‘Star Trek’ Bit Players Cling On
For three days, the actor sat at a table in a windowless wing of the Pasadena Center while hundreds of devotees milled nearby.
He posed for snapshots. He answered the same questions over and over. He doled out trading cards bearing his mug. For $20, he brought out a gold-ink pen and autographed glossy photos of himself.
Michael Dante may not be on any Hollywood A-list, but on this weekend in Pasadena, he was intergalactic. Dante was capitalizing on his appearance in a single episode of the original Star Trek series. It aired Dec. 1, 1967.
“But it was a very popular episode,” Dante insisted, speaking in the same wooden tone he used as Maab, lead villain on the planet Capella IV. “It had action. It had comedy. It had drama.”
More than three decades after the original “Star Trek” series ended in 1969, after 79 episodes over three seasons, Dante and other actors have discovered that they can milk even the most ephemeral appearances on the show by appearing at extreme fan conventions that can draw thousands of enthusiasts.
Bit players on other shows, such as “Xena: Warrior Princess,” are getting into the act too. Even the mute and masked -- such as the orcs and elves in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, or the six actors underneath Jason’s hockey mask in the “Friday the 13th” flicks -- are finding a ready market for their John Hancocks at science-fiction, comedy, western or horror-movie fan conferences worldwide.
“These people make careers out of it,” said Monica Gillen, a spokesman for Glendale-based Creation Entertainment Inc., which rakes in about $6 million from the three dozen such fan conferences it runs annually.
But the original “Star Trek” offers the best enterprise for convention organizers and actors, some of whom find their “Star Trek” roles far eclipse other achievements.
Dante, for example, prefers to be remembered for his roles in films such as “Winterhawk” (1975) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964). He notes that he was a recipient of the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Golden Boot award for his work in westerns.
“I hold it in high esteem because it’s not based on one performance but on 40 years of work,” he said.
Dante also said that he had been cited for giving “one of the five best performances by an actor playing a one-armed character” for his role as a soldier boy in the 1959 movie “Westbound.” His memory is vague on who presented the citation, and a search for it in records of Hollywood awards was inconclusive. Still, “I was the youngest,” he said.
He played three roles as Native Americans, including a Blackfoot chief in “Winterhawk.”
“Versatility is really my salvation,” he said.
Fans at this “Star Trek” show, however, had more relevant abilities to probe -- such as whether he really threw that boomerang-like “kligat” (he did), and just how did he withstand the heat in that gold-fringed tunic and goofy headgear during the filming at boulders in the Santa Clarita area that served as his planet (they cooled themselves with ice). And no, he told the Trekkies, he didn’t get to keep the outfit.
Tanya Lemani is in a similar pickle.
“I do a lot of things, but nobody remembers anything but ‘Star Trek,’ ” said Lemani, who played a belly dancer in Episode 36, “Wolf in the Fold.” “I didn’t think anybody knew about [my role].... But then I realized I have so many fans.”
Her “Star Trek” claim to-not-so-much fame? “I perform a tantalizing dance for the Enterprise crew,” she said. “And then accompany Scotty for a walk in the fog. But I get killed, and they think Scotty did it, but it was actually Jack the Ripper.”
Never mind that she spent more time in makeup for the role -- four days (feather malfunctions, she confides) -- than in filming.
In addition to selling her $20 autograph at a table next to Dante’s, the well-preserved Lemani, clad in a belly-button-baring stretch-knit olive top and slacks, was hawking her “Bellysize with Tanya” video and talking up her soon-to-be released book, “Have Belly, Will Travel.”
Trekkie conventions have been around since the early 1970s and have morphed into regional and national shows. The largest, in Las Vegas each August, draws more than 10,000 fans. But bit actors on “Star Trek” and other shows latched on to selling their signatures only recently, influenced by major sports stars, then top actors, beginning to charge for autographs, and by EBay’s ready-made market for the memorabilia.
The fans shell out as much as $500 on the premium “gold” admission tickets at the conventions, which give them special seating and other perks. Even so, they usually have to pay extra to get the autographs of the top draws, such as William Shatner, who commands $60 for an autograph and an additional $70 for a photo with him.
Typically, conference organizers will pay tens of thousands of dollars to lure the big guns. Those who played minor characters typically must pay $100 to set up shop.
While Shatner and others regale the audience with tales from the past and sign autographs for a few hours, bit actors sit in the auxiliary autograph room, in the wings of the main stage, amid merchandisers hawking “Star Trek” and other science-fiction memorabilia and movies such as “Lust in Space.”
Some fans say they get the bit players’ autographs as a consolation prize for not being able to afford those of the bigger stars. But many others are trying to collect autographs from the entire galaxy of “Star Trek” actors and anyone associated with the show.
A computer technician from Los Angeles who gave his name as Alan had the actors autograph his “Star Trek Encyclopedia -- A Guide to the Future” over the entries for each of their characters. He has collected about 200 so far.
What will he do once he gets signatures for all the entries? “I’ll just review them, and hold them and cherish them. I’m not going to let ‘em go. Not until I die,” he said.
Troy Frisbie, 37, a NASA systems engineer who paid more than $1,500 for a gold ticket, lodging, meals and airfare from his Van Cleave, Miss., home, came primarily to see Shatner. His son, Austin, 4, is a huge fan of Capt. Kirk too, and often mimics his command, “Fire!” Neither father nor son was born when the show began in 1966, but the family has copies of every episode.
The small players also can tell parts of “Star Trek” history, and usually have the time for it, Frisbie said.
“They have stories to tell that fans like me want to hear about, such as what it was like working with [creator/producer] Gene Roddenberry,” Frisbie said. “It’s what makes it so special.”
Time is of the essence, Frisbie noted, because the characters soon may be beamed up for the last time. DeForest Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy, died in 1999. James Doohan, who played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, has Alzheimer’s disease. Last August, thousands turned out for one last “Beam Me Up, Scotty” memorial convention in Hollywood, which Doohan attended in a wheelchair.
“I wanted to have the chance to meet these people before -- God forbid -- something else happens to them,” Frisbie said.
He particularly wanted the autograph of Arlene Martel, whose booth and website featured a big picture of her as a bride to Spock (Leonard Nimoy), locked in a Vulcan love-gaze.
She was wed as a child to Spock in a Vulcan arranged marriage, she said, though they never consummated the relationship because it was understood that they would fulfill that commitment as adults and Spock had been in outer space for years.
“They made love telepathically,” she said, taking a sniff of the peppermint aroma she brings along to refresh her during the long afternoons signing photos. “Now it’s called tantric sex.”
She dutifully repeated her lines on the “Amok Time” episode:
“Parted and never parted. Never and always.”
She paused a bit, then uttered her other line: “It was a beautiful declaration of love.”
The plot, like many in “Star Trek,” is easier seen than summarized: “It’s where Spock is compelled by a sexual urge to mate again, which is why it’s so popular.... I actually divorce him. It’s the first Vulcan divorce, and nobody could understand why I left Spock.... Being highly sexual myself, I chose Stonn, a tall, good-looking man without humor. The truth of the matter as to why, I’m never telling.”
Martel regales her fans with tales about how she had to practice over and over to learn to deliver the lines without emotion, as director Joseph Pevney insisted. The skill, she said, sometimes served her well in the other 100 or so guest appearances she made on shows of the 1960s and 1970s -- including a witch on “Bewitched” and the girlfriend on half a dozen “Hogan’s Heroes” episodes.
Martel said that “Star Trek” conventions get her out of her Santa Monica home, where writing screenplays can get lonely. Also, she has met several women who have told her that her character influenced them to pursue careers in science or at NASA.
“It makes you feel not like a big wave that washed out to the ocean,” Martel said. “That in some way you touched someone in a way you never knew.”
How much these actors make at these conferences are as closely guarded secrets as their ages. Conference organizers estimate it amounts to “grocery money,” but the actors say they might sign more than 100 autographs at the average conference, which could net them more than $2,000.
Dante, whose birth name was Ralph Vitti, puts his age at “late 60s,” adding, “but I haven’t changed a pound in 40 years.”
He lives with his most adoring fan -- his wife of 12 years, Mary Jane Dante. She said she hung above their bed in their Rancho Mirage home a framed photo of him as Crazy Horse in the 1967 TV series “Custer,” wearing a fringed suede jacket and sporting a long wig.
Mary Jane accompanies him to the shows, talking up his accomplishments and noting that he also is host of a weekly celebrity radio talk show and runs the “extremely successful” Michael Dante’s Actors Workshop in Palm Springs.
Certainly, hearing from adoring fans such as Morningstar Farraou can only massage an aging ego. Gushed the electrical engineer as she bought Dante’s signature the other day, “He’s my heartthrob. He was always my heartthrob.”
Shortly after the Pasadena event, Dante was off to Scottsdale, Ariz., to man a booth at the five-day Festival of the West, where he could bask in the afterglow of that Golden Boot award and the distinction of being the youngest of the best portrayers of a one-armed man.