For someone who never followed the game, I sure do have the hats. I own somewhere north of 200 baseball caps, emblazoned with non-sports logos of all description---movies I traveled far to personally cover (The Phantom, The Matrix, The Incredibles), places I've been (Yellowstone, Everglades, Lucasfilm's Java the Hutt coffee spot), my heroic role models (Captain America, Indiana Jones, Grumpy). I mention this odd hobby to emphasize (relevant character trait #1) that I pay attention to baseball caps.
Now, to a specific Trek star! I may have been wearing my Blue Thunder movie cap marked "JAFO" ("Just Another F------ Observer") when I met Ethan Phillips. He, of course, portrayed Star Trek: Voyager's lovable Neelix, a character I truly appreciated. You gotta love the strange guy (in Talaxian pajamas) who nevertheless (sort-of) gets the cute girl (Kes, at least for a while)! That's a scenario I've aspired to imitate my entire life. I have the "strange guy" part down solid. And the Talaxian pajamas.
We sat side-by-side at an autograph table Sunday afternoon during Phillips' one-day appearance at an SF convention in Ohio years ago. Off grabbing a late lunch with a cute girl, I hadn't actually seen him on stage earlier that day.
Sitting next to a star as he signs is always an education. Since I only had to autograph Starlogs (and other magazines) for about a quarter of the audience seeking celebrity signatures, I had plenty of "JAFO" time to observe star-fan interactions. I could listen to dialogue exchanged, smile at jokes cracked, be unexpectedly touched by the occasional dramatic incident (autographs requested for extremely ill friends, poignant stories told). This all occurred as Phillips signed. And throughout, between signatures, he kept up an intricate, hilarious, running conversation with his con staff handler (on one side) and me (on the other). Nonetheless, every fan got his full attention, some heartfelt talk and a sincere "God bless" at departure. It seemed to me then that Ethan Phillips was even more grateful to be giving autographs than those who were getting them, you know what I mean? He's not alien at all, but truly a funny, humble, amiable human being!
At the session's end, he presented me (unasked) with an inscribed photo. Normally with actors, I got pix autographed for my brother Russ or others; soliciting something signed for myself seemed a tad unprofessional. So, that was a nice touch to cap off our afternoon in Ohio.
Next stop: Colorado! Phillips just killed on stage --- now that I finally saw him before a live convention audience --- as he transformed his Q&A into a standup comedy act (and fans asking questions became inadvertent straight men). He wandered back and forth, uttering one-liners and stream-of-consciousness non-sequiturs, some (I later learned) scribbled in a journal he carried with him almost everywhere. So as not to forget the line myself, I wrote some down he delivered on stage early that Saturday evening. Here it is: "Jeri Ryan is such a pretty woman," Phillips said. "She walks into a toy store and all the Barbie dolls go, 'Bitch!' "
And "The thing I'd most like to see? For Seven of Nine to fall madly in love with... Seven of Nine."
Finally, "I get up a half-hour before I go to bed... to go to makeup."
It was Starland con co-organizer Stephen Walker's tradition to take his most convivial colleagues (and Grumpy me) out to a delicious Saturday night dinner after the day's last big guest Q&A and before the later costume contest and play spoof (events which capped the evening). So, Walker, our pals movie marketeer Jeff Walker & his son Orion (both no relation to Steve) and I lurked backstage for Phillips' big finish.
Wearing (I think) my Deep Blue Sea cap (branded "Bigger, Smarter, Faster, Meaner."), I greeted Phillips as he exited stage right. I noticed his baseball cap (relevant character trait #1, remember?) and became intrigued by its unfamiliar logo. "The logo on your hat, I never saw it before," I pointed front. "I don't know what that means!" Phillips (and all the Walkers) looked at me like I was an idiot. Then, the actor patiently explained, in words of one syllable, "That is Nine-Inch-Nails." D'oh! I had actually heard the name before but was otherwise totally ignorant of the musical group (trait #2) and their wide-spread popularity. Phillips, one year older than me, was far hipper. It bemuses me, even today, to reveal (and revel in) my status as a pop culture idiot savant (knowledgeable in many areas but virtually oblivious to "current" music, sports, reality TV, etc.) Yes, here's a funny story about a Trek celebrity where the joke's on me.
Off we went for an evening of fine BBQ where Phillips entertained us all. Somehow the discussion turned to that popular 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best---strangely important to science fiction because Mother was played by Jane Wyatt (later Spock's Mom Amanda in "Journey to Babel" and Star Trek IV), Older Daughter by Elinor Donahue (of "Metamorphosis" on TOS) and Brother by Billy Gray (seen earlier in the 1951 SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still). Phillips wondered aloud about Gray's whereabouts and I mentioned we had done an interview with Gray (unasked, I later sent Phillips that back issue, #151). Phillips also asked after my writer Ian Spelling (who had interviewed him multiple times).
And then, yes, Virginia! Because evening con programming demanded supervision, this event's organizers left guests to their own devices for Saturday night chowdowns. Our pals Bob Catalano & Louis Taroli, autograph dealers exhibiting at the show, transported Rene Auberjonois, Phillips and me off-site for a delicious meal at a Legal Seafood restaurant in a nearby upscale mall. If it's one thing Grumpy old me likes (other than BBQ), it's seafood. I probably wore my single "sports" cap (Australian Rugby League, sporting team mascots Marvin the Martian & K9). Wielding my company credit card (my one perk!), I believe we charged dinner for five to Starlog. Let the magazine pay! Let us eat (crab)cake!
It was a fun meal. Auberjonois and Phillips were old friends, having co-starred for four years together on Benson (1980-4), a genial sitcom farce spun-off from Soap, the satiric serialized comedy that was one of my late 1970s faves. Benson is where I first saw Phillips. He's also effective as an immigration bureaucrat dealing with Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu in 1990's Green Card and in a brief role as a doomed museum guard in The Shadow (which I edited a licensed movie magazine about in 1994, Phillips is pictured on page 33). These days, I'm always pleased when I catch him in a new TV role (say as a red-herring suspected by The Mentalist). At that Virginia dinner, Phillips thanked me for sending the Billy Gray interview issue and again asked about Spelling's recent accomplishments. You gotta love a guy who really cares about your writers!
At some point, someone from Starlog (Spelling? Pat Jankiewicz? Me?) asked Phillips about his Neelix action figure. This was for a massive, multi-author article---almost a year in the works---surveying 42 SF celebs (including Auberjonois, Leonard Nimoy, various Trek stars, Tom Hanks, Sir Ian McKellen, John Travolta, Erin Gray, Kevin Sorbo and Vin Diesel) on being "honored" with the plastic immortality of action figures based on characters they had portrayed. Although there were many funny (and weird) answers in that Starlog #291 piece, Phillips stole the show with the briefest comment of anyone, predictably a one-liner. He quipped, "What I love about action figures is you get to play with yourself in public."
New York! In 2008, Phillips came to Broadway as lobbyist for the National Association of Turkey Manufacturers, an offbeat role in November, playwright David Mamet's acerbic tale of Presidential funny business starring Nathan Lane as the Prez, Dylan Baker and Laurie Metcalf. It was running at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on 47th Street, not even three blocks from Starlog's latest offices (then within Times Square, in the Actors' Equity Building at 46th Street & Seventh Avenue). Phillips, New Jersey-based Spelling and I tried to get together for drinks and/or dinner (BBQ? Seafood? Turkey?) but, despite the proximity, our schedules just never meshed. Darn! I coulda worn my Spaceballs: The Cap (with "Front" and, for idiots like me, an arrow pointing frontward helpfully branded on the brim).
Meanwhile, Ethan Phillips can still be found, on occasion, at Trek cons. "The conventions are great!" he exclaimed, appropriately enough, to Spelling (in a Starlog #287 interview, "Face Time"). "I get to stand on stage in front of all these people who laugh at whatever I say. People have always told me that I should do standup comedy, and I've never had the balls to do it. But here's the chance to do it in front an audience that's comprised of fans. They kind of like me already because they watch the show. So, I get to be a standup comic without having to do all the things that standup comics do to get where they are.
"I also love the interaction you get with fans. They're extraordinary. So, the conventions are a great opportunity to see many different faces and hear different thoughts and feelings. The conversation becomes very intimate very fast and then they move on. It's a real fix of humanity for me."
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2016 David McDonnell