Mitchell Ryan has led a hell of an acting career, one that spans decades and includes roles in such memorable films and shows as Dark Shadows, High Plains Drifter, Magnum Force, Of Mice and Men, North and South, Lethal Weapon, Santa Barbara, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Liar Liar, Grosse Pointe Blank and Dharma & Greg. But back in the mid-80s, he came oh-so-close to landing the role of Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Patrick Stewart, of course, landed the part and made it his own, and now no one could ever imagine anyone else occupying the captain’s chair. Mitchell must have made an impression on the powers that be, however, as he was cast as Riker’s father, Kyle Riker, in the second-season TNG episode, “The Icarus Factor.” That hour found the Riker boys butting heads, fighting it out (anbo-jyutsu!!), and then hugging it out. And let’s not forget all the charm that Kyle laid on Dr. Pulaski, his old flame.
StarTrek.com has long sought to interview Ryan, and with his upcoming appearance at The Hollywood Show – an autograph event set to be held Feb. 9-11 — we finally got our chance. The actor, now in his mid-80s (that IMDB entry is inaccurate, he noted), happily discussed his filmography, retirement, the Picard near miss and memories of “The Icarus Factor.” Here’s what he had to say.
You were reportedly up for the role of Captain Picard on TNG. How accurate is that?
It’s true. I was. I was pretty well considered until they ran across that incredible British actor… Patrick Stewart. I don’t know how close I came, but I was told (at the time) I was really being considered and it was looking good.
Did you meet with Gene Roddenberry?
I think I read the thing for him. I’m pretty sure that he was in the room. As I remember, yes.
Did it work out for the best that you didn't get it, or would you have preferred to have played Picard? We ask that because you worked pretty much nonstop in films and shows during TNG’s run….
That’s an interesting question. I don't know. Who knows? I never really planned my career in any way, shape or form. I just did what came up. It was great, what I got to do in my career, but theater is the only thing you can plan, whereas films and television come up. As an actor, you turn down a couple of things that are really awful, but most of the time I just took what was offered. Ricardo Montalban, when he got the SAG Actors Award, and it was presented by Anthony Quinn, said, "Anthony Quinn gets 20 scripts and he chooses the one he wants to be in, and I have to do the one they send me." That's sort of how it is.
Were you cast as Kyle Riker via an offer or an audition?
That was an offer. Incredible fun, too, doing that episode. It was a really fun, absolute amazing episode. All the armor, whatever it was, at the end, and the battle with Jonathan. And working with Diana. They were great. They're both great kids, or kids I call them. (Laughs). I was in a miniseries, North and South, with Jonathan, but I honestly can’t remember if we had scenes together in that. But it was great working with him on Star Trek.
Our understanding is that Roddenberry didn't want too much emotion between Kyle and William, because he thought such things would be a thing of the past by the time the show took place. Apparently, your director, Robert Iscove, was displeased about that. He felt it limited the episode. He wanted you guys to be emotional and play father son beats, and he never returned to Trek because of that experience. Do you recall any of that?
I recall some sort of thing about it, and Roddenberry was right, because the love between the father and the son couldn't be shown, but it was there because Jonathan and I liked each other. I don’t remember how Jonathan felt about it or how Roddenberry handled the director, but it wasn't a problem on the set in any way, shape, or form. The idea was that they hadn’t seen each other in a long time and had separated badly that last time they were together. So, when the father shows up, they’re just being honest in front of each other, and you get a… not particularly hostile, but uncomfortable reunion. It worked out pretty well. So, Roddenberry was probably right.
Given that the Riker-Riker relationship was so effective and that Kyle’s scenes with Dr. Pulaski percolated, too, how disappointed were you not to play Kyle again?
I did feel it would lead to some more episodes, which it never did, but there wasn't any commitment from anyone for any other episodes. I just felt the relationships were interesting and that it would have been nice to do a couple more. Who wouldn’t want to do more? What’s funny, though, is I only ever saw the episode the first time it showed. I haven't seen it since. That’s a long time ago.
Speaking of a long time, your career spans more six-plus decades, 150 roles on TV, in movies and on stage as well. What of your work are you personally proudest of?
A few things, like Monte Walsh. Nice part. A couple of TV movies, which they ground out in the 70s and 80s, that were wonderful parts that turned out to be marvelously fun to play. One was The Christmas Coal Mine Miracle. How about that for a title? You might be surprised to know it was about a miracle during a coal mine disaster on Christmas Eve. John Carradine was in it, the old man, Kurt Russell, and that marvelous girl who played my daughter, who was in Little House on the Prairie for 1,000 years. What was her name?
Melissa Gilbert, yes. It was a well-written script for a melodrama. Let me see, Of Mice and Men, which I did with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid… It was not a totally successful rendition, but I played Slim and I was proud of that characterization. Dharma & Greg was great fun. That was incredible, and that was a marvelous character we developed, me and Chuck Lorre. It was a lovely experience, the whole thing. I was the General in Lethal Weapon. Liar Liar was fun. I had a great time on my two Client Eastwood movies. They were totally different kinds of parts, too, for me in Magnum Force and High Plains Drifter.
Shifting the conversation to the present, what are you up to these days?
I quit acting and was enjoying my life beautifully with my five grandkids, and then I got an artistic bug, I guess you’d call it. Somebody suggested, “Why don't you write something?” That was about 10 years ago. So, I've been writing. I have three novels that aren't quite done yet. They’re being edited, and one of them is almost finished. And I’ve written a lot of short stories. I took a class and worked in a seminar with an editor. So, I'm having a great time doing all that. I do a play every now and then around L.A. That's about it, other than squiring my grandsons and granddaughters around. They're all going off to college and some of them are already done. It's amazing how life goes on.
You'll be at The Hollywood Show along with several other Trek guests, as well as a few of your North and South co-stars, though Jonathan Frakes just postponed his appearance. How do you enjoy meeting the fans and catching up with some of your old acting colleagues?
I think that's going to be great fun. I actually just found a fabulous old picture of me and Jean Simmons, who played my wife in North and South. We’re in costume and we look like the king and queen of the south. I used to do events like these when I was under contract at Universal. We had to do it every Sunday, or other times, too. We'd sit in a booth and people would come up and we’d sign pictures and shoot the breeze. I don't mind it at all.
When you meet people on the street, or if they approach you at The Hollywood Show, which of the films and shows you mentioned do they most often want to discuss or have you sign a photo or poster from
Lethal Weapon. That was a good character, too, and a good characterization. I’d say almost 95% of the time, when people meet me, that’s the one they mention. They can't even remember my name, but they remember Lethal Weapon, and the General. It makes sense. It was an incredibly popular movie and it did really well. It was a startling kind of part.
The Hollywood Show will be held Feb. 9-11 at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel. Go to www.HollywoodShow.com for details.