He’ll probably be forever immortalized as the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But Brent Spiner is also an accomplished stage (Sunday In The Park With George, 1776) and screen (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Independence Day) actor.
But yes, he will probably always be Data - not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I’m can’t recall the exact rationale for doing the interview, though it may have just been the recurring theme in the bulk of the interviews I’ve done - a whim. I do recall that Brent was a good sport when it came to the length of the interview, which he generally didn’t do at the time.
Here it is…
KEN PLUME: Am I correct in understanding you’re a Texas native?
BRENT SPINER: Correct.
SPINER: That’s even right.
PLUME: This would be Texas in the ’50s, early ’60s?
SPINER: My time in Texas?
PLUME: Your frame of reference…
SPINER: Pretty much, yeah.
PLUME: What was that atmosphere like at that time? You hear about that being a turbulent time in certain other areas of the country, but you never really get to hear about what was going on in Texas…
SPINER: Houston was a really great place to grow up. I don’t recall it being turbulent, but I recall it being really pleasant. It wasn’t that big a town then - I mean, it was big, but it wasn’t like it is now. It wasn’t like a huge metropolis. I remember the Shamrock Hilton Hotel - it was sort of the focal point, the center point of Houston. That hotel was actually the hotel that I believe was in the movie Giant - the opening of that hotel is what Jett Rink’s hotel was. That’s because it was opened originally - before the Hilton’s got it - by a guy named Glen McCarthy, who basically James Dean was playing in Giant. He was the wildcatter.
PLUME: Would you say that it was the cosmopolitan center of Houston at that time?
SPINER: Definitely … The big ballroom there was where all the touring greats performed - at the Shamrock Hilton. IF you were ever going to see somebody, it would be there.
PLUME: Was it a place that you frequented for those type of performances?
SPINER: Well, I really frequented it for the swimming pool, which was gigantic. The biggest swimming pool I’ve still ever seen. It was just where all the kids hung out in the summer. And I mean kids, because we were young when we were there. I remember nights in Houston, and our idea of a good time… there was a place called the Blue Bonnet Gardens that served watermelon. To date myself, these were the days when you could only get watermelon in the summer.
PLUME: When it was truly a seasonal product.
SPINER: Exactly. Houston had air conditioning, but not much, so to cool off you’d go out for a drive at night and then go to the Blue Bonnet Gardens for watermelon.
PLUME: It was generally confined to businesses, it wasn’t really a residential thing at the time, the air conditioning and such?
SPINER: Oh yeah, hardly anyone had - I remember the first air conditioner we got was a window unit. I would sit in front of it about 12 hours a day, just looking at it and praying to it - the god of cool air.
PLUME: At what age was that?
SPINER: Probably around 7.
PLUME: So at that point it was a very revelatory moment.
SPINER: It truly was. Really, when I think about Houston and what we did, it’s an odd thing because my mother did the same thing when she was a child, and I’m sure the kids today - well, I don’t know if they’re doing it today - but for years the tradition in Houston for kids, like 11-13, in that area, was to get on a bus, take the bus downtown, go to a place called James’ Coney Island for a hotdog, and then go to a movie at one of the three downtown movie theaters that were palaces… you know, those big movie theaters that don’t exist anymore.
PLUME: So it was all first run …
SPINER: Yeah… big, beautiful - I remember when The Ten Commandments opened, they turned the whole place into an Egyptian motif… which it remained. The Metropolitan Theater remained Egyptian for years.
PLUME: That was one of the first Scope films, wasn’t it?
SPINER: I think it was.
PLUME: So it must have been an impressive sight.
SPINER: Oh, it was. Anytime you went to the movies in those days it was impressive, because it was a big deal. Do you remember Road Show engagements? I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia on a road show engagement. I’m not sure exactly what that meant, but I think you had your tickets in advance and there was always an intermission.
PLUME: Wasn’t it the movie equivalent of going to a play? “This is the destination - this is what we’re doing for the evening?”
SPINER: Yeah, absolutely.
PLUME: How big an influence was television at that time in your life?
SPINER: Huge, huge. My mother owned a furniture store when I was a kid. I say my mother, because my father passed away when I was 10 months old. That’s why I don’t reference him as much. But my mother had a furniture store that had been my father’s, and she ran it through the first 7, 8 years of my life. So we had a television pretty early on. I know from the age of about… certainly 2 or 3… we had gotten a television by then. I used to sit in front of it in the morning and watch the test pattern for at least a good two hours before television came on. And that really dates me, because there were test patterns then. It was an Indian head.
PLUME: How mesmerizing was even the test pattern?
SPINER: Oh, it was fantastic.
PLUME: I just can’t imagine something like that… it must have been like having the equivalent of a movie in your home.
SPINER: It was, and it was the 50’s so we were watching - do you know the film Avalon? It’s a brilliant movie, and it really captured that whole feeling of what it was like to get a TV back then, what it meant; and how it probably destroyed America as a family.
PLUME: Provided too good a distraction…
SPINER: Exactly. But I remember watching television in the early days, and the things that really just grabbed me, like Sid Caesar, and Berle, and Steve Allen, and that kind of stuff.
PLUME: It’s interesting to hear where your tastes gravitated towards at that time.
SPINER: Oh, I know… One of the great nights of my life, and this is really embarrassing to say, is that I watched Lucy, first run.
PLUME: Embarrassing from which perspective?
SPINER: How old I am, actually. But it was, I think it was Tuesday or Wednesday nights, Lucy, and it was incredible because most people now that watch Lucy have seen them at least 50 or 60 times. But we had a new Lucy, every week.
PLUME: And the concept of reruns was completely alien…
SPINER: Oh, totally. They were doing like 36 shows a year then, maybe 48.
PLUME: And summers was what, summer replacement shows at that time - as opposed to summer reruns…
SPINER: Exactly. Summer replacement shows that I remember really getting on to - well, I really fondly remember the era of Warner Brother Westerns… with Lawman, and Cheyenne, and Bronco Lane, and all that kind of stuff.