My father was a sci-fi fan of the old school. The man had the entire original Star Trek series on VHS, commercial free, and an Enterprise technical manual. So in his honor, a little late for Father’s Day, we go back in time to look to the future as we dive into the wormhole of classic sci-fi.
As the spike in sales of neckties and golf-themed tchotchkes tells us, last Sunday was Father’s Day, and no, it’s not the day that sees the most collect calls all year. For one thing, it’s not 1987; who still makes collect calls? Where do you even find a payphone? My own father, who’s gone on before, was a sci-fi fan of the old school, bred to the bone. My mother would buy him grocery bags of pulp paperbacks as gifts. The man had the entire original Star Trek series on VHS, commercial free, and an Enterprise technical manual. [nerd!] So in his honor, today’s episode goes back in time to look to the future as we dive into the wormhole of classic sci-fi. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.
First off, and this is often a point of contention, we need to establish what we’re talking about when we say “sci-fi.” We’re not going to haul out the Merriam-Webster for this. There is some wiggle room and a fair amount of contention here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a list of top however-many sci-fi whatevers only to kvetch out-loud, “That’s barely even fantasy, let alone sci-fi” or “Just because it’s set in the future doesn’t make it sci-fi. Philistines.” Whether a work draws on existing science and technology to extrapolate what we might see in future generations, what is known as ‘hard sci-fi,’ or the author goes ‘laser guns, pew pew,” [sfx] a key requirement for science fiction is that it be speculative. If it’s worth its salt, its focus will be how we as humans will interact with and react to this proposed environment, its trappings and its other occupants. Even though there’s a lot of overlap in the fan bases and, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” we’re going to eschew the sword & sorcery genre of fantasy and even science-fantasy for right now. Likewise, we probably won’t get into more recent sub-genres like cyberpunk and slip-stream today. We’ve also going to skip over some of the better-known authors because they’re, well, better-known. But that’s okay, because we have a LOT of talk about.
Some actors fall victim to typecasting, but others have a single character they can’t disassociate themselves from. Sometimes that means always being cast as a character similar to the one they made famous or that made them famous, or not really being cast at all.
A boy’s best friend is his mother. Anthony Perkins had established himself as a respected actor of stage and screen with skillful portrayals noted for their sensitivity and genuineness. But no one wants to play the sensitive guy forever. Perkins took the role as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho to show audiences and directors alike that he was good at being bad too. Unfortunately for Perkins, he did his job so well that became known for Norman Bates and seemingly Norman Bates alone.
There are worse roles one can be remembered for than the Man of Steel, but once you’ve worn the cape and the big red S, it’s hard to get people to see you without it. In Christopher Reeve’s case, much of the problem stemmed from being a virtual unknown when he scored the break of a lifetime. Despite great acting (see: “Remains of the Day), nothing could supplant Superman in people’s minds.
Even before the new sequels brought his character back, Luke Skywalker was an ever-present part of Mark Hamill’s life. Unlike a lot of thespians on our list, Hamill regards the role fondly, saying that even if he weren’t recognized by millions as Luke Skywalker, he would still be “the hugest fan” of the epic film franchise, maybe even doing cosplay.
No one could have imagined how big of a cult sensation “The Evil Dead” would become when it was made by a group of friends on a shoestring budget in 1981. While it served as a springboard for director Sam Raimi, late of the first Spiderman reboot, the film’s star, Bruce Campbell, was not as lucky. Campbell spent a lifetime trying to distance himself from the iconic role – so much so that he’s been known to sign autographs as Bruce “Don’t Call Me Ash” Campbell.
Playing a nerd is easy. Escaping that nerd is not. Don’t believe me, ask Jaleel White, aka Urkel. His lot is shared by Jon Heder, forever known to most as Napoleon Dynamite, star of the ‘little indie film that could.’ Heder wisely leveraged his 15 minutes of fame by booking as many gigs as possible over the next few years, including some high-profile films with Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell. Even with divergently different looks, it was nearly impossible for audiences not to see Napoleon.
The less said about Macauly Caulkin, the better. Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels didn’t have the chance to see if he would be cast again. He was put on a tortuously busy press circuit, allegedly doing sixty interviews in a single day, but that was nothing compared to the scornful hatred heaped on him by fans. Jack Gleeson, best known as Joffrey on Game of Thrones, saw the same path laid out for him. Joffrey epitomizes the villain you love to hate. After the first episode aired, author George R. R. Martin sent him a text saying, “Congratulations on your marvelous performance, everyone hates you.” Fans literally cheered when he finally died. Gleeson walked away from acting altogether.
Alfonso Ribeiro says he has been overshadowed by his 90’s alter-ego Carlton Banks. “I would like to try some stuff that is different from how the world sees me … But I doubt someone would automatically think of me when they go, ‘We need to cast a killer, let’s get the dude who played Carlton.'”
Though it premiered in 1966 and only ran for three years, Star Trek launched a franchise that left an indelible mark on popular culture, including the first widely-used nickname for a fan base. What it didn’t do was provide a lot of options for the cast afterwards. But as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. William Shatner had the most successful career overall not from trying to outrun Captain Kirk, but by embracing the kitsch. Though having been a focal character in the ensemble cast didn’t hurt. His analog in The Next Generation, Sir Patrick Stewart faced the same love-hate relationship with his captain character.
Music by Kevin MacLeod and sound effects from freesound.org.