Robert Picardo is a talented actor best known for his roles as The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, and Richard Woolsey on Stargate: Atlantis.
Who influenced your early career?
I had the good fortune to play Jack Lemmon’s contentious son in a Broadway play called Tribute when I was 24-years-old. It was an extraordinary opportunity and it seemed every young actor wanted this part. (Star Wars had opened several months before the production and Mark Hamill wanted to play the role. When I met Brent Spiner for the first time 16 years later, his first words to me were “You stole my part in Tribute!” )
The play centered on the father-son relationship and there were a number of big scenes with just the two of us onstage. Jack was so supportive of my work and self-effacing about his own brilliant career. If I could give a gift to any fellow actor, it would be to work with someone like Jack early in their career: a Hollywood legend for decades, his humanity, kindness and modest take on celebrity made him a mentor and inspiration to me.
And I learned a few things about comedy as well!
What role did you play in the development of The Doctor on Star Trek and Richard Woolsey on Stargate?
The Doctor had the best arc of any character in Voyager, but that was baked-into the writers’ conception of the role: he started as a blank slate and grew into a fully formed, human-like individual.
One of the joys of playing The Doctor was that he did not have to obey any of the rules.
Traditionally, Starfleet officers have the burden of having to act heroically. The Doctor had so many negative qualities that were very un- Starfleet. Early in his development, his “emotional subroutines”, intended to give him empathy for his patients, seemed to give him empathy primarily for himself! He was often a pompous blowhard, to great comic effect. He could be self-involved, even cowardly, in dangerous situations where he was outside his programmed expertise.
I think it was surprising and fun for the audience to see a character in Starfleet uniform “behave badly.” But, in crisis, The Doctor, eventually rose to his better self and his most admirable quality was his ultimate desire to expand his program to be ever more useful in serving his fellow crew-members.
I made quite a few suggestions to the writers, some of which they used and some of which they didn’t. (Producer Brannon Braga does a hilarious impression of me emerging from the bushes as he’s catching a smoke to pitch an idea.)
I was responsible for The Doctor not having a name (already decided and “predicted” in the opening credit roll) and for his being an opera fan (though I was a bit terrified when producer Jeri Taylor turned this into singing rather than listening to opera!).
Perhaps my favorite idea for my character was that he considered himself the best teacher of “how to act human” and teach Seven of Nine – through role-playing scenarios – how to behave appropriately in different social situations after years in the Borg collective.
This gave me four years of often hilarious and touching scenes with cast-mate Jeri Ryan that culminated in the My Fair Lady-like episode Someone to Watch Over Me, in which The Doctor falls in love with his star pupil.
The development of Richard Woolsey on Stargate was a very different experience.
The character was introduced in Stargate: SG-1’s episode “Heros Pt 2” as a bad guy, brought in to interview the regular crew members and assign blame for the tragic death of Dr. Fraiser.
I was offered the role by Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie who were familiar with my work on Voyager.
As I recall, I shot 12 pages of complicated dialogue in one day which functioned as “filler material,“ weaving together scenes from previous episodes into a “clip show.” This was not a very auspicious beginning for what grew into one of my favorite professional experiences as an actor.
Joe and Paul were absolutely delightful to work for, as were executives Brad Wright and Robert Cooper and the rest of the writing staff.
Richard Woolsey was intended to be a “one-off,” but apparently Joe and Paul decided they liked me and wanted to have me back. But they had painted themselves into a corner by introducing Woolsey as a totally unlikeable, one-dimensional, colorless, personality-free “douchebag.” (Now that I think of it, this sounds a bit like The Doctor in the Voyager pilot! )
But—each time the character recurred on SG-1 and, later, Atlantis, the writers managed to introduce a glimmer of a positive quality into him. In his second appearance, Woolsey went from a “douchebag“ to a “douchebag who meant well.” In his third appearance he went from a “douchebag who meant well” to a “douchebag who meant well and seemed aware that he was a douchebag.” In his fourth appearance, he grew from a “douchebag who meant well and seemed aware that he was a douchebag to a “douche bag who meant well and seemed aware that he was a douchebag — and didn’t want to be a douchebag anymore.”
When I finally got a phone call at my California home from Joe Mallozzi, telling me that they wanted me to be the new commander of the Atlantis Expedition, I said words to this effect: “Wait a minute, Joe! I have no leadership experience or skills. I’m a douchebag and a coward. (Woolsey ran away from danger faster than anyone in the SG-1 episode “The Scourge.”) Everybody hates me. Nobody respects me. How am I going to be a leader?“
And Joe said, “Don’t worry about it. That’s our problem.”
And I said ,”Great. I’ll do it.”
In Woolsey’s first episode as leader, there are three subtle and very clever moments written in the script designed to build audience empathy for him: (1) when he can’t figure out how to open the doors to exit to the briefing room, (2) when he explains the framed picture in his new office is the dog his wife got in their divorce, and (3) when Teyla hands her infant child to him and he is at a total loss for what to do. (A dog he could have handled).
The writers had a clear vision on how to rehabilitate the Woolsey of the past!
The only suggestion I recall making to Joe was that — as an homage to his prior life — Woolsey chose to relax in his quarters at the end of a hard day by putting on a business suit.
Mr. Woolsey’s transformation from “armchair quarterback” (a “think-tank” guy who assesses the leadership skills of others with no first hand experience of his own in the subject) to a fully credible commander — with the last line of dialogue in the Atlantis finale! — is a tribute to the writers’ skill.
I also think the character’s journey may have resonated with older viewers because the economic crisis of 2007-2008 resulted in a lot of people needing to reinvent themselves in second and third careers to cope with collapsing retirement plans. Woolsey was a model of reinvention.
Which “Stargate: Atlantis” actors were most and least like their characters?
This is a hard question for me to answer. I was upgraded from recurring guest star to regular in season 5 and, as much as I enjoyed my fellow cast members, I didn’t get to know them as well as they knew each other.
But every one of them was kind and welcoming to me, and made me feel at home in my new capacity.
I will say that David Hewlett made me laugh as much or more than any actor I’ve ever worked with.
He also seemed to share many of McKay’s qualities and quirks.
One of your fans,, Colleen Scott of Niagara Falls, Ontario, asks, “If a Stargate in-cannon series comes to fruition, would you come back as Woolsey?”
I consider my experience in the Stargate franchise a gift in my career. I did not have to audition for the role. I did not have a network test (as actors customarily do for a series regular part). I was allowed to ad-lib a joke while shooting! — after seven years of submitting joke suggestions days in advance for “approval from above,” as was the Star Trek protocol.
Why would I not want to come back?
Let’s say you are tasked with writing a Woolsey-centric pilot for a fourth in-cannon Stargate in which you violate orders and take Atlantis and the team back to the Pegasus galaxy.
What crisis would precipitate your actions, which team members would be most and least supportive of the effort to return, and how would Woolsey get Stargate Command on board with his decision after-the-fact?
Hey. That isn’t an interview question! You’re trolling for a series pitch, a couple of sample episode plots plus an entire show bible.
You’ll have to put me on retainer!