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The Trek Nation - Jack Donner

Jack Donner

By Jacqueline Bundy
Posted at October 17, 2004 - 3:36 PM GMT

See Also: 'Home' Episode Guide

Jack Donner was already a very familiar face to television audiences when he was cast in the role of Romulan Subcommander Tal in the classic episode "The Enterprise Incident" during Star Trek's third season. At that point Jack had been working steadily as an actor for several years playing roles on such series as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Donna Reed Show, Highway Patrol, Get Smart, My Favorite Martian and Mission: Impossible. Jack continued to work regularly in television and features through the mid 70's while running the Oxford Theater in Hollywood, which he founded in 1966 with Lee Delano.

In 1976 Jack sold the theater and took a fifteen-year hiatus from acting and returned to school to earn his masters degree in psychotherapy. Licensed as a psychotherapist since 1986 Jack never quite succeeded in ridding himself of the acting bug and in 1991 he returned to the boards to start all over again.

Since then Jack's list of credits continues to grow with roles in numerous television shows such as The District, Frasier, Malcolm In the Middle, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Roswell and 7th Heaven. His resurgent career has also lead to notable roles in several feature films including Exorcism, Demon Under Glass and most recently Retro Puppet Master.

Recently Jack Donner returned to the Star Trek universe when he was cast to play the role of a Vulcan priest on Enterprise in the episode "Home" which will be the third episode of the new season and is scheduled to air on Friday, October 22nd. Jack was kind enough talk with Trek Nation about his long career and his role in "Home".


TN: You were born and raised in Los Angeles, is that correct?

JG: I was born in East LA, Boyle Heights.

TN: Then when you were discharged from the army in 1948 and returned home you decided you wanted to be an actor.

JG: Yes that's right, I enrolled in drama school. There was a gentleman by the name of Ben Bard, he had been a silent movie star and he started a drama school and it was very large at that time because all of the soldiers were coming out of the service and going to university. Ben Bard was very popular and they had some fabulous teachers there.

TN: Then it was on to New York?

JD: I went to New York in 1955. I didn't know anybody and I did a lot of different jobs just to pay the rent. I think at one point I had 13 or 14 jobs within two weeks. I remember I got a job at the White Castle hamburger way up Broadway at 242nd street. I was used to California hamburgers, which were thick and juicy, but these were little silver dollar sized things and when I'd flip them they would stick on the ceiling.

I got my first acting job in summer stock in the summer of 1956 near Baltimore, Maryland. We did sixteen plays that summer. I loved New York. I did several seasons of summer stock and did off-Broadway. In those days you didn't need an agent. If you did sign with an agent that meant you were in the inner circle and in 1958 I signed with an agent.

TN: What brought you back to Los Angeles?

JD: I got a letter from my father, he said he was getting remarried, my mother died when I was 8. "Please Jack, please come out," he begged. That just emotionally pinched me by the nose and dragged me back to LA. I fully intended to stay just for a month or two and then go back to New York; I was doing very well there.

When I was here visiting for the wedding I decided I'd call some old friends who were working in the business and see if I could pick up some work. Sure enough I did. I read for a show called The Line Up, which became The Streets of San Francisco. I did two or three shows while I was in Los Angeles and I would look at the check and I would compare the amount of money that the check was for with what I made in New York and it just absolutely corrupted me.

I made the decision to stay. Since I was doing well this was a way to prove to my father that I could make it, that I could make a living and be a success. The whole thing was so corruptive I did not go back to New York and to this day I really regret that.

However I did begin to get fairly steady work. I did a lot of the early shows in the 60's, things like Highway Patrol, I Dream of Jeannie and The Donna Reed Show.

TN: When you returned to Los Angeles did you get involved with the local theater scene?

JD: In 1966 I, and a partner friend of mine Lee Delano, we started the Oxford Theater. Why Oxford, well the name of the street was Oxford. (laughs) We ran an acting studio as well as doing plays. Some of my students included people like Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson, Barbara Perkins and Don Johnson. Of course we had no way of knowing where he would go.

TN: Is the Oxford Theater still in existence?

JD: Sort of, it's still in LA but now called the Met. Located in East Hollywood. We had remodeled the theater and it's still the same today as it was back then.

TN: But you continued to work in television and feature films?

JD: I continued to work and gradually worked my way up to guest star status.

TN: You had numerous appearances on Mission: Impossible I remember. Didn't that set some kind of record?

JD: I did 11 episodes of Mission: Impossible. I've been told that is the record for the greatest number of guest appearances on any one show.

Then I did Star Trek. I knew Leonard Nimoy and Walter Koenig; we knew each other prior to the beginning of Star Trek. So it was like a reunion going to the set. At that time it was just a series, we were actors and we were glad to be working but nobody had any idea, of course, of what it would become. Well perhaps Gene Roddenberry did.

So I did Subcommander Tal, this Romulan character and it was fun. Who knew that Star Trek would become this cultural icon? It's a cultural symbol. The themes of the show were so positive, so optimistic about life. I think people have a hunger for that and Sci-Fi was always a popular medium.

TN: You mentioned you knew Leonard Nimoy before Star Trek. Was that from Mission: Impossible?

JD: No I had done some plays with Nimoy.

TN: And Walter Koenig?

JD: Walter got involved as an actor in our theater. He was a friend of my partner Lee Delano and I then I meet Walter through him. He was a struggling actor as were we all. Walter's a very sweet guy. He's a good guy and very smart. I remember when he came to the theater when he was hired to play Chekov. He was so excited he was practically jumping out of his shoes.

TN: You left the acting profession for a while.

JD: In 1976 I got very ill and had to sell the theater, I couldn't work. I wasn't able to do anything for two or three months. When I became ambulatory I was still too weak to work so I decided to go to university and 12 years later I came out as a licensed Psychotherapist. I built up a practice but I knew that one day when I felt ready I could return to show business.

TN: So you never lost the acting bug?

JD: No never!

In 1991, I came back, after being out of the business for about 15 years; I was a complete unknown by then. Nobody knew me; I had to start all over from the bottom. I cranked back up my creative juices by doing a lot of plays and by 1995 I did a film role again. It happened to be a Japanese-American film called East Meets West, I played the part of an undertaker in this western town where gangs were shooting each other and I was cleaning up the mess. I've been working pretty well since then.

TN: You've also been doing some writing.

JD: Yes I have a site called JDSpeakout.com. The site is devoted to some of my writing. There are essays on all kinds of things like relationships, healing and politics. I'm still adding stuff.

TN: Haven't you also been writing screenplays?

JD: I wrote and directed and produced a short film called Screech starring a wonderful actress named Jody Jaress. It was fun to do. I picked a weekend to shoot it on, it was sixteen minutes long so in a day and a half we shot tons of film and then I edited it down to the 16 minutes. It's still not satisfying to me because I had to rush so I wasn't able do a lot of the things I wanted to, but it still came out all right. It's currently playing on iFilm.com.

I've written a lot of scripts. Currently I have three scripts that I'm trying to raise money for to produce. One is a horror film. I wrote the horror film in reaction to The Blair Witch project. I mean that was just kids with a camcorder, college kids. But it was a huge success and I thought my god what am I doing, I could do this. So I wrote The Shy Boy. It's a horror film but has a lot of depth to it.

Then there's a character driven film called Growing Love about this young woman who is entrapped in a battered woman's syndrome and of course she gets hooked up with this guy who is totally wrong for her. Then she meets an older guy and through him she learns about real love and she gains strength and finally escapes from this terribly addictive trap. It's a very positive film but it's very intense.

I also wrote a psychological thriller called Delusion where I play this shrink and I'm manipulating this very wealthy woman because I want to get a hold of her estate. I'm out plodding away trying to interest producers. I've got a few people looking at it right now and am hoping to somehow to get lucky.

TN: Didn't you also make a television pilot in the past two or three years?

JD: I'm involved with D.L. Warner and Jon Cunningham who are the writers and producers of a company they call DragonCor. They wrote and produced a pilot for television called The Privateers. The lead was Karl Urban. He was in Lord of the Rings and now his career is soaring. The pilot didn't sell but Karl is still interested in The Privateers and they've turned it into a feature film that they are on the verge of producing that and I would play the President of the galactic system that the story is set in.

They also did a little horror film called Demon Under Glass that is now in video stores. That was great, with Jason Carter playing the vampire and Garett Maggart from The Sentinel. I play a scientist and we capture this vampire in order to study it and I become obsessed and jealous of this creatures powers and I turn into a killer. It's a very interesting story.

TN: What about your psychotherapy practice?

JD: I still maintain a small therapy practice as well. I have some clients who just don't want to let me go. I divide my time between that and writing and acting.

TN: I could have sworn I saw you in a Revlon commercial recently.

JD: Yes. I have the least likely face for commercials. It's very angular, not the typical grandpa next door. So booking commercials is difficult for me. Plus I have this facial hair, which I had to shave off to play the Vulcan role.

TN: The perfect opening. What can you tell us about your role in the upcoming Enterprise episode "Home"?

JD: Well I've been trying to land another role on Star Trek for a while. There was this rumor going around that new producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were not terribly interested in bringing back the guest stars from the original series but I decided to try. Word was that they wanted to put their own stamp on it. So I kept hoping to get called in for something and I did get called in once to read for something on Voyager but wasn't cast. But now they've added a new guy to the writing team, his name is Manny Coto. Manny is a Star Trek fan from the time he was a kid. He grew up on Star Trek. He was added to the team and he is so creative and so interested in recapturing the essence of the original Star Trek. He's the head guy now on Enterprise and he made the determination to create ties with the people who are still around from the original series. I was called in to read for this Vulcan priest role. I didn't think I had a snowballs chance; I was up against some very good actors but they cast me, much to my surprise. It's not a big part but they did give me guest star billing. I think they were playing homage to my history with Star Trek.

When I went on the set all the actors and the crew and everybody were so differential and I didn't understand it but then I realized they were playing homage to the original. They were just absolute sweethearts. There was this one guy, a member of the crew and I guess because of the bone structure of my face every time he passed me he would whisper "Spock". One person even asked me if I was Leonard Nimoy's brother. It was very fabulous. (laughing)

And I can tell you that they asked me to come back to play the Vulcan priest again.

TN: Congratulations that's great to hear!

JD: On the shoot on this last episode of Enterprise, the title is "Kir'Shara," I worked with Scott Bakula. He's a real nice guy, and likes to clown a lot, so do I. We got into a friendly game of one-upmanship with one liners and jokes. We kept everyone in stitches. He was very warm in saying goodbye, as was David Livingston, the director of "Kir'Shara" and the entire crew.

TN: So you've gone from playing a Romulan to playing a Vulcan.

JD: Well at one time they were one people. So you could say I'm playing an older cousin of sorts of the first character I played. Of course the Romulans maintained their warlike ways while the Vulcan's went in a different direction.

TN: In "Home" the character of T'Pol has returned for a visit to Vulcan. So are most of your scenes with Jolene Blalock?

JD: Yes, the last scene of the episode. As I said it's not a large role. I officiate at the wedding. What happens is she has to marry another Vulcan for political reasons, to get her mother out of a jam.

TN: After all these years "The Enterprise Incident" remains a fan favorite. Do you ever tire of being associated with that role?

JD: I know when I go to conventions the fans are very kind. Very respectful and very excited to see any of us who were on the original series. I want to share a funny story with you. I was a guest at the recent convention to honor Jimmy Doohan and Manny [Coto] came. He came up to my table and I didn't realize it was him. He was looking at the pictures on my table and asked for an autograph. I asked him if he would like it personalized and he said, "Yes please, to Manny Coto."

TN: So the co-executive producer of Enterprise was standing in line in the autograph room along with the other convention attendees? That is funny.

JD: He told me he was there as a fan just like everyone else. Manny's a very honest, warm and down to earth guy. He had that glint in his eyes that devoted fans have at a convention when they are determined to meet every Star Trek actor they can get to, he had that look.

TN: Before we wrap this up I can't resist asking if you've read any of the Star Trek novels that feature the character of Subcommander Tal? There are a few newer ones including a recent Vulcan series with a strong Romulan element by Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz.

JD: I haven't read those yet. I have read Margaret [Wander Bonanno]'s books. I love her writing.

TN: Thank you Jack for taking some time out of your day to talk with me.

JD: No, thank you, it's been my pleasure.


"Home" is scheduled to air on UPN on Friday October 22nd.

"Kir'Shara" will likely be aired as the ninth episode of the fourth season. Jack's scenes were filmed the week of October 4th. No airdate has been announced.

You can learn more about Jack Donner by visiting his website: JackDonner.com.

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Jacqueline Bundy reviews Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, writes monthly columns for the TrekWeb newsletter and the Star Trek Galactic News, and hosts the Yahoo Star Trek Books Group weekly chat.