The first motion picture outing for the Star Trek TNG cast continues to receive a lukewarm reception years after it was released. “Generations” was meant to bridge the cinematic gap between the sextuple films of the original series crew, as only three of the bridge crew appeared on TNG in one-off episodes. Many different ideas were discussed about how to incorporate the first crew of the Enterprise with the current crew, and ultimately the story of “Generations” solidified and made its way into production. But that was not without a few difficulties, particularly the ego of a certain leading man.
John Putch had been around the television industry since he was a kid, and entertainment was in his blood. His mother was Jean Stapleton, known best as Edith Bunker on “All In The Family”, and John spent many days hanging out on set and visiting the other Norman Lear sitcoms. He made his way into show business, including “The Love Boat”, “21 Jump Street”, “Seinfeld”, and a recurring role in “One Day At A Time”, and his career eventually brought him into the world of Star Trek. Fans might not recognize his face however, as it was covered in blue makeup and prosthetics.
Putch debuted in the Trek franchise as the Benzite named Mordock from the first season TNG episode “Coming of Age“, where he and Wesley Crusher competed against a few other hopefuls for a spot in Starfleet Academy. John grew up loving Star Trek, and this was a dream come true for him as he explained in his interview on Trek Untold. “No one knew what I looked like,” he explained,
“So, I’d come on to set, and you know, it’s Jonathan Frakes or Wil Wheaton, and they’d all look at me and go, ‘Hey, John, how you doing?’ But none of them knew who the hell I was when I took the makeup off. I got out early one day and they took the makeup off, and I was walking past Frakes and I go ‘Hey, Johnny, see you tomorrow.’ And he looked at me like ‘Who the hell’s that?’ And I go, ‘it’s Putch, the blue-headed, you know, guy on the show this week?’ He goes, ‘Oh my God!’ you know. Most people didn’t know. I’d appear on stage already in this unrecognizable blue outfit, and it was very funny.”
One season later, John returned as ensign Mendon, another Benzite seemingly unrelated to Mordock who joined the Enterprise crew as part of an exchange program. Putch was elated to return to TNG, but realized that this appearance may have been less about a masterful performance and more about cutting costs.
“I became a director years later, and I was aware of budgets and schedules and what you do to make things easier. I realized they didn’t call me because they thought I was great. They had the mold already in the head made for me. Who else are they going to call. They’re not going to spend whatever it costs to make another one for some other actor, they’re going to get me.”
“That’s my story. And that’s what I say anytime I’m interviewed because it has to be true. No one has confirmed that, but I’m here to tell you, as a filmmaker and a director in a you know, and a producer, I know exactly, I would do the same exact thing.”
Despite that unconfirmed realization, casting director Junie Lowry-Johnson brought back John for one final appearance in the Star Trek universe, and that was as a reporter on the bridge of the ill-fated Enterprise-B in “Star Trek: Generations“. Alongside his friend and fellow actor Tommy Hinkley, John donned a headpiece meant to look like a camera and was on set for the moment that William Shatner, Walter Koenig, and James Doohan emerged to examine the new starship and ultimately be whisked away on its first mission. While there was a lot of buzz about Kirk, Scotty and Chekov coming back to Trek, tensions were high on set with three originals.
“Shatner had just written his book, you know, his Star Trek memoir, and, you know, he’s not well liked by his cast members, according to the book. James Doohan did not like him that day or that week, and neither did Walter. I knew this because I had read the book. And I could tell they’re not talking to him. They’re not hugging him. They’re not shaking his hand.”
“I’m going, Wow, it’s been, it’s like 30 years, okay, since they originally did the original show. And there they are. There’s those three Titans, and these two clearly hate that guy, and he has no idea.”
Putch had some time to casually chat with Doohan and Koenig in between takes, but Shatner was oblivious that there was something wrong.
“So there’s the turbo lift right there,” John recalled during the interview. “And the scene called for the three of them to walk onto the bridge for the first time, you know, before takeoff and Alan Ruck says, ‘Welcome aboard’ and la, la, la you know and he goes and sits down. They go, ‘Okay rolling,’ and they have to go in there, the three of them and I’m like, I’m elbowing Tommy, ‘Those guys hate him. And they’re gonna have to go in that little booth and close the door until action is called.’
And there was a bunch of dialogue before the doors open. So you know, there’s Alan Ruck doing his bit and they’re covering that and then, the door opens and the three of them walk in and they go do their scene, their greeting and all that stuff. Before the take started, Tommy and I were constantly looking into this door that, you know, they were in and Walter was [stiff and quiet] against the wall. And Jimmy Doohan was the same. And Shatner was, ‘Well, it’s kind of fun. And, you know, it’s kind of different to be here again,” and they’re not answering him. Then the doors closed, action is called, and they’re in there together. I just wanted to be inside. That’s all. I wanted to know what was going on in there.”
Putch also recalled an altercation with Shatner that led to a piece of the set almost being destroyed, but for that story and more about his time as Mordock and Mendon, as well as other stories from his acting & directing career, check out the latest episode of Trek Untold!
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Trek Untold is a weekly podcast series that chats with character actors, stunt performers, behind-the-scenes crew and other people who are the contributors of the Star Trek universe whose names aren’t in the opening credits of the shows. Follow Trek Untold on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to learn more about upcoming episodes, which are released every Thursday on all major audio platforms, and Sunday on Youtube in video form.