Actor Robert Picardo is known to “Star Trek: Voyager” fans as the holographic doctor, so it’s only natural that some of them might wonder if his appearance this weekend at the St. Louis Science Center will be real or holo.
“You never know,” Picardo said by phone from Los Angeles, where he lives. “Since I can reconfigure the magnetic containment field that creates the illusion of my body, to either allow matter to pass through it or be stopped, you don’t really know. Just coming up and trying to pass your hands through my chest is no longer a sufficient test. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose that it is. I don’t recommend it though.”
At 8 p.m. today during the Science Center’s “First Friday” activities, Picardo will discuss his experiences as an actor in “Star Trek: Voyager” and the film “Star Trek: First Contact” and also answer questions from the audience.
“It’s funny. I have done more prepared speeches under these circumstances than I have (done) a draft of a speech I may give,” he said, chuckling. “Or I may speak extemporaneously, depending on how the spirit moves me. We do a lot of personal appearances in the Star Trek world, so we are very used to speaking about the show. We’ve sort of collected, over the years, amusing anecdotes of working on (the show), the audition process, what it’s like once you become a member of the Star Trek franchise, how it changes your life. So I could talk about all of those things.
“Or I could also talk about my relationship with the Planetary Society, my interest in space exploration, and encourage people, if they’re interested in sci-fi, to check out the real thing by logging on to the Planetary Society Web site and seeing what we’re actually doing in space,” he said.
Picardo, whose TV pedigree goes back to “Kojak” in the 1970s and includes a “who’s who” of television and film appearances in the ensuing years, really did see his life change after joining Star Trek’s pantheon of characters.
“The way I used to describe it when they first started airing the ‘Voyager’ episodes, and people who were loyal fans of the Star Trek franchise became accustomed to the new faces of our cast, is that there’s a certain amount of fear as to whether or not they’ll embrace the show, and like it, and stick with it,” he said. “But once they do embrace it, you feel a little bit like you’re boarding a bus that’s already going 80 miles per hour. It’s kind of a shock to jump on, but then it’s a nice ride once you’re there.”
The ride starts right away.
“One of the odd things about getting a Star Trek role that doesn’t have anything to do with any other kind of television show is that the moment your agent calls and says, ‘Well, you got the part,’ you also got your first two convention offers,” Picardo said. “So immediately, the whole personal appearance phenomenon is sort of baked in from the very beginning. Because there’s just something about, I don’t know if it’s just science fiction fans, or specifically Star Trek (fans), that they like to meet the actors as well as just watch the show.”
It’s possible, Picardo said, that the “somber yet uplifting” music playing while the credits roll might cause viewers to credit the actors with having made a few real treks to the stars.
“I can’t help but think that the audience is conditioned, if they watch the show regularly, from seeing the credits over and over, with our names appearing and disappearing amid asteroid showers, that they subliminally think that we know something about the future,” he said. “That we are some sort of messengers from the future and have some kind of special knowledge, and that if you could simply meet us and talk to us, it would somehow enrich and enlighten you. I will, of course, disprove that theory. You simply have to come and meet me and listen to me to know that none of that is true. I don’t promise enlightenment in any way, but hopefully a little entertainment.”
Star Trek fans love entertainment, as long as they aren’t the butt of the joke. Just ask William Shatner, who played original U.S.S. Enterprise Capt. James Kirk, and famously lampooned Star Trek fans in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
“A lot of the fans were angry at him, for a number of years, because he was poking fun at them in such a public way,” Picardo said. “Had he done that at a convention, I think he would’ve gotten a warm and amused response.”
The zeal true fans have for the show should be respected by the franchise’s actors, Picardo said.
“What I’ve learned is you can make fun of yourself, and Star Trek fans react well to that,” he said. “You can make fun of the show, you can make fun of the wardrobe, you can make fun of the dialogue, you can make fun of how the original series’ uniforms looked like ski pajamas. You can make fun of
pretty much anything, except their interest in the show. You don’t want to
belittle their interest in the show, because it means something serious to
Not only does “Star Trek” offer fans hope for a bright future, Picardo said, but they also find the crew’s “prime directive” – not getting involved unless asked for help – appealing.
“Those are great moral standards that Star Trek promoted that you can also feel nostalgic about,” he said.
Picardo is pleased that he had the right stuff to be a part of the show.
“In order to get cast in Star Trek, you need three things,” he said. “You need an interesting voice, because most Star Trek actors, particularly if you look at the captains, the captains have interesting, well-placed, theater-trained voices. The cast the shows very well, so if you just listen to the show, a lot of different notes are being played by the cast they’ve assembled.”
Interesting hair is also important, the mostly bald Picardo said.
“Fortunately, (having) no hair qualifies as interesting hair,” he said. “They tend to wig all the women. I don’t know why, but they do.”
Plus, he added, with the form-fitting uniforms favored on the show, a good backside is also important.
“It’s nice to see a bunch of people in tight clothes whose butts look good,” Picardo said, laughing. “Those are the three characteristics you will find through all five Star Trek casts, and indeed into the new movie cast.”
In addition to his talk, the evening will also include screenings in the Omnimax theater of two of Picardo’s favorite “Star Trek: Voyager” episodes. First is “One Small Step,” a moving tribute to early space exploration that Picardo directed. The other is “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy,” in which the holographic doctor’s experiment to understand human daydreaming gets comically out of hand. The short film “Rocketboy,” about keeping your dreams about space alive, will also be shown.
Picardo, who played the “kiss the girls” lead on TV’s “China Beach,” has enjoyed a long career on stage, screen and TV by being primarily a character actor.
“It’s good not to have too limiting an image as an actor,” he said.
This versatility allowed him to go from the lead on “China Beach” to a concurrent, Emmy-nominated role as Coach Cutlip on “The Wonder Years.” He enjoyed one of his acting highlights when the coach taught sex education to middle-school boys.
“That is pretty much the funniest scene I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “Mostly because of the writing and the way it’s cut and all that, but it was fun to play such an aggressively and defiantly stupid individual. I normally play smart people. So it was fun to do ‘China Beach,’ and then sort of jettison 60 or 70 IQ points and play the coach.”
Picardo, also an accomplished singer, was a pre-med student at Yale when he realized acting could be his career. He performed in composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” and caught the composer’s attention.
“He was quite taken with the production, but especially nice to me,” he said. “Lenny called me ‘The Great Picardo.’ I think he was sort of joking on ‘The Great Caruso.’ He thought I was very good in the show and had really great natural stage energy.”
Bernstein suggested that Picardo pursue a life as a performer.
“I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to tell my mother.’ He smiled and said, 'OK,’ and when my mother came to the opening night, I brought him over to meet her and he repeated what he said to me.”
Picardo’s mother was concerned about him becoming an actor, but the encouragement of an icon like Bernstein carried a lot of weight.
“Having a little bit of outside validation from someone she admired a great deal kind of helped get me out of pre-med and into show business,” Picardo said. “My deal with my mother was always, ‘Look, I’ll give it until I’m 25, and if it’s not going well, I’ll go back to medical school, I promise.’ But by 24, I was playing my second lead on Broadway, playing second lead to Jack Lemmon in a comedy-drama called ‘Tribute.’ So it seemed at that point that I was being validated enough that I should continue to try.”
Working with Lemmon was a tremendous experience.
“Jack had been a box office star for 25 years at the time I met him. … He was great to me, great to work with, a wonderful example of how you could be very successful in show business and retain your humanity and humility and just be a totally easygoing, gracious, generous human being,” Picardo said.
Offstage, Picardo was welcomed into Lemmon’s circle of friends.
“I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time, meeting every major star of his generation, either back stage in New York when we played on Broadway, or when we did it in Los Angeles,” he said.
Picardo met, and often had conversations with, such Lemmon friends as Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire, Neil Simon, Walter Matthau, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Shirley MacLaine and Michael York, to name a few.
“It was just a wonderful experience,” Picardo said. “I mean, I guess I knew how lucky I was at the time, but in the intervening years, I’ve come to appreciate it more and more.”
“First Friday” runs 6-10 p.m. today at the Science Center, 5050 Oakland Avenue, St. Louis, Mo 63110. Picardo will speak and 8 p.m. and introduce his shows at 10 p.m. There will be an opportunity to win lunch the next day with Picardo, and he will also sign autographs Friday night and 1:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday for a $25 cash only fee.
A portion of the proceeds for each autograph goes towards Robert Picardo's preferred LA-based charity, The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation.
Tickets prices are $14 adults ($7 members), $12 seniors ($6 members), and $10 children ages 5-12 ($6 members).