By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
When Gil Gerard is not acting, he certainly enjoys being a guest at many pop culture conventions. He finds the ability to interact with fans of his works (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Side Kicks and Action Hero Makeover) gratifying. This semi-retired performer has been to British Columbia before, mostly to ski up in Whistler, and to visit this city for the first time is certainly going to be exciting. When he lands in Victoria, BC for Island Fantasy Convention, he will be looking forward to seeing the sights of this garden city and meeting the fans who will be attending this event come Halloween 2015. Not every show has to be about the hottest stars from the past decade.
He said, “The best conventions actually have a balance of [featuring talent from] old and new shows.” said Gerard, “It’s nice to see the people from the new shows but it’s even better to see the people from the shows you grew up with as well.”
And for this actor, it’s in recalling fond times with the radio shows (referred to as Old Time Radio in modern times) he listened to in his youth.
Sadly these days, not many people listen to Old Time Radio. It continues in small markets as a form of nostalgia, but according to Gerard, he doesn’t think there’s a big demand for it, especially in North America. He believes people are more visually oriented and for this modern generation, more folks gravitate to mobile devices like tablets or their cell phone to get their entertainment. But for those people who have a fondness for the old medium, this actor reveals that he has a bunch of tapes and cds of recordings from the 40’s.
“I have a collection a fan gave me. It may be popular in England, but … I know that they had a retro radio station for a while in Los Angeles, but I don’t know if it took off,” noted Gerard.
Although Hollywood studios’ track record to reinvent that era’s best works for modern times has not been entirely successful (The Phantom, Solomon Kane and The Spirit were not as trendy as Dick Tracy or The Shadow), at least some producers acknowledge where they have gotten their influence from in shows that did succeed. To convince Gil Gerard to play an iconic character he wasn’t keen on was tough, and he did have his reasons.
“When I grew up, we had the Saturday serials at the movies and Buck Rogers was one of them. Flash Gordon was another. They were serials shot 20 years before I was born and they were already kind of passé by the time I was seeing them in the early 50’s.” Gerard remembered, “I was more of a Westerner. I liked Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Johnny Mack Brown and Hopalong Cassidy. I enjoyed those much more.”
“Initially the producers [of Buck Rogers] wanted to make a detective show but I said no, I didn’t sign on to do that. I wanted to do a science fiction television show more in the order of The Day the Earth Stood Still than something fantasy,” said Gerard.
In what was made was more like science fiction reality to which Gerard thought was better. He would later admit he was wrong in his opinion. And what was made was close to what this actor wanted to happen. He believed what viewers like to see examined is with how human society evolved throughout the centuries. This actor thinks science fiction should not always deal with the sign of the times — even though he knew the times were not too good in the 20’s, when Buck Rogers first came out as a comic strip. “It was very light hearted and fun,” said Gerard, “Buck was always a guy who could think quickly, be fast on his feet and solve problems. He’s always on the go.”
“It’d be more interesting for audiences to see what we thought might be happening [on a global scale] 500 years from now. It was a rich area to go into but we got a new executive producer and he decided to make Wagon Train in space,” noted Gerard in regards to the second season.
According to Gerard, the process is called a political killing. “Buck Rogers was developed by one president and he was let go. And as it happens in the cult corporate structure or the corporate culture, when a new president comes in he doesn’t want any of the old guy’s stuff to succeed so he gets rid of it all. It doesn’t matter if it’s show business or cars or what,” said Gerard.
As many fans are aware, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century owes a debt to its former incarnations and thankfully acknowledgment was made before NBC did their corporate shuffle. The voice of celebrated radio personality William Conrad delivered the opening narrative and Buster Crabbe had a guest-starring role in an early episode, “Planet of the Slave Girls.” Gerard and Crabbe became good friends afterwards, and they shared a bit of common history together: both were champion swimmers.
When asked about what other works he really likes to be remembered for, he cites Side Kicks as a fond favourite. Sadly, this series only had a single season run on television and it still has not received a proper home video DVD release. Only time will tell if there will be enough fan requests to the copyright owners to pull this series from out of the vaults to restore and release.
“This series was made before Disney owned ABC,” said Gerard, “It was well written and the relationship between this hard bitten detective (which I played) and this young boy (Ernie Reyes Jr.) from another culture was really very interesting. To explore the way they began to adapt to each other and to realize the values from each other’s cultures — along with the relationship that they had — was important.”
This actor really enjoyed playing Sergeant Jake Rizzo and it shows. He might have played a character similar to Buck Rogers. Just like in his previous show, the writers most likely packed as much of Gerard’s own wry personality into the script and his own contributions was certainly a highlight of this show.
“I call it a sense of humour,” laughed Gerard.
“I have a lot of fans who are fighter pilots. They tell me that they really relate to Buck. Their sense of humour and Buck’s is very similar. They say that when you’re in the middle of a life and death struggle and someone’s shooting at you, you have to stay light-hearted to deal with it. If you get involved and all that, you become so serious … you end up making yourself vulnerable [similar to Rizzo, perhaps – Ed.]”
The roles were not as frequent before Action Hero Makeover (2007), a documentary that looked at what was current for this performer. A new legacy can be found because this program won an international award for its hard look into an epidemic. The focus was not only with Gerard’s battle with obesity but also in how it’s become a problem on a global scale. Hollywood is not always forgiving for overweight actors and he knew he had to do something to help reverse his huge weight gain. That meant him getting a Mini-Gastric Bypass surgery.
“From the feedback I’ve gotten over the years from the people who’ve seen this program, what we presented was very effective. People wrote in to tell me that seeing that documentary saved their lives; they took steps to take care of the problems they were having and it’s been very gratifying to know that what we wanted to accomplish was accomplished,” said Gerard.
Since then, more roles have opened up. He often appears in movies of the week either on SyFy like Ghost Town (2009) or otherwise in The Lost Valentine (2011) in the past ten years. He’s still a favourite son of the pulps. Films like Bone Eater (2007), Nuclear Hurricane (2007) and Blood Fare (2012) shows that he’s not as picky these days about what’s offered. Who knows, maybe he might pick up singing again. Jade Cooper of GayCalgary.com revealed he’s appeared in musicals like Music Man, Most Happy Fella and Oklahoma. In an audio interview on Chuck Tomasi and Kreg Steppe‘s Interface to Face, he mentioned plans on writing a Buck Rogers series of books, which takes place after the movie. He wants to explore the possibility everything Buck Rogers is experiencing is all in his head as he remains frozen in cryogenic sleep.
Not many fans will know of his voice acting work, and his last credited cartoon was in Fish Police where he played supporting roles (most likely in the unbroadcasted episodes). He’s open to returning to that scene, and he teased at the fact he played “the main bad guy who gets confrontational with Optimus Prime” in an animated episode of Transformers: Robots in Disguise. The episode is available on iTunes and it was broadcasted in September. After the recording session, he said that he enjoyed getting back to voice work. “It was fun. They’re nice people and they’re huge fans of Buck Rogers,” said Gerard, “I was happy to do the job and it was a very happy circumstance altogether.”
He will no doubt be back as Megatronus since this character can never truly die. But to see Gerard back in a weekly television series might be more difficult. At least for this performer, he will always have the conventions to talk about his work.