Catching Up With Robert O'Reilly
When people talk about Robert O’Reilly and his association with Star Trek, they seem to think that he appeared as Gowron across all seven seasons of The Next Generation and all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Actually, he only played Gowron four times on TNG and eight times on DS9, though he turned up in several other Trek projects in a variety of roles. O’Reilly retired from acting a couple of years ago, but remains a familiar – and popular – presence at conventions all over the globe. He’ll join his old pal J.G. Hertzler and a galaxy of stars next month at the Creation Entertainment Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, and StarTrek.com thought it’d be a great time to catch up with O’Reilly for an interview. Here’s what he had to say.
What does it mean to you to have made such an impact on Star Trek fans, and on TNG and DS9, when you only appeared as Gowron about a dozen times on both shows combined?
O’Reilly: I think what happened is that I had a sort of cottage industry going, especially on TNG, with all these other things. I played not only Gowron, but I first did another episode (“Manhunt”) as a different character (Scarface), and I did all these other things. I did an interactive videogame in which I played a different Klingon. I was in a Hallmark commercial, for the Christmas ornament, and that was being aired all the time. Then I did the language lab. I did a game that Jonathan Frakes directed. So I did all these things, and I guess it made the fans think I’d done a lot more. DS9, when I came on to that, it was sort of a nightmare for the show because, for whatever reason, the writers wanted 20 other Klingons with me. So it was a Klingon show, and it was bigger than life. I think that’s where it came, the perception that I did so much. It came from the Klingons being larger than life. It wasn’t so individual; it was like a massive army coming behind me.
To your thinking, who was Gowron? What was he about and what did he ultimately want?
O’Reilly: I’ll bring you to the insides of him. When I got the role, I had just finished the Shakespeare play King Lear, and I’d played Edmund in it. So I took a lot of what Edmund was and sort of slipped him into the character. I thought it absolutely fit. Remember, the way Gowron came in is not the way he went out. He went out as this bad, terrible Klingon, which I disagreed with strongly, but that’s fine. But the earlier part of Gowron’s arc, he was the outsider, the only one with honor, and he was sort of a crazed warrior who did not want to be anywhere near “hew-mons.” So it started off very, very differently. If you take the point of view of Edmund, he’s the outsider. He’s the “bastard,” just out there and not part of the group, and then he decides to defeat everybody and become head of the group. That’s really what Gowron did, too. He became the head of the group. So they were very, very similar in nature.
At first on a TV show, a character is the creation of the writers. Then, as time goes by, the actor inhabits the role and makes it his or her own. At what point did you sense the Trek writers writing to your strengths as an actor and to what you were bringing to the character on a daily basis?
O’Reilly: I think what happened, basically, was that they had one line that could be interpreted as an edge of humor. When I’d first come in it was, “Klingon, Klingon, Klingon, ugh.” I think what Jonathan Frakes hired me for was that crazy loon eyeball thing, but he saw also a sense of humor, and he has one of the great senses of humor of all time. I think that created a curiosity in him and he wanted to see more of me. I think that’s why he hired me. Then there was that line. The young Duras says, during the trial, “One day, the Duras family will rule the Empire.” I’m already the Klingon leader and I lean down to him and I say, “Perhaps, but not today.” It got a big laugh out of the audience at home. All the Klingons loved it. I think everyone watching laughed because they’d never seen a Klingon have that kind of a sense of humor. I think the writers started edging towards that. They were also scared of it. They didn’t want to go too far. Eventually I think most of the writers went, “Yeah, we can go there.” From that moment on, I think Klingons could have a sense of humor.
We know you’re tight on time today, so rather than go through all of your episodes as Gowron, let’s ask you this: which one episode of TNG and one episode of DS9 do you feel used Gowron, and you, to best effect?
O’Reilly: I would say my first episode of TNG (which was “Reunion”), which was the introduction and him being like Edmund. You knew right away that this guy was totally different from every other Klingon. DS9… I can’t really name a specific show. There were certain scenes that stand out. I think what happened on DS9 is they were trying to search for where I belonged on that show. Towards the middle I think they started getting it. When I first came on, there was a lot of comedy. “The House of Quark” was hysterical. It was full-on comedy. Even to do it, I had to study some Charlie Chaplin to get the physical humor to match what was going on with the Ferengi around me. I felt I couldn’t go too far in a verbal way, but that I could go there in a physical way. That’s why I studied Chaplin for some of those scenes. That wasn’t who Gowron was, at all, but it certainly was what the Ferengi were, and they went off and developed the Ferengi extraordinarily well. I loved what they did with them. Later, for Gowron, I thought there were some really, really good scenes, especially some of the scenes with Avery (Brooks).
O’Reilly: I think the writers and producers were really just being nice to me. It was a real surprise, and I was very thankful because it was at a time that was very tough. They gave me a job that was great to have. That was in the early days, when my kids were just born. We weren’t struggling, but we were trying to live life with three infants and it was hard to figure it all out. So that job, it was sweet. It was nice.
What are you up to these days?
O’Reilly: I’m just raising my three boys and doing a lot of Star Trek conventions worldwide. I’ve been to a lot of different countries the past few years, and to a lot of different cities in the U.S., too, actually. That’s pretty much what I’m doing, and it keeps me busy. I retired two years ago from acting, and I’m really happy with that decision. It’s just great. I enjoy the off time, though there’s not really much off time.
A lot of the conventions you attend, you do so in tandem with J.G. Hertzler (whom everyone calls John), and often in costume as Gowron and Martok. How much fun do you guys have? And what can fans expect to see when you and John take the stage at the Creation Entertainment Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks?
O’Reilly: John and I do get along real well, and it’s almost like we’ve got a comedy team, the two of us. We’ve been doing it, if you can imagine, for over 15 years now. On the show, we worked totally differently. You couldn’t have more-different people in the world than the two of us. But the guys you saw as enemies are really best buddies. We’re totally simpatico. We now have a rock band. We call it a garage band, and we’ll be doing that in Vegas this year. We’re not going to be doing Gowron and Martok. We’ll be doing a Vegas-style show rock and roll band. That’s our newest thing and we have a ball doing it. We’ll do our Klingon song, which is our trademark, and we’ll do lots of garage-band rock from different eras. I play the bat’leth. They put strings on it, so it’s like a guitar, and I air-play it, if you know what I mean. But we have real musicians and singers, too, who join us when they can. So, that's what we're going to do in Vegas this year.