Star Struck

Sci-Fi Conventions Give Actors Eternal Life

You'd think five centuries would be enough time for women to get equal pay for equal work, but as an actress in 1979 Hollywood, Erin Gray found out that playing a 25th-century colonel in charge of defending Earth from enemy marauders garnered her just $600 a week. While Wilma Deering was kicking serious space butt in a fetching spandex outfit, Gray was stuck in California fighting with producers, trying to get them to pay for the expensive gowns and blond dye jobs that they insisted on for her but refused to finance.

"When I put on that persona, I liked the whole idea of being in charge," Gray says of her role on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. But behind the scenes, it was a different story. "It was a man's world. Nobody cared that I had a baby at home. I was a contract player. The celebrity was nice but not the paycheck to go with it."

Now, though, she's enjoying the payback, in the form of a cottage industry created around sci-fi stars. "For years friends had told me about the whole world of sci-fi conventions, but I wasn't big on traveling. A year and a half ago, I went to a convention in my backyard [Los Angeles]. I was shocked to find out what my role had meant to women. I had fan mail, but I didn't really [understand] it. The fact that my character gave women hope, beyond what they normally would have pursued, dumbfounded me, 20 years later."

She's appeared at 12 conventions since then, in between acting and teaching tai chi and chi kung at UCLA. Last November, Gray attended Memorabilia '98, a convention in Birmingham, England. "Buck Rogers has been on nonstop in England for 20 years. The line [to get into the convention] went around the building. I had one father and his son asking me for autographs. Two generations had the hots for me!"

Still, she says, it was playing different roles that satisfied her. "I love acting. I went after the dream and made it happen, and there's a certain satisfaction from that. But it took years to find the balance." Gray reached her stride in her next major TV role after Buck Rogers, as Kate Summers Stratton in Silver Spoons, who went from secretary to CEO by series' end. She made a recent return to a paramilitary role as Chief Johnson in Baywatch. She has a part in an upcoming Burt Reynolds film and stars in an indie film due out at the end of the year, A Woman's Story. Yet it is her starship-flying, laser gun–waving role that has endured through the years. Part of the credit for that popularity lies with the fans.

Science fiction attracts a certain kind of fan—usually the most rabid variety—willing to go to great lengths to track his or her favorite stars, even if now they only show up on the Sci-Fi Channel's endless selection of reruns. In turn, those actors enjoy a constant renewal, a perpetual resurrection. None of them knew that their brief stints would lead to paid appearances at conventions two decades on. Only later did they realize that celebrity breeds nearly unconditional adulation.

On any given weekend there is a sci-fi con in full swing someplace. With the exception of soap operas, no other genre generates the kind of devotion that dips into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of faith and money. That fervor is evident in the plethora of sci-fi fan Web sites. And according to Gary Berman, co-CEO of the sci-fi convention company Creation Con (www.creationent.com), an appearance in "one episode of the original series [Star Trek] is sometimes all it takes" to claim lasting notoriety. And the celebrities, he says, are the driving force getting fans to come out to a convention. They are a vital part of any program, which also includes a dealer area for fans to buy every sort of memorabilia. Costume contests are also a highly visible component of the shows.

For a weekend gig at a sci-fi convention, actors are paid appearance fees ranging anywhere from $500 to $40,000—the high-end rate for headliners. The average is between $7500 and $10,000. Some actors supplement their income by charging willing fans $5 to $20 for an autograph. Other duties of the celebs include participating in Q&A sessions and sometimes hosting auctions.

With convention registration running sometimes as high as $75 for coveted reserved seating (to get a better place in line for autographs)—regular admission starts around $17—and with attendance of up to 5000 fans (for Creation Con's Pasadena Grand Slam in April), getting in on the action can be quite lucrative.

Cons offer other ways for celebs to flex their interpersonal skills. Rising Star (www.iann.net/risingstar), in Salem, Virginia, is unlike the big guns on the circuit. Set on the grounds of Glenvar High School, it is geared toward students, many of whom have taken classes with convention organizer Dr. Fred Eichelman—a 40-year teaching veteran who incorporates sci-fi lore into his curriculum. Workshops are taught by stars. Dr. Fred is an old-timer who has endeared himself to many in the sci-fi community through vigilant correspondence. One longtime friend, actress Deanna Lund of Land of the Giantsand Batman fame, even has her fan club headquartered in Salem. Lund leads acting workshops. She says jokingly, "I've told Dr. Fred my biggest complaint is never getting to [participate in] the other workshops." Celebs are drawn to Dr. Fred's con because it is one-of-a-kind in its intimate atmosphere and emphasis on teaching versus traditional convention agendas.

Dave Scott, who founded the Slanted Fedora (www.sfedora.com/newpage1.htm) convention 16 years ago, credits Gene Roddenberry and the original Star Trek series for bringing to the screen themes and ideals that have endured for 30 years, resulting in an unprecedented era for sci-fi. The cast of the recently ended Deep Space Nine need not fret; they'll live on forever with fans like these. Scott promotes fan-friendly programs; he recently wrapped up a 14-city tour featuring the "Fabulous Four" of the original series: James Doohan (Scotty), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekhov), and George Takei (Sulu).

Takei says he's "proud of the association with Star Trek," and adds, "I'll never be able to disassociate myself. I'm prepared for my tombstone to read, ‘Here lies Hikaru Sulu, a/k/a George Takei."' Of his best-known role, as the Enterprise's helmsman, he says, "Though [the fame is] overwhelming initially, you get used to it."

Takei's first taste of his future came in 1970, shortly after the series was canceled, when he attended a small get-together at the Hilton Los Angeles—just two dozen people renting a meeting room, sharing coffee and pastries, and chatting about Trek. "It was a pleasant afternoon. I thought that was it and that the show would fade away. Little did I know."

Now, Takei says, "Entrepreneurial convention promoters keep the phenomenon going at warp speed." And Takei has been there for most of the ride. He is a three-decade veteran, and along the way he's observed that cons function as a "family reunion, a sharing of our lives as we move on through the calendars. Conventions are opportunities for us to say thank you to the people who have contributed to this longevity." (No doubt his icon status gives him a certain cachet when he has a cause to champion. As a child Takei and his family spent four years in World War II internment camps. He later lobbied tirelessly for the redress movement. Fluent in Japanese, Takei also serves on the U.S.–Japan Friendship Committee.)

Playing a warrior, Lieutenant Sheba, on Battlestar Galactica in 1978, Anne Lockhart was probably the first woman on a regular television series to be in combat every week. "I loved working on it. I was surprised and disappointed when it was canceled, after only one year," Lockhart says. She compares its successor, Galactica 1980, to "the season of Dallas that Pam [Barnes Ewing] dreamed." Luckily, the 20th reunion of the original series was a smash on the con circuit, and soon Lockhart was a regular on the circuit.

Though the conventions may tempt celebs to live off their glory days, after appearances their lives return to normal—carpools and PTA meetings, film shoots, or semiretirement (or, in Lockhart's case, success as a rodeo queen). They will be far, far away from unknown galaxies and outer space shoot-outs, but always bound to devoted fans who never, ever forget a face.

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