Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Everyone in Show Business wishes they had a better job -- even the guy who created Star Trek and the bass player from Survivor!
Ask anyone in L.A. what they do for a living and they’ll tell you: “I’m a musician.” “I’m an actor.” “I’m a writer.” “I’m a singer.”
Then ask them what they REALLY do. In other words, the job that pays the bills. They’ll tell you, “I wait tables.” “I’m a secretary.” “I’m a court reporter.”
Often they have some showbiz related job like video editor or sound mixer, but their actual job is never as exciting or interesting as the job they first mentioned.
It’s typical of anyone who works in the performing arts to identify their craft as their real job, and anything else is just something they do until their career heats up.
This attitude of downplaying your day job is endemic in all levels of showbiz, from bottom to top. Even successful people with long careers in one medium will always talk about the medium they’d rather be working in. At the end of the day, everyone wishes they were doing something else, even the people who are very successful.
(I’ll never forget one time in an interview when Eddie Murphy, one of the biggest movie stars of all time, was asked what means the most to him, and he said it was his singing career. You do remember “Party All The Time,” don’t you?)
In 1988, I was working in a Mexican restaurant as a bartender, mixing up margaritas for the business crowd. One day, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of STAR TREK, came in to the restaurant. At the time, the TV series STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION had just premiered to blockbuster ratings. Right off the bat, it was one of the biggest hits in the history of syndication.
His waitress was a cute Latina named Carmelita. Roddenberry was impressed by her appearance. He told her, “You have such an exotic look, you’d be great as an alien on my show.” He gave her his business card, but she later told me she would never call him because she had no interest in being on televsion.
A few weeks later, Roddenberry came back to the restaurant. This time he sat at my bar to have a quick lunch. At first I didn’t know who he was, but it was a slow day, so we had plenty of time to talk.
We made idle chit chat for a few minutes. I asked him what he did for a living. “I’m a film producer,” he said. “Why kind of films do you produce?“ I asked. “Right now I’m doing a television show called STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.” As soon as he said that, a light went off in my head and I said, “You’re Gene Roddenberry!” He admitted that he was. I was not a fan of ST: TNG, but I did enjoy the original series and some of the movies. I was not about to insult my only customer by telling him I didn’t like his show, so instead I just congratulated him on the success of TNG, which had just been renewed for a second season.
He thanked me and finished his lunch, perhaps wondering to himself, “Can‘t I even eat my lunch without running into a freaking Trekkie?”
He left after finishing his meal. Sadly, I did not get offered a role on his TV show. Now, before I go any further, I need to provide some back-story.
The original STAR TREK series ran from 1966 until it was canceled in 1969. Over the next 10 years, STAR TREK became more popular than it ever was when it was on the air, thanks to syndicated reruns, books, an animated series, and of course, the conventions. No one could have foreseen the rise of STAR TREK conventions. No other TV show had ever developed such a fanatic following before. Paramount Pictures, the studio that owned STAR TREK recognized that they had a valuable property on their hands. A decision was made to revive STAR TREK as a big-budget movie. Roddenberry came up with the idea for the movie and worked on the script. Some co-writers were brought in later, but the basic story for the first film was all Roddenberry‘s.
The movie made money at the box office, but even the most die-hard fans had to admit the film was slow and boring. The reviews were not kind. Time Magazine called it “warp speed to nowhere.” Roger Ebert said it was “fairly predictable in its plot.” The word that popped up the most in reviews was “ponderous.”
But Paramount was not going to give up on STAR TREK just because fans didn’t like the first movie. They realized that despite all the flaws in ST: TMP, the Trekkies were not ready to abandon their beloved franchise yet. The studio decided to do a sequel. Roddenberry pitched a story for STAR TREK II. His idea: the Enterprise goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. The studio felt this idea was a little out of touch with what audiences in 1981 were looking for. The dilemma for Paramount: what to do with Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, who seemed to be stuck in the 60s?
A decision was made to remove Roddenberry was from direct involvement with STAR TREK. His name would still a appear in the credits of the movies as an Executive Producer, but he would not be allowed to make any actual decisions on any future films. The studio handed the property over to a new set of filmmakers who were younger and full of fresh ideas.
This arrangement lasted for the next four films until Roddenberry’s death in 1991. Reportedly, whenever it came time to pitch a new STAR TREK movie to the studio, Roddenberry would drag out his old “Enterprise saves JFK from assassination” plot. He wouldn’t give up on it. To his eyes, this was an idea that modern audiences would line up to see. But Paramount passed on it every time.
Having been effectively kicked off the STAR TREK movies, Roddenberry went on to launch STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION as a TV series in 1987.
The series was a huge hit. Roddenberry once again enjoyed the success in television that had eluded him in the movies. By the time I met him in 1988, he was no more of a movie producer than Carmelita the waitress was.
Yet when I asked him what he did for a living, he said, “I’m a film producer.”
Roddenberry had had virtually no involvement with the STAR TREK movies since the early 80s. But that was the thing he wanted to be known for. Not as the producer of a syndicated TV series. He wanted to be known as the Executive Producer of an incredibly popular series of movies. Let’s face it, it just sounds more prestigious to say “Film Producer” than it does to be associated with a TV series.
Like I said earlier, everybody in Hollywood wishes they were doing something else. No matter how successful Gene Roddenberry was working in television, it wasn’t enough. He took no pride in having the number one syndicated show on TV.
No, all he cared about was the career that had really eluded him since his last major theatrical effort had been so universally disliked in 1979: film producer.
And that’s why Gene Roddenberry fit in so well in Hollywood. He embodied the idea that no matter how successful you are at something, you always want to be known for something else.
Roddenberry may have boldly gone where no TV producer had gone before with STAR TREK, but for him, movies represented the real Final Frontier.
A few weeks after Roddenberry’s visit, I had an encounter with another minor celeb who came and sat at my bar: the bass player from Survivor. The band had had a huge hit with “Eye of the Tiger,” followed a couple of popular albums, but by the late 80s, they were mostly on the way out.
I wanted to know what bit was like when the band first exploded on the scene. I said to him, “That must have been pretty exciting for you when “Eye of the Tiger” first took off.” He replied, “Actually, it’s kind of a boring song for a bass player. It’s just a basic march.”
It sounded like the guy really didn’t get any enjoyment out of playing the band’s biggest hit at the peak of their fame! That was kind of disappointing to hear. So many bands dreaming of having that one hit song. To find a band that shot to the top of the charts with a song they didn’t even like is kind of disheartening.
My little celebrity encounters illustrate the danger of meeting Hollywood hotshots and rock stars.
Sometimes you find out that they hate their jobs just as much as any other working stiff!