INTERVIEW: Trek's Moriarty, Daniel Davis
How good an actor is Daniel Davis? So good that you probably think he’s British. However, Davis – who so memorably portrayed Professor Moriarty in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle,” and Niles, the butler, for six seasons on The Nanny – hails from Arkansas. Yes, Arkansas. These days, Davis continues to act, mostly on stage, while also adding teaching to his repertoire, and he’s set to make a rare convention appearance at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, which will run from July 31 to August 3. StarTrek.com caught up with the genial Davis for an interview in which he addressed all of the above and more.
How did you win your role on TNG? Was it an offer or an audition?
DAVIS: The first episode was in just the second season of the show and they were auditioning people. They were looking for a classical type actor and I remember being in the room with Brian Bedford. So he’s the standout in my mind, and we were sort of taking bets with each other about which of us would get it. We hadn’t worked together or seen each other in a long time. So it was a very friendly rivalry. Then, when I got it, he was a very good sport and invited me to come to dinner to celebrate that I had gotten the part. It was very generous of him to do that and every time I’ve seen in subsequent years he always reminds that I beat him out for Moriarty.
But I remember the experience very vividly. I walked into the room and there was a young director there named Rob Bowman. He went on to do The X-Files and many other shows, and it was a very early job for Rob. I think he was only 28 years old at the time. I auditioned for him. I read for him, and I think Merri Howard was producing that episode, if I remember correctly. By the time I drove back home my agent had called and said, “They’d like you to do the episode.”
How familiar were you then with Star Trek and TNG?
DAVIS: It was very exciting for me because I had been a fan of The Original Series and I’d been watching Patrick Stewart and that cast from the beginning. I am a science fiction fan, so it was thrilling, and it was such an amazing part, the way they conceived Moriarty.
Can you go into detail about that, please? What amazed about how they conceived the part?
DAVIS: Well, traditionally, Moriarty is seen as fiendishly Sherlock Holmes’s rival. He’s usually depicted as a real villain, as a real melodramatic, mustache-twirling villain. And in this Star Trek incarnation of it he’s someone who starts out that way, as Data programmed the computer to create a villain who could match Data’s intelligence, so that solving the riddle of that episode would be more difficult for Data and Geordi would have more fun as Watson. But then the character becomes, very quickly, a sentient being and aware that he is involved in some sort of a game. He’s aware that he’s not real, but he feels real and he begins to experience real feelings and real emotions. So it was a very clever episode and it depicted Moriarty with the power of a villain, but the mind of a human being who wants to be real. It was like Pinocchio; he just wants to be a real boy. And it was interesting how they solved the dilemma and put him in a computer chip.
What do you remember of the costuming?
DAVIS: Bob Blackman, the costume designer on the show, was a friend of mine. We’d worked together when he was costuming for the theater, and he was a pretty regular member of the American Conservatory in San Francisco, where I’d been for six years. So we had a rapport to begin with, and putting together the Moriarty costume was just such a breeze. He’d pulled some great stuff from one of the costume rental places and some Victorian-era clothing, which worked perfectly for the character. Then we created a little bit of sideburns for the period hair. It wasn’t too complicated. I wore the same clothes in both episodes, and how Rob managed to keep the clothes stored away for years, I don’t know. The funny thing is the clothes looked the same, but I had aged four years. I was supposed to not have aged, but real time and television time are different things altogether.
When Moriarty returned four years later in “Ship in a Bottle,” he took over the Enterprise in his effort to escape the holodeck. Tell us about your experience on your second appearance…
DAVIS: Why they waited so long to get the second episode done is a whole other story, but the fans were wanting a resolution and, finally, we got “Ship in a Bottle.” That resolved some of Moriarty’s issues, and Picard’s conscience would not let him destroy someone who believed himself to be a real being. So they promised to store him away in a cube until they could bring him to life, which they never did, darn it. I was hoping that someday the character would show up again. Kate Mulgrew is a great friend of mine for the last 30 years or more, and it would have been fun if Moriarty had shown up on Voyager and tangled with Captain Janeway. I actually wanted to be Ricardo Montalban and come back in one of the movies.
Your career spans more than 40 years. You’ve done theater, film, TV, voiceovers and more. What are some of things you’ve done that you’re personally proudest of?
DAVIS: On the stage I have had the great opportunity of playing Hamlet on a couple of occasions. When I was a young actor that’s what all young actors aspired to, and I was very lucky to have more than one shot at it, including one production in California back in the 1970s. I also did a production of Moliere’s comedy The Misanthrope which was directed by Garland Wright and opened his tenure at the Guthrie Theater back in the 80s. That was a stunning production for me. For television, it would have to be The Nanny, which was the longest-running project I’ve been involved with on television. We did six seasons. I can’t discount the Star Trek episodes because they bring me more recognition and attention when I travel, still, to this day, than anything else. So those two episodes are on my list. And, film-wise, I haven’t had that many great film roles, but an experience I had that I was thrilled to be a part of was The Hunt for Red October. I got to spend three days on the U.S.S. Enterprise off the coast of Southern California, sort of going in a circle as we filmed a large segment of that movie on the deck of the ship. We got to do a trap landing on the deck and a catapult takeoff, which very few civilians get to do. That was very exciting to me. So I guess those are the highlights that come right off the top of my head.
What’s on your agenda these days, work-wise?
DAVIS: I moved back to New York about four and a half years ago because I really wanted to get back to my theatrical roots. So I’ve been mostly theater for all that time. This past season I was in two off-Broadway productions, one of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and also Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Classic Stage Company. Then, a friend of mine has a conservatory in Manhattan, a two-year program. His name is Tom Todoroff, and he invited me to come and teach his second-year class, an acting and Shakespeare intensive. I’d been asked to teach before, but I never quite believed or wasn’t quite sure that was something I could do. But I decided to take the plunge and I had a fantastic time. The students taught me as much as I taught them, and I began to figure out, by teaching and talking to them, what I should be trying to impart. I had such a good time that they’ve asked me to come back next year, in the fall, and do another intensive with the next second-year class. So, I haven’t given up acting, but teaching is something I’m really starting to enjoy.
I really haven’t been pursuing very much in the way of television and film in the last years since The Nanny because it’s been so hard for me to break out of that English butler mold, which is so strange for me because I’m originally from Arkansas and I ended up playing all these British parts all the time. That’s very strange. I’d love to get to get back into television and film, especially sci-fi, which is my favorite. I think classically trained actors have such a great shot when they’re doing sci-fi because it always seems like such a heightened world, and that’s certainly the world I come from theatrically. I’d love to get back into it, but you just sort of have to wait your turn in this business.
Last question… How eager are you to get out to Creation’s big Vegas convention to meet the fans?
DAVIS: Very excited. It’s interesting. Right before The Nanny started, I did several conventions. I went on a Star Trek cruise, on a boat with nothing but Star Trek fans, and that was an amazing experience. We did seminars and Q&A’s and signed autographs and took pictures. But, truthfully, I have not been invited to a convention since 1995 or 1996, and I kind of wondered how I fell off the radar because I kept getting fan mail and requests for pictures and all of that for years. Even now, every time I do a play, there are still four or five people who’ll send me something from Germany or someplace, wanting information about Moriarty. So I know that it’s still popular around the world, and it amazes me that people are still interested. But the fans of Star Trek are genuine, diehard fans. I talk to Kate Mulgrew all the time about the conventions, and I think Kate may have had a hand in helping them track me down for this Creation show. They told me they’d love to have me come and I said, “That would be great because I enjoy being with the fans and they’re really hardcore.” It’s nice to meet people who are real enthusiasts of work you’ve done. And it’ll be a double treat for me to be in Vegas because there are some shows I want to see there, that I’ve heard about for years, and there are a couple of Emeril Lagasse restaurants I want to eat in. So I think it’ll be a good weekend.
Visit CreationEnt.com for details about the upcoming Creation Entertainment Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.