Yesterday, we kicked off our discussion with Billy Blackburn about the unusual mark he made on the Star Trek franchise as a stand-in, background performer and – with his handy Super 8 camera – chronicler of many never-before-seen moments from the set of the original series. Today, in the second half of our conversation with Blackburn, he talks in more detail about his TOS character, Lt. Hadley, recounts some of the other TOS characters he played, and fills us in on his life after Star Trek.
You were kind of a Jack-of-all-trades back on Star Trek, weren’t you?
Blackburn: Yes, it’s totally different now. Most people do one thing and that’s it. I was a stand-in (for DeForest Kelley), I did background, I did… and before Star Trek, actually, I had done almost all of the flying on My Favorite Martian for (future TNG and Voyager guest star) Ray Walston.
So, did you think of Lt. Hadley as a character, or did you not go as far as that?
Blackburn: Yes, I did. Yes, I did think of him as a character, but I thought of him as me. I played him like me, like what I would do in the same situation Hadley was in. It worked for me to do that. If anyone watches me, something that I always got good comments on was that I’m very stoic. I was very stoic playing the character, which is what I would have been if I was doing what he did. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you never smiled.” And I’d say, “For God’s sake, I’m sitting there at my job pushing buttons and navigating a ship with however many people on it.” I tried never to do what some people who came in and replaced me actually did do – and some of them had lines – and my God, they overacted all over the place. It was like, “Captain, there’s something on the screen,” that kind of thing. And it was overacting to me. I’d done acting before, at a little theater in New York. So I was careful what I did with my face. I never wanted to overact, and you could really easily do that when you were acting without lines.
You not only played Hadley, but you were the White Rabbit in “Shore Leave,” a NASA tech in “Assignment: Earth,” a townsperson in “Errand of Mercy,” one of Harry Mudd’s tights-sporting androids in “I, Mudd,” a pig-nosed Tellarite in “Journey to Babel,” a robot in “Return to Tomorrow” and more. You also handled the close-ups of the Gorn in “Arena.” You were a makeup test model a couple of times. You did the occasional stunt, too. Which one or two of those non-Hadley jobs are still most vivid in your mind?
Blackburn: Oh, no question, the White Rabbit. I have to tell you, that triggered claustrophobia in me that I never knew I had. And it was so bad that I tore the head off the rabbit head. I kept saying to Bill (Theiss), the costume designer, “It’s getting hot in here. It’s getting hot in here,” not really realizing that that’s what happens when you’re claustrophobic. You start feeling like you can’t breathe. And he was sewing the head of the costume onto me, rather than putting Velcro on it. That was typical Bill; everything was sewing. He sewed costumes on everybody just before they went onto the set. It was like watching Elizabeth II. But I have to say that Bill was very good to me. He knew that I’d taken costume design while I was in New York. But the point is that when they put the bowtie on the neck, it covered where I looked out and breathed, because my head was not high enough to go and look out the eyes. Does that make sense?
The eyes on the costume were above my eye line, so I looked out through the mouth, and the minute they put that bowtie on in front of my mouth, that’s when it hit, that feeling of claustrophobia. I said, “Bill, take it off. Take it off.” He said, “Just a minute more, and we’ll get the shot.” I just ripped it off and he got really mad at me, but I said, “Let me tell you. I’m the one who got you this costume from Ice Capades.” They re-did it. The studio did a gorgeous job, but I got it for them from Ice Capades. It cost them nothing. So, I said, “Put Velcro on it, Bill, for God’s sake, so I can pick it up and look out.” Once we did that, once I knew I could look out, I was fine. I was absolutely fine. But I was in that damn thing for two days. And the Gorn was even worse.
Star Trek eventually ended, but it also ultimately led to the next phase of your professional life. Take us through that.
Blackburn: After Star Trek, I continued to do all kinds of things, including extra work. Bill Theiss called me one day and said, “I want you to stop worrying about acting. I want you to become a costumer, and I’ll make you a supervisor. I’ll get you to where you’ll be a supervisor and you’ll be doing your own shows and everything.” He was about to do a big show, a movie, Bound for Glory, with David Carradine and (future TNG guest star) Ronny Cox. So I became a costumer on that film, and that’s when I got my union card. And from then on, that’s what I did. And I never stopped working. It was the greatest decision I ever made in my life. I did Trapper John. I did Raise the Titanic, which was a long job. I did T.J. Hooker with Bill (Shatner).
I did all of these other things, too. I spent many, many years at Warner Brothers, because I worked there for nine years on Night Court and then I was the head of the whole department for the star wardrobe museum that we built on the lot. I got all of the star wardrobe out of the main wardrobe department. I found a Doris Day costume and put it on a mannequin. And I did the same thing with so many stars’ costumes. I found Elizabeth Taylor’s costume from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I found Ingrid Bergman’s dress from Casablanca, and the following week I found Bogart’s suit that he wore when he was with her in a scene in Paris. I put together, in the top floor of the museum, all of the Harry Potter costumes we had up until then. I did that for nine, nine-and-a-half years. So, let me think. I did Night Court from 1984 to 1994 and from 1994 to 2004 I worked in the museum wardrobe department. So that was almost 20 years of my life right there.
You’re retired now, right? What are you up to these days?
Blackburn: Yes, I am retired. I skate. I skate all the time, five times a week. I’m not on staff at my rink, but I work with everybody. Everybody knows me. They call me “the old man of the ice” because I’m one of the oldest ice skaters in the business and I’m still doing knee slides into splits. I’m an oil painter, and I do portraits. I sew. I still make costumes sometimes, just for fun. And I read a lot. So I’m always busy. I’m always doing something.
To read part one of our interview with Billy Blackburn, click here.