Harry Groener is one of those versatile character actors who can – and does – turn up in anything, anywhere and at any time. He’s been nominated for several Tony Awards and appeared on stage in the likes of Oklahoma, Cats, Sunday in the Park with George, Crazy for You and Spamalot. His film credits span from Brubaker and Amistad to About Schmidt and the recent A Cure for Wellness. His list of TV credits is seemingly endless: Remington Steele, Mad About You, Dear John, Charmed, Boston Public, Roswell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (he was the hiss-worthy Mayor Wilkins), Las Vegas, Breaking Bad, The Mentalist, How I Met Your Mother, and on and on.
And Star Trek fans will recall that the actor played three different roles in four episodes of a trio of Trek series across 15 years. He portrayed Tam Elbrun in The Next Generation hour “Tin Man” in 1990, the Nechani Magistrate in the Voyager installment “Sacred Ground” in 1996, and Nathan Samuels in the Enterprise episodes “Demons” and “Terra Prime.” Groener’s current project is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, staged by the Antaeus Theatre Company in their brand-new arts space in Glendale, California. The classic show, with Groener playing Big Daddy, opens tonight, March 23, and will run through May 7. StarTrek.com caught up with Groener for an extensive conversation in which he recounted his Trek experiences, talked about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and noted the happy overlap between Trek and the Antaeus Theatre Company…
The Original Series debuted when you were a teenager. Were you a Trek fan growing up?
Oh, yeah. I've seen every single episode, I don't know how many times. I was a big fan. I loved all the space-fantasy shows. It was heaven. I really just enjoyed it. Then, of course, the story continues in all the variations of it. So, to actually get a chance to do an episode… That first episode I did, the one on The Next Generation, I was also doing a series at the same time, on the same lot. I was doing Dear John. I would have my bike and go back and forth between the sound stages to do it.
They used three sound stages to shoot that scene, two to divide up the ship, and then one that they dug out the center of it, and they called that Planet Hell. That's where they would go down and they would do crazy things, like when they were supposed to be on planets and things like that. But, to walk around that set, if you're a Trekkie, to walk down those hallways, it was amazing. You know those scenes where they're walking down the hallways that seem to go on forever and ever and ever? You make a left and there's the sickbay, and then you make a right and there's the bridge. You go, "Jesus Christ, this is just ... " It was stunningly wonderful for me to be there.
Of course, the details on the sets themselves were film-quality details. So, something the television audience would never see... way up in the back with all the other crew members up there working on their computers and working on things, but if you go up to that area and look at what they're looking at, the detail was extraordinary. Everything was numbered. Everything was worked out. Nothing looked fake. It all looked real. It all seemed to work, and you go, "Wow. This is just great." It was like being at Disneyland.
That first role as Tam Elbrun on TNG, was that an offer or an audition?
It was an offer.
What else do you remember about that particular experience?
Everyone was great to me, and so were the producers. Because I was doing Dear John, they did something I thought this was just really wonderful. We shot a scene where he gets transported onto the Enterprise. It was that little scene, and then it goes onto something else. Well, we shot the scene, made sure we got it, and the whole crew was there, and then the director said, "Now, we're going to do this again, and you're going to do it as Ralph,” as my character on Dear John. They had my glasses and things like that. "So, you're going to do it as the character in Dear John." “Now,” he said to the crew, "do it totally straight. Play it totally, totally straight." We did it and we shot it. I did it as Ralph coming in and being transported, but same lines, the same everything else. He said, "This is what we're going to send to the producers and see if they like it."
It was done just as a joke, and it was really hard for the crew to keep a straight face, but they did. Patrick Stewart was wonderful. It was great. They all were just wonderful. Then, the ship, of course, they built on that third stage. That was really quite something, to walk in and around that structure that they built.
How about that lovely green costume?
Yeah, yeah, that green costume. What's weird about that is... Well, what's not so weird about that is, you don't have any pockets. You can't put your hands anywhere. But it was fun. At that time, a dear friend of mine, Bob Blackman, he was designing costumes for Trek. Bob and I had known each other... He's known me since I was about 18 years old, working at the theater at the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California. This was a repertory theater that would do five rotating plays, two musicals and three plays. Bob was the costume designer for that company for many, many years, and that's where I met him. It was so cool to go in for Trek and get fitted, and there's Bob. That was great.
Six years later you were on Voyager as The Magistrate in “Sacred Ground.” What do you recall of that shoot?
Actually, not very much, except for the piece that they put on my head, right in between your eyes, right up there right above your nose. They were going to have more prosthetics on me, but the models that they made, they said, "Well, can't do that because it looks like Jay Leno." They said no, so they cut a bunch of other stuff that they were going to put on me, but just kept that little piece between my eyes, right above my nose. What's so curious about this particular piece is actually, it's a little pornographic, only because…
It looked like a vagina?
It does look like a vagina. Thank you very much. When I said that to them, they go, "No, no." Well, I asked if I could keep one of them, and I do have one of them somewhere in a Ziploc. I would pull that out and show that to people and they’d go, "Oh my god. Oh my god." I'd say, "Yes, I know. I had a vagina right above my nose." So, that was kind of funny and weird. But, I had a great time. Kate (Mulgrew) was terrific. It was a lovely crew. It all comes down from the top, I think. It all comes down from, in every situation, the top, whoever runs the organization, and whatever the organization is. And Trek had wonderful people up there. The producers were great, the crew was great and the cast was great. It was that way from top to bottom.
Cut to almost 10 years later, you played Nathan Samuels on Enterprise. How strange was it to do a futuristic show and wear a suit and tie?
Well, with that, that's interesting, because Scotty (Bakula) and I actually did do a Broadway show together. Scotty and I, we did Is There Life After High School? together and Scotty was an understudy in that one. I think he's just great. He directed a Quantum Leap that I was in with him, and I think that was the first time he directed. But to do those episodes of Enterprise and just wear a suit, it was kind of cool. You're really comfortable, you go on, you do your business, and bam, bam, bam. It’s better than having a gazillion tons of prosthetics on you. I don't really remember that much about my character. I remember more about Tam than I do about the other two. But he was an interesting guy, Samuels. I'd have to see the episodes again, I guess. He was investigating something and was full of himself, very stuffy. He clashed, oddly enough, with Linda Park’s character, which is ironic because she’s also part of Antaeus. She’s playing Maggie in the other cast that’s doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now. Armin Shimerman and Kitty Swink are also very involved with Antaeus.
You ate Armin on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…
Yes, I did. My dear Armin, who at the moment, is at the Guthrie Theater playing The Fool in Lear, is just the best. Armin and Kitty, they're very helpful and influential in our company. They're our associate artistic directors. Kitty's an amazing fundraiser, and Armin is wonderful working in this company, and not only in the capacity that he's in, but as an actor as well. I just adore him. We did a movie together, too, Diani & Devine Meet The Apocalypse. We're both in that with our wives. It was kind of an Antaeus project, in a way. But, yes, I ate Armin on Buffy, and he was tasty. He was very, very tasty.
Photo Credit: Sally Hughes
Let’s talk about Antaeus and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We went through your entire stage resume, and if we’re not mistaken, you've never done the show. Is that correct?
No, no, never done it.
How come? What took so long?
Well, you’ve got to get a little older, for one.
So, it’s like waiting to be old enough to play King Lear, which you’ve done… ?
Yeah, there it is. They figure if you can do Lear, you can do Big Daddy.
What excites you about this particular production?
Well, because it's done with our theater company, with the Antaeus Theatre Company, which is a company that my wife Dawn and I have been with for over 25 years. We're founding members. This is the inaugural production of the brand-new arts complex that we've just built, which is in Glendale, California. It's quite a building. There were two theaters in it. One is a 90-seat theater, the other's a 40-seat theater, and there's a huge library and wonderful dressing rooms, and everything's brand-new… bathrooms, offices, everything. It took a long time getting here, over 25 years for this company to achieve this, and we finally have. It's really very, very exciting. We just had an opening ceremony and this will be the very first play. Not only is it a good play, not only is it a wonderful role, but I get to play this with my darling wife, who's playing Big Mama.
Photo Credit: Steven C. Kemp
What's the meat on the bone for an actor playing Big Daddy, in your view?
Well, he is a simple man in his upbringing. He was poor and he eventually, basically, inherited this property from the two men who owned it before. He is a man who struggled for many, many years to get where he is. But, at this point in his life, he thinks he has cancer, and then when the play starts, he's been given this information. Of course, the information is false. He does not have cancer; it's just a condition of his colon. That frees him up to say and do things he's always wanted to do. He's sort of given a second chance on life. A lot of it is not very nice. There's only two people he really likes in the play, Brick and Maggie. He doesn't really care for anybody else. He's not a very nice man, I don't think. But, the scene he has with Brick is one of the best scenes written in theater, period.
It's just a wonderful, wonderful scene, a father and son scene. It's rich with complications. He's just a big man, and he doesn't necessarily have to be physically big, like Burl Ives. That's perfect, but you don't necessarily have to be that. I mean big in terms of personality, big in terms of power. He has a lot of power in the Delta. It's one of the biggest estates in the Delta, so there's a lot of power there, a lot of money there. It's just rich and complicated and a joy, really.
What's the challenge and/or shorthand of acting with your wife?
The shorthand is perfect. The pleasure is that she is just a wonderful actress, and so it's just easy to be on stage with her and to be with her. It's great to go to rehearsals every day, and there she is. Our company double casts its plays, and so there will be two casts for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, alternating nights. We'll be in the same cast, so it will be great to go to work and work with my wife. I love that.
Last question. You started to touch on this earlier, but as a guy who grew up a Star Trek fan, what does it mean to you to be a part of it, especially since the franchise just celebrated its 50th anniversary.
It's really something. I'm just so happy that I can be part of that history. You're in some book somewhere. You're in some book listed as, you played this, you played that, and then of course you're on the DVDs and in the repeats. Every time I see pictures of Tam, I go, "Well, who's that young guy?" He's just a kid. He's just a baby. "Who's this kid?" Because I'm such a sci-fi fan, I just love the fact that I'm part of the history of Star Trek, that I’m connected in that way. I'm so pleased I got a chance to be able to do it.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will run from tonight until May 7 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale, California, with two rotating casts. Go to http://antaeus.org/shows/cat/ for additional details and to purchase tickets.