To be honest, introducing actor Gates McFadden as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Dr Beverly Crusher is a little redundant. So successful was the series and so beloved are its characters, all that’s needed is a photograph of her face or a mention of her name. It is 31 years since audiences across the globe were first introduced to the 24th century physician, and her popularity has never diminished. If anything, I suspect it has actually increased.
There is a lot more to McFadden than the one role, however; before moving onto how she came to be cast in The Next Generation, she was a choreographer on the Jim Henson productions The Muppets Take Manhattan, Dreamchild, and Labyrinth. So which came first: the acting career or the choreography?
“The choreography and the acting sort of came together,” says McFadden. “My close friend Julie Taymor was heavily involved with puppets. I was enthralled with them, and a whole group of us were playing with them all the time. I worked with them again while studying in Europe under Jacques Lecoq.”
Jacques Lecoq, and his prestigious drama school L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, is a legend in international performing arts. Over the course of his career – he died in 1999 – he established a reputation as one of the foremost teachers of physical theatre and mime. While some of her classmates joined the famous puppetry troupe Mummenschanz, McFadden returned to the USA to assist Lecoq in teaching performance workshops at Cornell University. “Lecoq was asked to stay on,’” says McFadden, “but he declined and went back to Europe. When he left he recommended that I take over; I was 22 or 23 at the time.” Teaching and directing puppet-based and physical theatre, while rewarding, prevented McFadden from doing much acting herself.
When she managed to make more time for acting in other people’s productions, fate unpleasantly intervened. “I almost died in a ski accident,” she explains, “and lost three acting jobs at once.” Then she adds “Oh yeah,” with a laugh, acknowledging how casually she treats the accident now. While in recovery she was approached by Jim Henson, who had first seen her perform in a New York theatre production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine. “Jim contacted me after seeing that and some other work, and asked if I could come join him as a choreographer. Basically he wanted to know if I could teach puppeteers acting. The first thing we worked on was The Muppets Take Manhattan, and I had a little role in that too. Then I worked on a film called Dreamchild directed by Gavin Millar, and that was just lovely.” Due to working visa issues – the film was shot in the United Kingdom – McFadden was unable to work on the production in an official capacity. She was ultimately credited in the ‘thanks to’ section of the end titles. “After that was Labyrinth, which took about nine months.”
Despite her success as a choreographer, McFadden was intent on returning to acting full-time. “Frank Oz asked me to do the choreography for Little Shop of Horrors,” she says, “but I turned him down. I wanted to act instead.” A year or so later McFadden was preparing for a plane flight to Los Angeles for an audition when she received a call from her agent. “She called me up and said, ‘You have to do an audition this morning; they’re making a new Star Trek!’ I said there was no way I was doing an audition, I was about to get on a plane. Now my agent was the biggest Star Trek fan. She had loved it since she was a child, and she wouldn’t let go. ‘You have to do this!’ she said. So I went and auditioned in the morning before my flight.
“When I went in, I was the only one there. They had the three female roles laid out; one scene per character. Troi, Tasha Yar, and Beverly. Troi’s was all tears. Yar’s was… I don’t remember, whatever it was, and Dr Crusher was this great comedy bit. Really funny. It was a scene from The Naked Now where I made this big seductive entrance at Picard. I thought, ‘I’m going to audition for that one, because it’s clearly the comic role on the show’. I just came in and read for it. There was no prep.”
When McFadden was later offered the role of Dr Beverly Crusher, she turned it down twice. “It didn’t seem like the sort of thing I wanted to do. I was in a play at the time with a really great group of New York actors. Linda Hunt was in it.” Thankfully for Next Generation fans around the world, at the third offer McFadden relented. She went on to play Dr Crusher for six out of seven seasons of The Next Generation and four feature films. “And there was hardly any comedy in the role,” she notes ruefully, “just The Naked Now, a bit with Data in The Big Goodbye, and a few others. And my whole career was about comedy! I’ve taught theatrical clowning in conservatoriums around the world!”
She kids. McFadden openly admits to having no regrets about playing the role, which made her and her co-stars iconic faces around the world. Not that they had much time to appreciate it: “We did 26 episodes a year. When you were doing it, it seemed relentless. It’s not like today, when they only make 10.”
When asked what she felt she learned from playing Dr Crusher for all of those years, McFadden leaps straight to Star Trek’s fans. “I was the last one in the cast to start going to the conventions,” she says. “I was terrified at conventions and being around fans.” So what changed? “I was let go from the series after one year by one of the producers. I spoke up about some issues I had with sexism on the series. So that’s something I learned: not to be too direct when working on a show.
“There was such an outpouring from the fans when my character was replaced. It was the fans who forced the producers to bring me back for the third year,” she says. “I love meeting the fans. They’re the most futurist, intelligent group of people.” It is through the fans that McFadden is continually reminded of the cultural longevity and power Star Trek maintains. “My mind and heart goes to what a massive effect it’s had on my life. I see generations of people watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. How Lucky are we? It was obviously the vision of Gene Roddenberry, and all of the other writers and producers of the show. And of course it’s still going! How amazing is that?”
McFadden firmly believes Star Trek is more important today than ever. “When you go to the conventions all over America, you can see how the country is going. And right now, with Trump and everything else, it isn’t going well. I think it’s important now more than ever to have a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation out there. We need shows that are all about hope.”
Gates McFadden is appearing at Oz Comic-Con in Brisbane on 22-23 September and Sydney on 29-30 September. For more information, check the official site.