Finally Had the Courage to Talk to Erin Gray

"I know. I was your first."

Sometimes we have to do an interview just for us. Some of you may recognize Erin Gray from her years as Ricky Schroder’s stepmother on Silver Spoons, and some of you may just be scratching your heads. But as Erin herself points out, for those of us of a certain age she’s forever Wilma Deering from the NBC series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and a crucial part of our, ahem, formative years.

Beautiful and incredibly gracious, Erin let us have an interview despite having no idea who we were. And continued letting us have an interview after I opened with the dumbest question ever:

Derek McCaw: What have you been doing for the past, oh, ten years?

Erin Gray: That’s a lot. How about the last two? In the last two years, I did eight independent feature films. I did a recurring role on Profiler. I did a recurring role on Port Charles.

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Clearly, I recovered from my first gaffe to phrase:

DM: On Profiler?

EG: On Profiler I played Karen Archer. She’s a congresswoman who ends up pulling the funding that funds that particular group, the Profilers, so now the show is defunct because of my character. I’m the one that ended it.

DM: And we thought it was NBC.

EG: That would be my character.

It gets better.

DM: And Port Charles, that’s the General Hospital spin-off?

EG: Hey, I’m impressed that you know that.

DM: I’m depressed that I know that.

EG: I played, uh, who did I play? One of the lead characters who was up for murder, I played her mother. A very cold-hearted, uppity woman I would say.

DM: Had you done soap operas before?

EG: No, I never had.

DM: Was there a big difference between working the daily grind of a soap opera versus your previous experiences?

EG: Actually, it was very similar to working on Silver Spoons, with four cameras. The whole set-up is very much like shooting a sitcom, which is different. And in terms of speed, well…so much television and film work is hurry up and wait. It was really a pleasure to get up there and work and just keep working. And even then there are a lot of pauses in between.

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DM: Do you have anything lined up for the future?

EG: Not right now. The only thing that I’ve done that hasn’t come out is, I did a film with Robert Urich last year. It hasn’t come out, but it was a wonderful film and I had a wonderful time working with a real gentleman. It’s an independent film called Clover Bend. At least, that was the working title. Of course I don’t know what it will end up being.

I have one or two other films that haven’t been released. One is called Special Weapons Tactics, very much a Police Academy kind of, very college-humor type film, so I’m sure it will have a big cult following. I play “The Mayor” – I don’t even have a name -a woman who is very concerned about her position as mayor, and doesn’t want to give up her days playing golf and tennis. So when there’s trouble in town, she brings out the S.W.A.T. team, except the S.W.A.T. team is more like The Marx Brothers, and can do nothing right. So she brings in another S.W.A.T. team of all women. And they are G.I. Janes. You put the two together and you got the drift.

DM: On to Buck Rogers.

EG: Okay.

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DM: Battlestar Galactica did not last as long as you did, and yet there’s a lot of talk about reviving that. I hear nothing about Buck Rogers.

EG: (laughs) That’s because Richard Hatch (Apollo on Battlestar Galactica, not the Survivor guy) is one of the most enterprising s.o.b.s I have ever met in my entire life and GO TO IT, RICHARD!

DM: But it’s out of his hands. He’s not the one now.

EG: No, but he’s the one that stirred up all the interest, you know? He just had a vision and he’s written a book and a screenplay and a trailer…he kept the vision alive, kept the fans excited about it. And then suddenly Hollywood went, “ohhh…maybe this is a good idea after all.”

DM: And neither you nor Gil (Gerard) wanted to do that?

EG: I would love to do Buck Rogers again, and do it right. Oh. I shouldn’t say that.

DM: No, no, you should. Let’s get more of that.

EG: Particularly my role in terms of, and Gil is one hundred percent behind this, Wilma never really got a chance to kick ass. She was in the position of being the head of the Earth Defenses and most of the time she was going, “Buck, are you all right?”

DM: And in the second season…

BOTH: It was even worse.

EG: Right.

DM: What happened there? I loved that first season, and we were just discussing last night, should we talk about Earth Defense or Hawk?

EG: I loved Hawk. I must say I’m very partial to Hawk, only because I’m madly in love with Thom Christopher (the actor who played him) and I can’t say enough nice things about the man.

But they just changed the whole feel of the show completely.

Sometimes the network tries to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed. And they brought in another producer who wished to put his stamp on the show. And that was John Manley, and John Manley was from Gunsmoke and he had certain ideas of ecological stories that he wanted to do, and some scripts that he had in the drawer that he just sort of changed the names around and used on our show. Which is a shame.

I think what they had in that first season was working very well, but I don’t think the network got it. And when I say that I don’t think they got it, part of my theory – and this is just my theory – cable was just starting. A lot of people don’t realize that numbers were shifting around. Suddenly the numbers game, and you know that Hollywood is very into TVQs, numbers, ratings and so on, were shifting. They really weren’t losing that many, but it was just enough of a loss in numbers that they were going, “oh, we have to do something. Fix the show.”

If they had the numbers…we had then, now, we would be the number one show. Through the ceiling. But they just got fearful. And you know how people are when they’re fearful. They make changes. And they didn’t need it.

And I don’t think they realized also that what people loved about the show was that A, it was a family show. Everyone, Mom, Dad, the kids, could all sit down and watch the show and get something out of it.

A lot of sci fi nowadays is very dark. You get an eight-year-old kid in front of some of these shows and it’s like “eeee, I’m going to have a nightmare all night long.”

It was fun. It was tongue in cheek. There was a little bit for everybody to appreciate. There was humor. How often do you see sci fi with humor, other than Galaxy Quest? That’s the only other one I know that’s tongue in cheek and fun.

What I get from women is that I made an impression on a lot of young women. They come up to me now and say, “you know, you’re the reason I joined the Air Force.” “Really?” “You’re the reason I became a police officer.”

For that time period, having a woman in that kind of position or role was really a terrific thing. I’m very fortunate.

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DM: What about the impression you made on young men?

EG: Oh yes. The number one line I get: (low breathy tone) “You were my first.” I hate to ask first what, but I was their first. I have a girlfriend who thinks I should have a t-shirt saying, “I Was Your First.”

DM: It was that opening credit sequence to the movie version of the pilot.

EG: Oh, you recognized me? (laughs) Yeah, interesting.

What’s interesting for me is that there’s a certain age between 30 and 34, right around there, and I can be walking down the street and all of a sudden I see lightbulbs go off behind the eyes. I think “uh huh. I was your first. I know.”

And you know, that’s not a bad thing.

DM: We’ve got the headline.

EG: There you go.

DM: Do you do a lot of conventions? I know I’ve seen you here the last couple of years.

EG: I’ve done three years in a row here at San Diego Comic-Con. I took off pretty much for the last year; I didn’t do any shows. And now I’ll start doing shows again. Actually, Gil and I are getting together and doing shows together.

DM: Very cool. He’s not here, is he?

EG: He’s not. He said to me, “I don’t do any in California.” So I took him seriously and didn’t tell him about San Diego Comic-Con. When I talked to him yesterday, he said “where are you going?” and I told him and he said “WHY AREN’T I GOING?” I said, “you told me you didn’t want to do any in California.” He said okay.

DM: Maybe next year.

EG: There you go. I think definitely I can get him to come next year. And right now, I’ve got to whip out Australia, Kansas City, Pitttsburgh, we’re doing a whole tour next year.

Michael Goodson: (notices her shirt) What is Woo Way Enterprises?

EG: Okay. I’m a teacher of Tai Chi Tuan, and I teach at UCLA and an acupuncture center and the Wu Chan Kung Fu Academy. Woo Way in the Chinese spelling is “Wu Wei,” and it means “the way of non-action.” Like going with the flow.

So I made it the Americanized spelling, which is Woo Way. It sounds the same way, but I spell it differently. I actually have two companies, one is with the Chinese spelling and one with this spelling. Anybody who says “Woo Way” is smiling. And that’s my gift to that person.

DM: It’s hard to say with a straight face.

EG: And then when you say “woo,” the way of woo means the way of love, so you’ve got another message. You’ve got the smile, you’ve got the love, hey, I’m doing my job.

DM: Have you had any weird fan reactions? Or do you think you’re lucky that Wilma was such a down to earth person? No special powers…

EG: No special powers. I haven’t had any problems with that. I’ve had people come up to my table in their Klingon costume, and the wife is dressed in her mythological witch costume or something, and say, “we got married as Buck and Wilma, in costume.” And you know, gee, great. Whatever makes you happy. I think that’s terrific. It’s pretty mild, and most people are pretty wonderful. I’m just delighted that they loved the show. That’s great, to do something that leaves such an impression on people.

I mean, think about it. This was twenty-something years ago, and people really remember it and love it to this day. Not many people on this planet can say they’ve done something that’s that memorable in people’s minds.

Or the fact that every thirty year old guy on the planet between…oh, my God, I mean, I’m blessed! Every young woman…I empowered her. What a gift.

And the interesting thing is that it was predicted to me by a psychic.

DM: Really?

EG: Yeah. And that goes “woo-ooh-ooh.” But I went to this psychic in New York two years before I did Buck Rogers and I asked him, I said I’m thinking about becoming an actress and did he think I would be successful.

He said yes, you’ll do something that people will remember you for more than anything else. It’s of another time period. You’ll sign a contract with the letter “M” and you’ll argue with the producers about the color of your hair.

Two and half years later I’m arguing with a producer at Universal Studios because I want to be a brunette for the second season and suddenly it hits me. Another time period, I’m arguing with a producer about the color of my hair, but I kept thinking “what’s the M?”

MCA-Universal.

I kept thinking it was Universal and it wasn’t.

DM: Oh. Freaky.

EG: (smiles and gives a theremin impression) Is there such a thing as psychics? I don’t know.

DM: Erin Gray says yes.

EG: Can we figure this out? I mean, that’s pretty strange, you know?

DM: And cool.

So we ended our interview, after taking a couple of shots for the photo album, and remembered that no matter what else happened at the Convention, we had talked to Erin Gray.

And the kids at Cupertino Junior High said it would never happen.

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About Derek McCaw
In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric's Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek's voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.