Inspiration comes in the strangest places, and for Jonathan Frakes, the elements that made William Riker a memorable force in Star Trek: The Next Generation were scattered across all sorts of influences.
Prior to arriving in Hollywood, Frakes spent a portion of his early career in New York City to pursue a theatrical career. After graduating from Penn State in 1974, he relocated to The Big Apple and joined the Impossible Ragtime Theater alongside fellow Trek alumni Armin Shimerman, as well as Ray Wise and Brian Dennehy, whose daughter Elizabeth later played Commander Shelby in “The Best of Both Worlds“. While learning his craft and performing in various productions, he eventually landed his first Broadway gig in the hit show “Shenandoah“.
The award-winning show debuted on Broadway in 1975 with an original cast that included Ted Agress, Penelope Milford, and John Cullum as the lead character, Charlie Anderson.
“I stole Rikers walk from John Cullum,”
Frakes explained on a recent episode of the Trek Untold podcast. Cullum was also known for the role of Edward Rutledge in the original production and film of “1776”, and would later play John Adams on-stage in that show, along with appearing in “Camelot”, “Showboat”, “Man of La Mancha” and many others.
“So I went in as a replacement after the show been running on Broadway for probably years,” Frakes reminisced. “And I had a small part in it. I was a member of the men’s chorus of soldiers. And my small part was a scene with John. So I waited in the wings during a ballad that he sang by himself on a on the huge empty stage at the Alvin theatre, on Broadway, and on 51st Street. And he had a cigar and his cowboy boots and his beautiful baritone voice.”
“And he commanded this, the audience is probably 2000 seats, probably 2500 seats. He just commanded them. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and he strolled around the stage singing this ballot… called ‘The pickers are coming’ about his daughter,and it was, it was my moment every night to aspire to what he had and what he did and what he was. Or is, you know, he still is.”
“So subconsciously, I guess, his movement, which is a little like a John Wayne walk – a little bit pigeon-toed – planted itself in my sense memory. So as I was finding Riker, one of the things I did, subconsciously and now consciously, I guess, was mimic John Cullum’s walk.”
He added another interesting factoid,
“In the Star Trek world, Nana Visitor’s father was the choreographer on the show.”
Scott Bakula also appeared in this show during the initial run back in 1976, where he played the part of Sam in the touring production. Bakula returned to the show 20 years later, this time playing the part of Charlie Anderson, the same role Cullum originated and that Frakes was inspired by.
Check out the video version of this interview with Trek Untold below, which includes a discussion of “The Outcast“, “The Offspring“, “Nepenthe” from Star Trek: Picard, his philosophies on directing, and much more
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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.