Laurence Luckinbill played one of Star Trek’s most controversial characters in one of Star Trek’s most debate-worthy films, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The actor co-starred as Sybok – Spock’s older, rogue, full-Vulcan half-brother, often dubbed “the laughing Vulcan” – who led Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew on an ill-fated quest for Sha Ka Ree and God. Sybok amassed followers by “sharing” their pain and he ultimately died heroically, but not before realizing he'd been wrong all along, and that the being he believed to be God was merely a trapped/imprisoned alien seeking a starship with which to break free from the Great Barrier. Luckinbill has spent most of his long career treading the boards in theaters around the country, but Sybok remains a point of pride for him nearly 23 years after its release. StarTrek.com recently caught up with him for a detailed, extensive two-part interview in which he talked about Star Trek V and Sybok, being the son-in-law of Lucille Ball – whose company, Desilu, green-lit and produced Star Trek – and his current projects. Below is part one of our interview, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two.
How did you land the role of Sybok and how true is the story that the producers had initially pursued Sean Connery for it?
Luckinbill: I think that’s true, (that Connery was offered Sybok). I can tell you how I got it. My play Lyndon caused it. Bill (Shatner) told me that he was watching Public Television one night and he said, “That’s the guy to play Sybok.” They looked me up and they looked at my filmography, without the Lyndon makeup on, and Bill was even more convinced. He just decided, and Harve Bennett and the other producer went along with it. They called me in. When an actor goes to a studio, whether he’s been asked to go or his agent has sent him, you can tell when you go through the gate where you stand. When I arrived at Paramount to talk to these guys, there was no audition. It was just a discussion, a conversation. I found a guy at the gate waiting for me with a car to take me to the bungalow where we were going to have the discussion. That’s rare. Usually, you park your car, walk, find the place, then you walk in and wait with the other actors. This was a special deal. I got in the car, we drove about two blocks within the studio, I walked up the stairs and sat down with Harve and Bill. In about 10 minutes they said, “You’re good to go. We want you. Let’s get you into the mix here.”
How aware of Star Trek were you over the years? Also, your wife, Lucie Arnaz, is the daughter of Lucille Ball, without whom there probably would never, ever have been any Star Trek at all. How aware of your wife’s connection to the franchise had you been?
Luckinbill: Nothing. I knew nothing. My wife married me because I’d never seen an I Love Lucy show. I was not an avid television watcher. Star Trek, I’d never seen that, either. I wasn’t a Trekkie. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew that there were plenty of people out there who were, and you couldn’t avoid that. I knew there’d been a few movies and that The Final Frontier was going to be the fifth one, but I’d not seen any of them. I knew Ricardo (Montalban) was in one, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, because he was a friend of mine. So, when this happened it was pretty much out of the blue and it was based on my work. That’s pretty much the best way to get a role, because you’re filled with confidence. You know that they know who you are from your work and that’s what they want.
And you and Lucille Ball never discussed the fact that you were going to be in a Star Trek movie?
Luckinbill: No. She said… zero. She did not talk about the past. She did not discuss her business, when she was the head of the studio. This was not necessarily just with me. She was done with that, so she didn’t want to talk about that stuff. It was not refusal; it was just not interested.
What do you remember of the Star Trek V shoot?
Luckinbill: I remember everything. It was about 20 weeks, a long shoot. Bill and I had met several times to discuss the character, and we talked a lot about motivation. What was Sybok all about? What was he doing? Why was he doing it? We had great conversations in every nacho and taco place there was around the Valley. Every time we’d talk on the phone or anything else, it was always about ‘We’re going to get this meaning in this scene. Here’s the scene, and this is what it means.” Well, the first day came and we were in Mono Lake, which is a dry lake up in the coast of Death Valley, and I got to the set fairly early. It was about six o’clock in the morning. I saw a line of trucks and horse trailers stretching about a mile. I thought, “Whoa, this is incredible.’ There were extras all over the place, dressed as aliens, in weird stuff. It was just like you might imagine Star Trek would look.
I got to the makeup trailer and we got ready. We’d done a makeup test with ears and a wig. It was my own beard. So they matched all that, and I looked pretty fantastic, actually. I got the word to come down to the set because we were ready to try the first shot. I got down there and I could see that Bill was quite preoccupied. There were probably 250 people waiting for his word. I walked up to him and said, “Now, Bill, what’s my motivation?” He said, “Shut up! Shut up! I don’t have time for that now. That’s all over with.” He put me on my horse, Dolly, who didn’t like being painted blue at all. I had to plop-plop out into the desert, because Bill had this great entrance for me, which was like Omar Sharif’s incredible ride forward through the heat waves on the camel in Lawrence of Arabia. We tried that a few times, and then there was that sad alien there who needed help.
That’s when you shot the close-up of Sybok putting his hand on the alien’s head…
Luckinbill: And I said “Let me take your pain.” The guy was really into it, and his tears were making my hand wet. It was great. Then I took my hand way and Bill said, “Now laugh,” and I sort of laughed to the sky. So I thought we were off to a great start. I know a lot of people criticize Bill for what he didn’t do or what he did do. Bill invites that because he’s just got a big life and he plays it big. But I found him absolutely wonderful. I liked Bill and, to this day, think he did a good job with that film. He’s a favorite guy of mine.
What advice, if any, did Leonard Nimoy give you about playing a Vulcan?
Luckinbill: He did not say one word to me for quite a long time, other than “Hello,” because, I found out later, he had really, really pushed hard to have this be a double role, a dual role for him. I don’t know if this is absolutely true. That was the scuttlebutt and I got that from very high up in the food chain of information, that Leonard wanted to play Sybok and play Spock. That would have been a tremendous thing, to do that, but since they weren’t twins, they cast me. I think that Bill wanted a separate actor, and he was right. We were very different people. The best compliment I got was, in the last scenes, 20 or 25 weeks later, Leonard looked at me and said, “You know, you’re terrific in this.” I thought that was a great send-off.
Click HERE to read the second half of our interview with Laurence Luckinbill.
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