through Harry Hannigan’s take on the character, the one he’s writing. The character of Brent Spiner. We certainly collaborate on the concept of that, but he basically writes the script, then it’s sort of a combination of his voice and my voice.
The A.V. Club: Whose idea was Fresh Hell? Yours, his, or was it a collaboration from the get-go?
BS: Well, I’ve toyed with this idea for a long time. I actually wrote a feature years ago with this sort of concept in mind, and it’s gone through several incarnations, and… It wasn’t ’til I met Chris Ellis, who directed me in a little thing that was actually for a ride in Universal Singapore, for those of you who happen to be going to Universal Singapore. [Laughs.] And we had lunch that day, and I was talking about this idea. I toyed with it a little bit on Twitter in story form at one point. And he thought it was a great idea, and he thought, “Well, let’s bring my friend Harry Hannigan in, who’s a wonderful writer, and let’s see if we can put something together.” So we did, and we did the first five episodes as a lark, just to see if anybody would respond or be interested, and we got enough feedback that was positive that we thought, “Let’s keep going with this and see if we can flesh it out a bit this season.” We’ve had 10 episodes, and they’ve been longer and a little more complete.
AVC: Given the premise of the series, you showed admirable restraint by waiting until the seventh episode to bring one of your fellow Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members in for a guest appearance.
BS: [Laughs.] Well thank you. I appreciate that. You know, if I can get the rest of them on, I will—and I will, so I don’t know how long that restraint will go on, because that particular episode proved to be really popular.
AVC: How much of LeVar Burton’s material was written, and how much of it was just two old friends riffing back and forth?
BS: Well, the majority of it was written. There was definitely some riffing going on, though. [Laughs.] As there is with all of us. I mean, most of the people I’m working with… Harry and Chris and most of the other actors: Brian Palermo, who plays Tommy The Agent, and Jeff Lewis, who’s in the porn class, and Sandeep [Parikh], who’s the Indian billionaire, those guys are about the best improv guys in Los Angeles, so their impulse is to throw some amazingly funny line in when you least expect it. And I love that about them. And Harry and Chris are sitting there while we’re doing it, and Chris is directing, obviously, but if we start fooling around a little bit, Harry comes in, and he’s got some addition that makes it even funnier. But we start with a complete script.
AVC: Given that a bit of fun is had with ST:TNG fandom in the series, are you concerned about alienating any of the fans with Fresh Hell? Do the majority of them seem to have a pretty good sense of humor, in your experience?
BS: Well, so far everyone seems to have a pretty good sense of humor. [Laughs.] I mean, we’re really not taking the piss out of ’em too much. God knows I’m doing it way more to myself than I am to them, and I think they can handle that balance of about 95 percent to 5 percent. Really, the kind of goofy fans we had in the episode with LeVar is the only time we’ve done that, and it’s not our intention, really, to mock Star Trek. I mean, that’s not really what it’s about at all. Sometimes it just lends itself to the moment. [Laughs.]
AVC: So how far do you have the series mapped out?
BS: Well, we’ve got it… Wait, what episode did we just do?
AVC: Eight, I think.
BS: Then we’ve got it completely mapped out to the end of the eighth episode. [Laughs.] No, no, we’ve got two more episodes this season that we’ve completed, and then we’re kind of consulting with each other right now on where we’re going to go with season three. So we kind of know where it’s all going to end, and we know what the incident was that sent me down this path, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get to either of those things.
AVC: Have you toyed with the idea of not revealing the incident at all?
BS: Yeah. And the more we do it, the more it seems pointless to reveal it. The incident really is… It’s the comic umbrella under which all of it operates. Because underneath it all, it’s actually something kind of serious going on. Obviously we’re doing a comedy, and our intent is to entertain, but we’re also really aware and trying to stay aware of the subtext of what it’s like to reach a certain age and be dismissed, basically, from the fraternity you’ve always wanted to be a part of, and the desperation involved in trying to claw your way back into it.
Joey (2005)/Family Guy (2009)/The Big Bang Theory (2011)/The Guild (2011)—“Brent Spiner”
AVC: As you said, you’ve played yourself before bringing Fresh Hell to the Internet. The first time appears to have been, of all places, on an episode of Joey.
BS: Joey being one of my finest performances ever. [Laughs.] And, you know, Matt LeBlanc’s basically doing the same thing right now, playing himself on Episodes. When I did Joey, I really leaned on them to make me the biggest ass they possibly could, because, frankly, everyone in their heart of hearts thinks of themselves that way. Or at least I do, anyway. [Laughs.]
AVC: How was the ST:TNG reunion for Family Guy? Presumably most of you were doing your lines independent of each other.
BS: All of us were independent, I think. I mean, I don’t know that for sure, but I know I was by myself, with the exception of Seth MacFarlane, who was there reading Stewie’s lines, along with the lines of every other character he does. But that was great. I loved doing that. It was a privilege to be working with him, ’cause he’s quite brilliant.
AVC: You did, at least, get to re-team with Wil Wheaton for your Big Bang Theory appearance.
BS: That was really fun. You know, I’ve gotten such good feedback from that, and I hardly did anything. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m the tag of the show! That was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I think I worked an average of about 10 minutes a day. It took longer to get to the studio than I actually worked. So I regard the driving there as the actual job. The work itself was just fun. They’re a great bunch of people. Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre, the guys who run that show, are really funny and really smart, and the cast is fantastic to work with.
AVC: Did the experience of doing The Guild help you in any way with Fresh Hell?
BS: Oh, sure. Needless to say, I was impressed by Felicia [Day] and her moxie with how to do a web series. I mean, she’s the queen of the web, y’know? She’s really figured it all out, and it was impressive. It was nothing like our set, because her set was like working on a real film. Like, she had a caterer, she had wardrobe people, she had two makeup artists… I mean, we have makeup and we have wardrobe, but Felicia was, like, on it. She had two cameras operating, sets, extras everywhere. It was unbelievable. I don’t know what her budget was or is, but she had sponsors for her show, and we don’t have a sponsor yet, so basically, the difference is, our moms make our costumes. [Laughs.] I did learn a lot from her, though, and I was able to usurp some of her talent. I got Greg Aronowitz, who does her sets, to do mine as well, and he’s just amazing. He can work miracles with nothing. I don’t know if you’ve seen the episode with the Indian billionaire, but he created that whole set, and when Harry wrote it, he wrote this fantastic office that we were going, like, “How are we going to do this with no budget?” And Greg came up with it. And it was fantastic.
My Sweet Charlie (1970)—“Local” (uncredited)
The Dain Curse (1978)—“Tom Fink”
BS: The Dain Curse was a great job. I was in New York, and I was young—I think I’m 28 years old in that—and I got to work with James Coburn and Jean Simmons and Jason Miller. Plus, it was a Dashiell Hammett story, and I had a great character. It was fantastic to shoot. That was really, really exciting for a young actor.
AVC: It seems to have been your first substantial onscreen role.
BS: Yeah, basically. I did have a tiny moment in a TV movie called My Sweet Charlie, starring Patty Duke.
AVC: Right, that’s on IMDB. You have the lofty credit of “Local,” plus the additional caveat that you were technically uncredited.
BS: Yep. That was me. But I think I was technically uncredited as Local #1, because there were three of us. But I had the most lines. [Laughs.] You know, a couple of years ago, I went to see a production of Wicked in San Francisco with a friend of mine, one that Patty Duke was in, and he said, “Do you want to meet her?” And I said, “Yeah!” And I went backstage, and she walked out of her dressing room, looked at me, and said, “I know you.” And I went, “Well, uh, yeah, I was in My Sweet Charlie.” And she said, “Yeah! You were the guy in the car on the road!” And I was. [Laughs.] It was amazing. It really was incredible. But, you know, there’s every chance she was thinking I was uncredited Local #2 or #3. It’s just hard to say for sure.
AVC: So how did you find your way from the stage to in front of the camera? You started in theater, correct?
BS: That’s right. I went to New York out of college, and in my day, we were told that was the way you became a good actor. You don’t go to Hollywood, you go straight to New York and work in the theater. So that’s what most of the people I knew did.
AVC: What led you down the path of acting to begin with?
BS: Uh, I think it was somewhere around age 3 when I fell down the stairs at my house, and I got up and did a Jerry Lewis impression and got a big laugh. And I thought, “Oooh, I like that. I think I need to do this for a living!” [Laughs.] And I had a fantastic teacher in high school. I had one of those guys you dream of having, who molds your life and inspires you to go in a particular direction, and he was quite brilliant. His name was Cecil Pickett, and a lot of the kids from my high-school drama class are in professional show business and have done quite well. Both of the Quaid brothers, Randy and Dennis, were in my class, and Tommy Schlamme, who produced and directed The West Wing with Aaron Sorkin, among many others. Marianne Williamson, who did A Course In Miracles, she was in my high-school drama class, too. So it was kind of an amazing class. I went to the Strasberg Institute in New York for a little while after I got there, and I’ve never seen anybody who was in any of my classes there ever again. I mean, that’s not to say they didn’t become somebody. I’m not sure. I mean, Sam Jackson could’ve been in my class, for all I remember. [Laughs.] But I do know that when I look around in show business, I see a lot of people who were in my drama class in high school.
American Playhouse: Sunday In The Park With George (1986)—“Franz”/“Dennis”
AVC: As far as your early New York theater work, you had a relatively substantial role in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George in 1984, which was immortalized for an episode of PBS’ American Playhouse. What was your first appearance on the New York stage?
BS: I did a couple of little Off-Broadway things, but my first Broadway show was A History Of The American Film, written by Chris Durang. Swoosie Kurtz was one of the stars. It was a wonderful show. It closed in 40 performances. I think it was kind of ahead of its time. I tended to do a lot of shows that were ahead of their time and didn’t run very long. [Laughs.] I did a great show Off-Broadway called Leave It To Beaver Is Dead that was at the Public Theater in New York. It was written by Des McAnuff, who’s an illustrious director now, and it starred… Well, I was in it, Mandy Patinkin, Dianne Wiest, Saul Rubinek, and Maury Chaykin. It was an amazing show. But it was definitely ahead of its time, and people didn’t quite get it. About two or three years later, plays started to come along that were very much in that style, and they were huge hits. And we thought, “Man, if we’d waited a couple of years…” But timing is everything, as you know.
Stardust Memories (1980)—“Fan In Lobby”
BS: Yes, that was just after The Dain Curse. My other big uncredited role from back then. I always refer to it as Sharon Stone’s and my first film. [Laughs.] I was beyond thrilled to be there, of course, and I was in a scene with… I actually had some funny dialogue, a little piece, and we shot all day in this big ballroom. Gordon Willis was the director of photography, and there were several things happening in the ballroom, and then I had my shtick, and at the end of the day, Gordon turned to Woody Allen and said, “We cannot accomplish all of this in this space. It’s impossible.” And we’d been rehearsing and trying to shoot this thing all day. So Woody said, “Okay, let’s do something else.” He looked at me and said, “Come back tomorrow, I’ll put you in something else.” And he did. And it wasn’t as good, but… That’s just the way it worked, y’know? I was just happy to be there.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2004)—“Graham Barnes”
BS: I really enjoyed doing that. I got to work with Margaret Colin, who was a blast to work with, and a wonderful actress, and Taylor Roberts. She was fantastic. And getting to work with Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s amazing. But I loved the characters of the parents, these sick psychiatrists. [Laughs.] I actually wanted them to do a series based just on these two sick people, because I would’ve enjoyed playing that many more times.
AVC: Do you enjoy doing these one-off roles?
BS: Yeah, it’s fun to do something different. And there are things you can do in a small palate that you can’t necessarily do in a larger role. You can go a little further and do things you could never pull off for any length of time, but you can do for the short run. Like, I don’t know you could do a whole film about Dr. Okun from Independence Day. Although I could be wrong. If Roland Emmerich’s thinking about doing that at some point, I’d be glad to don the long hair again. [Laughs.] But sometimes you can just go a little bit further out with something you’re only going to be doing for a short run.
Alphas (2011)—“Dr. Kern”
BS: I had a really nice time on that. It was a bunch of really good actors, and I was particularly thrilled to be working with David Strathairn. Basically, my deal is that I choose roles based on three criteria. One is the role, obviously, if it’s something that speaks to me. Two is, are they gonna pay me? [Laughs.] And three is, who am I gonna work with? And, really, if one of those is there, I’m pretty likely to do it, but it’s particularly important to me who I’m going to work with, ’cause that’s part of the joy. I mean, I think we’re all fans, and I understand the whole world of fandom, because I am a fan. So when I get to work with people I admire, it’s such a bonus, so it was an easy sell when I got this phone call asking, ‘Will you do this thing with David Strathairn?’” Also, they didn’t ask me to audition, which is another bonus. But they said, “All your scenes will be with David,” and I said, “I’m there!”
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)—“Conan O’Brien”
BS: That was kind of interesting. I mean, I love the South Park guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They’re geniuses. I throw that word around a lot, but I really do mean it. I think they are geniuses. And they called me one Saturday morning and said, “Can you do an impression of Conan O’Brien?” And I said, “I don’t know.” Because that was really… He hadn’t been on the air that long, and to be honest, I hadn’t watched much of him at that point. I have since, but at that point, I hadn’t. So I said, “I don’t know,” and they said, “Well, can you come down to our studio? We’re releasing the movie on Thursday, and we still don’t have a voice for Conan O’Brien.” So I went to Santa Monica to their studio and said, “Well, what does he sound like?” They said, “Well, just try it one time. Read the copy.” And I read the copy one time, and they went, “Okay, that’s fine. Thanks a lot, that’ll do. That’s perfect.” So I assumed, “Well, I must’ve sounded like Conan O’Brien, or a reasonable facsimile or something.” And there I am in the movie. I was very lucky.
I have to say, though, that somebody pointed out to me on YouTube last year that Conan O’Brien was being interviewed, and he was talking about how, oddly enough, he went to see that movie in Hawaii with his girlfriend or wife or whoever, and he didn’t even realize his character was in it. But there he was, and he said, “This voice comes out of me, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not me! Who is that? That doesn’t even sound like me!’ So I asked about it, and I found out it was this guy from Star Trek, and apparently he went to those guys and begged him to let him do my voice, ’cause he said he sounded so much like me, so finally they let him do it.’” I mean, he couldn’t have been more wrong, obviously. I didn’t beg them at all. They asked me, and I said, “I’ll do it.”
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)—“Corrine Burns’ Boss”
BS: Oh, wow! Actually, I had a really nice part in that movie. I mean, I have, like, one second in the final-cut version, where I say “You’re fired” to Diane Lane. That’s about all you see of me. But I actually opened the movie with a hilarious scene, and… [Laughs.] You know, show business is bizarre, the things that happen. I was in New York doing a play at the time, and I auditioned for this part for Lou Adler, who directed the movie. He flew me to Vancouver, back in 1981, I guess, when Vancouver was unbelievably beautiful. They hadn’t done the whole high-rise rape of the city, as they’ve now done in Toronto, too, where everywhere you look, it’s steel-and-glass high-rises instead of the beautiful city it was. So I was thrilled to be there, and then I had this really funny, great scene. It took place in a McDonald’s, where Diane was employed by me, but I was being interviewed by a TV station and… Well, I won’t go into what the scene was all about, but it was a really fun scene. But somewhere, something happened.
The woman who wrote the movie, her name is Nancy Dowd. She’s a wonderful writer. She wrote Coming Home. And when I read the script, at that time, I thought, “This movie is going to do for girls what Breaking Away did for boys.” I thought it was going to be huge. It was a great script. So I had two days of shooting on the film, I finished, and then I get a phone call from Nancy. “Can you join me for dinner?” I say, “Sure!” So I met her for dinner, and she said to me, “How would you like to stay on the movie?” And I was shooting on the first two or three days of the shoot, but she said, “How would you like to stay on the whole movie—we’re going to shoot here and in London—and coach Diane?” Remember, Diane was 14 at the time. And I said, “Well, yeah, I’d love to do that!” I mean, my God, to go to London? So she said, “Okay, great! Well, you have to ask Lou.” Because they weren’t getting along at the time. And I said, “Uh, okay.” So right before I was leaving, he took a break and was playing basketball, as he tended to do between scenes, and I said, “Hey, Lou, how would you like me to stay on the movie and coach Diane?” And he was not happy with that question at all, which I understand now, but, hey, I took a shot. I was young, and I wanted to stay on the movie.
But then the movie came out, and… A lot of people had seen early cuts of it and had told me how good the scene was, so I was really excited. But then the movie comes out, there I am saying, “You’re fired,” and that was it. And that’s what happens in movies. People shoot movies that are 10 hours long, and they have to cut them down. But I thought for sure that scene would stay in the movie, because it was just such a great piece of writing. So I called his office to see if I could at least get the scene, because I didn’t really have much of a reel at the time, since I was pretty new in the movie business. And they informed me that that scene had been destroyed. [Laughs.] I was, like, “Really? He was that offended by my asking to stay on the movie?” I don’t even know how it would’ve happened, but, yeah, they told me they didn’t have a copy of it and said that it did not exist any longer. Which is a real shame, because I’d still like to have it. But there you go. [Laughs.]
Threshold (2005-2006)—“Dr. Nigel Fenway”
BS: That was a really interesting series that I think would’ve been really great had it continued. I know Brannon Braga, who was running the show at the time, had a lot of really interesting ideas for what was going to happen the second, third, fourth, and fifth seasons, and they had it really planned out what was going to go on. But CBS just decided to pull the plug on it. Y’know, we were kind of never one of their favorites, even though we’d gotten really good reviews for the pilot. We were on at, what was it, 10 o’clock on a Friday night? That’s kind of where you bury a show if you don’t want it to last. But, wow, what a cast, huh? You could never get that cast together again.
[Among Threshold’s regulars were Carla Gugino, Peter Dinklage, and Brian Van Holt, who now plays Bobby on Cougar Town, along with Charles S. Dutton and Rob Benedict. —ed.]
AVC: Not without significantly more money, anyway.
BS: Yeah, exactly. That was a wonderful bunch of people to work with. One of the things about working on Star Trek that was always so great was that we all got along as well as we did. We really became family. And I was, like, “Wow, is this ever going to happen again? Am I ever going to work with another bunch of people I get along with this well?” And then, sure enough, Threshold was just a great bunch of people, and I thought, “Hey, I could hang with these people for a long time!” But, unfortunately, it was 13 episodes and we were out of there. It’d be nice if they’d come back and done, like, a big three-hour TV-movie finale for that thing. But it’s too late now.
Out To Sea (1997)—“Gil Godwyn”
BS: That was like a dream come true for me, because I got to work with Jack [Lemmon] and Walter [Matthau], who were unbelievable. And Donald O’Connor and Elaine Stritch and Dyan Cannon, and on and on and on. That job, more than any I’ve ever done, I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning. And not only that, but I had a great part. So it was just beyond fun on every level. When I go to the old folks’ home, I’m gonna be sitting in a rocking chair, telling everybody how I worked with Jack and Walter. [Laughs.] And we got to be really good friends. It was just thrilling, every day. Every single day. I had a big couple of musical numbers in it, and I remember doing one of them and shooting it from beginning to end. Of course, when you see it in the movie, it’s cut into a lot with other scenes, but we shot the number straight through, so here I am doing it, and sitting right in front of me in the audience was Donald O’Connor. And I was, like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m performing a musical number in front of Donald O’Connor,” who’s one of the greats of the silver screen. But it was a thrilling experience, it really was. And it began a relationship I had with [director] Martha Coolidge for a few years that was wonderful, and she certainly cast me in the best roles I’ve ever had in film.
The Aviator (2004)—“Robert Gross”
BS: That came about through John Logan, who I’ve been friends with for many years. He’s maybe the No. 1 screenwriter in the world today, not to mention that he won a Tony for Best Play for Red. So he may just be the best writer period right now. He wrote The Aviator, and I was in New York doing a play, and he asked if they would see me for the film, just meet with me. ’Cause that’s what Martin Scorsese does. He pretty much does the Woody Allen thing of just bringing people in and meeting them. I didn’t audition or anything like that. But I went into his office… It was his screening room in his office, actually, and I sat and schmoozed with him for about two minutes, which I think is standard, and, y’know, we got on fine.
And then he was kind of wrapping up—“Well, thanks for coming in…”—and I thought, “Oh, God, this is over and I’m out of here, and I really don’t want to leave.” [Laughs.] So I said, “Can I ask you a question?” He said, “Sure.” “What movie do you think you’ve seen more than any other movie?” And he said, “Wow, let me think about that. I guess probably The Searchers.” And I said, “Well, oddly, that’s the movie I’ve seen more than any other movie.” And I wasn’t just BS-ing. It’s true. It’s my favorite movie. So we started talking about The Searchers, and then he went on to tell me a story about when he first met John Wayne, and he said, “Hey, you be me and I’ll be Wayne,” and I said, “No, let me be Wayne!” Anyway, it was a very pleasant conversation, it was clear to him that I was a big movie fan, and by the time I got home, there was a phone call, asking if I’d mind doing one scene in the movie. And I’m, like, y’know, I didn’t have a problem doing one scene in Dude, Where’s My Car? I’m certainly not going to have a problem doing one scene in a Scorsese movie! [Laughs.]
It was a fabulous experience shooting it, working with Leo [DiCaprio] and Danny Huston in the scene. It was great. I think what was most eye-opening about it was that Scorsese was just like any good director you work with. He basically works just like any other director. You work the scene, you try to find what’s best in it and make it work. That’s what it was like.
Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000)—“Pierre”
AVC: Since you brought it up…
BS: [Laughs.] You know, Pierre could be the best thing I’ve ever done. When you distill it down to a minute and a half of work, that may be my finest effort. That’s one of those things I was talking about earlier. I could never have played that character that way for the length of an entire film, but for a minute and a half, I figured I could pull it off. And I had a blast doing it, working with Andy Dick. It was nothing but fun.
AVC: You weren’t actually credited for the role, though. Was that something the producers did to try and surprise the audience?
BS: No, you know, I think I asked for that up front. It came as an offer, and I read it and I thought, “You know, I don’t know if I’m going to be any good, if I can pull this off, I don’t need it on my résumé particularly…” I regret that now. That was really an arrogant move on my part, because… I think honestly, believe it or not, that Dude, Where’s My Car? in a way represents its time better than almost any film made around that. I mean, you look at that movie now, and you know exactly when it was made. And that’s what kids were like then. So I really like the movie, I think it’s genuinely funny, and I wish I hadn’t been so arrogant about it. And, of course, I didn’t know it was going to be my best work, either. [Laughs.]
Night Court (1985-1987)—“Bob Wheeler”
BS: I think it was the first thing I did when I came out to Hollywood. It was just one of those things that… I’m from Texas, and it was a character I’d been doing when I was a kid, just for fun. Me and my friends would go into a Denny’s or something, and I would be that guy and order… [Bob Wheeler drawl.] A patty melt. Yeah. With extra cheese. [Laughs.] So I would do that character, and I never dreamed when I was a kid that I’d walk into a casting session and they’d hand me a script and I’d read it and go, “Oh my God! This is…” It was a character I called Elmo, and I read it and went, “Oh my God, this is Elmo! I can just go in there and do Elmo!” And I did, and they let me do it. I think we were probably going to become at least semi-regulars on the show in the next season. We did six of them, though. And when I say “we,” I mean Annie O’Donnell, who played my wife, and myself. I think they were kind of prepping us to come on in some capacity like that, but then I got Star Trek, and that was that.
AVC: It had to have been strange for unaware Trekkies to tune into Night Court reruns and see you in that role.
BS: I’m sure it was. But Rick Berman, who produced Star Trek, was a big Night Court fan. So he knew who I was as soon as I walked in.
Mama’s Family (1986-1987)—“Billy Bob Conroy”
BS: Oh, dear. Oof. Well, that was a favor. [Laughs.] That was… Actually, the lady who cast Night Court asked me to do it, because it was a Friday, and the person who’d been rehearsing it all week got sick and couldn’t come to the taping. And she figured I could put it together pretty quickly—it was not all that big a challenge, frankly—and I said, “Of course.” I owed her, after all. Gilda Stratton was her name. She was a really, really nice person. So I did it. And I, uh, think anything else is better left unsaid. [Laughs.]
The Simpsons (2012)—“Robots”
BS: Well, you know, what can I say? I felt like I was a natural. [Laughs.] I know a guy who writes on the show, it was his episode, and he called and said, “Would you do it?” And I said, “Yeah.” There’s not really much else to tell, except that I was thrilled to be on The Simpsons, because it’s one of the greatest series in the history of television. Plus, you know, voice acting is about the easiest thing to do. You roll out of bed, throw your clothes on that you had on the night before, you go into the studio, and nobody cares, just as long as you can speak.
AVC: It hasn’t happened yet, but we keep waiting for someone to say, “Man, I can’t tell you how much I hate voice acting.”
BS: [Laughs.] Can you imagine? I mean, really. It’s such an easy job. It’s like stealing money, really. Which I’m always happy to do.
The Master Of Disguise (2002)—“Devlin Bowman”
BS: Ah, yes. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie—
AVC: “This is what you’re doing. This is what I want you to do.”
BS: [Laughs.] Exactly. Well, Dana Carvey is hilarious. He’s a really, really funny, talented guy. You know, I can’t think of anything I’ve ever done that I regret doing, and I certainly don’t regret doing Master Of Disguise, because I got to hang around Dana. And, again, I got to play a funny part. There was one thing my character did that involved flatulence and laughing at the same time—that was in the script—and that was basically what sold me on it. I really thought, “This can’t help but be funny.” And when I saw the film, I was proud that I’d had those moments.
AVC: Everyone should have a farting scene in their clip reel.
BS: Don’t you think? And now I’ve got mine. [Laughs.]
Tales From The Darkside (1984)—“Reverend Peabody”
AVC: You’ve turned up in several anthology series over the years: Tales From The Darkside, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits…
BS: Wow, yeah, I have. You know, of those, the only one that really stands out for me is Tales From The Darkside, for a couple of reasons, one in particular being who I got to work with on it, which was Eddie Bracken. I mean, what a man. Someone who’s done Preston Sturges movies, and I actually got to work with him? And he was great. I really enjoyed him. He told me a great story. He did The Odd Couple on Broadway, replacing Art Carney, and he said, “Art Carney did it for six months and I did it for three years, and I don’t think anyone I’ve ever spoken to saw me. They all saw Art Carney.” [Laughs.] That’s just the way it goes. But the other thing about it was that the kid in the episode was played by Christian Slater! He was all of about 12 or so, but I’ve run into Christian many times since then, and he always does his line from Tales From The Darkside whenever he sees me.
Young Justice (2011)—“The Joker”
BS: You know, again, they asked me to do it, and I went in and… Y’know, there’s such a grand fraternity of actors who’ve played the Joker, not the least of whom is Mark Hamill, who voiced it for so long and was so great. I did it one time and… I’ve gotten some feedback on it from people who’ve seen it and really enjoyed it, but I don’t know. I don’t know if the character’s come back and it was someone else playing it, or maybe they never did it again. But I loved it. It was a great part to play.
Rent Control (1984)—“Leonard Junger”
BS: Oh wow. Well, Rent Control was an interesting movie. It was directed by… I had done a couple of plays off Broadway, and this Italian director came, his name was Gian Luigi Polidoro, and he determined I was the person to play the lead in his low-budget comedy. He’d won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and… He was, y’know, a skilled director. He and his girlfriend had written this script, it was an American comedy, and they decided I was the guy to play the part. I was young, they offered me the lead in the film, and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And I’m telling you, there is a movie waiting to be made about the making of a movie like that, particularly at that time in New York. I mean, we shot all over the streets of New York without permits. We would literally grab a shot and run. But Rent Control… I think the total cost was $100,000, and to this director’s credit, I think it looks like $200,000. [Laughs.]
AVC: Would you recommend that people try to hunt it up?
BS: Well, it wouldn’t hurt. I mean, it’s not a terrible movie, certainly not for the budget they had. And, again, it’s such an ’80s kind of thing. And there are some shots in it… It just occurred to me that there are some beautiful shots with the World Trade Center in the background.
Oh, you know, I can tell you one other story about Rent Control. The lead actress in the film, her name was Elizabeth Stack, and it turned out she was Robert Stack’s daughter. The only problem with that—and she was lovely—was that she was basically hired because [Polidoro] thought she was [film producer] Ray Stark’s daughter. And he figured that if he ran out of money, her father would kick in some more. [Laughs.] And I can still remember the day he freaked out when he realized she was actually Robert Stack’s daughter. He was just screaming “Untouchables!” over and over. [Stack starred as Eliot Ness in the TV series The Untouchables from 1959 to 1963. —ed.]
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)—“Earl Mills”
BS: That’s probably the best role I’ve ever been given in a film. And it was a great experience to work with Halle [Berry] and Klaus Maria Brandauer, an Austrian actor who’s a hero of mine. Martha Coolidge directed the movie, giving me another shot, and it was an amazing experience.
AVC: When you take on a role when you’re playing a real person, do you go out of your way to do your own research?
BS: I try to do as much as I can. I probably knew more about Earl Mills than anybody on earth besides people who actually knew him. [Laughs.] But as it turns out, sometimes that bites you. In this case, I saw pictures of Earl, and…I actually met him. He was quite old at the time, but he had this sort of curly red hair, so we did that in the film. I got a perm and had red hair, and… It was a mess. [Laughs.] It wrecked my hair. But I wanted to look right. I remember a review—a very positive one—in The New York Times that said I was so good in the role that I “even managed to overcome a terrible red wig.” I wanted to write her and tell her about the agony I’d gone through with the perm, but I thought better of it.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)/Star Trek: Generations (1994)/Star Trek: First Contact (1996)/Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)/Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)—“Lt. Commander Data”
AVC: How did you find your way into Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first place? You’ve said Rick Berman was a Night Court fan, but was it a cattle-call audition for the series? It seems like everyone would’ve wanted to be a part of a new Star Trek series.
BS: You know, I don’t think everybody wanted to be on it. I certainly didn’t. [Laughs.] It wasn’t exactly a cattle call. I had an agent, and they were seeing people for the parts, so my agent said, “Here’s the script, see if there’s anything that speaks to you.” And I did, and I called my agent and said, “I think this character Data is kind of interesting,” and she said, “Well, okay, I’ll get you the appointment with Junie Lowry.” I had to read with the casting agent first, ’cause nobody really knew me then. So I did, and Junie was very nice and said, “I think you should see the producers.” And then after that, I had, I think, six different auditions for the role. And finally it was me.
AVC: How was the process of creating Data as a character? He evolved considerably during the course of that first season.
BS: Yeah, but, y’know, it really was not that difficult a process, because I was playing something that doesn’t exist. So it was really based on… Imagination was the key element in that, and whatever I could think of, I could do, because there was no precedent for it. It wasn’t like someone was going to say, “Well, an android would never do that.” They didn’t know! [Laughs.] So it was kind of nice to do. It was open to interpretation, so you could do whatever you wanted.
AVC: Most hold up “Measure Of A Man” as one of the strongest Data-centric episodes. Do you have any personal favorites?
BS: No, I really don’t. Because I didn’t really watch the show. I still haven’t seen about 150 of them. [Laughs.] So I didn’t really think of them too much in terms of episodes. I thought of them as kind of one long seven-year episode. But it was a very, very pleasant episode. Again, I’ve worked with some great people, and I was paid handsomely, and it was a nice role. So the whole experience was positive for me.
AVC: How were the films for you?
BS: Oh, you know, some were good, some were not. [Laughs.] Some were better than others. I think everyone agrees First Contact was our best film, and even at that, they’re kind of… I don’t know, they’re sort of movies. But they’re kind of really Star Trek movies, if you take my meaning. It’s hard for me to say. I was glad to be doing them. Whether they were good isn’t really up to me to determine, and it doesn’t matter what I think. I thought we had a really nice script on Nemesis, and the audience didn’t seem to care for it, so what can you do?
AVC: Any such talk presumably would’ve died with the J.J. Abrams reboot, but prior to that, had there ever been anything approaching serious discussion about doing another Next Generation film?
BS: No. We knew Nemesis was our last film. They didn’t even really want to make another one, but finally they thought about it and were like, “Would you like to make another one?” And Rick talked to all of us, and we all agreed, “Yeah, let’s do one more.” But we kind of knew that was it. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m certainly too old to do it again. [Laughs.]
AVC: Which was worse to put on, the yellow makeup as Data, or the old-age makeup as Dr. Noonien Soong?
BS: Well, I have to go with Data’s makeup, because that was basically every day, 10 months out of the year, for seven years. There were only a couple of days that I had to endure for Dr. Soong. You know, initially I objected to the Data makeup. I said, “Why do I need this makeup? Why can’t I just look like me?” In fact, I said to Gene Roddenberry, “Don’t you think that by this time in history, they would’ve figured out how to make skin look like skin?” And he said, “What makes you think that what you have isn’t better than skin?” And I went, “Um, okay.” [Laughs.] Can’t argue with Gene Roddenberry. He was a pretty brilliant guy.
Star Trek: Enterprise (2004-2005)—“Dr. Arik Soong”
AVC: How did that gig come about? Did they just approach you and say, “We’d like to incorporate the Soong legacy into Enterprise”?
BS: Um… you know, I think Rick Berman just called me and asked me if I wanted to do the show, and he said they’d write an arc if I’d do it. And they’d pay me well. [Laughs.] And I said, “Sure, I’ll do that! Do I have to wear a lot of makeup?” And he said no, so I said okay. They were nicely written and nicely directed episodes. I enjoyed working with Scott [Bakula]. So it was good to do, and, as you said, it did serve to enhance the Soong legacy.
AVC: That particular arc, along with several other episodes in that last season of Enterprise, worked well because it felt like they’d finally stopped trying to completely invent their own history out of thin air and were trying to build on existing material from the Trek universe.
BS: Yeah, I agree. I think that Enterprise was getting better and better, actually, and if it had kept going, I think it would’ve turned into as good a show as any other in the Star Trek franchise.
Independence Day (1996)—“Dr. Brackish Okun”
BS: Ah, yes, Dr. Okun. Who’s named after a special-effects guy named Jeff Okun, who had done Stargate for Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, who did Independence Day. But “Brakish” just came up one day when Jeff Goldblum and I were improvising, and he told me his character’s name and I told him mine. [Laughs.] That was a sweet, sweet job, because it was one of those big surprises. I had no idea I was part of what was going to be a big mega-hit. I thought I was doing a B sci-fi movie. And, actually, it was Jeff Goldblum who looked at me one day and said, “You know, I think this is going to be really something.” And I said, “Well, I hope you’re right.” And sure enough, it turned out to be. But it seemed like an interesting movie, and I thought I had a take on the part that was going to be unique. That doesn’t happen to me very often. But that time, it just jumped out of the blue and into my head as far as how to play this thing. So it was a really pleasant surprise when it turned out to be a successful film. I don’t know if you’ve heard that they’re going to be re-releasing it next Fourth of July in 3-D. I’ve actually only seen it once, and it was in Hawaii, in a little theater in Oahu shortly after it was released. But Roland Emmerich is a really smart guy, and he makes really fun movies to watch.
AVC: Given that you were coming off of having played Data on television for so long, was there ever any hesitation on your part about appearing in a non-Trek science-fiction film?
BS: No, there was no hesitation at all. Mostly because, as I say, I didn’t entirely know what I was getting into. [Laughs.]
AVC: A number of actors from the franchise have actively tried to go any other direction but science fiction in order to avoid being completely typecast in the genre, but you don’t seem to have any trouble embracing it.
BS: Nah. A job’s a job. And I like to work.