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August 25, 2007
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'Star Trek: TNG' star still No. 1
By JIM SLOTEK - Sun Media


Jonathan Frakes as Commander Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Call him a starship commander, a director and a pop culture icon. Just don't call Jonathan Frakes "professor."

"That was my father," says the amiable Frakes, the erstwhile Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation over the phone from his home in Belfast, Maine. "Actually, he was Dr. Frakes. He taught English at Lehigh (University). I'm more like Riker-turns-teacher."

For the past few winters, Frakes has been teaching filmmaking at nearby Rockport College. This, in between actual directing gigs -- such as the episode he directed of ABC's Masters Of Science Fiction, airing tonight -- and the Star Trek fan-convention circuit.

It's the latter that brings him to Toronto this weekend, for the massive Fan Expo Canada at the Metro Convention Centre (where he'll be joined by fellow Star Trek TNG alumnus Dwight Schultz -- a.k.a. Lieut. Barclay).

Frakes says there are "a few Trekkies" in his classes, "and mostly people who are really interested in the process and can't believe they're taking a course with a guy who actually made movies. There's been one in each class I've taught who showed real talent. One is going to L.A. and one is going to New York. My father was a teacher his whole life and the greatest satisfaction I remember was when students of his came back and said, 'I just got a teaching job at Yale,' or 'I published my first book.' There's nothing better.

"Look at all the young actors I hired who are now big stars. I cast Katie Heigl (Grey's Anatomy, Knocked Up) and Vanessa Hudgens, who's now the star of High School Musical. Vanessa was in Thunderbirds and Katie was in Roswell (which Frakes exec produced and directed)."

Of the TNG cast, Frakes and LeVar Burton were the ones who avoided Star Trek typecasting via the director's chair.

Frakes directed two of the TNG Trek movies, Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek: First Contact. Post-Trek, he directed Clockstoppers and the live-action Thunderbirds, the latter of which flopped, which "didn't help my feature career."

Still cable and network TV keep him busy. Tonight's Masters of Science Fiction instalment, about a ship of mutants wandering through space, was written by legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison (who has a cameo as a mutant with cow's udders on his neck).

"To be able to have learned to direct via Star Trek was a blessing," he says. "I wouldn't want to have to be making a living in my 50s as an actor. You really are 'the Star Trek guy' in that situation.

"I know Brent (Spiner, a.k.a. Data) struggles with it because I hear from him all the time, and Marina (Sirtis, a.k.a. Lieut. Troi) who is a genius actor, can't get enough work. She was great in Crash. But then, as Leonard Nimoy once said, it's better to be typecast than not cast at all."

Speaking of Spiner, I tell Frakes that I was one of four reporters who spent a freewheeling day on the TNG set in 1987 before the show had even aired.

"How were you treated?" he says.

I tell him he and Spiner acted as tour guides, cracking us up all day.

He laughs and says, "Well, Brent and I have always taken on that responsibility. I just finished working with him in Vegas where they had a 20th anniversary convention for the show, and it was like we hadn't missed a beat in 20 years. We had 6,000 fans and they didn't want us to leave the stage. Even your worst jokes are funny in that situation.

"We were really blessed. I've been on shows as a guest where they hate each other. But we always had a blast."

The next, next generation

As bittersweet as it may be on the sidelines, Jonathan Frakes has been keenly interested in the progress of the upcoming Star Trek movie.

In it, Zachary Quinto (the villain Sylar on Heroes) will play the young Spock. J.J. Abrams (Lost, Mission: Impossible 3) will direct.

"I absolutely am following it," says Frakes, one of the stars of Star Trek: TNG. "I don't know how others are feeling, but I'm absolutely optimistic. I'm a huge fan of Lost and I think J.J. Abrams is a great storyteller.

"I gather from what people tell me, he's approaching it with respect and honour for the original franchise. He's got (William) Shatner and Nimoy on board, and this kid from Heroes I think is a wonderful actor."

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