Stephen Collins has lived a long and prosperous professional life as an actor, starring in hit shows (Seventh Heaven and the current No Ordinary Family), cult favorites (Tales of the Gold Monkey), and popular films (All the President’s Men, The First Wives Club). But he’s the first to admit feeling ambivalent about the credit that, arguably, stands out most on his resume: Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Collins played Commander Willard Decker, captain of the Enterprise, until Kirk (William Shatner) assumes command anew, and love interest to the exotic Deltan, Ilia (Persis Khambatta). StarTrek.com recently caught up with Collins for an exclusive and candid conversation in which he talked about TMP, his distaste for his own performance, and his current projects. Part one follows below, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two.
From the school of everything old is new again, what’s it been like for you and your wife (Faye Grant, who starred on the old sci-fi series V) the past couple of years to drive by movie theaters and see Star Trek up there on the marquee and to turn on the TV and see V on the screen again?
Collins: I know, and I hear (Grant’s original V co-star) Jane Badler is going to be on the new V. It’s strange, no question. For me, in terms of Star Trek, it feels like it’s never gone away. People forget that there was this long lapse from the time TOS went off the air to the time we made the first movie. In that time there was no Star Trek other than those original episodes, and they aired constantly on TV. Now there have been so many Star Trek series and movies. So, to me, it’s never gone away. And I’m a funny person to ask about it because I’m not particularly a Star Trek fan. I’m not not a fan, but I’ve never been much of a science fiction person. But I did see the new Star Trek movie, and I thought it was just wonderful. I thought it was brilliantly done. De Forest Kelley said to me a week into shooting the movie back in 1978, “You will see that these Star Trek fans will always be in your life.” I remember thinking, ‘Really? Why? How would that be?” I’d just begun work on the movie and didn’t feel a part of the whole thing. That has, in fact, proved to be true. Wherever I go, if I’m doing a signing or some sort of public appearance, there are always Star Trek fans there and they’re always thoughtful and well informed and passionate. De was absolutely right.
Let’s go all the way back in time. How big a deal was it – to the world at large, to the industry, to you – that you’d be cast in Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Collins: To me there’s a great life lesson in all the circumstances involving Star Trek. I was living in New York and I’d been flown out to L.A. to do a very special episode of Charlie’s Angels, which in fact was Farrah Fawcett’s first episode back after her famous walking away from the show. She was the biggest star on Earth at that moment and she wanted off the show after one year. Aaron Spelling sued her and the settlement was that she’d come back and do three episodes. I was asked to do her first episode back and to play her boyfriend in it. I said yes because it was just such a hoot and Farrah was indeed the biggest thing in show business. So I’d just finished that when my agent called and said, “They’re doing a movie of Star Trek. Robert Wise is going to direct it. And they’d like you to come in and read for the role of the new captain of the Enterprise.”
But you’d never seen an episode of Star Trek at that point, right?
Collins: I’d never seen an episode of Star Trek. I was fully aware of Star Trek. You couldn’t live in America and not be aware of it, but as I said, science fiction just wasn’t my thing. So I was aware of what a big deal Star Trek was and what a big deal this movie was going to be, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. The good news about that was that I wasn’t a nervous wreck when I went in to see Robert Wise. I was like, “OK, I’ll go meet Robert Wise. That’ll be fun. He’s a big director.” And they didn’t have the whole script for me to look at. They only sent me two scenes, which was unusual. So I wasn’t that invested in it. It wasn’t life or death for me. Little did I know that tons of actors in Hollywood had been lining up around the block to get in and meet Robert Wise. It’s just such a perverse thing about life and especially about show business, but when you don’t need the job that badly is when you seem to get it, and when you desperately want the job and know you can be brilliant in it, you usually don’t get it. Life isn’t fair that way and show business isn’t fair that way. Obviously there are great exceptions to the rule, but those are relatively few and far between. So I went in kind of cool as a cucumber. “Hi, Mr. Wise.” I wasn’t nervous and when you’re not nervous you tend to do your best.
I was driving home to where I was staying and when I got there I checked my messages. In those days we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have answering machines. Actors all had answering services that your agents or people in the business would call because otherwise you had to be at home to get a call. So I called my service and there was a message to call my agent and my agent said, “They’ve offered you the role in Star Trek.” I thought, “Do I really want to do this? I don’t know. I haven’t read the script.” And I really, really seriously considered not doing it. I got a call from a woman named Marion Dougherty, who was then head of casting for Paramount and had been, for at least 10 years before that, the biggest casting director in the business. Marion knew me from New York. She said, “Stephen, this is the biggest film Paramount Pictures has ever made and yours is the only new male role in the movie. It cannot hurt you.”
So you said yes…
Collins: The funny thing is that over a lifetime I could make an argument, and I have evidence, that in some ways doing the movie did hurt me. But it probably didn’t hurt me anymore than I would have managed to have hurt myself doing other stuff. The fact is I was a really green actor at that time. I was working all the time, but there were basic things that I didn’t understand about acting, that I wouldn’t discover for a few more years. Star Trek, in a way, was great evidence of my shortcomings. I can’t watch myself in the movie because I’m so serious and one-note. I hadn’t yet learned how to just relax and be on film. I didn’t understand a lot about acting. So, while it was a big deal and the movie was a big deal, I was never happy with my performance.
Also, when it came out it was perceived as a flop. No one remembers that today because it launched all these other movies and this whole renaissance for Star Trek. But in the weeks and months immediately following the movie’s opening in 1979 it was perceived as a flop because it was expected to out-gross Star Wars, and it didn’t. It grossed something like $125 million, which in those days was unheard of. Only a few movies had hit those numbers. So it did just fine. But it was perceived as a flop. The reviews weren’t that good and the grosses weren’t as high as what had been anticipated.
So did you think it was your performance or the perception of the film as a flop that the film hurt you?
Collins: About a year after Star Trek opened I had an audition for a beautiful script for a television film called Summer Solstice, which was going to star Henry Fonda and Myrna Low. The movie went back and forth between them in their old age and their younger counterparts, and Lindsay Crouse and I played the younger counterparts. It was a gorgeous script and I really wanted to do it. I went in and had an audition with the guy producing it. The audition went well and it felt good. But the guy said, “I have to tell you, I did not want to see you for this.” I said, “Really. Wow. Tell me, why was that?” He said, “Well, the only thing I’ve seen you do is Star Trek and there was nothing in that that made me think you could do this.” That confirmed my worst suspicion, but it was also really good information to have. I did indeed get that role, but he told me, “I only took the appointment with you because your manager had another client that I really wanted to see. Your manager said I couldn’t see so and so unless I saw you, too.” And, of course, of all the things I’ve done, Star Trek is probably the one that repeats the most often. People keep saying, “Oh, I just saw you in Star Trek” and it just drives me crazy because, while it’s a serviceable performance and it works in the context of the movie, there’s no shade, no nuance, and I want to scream whenever I see it.