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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

'Star Trek' Bit Players Cling On

Even those with fleeting roles can live long and prosper in the world of Trekkie conventions, hawking autographs at $20 a pop.

April 08, 2005|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

For three days, the actor sat at a table in a windowless wing of the Pasadena Center while hundreds of devotees milled nearby.

He posed for snapshots. He answered the same questions over and over. He doled out trading cards bearing his mug. For $20, he brought out a gold-ink pen and autographed glossy photos of himself.

Michael Dante may not be on any Hollywood A-list, but on this weekend in Pasadena, he was intergalactic. Dante was capitalizing on his appearance in a single episode of the original Star Trek series. It aired Dec. 1, 1967.

"But it was a very popular episode," Dante insisted, speaking in the same wooden tone he used as Maab, lead villain on the planet Capella IV. "It had action. It had comedy. It had drama."

More than three decades after the original "Star Trek" series ended in 1969, after 79 episodes over three seasons, Dante and other actors have discovered that they can milk even the most ephemeral appearances on the show by appearing at extreme fan conventions that can draw thousands of enthusiasts.

Bit players on other shows, such as "Xena: Warrior Princess," are getting into the act too. Even the mute and masked -- such as the orcs and elves in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or the six actors underneath Jason's hockey mask in the "Friday the 13th" flicks -- are finding a ready market for their John Hancocks at science-fiction, comedy, western or horror-movie fan conferences worldwide.

"These people make careers out of it," said Monica Gillen, a spokesman for Glendale-based Creation Entertainment Inc., which rakes in about $6 million from the three dozen such fan conferences it runs annually.

But the original "Star Trek" offers the best enterprise for convention organizers and actors, some of whom find their "Star Trek" roles far eclipse other achievements.

Dante, for example, prefers to be remembered for his roles in films such as "Winterhawk" (1975) and "The Naked Kiss" (1964). He notes that he was a recipient of the Motion Picture & Television Fund's Golden Boot award for his work in westerns.

"I hold it in high esteem because it's not based on one performance but on 40 years of work," he said.

Dante also said that he had been cited for giving "one of the five best performances by an actor playing a one-armed character" for his role as a soldier boy in the 1959 movie "Westbound." His memory is vague on who presented the citation, and a search for it in records of Hollywood awards was inconclusive. Still, "I was the youngest," he said.

He played three roles as Native Americans, including a Blackfoot chief in "Winterhawk."

"Versatility is really my salvation," he said.

Fans at this "Star Trek" show, however, had more relevant abilities to probe -- such as whether he really threw that boomerang-like "kligat" (he did), and just how did he withstand the heat in that gold-fringed tunic and goofy headgear during the filming at boulders in the Santa Clarita area that served as his planet (they cooled themselves with ice). And no, he told the Trekkies, he didn't get to keep the outfit.

Tanya Lemani is in a similar pickle.

"I do a lot of things, but nobody remembers anything but 'Star Trek,' " said Lemani, who played a belly dancer in Episode 36, "Wolf in the Fold." "I didn't think anybody knew about [my role].... But then I realized I have so many fans."

Her "Star Trek" claim to-not-so-much fame? "I perform a tantalizing dance for the Enterprise crew," she said. "And then accompany Scotty for a walk in the fog. But I get killed, and they think Scotty did it, but it was actually Jack the Ripper."

Never mind that she spent more time in makeup for the role -- four days (feather malfunctions, she confides) -- than in filming.

In addition to selling her $20 autograph at a table next to Dante's, the well-preserved Lemani, clad in a belly-button-baring stretch-knit olive top and slacks, was hawking her "Bellysize with Tanya" video and talking up her soon-to-be released book, "Have Belly, Will Travel."

Trekkie conventions have been around since the early 1970s and have morphed into regional and national shows. The largest, in Las Vegas each August, draws more than 10,000 fans. But bit actors on "Star Trek" and other shows latched on to selling their signatures only recently, influenced by major sports stars, then top actors, beginning to charge for autographs, and by EBay's ready-made market for the memorabilia.

The fans shell out as much as $500 on the premium "gold" admission tickets at the conventions, which give them special seating and other perks. Even so, they usually have to pay extra to get the autographs of the top draws, such as William Shatner, who commands $60 for an autograph and an additional $70 for a photo with him.

Typically, conference organizers will pay tens of thousands of dollars to lure the big guns. Those who played minor characters typically must pay $100 to set up shop.

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