Catching Up With The Traveler, Eric Menyuk
If the chips of fate had fallen differently, Eric Menyuk might have played Data for seven seasons on Star Trek: The Next Generation and in the four TNG big-screen adventures. Of course, Brent Spiner won the role, apparently just beating out Menyuk. Such is life. Such are careers in Hollywood. Menyuk, meanwhile, didn't walk away empty handed. He portrayed the Traveler, a memorable guest character, in three TNG episodes, continued to act for a while longer, and then pursued a career in law, representing children with disabilities. Menyuk keeps his hand in the Star Trek cookie jar with the occasional appearance at Star Trek events, and he's set to appear at Creation Entertainment's Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, which will be held July 31 to August 3. In advance of that appearance, StarTrek.com caught up with the amiable Menyuk for an informative conversation in which he recounted auditioning for Data, shared his memories of playing the Traveler and filled us in on his life today. Here's what he had to say.
You auditioned to play Data. Take us to the period. What was the process like? Who did you audition for? Was it Roddenberry? Justman? Berman? Lowry? And as far as you know, how close did you come to actually landing Data?
MENYUK: I was very close. You're going to make me cry because, you know, totally different life... but among the main characters, the regulars on the show, I was told that Brent Spiner and I were the closest in terms of being the last ones it came down to when they made their decision. The whole thing was a kick because I was a big Star Trek fan. I auditioned. I read for Junie Lowry. I'd worked for her on something else, but I can't remember what it was. It was a couple of things, actually. So she basically brought me in to tell me about the role, but then took me right in to meet... I forget if it was Bob Justman or someone else. It was probably two or three people. You end up going through this whole process where you audition over and over and over again, and then I remember I was literally walking into the Paramount lot and I happened to run into Brent Spiner, whom I did not know from Adam. I had a discussion with him. I said, "What are you here for?" He said, "Star Trek." I said, "What role?" He said, "Data." I said, "Oh, so am I." We talked about the role and I remember him saying something like, "Well, if they let me play it the way I want to I think it would be fun to do," or something like that. I thought, "God, I wish I could be that confident."
Then, at that point, we went into this room and it was packed. We worked for a while with the director of the pilot and then we went in to read for it. I remember that Gene Roddenberry said, "Would you mind shaving your head?" I laughed and said to him, "Well, I don't think I'd have to go very far," because I was already pretty much bald. We laughed and had a very good old time. We were talking about the role and the show and Star Trek. I said, "I gotta say this. I don't know if I should. But I'm a big fan of The Original Series. So thank you very much." I remembered that I'd gone to a convention in Boston and seen him and Bob Justman and Leonard Nimoy or someone else from the original show, I think it was. And he said, "Oh, we were all so much younger then." Yes, we were. Now I look back on that experience and think, "Oh, I was so young then."
When you didn't get the role, did they say, "We really like you and hope to bring you in later for something else?" or did they not make any comment like that?
MENYUK: They said something very much like that, yes. My agent, who has since passed on, called me up and said, "They haven't made up their mind." Usually when you hear that, that's your agent trying not to break bad news to you. And he said, "Eric, I swear to you, they have not made up their mind yet." When he finally called me back to tell me I didn't get it, he said, "I hate to say this to you, but they cast a man for the role of the captain who is bald, and they didn't think it would look good for the show to have two bald main characters." I have a feeling that was my agent being very kind to me, but I like to think that if only Patrick Stewart had hair, I could have been Data.
How did the Traveler come your way? Was it an offer since you'd already been in front of everyone or did you still have to audition?
MENYUK: That was an offer. It was one of the only times I'd just been given a role. They basically said to, "They have this role and they want you to do it. Do you want to do it?" I read it and I loved the character and I loved the script, except that at the end he dies. I said, "Well, they must not like me that much because it's not like a recurring role. They're bringing me in for this one-off deal." They said, "Well, it's a one-of-a-kind alien and they really thought you'd be perfect for it." So I went in and I did it and literally as we were doing it they rewrote the ending so that he doesn't die. He phases out. So that was rewarding. I thought they'd call me the next week to come back and, of course, it was three years later.
What do recall most about shooting your first episode, "Where No One Has Gone Before"?
MENYUK: That was the first and best experience of my times playing the character. The thing I loved about the character, just from the very beginning, is usually when you go on a show they have the character scripted and nailed down and they're telling you what to do, especially as a guest star. I always laugh when I hear actors say, "Well, I had a lot of input into this character" because rarely does an actor have a lot of input into their character, unless they're a big star or one of the producers. Generally, characters are painted with broad strokes. But in this case, with this role, I really got close with Bob Justman. I don't know if he liked me, if he liked the character, but he really felt strongly about it. So we had a lot of conversations about the character, language, things like that, the way he interacted with everyone around him, things that come naturally to us in day-to-day life, but which are all things the Traveler observes from a third-party standpoint. I thought, "Wow, you never have this in-depth kind of character analysis from a producer." You might with your actor buddies, but not with a producer. And we did that through the whole thing, talking about the look of the character and how he might present himself, his curiosity, his ability to take in what's happening and sort of adjust to it. Bob described him as a little boy who's got the whole universe to explore.
The only thing I did not like about the character was the fingers. I thought he was coming out to be ethereal. He had the silver in the hair and the silver outfit. And I wanted these thin, long Elvish-like fingers and they gave me three clubby glove fingers. I think it was Rick Berman who said, "Aw, nobody cares. They're not going to see your hands." I was also worried about typing in numbers, but it was supposed to be a touch screen, and long before the iPad came out. I didn't have to hunt and peck on a keyboard. So the whole thing was a great experience, especially that first episode. You have to remember, when we shot my first episode I don't think the series had debuted yet. So there was a lot of anticipation and excitement. It was the happiest I saw that cast. They were just a great group of people having real fun and doing what they enjoyed doing.
MENYUK: The second one, that was fun. I enjoyed that one because I got to work with Gates McFadden in it than I had on the first one. She's always a pleasure to work with. And the third one, I was barely there for it because the Traveler was basically played by a Native American. So I sort of came in at the end to whisk Wesley off to a different planet, which always seemed kind of strange to me. But I cannot say I had a bad time during any of my days on the set. The people there were a joy to work with, including ("Where No One Has Gone Before" director) Rob Bowman, who was so young and who has gone on to a great career and become a big mucky-muck. What a great guy to have direct me in one of my early roles.
Let's bring everyone up to date. What are you up to these days?
MENYUK: I am an attorney. I represent children with disabilities and I spend my days, as I just did, with a young family that has a child with a disability. And when they don't receive the services that they need, from state agencies or a school district or a federal agency -- whoever they need the services from -- I step in and try to get the services for the children.
That sounds quite fulfilling. In what ways is it a different kind of fulfilling than acting was for you?
MENYUK: That's a very interesting question. I loved being an actor. Being a lawyer, I still get to act all the time. But one of the things I've really missed about being an actor for a living is... you do some character research, but it's very much a creative pursuit. You find that a lot of actors, a lot of intelligent actors, especially, will have hobbies or things that they do on the side that really get their juices going intellectually. It's just a very different organ you use, so to speak, when you're doing legal research, which I love doing, or getting into the nitty-gritty of what is required or isn't required unto the law. I find that it's very intellectually stimulating and satisfying. Acting I found to be much more creatively stimulating and satisfying in that regard. The way I deal with that, because I consider myself at heart somewhat of a creative person, is I handle aspects of law that I deal with very creatively. I have not changed who I am to be a lawyer, which is often much to the chagrin of judges and other lawyers who expect me to be very rational, quiet and sane. And that's not who I am. That's not my personality. So I bring a lot of humor, a lot of... showmanship to the job. That's what I get out of it now.
You'll be in Vegas for Creation's big convention. How often do you do conventions, and how big a kick do you get out of meeting the fans, hearing the impact that the Traveler had on people, and also signing autographs and posing for photos with fans?
MENYUK: I've got to tell you, the best of the experience is meeting the fans. I always get yelled at by other people when I'm signing autographs because I enjoying meeting people, enjoy talking to people about their experiences, about what brought them to Star Trek because, when I was a very, very young lad, I was a Star Trek fan. I was a fan of The Original Series. I know exactly from whence they came, and I really enjoy meeting the people and hearing their different stories. There's the whole stereotype of the crazy fans or the "Get a life!" thing that came out many moons ago, but I've never found that to be the case. I've always found the fans to be just really wonderful people. And it touches me that I find I've somehow affected people with a role that I did years ago. It's a kick. I enjoy it immensely. I don't do it often. I maybe do a convention every two years. My schedule and my life are so hectic that just to get time off to do then is very difficult, but I'm glad this one in Las Vegas is working out. I probably don't do them as often as I'd like to do them.
Visit CreationEnt.com for details about the Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.