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Interview : Robert Picardo

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Ellyssa Harris recently caught up with Robert Picardo, an Emmy Award-nominated actor with an impressive list of Film, TV and theatre credits to his name. Best known for his role as Dr. Dick Richard in the award winning series “China Beach”, Coach Ed Cutlip on the series “The Wonder Years” and of course the holographic doctor in “Star Trek Voyager”. Picardo’s guest appearances in Stargate’s SG1 series led to him becoming a regular cast member in the spin off series “Stargate Atlantis” last year.

Were you a fan of Star Trek when you were took on the role of the Doctor in Voyager?

Robert Picardo: Oh boy, I hate to get this question and you started right off the bat with it. No, I was not a Star Trek fan, but I have confessed myself to the faithful, I have thrown myself at their feet for mercy and they have forgiven me. Praise Gene [laughs]. Growing up I don’t remember being a big science fiction fan. I watched “Lost in Space” rather than “Star Trek” which I’m embarrassed to admit now but that’s the fact. Probably paid off for me because I think Dr Smith on “Lost in Space” was kind of a partial inspiration for the holographic Doctor so had I watched the original “Star Trek” well then I would have been… well, I borrowed from Bones anyway so I guess if you put Dr Smith and Bones together you come up with the holographic Doctor. I wasn’t really familiar with Star Trek the series, I was more familiar with the movies, I remember seeing the “Wrath of Khan” and the first Star Trek movie I think I saw later out of sequence but then I loved Star Trek IV, the one everyone loves, the whale movie, but when I got cast in Voyager I went to the producers and asked for some Next Gen episodes. They tended to give me the best medical shows but they also gave me I think what they considered the best episodes and I was really knocked out and became a very quick fan. You know, I still have trouble with some of the outfits in the first series but I became a very big Next Gen fan.

Were you looking to do more sci-fi when you were asked to be a guest on Stargate?

RP: Well it’s always nice to be offered a role as an actor, we spend our lives auditioning so when someone calls you and says we have a role for you and we want you to do it, immediately your ear perks up at that. I had seen some of the original Stargate when it was on Showtime and I was a Showtime subscriber and I loved the movie that it was based on. But my understanding was it was a one day part, I had a lot of scenes in one day, and I was basically a bad guy. I was an inquisitor, just the bad guy so I never expected it to go beyond that because he was completely adversarial, the character, had no personality at all, he was like a barracouta but I think that when I met Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie and Brad [Wright] and Robert [Cooper]… Joe and Paul had written the episode I think, we kind of hit it off together, we had dinner together, we chatted and I think they just decided they liked me as an actor and they began the long process of Woolsey’s rehabilitation.

Did you enjoy playing Woolsey because the character changed quite considerably over the two shows..?

RP: Well yes, he was introduced as a conflict character, then when they decided to begin to rehabilitate him they went “OK, yes, he is a dick and a humourless jerk but at least he means well” and my second outing which I think was in Inauguration, it showed that even though he was kind of an officious humourless advocate for something, he meant well, he truly believed in the importance of civilian oversight of secret military operations. Then with each successive time they brought me on they seemed to start introducing little personality quirks and giving him a bit of dimension but I was very surprised when they called and asked me. When Joe Mallozzi called and said, “How would you like to take over the Atlantis expedition?” I said you’re kidding? because in the crossover episodes, there was an SG1 episode where he goes on an off-world mission and he’s plainly a coward and then The Return part 1 and 2 again there was some wonderful frick and frack scenes between me and Richard Dean Anderson and I was annoying him by my insecurity and fear at being held hostage and this was a source of comic mileage in the episode so I didn’t quite see how they were going to make me a leader but after I hung up the phone and started to think about it I thought about two things; that in our current economy it’s not unusual for someone in middle life to have to suddenly redefine themselves career wise, having spent 30-40 years doing one thing to suddenly try to reinvent themselves and Woolsey after all was a great theorist, he was a great conference room guy so what a great challenge to take the guy who’s used to being in the conference room and put him in the real situation and see how he does instead of just giving advice or evaluating other people’s leadership, see how he does when the shoe is on the other foot. So it ended up being a lot of fun and I think that through some very quick and deft strokes the writers in the first couple of episodes humanised him and made the audience kind of root for him becoming a leader.

Were you surprised when the series was cancelled?

RP: I was surprised. To me getting the job had been such a pleasant experience it had sort of come out of nowhere that I look at the whole thing as a gift, so the fact that it lasted a year was fine with me but my understanding was that the ratings had ticked up wards the last year. My only fear was I didn’t want to be blamed for the demise of Stargate Atlantis like, “Gorgeous Amanda Tapping leaves, Robert Picardo comes on and the show tanks” so I didn’t want that sense that I had killed the baby, or the five year old, but I think that It was pretty clear that our ratings were going up. It seemed so abrupt when the word came down because the feeling had been pretty positive for the whole season. I think it took some of the other actors more by surprise because they had obviously had a much bigger investment there.

There’s an Atlantis movie in the works, will you be involved in that?

RP: I have been told I will be but we also thought the movie was going to be on a shorter, more immediate time frame so at this point I haven’t heard exactly when it might be. There was some talk about doing it in the late spring-early summer which clearly is not going to happen so I think that the next time frame will probably be in the fall, in October, but I don’t know for sure.

I came across something that gave me a good laugh online the other day and it was your Christmas video from 2008. You seem to have a very British sense of humour, is there someone that’s inspired you in that?

RP: Yeah, I mean I was a huge Monty Python fan, I think that was my first full DVD set, the complete Monty Python. Having said that also Benny Hill would make me laugh sometimes too even though it was quite a different sensibility, other British sitcoms I’ve watched in the past are always fun to watch so I think I do appreciate British humour, and I’m going to lump in those New Zealanders because they’re so funny too, “Flight of the Concord” because they talk funny too, to me it sounds like you guys are in similar clubs [as an Australian I laugh at this] I know you guys speak better than we do! [laughs] I want to make that clear you speak better than Americans, that’s why this pilot season 60 British, Australia and Canadian actors were hired over their American counterparts for American television pilots because you speak better than we do.

That’s an interesting comment. You’re involved in the ACME Comedy Theatre, can you tell us about that?

RP: Yeah, the ACME Comedy Theatre has been in existence about 20 years, their slightly more famous competitor “The Groundlings” you may have heard of, but a lot of very funny comic actors have passed through ACME over the years. I was approached through one of the other company members, I did a play reading with one of the company members Julie Ritner and she said that she thought I was a funny guy and would be perfect to host one of their evenings. It’s done like a “Saturday Night Live” show. They include the guest host in about six or seven sketches and they do another five to seven sketches that are just the company members and the whole program is about hour and fifteen minutes, very high paced, funny, we have Teleprompters, almost no rehearsal. All the effort goes into writing funny material but you don’t get any rehearsal time so you have Teleprompters out over the audience if you need them. I just loved it. It was like working without a net, it was very exciting to not fall off the trapeze the fist two times I’ve done it, doesn’t mean I won’t next time! But I encourage your audience to go to the website acmecomedytheatre.com and there’s acmebrandcomedy.com which is a website using their talent, using the people that work there or have worked there to do original sketches and there’s a funny takeoff on Heroes and there’s all sorts of different stuff but if you go to acmebrandcomedy.com and search “Alphonso” you’ll come up with my Italian gigolo sketches that are advice for the love-lorn.

While I was doing a little research I noticed you have a guest role in the new TV series “Castle”, can you talk about that?

RP: First of all, Nathan Fillion, there’s an actor with charm to burn, he’s a lovely guy and terrific on the show. The show deserves to be a big hit because it fills a kind of a gap that’s not on television. It works as a caper show, it’s exciting, the stories are good but most importantly there’s a great relationship between Castle, Nathan’s character and the police detective Beckett which I think is great… sexual tension between the two of them. I love Susan Sullivan who plays his mother who is a hoot and the actress that plays his daughter [Molly Quinn] is also excellent, so all the principles are good. I think the show looks great, he is just charming and his appeal … I’ve heard women 17 years old talking about him and women in their 60s talking about him so that should translate into big ratings AND they’ve cast me as his old friend, forensic pathologist adviser who is heavily involved in the cliff hanger at the end of the season so with any good luck, if the show’s picked up, they should be having me back as a recurring character.

I think it has something else, it doesn’t have this sort of relentless… I’m not a fan of procedural shows I have to tell you and this has got a return to a little style and romance in addition to just, you know, what the plot is, but I’ve seen inside enough bullet wounds.

You’ve done a lot of guest appearances on a lot of TV shows, do you have a favourite?

RP: A favourite single guest appearance? Yeah, you will never have heard of it but I think I do. There was a show in the very early 80s called “It Takes Two” which stared Patty Duke and the late Richard Crenna. The two kids on the show were Helen Hunt and Andrew Edwards and I was the guest star one week. They were a professional couple and it was about their various lives and Richard Crenna was a doctor and my character had had plastic surgery at the hospital and was not happy with how it turned out and I came back to kill the doctor and took everyone hostage. Doesn’t sound funny but it was hilarious. But to play a character with unsuccessful plastic surgery takes a certain amount of, how should I say this, career risk. They did make me up, they gave me a funny Richard Nixon nose that couldn’t decide which way it wanted to go to and did some other cosmetic changes, gave me a dental appliance, funny lower lip but it was just the funniest, it was literally hilarious that show and this was over 20 years ago but if I watched it today I would laugh and be proud of being in it.

One last question, do you have any advice for anyone attending a convention for the first time

RP: Don’t drink too many fru fru drinks at the bar late at night because you’ll miss the tour the next morning.

Thank you very much.

RP: You’re welcome

Castle airs Sunday nights at 9:30pm on the Seven network www.castletv.net

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Author: Ellyssa Harris
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