Don Marshall is a respected actor who happens to be best known for three very (very, very) different and iconic adventures in the sci-fi universe. He guest starred as Lt. Boma – the astrophysicist who clashes with superior officer Spock -- in the Star Trek episode “The Galileo Seven,” was a regular on Land of the Giants and co-starred with Rosie Grier and Ray Milland in the mind-blowing epic The Thing with Two Heads. Marshall is 76 years old these days, but looks much younger, and, though mostly retired he still makes the occasional Star Trek convention appearance and has written a Land of the Giants reunion script he hopes to bring to the screen as a feature film. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Marshall for an interview, and here’s what he had to say.
Marshall: I loved it. It was good seeing the fans. They were very generous to me. It was thrilling. It’s amazing to me that people are still excited to see all of us who were a part of the show. I did my episode 46 years ago. I can’t get over it. It makes me feel good. You never expect something like this, for people to come to these shows, for some of them to remember every little thing that you said and every movement that you made. It’s like, “Wow.” People are really paying attention, and it makes you feel good.
Let’s go back to 1966, when you shot “The Galileo Seven.” How much work was there then on weekly TV for African-American actors?
Marshall: There wasn’t very much at all. I came from the stage and Universal saw me, and they wanted to put me under contract. I did that because I had no one to guide me. So it was job after job and, thank God, a lot of them happened. But there weren’t that many jobs, guest starring jobs, for African-Americans or any minorities, really. I was very grateful to get the opportunities I got, and it made me work very hard on each part, to make sure that whatever I was doing was right and that the characters I played were very strong people. I tried to bring out the best in the person I played.
What did it mean to you that Lt. Boma’s skin color meant nothing in the scheme of the episode?
Marshall: That was beautiful. That was Gene Roddenberry, and I’d worked for him once before. I did an episode of The Lieutenant for him. That’s the way the guy was. He didn’t see color. He saw situation and he had a vision, more so than most people. You could really see that with Star Trek. People learned from Star Trek. This guy created something special. A lot of people went into engineering because of Star Trek. I’ve been told that by many, many engineers. People became astronauts and went into the space program because of the show. You look back and you think, “What a visionary Gene was,” or ‘What a beautiful person he was.” I wish everybody was that way, but of course we don’t have that.
What do you recall of “The Galileo Seven” shoot?
Marshall: It was a big joy to me because, at first, Gene called me and said, “I’ve got the script for you. Come and get it.” I went to the studio to get the script and I ran into an old coach of mine, Bob Gist. We were shocked to see each other. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I came to pick up my script for Star Trek.” He said, “Oh, which Star Trek are you doing?” I told him I was doing “The Galileo Seven,” and he said, “Oh, I’m directing that.” I said, “Oh, OK.” I’d left his (acting) class before this. I’d left because he was into the James Dean type of acting. He was always trying to get us to display that. I was playing an astrophysicist in the episode and on the set it was getting a little rough for me because he wanted me to act like James Dean, to lean against the walls and things like that. It didn’t really jibe with what I thought of the character.
Leonard Nimoy noticed I wasn’t very happy. He came over and said, ‘What’s the matter, Don?” I told him, “Bob wants me to play this like a James Dean type of character, and this character is an astrophysicist. It’s not going to work and it’s really driving me crazy.” Leonard said, “OK, I’ll tell you what. You go ahead and play the character the way you see it and I’ll handle the director.” I said, “Whooah, OK.” He actually did that, and the director said nothing else to me after that as far as what I was doing. Because of Leonard Nimoy interceding like that, it gave me all the freedom in the world, and if you see the scenes between Leonard and I, they sparkled. Whenever it’s us, it’s big and alive and honest. You just can’t get that kind of thing. At least I’d never had it until then. So it was because of Leonard Nimoy that show came out so strong.
Land of the Giants ran for two seasons. You did the one episode of Star Trek. For which project do fans most often recognize you?
Marshall: I don’t know. Sometimes it’s Land of the Giants and sometimes it’s Star Trek. A lot of people have seen Star Trek and practically everyone I talk to about it thinks that I’ve done more than one. They think I’ve done several Star Treks. So they may have seen me in Land of the Giants or on some other shows I’ve done, but connect it in their memory with Star Trek because the Star Trek character was so strong.
You are in one of everyone’s favorite bad movies, which would be The Thing with Two Heads. Does that one still make you crack up?
Marshall: Yeah. The Thing with Two Heads with Rosie Grier and Ray Milland. That was a fun film. It was fun to do. Well, I had fun. I guess one time my character got a little too strong for Ray, and he said, “Calm it down, Don. Calm it down.” I didn’t know quite how to take that. He didn’t want me to talk to his character the way I was talking to him. So I backed up a little bit. Other than that, I really enjoyed doing the film. Rosie was such a great guy and fun.
Let’s bring readers up to speed on what you’re doing these days. What’s happening with the Land of the Giants movie script you’ve written?
Marshall: I’m still trying to get that made. I’d hurt my back, so that’s stopped me from going anywhere or doing anything hardly. I’m trying to get that straightened out, and thank God, they don’t have to operate. But the script is finished and I’ve got to get an agency to help get it off the ground. So that’s where I’m at and what I’m trying to get done.