Robert Picardo remembers exactly where he was on January 16, 1995. Ask him about it, and he’ll tell you. Ask him, really, about anything, and he’s happy to chat. Picardo, for those who may not know, is one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, a pro as an actor, a chatty, witty conversationalist, and a master at connecting with his fans on a personal level. But we digress. As we set about making our StarTrek.com schedule recently, it dawned on us that the anniversary of “Caretaker,” the Star Trek: Voyager two-hour pilot, was coming up fast. And we figured it was time to check in with Picardo. We knew he’d have some fun, fond memories of the experience – of the episode’s making, of the premiere. And guess what? We were right. We also kept him talking about his slate of new projects, and he obliged. So, below, please check out part one of our interview with Robert Picardo, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow for part two.
So, where were you on January 16, 1995?
Picardo: What are we at now, 18 years? January 16, 1995. That’s remarkable. I remember the night really well because they flew Ethan Phillips and me to New York City and we were there the night it premiered. That’s the night I met Sumner Redstone. The pilot must have screened at a theater or in a screening room, and I remember a big party somewhere in Times Square, but what I remember most about the night was that they ran a promo or something on the Jumbotron in Times Square. That was pretty cool, seeming my face on the Jumbotron. How often does that happen? It was all to celebrate the launching of the United Paramount Network (UPN), and not just the show, but Voyager was originally the cornerstone of UPN’s programming. So, that whole night was pretty exciting and it doesn’t seem that long ago.
Probably because it’s never really gone away…
Picardo: Exactly. It gets to be a blur, and here’s why: your memory gets distorted because, with Star Trek, we’re still constantly in the world. We’re not making Voyager anymore, but we’re still making personal appearances. People are still watching it. The fans still even review the work. It seems a little bit more present in my memory than, say, China Beach, which was a show I did until just a couple of years before Voyager started. China Beach, though, seems like something I haven’t been a part of for a very long time, because we don’t have conventions for it, I haven’t really seen or talked about it in a long time. So that feels like more of a distant memory to me than Voyager.
Let’s go back to shooting the pilot/premiere…
Picardo: I’ll tell you a funny story that comes to mind. I was doing a play at that Mark Taper Forum and my biggest anxiety was whether or not they’d let me out of the play to shoot “Caretaker.” They were not terribly happy with me when I went to them and said, “I’ve been offered this pilot.” But, remember, I tested for Neelix at my own request first. Had I gotten Neelix, first of all, my life would be less happy and I'd have spent 4,000 hours in a makeup chair. But I had to clear more days, more shooting days, and they were not happy at all because I didn’t have an understudy. Then, when I did not get Neelix and the Star Trek producers asked me to come back and read for the part they originally had me in mind for, which was the Doctor, it was only going to be four shooting days for me on the pilot. And only one or two of those four days were going to be during the run of the show I was doing at the Taper. Rick Berman very graciously wrapped me early that one or two days and just let me go at 6 o’clock so I could get to the Taper, which was downtown from Paramount, and do the play. So I remember that nervousness.
Also, weren’t you the last of the actors to work on the pilot?
Picardo: That’s true. I was the last guy to come in, and everybody else had already established relationships. So I come in and say ‘Hello,’ and everyone knew each other already. That meant that there was that little feeling of I had to prove myself. But I just had so little to do in the pilot. I remember, when I first got the role, I was telling everybody, “I got the new Star Trek pilot. I’m sure it’ll run. I’m sure it’ll put my kids through college. But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got the worst part on the show.” That was an irony that I’ve lived with ever since. I thought I’d gotten the dull role in the show and that made the experience so much fun for me. I discovered the genre doing Star Trek. I’d done a little bit of it, but just a little. Doing Star Trek, I got to learn about it from the inside out. I got to learn what appealed to them, why sci-fi meant so much to people, why Star Trek meant so much to people. Also, I just learned that I’d gotten the outsider character without being smart enough to realize it. I assumed the Spock character on our show would be the Vulcan, would be Tim Russ. I didn’t know enough to realize that the artificial intelligence character, at least on Voyager, was the heir, the successor to that kind of role on our show. And that was very cool.
Did you get a moment with Genevieve Bujold, or was she gone by the time you’d been cast and were on set?
Picardo: I’m one of the only people who did not work with her. The Doctor did not appear on the bridge. I met her. They gave us a set tour, so I recall taking the tour with her and she was gracious and quiet and I just remember she looked a little furrowed, a little worried. She didn’t necessarily look comfortable, which I guess turned out to be true. She came from the feature film world. What I heard is that she came from the world of shooting one page a day, and here we were doing a television series and shooting eight or nine pages a day.
Then along comes Kate Mulgrew. Was she on set when you got on set?
Picardo: No. In fact, I was cast but hadn’t shot yet. They’d started shooting, but I didn’t work those first few days. I remember hearing that they’d hired Kate. There were all these anxieties. I’m sure people have heard some of this, but the rumor was that if they couldn’t find a woman they were happy with, then it wouldn’t be a female captain, that they might change the sex of the captain to male. And then they would have to change the sex of one of the other characters. So, everybody who’d already been cast was a little concerned that if they shuffled the deck again, something could happen. Here’s the thing: we will now definitely have a female president next because everything you need to learn in life you learn from Shakespeare, Star Trek and baseball, at least according to Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Since we have followed the model of having a black captain and now a black president, after Deep Space Nine, it’s definite that following Voyager, we’ll follow a woman captain on the bridge with a woman in the White House.
Final question on “Caretaker.” When was the last time you saw it?
Picardo: I haven’t seen it in a while. I will just sporadically watch a Star Trek episode, just if something pops into my head or if somebody has mentioned something to me. Now that it’s on Netflix, every once in a while if I’m on the exercise bike, I’ll pull out of watching Breaking Bad or whatever and watch an old Voyager episode. I think the episode I most recently watched was one of my personal favorites, and that was “Tinker Tenor…,” because it’s so goofy, so silly, with the Doctor fantasizing. So I haven’t seen the whole pilot in a long time, but I did watch my scene in the pilot in the last year only because I was curious. I was just trying to remember exactly how I’d established the character. Not having watched the whole thing, though, I can tell you that one scene I loved was between Tuvok and Janeway. Just from this one scene you got a sense of their relationship and their loyalty and a sense of their history.
Check StarTrek.com again tomorrow for part two of our interview, in which Picardo talks more about Star Trek: Voyager and fills us in on his current crop of projects.