John Putch: TNG's Mordock, Mendon & More
John Putch holds a most-unusual distinction within the Star Trek universe. He played Mordock, a Benzite, in first- season The Next Generation episode “Coming of Age” – which aired 30 years ago today, March 14 -- and then another Benzite, Mendon, in the season two’s “A Matter of Honor,” thus becoming the first TNG actor to play two different characters of the same species. He also turned up several years later as an unnamed journalist on the Enterprise bridge in Generations. Putch’s Trek work is truly a footnote in a fascinating career. He’s the son of actress Jean Stapleton, beloved as Edith Bunker on All in the Family, and William Putch, a respected theater director. After amassing dozens of acting credits, Putch realized his dream of directing. He started off with low-budget B-movies, but since the early 2000s, Putch has helmed numerous episodes of such series as Grounded for Life, Scrubs, Cougar Town and Black-ish. StarTrek.com recently chatted with Putch about all of the above…
What are you working on at the moment?
My current show, that I’m directing, is American Housewife. This is my second season with the show. I’m doing six episodes, including the season finale. I also did Alex, Inc. this season, which Zach Braff is the star of. We did Scrubs together years ago.
You leveraged acting into the chance to direct, right?
Yes. I grew up as a young actor on stage. My parents were in the biz. My father was a director of theater. My mom was an actress. I always thought I was going to be an actor and I was throughout my 20s, 30s and early 40s. But all along I'd been a filmmaker and was always making movies, and so I used to use all my acting revenue to make Super 8 or 16-mm films. I always wanted to make films or, actually, direct television. I started focusing on that and got into it in the mid-90s professionally. It took me 10 years to break into television. I was doing non-union TV and B-movies for years in the 90s. It wasn't until 2000 I got a break and directed Grounded for Life. It was Donal Logue, Megyn Price, and Kevin Corrigan. So, I started my directing career with that and just built from there. Once you get in and don't screw it up, I've learned, they ask you back.
Did you ever direct your dad or your mom?
I did. My dad was in a lot of my Super 8 movies, so no one will ever see those, but he was always game and hilarious for me when I needed him. Mom was also in some of the Super 8s, but I directed her in a film in 2001. It was called Pursuit of Happiness, spelled the correct way, with Frank Whaley and Annabeth Gish. Mom played Frank's boss, and she had a cute, funny role. She was very proud of that day when she came to the set because that movie cost $1.5 million, and it was definitely a direct-to-video, an independent, but we had all the bells and whistles. She was very impressed by that and proud because she actually had a dressing room and all that stuff she didn't expect.
Do you miss acting?
I'm glad I'm not an actor anymore because I'm way better behind the camera. When I look back at some of the stuff I did, it's horrible. It's over the top and out of control. I credit that to my upbringing as a theater actor, where you have to play to the back of the house. You have to sell the same emotion to the 26th row that you do the first row. But in movies and TV, you only have to convince the person right across from you. No one ever told me that. I had to learn that on my own, through trial and error, by watching my performances back. I don't know how I ever got hired. But there’s an interesting Star Trek connection to all of this. I met Junie Lowry, the casting directing of TNG, when I was an actor in the Gambler movies, which her brother, Dick, directed. I’d also done a movie with my mom called Angel Dusted, where I was the troubled PCP-smoking kid. Dick directed it and Junie was Dick's assistant. I made a great friendship with her and then, over the years, as she became a casting director, she’d have me in all the time on almost everything she got. She’s responsible for me getting TNG.
You played Mordock and then Mendon…
Once I did Mordock, then Mendon made sense for everybody. Of course, I didn't realize that then. I just thought they liked me.
What do you remember of “Coming of Age”? How was that as an experience?
I worked with Wil (Wheaton) and this girl, Tasia (Valenza), who played a female Vulcan, who was also vying for a spot. The thing I most remember was working with Wil. We had a great time. What a sweet guy. Mike Vejar, the director, and I did a pilot for Disney called Double Agent, with Michael McKean. It was just a regular old secret agent spoof. He was cool. I also remember my makeup. I had four to five hours of makeup every day, and my call for a 7:00am or 7:30am on set would be like 3:30am. I got a lot of overtime because I was called in so early.
Gerald Quist and Michael Westmore did the makeup, correct?
Yes. They created a cast and the appliances first. You'd get a part as alien of the week, and you'd go in at least two weeks ahead of time, and they’d cast your head and sculpt something, and then you come back in and try the crap on. They’d get it down to whatever it was by the time you shot. Every day I was in there at 3:30. You'd be asleep in the chair and they'd just put it on you and then you couldn't eat all day. At least I couldn't because it’d break the stuff around my mouth. The edges of your lips would ... They were constantly fixing that. It was tough because no one knew what I looked like. They’d greet me and I was John underneath, but hardly anybody saw me prior and after because I was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. What else about “Coming of Age”? It was really cool being on that stage and that set because I was a big original Trek fan from childhood.
You then got a call to come back, to play a different Benzite…
I was pleased because you always want to be asked back. I thought, "Oh, they liked me so much they want me to play the same species." Now that I'm a filmmaker and I know exactly what's what, it was a no-brainer. “Get the same guy. He'll fit in the outfit and he'll fit in the blue-headed stuff.” They didn't have to make a new cast. Saved them a lot of money. But they did give me a ton more to say, which was challenging. I had to mutter a lot of technical mumbo jumbo on the bridge. I liked that one because I got to annoy people. I was the blue-headed guy who walked around and was spot-checking everybody in their job and then tattling on them. It was fun being told off by Patrick Stewart. "Come into my chambers," and I was yelled at by Captain Picard.
We liked the inside joke where Wesley thinks you are the other character…
That was great. Very meta. Who directed that one? [Rob] Bowman, of course. I love that guy. Boy, he did all right with his career.
I also liked Michael Dorn. It's funny, Dorn worked years later at the B-movie house I did a lot of my first features at. It was called Royal Oaks, and we made stock footage, direct-to-video movies. Michael came through after TNG was over and did a few of those action movies. I saw him a couple times. I didn't direct him.
You also were memorialized as an action figure…
I know. How amazing is that? I have one signed by Michael Westmore. He gave me one and signed it to me. I still have it. Once in a while, I'll get a request for a signature from someone on eBay. It's pretty neat to be an action figure and a trading card and a game piece. I also am happy to be in the Trek encyclopedia as the only guy or the first guy that played different characters from the same species.
You were in Generations as well. Did Junie just ring you up again?
Yes. That was cool because when Generations came, it was a huge deal, obviously, because it was the first TNG movie. This is what I was told…. They went through all the show’s guest cast and wanted to put as many people as they could from the series in these smaller roles, of which there were many. So, you saw a lot of people in Generations, not just me, but other people playing different parts who’d been guest stars along the way. That was a concentrated effort on Junie's part or David Carson's part or Rick Berman's part. I don't know. But I’d imagine it was Junie's idea. That was an amazing experience, and I’ve got some great Shatner stories I’ll tell you over a beer sometime.
That camera device you had on your head reminds me of Google Glass.
Totally agree with that. It was kind of ahead of its time. I thought that was always very cool.
How scary is it that it's 30 years ago today that your first episode aired?
That was 88? Good God. I was so young. I had a full head of hair and a 30" waist.