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Where no hologram has gone before
Going Boldly with Star Trek’s Robert Picardo
Welcome back, listeners. We have the absolute pleasure of hosting Robert. Robert, thank you so much for coming on. Can you tell the listeners who you are?
I am Robert Picardo. I’m an actor of over 40 years as a professional. Some of you may know me from the role of the holographic doctor in Star Trek Voyager. Prior to that, I played another physician in a Vietnam drama called China Beach with Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger. I’ve guested on countless television shows. I’m a new member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so I must have been in enough movies as well. I began my career playing leading roles in the Broadway stage. I tried to cover all of my bases. Now by appearing on your show, I think I can say that I have.
Not only that but you’ve also become a huge advocate and fan of the sciences, specifically space.
Working on a show like Star Trek, you meet a lot of incredible people who were influenced by Star Trek specifically or perhaps by other science fiction in their youth to pursue their careers in science, engineering, exploration, whatever. At the time the Star Trek franchise was 30 years old, I sat on stage with five men who had walked on the moon. How cool is that to get to ask them questions? First of all, I had a childhood interest in science. I had been a Biology Major in college before I switched to theater. I’ve always loved life science in particular, but all science. Suddenly, meeting all of these incredible people who were either astronauts or principal investigators for NASA, all of these people that I’ve met at various functions who would say, “I watched Star Trek as a kid and I loved it,” I felt part of this tradition of science fiction television saga. I was part of that family and they treated me with the respect of being part of something that had meant something to them and helped them on their own choice of career. The fact that this role on this particular show has given me access to meeting and learning from these people, what can I do to give back?
For more than twenty years, I’ve been involved with a group called The Planetary Society. It was co-founded by Carl Sagan in 1980 along with two colleagues from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Louis Friedman and Bruce Murray. We lost Carl Sagan, as everyone knows, at a far too young in age. At the time that Bruce Murray and Lou Friedman were running the organization, Voyager was in its first run on television. They asked me to be part of a fundraising evening to honor Ray Bradbury where we all read these amazing passages from his work principally The Martian Chronicles, and other actors that you may have heard of: Charlton Heston, John Rhys-Davies. Other Star Trek celebrities were all part of this evening. After that, they approached me about being on what they call the advisory council, and mentioned that people like Buzz Aldrin and Steven Spielberg and others were on the advisory council. How do you turn that down?
I got very involved while I was on Star Trek with the group, particularly with outreach, educational challenges for young people. At the time we landed the first rover on Mars, which I believe was ’97 but I’m always a year off it seems. We had a program. It was a partnership with LEGO where kids in high school would make their own Martian rover out of LEGO materials. They would ship their rover to a nearby high school. Meanwhile, they built a Martian terrain for the other high school who would send their rover to explore. Their rover, at the school that they had sent it to, they would explore the Martian terrain that they had created. They had a rover that they had built that was exploring an unknown terrain using the internet as a perfect analog for what we were doing in the space program at that time. It was called Red Rover. I was part of that. I was part of a subsequent challenge called Red Rover Goes to Mars. I believe I was the first actor to ever get the Star Trek producers to shoot a public service announcement on a Star Trek set. As the doctor in costume, I did a PSA for another project that The Planetary was sponsoring called The Mars Millennium Project.
That was my involvement early on was to try to use my access to the science fiction fan community, particularly younger fans to try to get them interested in real science, in real exploration. Subsequently after years of that, Bill Nye, our present CEO and leader at The Planetary Society and the rest of the executive board asked me to join the executive board. For the last two and a half years, I’ve been part of that. One of the favorite things I do in life now is I do a monthly video newsletter called The Planetary Post, which you can subscribe to for free. It pops up in your mailbox. I do a four to five-minute video about what I think is cool that’s happening right now in space. If people are interested, they can click on links and read what the experts say. We have tremendous bloggers like Emily Lakdawalla who is super informed about every aspect of our space program and the programs of other space-capable nations and organizations. The Planetary Society is a tremendous resource that I encourage all of your listeners to check out.
I’m going to take us down a few of the geek routes really quick and ask some questions. When people meet you, especially fans, what are the most common questions?
“You’re really real or are you hiding that mobile emitter under that t-shirt?” I get a lot of that. I get a lot of poking to see if people can stick their arms through me. I’m a little over that. If you meet me, here are the two things you don’t want to say, “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.” You don’t want to say, “Can I stick my arm through you?” I always welcome, “I loved you on Star Trek or I thought your character was cool, or I guess you’re not really a hologram because you look twenty years older.” All of those are okay. Whenever I was in the men’s room standing in front of a urinal, I used to get, “I guess you’re not really a hologram.” I got used to that one too.
For those of you who didn’t watch Star Trek Voyager, Robert played a nameless holographic doctor that cared for the staff of the show.
I was the computer-generated, holographically-projected, emergency medical hologram designed only for emergency use. Because of a tragedy that happens in the pilot episode of Voyager, I become the full-time doctor and I just don’t like it. I’m a willful piece of technology, a cranky, glitch-ridden piece of technology that has to be improved and upgraded constantly.
Are the uniforms comfortable?
No, as a matter of fact. The Voyager uniform had an undergarment that was like a leotard. It had a turtle neck. As I remember, it had no sleeves. It was like a turtle neck that zipped up the back like a dickey, but it also went all the way down and snapped under your crotch. Guys, unless they go into dancing, I think are not keen on things that’s under the crotch. It’s uncomfortable. You get a wedgie or maybe the technical term is a Melvin all the time. The garment was uncomfortable. It was very unforgiving. You really can’t eat too excess while you’re on the Star Trek. Although some of the actors their weight goes up and down and they have the dreaded girdle that would come out after the holiday season to keep people’s gut in line. The wardrobe department once told me I was the only male actor on Voyager who never wore the girdle. I’m going to make a confession publicly. I think I wore the girdle three times after a little holiday eating. I think I wore it on three separate occasions but not for whole seasons the way some people I know did.
I can’t imagine how tough it was. One of your co-stars, Jeri Ryan, essentially had an outfit that was painted on.
Yes, that’s true. My character supposedly had created Jeri’s dermaplastic garment in order to regenerate her skin underneath. Jeri, who’s got a tremendous warmth and great sense of humor about the phenomenal appearance that she has, she has a very offhand sense of humor. Now, I cringe at some of the jokes that she put up with, especially in this more enlightened age that we live in. I do remember Mr. Neelix, Ethan Phillips, one of his jokes was, “That dermaplastic garment is supposed to regenerate your skin underneath. Why don’t we take it off and see if it’s working?” There were comments like that that she always dealt with, with extreme good humor. Now in more enlightened times, I am very happy that the world has changed. I was extremely respectful to Jeri.
I know you guys are very close friends.
We’re very good friends. I confessed this to her and she’s laughed about it and teased me about it over the years. When she first started working on the show and appeared in that amazing costume, I did not want to not only make her uncomfortable, I thought, “This is one of my co-stars. I’m hoping to have plenty of scenes with her. I don’t want to be caught staring at her.” I did the opposite. Actually, quite rudely, I would turn my back on her whenever we were on a shooting break and they were setting lights or whatever. I was afraid that I would be caught staring at her while she was talking to someone, so I would turn my back on her. This went on for weeks. Finally I turned to her and said, “I’m sorry. I know I appear rude or standoffish. I don’t want to be caught staring at your behind.” She pinched me on my butt immediately after that and the ice was totally broken. Thereafter, we were not only great friends, but we could pretty much say anything to each other. She is right up at the top of the good sport and has a good sense of humor about her effect on the opposite sex.
Your industry is known for being incredibly difficult and you’ve had an amazing career across just about any art form that you’ve gone into. What are some of the pitfalls that nobody talks about, the secrets in the industry that you aren’t even aware of until you’ve been doing it for a while?
What I’m about to say is not really groundbreaking. You’ll hear it from other actors. The downside of doing really well in one role is that people assume that that’s all that you do. Let’s pick Star Trek as an example. I think that the industry at large, although it respects all of the money that science fiction movies and television make, they look down on genre acting and they don’t take that as seriously as if you were in a standard naturalistic drama. I experienced a kind of whiplash performing in China Beach, which was a very highly-regarded television drama. It won a lot of awards. It was the first television series to ever win the Peabody Award in addition to winning Emmy Awards and all that. It was a very highly-regarded naturalistic, really intense drama. All of the actors on that show, we were given the stamp of serious performers, serious talented method actors and sets the tradition of great American dramatic acting from Brando on Actors Studio. Anyway, we got the stamp of approval. Suddenly, two years later, I’m on a genre television series. I’m on Star Trek. Then it’s like, “You’re not quite the actor that we thought you were,” which I think is unfair. If you watch the breadth of the work, a lot of it is quite technical, a lot of it is just the driving techno babble and spouting exposition as fast as you can. Within all of that, every other acting challenge sooner or later will be thrown your way. I had highly-dramatic episodes in Voyager and I also had some quite successful comic ones.
The great fun of playing my role was that because he was a piece of technology, he did not have to obey any of the rules of being a Starfleet officer. On Star Trek, if you’re a hero character, if you’re the captain or you’re the commander, the Number One like Riker, after the captain, you have to be heroic. You have to always respond in a starward brave and true manner. Not so with my character because he was designed for one purpose only, which was medicine. Whenever he was called upon to do something outside of his area of expertise, I could have all of these negative qualities that you were unused to seeing, the viewer wasn’t used to seeing in someone dressed in a Starfleet costume. That’s what made my character delightful for the viewer and a lot of fun to play. I could have negative qualities. I could be a windbag, an arrogant and full of myself, disdainful, opinionated, and even cowardly. I could play all these negative qualities and then eventually rise to my better self. I could also overact like crazy. I mugged and rolled my eyes in a way that you don’t normally get to do in Star Trek. I could juxtapose those large acting choices with suddenly a very real moment, a very human moment. That kept the audience off-balance and made the character a source of fun for them. I had a freedom that the other actors, the other characters simply didn’t have. That was the great blessing of playing that role and what made it so much more fun than I ever thought it could be.
It’s funny because as a hologram, you’ve got to be more human than all of the human characters.
I also got to play human characteristics to an extreme. When The Doctor didn’t like something you were doing, he not only didn’t like it, he let you know. Facially, I got to go farther than a human because who’s to say how much beyond the bad bedside manner of the worst doctor you’ve ever had. There are a lot of wonderful people in the medical profession. I have tremendous regard for them, but some doctors are better than others at delivering bad news or listening to you and spending time with you. I have had doctors in my lifetime who are just absolutely amazing in their capacity to listen, answer questions, and their humanity just shines every moment you’re with them. Then I’ve had the opposite experience as well. My character could just go beyond that extreme. I could have the worst bedside manner to start out with because I was a computer program that had these new algorithms. I was supposed to be able to respond, to learn, to develop empathy but none of it had to work very well at first. That was more fun for me to play with. The Doctor was always the most fun when he was failing, when he wasn’t doing what he was designed to do well. His bedside manner which was terrible early on, that was what made him fun to do.
The other side of it was that he felt disrespected because he was being treated by the organic, the non-hologram crew members, he was being treated by them as somehow less. They treated him like he was a walking machine. All of those things were fun to play. The other actors over the years have all basically confessed that they thought that The Doctor character had the best character arc over the seven years because he had the most fun things to do. It was really embedded in the character’s concept. It really had very little to do with me. All of that opportunity was there because he was a new piece of technology and it was an open book where you could take the character.
One of the things I loved is that when the show was on the air, which was about ’95 to 2001, that you were grappling with some issues that are now becoming more and more critical like the role of artificial intelligence and the ethics of use and sanctions and so on. I think it’s one of the reasons that the show and the universe in general that Gene Roddenberry created had such long-standing values that it gives us a peek into social issues, both present and future in a unique way.
That pretty much sums up the enduring appeal of Star Trek. It’s been said many times that so many of the technologies that Gene posited in the original series have come to pass. Voyager was the first show created after Gene passed away. Still, the legacy of his vision is all over Voyager. The medical tricorder, for example, that I used, the non-invasive medical scanner, so much of that is coming to pass. There was recently awarded this past spring, the Star Trek Tricorder XPRIZE by the XPRIZE Foundation. The winning design team which was basically a family affair from Philadelphia, emergency room doctors from Philadelphia and a partnership working in their own garage basically created a medical scanner that can diagnose thirteen or fourteen major human illnesses and continuously monitor five biomarkers without touching the body. It’s amazing what’s coming to pass. It’s like science fiction dreams the dream and then science tries to catch up and do it. It goes back to my point about how the amazing people that I’ve met in real science technology engineering who were inspired by Star Trek. I get to meet them and get inspired by them to try to use my access to the science fiction audience to say, “It’s great that you love Star Trek, but look at what we’re really doing in space science and exploration right now. Have a look at The Planetary Society. Get excited about what’s actually happening because if you are a science fiction fan, you are a science fan as well. You just may not know that.”
Robert, I could not be more thankful for the franchises, the roles that you played. I was heavily inspired as a child by the series and as a scientist now, really point to some of the great characters and storylines that were critical to that. I’m super excited that you’re involved in The Planetary Society and making these great videos. I know that you’ve recently had probably one of the biggest viral video successes of your career happen. Is that right?
Yes. I did an opera tribute of Star Trek. My character, The Doctor, became an opera fan, which was funny enough that a piece of technology would pick such an emotional form of human expression to be a fan of. I sang opera on Voyager. I did an opera tribute to the end of NASA’s spectacularly successful Cassini mission. It was just a toss-off. It was silly. We made it in five or ten minutes and it was viewed by I think nearly 8.5 million people and had several billion impressions. I guess at this stage of my life, that was the most viewed performance I’ve ever given. Had I known it was going to be, I would have spent more than ten minutes creating it.
Are you going to make follow-up videos?
I think so, yeah. It was such a popular thing. Also, I did a reading of a passage from Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan which was also an enormously popular Planetary Post. I encourage your listeners to do that. I just did a reading of the material to various images and I recommend that.
Robert, thank you so much for coming on. This has been a true pleasure for me especially being somebody who’s enjoyed your show so much. I’m even happier that I get to promote the sciences and space exploration with you coming on. Thank you so much for spending the time. If people want to find out more about you, find you on social media or find out more about The Planetary Society, where can they go?
I’m @RobertPicardo on Twitter. They can visit www.Planetary.org and subscribe to the Planetary Post. I’m also on Instagram although I’m not too good at that yet, @Robert_Picardo. I have a Facebook page as Robert Picardo as well, so they can find me all over the place. I do hope they’ll check out The Planetary Post. Thank you, Jon. It’s nice to have a really good interview. Some of them I feel are a little silly. We went into this smart and I like that.
Thank you. Listeners, stay tuned. We’re going to have an anonymous interview coming up next. Good luck figuring out who it is.
About Robert Picardo
Robert Picardo (born October 27, 1953) is an American actor. He is known for his portrayals of Dr. Dick Richards on ABC’s China Beach; the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH), also known as The Doctor, on Star Trek: Voyager; the Cowboy in Innerspace, Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years (where he received an Emmy nomination); Ben Wheeler in Wagons East; and as Richard Woolsey in the Stargate television franchise. Picardo is also a member of the Board of Directors of The Planetary Society.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now for the anonymous interview. I have the absolute pleasure of hosting Katie today. Katie, thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for inviting me.
This is an absolute privilege. Let’s give the listeners a few hints about who you are that way they can try and guess later. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York. I was surrounded by models in Merrick Townhouse when I grew up.
Sounds like a pretty, wild, environment to grew up in. Based on that description, I wish I grew up in a similar environment. Your family had a business that focused you in New York, is that right?
That’s right. We had people from all over the world who lived with us and who worked with my parents.
It was like the townhouse was a live-work space. Were these models that were coming through or these agents and so on?
They were models who lived with us. They stayed with us until they were eighteen years old and could live on their own. They were like our other sisters.
I had no idea. I’m assuming some of these models we would probably know by name.
Yes, I think the ones who lived with us were Rachel Hunter, Jerry Hall and some of the ones who didn’t live with us, Christie Brinkley. Christy Turlington actually lived with me also; lots of different people.
Like they were in a George Michael music video. People often ask me, “Do you want models at the dinner?” I’m like, “It’s not really a main focus of mine by any stretch, but the ones that I would want are really defined by those that George Michael had in a music video.”
They all have very interesting legs.
Clearly, you’re in the modeling fashion industry. Your career changed at some point as well. Was there a certain teacher or experience that really had you shift directions?
Yes. The United Nations asked me to come speak at a conference. I didn’t know anything about the subject. I was stunned that they asked me since I didn’t know anything.
What was the subject?
The subject was human trafficking. I had never even heard the term human trafficking. I didn’t know what that was. When I looked it up on the internet, there was very little written about it. That has drastically changed in the last ten years.
The public awareness of this issue has fortunately skyrocketed. I think also partially because so many television shows and cop dramas have covered it.
I think that’s a big way but people get information and they certainly understand it better when it’s within a context of a TV show because you’re seeing all the things that contribute to it.
Since that day, things have changed pretty drastically. You’ve done a lot of work for the prevention of sex trafficking in the support of those who have been affected by it. Is that right?
I have. With the groups in the ground I worked with, we’ve saved over 10,000 people. We work all over the world to combat labor and sex trafficking.
That number is incomprehensible.
It’s unbelievable but today there are 46 million people in slavery. As we’re speaking, there are 46 million people who are in slavery.
These are numbers that the human brain can’t even comprehend. I can comprehend one, maybe two, five, ten, but after that point I can’t process those numbers. That’s incredible.
It’s more than the top 25 cities in the United States. Imagine we were all enslaved.
It’s a quarter of the population of Brazil or close to that of a quarter of Russia. I want to give the listeners a sense of what you’d look like. If there was somebody who played you in a movie, who would it be?
I could definitely see that. Has she tried? You’re super ready for that it seems like.
No, but when I see her I think, “We look the same.” I never feel that about people.
Was there a certain crazy moment or stunt or something that you did, it could have been in your previous career in the fashion world that really caused some success that maybe got a lot of attention?
I was trying not to create the stunts that got attention frankly. I was supposed to be behind the scenes in my previous career. Within our own business, of course my parents were there in the beginning of when I was there. There were certain things that I used for promotions that weren’t consistent with our history as an agency. When our agency was known for being very conservative, our models didn’t modeled topless, they didn’t do certainly ads and we were really fashion-oriented. However, when Calvin Klein had an ad with someone who was in it who was topless and it was our model, I used that as a promotion for the agency. Of course, I had to warn my mother who was still there. She said, “We’ve really got to change with the times.” It was so forward-thinking for her. I was really shocked. I did not expect that response.
Was that “What gets between me and my Calvins” ad?
No. That was a different one. This was with Marilyn Forrest. I think it was when they first started doing underwear. I think it wasn’t “What gets between me and my Calvin” Brooke. That was another controversial one that we did.
Especially because she was a teenager at the time.
She was young and her parents were very aware of what it was. She was aware and she wanted to do it.
I just want to warn you between the George Michael comments and the Calvin Klein stuff, I’ve used up all of my fashion knowledge. The rank really hoists high on to you. Was there a moment or an experience that really made you feel like you had arrived to some degree? Not that anybody ever really arrives but that you’ve got the cloud.
There was a seminal moment when I went to Paris and we hadn’t had an agency and I opened the agency. Nobody really knew who I was which was quite freeing actually for me. I’ve really enjoyed that. Very quickly, we were a big success there. It was partially because of the way we represented the models. Some of the models from the United States knew our reputation as well as the international models who were with us who knew how we handled them. There was a certain moment after planning this for a long time where we were up and running and everything was going smoothly that it was a crucial moment. It was not one where we had been before, so it was very exciting.
Did you sign somebody specific that was a very big deal?
Naomi, Christy Turlington, we signed a lot of models there.
That’s a part of history at this point then.
As you would say, it was a George Michael moment.
Last question for the anonymous interview: What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
The other famous model would be a Model T.
Listeners, you have plenty to go on. While you’re Googling and trying to figure out who she is, make sure to read up on all the incredible things that Katie has been up to because it’s incredibly inspiring and has made a huge difference to over 10,000 people. Katie, thank you so much. Listeners, as you know, you have one week to guess who Katie is. If you can figure it out, you can win an invitation to me or The Salon series. Good luck.