It’s come that time of year again — not unlike mid-March — when Trekland enjoys a double whammy celebration— otherwise known as August 19.
That’s the birthday of not only The Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry … but also that of, increasingly, another major player in creating fresh Treks— Jonathan Frakes!
Gene would have been 98 today — and as we come up on his birth centennial ballyhoo fast, I have marked the day before here over the years — while Jonathan turns a fabulously busy and twinkly-eyed 67. (Wait, that can’t be right!)
That pendulum of history I often speak of — especially the special red, blue and mustard-striped one made just for Star Trek — has really swung widely for The Great Bird: from “network troublemaker” to misunderstood martyr …. from future visionary/guru to a flawed man with all his personal demons and warts exposed. And perhaps now back to a more leavened reckoning, where his gifts and talents can be separated and celebrated in context.
Thanks to friend and son Rod’s open attitude about both his parent’s gifts and foibles, like any humans … It’s been a pleasure for well over a year to be host of The Trek Files, understanding even more about Gene and his Star Trek impact even today via the letters, memos, and career miscellania to and from him with colleagues and fans— some of them celebrities! And to share that with all of you, in turn.
But one not-so-secret fact is that, as I described back in the original 1992 TNG Companion, Jonathan might not have won the role of Riker back in early 1987 had it not been for the personal preference of Gene. Most of the casting nod (including Rick Berman and Bob Justman) and studio preference was leaning toward William “Billy” Campbell for the role. But Jonathan later made no secret of Gene’s initial unrevealed favoritism, and then the last-stage “side coaching” he got from Gene during casting as the competition got tighter.
” ‘Keep that Machiavellian gleam in your eye!’ is what he used to tell me—that was very Shatner,” Jonathan told me, for an unpublished interview in 2010. “I think he saw a little bit of himself in Riker still, and I think that’s what that was all about: That he believed he was projecting himself back in time. I was in my 30s then—he was probably already in his 60s or 70s—so I think he was projecting the way he was probably able to with Kirk, in a more realistic manner in the old days.”
And as we saw in “The Outrageous Okona” with a young Billy Campbell facing up to Sir Patrick’s Picard in the lead guest role, at that time it seems the right chair-hopping choice was made. Campbell has had a great and memorable career since, of course.
But now, when you think not only of the Riker dynamic Jonathan infused into the role … and the TNG character tapestry he helped weave overall …but also his directorial contribution — you really am glad for the choice. A mix of creativity and steady hand, Jonathan’s work behind the camera is always wrapped up in his trademark and welcomed problem-busting sense of humor — all bringing so much to episodes of all four successor series AS WELL as First Contact and Insurrection.
And now Discovery and Picard, too! What a legacy to pass along to the new crews — on and off camera.
No, there will never be another Great Bird of the Galaxy … but how ironic it is that he winds up sharing his “origin day” with one of his best birdlets.
(And yes— Happy Birthday today too to the gracious and lovely Diana Muldaur, 80, who was “triple doc threat” Dr. Anne Mulhall and Dr. Miranda Jones long before she was crusty Dr. Katherine Pulaski — a role who now herself is getting a bit of a renaissance. That pendulum sure is something, isn’t it?)