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Keeping up with a Cardassian: Star Trek's Andrew Robinson is coming to town

"Star Trek" actor Andrew Robinson in the documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Screenshot by WUWF Public Media
"Star Trek" actor Andrew Robinson in the documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Andrew Robinson’s career has taken him from the East Coast to the West Coast to the edge of the galaxy. Andy is best known for the role of Garak, the morally ambiguous Cardassian on "Star Trek Deep Space Nine," but he has been a working stage and screen actor since the 1960s. Robinson will be a celebrity guest this weekend at Pensacon. He spoke this week with Bob Barrett, who asked him about one of his earliest roles, the Scorpio Killer in the original "Dirty Harry."

Andrew Robinson: Oh, well, that was my first film, so it was an introduction to a whole new world for me. But I loved the experience of working with a great director, working with Clint, and working in San Francisco. I was on the East Coast at the time when they hired me. So, that was such a pleasure and a real introduction to the world of film.

Bob Barrett: From the beginning of that film, did you see the 'Dirty Harry' character resonating with the public as much as it did?

Robinson: No. But I mean, when I first got it the script, I'd never done a film. I was a stage actor in New York, and I didn't even know how to read a script. A friend of mine who was more experienced had to help me out, because when I read the script, I thought, this is pretty boring, and this character doesn't seem to do much except kill people or threaten to kill people. And I thought I wasn't even sure that I wanted to do it. I did want to act in film, but I had no idea what this was about. But then my friend assured me, 'No, this is really an interesting character.' And then he helped me understand how you can build a character on film, and it's a different way of building character (than) on stage, which I knew how to do. I had done a lot of theater at that point. And then, sure enough, when I got out to San Francisco and started working, it was a real revelation to me. It was an eye-opener. I so loved the process. Of course, I was working with a great director, Don Siegel, who had done a lot of really wonderful films. He was the perfect person for me to make my sort of film debut. And then, of course, working with Clint, who's at that point, he was a huge star, but very workmanlike. He was very professional. Basically, he was just another actor that I was working with. And that's the way he wanted it. It was a magical time. I mean, it was really an amazing time. And when I saw the film in a screening the first time, Don Siegel invited me to a screening at Warner Brothers, I think it was, and I saw it. It took my breath away. I had no idea. I had no idea that, first of all, the film has a lot of power. It still does. The film holds up. It has incredible visual power. And Lalo Schifren's score underscores the power of the story. But then my work, I thought, my God, I had no idea I was capable of this kind of thing. It was an adventure.

Barrett: You certainly had quite the head of hair.

Robinson: (chuckles) Yes, indeed. Yes, I did.

Barrett: And did I read correctly that your stepson had a minor role in that?

Robinson: Yeah, actually, the very final sequence where Harry kills the Scorpio killer, and the killer grabs this kid who's fishing on a dock, in a quarry, and holds him hostage. That was, Steve. Dear Steve. And I had to scare the hell out of him. At one point, the director said to me, he said, 'You know, listen, he's not scared enough. You're going to have to scare him.' And I said, 'Come on, Steve, don't do this. To know your mother will kill me if I abuse you.' But it worked out great. He was properly scared.

Barrett: Well, let's talk about the role that so many people are going to be interested in. Your role on "Star Trek Deep Space Nine" as the Cardassian tailor, Garak. That seemed to be a great role because you never really knew where that guy was coming from, did you?

Robinson: No, never. And it was. And for that reason, it was a great role. I mean, he had a subtext and an inner life that was all his own. That role was a gift from the acting gods. I miss playing that role, actually. I don't miss the makeup or the prosthetics, but I do miss playing that role.

Barrett: How difficult is it working with that much stuff on your face, just trying to convey emotion?

Robinson: Well, after a while, you get used to it. I mean, when I first put it on, I thought, 'God, this is going to kill me.' And I'm claustrophobic to begin with. And so it was like one of the most uncomfortable costumes, and makeup experiences, or probably the most, uncomfortable one that I've ever had. But once you get going and you start acting, then you just forget about it. And the technology of the makeup is so high quality. The facial pieces that they put on you, the latex, it doesn't encase you as much as it looks. And there is a certain amount of flexibility so that facially, I can express what's happening, and, not just through the eyes.

Andrew Robinson in "Star Trek"
Andrew Robinson in "Star Trek"

Barrett: Who was the most famous real live person you ever portrayed?

Robinson: Probably John Kennedy, I would think. You know, Liberace is up there, too.

Barrett: Those were the two I had written down.

Robinson: Yeah, yeah, there are a few others, but not as famous.

Barrett: Was Liberace still alive when you played him?

Robinson: No. He had died a few years before.

Barrett: That must have been fun, though.

Robinson: Oh, it was great. And what was also great about it was that they had his real costumes and his jewelry that I was able to use. So that was quite amazing, putting on his stuff. And the man was, he was a powerful, physically powerful person. And you could tell because the weight of his costumes nearly killed me. They were so heavy. And his jewelry, I mean, his jewelry was huge that they wore in his fingers, and obviously, he had big hands, and so they had to tape that, the rings on me. It was pretty funny.

Barrett: Could you talk just for a little bit about making the movie 'Hellraiser,' because you were the lead in that movie, and that took some people aback.

Robinson: No, it was a strange film. It was probably the strangest film I've ever done in my life. And also at the time, that was the late 80s. It was a groundbreaker in terms of horror. And again, I met this, at the time, young man, Clive Barker, who wrote and directed it. And I couldn't believe that he (wrote this) because he looked like this choir boy from Liverpool, and with this incredible imagination. But I had a great time because I was able to play those two characters. You know, the good brother and then finally the bad brother. It was an eye-opener for me, actually, because I always thought that horror films were a certain genre. That’s fine. But this one, this one had depth to it. And I was also working with wonderful people. I mean, Clive, of course, who's a genius, and then Claire Higgins, one of the best actors in England at the time. It was such a pleasure.

Barrett: When you go to conventions and meet the fans, what do they want from you? What do they want to talk about?

Robinson: They just want to talk. They just want to introduce themselves. I'm always flattered, I'm honored that they felt strongly enough about my work, that they would come, and I basically will talk about whatever they want to talk about. And it's a pleasure. I actually have a good time doing it. And as you know, fans come from all walks of life, everything from soup to nuts. I don't mean crazy people. Well, I've run into a few of those too, but not many, thankfully. But it's always interesting to me what gets them into this genre. Why "Deep Space Nine," and "Star Trek," has grabbed their imagination. So it's a pleasure, it gets me out. And it's also, interestingly enough, I've been doing this for a long time. Going to these conventions was the first time I ever had a chance to meet the people who actually support me, to meet the fans. Before I never did, there were no conventions, that I ever went to, until I started going to the "Star Trek" conventions. And now, because of "Hellraiser," I'll also go to horror conventions as well, but they're totally different from "Star Trek"

Barrett: And, obviously, there are no "Dirty Harry" conventions.

Robinson: No. (chuckles) And that’s fine. That was way back in the day.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.