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Robert Picardo (The Doctor) - Star Trek: Voyager
Robert Picardo was born on 27 October 1953 and is best known for playing Dr. Dick Richards on China Beach, The Doctor, on Star Trek: Voyager, Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years and Richard Woolsey on the Stargate TV franchise. Darren Rea spoke with him as Star Trek: Voyager was due to be repeated on CBS Action (on 02 July 2012)...
Robert Picardo: Hi, how are you? I understand the weather in the UK is very hot at the moment; very humid.
Darren Rea: [Laughs] No, it's constantly raining. This could go down as the worst summer on record.
RP: The last interviewer just commented that the last time he was in LA that it had actually been hotter in London at that time. But now it's just... don't you say "pissing down rain"? I love that expression. There are a number of British expressions I love, but that's at the top.
DR: Star Trek: Voyager is being repeated on CBS Action in July and I just wanted to ask you - a question you've no doubt been asked a million times before - what it was that attracted you to the role in the first place?
RP: You know, I think the steady job attracted my wife to me playing the character. But curiously in my case when I read the script I was interested in Neelix, simply for the obvious ego reason that it was a much bigger part in the pilot and I did not have the vision to see that The Doctor, with his smaller role in the pilot, would turn into such a wonderful part. I turned down my audition for The Doctor and asked to read for Neelix. They loved me, and I ended up testing for the part opposite Ethan Phillips. I didn't know he was my competition (we are old friends) along with Allan Corduner, a wonderful British actor who played Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. We were, I think, the three finalists and I didn't get the part. The story I heard later on was that the producers wanted me, but the Network wanted Ethan Phillips.
Either way, I dodged the bullet because I would have spent about 6,000 hours in the makeup chair. They were very dishonest... or let's put it this way "non-informative" [laughs] with regard to how many hours in makeup the character would have. When my agent enquired, they said: "Er... Well... We'll get back to you on that." And they called back and said: "More than 15 minutes." So, I suppose that 3 hours and 15 minutes a day is indeed more than 15 minutes.
They came back and asked me to read for The Doctor, and I said to my wife: "I really don't get the joke, frankly." And she said: "Well read me the lines". I read them to her and she said: "I think you're funny." So, armed with my wife's approval I went in there and made them laugh and apparently, they told me after that they'd seen over 900 actors. Because the part was so little on paper, that it was, I guess, hard to muster up a laugh with the nine lines.
I did an ad-lib, which is a no-no in the world of Star Trek. We never ad-lib. If you have a spontaneous idea in Star Trek that's fine if you have it five days in advance of the shooting day. And then you call your spontaneous thought in [laughs] and then if they like it they'll write it into the script. But we don't really do anything on the spur of the moment - it's simply not the way the show is made.
But in any case, I must have been channeling DeForest Kelley at the last moment at the audition, because after my final scripted line, where I'm complaining that someone has left my program activated in sickbay, and I have nothing to do - I think the line was: "I believe someone has failed to terminate my program" - and I took a long look at all the people watching the audition, and I said: "I'm a doctor, not a nightlight", which of course is a "Damn it Jim, I'm a doctor not bricklayer; I'm a doctor not a toaster oven..." I didn't realise I was quoting one of their most famous lines. For that sheer moment of stealing [laughs] I think that's why they hired me.
DR: You said you were glad that you didn't win the role of Neelix because of the makeup, but early on in your movie career, in Explorers, you were under heavy prosthetics. Was that quite an ordeal?
RP: It was an ordeal and frankly it was because I knew what it was like, and I had been in probably in much more than the other candidates, that I was so anxious not to do it [laughs]. I think there's a certain amount of innocence you have to enter an experience like that to say: "I'm going to be in a prosthetic makeup every moment I'm on film in the next seven years." Because I'd had those experiences with something as grueling as Explorers, I just couldn't go into that experience knowing it would go on that long. So it certainly had an effect.
DR: Early on in your movie career you appeared in quite a lot of Joe Dante movies...
RP: Yes I did. I did three major prosthetic roles. Joe Dante had seen me in a stage play [Tribute] that I did with Jack Lemmon, where I played his son. The character was very emotionally explosive. Even though it was a juvenile role he remembered me and asked me to audition for The Howling. I don't know how playing an explosive 22 year old in a coming of age drama had anything to do with playing a werewolf, but apparently he saw the connection [laughs]. Then when I worked with Joe I got along with him so well, and the special effects makeup designer Rob Bottin.
Then Rob asked me, even though Ridley Scott was the director of Legend, Rob was the designer and Ridley had seen The Howling and Rob kind of pitched me originally for the character of Darkness, the Tim Curry role. Or course when they got Tim Curry to do that, the only other full sized creature in the movie was the witch.
That came out of my working relationship with Rob Bottin, and then of course Explorers, which was after that, was another collaboration with Joe Dante and Rob Bottin and I think the reason that Joe wanted me to do that movie was that the whole third act of the movie wasn't fully fleshed out. They had a concept that the alien teenage character had learned all about Earth culture from watching TV in space. They knew they wanted someone who could improvise a riff on the idea of anything that might turn up on television from late night ads to commercials and news programs and interview shows, but it wasn't really scripted. He knew that he needed an actor who could make things up and I guess I'd proven that to him, goofing off in between shots, in The Howling.
So that's how all that came to pass. So those were three major rubber roles and they gave me a cautionary lesson of [laughs] not wanting to do it again. And I came close to doing it, let's face it. Testing for the role I could easily have gotten Neelix, because you test with Neelix without being sure how long the makeup would be. And I was grateful everyday that I ended up playing The Doctor where I got to look like myself and got to get in and out of the makeup chair in 5 minutes.
DR: Are you glad that even though you've had quite a high exposure career, that you've never really been typecast as one character?
RP: I think that when you're in a Star Trek series as a very young actor it can be a bit of a blessing and a curse because you do become very identified with that role. I came to Star Trek at 40 years old having already starred in China Beach, which was a very character driven drama. All the actors in China Beach were given great respect for a show like that. It was all about performance and not a story driven drama.
There are so many procedural shows now that I think a lot of actors get bored; they don't really get their chance to do the grittier, gutsier stuff that used to be on television. Now so much of it is about the story and not about the characters that I feel bad for the fact that there are so many procedurals and they're so popular that they keep on making them. China Beach was very much a show about characters in a very difficult situation and not so much: "Let's tell another story about Vietnam". It really was how these characters survived this situation and that's where the emphasis was on the writing.
I also played a recurring part on a very popular comedy called The Wonder Years, so I'd established myself as an actor - and prior do that doing some leading roles on Broadway in my 20's - so Star Trek was not my first major credit. I think that's a help and why I continued to work after that and play different kinds of characters. In that respect I think it's good to come to Star Trek with some real credits under your belt. Certainly that's true of Kate Mulgrew and several other members of our cast.
DR: Last Christmas (2011) we reviewed the CD release of your reworking of 1970 Scrooge soundtrack, which also features Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Chase Masterson. The original is a movie that I grew up on and I couldn't understand why they were re-recording it. But then I rewatched the movie recently and realised that the original singing wasn't overly impressive...
RP: Albert Finney is an unbelievably brilliant actor. I had not seen the movie when they asked me to do it. I watched it and wept. I just couldn't believe he was in his mid-30s when he did that. Of course, you see him in all of his handsome glory when he plays himself in the past...
I said: "Why don't you just re-release the score?" And they said: "Well, we can't actually. There's some sort of studio dispute. It's in legal limbo forever." They could never bring that score out on CD and the music is so popular.
So, once I knew that I wasn't competing with Albert Finney, I was simply enabling them to bring the music out for a new generation - an opportunity that otherwise wouldn't exist - I thought how could I turn something like that down.
I had great fun doing it. I didn't worry so much about the British accent, I tried to make a stab at the emotional mark of Scrooge from his black, frozen, twisted, self-centred beginning to his revelations through the dreams. It was my suggestion that we put in a little piece of a monologue, which I cobbled together from the original story. I thought that was nice because it kinda gave me an acting moment on the disc as well, that led in very well to the song.
I was proud of it and I'm happy to hear that you liked it. Someone like you, who knows the movie well, would be my toughest critic. So if you enjoyed it, that's a tremendous compliment.
DR: I've seen some reviews on Amazon by people who have purchased it and were surprised and angered to discover it wasn't the original soundtrack, but I've got to say that the original wasn't that great. The album's most emotional track 'I'll Begin Again' is a vast improvement on the original film version.
RP: It's a hard song to sing. It really opens up at the end and he did not have a great singing voice. You want to keep several balls in the air: you want it to be believable, that it's an old man. You can't suddenly start singing like Pavarotti when you've been kind of cackling [laughs] your way through the other songs. It's an odd acting chore to make the end inspirational when he opens up and make it even a little bit pretty without negating what you've established thus far as the character voice. I understand why that was a tough one, but he is just not a very good singer. I think I ended up performing that song pretty well, although, as I said, his acting is flawless in the movie.
DR: Can you tell us a little bit about the Robert Picardo Annual Charity Auction?
RP: I do a fundraiser for my local chapter of Habitat for Humanity at the big Los Vegas Star Trek convention. I guess I've done it five out of the last six years - last year I wasn't able to go. I'll do it again this year and all the proceeds go to charity, almost exclusively for Habitat - sometimes I'll do a second auction for another charity, but it's really for my local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
It's a lot of fun. I get guest entertainers and I perform and we have an auction of things that fans wouldn't otherwise get access to buy - mostly from my personal collection of memorabilia. It's a fun night and we get quite a number of attendees. After the convention has closed on Sunday afternoon they come to my event on Sunday night, so I appreciate the loyalty.
Star Trek fans are very generous with charity. It's something to do, I guess, with being attracted to the positive message of a better future in Star Trek and it tends to make them very supportive of the various charities that the actors ask them to support.
DR: If you could have just one of the projects you've been involved with sealed and buried for future mankind to discover way into the future, what would that be?
RP: Probably one of my stage roles, especially now that my children, who were not even born when I did my leading roles on Broadway in my 20's. I had played opposite Jack Lemmon, as I said, early in my career. I spent about a year with him, it was an experience every young actor should have; to work with someone of his stature. He'd been a major film star for over 25 years when I worked with him, he was in his early 50's then. To have that experience, working with someone who was just so kind and gracious and such a wonderful actor, to work with him at the beginning of my career...
DR: Was that intimidating for a young actor?
RP: I suppose it was intimidating because everyone in the world wanted that role... Everyone. This was casting at the end of 1977 for the 1978 Broadway season and Mark Hamill, who had opened Star Wars in '77, wanted to play my part in the show.
And when I met Brent Spiner, years later when I was doing Voyager, and I went over to visit the Next Gen set and I said "hello", the first thing he said to me was: "You! You got my part in the play with Jack Lemmon".
So when I say every actor of my generation working in the theatre and living in New York wanted this role, that's not an exaggeration. There was a certain amount of pressure there. It was an extraordinary life experience and to have that captured on film, when none of it exists...
At least with my prior Broadway show Gemini, where Danny Aiello played my father, I have a little clip. Back then the local news channels would run a clip from the play on opening night, they'd have a little vignette, so I have maybe 30 seconds of old re-recorded video from that and I wish I had that much from the play with Jack Lemmon.
DR: You provided the voice and physical likeness for Johnny Cab in the original Total Recall have you been approached for the new movie?
RP: Perhaps my smallest credit [laughs]. Johnny Cab is molded on my head [laughs]. This was through my friendship with Rob Bottin who did the makeup design for The Howling, Legend, Innerspace and Explorers.
It was our swan song, I guess. The last time I really worked with him he asked me if he could mould my face for Johnny Cab. I said to him I'd do it, but I'd like to do the voice too. So he pitched me to Paul Verhoeven and I went in and got that job and recorded the voice. It's my only completely phoned in performance as an actor [laughs].
I've no idea if Johnny Cab will feature in the new movie, but if he does it certainly won't be me. I never heard anything. Probably, being a new movie, they'll have to make Johnny Cab holographic, or something, which would be the ultimate irony I suppose since I'm one of the more recognised holograms in pop culture [laughs].
DR: What are you working on at the moment and where can you fans expect to see you next?
RP: This past season I've popped up on The Mentalist, Body of Proof and Harry's Law. The next thing I'm going is a little racy, it's a new Cinemax series called Femme Fatales and I play a ruthless businessman in that. And although I'm not involved in any of the, shall we say, "racier" aspects of the show there are plenty of them in scenes before and after me.
I also have two movie that are scheduled to come out. One is Atlas Shrugged: Part 2 based on the classic Ayn Rand novel. Part 1 was not terribly successful, but the new one has an entirely different cast, starring Samantha Mathis. I play Robert Statler, thought to be based on Robert Oppenheimer, the developer of the Atomic Bomb.
I'm also in a family drama with a science fiction element called The Legends of Nethiah, where I play the grandfather of a young boy whose having trouble at school and I tell him this science fiction saga to sort of inspire him to behave better. It's a sweet little movie and I play two different roles, I play the grandfather and I play this sort of crusty old warrior in this sci-fi drama about Nethiah. It's a cute little movie and I think it has a great message, and hopefully that will make it across the pond, at least on DVD, later in the year.
Star Trek: Voyager premieres on 02 July 2012 at 8pm and airs weekdays at 11am, 5pm and 8pm with a Sunday omnibus from 9am-1pm (Sky 148, Freesat 137 and Virgin 192).
This interview was conducted on 21 June 2012.