Isn't That... God?
One of the many treats of watching the stories of the Star Trek galaxy is seeing familiar actors appear in key roles. On occasion, some reappear in recurring part or turn up later as entirely different character role. One season they might play a benevolent scientist, the next an evil genius. As fans of the performer as well as the role, we dig into their career, following their path, ever aware that no matter what they go on to, they are forever a part of Star Trek.
We continue our talent spotting cruise through the cosmos with a man who not only commanded as an Admiral but also played… God. Yes, that God (kind of) -- George Murdock.
Born George Sawaya Jr. on June 25, 1930 in Salina, Kansas, George was the second of seven children and destined for a career in film and TV that would touch on six decades and some of the best-known television series of all-time. His television debut came in a 1961 episode of Shannon, a first step into a professional career that made the most of his craggy appearance, deep voice and stern demeanor. Roles on The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, the hugely popular 77 Sunset Strip and the long-running Bonanza followed soon after, cementing his position as a capable and reliable presence. His versatility saw him appear in two of the longest-running TV series ever -- Gunsmoke in 1967 and L.A. Law in 1992 -- as well as both Smallville and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, not to mention Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off.
On Star Trek
1989 saw the arrival of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed by William Shatner, and with it Murdock’s entry into the Star Trek galaxy. His arrival on Trek was originally intended to be in a different role, that of the Klingon Commander Korrd. However, after Charles Cooper aced his audition, Shatner decided to switch Murdock across to an arguably even more iconic role, that of the God-like deity on the mythical world of Sha Ka Ree, at the very center of the galaxy. That gave Murdock and Shatner a classic exchange that included the infamous Kirk line "What does God need with a starship?" before being zapped by the irate entity.
The critical and commercial fate of The Final Frontier is well known, as is the adoration for Murdock’s next Trek foray in Star Trek: The Next Generation, with “The Best of Both Worlds.” Appearing in the season three cliffhanger – still the best season-ending episode of any TV show past or present, in my humble opinion – and meeting his fate in season four’s opening episode, Murdock’s role of Admiral J.P. Hanson put a human face on the unfolding tragedy.
Why It Was Unique
With humanity hanging by a thread, Hanson took the U.S.S. Melbourne into battle at Wolf 359, messaging the Enterprise before being destroyed by the Borg. Across TNG we had seen Admirals with questionable motives, ones co-opted by aliens or arriving on the Enterprise to admonish Picard. We rarely saw one that took it to the enemy in quite the way Hanson did.
Links to Other Trek Figures
Murdock’s career path intersected with a number of other working Star Trek figures. Over the many decades of his career he appeared in T.J. Hooker opposite William Shatner and in Benson with Rene Auberjonois, as well as the recurring role of Lt. Ben Scanlon in the classic cop series Barney Miller alongside fellow Trek actor Ron Glass, best known to sci-fi audiences for his role as Shepherd Book, though he appeared in the season-seven Star Trek: Voyager episode “Nightingale,” directed by LeVar Burton. Back in 2007, he co-starred with Christopher Plummer in a movie called Man in the Chair. Murdock also guest starred on numerous episodes directed by past and future Trek directors, including Joseph Pevney, Robert Butler and Alexander Singer. And, just to show how things really come full circle in this crazy universe of ours, Murdock guest starred in a 1970 episode of Bracken’s World that featured “Space Seed” actress Madlyn Rhue as a series regular and was directed by Gerald Mayer, whose nephew is Ian Spelling, the editor of StarTrek.com.
What Happened Next
Following his appearances in both classic and Next Generation Trek, Murdock’s career continued unabated. Roles in Batman: The Animated Series, Lois and Clark and Law and Order followed, as did a role on the smash hit Seinfeld and a job opposite his Streets of San Francisco co-star Michael Douglas in The American President. Parts in Chicago Hope and E.R. preceded two excursions into the X-Files universe, one coming in 1998 during the sixth season and the other with the big-screen feature film X-Files: Fight the Future that same year.
The 21st century saw no let up in output from the veteran actor, as he appeared in Judging Amy, the aforementioned Smallville, Orange County and CSI. His final credited screen roles were as a preacher in Torchwood: Miracle Day in 2011 and as an aging fisherman in a 2012 short titled Caterwaul. Soon after that, on April 30, 2012, Murdock succumbed to cancer in Burbank, California. He was 81, and left behind more than 200 film and television credits (and we’ve not even touched on his stage career) for fans to enjoy long into the future.
Mark Newbold has been an avid Trek fan since the 1970's, when TOS was shown on UK TV, but it was the original cast movie series and TNG era that sealed the deal. Mark is a writer for Star Trek The Official Magazine, is editor-in-Chief of Star Trek: The Neutral Zone and was a stage host at Destination Star Trek Germany in 2018. At heart, he's a Niner. Follow him on Twitter.