Star Wars Autographs Part I: Heroes & Heroines

By STEVE GRAD
Autograph July 2009
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Harlan Ellison

By LAWRENCE GROBEL

Autograph March 2009

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Character Actors: William Sanderson

John Sanderson as Larry in The Bob Newhart Show

By SCOTT VOISIN

Featured in Autograph January 2010

“Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”

 

With that line on the classic ’80s sitcom Newhart, actor William Sanderson officially became a pop culture icon. Although he would become forever identified as one of the dim-witted, backwoods siblings, the character of Larry is the polar opposite of the actor who portrayed him. “After high school, I went into the army for a couple of years and then came four years of college and three years of law school,” Sanderson says. “During my last year in law school, I had begun to get my nerve up to do some plays. Without taking the bar exam, I moved to New York for an apprenticeship in acting.”

After brief appearances in such critically-acclaimed movies as The Onion Field and Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sanderson landed a memorable supporting role in the 1982 sci-fi film, Blade Runner. “Up until then, I was playing a lot of renegades and derelicts,” he explains. “I like to think J.F. Sebastian was a sympathetic character and it was fun to play. I was just so thrilled to be there shooting a major film on the Warner Brothers lot and anytime you can be in a film with that cast you should feel grateful.” Although the film is regarded as a classic today, it failed to make much of an impact during its initial release. “Since Harrison Ford was in it, everyone expected it to do as well as Star Wars. I read some nice reviews, but the one that always stuck in my mind—I think it might have been Pauline Kael—said it was a fascinating failure. It’s quite ironic that it’s become a cult classic. I’m not wise enough to know why it’s stuck around, but director Ridley Scott is somewhat of a visionary, and I think some of his vision came true. He’s a genius.”

Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis, signed and inscribed by John Sanderson

That same year, Sanderson made his first appearance on Newhart. Although the role was originally intended to be a one-time guest shot, the show’s creators quickly changed their plans. “The audience applauded the first time we appeared, so that encouraged them to bring us back again,” Sanderson says. “In the second season, I think they doubled the number of episodes we were in. The third year, the show went down in the ratings, and I don’t want to sound self-righteous or anything but they decided to make us regulars, and lo and behold, the show went back up in the ratings. Bob Newhart has said that we gave it a shot in the arm, but it was the two brothers—John Voldstad and Tony Papenfuss—that made the group work. I learned years later they originally wrote the character for a friend of mine, Tracey Walter, who’s a great actor. He had to go in and audition for it even though the writer wrote it for him. I mean, can you imagine: they write my friend a role, he goes in and auditions, and they give it to me? I think if success comes to you, you should consider yourself lucky, and I definitely got lucky with Newhart.”

Sanderson as E.B. Farnum in Deadwood

Since then, Sanderson has parlayed that success into roles on such high-profile projects as Lonesome Dove, Deadwood and the current HBO hit, True Blood. Looking back, he has no regrets about choosing to work on a soundstage instead of in a law office. “Personally, I think it’s very difficult to make a living as an actor,” he says. “There are over 100,000 actors in the union and only 2,000 or 3,000 work regularly. We chose it, so we can’t really complain, but the rejection is hard, at least for me…. I don’t want this to sound like self-pity because when it’s fun, it’s fun. The adrenalin is akin to playing in the Super Bowl, and I’m addicted to it. I’m just a journeyman actor with an obsession to keep working and keep learning.”

Sanderson plays Sheriff Dearborn on True Blood

Autograph photos are available from Sanderson’s Web site, www.williamsanderson.com. Signed photos start at $20 and signed Newhart scripts will cost you $35. Prices on eBay for signed photos range from $15-21.

Carla Laemmle Turns 100

Circa 2006, Laemmle signed a Dracula postcard

By MICHAEL IWINSKI

Featured in Autograph January 2010

Carla Laemmle publicity photo from the 1920s

Carla Laemmle, the last living link to The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula, celebrated her 100th birthday last October 26. A celebration was held on Soundstage 28 at Universal Studios, and Ms. Laemmle returned to the set where she played the prima ballerina in Phantom of the Opera in 1925.

I interviewed her on the eve of her centennial celebration, and Carla Laemmle’s voice was clear and her mind sharp. Earlier this year she even penned a book with Daniel Kinske, Growing Up With Monsters. Her roots in Hollywood date back to 1921, when she arrived from Chicago at the age of 11. Her uncle, Carl Laemmle, founded Universal Studios, and she describes growing up on the studio lot as a magical time, a kind of perpetual fantasy world. It was while working for the studio that Laemmle played roles in two of the greatest horror films ever produced.

Laemmle became a cult figure in horror fandom. “I’ve been getting mail nearly every day from all over the world,” she says. Always an accommodating signer, Laemmle is flattered by the attention she still receives, but keeps it in perspective: “They praise me and flatter me so much that you can’t take it too seriously.” After all, she was only 16 years old when she performed in Phantom. Fans continue to request autographs and sometimes send gifts in the mail. “I just received a wonderful letter from an artist in Canada. The portrait he did of Lon Chaney is really excellent!”

Unsigned window card for the 1925 Phantom of the Opera sold in 2009 for $7,768, courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Of Chaney’s role as the phantom, Laemmle says, “It was a closed set. I was only in the ballet sequence at the beginning, and they didn’t allow anyone in the room when the unmasking scene was being made.”

The scene Laemmle is referring to is one of the most iconic in movie history. The phantom’s mask is removed, revealing his hideously deformed face. “Only the people who were involved with the scenes were able to be on the set. It added shock value by keeping it a secret.”

In 1931 Laemmle delivered the first lines in another Universal classic, Dracula. “I was in the carriage and just read the lines that were right in front of me.” Seventy-eight years later, she recites them from memory: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass, are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”

Even while it was being filmed, Laemmle felt Dracula was unique. “It was the first talking picture—the first sound horror movie being made. We knew there would be quite a bit of special interest in it. It was no longer just silent movies. That’s what set it apart at the time and made it special.”

Laemmle, who was trained in ballet, would go on to use her dance skills in musicals throughout Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. “I worked at every studio—MGM, Universal, Warner Brothers, RKO.” Thinking back to what the town was like during the early days, Laemmle feels the actors were much more approachable and visibly appreciative: “They were very gracious in those days. They knew how valuable being accessible was and were very nice.”

Carla Laemmle exudes these qualities today, something autograph collectors and horror film aficionados appreciate. Surprisingly, she is not a huge horror fan. She never even auditioned for the part in Dracula but was called in by Universal at the last minute. No director was present when the scene was filmed on a back lot, with men rocking the carriage to and fro to create the illusion of motion. “I’m not interested in horror movies at all!” Laemmle says. “But I like to watch Dracula and Phantom of the Opera when they are on.”

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry

By MARK J. GROSS
Featured in Autograph April 2009

Majel signed this calendar after our lengthy interview in 1999 and now hangs on my wall.

The wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, was the First Lady of Star Trek, having been involved in the franchise since its original pilot. As fans gear up for the May 8 release of Star Trek XI, we remember Majel, who died at 76 last December.

Majel’s career with Star Trek began with some resistance from NBC executives, who insisted that her then-boyfriend, producer Roddenberry, cast a man in her role as starship officer, Number One.

Majel went on to play Dr. McCoy’s assistant, Nurse Christine Chapel. And devoted Star Trek fans recognize her voice the first time they hear it, as Majel was the voice of the ship’s computer in the original series, all the spawned series, as well as the films.

Her performance as Deanna Troi’s famous mouthy mother Lwaxan Troi generated a huge fan following. This character appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation often, and in Deep Space Nine as the love interest of security chief Odo.

Majel was a staple at various conventions throughout her career, promoting new projects. I had a chance to interview her at a convention in 1999. She was as down to Earth as ever, signing autographs and chatting about her memorabilia company, Lincoln Enterprises.

Mark Gross: What was it like being involved with Star Trek from the start?
Majel Barrett: Well, for all of us back then, it was a job, and unfortunately after that first pilot episode, I got fired from my job. I worked my way back in and got the role of Nurse Chapel. We all went to work every morning never thinking it was going to be any more than what it was that day or that week. Each year, we hoped we were going to be on another year, but that only happened for three years. We were actually a failed series then.

What did you do after the show was cancelled, until you came back as Nurse Chapel for Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Gene and I did Spectre, The Questor Tapes, Planet Earth, Genesis II and I was also doing TV shows myself then too.

What was your time like with Gene, who was such a genius in creating science fiction shows?
We just led a normal life. I mean Gene was not really “spacey” and our house didn’t have Star Trek and sci-fi stuff all over. Actually, we were golfers and we went everywhere around the world to play golf.

How did you and Gene meet?

Gene was working on three pilots in L.A. and I was introduced to him as a possibility for a role. We began talking and one thing led to another. We lived together for one year and were married for 22 years.

How did the Nurse Chapel role come about?
I actually found the role as Nurse Chapel because I was so disappointed in not getting the role as Number One. I kept looking at the scripts and finally, about the fourth script in, I found the role of a doctor who was coming onboard the ship to look for her fiancé, and I said, “I can do this.” But once the network fires you—you know they don’t want you back. So I went out and bleached my hair, which fooled even Gene at first. I said, “If I can fool you, I can fool anyone.” Gene said, “Yes you can.” And I did.

What about your famous voice as the ship’s computer?
I was just simply there, they needed somebody to say all those words onto the tape, and so there I was.

Tell me a bit about your character Lwaxana Troi, Deanna’s mother from The Next Generation series.
Gene came home one day and said to me, “Majel, I have a great part for you, and guess what, you don’t have to act!” Well, I didn’t know what the role called for, and Gene just described it as the Auntie Mame of the Galaxy. Then the character kept coming back, and I got to be quite proud of it. I often heard women yelling to me from across a parking lot telling me that this role has done more for women over 40 than any movement in America. I love Lwaxana, she was a great role!

Another item the First Lady of Star Trek autographed for me in 1999.

On Sunday Jan. 4, 2009, Majel’s family, friends and fans came to Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in the Hollywood Hills to pay their final respects to the First Lady of Star Trek. A large crowd, including many Star Trek luminaries, gathered for the official memorial.

The Roddenberry family also held a public memorial for Majel at The Hall of Liberty at Forest Lawn. The crowd of approximately 300 was a mix of friends, family, colleagues and many Trek fans, some of whom showed up in costume. Present were Majel’s Original Series costars Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig and George Takei, as well as many of the lead actors from Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent series, including Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton, Anthony Montgomery, Robert Picardo, Ethan Phillips, Armin Shimerman and Garrett Wang.

When her husband died in 1991, Majel had part of Roddenberry’s remains launched into space in 1997 through Celestis Inc., a memorial spaceflights company. After Majel’s death, Celestis Inc. announced it will launch the remains of both Gene Roddenberry and Majel in 2012. They will traverse the cosmos and galaxy together, which is exactly how it should be.