MORNING CALL-MAY 5, 1986
MAKING HISTORY: "NORTH AND SOUTH'S" JONATHAN FRAKES IS CRAFTING HIS FUTURE
HISTORY YIELDS A GOOD PART FOR JONATHAN FRAKES
BY SYLVIA LAWLER, THE MORNING CALL
Jonathan Frakes is the only "North and South" cast member who can say he comes from the real Lehigh Station. "I kind of like that irony," says the 33-year-old Bethlehem-raised actor, who is being seen again this week as George Hazard's sniveling, scheming brother Stanley in the miniseries' sequel "North and South, Book II." As a place name, Lehigh Station is but a figment of author John Jakes' imagination. But anyone who has read "North and South" or Jakes' sequel, "Love and War" and knows this area will have no trouble setting the hometown of the Pennsylvania Hazard family in and around a Lehigh Valley locale. Frakes recognized that immediately as he dutifully "waded through the first 444 pages" and quit-"with apologies to John Jakes."
For Frakes considers himself an Easterner. An eastern Pennsylvania Easterner. Born near State College, where his mother and father, a professor of English then teaching at Penn State, were positioned in 1952, he nevertheless became interested in theater, in Bethlehem-Northeast Junior and Liberty Senior Highs. The former is where he cut his theatrical eyeteeth on a little musical pastiche called "Which Witch is Which?"; the latter where he graduated to Shaw's "Pygmalion" before going off to major in theater arts at Penn State, and eventually to New York.
He is the kind of Easterner who heads home to Bethlehem every chance he gets. That is to say, after a falling beam killed off his character on NBC's New York-based soap, "The Doctors," in 1978, he gave up his Manhattan digs and headed west where the television work would presumably lead to bigger and meatier primetime things. It did. He had always had a well-schooled attitude, which maybe comes from being a professor's son. ("You had better be ready to work when they call on you, in whatever frame of mind you should be for your character," Frakes said even early in his career.)
Relocated in sunny/smoggy buy unvarying L.A., he was called on for the top television credit lines in free-lance work . . . Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, The White Shadow, The Dukes of Hazzard, Hart to Hart, Quincy, Hill Street Blues, Eight is Enough, Barnaby Jones, and The Waltons. The new kid on the block had visibly arrived.
In 1983, came the limited series "Bare Essence" in which he was featured as Jessica Walter's weak, sniveling son Marcus Marshall. It was a thin, glossy piece of romance and intrigue about the perfume industry on which were riding a lot of people's high hopes. But it didn't jell with the public. We all thought it would go to series," said Frakes. "It had all the ingredients plus Genie Francis" (wildly popular then as Luke's Laura on General Hospital, who is also in North and South). "She's good. I like her as an actor," he said casually. (That testimony will have more significance a little later.)
Then came Paper Dolls, a primetime soap about passion and perfidy in the modeling business with Lloyd Bridges and Morgan Fairchild, and Frakes as her secretary. It was a better piece of glitz than it was given credit for and it, too, never took off. On to more guest spots, from The Fall Guy to Falcon Crest (where he was allowed to be a nice guy for a change) and then both North and South installments and Richard Chamberlain's Dream West, in which he played "one of America's first spies."
There has also been theater both in New York and Los Angeles. And through it all, he came home. On hiatus. On the way through to New York. " get into Bethlehem as often as possible, a couple of times a year at least," Frakes says. "I have to patronize my brother's bar, the Main Street Depot," a serio-comic tone creeps into his voice momentarily. " My father holds the Fairchild chair in American literature at Lehigh. My mother is there, and my grandmother, Mrs. Ethel Haas. I miss living there. I miss everything about the East. I'm not as crazy about the West Coast as some."
In February, he came home to be best man at his brother Daniel's home wedding and elegant reception at Allentown's Maison Suisse restaurant. Accompanying him was his Bare Essence and North and South castmate, Genie Francis. (Let us not be coy: Syndicated gossip columnist Shirley Eder reports that he and the beauteous Genie are living together, and when told of it, Frakes fesses up, "Yeah, it's true; I'm just surprised that it's public."
And he flew home again late last month, on the eve of heading out with Genie Francis on a six-city publicity tour for ABC to ballyhoo North and South, Book II. Although it was the big miniseries ratings winner for the 1985 season-all six nights hit the top 10-North and South, Book I was riddled with hackneyed dialogue and overly broad playing on the part of some of the actors (no one mentioned in this story) that produced guffaws in the wrong places. (It also did not perform well on television's all-time roster of multi-part dramas, a form pioneered and thought all-but-perfected by ABC, but few such works have the impact of a Roots these days.) The adaptation's use of pre-Civil War history mainly as trapping, its accent on popping decolletage and lunging lust, turned off the lion's share of American television critics. Their writings obviously didn't influence the general public's turnout, but they may have had an effect on Executive Producer, David Wolper. Wolper fathered the transfer of John Jakes' historical fictions to the screen and his loud-and-clear public drumbeat for Book II is that this time, history will be served.
In the doing, Frakes's role, though still with starring billing, dwindled. It happened that during the shooting of Book I, in an unprecedented, cost saving move, ABC was so pleased with the daily "rushes" that it went ahead and ordered the sequel. "It was easier, with a cast that size, to tie everyone up rather than drop everything and try to pick up the threads again," explained Frakes. "Stanley's character was more significant in the book, Love and War, than it is in this screenplay, but there were so many characters to carry that they had to refocus. I worked 10 weeks on Book I, and only 3 on Book II."
Frakes has the looks and breeding to be a romantic hero in the traditional mold. He should have been Pierce Brosnan, but elements of his humor are not usually allowed to surface and no one seems to see him as a light comedian. "I'd love to do comedy, but in terms of a career, you take whatever comes along." More and more, recent casting has plunged him into villainy. "I always seem to be a child beater (The Doctors) or a father killer (Hart to Hart). I've done a lot of episodic television and I"m starting to get pegged as a villain. Sometimes they cast against type." (If you want to talk about silly, Aaron Spelling Productions once cast him in a pilot as a Jewish cop from Philadelphia.) "Some people seem to see the devil in my eyes sometimes, or so I'm told," he says, and professional villainy has its rewards. "I work more that way, especially on the guest spots. The good guys are always the regulars on the show, so I get a chance to come on as that week's villain."
Still, it would be nice to connect with a big fat long-running hit. Surgery for a severed Achilles tendon sidelined him for a few months recently, but he'll be back doing the guest shot rounds again. "I like to keep working as much as possible. Like anyone else, I'd like to find myself involved in a hit TV series. To have a steady job for three to five years would be nice. But the work is more important than being a star. Stardom is just a side effect that sometimes comes."
Frakes is of a generation of college-educated, cerebral actors that cares intensely about the work of his profession. He has done theater in New York and Los Angeles, including Pinter's "Birthday Party" in the Mark Taper Forum. For a Broadway offer " I would go in a quick New York minute, but the amount of work is so limited there. No, the odds are better where I am." We civilians may roll our eyes heavenward when talk-show guests natter on about "perfecting my craft," but Frakes says, "craft is exactly the right word for what it is. You can't take it too seriously or too lightly. As a choice of careers, I chose it, and I'll take the good with the bad."
MORNING CALL-SEPTEMBER 25, 1988
JONATHAN FRAKES' CAREER BEAMS UP
BETHLEHEM ACTOR SCORES AS STAR TREK COMMANDER
BY SYLVIA LAWLER, THE MORNING CALL
On the same day that Jonathan Frakes landed a well-targeted career punch-the role of the starship Enterprise's second-in-command in the syndicated series "Star Trek: The Next Generation"-his car was stolen. Mention of his ripped-off car comes as a distant afterthought, though. A person can always pick up another set of wheels. But to hit it big in the season's hottest syndicated series after years of guest shots and short-lived series-well, sometimes life sings very sweet tunes.
The 35-year-old Frakes, born near State College but raised in Bethlehem where his family still lives, is seated at an atrium table in a San Fernando Valley hotel, paging through the hefty portfolio of his career clippings carted west by the hometown paper's reporter. He is looking very California-Armani, trendy and bearded, as he laughs over such press footnotes as his ninth-grade appearance in what he called "the worst musical ever written-'Which Witch is Which?'" The beard, which was his own idea, may or may not be part of his wardrobe this season, depending on how producers of Frakes' new movie of the week see things. "I just hate to shave," he says, and besides, Gene Roddenberry, the guiding creative hand behind the original "Star Trek" and of the new incarnation, thinks a beard might be a good idea for Riker, the somber, heroic character Frakes plays on "Next Generation."
"We may be able to push it through for this season, which would be wonderful," Frakes said of his series, just now back into production at Paramount Studios after the long delay caused by the writers' strike. In the meantime, producers of the movie, a black comedy named "Beauty and Denise" with Julia Duffy, Dinah Manoff, and David Carradine, may determine whether hirsute is here to stay.
In the nearly 10 years since Frakes left New York for Hollywood, the tall, strapping actor has worked in television steadily and respectably. He has guest-starred on scores of series from Fantasy Island to Hill Street Blues, along with having recurring roles on Bare Essence, Paper Dolls, and Falcon Crest, and being a featured actor in ABC's smash miniseries North and South. But when you are singled out by a network to do a movie of the week, you know something is flying right for you. That something is the astonishing success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a Star Trek revival set 84 years after Captain Kirk and the original Enterprise crew ceased their intergalatic wanderings. The series many felt not only couldn't, but shouldn't be made, has managed to retain the humanism and integrity of the original enough to overcome even the most devout Trekkie's skepticism. It airs in 217 national markets and may be seen locally in reruns several times a weekend.
To Frakes, who had just been up for a naval role in War and Remembrance before the Star Trek opportunity surfaced, getting there was in many ways harder than doing the role itself. He auditioned seven times over six weeks to land the part of Riker. If the producers wanted to test his heroic mettle and nerves of steel, they found the way. "I think that may have been part of it," he laughs. "I also think they had no idea who I was," comes the easy self-mockery. Because casting people have told Frakes they see the devil in his eyes, he has portrayed every kind of fiend-wife abuser, child beater and father killer-over the years. But Roddenberry saw in those eyes a certain Machiavellian glint which he thought seemly to the ambitious Riker, a quality that kept him from being the total military man. (People see what they want to, apparently. A number of television writers have hinted that one of the reasons producers thought Frakes suited to the part was because he was a dead-ringer for the young William Shatner, a cute piece of irony if it were true, but it isn't.)
"Look at this, in North and South . . . and with a beard," Frakes picks up a full-color 1986 Morning Call portrait of himself in costume as the weak and sniveling Stanley Hazard. "And my wife . . ." he pauses at a picture of a North and South costar, the lovely blonde actress Genie Francis whom he met during the making of Bare Essence in 1982 and married last May. Following a honeymoon in London, they traded a condo in nearby Sherman Oaks for "the burbs of Tarzana" which Frakes, in typical humor, describes as very nice "if a little Ward Cleaver." He reads from another clip, this time getting a kick out of: "In seventh grade at Northeast Junior High School, Frakes played the Mock Turtle in Alice and Wonderland. One of my high points really," he kids again.
Besides honeymooning during the strike-lengthened hiatus, Frakes got to fill an unaccustomed role doing speaking engagements at conventions in various cities. He found he liked that very much. "It lets you know what the fans really think, it feeds your ego and it keeps you busy" is the level way he puts it. It keeps you in touch with the family he has always remained close to, as well. Though his Lehigh University professor-father Dr. James R. Frakes-"he'll never retire"-and brother Dan, who runs the bar at the Main Street Depot, remained behind in Bethlehem, his mother, his aunt and his grandmother visited him at one convention in Baltimore.
Frakes was never a particular fan of the old series, "not as much as I am now. But my wife is a fan of the old series. She and her family were huge Star Trek fans. So there were many nights when we would choose one of the original 79 episodes in lieu of the 11 o'clock news and I did get to see quite a few of them." Nice as it is to wake up knowing you're in a hit series and have a place to go every morning, there's no question that the long hours demanded by an hour-long series can get to an actor. Frakes begins at 6 or 7 AM and often works past 6 PM. Fridays are almost always a 13-hour day and 78-hour weeks are not unheard of. Luckily, he's in so many scenes "I don't have a chance to be bored. When I do, as I understand a lot of actors do who are in one series for a long time, that's the time to get worried. Now, I get exhausted before I get bored." The ideal is to have a half-hour sitcom, work your banker's hours and go home, but hey, he's not complaining.
He spends a lot of time on the set hanging around the camera learning so that maybe he can direct by Star Trek's third season. Five or ten years down the road, he can see himself directing, or maybe doing something on stage with Genie, who is now contracted to daytime's Days of Our Lives as Diana Colville. "She's a hard-working lady," says the fond husband talking of the number of pages of dialogue his wife must memorize every night while he holds the script for her. "But she's been doing it since she was 14, so she knows some tricks the rest of us don't."
Frakes started Penn State the day after he graduated from Liberty High School, then attended Harvard's Loeb Drama Center, hitch-hiked around the country for a year and settled in New York City to work on the soap The Doctors. Now, he and Genie are talking about buying a cottage in the Berkshires or an apartment in New York. He still has an eastern mentality. (She was born in Engelwood, NJ, but grew up in Los Angeles.)
It's a good time for him, personally and professionally. "I can't complain about life at all. And maybe, after the movie of the week, they'll even start to pronounce my name right," he laughs.
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