Fresh Hell for Star Trek's Data: Brent Spiner owes heavenly career to UH"Legacy" of Cecil Pickett
There are certainly many ways alumni can support a beloved school, but for successful television, film, and Broadway stars who started out as decidedly unknown theater students at the University of Houston, sometimes the best way to give back is with a song and story.
In an attempt to do just that, some of the University of Houston’s most celebrated graduates come back Friday for “Legacy: A Celebration of the UH School of Theatre & Dance,” an evening benefiting the scholarship endowment fund named after one of the program’s most beloved professors, Cecil J. Pickett.
"I’ve done several Broadway shows and off Broadway, movies and television and all that, and I can’t remember an opening night ever being more exciting as they were at Bellaire High School and later at the University of Houston."
Headlining the evening along with actors and musicians Brett Cullen, Billy Stritch, Robert Wuhl, Sharon Montgomery and Sally Mayes will be film and television actor Brent Spiner. The Houston born and raised actor, probably best known as Star Trek’s Commander Data, chatted with CultureMap by phone shortly before his trip back home.
Spiner was given some of his first theater lessons while attending Bellaire High School where Cecil Pickett taught before he moved to the University of Houston. When I asked Spiner if that was when he first heard the theatrical siren’s song that "there’s no business like show business," he said no.
“I think I pretty much knew I wanted to be an actor from the time when I was 3 and fell down the stairs of our house, got a laugh, and thought: 'This is good. I think I’ll keep doing this,' ” he said.
The Bellaire High connection to UH through Cecil Pickett does not end with Spiner. Both the high school and university count Dennis and Randy Quaid and Cindy Pickett (Cecil's daughter) as alums. When I asked Spiner if he had any theories as how the UH program could produce so many gifted actors, he said in his case he thought it started back at Bellaire with Pickett’s teaching.
“I think it had a lot to do with Cecil and his encouragement and the fact that we learned a lot from him before we ever got there, and we were just using more and more of it. We had help, too, from Sidney Berger who was running the department at the time,” Spiner described.
Recounting what an extraordinary time it was, he explained, “I’ve done a lot of theater since I left the school many years ago. I’ve done several Broadway shows and off Broadway, movies and television and all that, and I can’t remember an opening night ever being more exciting as they were at Bellaire High School and later at the University of Houston. It was because we knew we had something good. . .I thought, at the time, it must be like this always but it really isn’t.
"It was just that Cecil was an incredibly talented director and teacher. When we put on a show, we were pretty certain we were doing something that was going to be entertaining.”
The Theater Bug
Though Spiner is most identified with his work in science fiction television and film projects, especially Star Trek, he began in and regularly goes back to the theater. He says he loves all of show business and that “acting is just acting. You do it the same way. It’s just you just talk a little louder in the theater.”
Though there’s hardly been a time when he was completely off, Spiner is back on television as a reoccurring guest baddie on Syfy’s Warehouse 13. He can also be seen in his own web series Fresh Hell where he plays “Brent Spiner,” a once successful actor whose involvement in a mysterious “incident” leaves him broke and an industry pariah. The episodes are rather short, about 10 minutes, but pack some sharp jabs of satire at Hollywood, celebrity, and the need for an actor to act no matter what.
“People will email what they think of it from all over the world. You don’t have to wait for reviews or for the package to be sold to another country. It’s there immediately."
“Basically I had this idea and was working with a director on a project, and I told him the idea. He thought it would be fun to do. He knew a writer he thought would be a great addition to the team and so the three of us kind of sculpted this thing and just did it.
"That’s the beauty of the web. You can do things on your own and still reach a reasonable audience,” Spiner said, describing the web series’ origins.
Spiner seems to relish jumping back and forth between varying sized screens of film, television and now web. He especially appreciates the “immediate feedback” the Internet gives to his projects.
“People will email what they think of it from all over the world. You don’t have to wait for reviews or for the package to be sold to another country. It’s there immediately. I get feedback from Russia, France, China, Germany, everywhere,” he said.
Spiner is a part of a mini-wave of actors playing ironic versions of themselves, and he makes it look easy, but I wondered if creating a subversive version of "Brent Spiner" was actually a bit of a challenge.
“It really is,” he explained, “because it’s not really you. It’s an imaginary version of you. In the case of my show, blessedly imaginary. My character, meaning me, has plummeted into the depths of hell, career wise and in regards to the rest of the world, too.
But underneath the satire, Spiner believes,“there’s a subtext in the piece that there’s another incident, that we never mention, that I committed that is much worse even than the other incident. And that is that I made the mistake of getting old. I think that many people have reached that point in their careers and their lives where they feel they’ve been dismissed from a fraternity they’ve always wanted to be a part of. And in the case of my character, he’s desperate to get back and will do any humiliating thing to try to get back to where he once belonged.”
While the “Brent Spiner” on Fresh Hell is having trouble getting a job teaching acting to porn stars, Brent Spiner is no doubt assured a warm welcome back to the city and university where he was first taught his craft. He says of Houston, “I know it’s hot. I know it’s humid, but it’s home.”
"Legacy" takes the stage of UH’s Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday. Until then, take a look at “Brent Spiner” hitting up LeVar Burton for money to open a drama school for porn actors.