Dean Shepherd caught up with Buck Rodger's actor Gil Gerard. ...
In the 1970s Gil Gerard’s career really took off.
For several years he had his feet firmly planted in the role of Dr. Alan Stewart on the NBC daytime drama The Doctors.
Later he took to the skies in Airport 77. Then, as the 70s drew to a close, Gil Gerard’s career headed beyond the stratosphere as he stepped into the white service boots of the frozen flyboy Buck Rogers.
It’s been almost three decades since Buck hung up his Lycra suite for the last time, but still fans have not gone cold over this classic show. Gil Gerard talks to TVFM about how, 27 years on, his deep-frozen sci-fi character is still a fan favourite.
Q. Pre-Buck Rogers people in the UK will have recognised you from Airport 77, in which you played Frank Powers. That was a milestone film with lots of other big name actors. What was that like to work on?
A. It was incredible. It was the first big movie I did when I came to Los Angeles. To be working with people who I had admired and thought of as icons my whole life was amazing. Jimmy Stewart, Joseph Cotton, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Lemmon, Christopher Lee... I spent many hours talking with Chris Lee because we were on the set every day. It was great.
Q. After Airport came the release of the comedy film Hooch, which you co-wrote, produced as well as starred in.
A. We actually finished production on Hooch and then I was flown out to do an episode of Beretta and then Airport 77.
Q. Would you say it was Hooch that gave you your big break in film?
A. No. It was just a little movie that my partner and myself decided to do. We wanted to make a family movie that people would enjoy. So we raised some money and did the movie. We sort of followed the Smokey and the Bandit formula. We ripped off Smokey and the Bandit. I’ll admit it [laughs].
Q. How did you get the part of Buck Rogers?
Buck Rogers star Gil Gerard
A. Actually I was offered it three times and turned it down. I didn’t want to do a cartoon character. I wouldn’t even read the script. There was also a project [Killing Stone] with Michael Landon [actor, writer, producer and director from Little House on the Prairie] that I really wanted to do at the time.
Universal called my agent and said, ‘Look would you read the script and if you think it is something Gil would like would you have him read it at least?’ So he read it and he called me up and he said, ‘You really need to read this. It’s not what you think it is’.
I thought it was going to a cartoon type think like Batman & Robin, which I didn’t want to do. So I read the script and really liked the sense of humour of Buck. It also had more reality than I thought it would.
When the pilot for the Michael Landon project didn’t sell and was turned in to a movie of the week I said, ‘Okay I’ll do Buck Rogers’.
Q. Were you a fan of the Buck Rogers comic strips and serials?
A. Not really. I grew up with the movie serials, such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon that were on TV when I was a kid, but actually my favourites were the Westerns. The shows with Lash La Rue, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers and those guys.
Sci-Fi didn’t really do much for me. But it was great to be able to work with Buster [Crabbe] who was the original Buck Rogers. He came on as a special guest star which I thought was terrific. It gave me an opportunity to meet him and get to know him. After that we were friends until the day he died.
Q. The original pilot movie was released in cinemas but seemed to disappear from theatres quite quickly. Did you feel it was pulled too soon?
A. The film was so successful I was surprised that they pulled it so quickly from the theatres. Theatre owners came to me and complained that they still had lines around the block of people waiting to see the film.
I said, ‘Look if it was my choice the movie would still be in your theatres’. Universal had pre-sold Buck Rogers the Movie to Cable and it had to be out of the theatres at least a month before it went on Cable so they pulled it. It’s funny because I look at the grosses of the big hit movies today and they are making 12-14 million dollars on their opening weekends.
In 1979 Buck Rogers grossed $12 million dollars, which today would be about $40 million in an opening weekend.
Q. Glen Larson was pretty much Mr Prime Time of the era. Was he hands-on with the project?
A. He was with the movie. He wasn’t with the series. The first year was done by Bruce Lansbury and his crew, which was pretty much the same crew that was used on Wonder Woman. The second year was produced by John Mantley.
Q. You used the same studios as Larson’s Battlestar Galactica. Was there a lot of cross over with props and sets?
A. A lot of the sets were the same. They just repainted them. We had the same corridors. The great thing about Universal was that even if they used a Battlestar Galactica hallway or something they would charge the production as if it was a new design and a new build same sets. They knew how to make their money.
Q. Did Mel Blanc, who voiced Twiki, ever make any reference to the Duck Dodgers cartoon character he voiced in 1953?
A. No he didn’t. Mel and I became friends because I fought very hard to get him back on the show. I insisted that he be bought back as the voice of Twiki. The guy who they got to do the voice for the series just wasn’t right for the voice of Twiki.
Q. What are you fondest and worst memories from the show?
A. I guess the worst part was the way the show ended. We didn’t have an ending it just stopped. There were many, many fond memories from the show. Working with good people, long hours with a great crew, good directors; well, most were good directors.
Q. What it difficult working with different directors?
A. No. I think it’s harder on them than it is on the cast. We get to know each other and know our characters. They are the strangers and they have to try and figure out how to try and mesh with something already going. It’s a little like changing drivers at Le Mans. You have to jump in and try to continue what the other driver did.
Q. Is it true that to make you look frozen you were sprayed with shampoo?
A. It was some kind of a hair product. It probably wasn’t healthy and I’ll probably get cancer from it in another fivc years or so. And I’ll be dying from what they did [laughs].
Q. Are you surprised that the series still has a strong following?
A. Yes. When I do conventions I’m amazed at the huge crowd of people who come to see us. It’s gratifying that there are more than five people sitting out there. The show went off the air 27 years ago as far as Network TV is concerned, although it has never really been off the air.
I think it’s running in the UK again at the moment and it’s very popular again. It gratifying that something I stopped doing 27 years ago is still so recognised, appreciated and enjoyed. There’s even a new crop of fans.
I get 15 year old kids coming up saying they just saw it with their Granddad and how much they enjoy the show. It’s nice that the warmth is still there.
Q. If you had the chance to revisit the character is that something you would like to do?
A. I wouldn’t mind. I’ve been asked who I would like to see play Buck Rogers and I’ve always said me! I just don’t see anyone else doing it. That’s the honest answer. It would be fun to revisit it. I don’t know about a series but I would like to do it as a feature.
I always thought that there was a whole unrealised area of Buck Rogers that we didn’t really get into that I wanted to do. That was to get Buck to stay on Earth and let him walk around the Earth 500 years from now and see how people are coping.
I would have liked to have seen Buck, Wilma and Twiki go off on a journey of self-discovery for Buck. You’ve been gone for 500 years you want to come back and put your hand on something that you recognize.
I would have liked to have seen more character driven stories with Buck Rogers and less of the starfighter stuff.
Q. Did you collect any of the memorabilia from the show?
A. The sad thing is, is that I could have had all of it if I wanted it. I just didn’t get anything. Actually, I did get one thing. The guys from Heartland who were the people who did the special effects, gave me the actual starfighter that they used in all the dog fight scenes.
I have it on a stand in a case with a mirrored bottom so you see all the detail. To me it’s a homage to the guys who did the special effects because they did such a fabulous job.
Unfortunately they never got the credit they deserved because they were always compared to Star Wars, which was unfair. These guys had a week to do their stuff and Star Wars had two years. They did a hell of a job. 27 years later and the effects still hold up.
Buster Crabbe once told me, ‘You know, everyone thought that what we did 50 years ago was cutting edge and now they are laughing at it. In 50 years they will be laughing at this’.
I said, ‘Hopefully it will be 50 years. It may be sooner’. But so far, 27 years down the line, it’s still being enjoyed and the special effects are still okay. Perhaps not as cutting edge as they were, but they are still believable. Which is nice.