Star Trek legend Michael Dorn: Forget "Picard," I've been trying to pitch a "Worf" TV show

The "Agent Revelation" star spoke with Salon about "CHiPs," growing up during Jim Crow & rumors of his Trek return

By Chauncey DeVega
March 7, 2021 8:30PM (UTC)
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Michael Dorn as Worf from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (George Rose/Getty Images)

In its various forms,  Star Trek has existed for more than 50 years. This means that almost three generations of people around the world have experienced Gene Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future, one where humanity has survived its childhood and adolescence and then taken a leadership role in the galaxy through an interstellar alliance called the United Federation of Planets.

Following Roddenberry's template, Star Trek is a meditation on morality, ethics, leadership, politics and power as seen through a formula where there is a "problem of the week" (or now season) to be solved by the crew and its allies.

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Of course, in Star Trek there are great enemies of "humanity" such as the seemingly unstoppable Borg. But there is always a future beyond where such foes are beaten back (perhaps to become future allies), and the Federation's core values may be challenged but in the end are not broken.

Star Trek is also a business; it is one of America's and the world's most enduring popular culture franchises, which in addition to TV shows and films also includes novels, comic books, toys, video games, and other products.

As commerce and storytelling Star Trek has experienced great highs and lows, successes and failures.

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There are the excellent and deservedly beloved TV shows and films such as the original "Star Trek" series from the 1960s as well as its successors "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine." Star Trek has also experienced great creative lows such as the TV series "Enterprise," JJ Abrams' Star Trek films, and the current TV series "Star Trek: Discovery."

But ultimately, it is the characters and their relationships with one another that are the bedrock of Star Trek's great success. In so many ways, Star Trek, especially for those who are immersed in its fandom, is a type of family.

Actor Michael Dorn has been a near-constant presence in Star Trek. Beginning with "Star Trek: The Next Generation" through to the film "Star Trek: Nemesis," Dorn's character Worf has appeared on-screen in more Star Trek TV shows and films than any other actor playing the same character. Dorn's time on-screen even surpasses that of William Shatner or Patrick Stewart, who respectively portrayed Captain Kirk and Captain Picard.

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In conjunction with Dorn's latest film "Agent Revelation" – a sci-fi adventure about communicating with an alien race – the actor spoke to Salon to reflect on his career as well as the life and career lessons he learned from his parents and family who grew up during Jim Crow American apartheid. He shares the advice he gives to Black and brown actors about navigating their careers and opportunities in what he describes as a "fantastic time" of opportunity for non-white actors and actresses in Hollywood.

Dorn also reflects on his relationship with the sci-fi franchise, explains why Worf is such a popular Star Trek character, how he channeled the energy of a Klingon warrior, and addresses the rumor that Worf will appear in the Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) series "Picard."

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This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I remember watching "CHiPs" as a child. You had a small part on the TV show, but to see you, a Black man, and a police officer on the show was enthralling to me. I know I am not the only Black man, or Black person more generally, who watched you on the TV show "CHiPs "and was impacted by your dignity in the role. I would like to thank you for that.

I have to give all of my thanks to my parents and the way I was raised and how we got through our lives.

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You are originally from Texas. My father was stationed in the U.S. Army along the border and he had so many stories about how as he would explain it, "Jim Crow was really heavy down there."

Luckily, my mother and other relatives of her generation grew up under the heat of Jim Crow. Luckily, when we were very young my mother moved to California with her sister. There was still racism in California, but nothing like Texas. My politics are at a point right now where I kind of say to myself "God, we've been fighting these struggles, in my lifetime, for 50 years. Here we are today."

What are some of the principles and life lessons that you internalized from your parents and which you still carry with you even today?

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We were always very responsible in our behavior and very respectful of our elders. It was always about manners and always about working. You always had a job, no matter what. You didn't look at color. My whole family refused to view people in a racist way – even though racism was going on all around us. We believed in racial colorblindness. My family was able to navigate so many different situations and cultures because of those values. We were comfortable with our values. We were taught to be very industrious. For example, all my parents wanted us to do was get a job at the post office, work until you retire, get your pension, and then travel a little bit.  That's all they wanted from you.

Was there a distinct moment when you realized that you had "made it" as they say, despite your parents worries?

My mother never really thought of my acting career as a real job. She always thought of it as some type of passing fancy and then one day I would go and get a "real job." In fact, when I got Star Trek I told my mom and she said, "Yeah, that's really nice, but you're going to need something to fall back on." That was her sensibility. I didn't really think about that memory until Star Trek had been over for a few years and I realized that I had spent 11 years on a TV show and five movies. I realized that I was in this very rare group of SAG actors because I had been on a show for 11 years, and in the movies as well. That is really kind of unheard of. It is quite an accomplishment.

There are many actors who don't know what to do when the stardom is taken away and that phone stops ringing. How did you manage it, to stay grounded?

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Two things. One, my family is very important. They don't let me get away with anything. They would not put up with such an attitude. The other thing is that I had a very good look at the TV business with "CHiPs". It was the '80s. It was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. "CHiPs" was not a Top 10 show, but it was a Top 20 show, which meant that it was successful. There was money. There was a level of fame. I'd go to clubs and I skipped the line. But I also realized that the day I left the show that my phone didn't ring. It was over. You go from NBC and the producers sending you gifts for birthdays and Christmas and their calling and saying, "Oh Michael, we love you. Anything you want, just let us know."

That continues until the day when then there is nothing. I realized what was going on. I understood that about the business now. When I started to work again after "CHiPs," and then I got "Star Trek: The Next Generation," I had that experience to draw from. I knew that this is great, but it could end tomorrow. And that would be it. In fact, I would talk to the producers every year after the last episode and I would say, "I have a question for you and you can be honest with me." They would say, "What?" I would ask, "Am I coming back next year?" And they would say, "Yes, you are." I answered, "Okay."

Stardom is temporary and ephemeral almost by definition. Why do you think some actors do not understand that fact and are in denial about their disposability?

The path to stardom generally means most of us go from waitress and waiter jobs, bartending, or other jobs to make ends meet, and then you get an acting job where all these things are happening, and everyone is catering to you. Where anything you want you can have. As much money as you want you can have it. You can't spend the money fast enough.

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A star is someone who makes a movie or two a year and makes maybe 30 million dollars. If you do that for 10 years that is a huge amount of money. You go from having nothing to that? It just messes with your head. And if you haven't been through it before, you feel – and this is what happens with a lot of people – that you made it and this is your new life from now on. We are fragile people. And when it ends, it is pretty assaulting. It is pretty stark to the point where the people who say they love you, don't love you anymore. And it could happen in a day.

Do you ever get tired of talking about Star Trek?

I love talking about Star Trek. But a few years ago, I had an experience where I felt that there were people who were using Star Trek for their own gains. People would say, "Oh, Michael, we'd love to have you come here and be on our show." And sometimes you get silly questions that are not very penetrating.

In Star Trek, as well as in science fiction film and TV more generally, one of the tropes is to take a handsome Black man and then cover up his face with makeup or some prosthesis to hide his face. You had to do that with the character Worf. How did you transcend those limitations in terms of acting?

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I was a fan of the original Star Trek. I love the Klingons. I'll speak for myself. I'm not speaking for other actors. But I always felt that being in a mask was the greatest thing in the world because you could be whoever you want to be. You're not judged by your real face. And so it was like an amazing gift that I got to be Worf and to really imbue him with energy and mannerism that I thought would be compelling. The only issue was that I had to get to the set early and have three hours of makeup put on. I was the first one there and the last one to leave. But my upbringing was always, if you got a job, you stay with the job. I could just hear my mother saying, "Boy, you get your butt down there and you work."

Worf had many moments on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as well as "Deep Space Nine" where a lesser actor would have failed, becoming something closer to parody. You emoted but did not overdo it. How did you manage those performances?

Don't smile. I am mad at everybody. I am pissed off at everybody. No matter what somebody tells you, you're pissed off at them about it. It's an acting choice that I had to make with Worf. I had to be committed to it. If I am not committed to that choice then I might as well forget about it.

Who is Worf to you?

I took it as Worf is someone who was raised by human beings, but he's nationalistic in terms of his love of being Klingon. Very often one culture will think that they are better than the other, in this case Klingons and humans. Luckily, the writers wrote material where Worf was able to eventually realize that there are great things about both human beings and Klingons. Take the best of both cultures and leave out the nonsense.

"Far Beyond the Stars" is considered a high point in all of Star Trek as well as TV science fiction storytelling more generally. When you were filming "Far Beyond the Stars," did you realize how special and important it would become?

It is a good episode, but I did not think it was Earth-shattering or groundbreaking. I just didn't think so. What I did love about it is seeing my fellow actors out of makeup. It was funny. They were such terrific actors. René Auberjonois was just spectacular. Nana Visitor was spectacular. Armin Shimerman was spectacular without the makeup.

When younger Black and brown actors and actresses seek you out for counsel what do you tell them?

For African-Americans in particular, and other people of color too, this is really a great time. You are living in a fantastic time. When I started in the business, you had one commercial that maybe featured a Black person. There was nothing else. There was probably one "Black show." The other TV shows had their token Black actors. Now there are amazing opportunities for Black actors. You're living in it. You're living in a golden time for minorities in Hollywood. Whatever you do, if you get some work in the business, do just appreciate it.

There have been rumors of Worf making an appearance on the "Picard" series. Where are we there?

I have not been contacted to do "Picard." I've been trying to pitch a "Worf" TV show for a long time. CBS is missing out on a golden moment and an easy sell.

Because of media consolidation, sooner rather than later, Disney is likely going to own Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC, and all of the other big storytelling universes. At some point there will be a Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC etc. crossover movie – and people will pay $50 to see it. Would you ever participate in such a thing?

That would be "jumping the shark" as they say. For example, when in one of the recent Star Trek movies Spock met himself. Hopefully, I'll be doing something else and I won't have to think about such a thing.

Worf will die and go to the Klingon afterworld – what we know as "Sto-vo-kor" – with the other honorable dead. What do you think Worf's epitaph would be if you wrote it?

"Worf had no fear." He would take on an assignment and you wouldn't see a moment of fear. That to me is who Worf is.

Dorn currently stars in Derek Ting's "Agent Revelation, " which is currently available on digital and VOD.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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