Fan Fiction by Brent Spiner: New Excerpt
By Crime HQOctober 8, 2021
WHEN I WAS twenty-two years old, I left home for the first time and departed for New York City along with a meager cache of savings and the dream of being an actor. Traveling by train from Houston to Chicago to Buffalo and then down into Manhattan, I arrived on New Year’s Eve 1972 and took a room for the night at the New York Hilton on Sixth Avenue. At around eleven, I walked to Times Square, where there seemed to be at least a million people huddled together on Broadway and Seventh Avenue. It was freezing that night, about 1 degree Fahrenheit, but I didn’t even feel it. I had arrived! I was going to take the New York theater world by storm! When the legendary New Year’s Ball dropped at the stroke of midnight, I hugged and kissed absolute strangers. It was a very heady experience. I went back to the hotel, went to sleep, and woke up in the morning with a 102-degree fever, compliments of a catastrophic case of the flu. I was sick for a solid month. A friend of my brother’s, Dennis Hanovich, a saint, allowed me to stay in his guest room while I recovered.
After a few weeks, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d been in the Big Apple for almost a month and had seen nothing of it other than the inside of Dennis’s guest room. “What are you doing?” I said to myself. “Get up! Go out! Take a look at New York City!” I dragged myself out of bed, pulled on my clothes, took the elevator to the ground floor, and walked out onto West End Avenue. I gasped. It was like a fairy tale, a WINTER WONDERLAND! The snow had been falling all day, and the city was wrapped in a blanket of white. Exhilarated, I decided to stroll a few blocks and enjoy this new adventure. But soon I thought better of it. “You’re still sick. Be smart. Go back to bed.”
As I turned to go back to the apartment, every light on West End Avenue went out. There was a complete blackout. It was so cold that at almost the same instant, one of my lenses popped out of my glasses. I looked for it, but with only one good eye, I couldn’t spot it in the snow and the total darkness. Removing one of my gloves, I began feeling for it, but I still couldn’t find it. So I took off the other glove and swept the snow with both hands, hoping one of my fingers would make contact with it. Nothing! Then I got down on my knees in the damp powder and frantically made angel wings in the snow with my hands. Nothing. At that very moment, a taxicab swept by, its tires sending a tidal wave of wet slush over my entire body. Now I was wet and sick and I wanted to go home. Feeling completely defeated, I thought, What am I doing here? I can’t make it in New York. I can’t even stay alive here! I looked up to the heavens, snowflakes dotting my face, and cried out, “God! Should I go back to Houston? Give me a sign!” And then my other lens popped out. “Thanks, God. Thanks a lot,” I said. But then a strange thing happened. A warm and wonderful feeling passed through me, and I knew what it was. Hypothermia! I was freezing to death. No! No, that wasn’t it at all. It was defiance! I whipped off my empty frames, threw them in the snow, and shouted to the indifferent world around me, “You can’t beat me, New York! I’ll conquer you yet!” I was certain of my path, and I would never give up.
My first apartment, a one-room studio on the ground floor, was on West 80th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. It was right around the corner from Zabar’s, which was the only good thing about it. The bathroom was so small that the door, when open, hit the toilet, making it only possible to enter like a crab, sliding in sideways. I was able, with my savings, to equip my new digs with a secondhand bed, a tiny couch, and most important, a portable TV. The night after I bought it, I came home from a walk, opened the apartment door, and found the place completely bare. No bed, no couch, and most distressingly, no TV. Fortunately, the thieves found my clothes unacceptable. Those were the days of New York’s “mean streets,” and they were decidedly unfriendly to me. I was mugged a couple of times and I couldn’t get arrested in the theater.
The only acting job I had in that first year was as an impostor on the game show To Tell the Truth. I pretended to be a cabdriver from Denver who played trumpet requests for his customers. No one on the panel of celebrities voted for me; hence I made no money. But I did meet Nipsey Russell, so it wasn’t a total loss. And inspired by my cabdriving charade, I got my hack license. The requirements to drive a cab in New York in those days were pretty simple. There was a quiz in which you had to know eight very common locations such as Radio City Music Hall, Times Square, etc. Any tourist could ace this test. Before being rewarded with your license, however, one had to be checked out by a “doctor” in Queens. I was instructed to drop my trousers and underwear, turn my head, and cough while he cradled my cojones for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. That was the extent of the examination.
Eventually, my luck began to turn. I landed a few small roles in off-Broadway productions. In time, the parts got bigger and better and I graduated to the occasional Broadway show. Most impressively, I played Aramis in the 1984 revival of Rudolf Friml’s operetta The Three Musketeers, which lasted a week and lost twelve million dollars. Though financially I was barely getting by, I didn’t care. I was a paid actor. Then the IRS summoned me to their offices. I hadn’t paid my taxes (“what are taxes?”) and I owed the government $4,000. Since I had nothing more than my last paycheck in the bank, about $700, I was certain a jail cell was in my future. And then providence raised its beautiful head. A relative of mine had died—not so fortunate for him, I guess—and had made me the beneficiary of an insurance policy that paid out exactly $4,000. Crazy how things sometimes work out. But I was still broke.
About this time, I got my first role in a film. I think it’s fair to call it a film. A cut-rate Italian company came to New York to make an “American comedy” titled Rent Control. The director had seen me in a play and was certain I was perfect for the lead role, a schnook who scoured the obituaries hoping to find a rent-controlled apartment previously occupied by someone who was recently deceased. Little by little I put together that this was a mob-financed venture. My salary checks were signed by an obstetrician in New Jersey. When the movie was completed, it played for a couple of days at the Waverly Theater in the Village to a combined audience of about six and a half people. The entire budget of the film was $100,000, but to the director’s credit, it looked like $200,000. Though it did nothing for my career, it did allow me to put some money in the bank. I was thirty-four and growing very weary of living like a teenager, so I decided, with this one questionable film credit, to give Hollywood a try. I scored a job as a replacement, playing Seymour Krelborn in the original West Coast production of Little Shop of Horrors, and said goodbye to New York. The show lasted only another three weeks, but it allowed me to secure an agent and, with luck and perseverance, find my way into guest-starring roles and TV movies.
And then Star Trek: The Next Generation happened. I auditioned for the role of the android Data six times. Apparently they weren’t sure I was the guy for the part, and frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be tied down to a series. I was doing pretty well at this point and enjoying playing a variety of characters. But finally they offered me the role, and I figured what the hell, it couldn’t last more than a season and I could make some decent money. And the rest is history. My history, anyway. Immediately after I was hired, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the show, said something to me I’ll never forget. “Your life will never be the same.” I had no idea what he meant at the time, but he couldn’t have been more correct. So many wonderful experiences began to unfold for me. I had a challenging role to grapple with, I was making a decent income, and I was working with some talented and wonderful people. And then something truly unbelievable happened. Something I can describe only as a slapstick nightmare occurred in the fourth season of the show and gave Gene’s words a completely different context.
Everything I have written thus far is absolutely true. But the story I’m about to tell is not. In fact, having written the book and read it a few times, I’m not sure if any of it really happened. Maybe in a parallel universe?
Copyright © 2021 by Brent Spiner. All rights reserved.