Last week at Salt Lake Comic Con FanX, Jonathan Frakes, who famously played Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, spoke to a packed room of approximately 3,000 attendees. The panel was moderated by Bill Allred of local X96 radio fame. Interestingly, Frakes and Allred attended Penn State together and were friends in the drama department. The two quickly fell into a comfortable groove reminiscing about their days together in college and remembering some of the plays they did together like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They joked a bit about their respective levels of fame, but Frakes, whose self-deprecating humor was present throughout the entire panel, was quick to share a funny anecdote about his celebrity status. In the early days of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Frakes was attending a convention and noticed a table of TNG action figures. There were rows of Geordi La Forge for $35, Data figures for $50, Picard figures for $60. And on the very end of the table was bunch of Commander Riker figures with a sign that read “Buy any action figure, get Riker free.”
Frakes was confident, comfortable, amusing, and entertaining. Rather than just sit during the panel, he would stroll around the stage, often singing random songs very loudly. In fact, he even slipped in a short interpretive dance at one point. When Bill Allred turned the time over to questions from the audience, Frakes casually strolled down the stairs and put his arm around the first woman in line. Needless to say, it threw her off a bit and it took her a moment to gather herself together enough to ask a question. She brought up some of the “man dresses” that the characters sometimes had to wear on Star Trek and if there was anything that Frakes had refused to wear. He reminded her that he basically had one space suit and one blue shirt and that was it, except for the episode “Angel One” where he showed his “hairy nipples.”
Before moving on to the next question, Frakes commented that Salt lake Comic Con was one of the best conventions that he had ever been to and that the moment with the veteran who asked a question during the Star Trek Experience the night before was unlike anything he had experienced in twenty-seven years of attending conventions. (During the Experience, a veteran who had lost his legs and suffered PTSD thanked the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the show and the message it provided. During his recovery, he had watched the series and it had helped him to get through some of the darkest times. The cast, including Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Denise Crosby, along with moderator William Shatner, all came down from the stage to embrace the man and offer a few private words.)
The next attendee asked Frakes, who has done a great deal of directing, for any advice for aspiring filmmakers. Frakes told him to get a straight job. The audience laughed, but he said that he was serious. Get a job that pays the bills. And then when you’re shooting something, tell the story, get enough coverage, hit the film festival circuit, and when in doubt, shoot low and wide.
A cute little girl asked Frakes why he wanted to do Star Trek. His response: “To explore new worlds. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The next person asked Frakes what it was like as a director to work music, particularly with the late Jerry Goldsmith. Frakes seemed genuinely grateful for the question. He mentioned that he knows a little about acting, a little about directing, a little about editing, but that he can’t conceive how these composers like Goldsmith or John Williams are able to put these songs together. The music improves the show or film by tenfold because it helps you “feel the story.” He joked that music is like pornography; he doesn’t know much about it, but he knows what he likes. Frakes then paid a short tribute to Jerry Goldsmith, calling him a kind, gentle, compassionate, sharing gentleman.
A question about the episode “Frame of Mind” was asked. A woman asked how Frakes had prepared for the role because she felt that he had represented the realities of mental illness really well. Frakes couldn’t remember the episode. She told him that it involved an away mission and that Riker had been captured. Frakes laughed and said, “Yeah. Like that didn’t happen every episode.” While he couldn’t remember the specifics of the episode, he did say that Ben Kingsley had once told him, “Never judge your characters.”
The most useless question of the evening went to: What is your favorite kind of candy bar? (Kit Kat. Or at the least, that’s what Frakes kept singing about throughout the panel.)
Someone asked Frakes what was his most embarrassing moment that made it on screen. He talked about an episode of Fantasy Island that he had been on, and that his acting was terrible. But he also felt that his acting on the first season of Star Trek was pretty bad, too.
Inevitably someone asked about the infamous Riker leg-over-the-chair maneuver. Frakes joked, “I’m tall for my age. It’s something I did. I don’t regret it. I embrace it.”
When asked about another specific episode, this one involving two versions of Riker, Frakes did remember quite a bit. The episode was titled “Second Chances,” was directed by Levar Burton, and Frakes played William Riker and Thomas Riker. When they made the episode, Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) had noted that she liked Thomas better because we was cuter. When asked how Frakes played both roles, he said, “You give me too much credit. I’m a hit it and spit it actor… I don’t do any of this pretend you’re a tree bullsh***.”
During another panel earlier in the day, Brent Spiner (Data) had said that Jonathan Frakes was the least like his character. So Frakes was asked who he thought was the most different from who they played. He said Marina Sirtis. “Did you go to the panel last night (The Star Trek Experience)? Empathetic, sensitive, good listener?” (Check back with us soon for our recap of The Star Trek Experience to fully understand just how off-the-wall Marina Sirtis really is.) He told a story about Sirtis and her tiny little dog, Skilaki. She had brought the dog to the set one time and it had been raining. The dog looked like a little wet rat, so Michael Dorn and Jonathan Frakes decided to “help” by putting the dog in the microwave for a bit to dry off. Bill Allred noted that incidents like this happened because they were a very close cast. Frakes said that one time, Michael Dorn got sick of always having to stand behind “Old Baldy” on the set, so he took an egg and cracked it right over Patrick Stewart’s head. Then, with a raised eyebrow, he said, “Fact or fiction? Could have happened…”
As far as directing goes, Frakes said that he particularly enjoys working with Noah Wyle. They have worked together on The Librarian, and he announced that the show was going to air as a series on TNT and that they had just started shooting the week before. He also loved working with Nathan Fillion on Castle and claimed that Fillion had written all of the funniest lines. When directing, Frakes often puts himself into a scene as a cameo. On the episode “Final Frontier,” Frakes played Richard Castle’s (Nathan Fillion) fan. Fillion said that he would be his #1 fan. Frakes’ character gets his book signed by Castle and tells him that he is his #1 fan. As he walks away, Fillion say, “How far they have fallen…” Frakes also spoke about Wil Wheaton. Back when the show was filming, a young Wheaton said, “ You know, Frakes, I can tell by he clothes you wear and the music you listen to in your dressing room that you used to be cool.”
Frakes said that if he hadn’t been able to be an actor, he would have played the trombone. His Plan B was to be director. After sitting in the editing room for many, many long hours to just learn the process, he was finally given the opportunity to direct the episode of Star Trek where Data builds himself a daughter. But he does love the trombone and even gave some trombone and marching band advice to a child in the audience.
Frakes finished by saying what a blessing it had been to be a part of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, had said that he believed “in a world with no hunger and no creed and where all the children can read.” But he also believed in a world with no racism and no sexism, but that we’re not there yet. Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart often remarked that if they could be as articulate as Riker and Picard, then that would be something to aspire to as men.
Overall, the panel was great. Frakes is genuinely funny, amiable, and he has a great stage presence. His panel felt like a giant party, and it was a great way to end the night. Panelists like Jonathan Frakes have set a high bar for the future of Salt Lake Comic Con. Hopefully with the massive success of the event, the organizers can continue to get celebrities of this caliber.