William Schallert has acted on television almost as long as the medium has been in existence. He’s amassed nearly 300 credits, dating from the early 1950’s to today. For many people, he’ll forever be Patty Duke’s dad on The Patty Duke Show. But to Star Trek fans, he’s best remembered for his role as Nilz Baris in the wildly popular TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Schallert later turned up, via archive footage, as Baris in the Deep Space Nine hour “Trials and Tribble-ations,” and then in another full-fledged guest star spot as Varani in the DS9 episode “Sanctuary.” The actor, who turned 89 years young earlier this month, will be among the many guests at Creation Entertainment’s upcoming Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Schallert for an engaging conversation during which he discussed his Trek stints and filled us in on his current projects.
You have so many credits to your name. How strange is it to you that “The Trouble with Tribbles” is arguably the best known of them?
Schallert: People sure have known me from that for a long time. They knew who I was on that show before I knew who I was on that show. I was invited to a very early Star Trek convention that was held at the Marriott Hotel at the airport (in L.A.). I arrived there and went through the door into the main lobby, and it was loaded with aliens, with little antennae bouncing around on their heads. As I came through the door, they were saying, “Nilz Baris!” I’m looking around and they said, ‘No, that’s you!” So that’s how I learned my name from that show. There was no signing of autographs there. I was making a personal appearance. And there was a kid there who was, at the most, eight or nine years old. He had six months to live and he was in a wheelchair, and this was the most important thing he could do in the last six months of his life, coming to this Star Trek convention. I thought, “Wow, this is amazing. This show has a real hold on people.” He was thrilled to be there. He was being wheeled around and shaking hands with people. I was thinking, “He’s going to die, and this is the thing he had to do before he died.” It tells you something about the show.
When you played Baris, it was just another guest spot on just another show, right?
Schallert: Oh, yeah, sure. I finished The Patty Duke Show in 1966. I was back in the marketplace and hoping I’d start working. In the meantime, I’d started to get into voiceovers and that began to take over my life. For the next 20 or 25 years, that’s where I made most of my money, even though I kept working in television. So, Star Trek was just a job and I was playing a rather stuffy bureaucrat, not the most appealing character. I was not a Star Trek fan. I didn’t watch the show. I used to be big on reading science fiction. I used to read a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction, but I stopped doing that around 1948. I remember the year because that was the year L. Ron Hubbard wrote a piece for Astounding Science Fiction called “Dianetics,” and that was the beginning of Scientology. It was launched in Astounding Science Fiction. He used to write space operas, as they called them. He was not terribly good at it, I didn’t think. We had some pretty good writers, Asimov and Heinlein, and people like that who were really talented writers. But he was not one of them. Anyway, I’ve always remembered the year.
But when I got (Star Trek) I did not see the episode when it was on the air initially. I did catch up with it about two or three years ago, and it was fun to watch because I was laying into Shatner a lot. Every once in a while people confused our names; Schallert-Shatner, it’s pretty close for some people. So people would call me Shatner and I guess probably once in a while somebody would call him Schallert. Probably not very often. But what happened was when I saw it, I just got a big kick out of the way I was chewing him out. Baris really laced into Kirk. I got to be very nasty with him, and it was really fun.
What do you remember of the shoot itself?
Schallert: There was a guy named Stanley Adams, who played the fellow who brought the Tribbles. He and I knew each other. We’d done a little comedy act together at one time, and he was a very funny guy. So I remember being on the set with him and, of course, I remember working briefly with Shatner and with Leonard Nimoy. It was interesting because when you saw the show it all looked pretty solid, but the sets were just made out of something like pasteboard. I remember strange colors. It was really a make-believe situation that you were in when you were on the show, more so than you would be today.
Years later, you appeared on DS9. Actually, you were on it twice. Did you ever see “Trials and Tribble-ations”?
Schallert: No, actually. I knew I was in it because I had to give them permission to use the footage, but I didn’t actually have to work in it. I know that Charlie Brill actually worked again, but they just had to pay me for using the old footage.
You auditioned for your role as the Bajoran musician Varani in “Sanctuary.” What do you remember of your time working on that episode?
Schallert: Again, I’d never watched the show, so I was at a bit of a loss. The only person I knew on that was Armin Shimerman. I knew him from our both being involved in the Screen Actors Guild. And I knew his wife as well, Kitty Swink. I’m one of the trustees of our pension and health plan, and she’s been very big on that. I like her a lot. She’s a really intelligent person. I had a scene with Nana Visitor. I had to play a musical instrument. It happens that I’m a trained musician and I’ve played the piano all my life. I’d been a folk singer at one time, so I could play guitar. But I’d never played wind instruments. This thing they gave me had nothing on it to suggest where your fingers were supposed to go, and they were playing a specific tune. So I had to sort of imagine in my mind that these various fingers were associated with various notes. I tried my best to duplicate what the tune of the song was. I kind of got close, but I didn’t get it exact. That was actually the most difficult thing I had to do on the show. The acting part of it was fairly simple.
You’re set to attend Creation’s mega-show in Las Vegas next month. How often do you make convention appearances?
Schallert: I don’t do them very often. I was at their 40th anniversary show. It should be fun. I also used to do Bill Campbell’s shows, his conventions. They were for the benefit of the Motion Picture and Television Fund. A guy who I’ve always admired and who I got to know pretty well as a result of going to those things was (fellow Star Trek guest star) Bill Windom. We used to have a lot of fun together. But what I would do is I’d emcee the events for them. If I’ve got a friendly audience and they’re nice, I’m not a bad stand-up. The thing that would terrify me is to go into a place and have to deal with an audience cold, where they weren’t already on your side and you weren’t part of the same team, so to speak.
You really are the epitome of the classic character actor. How satisfying is it to you that you’re career is spanning into its eighth decade?
Schallert: Well, it’s very nice to have been able to stay alive in the business. I’ve never done anything else. I started out working on camera mostly and then, right after The Patty Duke Show, a guy gave me a call and asked if I’d be interested in trying voiceovers. I said, “I don’t know. Sure. Why not?” As I said, for the next 25 years, that’s where I made the bulk of my income. I got very hot for a while. I was really the (voiceover) flavor of the month for three or four years. Then it dropped off, but I stayed at a nice, healthy level, and I kept working on camera. I’ve also always worked on the stage. I still do. I go to a workshop on Saturday mornings. I go to Milton Katselas’ workshop. Milton died about three years ago, but it’s still going. And I love it. Actors need to stay in shape and work out, the same way that musicians need to practice and dancers need to do the bar. Otherwise, if you’re not doing it, you kind of forget what it’s like.
Aside from the workshop, we still see you on screen. You did Desperate Housewives a couple of years ago. You were on Medium last year. What else is coming up?
Schallert: I’m a recurring character on True Blood. I play the mayor of the town. Actually, I’ve only done a few episodes. I worked on it first season and I did another one earlier this year that just aired. I was in the first episode (of the current season), and I can see what’s happening. I’m somehow in a retirement home. (True Blood executive producer) Alan Ball told me he’d always wanted to work with me, but it was a little late when he decided to get a hold of me. But I’m available if anyone wants me.