By Tom Landy
Forty-five years of 'Star Trek' were celebrated this past weekend at this year's Central Canada Comic-Con in Winnipeg, Manitoba. One of the main guests we beamed over to meet at the explosive event was Captain Jean-Luc Picard's "Number One" himself, Jonathan Frakes!
Best known for playing Commander William T. Riker on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' Frakes has done voice work on Disney's much-loved 'Gargoyles' as well as 'Family Guy' and hosted 'Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction.' Frakes has also been busy behind the camera directing big screen projects like 'Star Trek: First Contact' as well as numerous episodes for television series including a recent run on 'Burn Notice,' 'Leverage,' 'NCIS: Los Angeles,' and 'Castle.'
At the Con, Mr. Frakes (who is an awesome guy by the way) held a very lively and entertaining Q&A for the fans, and fortunately, I was lucky enough to get a front row seat. But for those who couldn't make it to the event, I've provided a full transcript of the session below.
Announcer: Mr. Jonathan Franks! (Yes, she actually said "Franks.").
JF: Thank you very much! Thank you VERY (yanking microphone cord) MUUUUCH!
JF: Oh, I'm going to be limited. I can feel it already. It's so nice to go to a convention where people actually are happy to be here.
JF: When I first started on 'Star Trek,' I went to a convention in a little town called Syracuse, New York and everyone was still indignant that our show had come on the air because they were very heavy into Kirk and Spock and they really didn't like the idea of a new 'Star Trek.' I was waiting in the dealers' room to go on stage and at a dealer's table they were selling those action figures of the thinner versions of all of us...
JF: ...with Geordi LaForge $35, Picard for $50, a limited Data for $50 and the sign at the end of the table said, "buy any action figure and get Riker for free."
JF: Brutal! Painful! Sort of like, remember Wil Wheaton who used to play Wesley Crusher on the show? He grew up into a fine young man. He once said, and we watched him grow up obviously, and he finally grew up and got the same car that Patrick got. They were both driving these brand new Hondas and we were on our way back to the garage after work and Wheaton is walking next to me and says, "you know Frakes, I can tell by the clothes that you wear and the music that comes out of your dressing room that, you used to be cool."
JF: Little shit.
JF: Um... I should plug some of the things I've been doing. I've been working on a couple shows as a director. There hasn't been much interest in having Riker act on things anymore which is kind of a blessing since I'm currently the third best actor in my household.
JF: I do 'Burn Notice'...
JF: I do 'NCIS: LA' with LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell...
JF: I've worked on 'Leverage'...
JF: I do 'Castle' with Nathan Fillion...
JF: And I'm about to go to New Zealand where Mr. Sorbo has recommended to hopefully develop a new movie for the Christopher Pike series of novels.
JF: At any rate, that's what I've been up to. I can tell you a little about old baldy, he's been out there very busy playing...
(Lights unexpectedly go out, followed by laughter)
JF: Happy HALLOWEEEEEEN!
(Laughter, lights come back on)
JF: You're probably wondering what happened during that dark period... Did you see the movie 'Inception?'
JF: All right, are there any questions? Do you feel at all different? Someone once asked me, "What does it feel like when you beam in?
JF: I was more interested in where do you go to the bathroom on the Enterprise? What do you EAT? And why no POCKETS in the space suits?
JF: Don't get me started on my space suit. And what about this... (does an exaggeration of Riker's walk). Why did he walk like that all the time?
JF: What is up with that? Does anyone have any interesting questions for me?
Q: How does it feel to be the guy who wrapped up the whole episodic Star Trek series as a whole?
JF: (Seeing a Klingon in the audience) GARTOKKKKK!
JF: Klingon women I like.
JF: Do you want to know the truth about that whole Enterprise thing as the show was called? Rick Berman, executive producer of all things Star Trek, called Marina and myself and said "we'd like you to do the last episode of 'Enterprise...'" that was unfortunately--(microphone ringing) -- That's annoying isn't it? That ringing? You hear that?
JF: They said it would be a Valentine to the fans, but all of it ended up doing I think was hurting Scott Bakula's feelings. He was such a gentleman about it and I said to Scott this is weird for me to be on your show and your show is being taken off before it should be taken off and he was such a gentleman about it and said "no, glad you're here" so it was awkward on all accounts, except with working with Marina again which is always lovely. But I wasn't crazy about it. And it was so thinly connected, I thought too. Thanks for bringing up such an unpleasant memory.
Q: In real life do you have problems with that trombone note?
JF: In real life, I play the trombone but I don't play it well. And on the show when you hear somebody playing the trombone and it sounds sort of not so good it's me.
JF: When you hear the trombone and it sounds really good on the show, that's Bill W--(inaudible) a genius. I wished I still had my lip, as they say. Next question?
Q: Kirk or Picard?
JF: Picard. Come on. Pfft, Kirk or Picard. You saw 'Generations.' Two captains in search of one good hairpiece.
JF: NO VIDEOTAPING!!! I've got Klingon friends!
JF: You've got a video camera too dude! It's "just a camera," yeah right.
Q: what was it like to be voice acting for 'Gargoyles?'
JF: I wish 'Gargoyles' was STILL on the air!
JF: The greatest job. First of all, you go to work in your pajamas. Secondly, they've always got bagels and cream cheese. Thirdly, you sit around in a circle with other funny actors. It was a great gig. Marina, Data, um, Kate, Keith David, it was a great group. And it was one of those jobs where they would gather us all, like when we do the 'Family Guy' stuff they'd find us and we'd just have to do our lines. But with 'Gargoyles' we'd actually get together in the room and do the show. I liked that gig. I want it BACK!
Q: What's it like working with John Rogers?
JF: John Rogers? John Rogers is a genius. The creator and executive producer of 'Leverage.' John Rogers, if you don't know him, is a former stand up comedian, Harvard graduate, physicist who wrote 'Transformers' before and uh he's a real renaissance man and a very, very good drinker.
JF: But I'm a big John Rogers fan and I was just with him doing the DVD commentaries for the end of this next 'Leverage' season. Does anybody watch 'Leverage?'
JF: We just did an episode that's a total ripoff of 'The Office' on 'Leverage...' (microphone ringing). What is--? Sorry?
Some guy in the crowd: Nana Visitor had the same problem.
JF: I wish we all had the same problems as Nana Visitor.
JF: Beautiful legs… She's still got it, doesn't she? Holy cow. Whoo!
JF: But while we bring her up, do you remember Thomas Riker? From Deep Throat Nine--Deep Space Nine?
JF: Nana Visitor, I thought something was happening, but she sends Thomas Riker to some Cardassian prison for YEARS! YEARS I was in that prison. STILL on that bloody prison!
JF: I'll speak to her about that this evening. Did I miss a question? Oh I know, 'Leverage' and John Rogers. Did you want to know what John Rogers was really like? Was that the question?
Q: ...And being a famous Canadian.
JF: Oh a FAMOUS Canadian! Like… Shatner. Wow. Bill tomorrow. From McGill. When I was young, and the Vietnam War was going on, my father, the wonderful James Frakes, had put some money aside in case my draft number came up so I didn't have to go and get shot up and McGill was where I was going to go. A little known fact. Revealed. Past. Sad. Next question?
JF: Hey, okay I saw this outfit earlier, stand up? Lots of chains, what's going on with all this? With hat? Go ahead. I have the same needs.
Q: what do you think of directing compared to acting?
JF: There's no control like total control!
JF: I prefer it, I'm better at it, and thank god I learned how to do it because I wouldn't want to make a living as a 50 something actor I'll tell you right now so I'm very blessed to continue to work and I love what I do. Yeah it will sometimes suck but in general it's a good gig. Except for all the actors you have to work with.
JF: Have you ever eaten with an actor before? Whoo.
Q: What was it like directing yourself?
JF: Frakes?? That's all you got?? That's how your gonna do it? (turns left) I-I-I… (turns right) Do it again! Act better!
JF: It was unnerving. Fortunately when I started I was on our show so I had a couple of people whose opinions I trusted. Patrick and LeVar was wanting to direct so if I was in scenes with them or if they were around we'd have a little signal. And then when I was doing the movies Mack Lionetti, who was the director of photography who had a very good eye, and I was in a shot he'd sort of give me the, like "you want to go again it sucked" cut it. He'd give me that sign, but in general my wife thinks the stuff that I direct I'm better when I'm acting because I'm so exhausted and not thinking about things and being uptight. Remember how uptight Riker used to be? When he started to direct he calmed down a little bit.
JF: So I like it. I hated the space suit days, though. So glad they're over. Ahhh. Have you seen Ethan Phillips? Has he been up here?
Audience: Not yet.
JF: Is he coming?
JF: Tomorrow? That is a silly man. Anyone else?
Q: What was it like to direct 'First Contact?' It seems to be like the best star trek movie ever.
JF: It seems to be like what? Better than 'The Wrath of Khan?' Better than the movie with the whales?
JF: I like the whale movie and I love oh, um, what's his name's last movie (laughs). J.J.! J.J. Abrams. I think that movie was spectacular and I think Karl Urban as Bones was un-be-lievable.
JF: Well, First Contact was great for a lot of reasons. Obviously it was my first movie and I was thrilled to do it but I was lucky enough to get James Cromwell, the brilliant Alice Krige who sold that whole thing with the spine going into -- she was a genius, and my godmother Alfre Woodard agreed to do the movie who is spectacular in the film. That scene she had with Patrick around the glass case was just one of my favorites. And Marina was hysterical in the drinking scene.
JF: I have very, very, very fond memories of 'First Contact.' Ahh, the good old days.
Q: You mentioned you were the third best actor in your household?
JF: Well, I'm married to Jeannie Francis who's currently on The Young and the Restless who is probably better known as Laura from Luke and Laura on 'General Hospital' and from 'North and South.' And now my wonderful daughter Liza who's fourteen has got the gene from her mother.
JF: I try to encourage actors to find any other career.
JF: I think it's, and I'm serious, I think it's unjust, it's based on so many factors we have no control over. Luck -- which is great if you've got it and not if you don't, being in the right place at the right time, the whim of the casting director, the whim of the director, the whim of the producer, whether you remind someone of someone else that they liked or didn't like, and it's a career that unless you can do nothing else and unless your core demands that you become an actor I recommend that you try to find anything else to do. 'Cause it's brutal unless you can handle rejection every week which is part of the deal, the whole thing of aging -- age is huge in acting, it's a very, I mean it's wonderful when it works and we've been blessed in our house which makes me worry about my daughter certainly in terms of numbers and averages and all that stuff. So I discourage people unless they have such passion they can't do anything else. Or as Brent Spiner's favorite line is, "make sure you learn how to type."
JF: Which is also good advice I think, but it's not for the faint of heart. That's my advice. A bit of a downer, huh? It's a really GLAMOROUS profession and it ALWAYS works out! EVERYBODY gets rich and you stay young FOREVER!
JF: That was a brutal, cruel, unjust, strangely unjust, but it is what it is.
JF: You, John Rogers fan again. Second question, you got to step up guys.
Q: What made you decide to work on the show 'Roswell?'
JF: 'Roswell,' 'Roswell' is a television series I don't know if you've ever seen that show from the '90s.
JF: When I was on 'Insurrection' someone brought me a series of teen novels called Roswell High. We then sold it to Gail Berman at Regency who then ran Paramount, Gail Berman made the show, Jason came on and wrote the show who now does Friday Night Lights or is almost finished Friday Night Lights, but actually on 'Roswell' another famous Canadian actor Brendan Fehr whose birthday is… today. Just saying I read it in the paper this morning. A little known fact.
JF: I really liked 'Roswell.' I think we made a big mistake with it in that we revealed to too many members of the cast the secrets of who was an alien so by the time we were midway through the first season everybody in town knew that these three kids as a matter of fact came out of a pod. Aside from that, though, I kind of enjoyed that show. I liked the mythology and speaking of the mythology we brought Ron Moore who wrote 'First Contact' and then went on to 'Battlestar Galactica,' Ron Moore came in to develop the mythology for Roswell, but we struggled to stay on the air. We had a campaign of hard core Roswell fans who sent little miniature bottles of Tabasco to the network to keep the show on the air to show that they were rabid fans sort of in the way the original 'Star Trek' was kept on the air. They sent little phasers to the network.
Q: Wil Wheaton has done it, Brent Spiner has done it, and --
JF: Yeah, what's up with that?!
Q: Are you going to go on 'The Big Bang Theory?'
JF: LeVar Burton and I are waiting for the phone call. We are a little insulted that it hasn't come yet.
JF: Did you see it the other night with Brent?
JF: Brent and Wil, Wil's a regular on there. Wil's a regular on Leverage. Wil's got a career going again. And a rabid tweeter. Do you guys follow him on Twitter?
JF: I need some more followers by the way.
JF: Spiner's got a million and a half, LeVar's got a million and a half, I just, I just joined, feel free to sign up. Jonathan S. Frakes. Who is that pretty girl who called me Franks when I came up here??
JF: She was too young. She didn't r-r-remember the sh-sh-show. Um, I'll share with you before I go to my --(looks at watch) -- oh wait, I'm not done yet. More questions… this cord is working out well for me. In OUR country we have WIRELESS mics!
JF: Sorry, too easy. Way, way too easy. Yes sir?
Q: What's your favorite current science fiction TV show, movie, or book?
JF: I'm not much of a sci-fi guy, oddly enough. But I enjoy, been enjoying 'Persons of Interest,' I've been working with James Lapaglia, from 'Eureka,' 'Eureka' just went off the air, he and I are working on a project called 'The Grid' which is about virtual reality so I'm involved with that sci-fi project at the mo.
JF: What else? I liked Battlestar when it was on. I loved Edward James Olmos I thought he was a genius on that show. I liked the look of that show.
JF: But oddly enough when Star Trek started, I didn't really know that we were joining part of the popular culture and thought we'd be under a rock or something. I didn't understand the power of the original Star Trek and didn't understand the passion. And then Roddenberry, may he rest in peace, was so great. He believed so heavily in his optimistic view of the future.
JF: I auditioned for 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' six times over several weeks, and each time as it got closer and closer to them finally making the decision I'd have to go into Gene Roddenberry's office and I'd sit there and he's sort of you know, he was like a coach. And he'd coach and say your audition is going to be great today, you're the guy I want to play Riker, and he said to me in the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read.
JF: And I've never forgotten that, and he believed with such a fiery passion that then I started to look at the original show and at that time got the VCRs of the show and watched those. And my wife Jeannie Francis who is a big Kirk fan she had Kirk posters on her wall when she was a kid.
JF: And then I go home for Christmas after the first season to see my mom and dad in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and I went out to the refrigerator to get a beer and a refrigerator was on the back porch and I go to the refrigerator and on the door is a poster -- this big -- a picture of Patrick Stewart.
JF: Oh, I just love Patrick Stewart. Mom??! I'm in THE SAME SHOW! The other half of that picture is ME!
JF: He's so beautiful. And that voice… numba one… to BE! (Imitating Patrick Stewart). Humbling.
Q: What was your favorite episode from an actor's perspective?
JF: My favorite episode of the Next Generation was 'The Best of Both Worlds' between season three and four or four and five or whenever that was I thought that was great television. I have a soft spot obviously for 'The Offspring' which is the first one I directed where I was lucky enough not only for Rene's script who is now writing 'Terra Nova' and was on 'Castle' with me and went on to Deep Space and all that stuff, but he wrote a script for 'The Offspring' which is the episode Data builds himself a daughter and it was a Spiner episode which is always a good break and Brent is so compelling to watch. So I have a soft spot for that one. But I think 'The Best of Both Worlds' was really, really good television. And what was your favorite episode?
Q: The one when you were in the (inaudible)…
JF: Oh, 'Frame of Mind?'
JF: That was a little off the edge. I feel like we have a little class room vibe here. Have you all been taking notes?
Q: On your show 'Castle,' Nathan seems to really be a natural, very easygoing, and happy-go-lucky, so I was wondering on the TV show behind-the-scenes does he goof around?
JF: Yes. He's a very, very silly man.
JF: We get along very well. And here's another little connection, Stana who plays Beckett on 'Castle' was on this series of movies called 'The Librarian' I do with Noah Wyle and Bob Newhart and Jane, Jane, from 'Saturday Night Live,' Jane Curtin and Olympia Dukakis and Stana was our sort of our Bond girl. Each movie has a girl who becomes a second lead and the one before was Gabrielle Anwar. She finished and went on to 'Burn Notice,' Stana finished and went on to 'Castle.' So the girl who gets the next Librarian job will ultimately get a series. That's the pattern. That's how we see it.
Q: When did you know that Next Generation had legs and you could eventually relax?
JF: That's a very good question. They were so skeptical about us. First of all from what I understand, Paramount tried for years to convince Gene to do another Star Trek and when he finally gave in, he created our show. But Paramount made three contracts. First of all, 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was the first scripted hour drama made directly for syndication so Paramount and there wisdom was able to make the shows for a price, sell the shows with half of the advertising attached, and pay us 40 percent of the SAG minimum all at the same time. So the shows were made for a million and a half, but each show was already worth seven million by then. They were brilliant, and sold it to 217 markets. At the beginning, we had a contract for the pilot, which was Encounter at Farpoint. Then we had a contract for the first 13 episodes if that went well. Then after the first 13 we had a contract for the first year. And at the end of the first year, we had a contract for four. they really hedged their bets.
JF: And I would say, somewhere around the third season maybe, we got our legs sort of under us don't you think? Because we were all sort of awkward and weird and trying to figure out who we were, and once we got our rhythm and once the writers got to know who was playing the parts that sort of helped. We fit into the roles a little better as the seasons went along. I was also very sorry to see it come to an end. I know Marina and certain others of us we'd still be doing it if given the choice. It was the best job ever. It was one of those deals when you got up in the morning that you'd look forward to going to work every day no matter what was going on so it was a real blessing.
Q: What are your thoughts on the 'Nemesis' movie and why it wasn't as well-received as the other movies?
JF: Very good question. The 'Nemesis' movie was, my thoughts on why it didn't do well, awkward, be very careful Jonathan you are using your outside voice…
JF: Speak diplomatically. I think that the core audience of our movies, which was you guys, wanted to see the Star Trek family which is Patrick and Brent, etc., And that movie was sort of about Thomas Hardy's character. The guy who was by the way, not only Inception, he's like the hottest thing. He's like a huge movie star now. And it's fabulous. He got his start in that movie. So I always thought that that movie, in addition to not being directed by me…
JF: Was problematic because it was about a character who none of us really knew. I'm not sure that's what the problem was. I also think that Paramount with their infinite wisdom was really, incredibly, greedy, in terms of we had our show on the air, that they put Deep Throat--'Deep Space Nine' on the air, no, they put 'Voyager'then 'Deep Space' then 'Enterprise' and then we did 'Generations' and 'First Contact' and 'Insurrection' and there was just too much Star Trek. And 'Nemesis' was the first star trek movie to lose money. We made nine movies that all made money and as you know that's what projects into the future, so when 'Nemesis' stopped to make money the franchise came to a screeching halt until J.J. rebooted it brilliantly a couple of years ago. What's your theory about why it was a stinker? Or was it a stinker? Some people liked it.
Q: It definitely had a different feel from the other Next Generation movies because it didn't focus on the cast as much.
JF: Yeah. It was interesting because Stuart Baird who directed it was for some reason interested in, or at least the feeling on the set was that he wanted to reinvent the wheel a little bit and we really knew how the ship ran if you will both metaphorically and literally.
JF: There's a whole opening sequence to that wedding where Whoopi is there and Wil is there and Brent is singing and I'm playing trombone and it was the whole opening was so much fun and it got cut down to a nub.
JF: And by the way, Data is not dead. Let's just get that that whole thing straightened out. Yes my dear?
Q: I would like to know some of the pranks you've been up to throughout your career?
JF: You've got the wrong guy. I'm serious. It's all work with me… Except for this one time.
JF: Michael Dorn, dear sweet turtle head, is up on the, you know, back end of the bridge, and old baldy is sitting there and I'm over here and the beautiful and talented Marina is over here. And Dorn had in his hand, because for years he's wanted to do this -- raw egg. So he leans over the bridge, and SMASHES it on Patrick's head. Albumin everywhere. Yolk down that British face.
JF: That's a lie. That's a boldfaced lie. It never happened. It would've been great though, right?
JF: But I did hear this, though. You know how we use to get hit by phaser fire from enemy ships? And we'd all rock around and be thrown around the bridge, and Marina would be over in her seat, and when we got hit her hair would lay back and she'd look over and her breasts would be full, and I'd be over here rocking and throwing my self around like Riker, and Patrick would be sitting over in his captain's chair, the ergonomically built for his back captain's chair, which was stolen by a fan at one point…
JF: And he would all be, very stoic. And under his breath, I heard this many times (imitating Patrick Stewart), "Oh Jonathan… Jonathan… 25 years in the Royal Shakespeare Company… FOR THIS??"
JF: Thank you very much. I'll see you outside.