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Comeback Is No Illusion

Role as a Hologram on Star Trek Encouraged James Darren to Resume His Singing Career

October 11, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During his heyday as a teen heartthrob four decades ago, actor-singer James Darren scored five top-10 singles, including "Her Royal Majesty" and the Grammy-nominated "Goodbye Cruel World."

Darren, who soared to stardom playing Moondoggie opposite Sandra Dee in "Gidget" in 1959, also recorded 12 albums and performed on everything from "American Bandstand" to "The Ed Sullivan Show." But in 1983, after 12 years of touring and playing Vegas showrooms with comedian Buddy Hackett, he abandoned his singing career for a role in television's "T.J. Hooker" and then devoted more than a decade exclusively to directing television shows.

Now Darren, gray-haired but still movie-star handsome at 64, is making a comeback as a crooner, and for that he has Vic Fontaine to thank.

And who is Vic Fontaine?

He's a Rat Pack-era Vegas lounge singer, a tuxedo-clad recurring character Darren played on the last two seasons of the syndicated "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" series, which ceased production last year. Vic Fontaine, however, wasn't your typical TV character: He was a hologram.

"It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Darren, who will perform Saturday night at Orange Coast College. Speaking from his home in Beverly Hills, Darren said he appeared in at least a dozen "Star Trek" episodes.

"I sang in every show I did, but I was the person--the hologram--that everyone went to when they had problems, mostly love problems," Darren said. "I was the matchmaker, the analyst, the guy with the wisdom, so to speak. They were all in awe of that '60s Rat Pack era where Vegas was what it once was, so they came to me for advice."

Explaining his character's unusual habitat, Darren said: "There is a place called the Holodeck. It consists of Vegas, the Sands Hotel and my apartment. So I couldn't leave that, but they could come to me. The interesting part was I was a hologram, but I had the ability to turn myself on and off, which was kind of cool because if I didn't like the situation, I would leave."

Darren almost didn't play the role. Ira Steven Behr, one of the show's executive producers, had seen Darren at a party in 1998 and thought he would be perfect for the part.

But when Darren's agent told him he was being offered the role of a singer, he turned it down not once but three times. Having spent the previous 12 years directing television shows such as "Walker, Texas Ranger," "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place," Darren didn't want to make his acting comeback in what he felt was a typecast role as a singer.

But when he finally read the script, he was so bowled over by the writing that he asked to meet with the show's producers.

The Vegas-hip Fontaine seemed to Darren to be a combination of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, so he borrowed Sinatra's speech rhythm and some of Martin's gestures. (He even wore a pair of Martin's shoes he received from their mutual Hollywood shoemaker). As for the singing, he said, "I just did myself."

Darren said a nightclub set was built for Vic Fontaine and "the crew would stand around as I'd sing and they'd applaud."

"It was the greatest ego boost. It just instilled so much confidence. Ira Behr said to me, 'You have so much fun singing, why don't you start singing again?' That's exactly what happened."

Glen Barros, president of Concord Jazz Records, was a big fan of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and was so impressed with Darren's singing that he offered him a recording contract. His CD, "This One's From the Heart," was released last year.

"I never expected to be recording again--never," said Darren, who did his first stage show in 16 years at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City in May 1999.

"It was a hell of a place to start, but I had a great time," he said, explaining that he had developed so much confidence from the response he got from portraying Vic Fontaine that he was completely comfortable on stage and has been singing ever since.

He has performed several times with symphony orchestras around the country, with anywhere from 60 to 90 musicians backing him up. At Orange Coast College, his first college date, he'll sing with a sextet.

"My show consists mostly of all the old standards; a lot of them are love songs," he said, mentioning "I've Got You Under My Skin," "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "Come Fly With Me." "They're incredible songs, incredible charts. So it will be a night of really good music, I tell you that."

Darren also will sing many of his old hits. "I have a lot of fun on stage," he said, adding that he'll show a career-highlight video, "which is used mostly for comedy."

The audience will see him in "The Guns of Navarone," "Diamond Head" and "a few less exciting films like 'For Those Who Think Young,' which I wish I could buy the negative of." There also are clips of various TV guest spots and his two TV series, including the '60s cult favorite "The Time Tunnel." He's even got a clip from "The Flintstones" cartoon series in which he "appeared" as "Jimmy Darrock."

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