John Vickery played three very different characters across the Star Trek spectrum. He portrayed Andrus Hagan, a Betazoid, in the Next Generation episode, “Night Terrors,” the Cardassian Gul Rusot in the Deep Space Nine hours, “The Changing Face of Evil,” “When It Rains…” and “Tacking into the Wind,” and Orak, a Klingon, in the Enterprise installment, “Judgment.” The Trek credits are just a few of many on Vickery’s resume. He originated the role of Scar in the Broadway production of The Lion King and appeared in numerous other stage shows. And on TV and in film, he’s acted in One Life to Live, Rapid Fire, Dr. Giggles, Babylon 5, NCIS and Modern Family, among others.
Vickery is, in his own words, semi-retired these days. However, he still regularly performs with the LA Theatre Works company, having recorded and/or toured such radio-play-style productions as And the Sun Stood Still, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Sisters Rosenweig and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Starting tomorrow in Los Angeles, he’ll play Nikita Khrushchev in The Tug of War, a drama written by David Rambo and co-starring Matthew Arkin, Hugo Armstrong, Seamus Dever, Matthew Floyd Miller, James Morrison, David Selby, Rich Sommer, Josh Stamberg, Nick Toren and Jules Willcox. StarTrek.com recently spoke to Vickery by telephone, and here’s what he had to say:
When you got your first Trek job on TNG, was that an audition?
Yes, the casting director, he cast me in all those Star Treks. I auditioned for the part and… this is funny. I played a Betazoid and you had to wear these black contacts, which made my eyes water. They said, "Do you have any problems with contacts?" I said, "Well, they make my eyes water, but I think in this case it's probably a good thing." And that’s because I was unconscious the entire episode and you just heard my thoughts. It was all voiceover with the other Betazoid. I think I got the part because I said, "I think that will actually be a good thing that my eyes are watering," because I was supposed to be in the throes of some kind of mental anguish, and I think they were pleased by that answer. Probably most actors you know when you ask them, "Can you ride a motorcycle?,” they say, “Sure," even if they've never ridden a motorcycle before. "Can you ride a horse?” “Of course." I think most actors probably said, "Oh, no, contacts don't bother me." And I was the one actor who said, "Yeah, they bother me a lot."
How well did you get to know the TNG regular cast?
They were extremely nice, and Patrick Stewart, I got to know quite well. I know that when he took the gig he was worried that, because he was from the Royal Shakespeare Company, that it was in some way a downgrade in his respectability. I'm sure he doesn't worry about that now, but back then he wanted to keep his hand in classical acting. So, he had a Shakespeare workshop that he did on weekends in one of the old sound stages on the Paramount lot. We did that for weeks and weeks and weeks and he was a fantastic teacher. We did a lot of Shakespeare.
Your role on DS9 ended up being a recurring role. Was that always the plan?
They said two episodes, and it turned out to be three episodes. The funny thing about that gig was… I did aliens on Babylon 5 as well, and when you play aliens you usually make twice as much money as you're billed for because it takes three hours to get into the makeup and two hours to get it off. So, you're already into overtime, and I think we had some 18-, 19- and 20-hour days on DS9 because it took so long to do the makeup and take it off. I remember that was a very arduous job, but I got paid twice as much as I was offered, so that was good.
How did you enjoy working with Casey Biggs? Did you get to know him? Had you known him before?
I didn't know him before, but he was a pleasure. We had a great relationship. I had known Rene…. Rene Auberjonois. I knew him when I was much younger, from his theater company in San Francisco. I had seen him a lot on stage and we had worked together before. If you're in the business long enough, you usually almost always know or have at least met some of the people you work with when you do something new.
Damar, in your final episode, killed Rusot and then very coldly but still regretfully said, "He was my friend, but his Cardassia is dead and it won't be coming back."
Exactly. To him, I was a friend, but it was all business, which is the way those characters are. I was the one who wanted to keep the conflict going.
Your next Trek appearance was on Enterprise. How surprised were you to get yet another call to come back to Star Trek?
I think they are very loyal to people. Also, the people who were in makeup were often back on the shows. If you prove you can do it, that you can handle the makeup process and perform well in the makeup, they often asked you back. That makes sense, and it’s not like viewers can recognize you. The same thing happened on Babylon 5. Here’s an interesting story for you. I had just finished a long run playing Scar in The Lion King at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles when I was cast in “Judgment.” They cast me and they also cast my two understudies from The Lion King. So, all three guys that had played Scar in Los Angeles were in that episode. Victor Talmage played another alien, and Granville Van Dusen played the judge, the magistrate, in the courtroom. I’m sure you’ve heard people say this, but it’s true: I think they liked to hire trained theater actors in those parts because you have to deal with all this prosthetics in your mouth and still be able to articulate.
How different was the tone of each set, TNG vs DS9 vs Enterprise?
DS9, just thematically, even watching the show, was a sort of darker experience. TNG was more like, "Hey, we're out to space again and exploring all this new stuff." There was a bit of a difference. Enterprise, there was a little bit of a feeling of, "We don't know how long this is going to last." I would say of all of them, the Next Generation cast was the most, what is the word I'm searching for? Relaxed.
If we said you could play one of your three characters again, which one would it be and why?
I like the Klingons. I played an aging Klingon who was a lawyer. If I could do something a little bit more active as a Klingon, that would be fun. But I enjoyed what I did.
You’re about to participate in the LATW production of The Tug of War. Give us a preview…
It's the Cuban Missile Crisis, basically, and I'm old enough to remember that. I was probably about 12 or 13, and I do remember the tension everyone experienced for a couple of weeks. We were on the verge of nuclear war and it was like, "Oh my God, the world could be coming to an end at any moment." I haven't completely read the new script that I just got, but it’s lot of the characters we're familiar with from the Vietnam War… Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara and, of course, President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. I get to play Khrushchev.
What excites you about playing Khrushchev?
It’s funny, I don't look anything like him, but it's a radio show. But we’ll be doing it in front of a live audience. So, I googled him to find out what he actually sounded like, and here’s why: whenever he spoke publicly, you were listening to the translator. He actually had this mid-range voice that's a little bit higher than mine. So, in terms of radio, I'm going to try to use that tone voice. But, because we do it front of a live audience and because the radio audience doesn't care that I don't look anything like him, I’m going to wear the kind of goofy hat he always wore, the kind that looked like he bought it from Sears. I was thinking about shaving my head, but it's a big commitment for something that's only a week long. So, it’ll just be the goofy hat when I play Khrushchev.
What else will you be working on once The Tug of War ends its run?
I'm semi-retired. I said to my agent. "You know what? I'm not going to drive all the way down to Manhattan Beach to say, ‘Lieutenant, your man is outside’ anymore.” So, I'm getting very picky and choosy about what I do. I have a great affinity with the LA Theatre Works space, mostly because they always hire good people and I like working with good people. That's not always a guarantee, even when you're doing a Broadway show. Usually, the commitment is short and I love doing the tours because when I was a younger actor, the idea of a tour just didn't interest me at all. I wanted to stay in New York or L.A., but now I enjoy it because I enjoy the travel and I enjoy going to places I would never think about going before. I was in this tiny little college in Iowa on a recent tour, and it was just the most gracious people. This was in the middle of the heartland and the people were so nice and bent over backwards to treat us so well.
But anyway, to answer your question, I'm getting very picky and choosy. I've reached a point where my pension is pretty good because I've worked all my life. So, I said to my agent, "I don't have to work for money anymore. I'm comfortable enough with what I have and I don't need to buy a yacht. So, I'm only going to do what I want to do." All actors do crappy work at some point in their careers for the money and I said, “I'm not gonna do that anymore because I don't need to work for money anymore.” What I love is acting. I don't care about the money. I don't care about the fame. I like the acting and I want to make sure the acting is good. So, when I do work, I like to work with good people on good material.
Here’s the schedule for the L.A. Theatre Works production of The Tug of War:
• Thursday, May 25 at 8 p.m.• Friday, May 26 at 8 p.m.• Saturday, May 27 at 3 p.m.• Saturday, May 27 at 8 p.m.• Sunday, May 28 at 4 p.m.
James Bridges TheaterUCLA School of Theater, Film and Television235 Charles E. Young DriveLos Angeles, CA 90095(enter UCLA from Hilgard just south of Sunset Blvd.; park in Lot 3 on the lower level)
The just-released podcast of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, which also features Vickery, can be downloaded for free. Click HERE and use promo code “tops” to receive a free mp3 download directly from the LA Theatre Works website.