Who was the original Star Trek’s biggest guest star? That’s easy: Michael Forest. The actor, already a tall and rugged and handsome guy, played the super-sized would-be god Apollo in the second-season episode “Who Mourns for Adonais??” The role was one of many on Forest’s lengthy resume, but it’s his most-famous acting turn, one that’s lived on for decades. Now 82, Forest is still in great shape and happily “kind of retired,” though he’ll make the occasional convention appearance if invited. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Forest for an entertaining interview in which he discussed his career, enduring Trek connection and life today.
We normally jump right into Star Trek questions, but we’ve been dying to know: How and why did you change your name from Gerald Michael Charlebois to Michael Forest?
Forest: Well, I was using my real name for a while, for a short time, but one day I went in to see a casting director. He had difficulty pronouncing my name. During the course of the conversation he said, “Your problem is you speak English with a French accent.” I said, “I do what?” He said, “That’s the problem. Let me spell your name. It’s S…” And I said, “No, it’s not S. It’s C…” He said, “Oh, Sc…” I said, “No, it’s Ch…,” and then I spelled it out for him. He still had difficulty with that and he insisted that I spoke English with a French accent. I said, “Listen to me right now, sir. Do I sound like I have a French accent when I’m speaking English?” He said, “Well, no…” Then I spoke to him in French and I said, “This is how I sound when I’m speaking French. It sounds like a French accent, does it not?” He said, “Oh, yes,’ but you do speak English with a French accent.” I could never get that out of his head. And there were a couple of other incidents that took place later on, a few months after that, that made me realize my name was a problem, not just for the spelling of it, but because it made people think I was French. So that’s why I changed my name. And it eventually materialized into Michael Forest.
You’d done quite a bit of stage work – including Shakespeare and the Greeks -- before you ever arrived in Hollywood. Once in Hollywood, you did several B-films with either Roger or Gene Corman. What was it like to go from Shakespeare to Corman?
Forest: I’m not a Greek scholar or a Shakespeare scholar, but I was familiar with a lot of the work. So, you just kind of set aside what you’d done in the past and say to yourself, “If a job calls for me to do this in a Roger Corman film, that’s what I’ll do.” I think my first Corman film was Viking Women and the Sea Serpent. Roger did that and it was my first film. He said, “I’d like you to do this. You’re going to be nothing more than a stuntman in it.” I worked that role into something more. I was always near the heavy. I made it clear that I was going to be next to him in any scene he did. At one point Roger said, “Mike, were you actually there in this scene?” I said, “Absolutely, Roger.” He said, “OK, keep Mike in the close-up.” It’s funny how you learn quickly to make yourself as important as you can be, really, in even a terrible movie. But it was great fun. I had a great time doing it.
OK, let’s get to Star Trek. How did you land the role of Apollo?
Forest: I was called in. My understanding was that they wanted Jon Voight, but he’d been cast in something else. They were looking in England for somebody to play Apollo, but then somebody got the bright idea to call down to San Diego, to the Shakespeare festival, because they wanted somebody who was familiar with English dialect. They described the character to the head of the theater in San Diego and asked if they had anybody like that. The head of the theater said, “No, we don’t have anybody like that, but we did, a few years ago. He’s in Hollywood now.” He gave them my name, they contacted me and I went in. I had to read for them three times. They had me take my shirt off to see if I had the muscles they were looking for. Then they wanted me to do it in a British accent. I said, “That, for me, won’t work out. I can give you Mid-Atlantic theater speech, which I think will work for this character.” So I read it in that vernacular and they said, “Yes,” and came to the conclusion that I was the one to play the role.
At the time, was Star Trek just another job for a working actor or was it a show actors wanted to be on?
Forest: Well, the show wasn’t very popular. It wasn’t popular at all. When I came on in the second season, I think the show was rated about 50th out of all the television series that were being shown at the time. It didn’t have very much popularity at all. A few weeks before, I’d done a western where I was playing a bad guy and getting beat up and pulling a gun. And, three or four weeks later, I was wearing a gold tutu and playing a god. It was very strange. In acting, you go from one extreme to another. It’s quite fun to do so.
All these years later, what stands out most to you about making the episode?
Forest: During that week, the Six-Day War was taking place. Now, everyone was listening to the news on their little portable radios. I was interested, but I was more focused on trying to do what I felt was called for in this particular role, so I wasn’t paying that much attention to the war news. And I must say that the script as written was a cut above the scripts that actors were working with in those days. There were only one or two series that had very good writing. Most of the time it was rather pedestrian. It was not bad, but not good. This particular episode happened to be pretty well written, and I think that’s part of the reason why it was such a successful episode in the series.
What was the challenge for you in making the character work? After all, he was an alien who believed he was a god…
Forest: Every actor, we all look at a role and make assumptions about the role. I saw Apollo as a certain kind of figure, and he was not unlike some of the roles I’d played in Shakespeare and in the Greeks. So I recognized certain aspects of that person and was able to incorporate that in the way I portrayed him. Regardless of whether this is a god or a king, these people are humans. They’re men, and every man has some of these qualities in him. These qualities may not be displayed, but we all have the potential to be any one of these people. So we’re not that far removed from the characters that we play.
You and Leonard Nimoy worked together on a play called Deathwatch and then, soon after, a film of the same name based on that play. Star Trek came together for Nimoy around that same time, right?
Forest: Yes, it did. Let me tell you this little anecdote. We would take breaks of a couple of days, when everybody had to do something else, and then we’d come back to the film. Leonard came back after one of the little breaks and said, “My God, I’ve tested for a sci-fi show.” We said, “Really?” He said, “Oh my God, you can’t believe it. They had me in these funny rubber ears.” He said, “I look like Pan. I can’t believe. If this series goes, I’ll eat your hat.” And, of course, it was Star Trek that he’d tested for.
So, when you did your episode of Star Trek, did you bring a hat for Nimoy to chow down on?
Forest: Well, I still saw him after he’d been cast on Star Trek and we’d joke about the fact that he had said that. He said, “Who would have believed it?”
There was apparently talk about ending “Who Mourns” with the revelation that Carolyn (Leslie Parrish) was pregnant. Did you ever hear anything about that?
Forest: I did, but not at the time. I didn’t find that out until after the episode had already shown. People would ask me, “You know that whole situation with the pregnancy…?” I said, “What are you talking about? I have no idea.” Nobody told me about it. It was one of those things where they’d already written the episode and we shot what was written. By the time I was on the set, those kinds of decisions had already been made.
Would you have preferred it?
Forest: I don’t know. It’s so long ago. I suppose it would have been OK, but you have to remember that in those days, the idea of that sort of thing happening in film, and certainly on television… you couldn’t even talk about it, really. To give you an idea, they had to put tape on my nipples for that episode. Can you imagine? They put tape on a guy, on a guy’s nipples. I mean, come on. But that’s what they did, and then they put makeup over that. I thought at the time, “I can’t believe what they’re doing.”
Rumor is you despised your costume. True or false?
Forest: No, I didn’t despise the costume at all.
You are part of the legendary TOS blooper reels, prancing around in a few shots as Apollo. Have you seen that?
Forest: I did see the blooper reel. It is rather funny and I’m pleased that I’m in the blooper reel.
Have you ever seen the upgraded version of “Who Mourns,” with the modernized visual effects?
Forest: I haven’t. I wish someone would send me that. I’d like to see it.
Star Trek is but one credit in your very long career. What of your other work are you proudest of?
Forest: I’ve done work before and after that I think was as good, if not better, than my Star Trek episode, but this Star Trek episode has really given me my 15 minutes of fame. I think it’s wonderful, but, as I say, I’ve done other work that was as good, if not better. I did a few films in Italy, which were comedies, and I’ve had people come up to me about one of them and say, “You were sensationally funny in it.” The strange thing is, because of the titles and translations and because I did several Italian films, I’ve never seen it and I can’t even tell you the name of the movie. It was a period piece, set in the times of the Forum, and my character was a bombastic guy the director told me was kind of like Mussolini. I’m not really a comedian, but that was fun.
IMDB has you down as appearing in an upcoming film called The Scarlett Worm. What’s that, and are you still actively looking for work?
Forest: That’s a western. I did that kind of as a favor. I played a judge, a character named Judge Hanchett. I have a very, very, very small part. They asked me to do it and I said, “OK, fine.” But I am not actively looking for work. I did a lot of voice work and I still get calls to do some, but I’m not actively looking for that, either. If someone calls and says, “We want you do such and such,” then fine, but I don’t think I’ve spoken to my agent in a year. I’m not going to go in and read, but if someone wants me for something, great. I’m perfectly content. I’ve got my wife. I’m a health buff, so I go to the gym every day. I’m a big reader. I read every day. I like to watch old films, and I don’t necessarily mean my films. I watch films from the 40’s and the 50’s, and some from the 30’s. I’ve watched Casablanca 200 or maybe 300 times and I may watch it another 200 times. I go to the Star Trek conventions from time to time. I don’t actively pursue them, but I’m happy to go if I’m invited and they’re going to take care of everything. So I’m kind of retired, and I like it.