The Final Frontier

Sci-fi conventions are where movie stars go to burn brightly one more time

Jun 28, 2000 at 4:00 am
Had Julian Glover not broken his leg at the beginning of January, it's quite likely he would be off filming a movie. But, Glover reminds, having a broken leg in the movie business is like being pregnant in the movie business: "It lasts five years," meaning casting agents don't phone up damaged goods and offer them choice roles, and so these are lean times, especially for a 65-year-old supporting actor. That's why the English actor is killing a couple of days in the sweltering suburbs north of Dallas, entertaining the geeks at 15 bucks a pop. Yet he does so with the tact and aplomb of a Shakespearean actor for whom all the world's a sound stage. The man who would be King Lear in September (at the New Globe Theatre, no less) sweats charm, even when sipping a tallboy Bud from a plastic bag.

At this moment, Julian Glover sits behind a long table, writing his name over and over again. When he looks up, he sees a man standing in front of him, and behind this man stand dozens more who look just like him--people who dress like tourists in their own home towns, cameras dangling over heaving chests adorned with images of Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker and James Bond. The man, who's either 25 or 55, points to the glossy photographs splayed out in front of Glover, which feature Glover in various costumes.

"So, which one are you most recognized as?" The man laughs, as though sharing a private joke. He wants to know which character Glover's most often mistaken for: General Veers from The Empire Strikes Back, Aristotle Kristatos from For Your Eyes Only, or Walter Donovan from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They're but three roles he's played in a four-decade-long career, yet they will forever define him. Glover is the sci-fi fan's trifecta, the lottery ticket.

He peers over his reading glasses, smiles, and says it's none of the above. If he's recognized at all, it's usually by someone who asks him only, "Aren't you famous?" Glover always responds, "Well, apparently not." Because he's English, the sarcasm doesn't sting so cruelly. The man decides he will have Glover sign a photograph of him wearing his Star Wars getup, though women usually have him sign a still from Indiana Jones. "It's a rather dashing photo," Glover says later.

Exactly 48 hours earlier, Glover sat in a tiny room with Richard Kiel (best known as the braces-gnashing baddie Jaws in two James Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) and William Sanderson (the toy-making Sebastian from Blade Runner and Newhart's Larry) and tried to fathom what a science-fiction convention would be like. Being a con virgin (and who among the con's fan attendees isn't?), he could only imagine it: the writer's cramp, the remember-in-that-scene questions, the gawking as though he were an animal behind glass. Hard to believe, but the ultimate trivia question is rarely asked to appear at such conventions. He's at the Plano Centre this weekend, June 24-25, only at the insistence of friend Jeremy Bulloch, the man who wore Boba Fett's outfit in the Star Wars films--and has raked in a small fortune on the con circuit, despite the fact that his face was never even seen on screen.

"If you're a doctor or a lawyer or an actor, you go to parties and people talk shop," Glover says. "If you're a lawyer, people say, 'I've got this problem with this guy who's attacking my chickens...' If you're an actor, people say, "Weren't you' You talk business..."

" why not get paid for it?" Sanderson chimes in, speaking in a sweet, soft Tennessee accent.

"So why not get paid for it," Glover says emphatically. "Thank you. If I don't know the answer to a question someone asks me about a specific scene I was in, I'll just say, 'I don't know.' I'm responsible to myself, not other people. I hope I will give good value."

One would think Julian Glover would be discomfited attending something like this convention, which bears the moniker Hollywood Expo. He's a proud man not given to sentimentalize a career that began on the highest note (he appeared in 1963's Tom Jones, alongside Albert Finney) and has seen its share of good and wretched moments. Sci-fi conventions have long been punch lines, their attendees--fans and actors alike--the butts of jokes, but Glover seems somehow different for the usual convention attraction. He's an actor, not just some Halloween mask.

Conventions of this sort were once the dominion of children and their parents; they were playgrounds where little boys bought comics and met their TV heroes. Now, they bear the stigma of parody: Last year's Galaxy Quest, with its has-been actors and their obese acolytes, was one more nail in the coffin. And they have become, in large part, hangouts for the stunted and the cynical--those who either collect toys instead of lives or those who sell their autographs on eBay hours after gathering them. To Walter Koenig, Star Trek's Mr. Chekov, Galaxy Quest "was incredibly painful," he tells an assembled crowd on Saturday afternoon. "When they're signing autographs, it was just too close to home." The crowd giggles and applauds, if only to prove it's in on the joke.

But the 63-year-old Koenig--who fondly recalls the conventions of the 1970s, when 30,000 lined the streets of New York--likes these people, these fanatics who sew together their memories until they become Kirk and Klingon costumes. To him, they're no different from the football fan who paints his face in team colors and bares his beer-swollen belly on television. They're just practitioners of different religions, that's all. Koenig adores these people because they keep him famous. Were they to disappear, so would he--one more supporting actor disposed of in Hollywood's dustbin, one more rerun switched off and forgotten about.

"The fans are still very supportive, and that's nice," Koenig says during an interview. "It's nice to know there are people out there who remember you, if you're not being current in terms of your career. I also get something out of it. There's financial remuneration, and you certainly cannot ignore that, but I think it's symbiotic. The fans want to see us, and it gives them a charge, and it charges us. It gives us an energy to know there's still respect and admiration in an industry where that's hard to come by. I don't think it's fair to malign fans. The way fans are cataloged by their interest in science fiction isn't fair. This is just another means of expression. And with the actors, there's a tacit implication that if you're doing conventions, it means you can't get work. In some cases, it might be so. It certainly is a significant source of income, but it's nice to get out there and say thank-you to the people who made it possible."

For two days, men dressed as Boba Fett, Imperial storm troopers, Qui-Gon Jinn, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Captain Kirk, and Klingons strut through the convention center. With pistols and light sabers in hand, they swagger through the crowd; they float, convinced for a handful of moments that they are indeed heroes instead of junior-college students, housewives, and accountants. One young man, dressed in his homemade Boba Fett uniform, admits that "Halloween, sci-fi conventions, and Renaissance fairs are the highlight of my year." Another Boba Fett--a 22-year-old junior-college student from East Texas--explains his collecting fetish inevitably led to his designing and donning the suit. "But I have more fun wearing it in a non-sci-fi setting," he says. "Sometimes, we like to barge into a mall, but there has to be a group of you in uniform, because sometimes they give you crap. We live in a town where if you don't look normal, they give you crap."

In the convention center's main hall, exhibitors peddle their exotic wares: Klingon hockey jerseys, Japanese Star Trek posters, bootlegged video tapes of unaired television shows, authentic Star Wars props, wrestling junk and comic-book porn, and on and on until it begins to resemble the world's largest science-fantasy garage sale. Puzzles, toys, games, dolls, and comic books thrown out years ago now go for dollars on the penny; a Starsky & Hutch doll set, still in the original box, sells to a fat, bespectacled man in his 50s for $250. There is no such thing as detritus to a collector of science-fiction memorabilia: One man's trash is another fetishist's treasure.

But the money flows most freely during the autograph sessions, where grown men happily hand over $20 bills for the signatures of cinema's benchwarmers. Richard Kiel charges no less than $15, which, as a starting price, gets you a signed black-and-white photo. Kiel, like all the celebrities in attendance, brings his own photos, and his assortment spills onto several tables. One can pick from The Longest Yard, Force 10 from Navarone, Happy Gilmore, even The Monkees and Cannonball Run II, but the Bond pictures sell best. Twenty bucks and up get you a color picture, a personalized signature, and a private moment with Kiel, during which he'll grab your head and let you feel like James Bond, if but for a moment.

"I've been with other actors who have the one show they did, and all the questions are about that one show, and that would get to be nerve-racking," says the 60-year-old Kiel. "But I still work, even though I was in a car wreck and I have some physical limitations. People still use me, so when someone asks me, 'What have you done lately?' I don't have to cringe. I enjoy this. I live in a tiny town of 7,500 people, and everybody knows me as Archie and Jennifer's father or Diane's husband, and I'm no big deal, so it's kinda nice to go from that--"Would you unload the dishwasher?'--to being a movie star for a moment."

Kiel, like Glover, did not appear on the convention circuit until this year; he was simply too busy to catch a ride on the gravy train. But neighbor Grace Lee Whitney, best known as Yeoman Rand on the original Star Trek, convinced Kiel there was fun to be had and money to be made; the con game is a lucrative one. Kiel attended his first convention in Los Angeles at the beginning of the year, and he figures he will start going to one every other month. How can one turn down adoration and a payday?

Ask them why they do it, and they tell you it's for the fans, which is a little like a stripper telling you she's dancing to put herself through law school. And the fans buy it at $20 a pop, the going rate for a celebrity's signature and, perhaps coincidentally, a lap dance at most topless bars. Kenny Baker, Star Wars' R2-D2 and a ubiquitous presence at the Hollywood Expo, has the car collection to show for his hard work. The con circuit has made him a fortune.

Others are just along for the thrill of it, the loose change and chance to be honored once more before fading into history. Timothy Moxon's biography sits in front of him on a table, to remind those who walk by that he is indeed someone who, however briefly, sat in fame's warming light. Moxon has made but two films, the most recent of which was 33 years ago, but the former solider in the Royal Air Force who served during World War II refuses to be forgotten. He appeared, for a small moment, as Strangways in 1962's Dr. No, the first Bond film, and it was a flicker that has lasted a lifetime. Here, sitting at a table sandwiched between Julian Glover and grown-up Bond girls and the man they called Jaws, Moxon finds a small spotlight shining on him. He bathes in it all weekend, sticking around long after The X-Files' Smoking Man, William B. Davis, and Mr. Chekov have called it quits.

So too has Julian Glover, a good sport right until the very end.

"It wasn't frightening," Glover says, hours before the con winds down. "It was nice. People are so enthusiastic. I mean, one can be sarcastic about this sort of thing, but it's as good as hobby as any. It occupies their minds, and they just love it, and they hand over money for it, which is great. And they're all smiling people. If you see happy faces, you respond to it...But you began this by asking me if I would do this again, and the answer is..." He takes a short pause. "I would have to think about it. I would have to think about it."

And with that, Glover returns to the table for a final hour of signing autographs. Before he can take his seat, a couple walks up with two enormous boxes of toys, each of which contains an Imperial walker featured in Empire. "This is my ship?" Glover asks, an actor's smile pasted on his face. The man asks Glover to sign not only the box, but the toy as well--its doors, its exterior, its interior. Glover, seemingly impressed by a grown man's toy collection, obliges. He even offers to inscribe on one box his lines from the film.

"Target the main generator," he says, offering a reasonable echo. "What was my other line? 'Target maximum...maximum...' I don't recall." A woman standing nearby nudges Glover's memory.

"Oh, yes: 'Target maximum power.'" He grins again, as the woman sitting next to him collects a handful of $10s and $20s.

At the same time, not a few feet away, a heavy-set, bespectacled Klingon gets his picture taken with Caroline Munro, now a middle-aged Bond girl. She tries to keep her distance, since the Klingon has a rather sharp and large weapon strapped to his back. Just a few feet down from them, Richard Kiel grasps a man's head between his enormous hands. Kiel smiles, growling silently to himself.