Star Trek: The Motion Picture was disappointing for Stephen Collins, who played Willard Decker, but it wasn’t all because of the lack of box office success.
Getting the role was no big deal for Collins, who didn’t know that getting a role in the new film was a coveted thing. “Little did I know that tons of actors in Hollywood had been lining up around the block to get in and meet Robert Wise,” he said. “It’s just such a perverse thing about life and especially about show business, but when you don’t need the job that badly is when you seem to get it, and when you desperately want the job and know you can be brilliant in it, you usually don’t get it. Life isn’t fair that way and show business isn’t fair that way. Obviously there are great exceptions to the rule, but those are relatively few and far between. So I went in kind of cool as a cucumber. ‘Hi, Mr. Wise.’ I wasn’t nervous and when you’re not nervous you tend to do your best.”
Collins almost turned down the role, but a casting director changed his mind. “I called my service and there was a message to call my agent and my agent said, ‘They’ve offered you the role in Star Trek,” explained Collins. “I thought, ‘Do I really want to do this? I don’t know. I haven’t read the script.’ And I really, really seriously considered not doing it. I got a call from a woman named Marion Dougherty, who was then head of casting for Paramount and had been, for at least ten years before that, the biggest casting director in the business. Marion knew me from New York. She said, ‘Stephen, this is the biggest film Paramount Pictures has ever made and yours is the only new male role in the movie. It cannot hurt you.’ So Collins took the role.
Taking the role didn’t help Collins though, but that was because of his own, not the film’s, shortcomings. “The funny thing is that over a lifetime I could make an argument, and I have evidence, that in some ways doing the movie did hurt me,” said Collins. “But it probably didn’t hurt me anymore than I would have managed to have hurt myself doing other stuff. The fact is I was a really green actor at that time. I was working all the time, but there were basic things that I didn’t understand about acting, that I wouldn’t discover for a few more years. Star Trek, in a way, was great evidence of my shortcomings. I can’t watch myself in the movie because I’m so serious and one-note. I hadn’t yet learned how to just relax and be on film. I didn’t understand a lot about acting. So, while it was a big deal and the movie was a big deal, I was never happy with my performance.”
It didn’t help that the movie was not a box office success. “About a year after Star Trek opened, I had an audition for a beautiful script for a television film called Summer Solstice, which was going to star Henry Fonda and Myrna Low,” said Collins. “The movie went back and forth between them in their old age and their younger counterparts, and Lindsay Crouse and I played the younger counterparts. It was a gorgeous script and I really wanted to do it. I went in and had an audition with the guy producing it. The audition went well and it felt good. But the guy said, ‘I have to tell you, I did not want to see you for this.’ I said, ‘Really. Wow. Tell me, why was that?’ He said, ‘Well, the only thing I’ve seen you do is Star Trek and there was nothing in that that made me think you could do this.’ That confirmed my worst suspicion, but it was also really good information to have. Collins got the role in spite of that.
Collins is currently working in No Ordinary Family, a show about a typical American family who gain special powers after their plane crashes in Brazil.