Laurence Luckinbill remembers Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – and the experience of playing Sybok in the William Shatner-directed feature – as if it were yesterday. The actor, in part one of an exclusive StarTrek.com interview, recounted his memories of landing, preparing for and actually playing the role. Today, in part two of our interview, Luckinbill shares with StarTrek.com his thoughts about Sybok’s “share you pain” sequences, the character’s there/not there ponytail and the film’s critical assessment, and he tells us about what he’s doing these days.
Who else from the cast Star Trek V did you get to know?
Luckinbill: My favorite guy was DeForest Kelley. DeForest was a wonderful gentleman. He’d been around. He’d done early Hollywood stuff. He’d gone through the system. He’d done the training course and was prepped for stardom. He always ended up with the second part or the third part. But he kept his equanimity. Then we found out, of course, that he was ill. He knew it and everyone knew it, and he didn’t last too much longer after that film. He and I were great friends and I admired him enormously. His wife (Carolyn) was great. They were a great pair.
What interested you most about Sybok as a character?
Luckinbill: He was a charismatic leader and he was inspired to help the whole world. He wanted to relieve all of the pain in the universe. That was extremely attractive. Then, the script, I thought it was brilliant because it confronted him with the reality of his own power, how to use it. What do you do when the choices are absolutely dilemma choices? Horns of the dilemma -- when both sides are bad in some way to somebody, what do you do? It’s the ultimate leadership/power question, and I thought it was written quite well. I thought it was underwritten in the sense that the whole business of climbing Yosemite and the camaraderie of the guys took a lot of precedence and took up a lot of film time. I thought, “Well, this part is not getting everything it should, the scenes.” To their credit, they didn’t cut scenes once we started there. They were professionals, great pros. Harve Bennett and some of the other people on the set were just marvelous writers, marvelous people, as well as marvelous professionals. I know it’s boring to say all of this. I had a great time. I loved Bill. I grew to like and connect with Leonard (Nimoy) after the picture. I’d go to his house and hang out. He used to have fundraisers and his wife was doing some stuff.
Take us through the “share your pain” scenes and also the Sybok-vs-Sybok moments…
Luckinbill: The question was, “How serious was the ‘share your pain’ thing? Is he a fake? Is he not?” I couldn’t ask Bill at that point. We’d discussed it enough anyway, and I kind of knew where he was at. The show biz aspect of that, I didn’t want to give any indication whatsoever, no glimmer, that I could be a charlatan because I thought, “This will kill the movie instantly.” So I went deep on that, and I took to it all the personalization I could, all the stuff that I could bring to it from my own life, trying to help people, wanting to help, not being able to help, then mysteriously being able to help. That was the work I did on that, and I’m really, really proud of this performance. I think I did a good job.
Fighting myself, that was a bit of a confusion because at that point they’d started rewriting the ending. There were different versions of who the monster was in Sha Ka Ree. Eventually they decided on one, but it was sort of… I don’t know… a bit of a letdown for me. But I’m a self-starter. None of that stuff bothered me at all. I just kept trekking on, so to speak.
Your ponytail seems to come and go at will throughout Star Trek V. Movie mistake sites have a field day with it. How aware were you at the time of what was happening?
Luckinbill: I was aware of it. The idea that Bill had was that I was this wild man at the beginning and then, as I got control of the starship, I would do a sort of ceremonial Samurai purification before going to the God planet. So I cut my hair, cut the pigtail off, as it were. So they made two hairstyles for me. If there was ever a flip back and forth, maybe it was justified by some sort of flashback feeling, but actually once I had control of the ship and beat him in the fight... After that, I had control and we were going to go through the Barrier and end up with God. For that scene – I remember distinctly – they cleaned me up and gave me a white tunic, rather than the old beige and dirty one that I had. It wasn’t very realistic or justified or motivated, but it was literal given Bill’s desire to have Sybok look different. It’s like, did Sybok bring a suitcase with him, with a spare outfit? But that outfit was the one I wore from there on, to the big fight with the god.
They did a lot of tests, you may not know, a lot of makeup tests with me as the god, myself, in various phases of being persuasively satanic. I thought they should have ended up with that because, really, the psychological truth is that when you come face to face with yourself and with your ego, and the reason you’re doing is not what you thought it was, it’s because of a very much grimier motivation, that is when people become changed and become illuminated. So I was plumping for that ending. It wasn’t a battle. I’d never do anything like that. It was just my input that I thought those things were better. And I thought the tests were good. Somewhere, there’s a whole set of pictures of me in four or five different looks. It ended up with that sort of standard Jehovah feel.
Some fans love Star Trek V, many fans dislike it. What did you make of it and what did you make of the reaction to it by the fan base?
Luckinbill: I was surprised and disappointed that anybody hated the film. I thought it came down to their dislike of Bill himself. That seemed to be the leading edge of the whole thing, Shatner’s need for comeuppance, blah, blah, blah, “He’s too arrogant,” this and that. I did agree with one of the streams of comment that said that the film was in two pieces. It broke in half with the comedy of the old guard trying to retire and not being able to, climbing and joking with each other in the woods and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and the serious story of Spock’s brother, who is attempting to change the universe with this movement of power. I felt the movement of power story was by far the more interesting part of the movie, but that may be because it was my story.
What was it like to see your Sybok action figure?
Luckinbill: I thought, “Wait a minute! This guy is too short. He’s too stocky, and I’m tall and buff. What’s this about?” It’s weird. It’s weird-looking. I’ve got a couple of them.
What are you working on these days?
Luckinbill: I’m working on another one of my solo presentations, my one-man shows. For 25 years, I’ve been doing great Americans on stage, by myself, and (exploring) the issues they confronted. The shows have been extremely popular, and I’ve not had to wait for the telephone to ring, which is the bane of the actor, for a long time. I’ve always got some gigs and go out and do this work. It started by accident, or by design – who knows? – when David Susskind called me out of the blue. We knew each other very well. He was my Dutch uncle. He’d always give me a head rub when I needed some sympathy. Anyway, he called me and told me that he had a script that he wanted me to read that very day. It was 69 pages, single-spaced. I said, “What’s this about?” He said, “We’re going into production on this in about a week and a half, and I want you to learn this script and do it.” I said, “David, first, it may take me a week to read it. Second, this is Lyndon Johnson, and I hated Lyndon Johnson. I marched against him. I’m not 64. I’m not a Texan.” He said, “You’re going to do this.” I read the script and I was even more scared than I thought I would be. Eventually I sat in front of him and I started to read the play to him, knee-to-knee, to prove to him that I was simply not fit for this part. As I started to read, I began to basically channel my father. I grew up in Arkansas, not far from east Texas, and it began to seem like some miraculous transformation was taking place. So I did the play and it was a very large hit for WNET in New York City. I was nominated for an Emmy.
That set you off on a series of touring one-man shows, most of which you’ve written. You've played Clarence Darrow, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, and have often been buried beneath three hours worth of makeup in order to become these historical figures. So, who's next?
Luckinbill: My wife and I go to the Unity Center for Practical Spirituality, in Norwalk. The minister said, “Hey, why don't you take a shot at doing 5 or 10 minutes on Abraham, from Genesis.” I sort of pooh-poohed it, but I opened Genesis one day and began to read about Abraham. The end result of that is I wrote an hour-and-15-minute play, and I call it The Abraham and Larry Show. It’s about my take on Genesis, really, and how Abraham arrived at the place he arrived at and what he did with Isaac. I try to understand it from today’s perspective. It turned out to be very funny. So I’m revising that, trying to make it work better, and I’m working on a second act. My shows are all two hours long. If I do a second act, it will be about Jesus, who’s at the other end of the bookcase from Abraham. So that’s what I’m doing now.
To read part one of StarTrek.com’s interview with Laurence Luckinbill, click HERE.
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