Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Lockdown Interviews: He Captained a Starship Y'Know - Eric Pierpoint

He took over the hunt for a fugitive and saw his starship adrift - perhaps not the most positive scenario to end up in, but for Eric Pierpoint it helped build one of his most memorable Star Trek guest roles. 

Acting for over 40 years, Pierpoint is one of the select few actors to have worked on four Star Trek series; The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise as well as roles on a slew of TV and movies across five decades. I'd been fortunate to grab five minutes with the man himself back at Destination Star Trek a few years back and have always wanted to get a more extensive chat about his time on screen - and somehow it happened!

Starting out studying classical theatre, Eric's first chance to get in front of the camera wasn't what you might think or have read; "t was a hard start as it turned out. I had an interview with a couple of agents in Washington DC where we are living at the time and nothing came of it to begin with.

"As it happened to one of them called me up and said 'Eric up do you think you could sell mattresses on TV?'

"I said I'm doing Macbeth right now so I guess I can, yes!"

One thing led to another and while he continued to study theatre, Eric would take any chance that came along to step in front of the camera - anything from banks to cars to help put him on the map. A move to New York would be the next step forward although it would take around 85 auditions to just get one opportunity.

"You have to believe in yourself and keeping going," explained Eric; "Keep passionate about what you do through all the rejection and take advantage of your opportunities when you can. I started to build momentum and got that first movie (in about) 1980 called Windy City and from there I found that I was flying from New York to LA to audition for all kinds of different shows shows like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice."

A further big break would come from a meeting with producer Ken Johnson who was responsible for shows such as The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man. He created a short-lived series called Hot Pursuit in 1984 - and would eventually go on to be the man behind bringing Alien Nation to TV.

"We had a great working relationship," recalled Pierpoint who would star as alien cop George Francisco on the latter show; " As long as he was working I was working!"

Eric would continue to make sure he was getting in front of as many casting directors and producers as possible which could see ten meetings turn into one role. "You would become familiar to them," he said, "It kept the opportunities alive and then there's that time when you get the magic phone call that says you've got a series - such as Alien Nation."

In what may well be Eric's most well-known role to date, he actually thought he was auditioning for the human cop which had been played by James Caan in the movie but would be filled by another Star Trek guest actor, Gary Graham, for the show. 

It was only further down the line that Pierpoint would then find out he was being lined up to play George. "I said hang on, let me watch it again and I said of course! I'd had a lot of  training in British comedy which I could refer to and use in the role."

Before Alien Nation, Eric would also take on a key role in the 1982 series of Fame for a full 24 episodes - but what kept him going after those two shows?

"Through the levels of your life you know you're a young man then you're not a young man, then you are middle-aged man and then you're middle-aged to senior and you ensure that along the way you stay focused and are viable for roles. Take the opportunity and see where life takes you."

Certainly it took a few interesting twists none perhaps more interesting than his relationship with one Harve Bennett. While it wouldn't lead into a role in the movies of a well-known sci-fi franchise, it would produce another chance in front - and behind the camera. 

"Harve Bennett was also a tennis player," recalled Eric, "So I used to go to his house and play tennis and he would always call me when he needed a ringer!  So one day I got a phone call to appear in an episode and I ended up doing in Australia on Time Trax for about 10 days in Brisbane. 

"I came back and Harve called me at home and he said I want you to do opening credits voiceover; meet me at the studio and that was that. It's the only voiceover I've done but I had a great time doing it. Harve Bennett was such a good guy. He was very old school it was great to socialise with him over cocktails or on the tennis court."

Eric Pierpoint's success on screen would translate into being shortlisted for the role of "Ryker" on an upcoming series called Star Trek: The Next Generation

"I did a recurring thing on Hill Street Blues so my name was known so I went and I read for it. I didn't get it but six years later I was called up to play an alien called Voval (in Liaisons). I thought they were asking me to play a woman when I read it but believe me this is not someone who could pull it off!"

Luckily, noted Eric, he didn't have to play the part when Voval is in disguise alongside Patrick Stewart as that was taken by Barbara Williams.

"It left me with a good relationship with Star Trek and when it came around I was on the list to possibly be the captain for Deep Space Nine (which was actually pre-Liaisons)and then later, Voyager."

As history shows, the franchise chose to go with an African American (Avery Brooks as Sisko) and a woman (Kate Mulgrew as Janeway) but he would also have brushes with Babylon 5  and Sliders as well as acting in films including Liar, Liar and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

"Unfortunately I didn't get any of those major Star Trek roles however it kept me within the stable of actors that they liked for the franchise so with Deep Space Nine I did get to play a captain and that was fine and I had wished that would have continued."

Pierpoint has worked alongside leads Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks and later, Scott Bakula during his time on the franchise.

"I think we had a couple of scenes together," recounted Eric in regards to Stewart who has now returned to the role in his own series, "He was a gent and such a pro in every way. He was a dignified person and I enjoyed that time a lot...He had such a presence on that show and a lot of respect. It was a very strong show overall. Then with Avery I spent a lot of time as a hologram!"

In fact Captain Sanders is one of the few characters to ever have "used" the technology as it only featured in this and the Doctor Bashir, I Presume before being consigned to the bin.

Now, I'll be honest, I'm a huge fan of For the Uniform, Eddington and Sanders so getting to talk to the guy in charge of the hunt and unfortunately having his starship taken out was something of an honour. It's a true classic from the series and begins to point towards some of the darker aspects of Sisko.  I might have even suggested this was Eric Pierpoint's most revered Star Trek role. I promise there was no fanboying. Absolutely zero. Honest. Did Imention setting up the Eric Pierpoint fanclub? Naaaaahh....

"There could've been a lot more to continue with a character (suggestions were that he was considered for a return) like that that. He wasn't like any of the other Star Trek characters I've done and that would be the one I would like to go back to and finish off so to speak.

I've played my share of aliens and they're really fun to do but that's the one I would want to revisit in Star Trek. Maybe it's time to go back and rewatch it - I haven't seen it in years!"

Stepping over onto Voyager it was a different experience with the actor undergoing his longest transformation into prosthetics (about four to five hours) for the role of the ancient Klingon Kortar on Barge of the Dead

But it wasn't just the prosthetics that made for a different experience on that show; "I was out on the East Coast doing a convention and I needed to be back in makeup for Voyager by 2.30am the following morning. However the flight back only landed at midnight so I there was no time for me to go home get my act together and then get the set by that time - so I went straight there and next I'm on set drinking a lot of coffee and then we shot for 24 hours because they were up against shooting for the next episode.

"So I'm there keeping going on the barge that's rocking about - it was a hell of an experience! It was very different to Alien Nation; with that I was there at 3:30am, get breakfast then go into make up,relax and then be on set for 6.30am. It was a routine but with Voyager was one of maybe five or six other actors being made up at the same time. 

"Anyway, we wrapped and I'm driving home on the freeway at about 2am and I get pulled over by the police. The officer gave me a drug test because he'd pulled me over because I was weaving. He asked if I had been drinking and I said no I've been a Klingon! 

"I still had make up hanging from my ear I had a gnarly black T-shirt on which they gave you to wear while they put your make up on. Luckily I had a script on the passenger seat and he told me to be careful and let me go."

Then there's Enterprise in which he played two roles, the first of which was an alien in Rogue Planet from season one (Shiraht) and then the four episode recurring role of Section 31's Agent Harris towards the back end of the fourth year.

"It felt like the Wild West in comparison," recalled Eric, "Maybe it was more casual or something I'm not sure but I was one of three of us playing a alien, It was fine and Scott (Bakula) was great. I remember they wanted me back on that show but to play another Klingon  so I went up to meet with them I know and I go: 'Okay well, I've done this before,' and then in the middle of the interview they stopped and said 'Hang on, would you please take this scene outside and look at it.'"

The role he was reading for was Agent Harris; "I wasn't really sure about the history of Section 31 so I scrambled around trying to figure out.  I went into wardrobe and they squeezed me into someone else's leather outfit which was a challenge!

"He was a very different kind of character to see; more contemporary in terms of it being human at least. Being able to come back for four episodes meant I got to know the crew a lot better on that show."

He would also get a unique perspective on the series, working on the early Rogue Planet but also on Demon and Terra Prime which would be the final two-parter (and penultimate story) of Enterprise's fourth and last season.

"I've been on shows where you know you're shooting it out and you have a couple of days left, people are looking for other jobs; some people are handling it well, some less so. The security of that series is going away but it means you're onto something new. It's good news/bad news in a way."

George Francisco may well be the role for which Pierpoint which he will be most widely well-known. If that was to continue with the same cast and crew, the actor would be back in an instant as it was the character that his career has allowed him to explore the most, but he also notes that the role of the police Chief Trumple in three episodes of Parks and Recreation is one he'd step back into if the opportunity arose; "It would have been a lot of fun to continue that! Those actors were hysterical and so much fun to work with.

"Then, of course, there's Captain Sanders - something you had a nibble at  something and you know you wish you had a bigger bite!"

Who knows, maybe there's an opening for him in future Star Trek productions...?

As for the future, lockdown is allowing the actor turned author to work on the next of his book series designed for children of the middle school age range. His first two, The Last Ride of Caleb O'Toole and The Secret Mission of William Tuck were published in 2013 and 2015 respectively and are adventure stories set within key periods of American history.

You can also get your own Eric Pierpoint Cameo HERE with all the proceeds from this during May going to his sister's Humane Society in Montana to assist in fundraising.

Many thanks once again to Mr Eric Pierpoint for his time to speak to me for SKoST.

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