Thom Christopher (Hawk – Buck Rogers in the 25th century)
Hawk (Buck Rogers in the 25th century)
Interview: June 2011
Although this site mainly focuses on Star Wars and it’s cast and crew, sometimes I make exceptions for people that have featured in other movies and series I like. The following interview is maybe the best example of this. In 1985/86 I saw the TV series Buck Rogers for the first time in my life. I was 10 years old and for years totally into Star Wars, but this series had something special as well. When I watched the episode Time of the Hawk, the episode that introduces the character Hawk, I was sold. That day, Hawk became my favorite Sci-Fi character outside Star Wars. Now, 25 years later, he still is. Therefore I am proud to present the following interview with the man that gave life to Hawk: Emmy-award winning actor Thom Christopher!
How did you start your career? And was acting something you always wanted to do?
Acting, being an actor is all I ever really dreamed of. From the first remembrance of seeing an actor on the screen in my local movie theatre I was seduced. I had no realization that I was being seduced into a life long love affair with acting. At that point I must have been five or six years old, truly, but I knew that was where I wanted to be. So when the proverbial question, that will never see its sunset, came up, “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” I said “be an actor”. Heads turned. Part two of your question; while in junior high school I was fortunate enough to have an incredible encounter with a music teacher, Rita B. Fuchs. Her name is forever engraved in my heart. She was aware of my passion about wanting to act. I had yet to really see a Broadway show but did see “school plays” of various levels and always said in my head. “I could do that better”. Ms. Fuchs proceeded to introduce to the world of theatric literature, music, opera, classical and of course Broadway musicals of the past and to the moment of my epiphany. By the time I was ready to go to High School, Ms. Fuchs made me aware of the Performing Arts High School in New York City. Since I lived in Queens, a borough of NYC I was eligible to go and submit myself for an audition which was part of the process for admittance into the Drama Department. For one solid year she worked with me to understand, interput and speak my audition pieces; Henry Higgins’ opening speech from Shaw’s Pygmalion, and the monologue of the potential President in Lindsey and Crouse’s State of the Union. She rid me of a New York accent, she made believe I was a genius; all at the age of fourteen. I got into Performing Arts High School. The start of my career. I never looked back.
How did you get cast as Hawk in Buck Rogers? How did your audition go?
I was called in to audition for a new TV Series about the Chicago underworld of the 1920’s and 30’s. Universal Studios were the producers and the audition would be in New York City, my hometown. It was a Saturday appointment, which is important to the story. The role was Arnold Rothstein and the casting director was a gentleman of the first order, Joel Thurm. He was a very creative and quick minded man who had at his young age a wealth of theatrical knowledge. I did my audition and felt good about it and of course mixed it with hope. On Monday morning, about 48 hours later, giving a little, my agent called to say that Joel had called to say that NBC and the then running Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were going to start their second season with a new format and addition of new characters. One of the new characters would be a “lone survivor of an ancient race of bird people called the Hawk”. Joel felt I was perfect for it and wanted me to audition. I received the script, set to work on it, was flown out to Los Angeles to audition for the new executive producer, John Mantley. I got on the plane and met John the following morning and he asked to read with me which I found a great complement. John was a legend in television already, having written many shows as well as producing as many. One of which was Gunsmoke. We read various scenes, the last being the death scene of Koori in the introductory episode, Time of the Hawk. When we finished I looked up and his eyes were filled with tears waiting to fall. He said “Come to the office, the Hawk is yours”. Now my eyes were filled with tears.
What attracted you to the part of Hawk? Was it his looks, background or something else?
The exotic nature of the character of Hawk stirred me immediately. Half man, half avian with human instincts that came from an almost primitive, basic nature. I have always enjoyed dealing and creating characters that were “outsiders”, away from the norm. Characters that were in a sense in some kind of isolation.
I read that as a preparation for the part of Hawk you started studying real Hawks in the Zoo and read books about Hawks. In which way(s) did it influence the way you played Hawk, and do you always prepare yourself for a part this way?
Once I knew the role of the Hawk was mine I returned to New York and started my preparation of research. I knew by instinct and a very informative and long conversation with John Mantley the executive producer what the character should evolve into. I wanted, and John agreed, to have a human who’s avian instincts were still part of his genetic code so to speak. Since I was devoted jogger around Central Park in New York City, I started watching birds, of which there are many; how did they leave a perch on a tree limb, how did they attempt to scan for food or focus in on something that attracted them. The New York Museum of Natural History is one of the wonders of the world. Among the very many dioramas, they have assorted birds in various wild life settings. I was able to glean a very specific intensity from these three dimensional recreations and the journey to the Zoo proved to be the crystallizing of everything I was watching and reading. Since I had a very extensive amount of dance classes behind me in my training as an actor I saw the chance to enhance the movement of Hawk and make physical a simple act of climbing a hill or rocky area with the only using my legs and feet in the climb, never my hands to grip, watch a bird of any size walk. It transformed into a kind of motion that people picked up on. You want to give a “sense” of something human but veiled with what I call “another world quality” something different in the “normal”. One of the great aspects of being an actor is the research that one must do for each character he plays. The research becomes an enormous learning process about the world that the “character lives in”, the cause and effect of who he is, what does the character works at effects the way the life of the character begins to take its shape and become part of me. I recently played Pablo Picasso on stage and immersed myself in many documentaries, DVDs of him. The paintings, his relationships with people of his time. The way he looked at someone or the way he laughed. The ultimate joy, as with Picasso, came when a very elderly woman came backstage and told me that as a young girl in the late 1940’s and early 50’s she spent a great deal of time with him in France. She herself became an artist of considerable success and new him well. She said “You are Picasso”. “You brought so many memories back to me”. This is for any act of creation a validation that you are riding the right chariot of creativity and its success. It’s all in the preparation.
Were you familiar with Buck Rogers (the comics and the old TV series with Buster Crabbe) before you got the part? Also, were you a science fiction fan?
Yes. I always was enthralled with movies and science fiction and fantasy were a part of that. It’s pretty amazing that as a child I could watch the original War of the Worlds and as an adult see the art form create Star Wars.
The ratings for the second season of Buck Rogers weren’t as good as the first season. However, the introduction of your character Hawk was a big success. What is your own opinion about season 2?
There is always a massive, many pointed battle about why a particular project fails because of ratings. A new format was presented in the second season that I think startled a number of people both in the general audience and within the business. The tone of the show was darker and had a nuance to its stories that I felt were very good. There seemed to be a more literary approach to the story “conflicts”. Now all of this is coming from me as a new cast member in an already established show. It’s new to me. Where as Gil and Erin had a full season in their creative bones. They had a field of comparison available. One point that I do feel strongly about and what I feel did effect the second season, and has affected many shows in the past, is preemption. Buck Rogers premiered at the same time as the basketball telecasts were starting. I feel the preemption’s confused the audience as to its time slot. It varied within a short number of weeks of going on the air.
Can you describe how your days working on Buck Rogers looked like?
Putting a weekly show together is a massive undertaking and lots of hard work that can only be accomplished by a coordinated effort in every department in front of the camera or behind. I’m a workaholic so I thrived on the hours and the “labor of love” it demanded. The crew was amazing, each and every member. The production staff were always at the “starting gate” to help, to inform to make sure we were all serving the same objective: the show and its quality. The executive producer and his associates I found to be a wonderful team. These many years later I hold them all in very special thoughts and admiration.
How was your relation with the cast and crew? I understood that Gil Gerard and you got along very well and became friends?
We all got along very well and I will, as I said above, always hold every one on the crew in a special place of admiration. The cast was so welcoming to the three new actors into the company of show regulars, the brilliant Wilfrid Hyde White, the very talented Jay Garner and myself. As for Gil and Erin I will always cherish and respect their individual graciousness and creative sharing with me. It’s important to remember that here you have two stars of a show that has been on the air for a year and has established a following. When all of a sudden there is a change in story approach and over all show texture as well as this character that is dressed in black knee high boots, black spandex, a breast plate and crowned in black and white feathered head piece. What could have been a strain all the way around never happened. Both Erin and Gil were so generous and professional that they made each days work a joy.
Do you have any anecdotes or spectacular stories from working on Buck Rogers?
My favorite incident involves the participation of the very talented and special director and human being Vincent MacEveety. He had directed the first two hours of the second season episode Time of the Hawk. He is an exceptional talent and wonderful man. Vincent was back to do another episode and we were on the main ship which took up most of the studio with its various corridors and control rooms, etc. In this particular scene Hawk was guiding Buck, Wilma, Dr.Goodfellow out of harms way from some ships invaders; we were moving fast down a long corridor with Hawk in the rear of the group to protect them as they moved to safety. The movement was all into the camera at the end of the passage way the group passed off camera and Hawk was directed to turn and take on the fast approaching enemy. It is important to remember that the passage way is now wired with explosive “squibs” which will be rotoscoped in post production to give the effect of taser guns firing at each other. As directed I turned took out my taser gun and started firing at the approaching invaders. The camera is now shooting over my back. Suddenly the sound bell goes off and the scene is stopped. The sound man, a patient and lovely jewel of a man, says “I’m picking up a slight hissing sound from the set”, so the effects crew rewires the passage way and we have about a ten minute delay to reshoot the scene. All is re set and action is called. Again the sound bell goes off and the same refrain of a hissing sound is picked up. The crew resets the squibs. Now Vincent is standing very, very close to the set watching all that is going on when action is called “Action”. We start our firing at each other, there is suddenly the somewhat loud and patient shout of “Cut” from Vincent. We all freeze in wonderment. He gently, slowly moves his 6’3′” frame of body towards me with a slight smile of “Hello dummy” Vincent then says very nicely, almost too nicely: “What are you doing may I ask?” I replied: “I’m in the Hawk defensive position and firing at the advancing space pirates”. Vincent says now with a slight suppression of a smile: “No, what are you doing with your mouth?” “With my mouth?” I replied in wonder. In a very gentle, fatherly patient way Vincent says “Yeeesss!” and proceeds to say to me “Do you realize every time you fire your taser that you are making a sound like “pitshoo, pitshoo”. The child in me it seems was doing the thing that every child did when game playing a cowboy, a soldier or anyone shooting a gun. “pitshoo”, one shot, “pitshoo”, another shot. Needless to say the crew and cast burst into hysterics and I had to live with “pitshoo, pitshoo” all over the lot.
I saw on the site of Gil Gerard that there will be a 12 inch figure of Hawk released later this year.
Did you know this and what do you think of the fact there’s a figure made of Hawk, 30+ years after you played him?
I saw the Zica toy site and the respective figures. I am just amazed about the Hawk replica. And very flattered by it 30+ years down the line.
There is a rumor that during season 2 of Buck Rogers there were plans to make a spin-off series about Hawk. Is this true? What can you tell about this?
Soon after Time of The Hawk premiered, John Mantley our executive producer and his associate, a beautiful man, John Stephens came to the set and took me aside and said “Thom, if we get another season pick up on the show the studio and we feel we’d like to do a spin off series of the Hawk. The audience response has been so positive”. I was stunned and very thrilled by the possibility. It is important to remember that I was fortunate to have a tremendous re pore with both John Mantley and John Stephens. Their support and confidence in what I was doing will always be cherished. I went on to work under the producership of John Stephens quite a few times. As I said, a beautiful man and an exceptional producer. John Mantley passed away some time ago but he will always be part of the architecture of my career.
Are there people you’ve enjoyed working the most with, that stand out in your mind?
It’s a difficult question since I’ve been doing my work for so many years but the individuals who come to mind are Anne Baxter, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Rex Harrison, Gil, Erin and the entire crew, the One Life to Live company and crew and a wonderful actor named Gretchen Egolf, along with countless others in Television and Theatre.
What are doing currently? Do you have new projects on the horizon?
I have been working in theatre primarily. The afore mentioned Picasso, Trumbo several experimental theatre projects of new plays in and out of New York City. A very successful production of Another Vermeer playing the Dutch art critic of the last century, Abraham Bredius. And the ever constant auditioning for films, television and of course more theatre.