Lee Delano is one of those actors: you know the face and the name may even ring a bell, but you can’t quite put a finger on it. The man’s career spanned much of the 20th century and his accomplishments were remarkable, though he deserves more credit and, frankly, fame than he receives. He studied acting, for example, with the legendary Sanford Meisner and dance with the great Martha Graham, and it was Steve McQueen who convinced him to move from his native New York City to Los Angeles. He performed, for 25-plus years and all over the world, as straight man/second banana to comedy legends Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, co-starred in the Mel Brooks films High Anxiety, Silent Movie and History of the World, Part 1, and partnered with his friend and fellow actor, Jack Donner, to form the Oxford Theater in Los Angeles. He appeared, over the years, in more than 200 shows and movies, and he’s also, to this day, a top-notch magician. Of course, to Star Trek fan, Delano will forever be the man who played Kalo in the TOS episode “A Piece of the Action.” Kalo captured Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but ended up being distracted by Kirk and a game of fizzbin. Today, January 19, happens to be Delano’s 82nd birthday, and he was kind enough to chat with StarTrek.com about his career, Trek and life today.
What are you up to these days?
Delano: Well, I’m a member of the Magic Castle, here in Hollywood. I co-host the lectures every Sunday at the Castle, so I’m really involved with the Magic Castle. I personally do a lot of close-up magic for friends and parties. I’ve done some private shows at the Castle, as opposed to working all day. I prefer the private shows. Especially, years ago, when I was working a lot and making a lot of money, I didn’t want to take money away from other magicians who made their livings as magicians. But I did private shows, and I still do, for friends of mine and people that want me to do them. That keeps me very occupied. I also have a lot of friends I see. I’m married to a wonderful wife, and we go out to dinner and parties.
We actually met you at a Creation convention in Vegas. How do you enjoy interacting with the Trek fans?
Delano: They asked me to come last year, and they were very generous. I brought along my wife. It was wonderful to see everybody there. People came from all over the world. They’re just tremendous people, the fans, very supportive, very intelligent and asked intelligent questions. It was just a joy.
How strange is it to sit for a day or two and talk about one role you played 40-something years ago? And to sign photos of yourself from that one role?
Delano: I can understand it. If Albert Einstein was around, I’d like to have his autograph. We all have heroes or people we appreciate.
Go back in time for us. How did you land your role as Kalo on Star Trek?
Delano: My agent called me and said, “They want to see you for Star Trek.” I thought, “OK,” and I went out there to Paramount. The director gave me a part to read and when I started to read what I thought they wanted me for, he said, “No, no, I want you to read for one of the leads.” I said, "OK,” and read, and I got Kalo. The funny thing is that Jack Donner and I had a school. We were partners and founded the Oxford Theater, which was a school for young actors. One of the things we always told them was how to do cold readings. I’d always been very good at cold readings. I don’t know; it was just instinctive, and I’d learned a lot in New York from Sanford Meisner. Anyway, it worked out, and I got Kalo.
What did you like about the part?
Delano: I was born and raised in New York City, and I used to see people there just like Kalo, even when I went to high school. And it was fun to duplicate the kind of characters I used to see. So I kind of had that swagger, because I’d hear and see these guys.
What do you remember of the shoot?
Delano: It was just very fun, very pleasant. First of all, I knew Walt Koenig before he got the show. I’d known Leonard (Nimoy). It was fine. It was like homecoming week because I knew some of the people. An interesting thing that not too many people know is that Jimmy Doohan was one of my teachers at the Neighborhood Playhouse, when I was in New York. Jimmy was the assistant to Sanford Meisner, and sometimes when Sanford would be explaining something difficult, we – the students – would go up to Jimmy after the class and say, “Jimmy, what the heck did he say?” We’d have him interpret for us, because Sanford was kind of an intellectual. So I had an interest in doing Trek because of Jimmy, Walt and Leonard. The director, Jimmy Komack, was a very good director. So it was a pleasant experience.
You had some of the best lines in the whole episode…
Delano: That’s true, I did. I loved it. I loved it. My favorite, and the one everyone asks me to do when I’m at a convention, is “Put your hands up over your head, or you ain’t gonna have any head to put your hands up over.” That was the one. And the fans love the whole fizzbin game. Actually, when I go to the conventions I have a game with cards that I call fizzbin that I’ll do for them. Everyone has fun with that.
Can we assume that “A Piece of the Action,” at the time, was just another job for a working actor? And at what point did you realize that Trek and, in the process, your episode, was part of a phenomenon?
Delano: It was absolutely just another job. I don’t think anyone thought it was going to become what it’s become, Star Trek. Maybe someone had that kind of foresight, but I just thought it was a fun show. A few years later, after they’d shut down and stopped filming, it started to gain this momentum. There were all of these conventions. They started doing the movies. I thought, “My God…” But it was really a well-written series. The actors all did a wonderful job and were perfectly cast.
How do you feel about turning 82?
Delano: It doesn't scare me. I've got to tell you something. I've had a couple of health problems. I had a hip replaced. I've always been very healthy. I go to the gym three or four times a week. I take vitamins. But because of arthritis, which my mother had, I had the hip replaced. Then, in February of last year, I had an aortic valve that had to be replaced. All my arteries are fine. My heart is in great shape, but I had to have my aortic valve replaced. People would say to me, "Oh, my God, are you going to be OK?" At that time I was 81, and I'd say, "Listen, I'm 81. I've had a great life. I live in the greatest country in the world. I have great friends and a wonderful wife and stepchildren and grandchildren. I hope it all continues. I'm blessed." Then I thought of a line from one of my favorite movies, Body and Soul, with John Garfield. At the end, because he didn' throw the fight, the gangsters say to him, "You're not going to get away with this." Garfield looks at the gangsters and says my favorite lines ever. He says, "What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies." And that's really the philosophy I have. I mean, come on. You can't be afraid of living and you can't be afraid of dying. God willing, we'll all have peaceful deaths, but we're all going to die. That's the way it goes. Everyone dies. So what's the fear? We're here for a short time. Enjoy it. So I'm a very grateful person.
Thanks for your time and, on behalf of all your Star Trek fans out there, happy birthday…
Delano: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.