The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Gary Lockwood (“The Lieutenant,” “Star Trek”)

Your frame of reference to the name “Gary Lockwood” depends heavily on what genres of TV and movies you tend to favor. For instance, if you’re a sci-fi guy like myself, then your instant reaction to hearing his name is either to think of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or, if you’re really geeky (and – shocker! – I am), to his lone episode of the original “Star Trek” series, where he played Gary Mitchell, Jim Kirk’s Starfleet Academy pal who failed to remember that with great power comes great responsibility and suffered the consequences. That one-off “Trek” appearance was actually Lockwood’s second time working with Gene Roddenberry, however, the first time having taken place a few years earlier when Lockwood starred in the short-lived series “The Lieutenant,” which has just been released on DVD by Warner Archive. Lockwood took a few minutes to chat with Bullz-Eye about his work with Roddenberry on both series, and he also touched on occasions in his career when he crossed paths with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, and Elvis Presley.

Bullz-Eye: “The Lieutenant” wasn’t the last time you worked with Gene Roddenberry, but was it the first time you crossed paths with him?

Gary Lockwood: Yes, it was. They talked to me about doing this show, and Roddenberry was sitting there with the head of television at MGM, and that’s how I met him.

BE: That was your first time headlining a series, although, you’d at least had a little experience as a recurring character on “Follow the Sun.”

GL: Yeah, well, I was the third banana on “Follow the Sun,” but I ended up doing the most shows. It’s hard to talk about yourself, but…it’s not that difficult. [Laughs.] What I mean to say is that the audience ended up liking my character, so I did most of the episodes of the show.

BE: There’s a quote attributed to you about how being the star of a series is like being a jet pilot: you’ve got a lot of experts working behind the scenes to get the jet running, and then the pilot sits in the cockpit and makes it work.

GL: Yeah, at which point you either live or die. [Laughs.] You get the spoils, but you also get the losses. The reason I kind of make a joke about jet pilots is that you go to work and you don’t do anything, you just sit there in a chair and drink coffee and look at girls. And then they call you, and go over and fly in front of a camera for awhile, and then you sit down for awhile while everyone else does all the work. So I kind of thought it was a little bit like being a jet pilot.

BE: When you think back to the character of Lt. Bill Rice, what’s the first thing that leaps to mind?

GL: Well, I just played him. I mean, I was just an actor. Bill Rice is not somebody I would ever be or… [Trails off.] They did ask me once if I wanted to go to Annapolis, but I was a bit too much of a rogue for that kind of life. One of my best friends did go to Annapolis, but he resigned after about a year. He didn’t like the regiment. So it takes a certain kind of guy. It was very difficult for me to consider. I wouldn’t say I wanted to be like Bill Rice, but acting is all making believe, so you create a character and you just go there and play him. I think I’ve done that with every job I’ve ever had.

BE: You obviously had some good writers to work with, led by Mr. Roddenberry, but what would you say that you yourself brought to the part that wasn’t there when you arrived?

GL: Well, here’s basically what I think, and I think this is not some epiphany on my part. [Laughs.] But I’ve worked with some very talented directors, as in (Elia) Kazan and (Stanley) Kubrick and people like that, and what one tries to do is…I think one should try to get as close to type as you can. And the reason I feel this way is that if you cast a certain look, a certain face, a certain body type, a certain person, and you put them in that part, most of the time when you’re making a film or a television show, you’re not really talking or something. You’re just doing reactions. And the reason that typecasting works, in my opinion, is that I did look like a Marine, I was athletic like a Marine…in fact, I beat a Marine through the obstacle course for a case of beer from our technical director once. [Laughs.] But the point that I’m trying to make is that when you put the camera on a person for a reaction, your story moves forward, not backward. And…I’m not a skinny guy. I look like I could’ve been a Marine. So if there’s anything I brought to it, it’s my physical stature. Also, I’ve got an aggressive attitude. I was a quarterback as a football player, so I had that kind of attitude, the guy who comes into the huddle and tells everybody to shut up and listen to what he has to tell them. [Laughs.]

BE: Roddenberry indicated at one point that “The Lieutenant” was, in a sense, another casualty of the Vietnam War, that viewers were already getting enough non-fiction war drama on their television sets. Did you get that impression as well?

GL: Well, no, actually. Here’s the thing that I’ve often thought: we did rather well considering that we were opposite Jackie Gleason, who was the lynchpin of television. Saturday night at 7:30 PM opposite Jackie Gleason, that’s a rough spot. [Laughs.] I kind of felt, based on how we were received, that had we been in another timeslot, we probably might’ve been in the top 10 or 15. So I can’t really say that the Vietnam War was credited to our going off the air, but maybe to some extent. There’s politics involved in life, and as an actor, I’m not a politician.

BE: You continued to work with Roddenberry after “The Lieutenant” went off the air. What are your recollections of playing Gary Mitchell on “Star Trek”?

GL: Well… [Starts to laugh.] It’s turned out to be very beneficial to me in the afterlife of that particular time, but I can say this: it was the most difficult, horrible job I ever had.

BE: Really?

GL: Well, because I had to put on these full contact lenses when I became the god-like figure, and I had these silver eyes. It was very, very difficult. I had to choreograph everything blind. I couldn’t see. Everybody thought I could see them, but I couldn’t. So I would have them put me on a mark, and then I did everything based on what I knew of where things were in the rehearsal, like a blind person. And then my eyes began to hurt, so…it was not a fun time, no. But, I mean, it turned out to be a real bonanza for me, in that I do autograph shows sometimes, and Frank Poole (from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and Gary Mitchell are the ones I do the most autographs for.

BE: Speaking of Frank Poole, how was the experience of working with Kubrick? He was a formidable figure, to say the least.  

GL: Oh, yeah, he was the greatest. I’m one of these guys that got along well with him, but, I mean, everybody has their own story with him. But, yeah, he was the greatest to me.

BE: Did you have any interaction with Arthur C. Clarke at all?

GL: Yes, I did. Many times. He was a very nice man. As a matter of fact, Arthur Clarke and myself…I think we did the first live interview and conversation on the internet. I was on a stage at the University of Illinois, and Arthur was at his home in Sri Lanka, and it was on the birthday of the HAL 9000 computer. [Laughs.] It was fun. I remember Arthur’s image came on a screen, and it was, like, at 500 frames per second, which was like slow motion. But the sound, the audio, was real-time.

BE: You also got to work with Elvis on a couple of occasions: “Wild in the Country” and “It Happened at the World’s Fair.”

GL: Yeah, Elvis, I liked him. He was a real gentleman. I ended up being the quarterback on his flag football team. [Laughs.]

BE: What were your thoughts of him as an actor?

GL: Well, here’s the thing about famous musicians: their persona as a musician is so important, and they basically rely on that. “Wild in the Country” was supposed to be his breakout film, the first without any music, but after they screened it, everybody wanted music, so they went back and put in some numbers which weren’t there in the original version. So, y’know, what I’m trying to say is that Elvis Presley was a musician, a singer, and…I’m not saying he was a good actor, great, or bad actor, I’m just saying that he basically played himself all of the time.

BE: You mentioned Elia Kazan in passing a moment ago, with whom you worked on “Splendor in the Grass.”

GL: Oh, yeah, Kazan. Oh, God, he was a character. I got along with him reasonably well. He was a bit competitive toward the women all the time…and I chased a lot of girls in my heyday. [Laughs.]

BE: Did you learn anything from him as a director?

GL: [Long pause.] No, not particularly. I think Kazan’s greatest strength was that he had been an actor, and quite a good one, apparently. So he was very good at getting people into positions where he could get a performance out of them because he understood acting. Visually, he was certainly not a Kubrick guy. I mean, he had a very good crew, he had fine cameramen, but I do not believe that he… I mean, I don’t think he took hours to look for the great shot. I think he just understood the mechanics and the language of cinema and moved accordingly.

BE: How did you enjoy the experience of doing the heist film “They Came to Rob Las Vegas”?

GL: Oh, that was a lot of fun. A great job. I really enjoyed myself. I traveled all over. I was on that movie for months and months and months. Las Vegas, Paris, Italy, Spain…it was a great job.

BE: It was also an impressive cast.

GL: Yeah, it was a lot of fun to do. I remember running in the desert with Elke Sommer, and, my God, she was in great shape. Like a man. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it was a very nice job. And Antonio Isasi, the man who directed it, is still a friend of mine, and I saw him in Spain about two years ago. I went to Ibiza, where he lives, and visited him for about a week. He’s a wonderful man.

BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

GL: Well, as far as a character and as far as just an adventure of doing a job and having a lot of fun, I would say that probably “Firecreek,” the movie I made with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart and Jack Elam, was the most delightful job I ever had. I mean, it was great, great fun. I did enjoy living in England during the making of “2001.” I really enjoyed London. But “Firecreek” was an adventure every day, because we had a poker game that lasted for 14 weeks, and I won a hell of a lot of money. [Laughs.] And Jack Elam was, without a doubt, the most fun actor I ever worked with.

BE: Lastly, do you have any particular recollections about the experience of working on “The Magic Sword”?

GL: I do, although they’re not particularly great ones. [Laughs.] But, I mean, at that time, I got paid a small amount of money, but it paid my rent for a couple of months, so I wasn’t ungrateful about getting the part! But it was a very difficult movie to make. I mean, we shot very fast and…I think we shot it in three or four weeks.

BE: I can believe that, given that Bert Gordon was at the helm. I’ve heard that he was, uh, expedient with his productions.

GL: Yeah, well, he wasn’t Kubrick. [Laughs.] I remember in “2001” it took two or three days to get one shot once. In Bert Gordon’s movie, we would’ve been halfway through the film!