On August 6, thousands of sci-fi fans will invade Las Vegas for a massive four day Star Trek convention. Over a hundred Star Trek celebrities from the franchise’s five series are scheduled to attend (see www.creationent.com), including Michael Dante.
As any Star Trek fan worth their weight in tribbles knows, Dante guest-starred in the 1967 original series episode, “Friday’s Child” where the Enterprise crew visit the planet Capella IV and attempt to negotiate mineral rights with the local tribe.
“The exterior shots were filmed at Vazquez Rocks, near Santa Clarita, California, where it was 117 degrees,” recalled Dante, whose alien character, Maab, was dressed head-to-foot in a stiflingly hot costume. “It was a beautiful outfit, but with no air circulation. So much perspiration drained into my boots that I squished when I walked. I lost 7 lbs on the first day of shooting.”
Dante was offered the role after Star Trek creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry spotted him on the TV series “Custer” and was impressed.
“He called me in and said the role was mine if I wanted it,” explained Dante. “He described the show as a western in the sky.”
That western formula – good guy verses bad guy, a simple, intimate script about people, with great cast chemistry and not buried in special effects – would define the magic of the original Star Trek series for generations to come.
Dante was already experienced with the traditional cowboy genre.
“I did two westerns with Audie Murphy, ‘Arizona Raiders’ and ‘Apache Rifles,’ he noted. “Audie was the greatest American hero of World War II, but never talked about his war experience. He was a quiet, sensitive and soft spoken guy with a great sense of humor who also wrote beautiful poetry and song lyrics.”
As outlined in his 2014 autobiography, “From Hollywood to Michael Dante Way” (seewww.michaeldanteway.com), Dante worked alongside other Hollywood greats over the years.
His first film was the 1956 bio-drama “Somebody Up There Likes Me” starring Paul Newman as boxer Rocky Graziano, and featured Steve McQueen in his first role, too. During filming, a truck lost control when its brakes failed and hurtled towards the cast.
“Paul jumped out of the way, but a cameraman was sent flying,” recalled Dante. “Then it headed towards me and Steve, who was admiring pigeons on a wall. I pulled him out of the way.”
In “Kid Galahad,” another boxing film, Dante sparred with Elvis Presley. The two performed the fight scenes themselves, with Presley landing a blow on Dante, cutting his lip.
“He kept apologizing over and over,” said Dante. “But he was a joy to work with, a true gentleman – never late, no temperament, and a fine actor.”
Off-screen, Dante often crossed paths with Hollywood legends, including Errol Flynn at a dinner party, a few months before he died in 1959.
“He was with his young lady, Beverly Aadland,” he said. “She was sweet and very attentive to Errol, who was not well. He still looked handsome, but was rather puffy and had lost the great body he once had. He was very charming and talked about preparing to sail his yacht up to Canada, to sell, which is where he died.”
Dante even ran into McQueen again, during casting for 1968’s “Bullitt.”
“The producers wanted me in the film. We met for lunch with Steve, who arrived a half-hour late. But I made one mistake: I stood up to leave before Steve, and he said ‘Did you get taller since I last saw you?’ I knew I was off the picture because his contract stated that he didn’t have to work with any taller actor. And to think I had saved his butt all those years ago!”
With over 180 TV and film roles to his credit, Dante remains delighted that one 50-year-old TV role still draws such wide fan dedication.
He recalls an encounter during a trip to the San Diego Zoo with his niece and nephew.
“As we stood by the giant bird cage, I noticed four people staring my way and they yelled ‘Maab!’ One girl even carried a thick portfolio filled with Star Trek photos. I signed some, and asked how she happened to have them with her. ‘You never know when you’ll run into a Star Trek actor’ was her reply.”
“Star Trek fans are amazing,” Dante added, “the best in the world.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers.