DAILY ILLINI-APRIL 22, 1993
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. ALTHOUGH HE PLAYS A SPACE TRAVELER ON TV, JONATHAN FRAKES OF STAR TREK:
STORY BY LISA NEWKIRK, DAILY ILLINI REPORTER.
You won't necessarily see Jonathan Frakes, a.k.a. Cmdr. William Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation, doing commercials that sport cute dogs watching the manufacturer's TV set or hosting his own late-night talk show or supplying the voice for a character on an environmentally minded cartoon, as some of his Trek colleagues do.
When syndicated Trek first appeared in 1987, out of nine regulars on the show, only two were familiar big-screen faces to the American public: LeVar Burton (who plays Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge-known for the epic miniseries Roots) and Wil Wheaton (who plays Ensign Wesley Crusher-the lead along with River Phoenix in Stand By Me.) The fact that he wasn't a household name didn't mean that Frakes was a tenderfoot.
Since his Broadway debut 17 years ago in Shenandoah, Frakes has been able to make a living as an actor in numerous roles, both on stage and in Hollywood. Take it from his brother. "He's always been working, which is terrific. It's unusual to find an actor who's been working as much as he has," Daniel Frakes said.
"When I needed to make the rent, I would get a guest spot on something. Something would usually come through," Jonathan Frakes said.
Frakes will tell you more than a couple of times during an interview that he is grateful for the job he currently holds. It is steady work doing a series, and there is an unsaid understanding that this role will bring him the public recognition he did not start the show with. Although he has been quoted as saying that he wouldn't mind being typecast as Riker, there is more to Frakes than just the character he has become famous for playing the last six seasons of Trek.
Jonathan Frakes was born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania on August 19, 1952. He was reared in a town farther east, near the New Jersey border, called Bethlehem. He is the oldest of two children and an admitted smoker. His brother manages the Hanoverville Road House, a bar and restaurant. His father, James, is an English professor at Lehigh University and a jazz fan. His mother, Doris, a native Pennsylvanian, is, according to Frakes, "a delight and a classic."
Frakes described his childhood as wonderful, his circumstances as lower-middle class and his values as backed by ethics. He said that his father, a big influence, was very supportive of his choice of careers, believing the adage that one should only work at something that one enjoys.
I asked Daniel Frakes how it feels to have a brother on television. "Well, I've gotten kind of accustomed to it now. When he first started years ago, it was very exciting, and now it's just I'm very proud of him. It's just a very nice feeling of pride when I see him working on TV," he said. Frakes' brother added that they are very close, and were so as children. As adults, the two get together a couple of times a year, whenever they can, he said.
Thom Schuyler, now vice president of RCA in Nashville and an award-winning Country Music Association songwriter, lived just a block from Frakes when they were both five years old. Schuyler said that as a kid, Frakes was very funny, very friendly and always somewhat of an actor. He played trombone since the fourth grade and ran track, according to Schuyler. Schuyler said in a past interview about Frakes that in the midst of frustrations, Frakes always kept a good perspective, that he knew how to have a good time.
"I think that what I meant by that, you know, the theater business, the music business . . .from the outside, it looks like it's all a bowl of cherries. There's nothing further from the truth. A smaller percentage of people have success in these businesses than probably all other businesses combined . . .he's not arrogant, he's not self-centered, he's just really a well-grounded guy, and he knows that this all could leave tomorrow," Schuyler said. Case in point:
I was having trouble getting through the formal channels of publicists to get an interview with Frakes. I wound up sending a telegram directly to him out of the blue on the last possible day. He called back, said he would love to talk and gave me the better part of an hour out of his busy schedule the weekend he and most of the Trek cast members were in Chicago to perform Tom Stoppard?lay Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.
Frakes went to Pennsylvania State University, starting out as psychology major his freshmen year. After a summer working at a theater, he changed over to the acting program. "I worked in the summer theater at Penn State, actually they have a professional company that comes in the summer, and I was smitten by the entire-I guess the lifestyle of an actor, the hours, the creative outlet. And I thought, well, maybe I'll give this a try," Frakes said.
In the theater department, he studied under teacher and actor Manuel Duque, who was his advisor. "As a student, he had the look, the feel and the aura of very strong, potential professional career possibility," said Duque. Duque added that Frakes was a good student whose best work was done in his theater production practicum. "He moved from kind of average work to superior work because that (acting) really started to be his love and his passion," Duque said.
Frakes received a bachelor's degree in 1974, then went on to work for two summers at Harvard's Loeb Drama Center. In the mid-70's, he moved to New York where he and Thom Schuyler roomed together. He held his share of odd jobs, running around as a furniture mover and Marvel Comic's Captain America.
But in 1976, he made the chorus of Shenandoah. That led to the role of Tom Carroll on the television series, The Doctors, in 1977. "Did I have a back up plan? I probably would have tried to play the trombone, which is an even tougher job than acting. Other than that, I don't know what I would have done. I'm sure I would have refocused. I'm glad I haven't had to make that decision," Frakes said.
He eventually came to Hollywood, guest starring in more than 30 different spots on such series as The Waltons, Hill Street Blues, and Eight is Enough. He also played recurring roles on Paper Dolls, Falcon Crest, and Bare Essence. He met his wife, Genie Francis (Laura Spencer of General Hospital) on the set of Bare Essence in 1982. It wasn't until they worked together on the 1985 miniseries North and South that the two became involved. They were later married May 28, 1988 in Encino, California.
According to a past interview for the Bethlehem Globe-Times, it was Francis and her family, natural Trek nuts, who recommended Frakes try out for the Next Generation in 1987. Francis went back to soap acting in 1990 as Ceara Connor on the New York soap All My Children. In a Good Morning America interview, she said that even though this would take her to the opposite coast from where her husband lived, Frakes encouraged her to go for it. Through the three-and-a-half year job (her character, after a transfer to Loving, was recently killed off), Frakes commuted weekends to New York to be with his wife. She is now back on the California coast, and according to Frakes, is considering returning to General Hospital as Laura.
Through the years, Frakes has kept up with stage acting in such plays as Love Letters and The Hairy Ape. I asked him if it is hard to switch back and forth between television and stage acting. "I think there's a difference in the technique, but I think that most working actors have both techniques, and the adjust accordingly," said Frakes. Frakes mentioned that stage acting got his butterflies going again, since an actor could never be completely sure of what was going to happen next. But he also described an intimacy to camera work that is missing when an actor plays to 5,000 people in one auditorium.
Frakes has never not done promotional spots for private companies before. In 1991, Frakes toured different towns in Canada for a day at a time, introducing the new cordless digital phone for Cantel Personal Communications. At the time, Frakes told The Ottawa Citizen he didn't do that too often. "Patrick Stewart (Capt. Jean-Luc Picard) has pretty much got the market cornered," he said.
Frakes will also make appearances at Star Trek conventions held across the country for fans of the show. Of his character on Trek, Frakes feels the writers have allowed him room to do some of the things he does best. "I think the idea that they let me play the trombone on the show is great, and I think that some of the romantic-comedy stuff that I do with Marina (Sirtis-Counselor Deanna Troi), who plays my alleged love interest, is nice. It's a different color from the commander who usually yells 'Red Alert!' on the bridge," Frakes said.
Frakes has also had the chance to direct more than a few episodes of Trek. He said his first effort, an episode called The Offspring, is his favorite. The story follows the efforts of Lt. Cmdr. Data (an android) to be accepted as a parent to the android child he built and the child?pbringing. The episode was well received by fans.
"(Behind the camera work) yes, I like it very much. I certainly hope it doesn't mean the exclusion of acting, but it's something that I've really learned to enjoy," Frakes said. As for life after Trek, will he have trouble being typecast?
"Oh, he's a wonderful actor, and he'll be able to just dispel any sort of preconceived notion that people may have," said Frakes' agent Dee Dee Jacobson, of Paradigm, whose agency also represents Andy Garcia, Ed Asner, and Kenneth Branagh. She added that Frakes is very talented in both his acting and directing, and that he happens to be one of her favorite clients.
I asked Frakes about a 1990 Associated Press interview that quoted him as saying he hoped Trek would give him the stardom that had eluded him in the past. "That sounds taken out of context. I think there is a certain security that I'm thankful for with this job. I'm not sure that stardom is all that it's cracked up to be," Frakes said.