By Jim Boutillier
Sci-Fi Universe Oct. 1998
When it comes to the difficulties of bringing good SF to television, John Rhys-Davies feels your pain.
"If anything we do matters - it's trying to make a difference!" So speaks John Rhys-Davies, best known for his three-year stint as the crass Prof. Maximilian Arturo on Fox's former series Sliders. Although he was a series regular on the popular Untouchables, and has appeared in numerous feature films including the Indiana Jones movies, Rhys-Davies has gained much press because of his outspoken displeasure with the powers that be on Sliders, and of course the subsequent demise of his alter ego, Professor Arturo.
Rhys-Davies continues to make lasting impressions on and off screen, now free from the creative indifference he suggests was rampant on Sliders. A perfectionist and proponent for quality television, Rhys-Davies now has the freedom to seekd out roles that reinforce his belief in supporting shows of integrity. That is why the world of Star Trek has seen the holo-interpretation of a classic, Leonardo Da Vinci, a k a John Rhys-Davies.
Rhys-Davies troubles started as soon as he came to Sliders with promises of making the professor who he wanted. "They were looking for somebody with weight and authority to play the part of an irascible professor," so Rhys-Davies thought, "... and I suspect the part was really meant to be the cowardly professor in Lost In Space, which I think I said at the time was something I didn't particularly want to play. But, we all agreed it would change and evolve when we came down to doing it. So, it was a battle that had to be fought in the early stages."
Although he is quick to say he loved the professor in Lost In Space, Rhys-Davies simply doesn't believe it was appropriate for Sliders.
Besides the conflict with his character, he was constantly found fighting for quality control and show integrity, namely in the writing and blatant copycat stories he says Sliders "borrowed" from popular, current movies. "I thought season two was a complete pass. The third season, again, basically you have an executive producer who's not interested in science fiction, who doesn't understand it, who doesn't write it, and a bunch of not-terribly-good writers who are insolently derivative."
Pointing our that the writers said, "...the network had forced them into doing these things," Rhys-Davies can believe the truth of network demands for success, even at the expense of quality. "Hollywood can only understand success and say, 'Let's repeat that!' So you have the 'Twisters' episode early on which is a straight rip-off. But of course our twister is man-made and is upside down, which reveals a remarkable ignorance about the physics of twisters! It then proceeded to become a rip-off of every film that you have ever seen, particularly toward the end - fortunately by which time I had been fired. I don't want to be associated with a writer who would say to me, 'John, I can steal from anything,' as if this was a badge of honor and not a badge of absolute creative disgrace." If there is something John Rhys-Davies stands for it is quality, originality, and creative appreciation. "I was taught to respect writers, to value the word above all else...intellectual property should should be treated with the same respect you would treat other property. And the cry, 'But everybody does it,' won't do."
He is very passionate about the quality of work and those associated with it. This has been his main point of contention with Sliders, regardless of what other gossip would have you believe. In fact, he even told the other cast members to let him fight the battle for them, he knew it was coming - you can ask the other actors! "They will tell you, that early on I told them to keep their heads down and their noses to the grindstone and let me do the fighting for the series." Which was no problem for Rhys Davies because of his genuine admiration for his cast mates, another feeling shared by the actors on the show. "Let me say this, if you ask any of the four of us we would say that, the greatest pleasure of coming to work each was that we would get to spend time with each other. I have never worked with three more harmonious and good souls as I worked with on that show. As for Jerry himself, were I to have another son I wish it were Jerry...I think he is so gifted. He is ideally, temperamentally suited to succeed and it was my joy and privilege to work with him. Sabrina is a darling and I love her. And Cleavant is the best, truest golden soul of the lot, just a dear, dear man."
The whole experience of working on Sliders was as much a heartache as it was headache for Rhys-Davies, in that in Sliders he saw a great opportunity to tell really great sci-fi stories, a possibility that he even now holds out a little hope for. "The reason I went on about Sliders is that the premise is the best premise I think I've ever known for a television series. You can go anywhere in the world and it's worth fighting for. That shoudl could have been, and could still be, Universal's Star Trek." As for the show's future? "I'll wait to see who the head writer is and what science fiction he has done before, before I make any prediction." And the reason? "I won't say which year, but the head writer turned around to me and said, 'It's easy for you to criticize John, you don't know how hard it is to come up with ideas for this thing.' You go anywhere in the universe!"
What is Rhys-Davies solution to the creative slump of the series? "It is so blatantly easy to transform that show it makes me want to scream: 'Oh give me a gun to shoot some writers just to encourage the rest!"
Of course, he is cynically joking. However, he does have an explanation for the writing on the show, and a personal solution for its betterment. "Writers at present have no shame, and until they develop a sense of shame we will only get derivative crap! I'll be honest with you, I think a million dollars an episode is very adequate to do the series, I could do that series brilliantly for a million dollars. Writers should be paid for what they produce. The whole business of carrying writers on staff irritates me beyond belief. But you cannot ultimately fight against a monolithic, self interested stupidity."
This actor knows about script butchery, not jsut through acting it, but because it happened to his own script for the series. A script that was turned into every cliche Rhys-Davies hates about sci-fi, and ultimately ended up being the demise of the professor. "I submitted one of five ideas: It was a really low-key standard idea, the sort of level that Sliders should have. It showed scientific curiousity and moral choices. And that was the episode they turned into a double-parter with all the predictable things. Anyone in the military, the government, is always wrong [according to them]. In every episode of Sliders you will find that essential bias. Then they had the bad soldier, he's out of control and has to such brains out - Eh!
"I was hoping I could write this episode. The classic thing was the writers do not want John to write one because it would be bad for morale. So I let it go, they paid me for the idea. And anyway, I was very anxious to get out of the series, I wasn't going to rock the boat at that stage! You give up in the end. The whole point of Sliders is that it is [about] alternate universes, and it should challenge our expectations and not bolster our prejudices.
"Network television is increasingly becoming the thing watched by inner city dwellers, the less financially privledged and less educationally privledged, and I think if you deprive them of intellectual honesty, of good truthful facts, it is racially and morally condescending. In other words, if you know your audience is culturually or educationally more challenged, then you have to be more scrupulous with your facts and carry the lamp of science and turn it up a little bit."
Now that Sliders is removed from Rhys-Davies' concerns, he is moving on to brighter projects. The actor has appeared in a variety of recent ventures that the audience should know about and have the chance to expierence. Such projects include a character on a Star Trek, a CD Rom game [Wing Commander], a new TV pilot for ABC [You Wish], and a host of animated characters we all regularly tune in to.
You may have noticed a familar face on the two part season finale of Star Trek: Voyager, and "Scorpion," this season's opener. Rhys-Davies played the holographic character Leonardo Da Vinci. Caught in Borg space, barred from their voyage home by a race of parasitic, interdimensional organisms, Captain Kathryn Janeway retreats to the holodeck to rethink her options. Enter Rhys-Davies, or rather Leonardo Da Vinci, who off handedly helps the captain discover a way out of their mess. And for this actor, it was a welcome break.
"When I left Sliders, I was very tired. For the first time in my life I felt disillusioned about my trade, and I really didn't want to work. I'm an actor who would sooner work on a minor piece of film just to keep busy. And along came this Star Trek episode and it was such a joy, so well written. Star Trek to me has had a sort of idealism and vision behind it that I found admirable. I have two little scenes and they are lovely...they are important and integral, and are basically about the nature of thinking."
Rhys-Davies has little trouble getting along with the great cast, especially one Captain Janeway. "My lady captain I found so wonderful and delightful to work with."
And for anyone who was wondering, "I think there is an implication that in fact, Leonardo may reappear. And it would be a great honor. It was a delight." And the rumor was true, as you might have surmised by Rhys-Davies's recent feature guest performance in the episode entitled "Concerning Flight." In this show, DaVinci is inadvertently stolen, along with a large manifest of Voyager's cargo, and carried off to a distant planet. When the crew tracks down the fleeing aliens to their planet, who else does the captain discover but a confused DaVinci wearing the doctor's portable holoemitter: And he is still only concerned about building a flying bird. Of course, as things heat up, the Captain and DaVinci must combine wits and find a way to stop the aliens and get back to Voyager. You just never know where you'll find Rhys-Davies popping up!
Lucky for us, Rhys-Davies' experience on Voyager has encouraged his outlook on the business. "It's a tonic just to be reminded that television can produce good work and good scripts."
Off set, expect Rhys-Davies to take his own challenge for good writing as he devotes more time to his passion for the written word. "I've got about half-a-dozen unmade scripts that I've been circumspect about showing anybody...It's about time I put my money where my mouth is and tried to get something going, just to demonstrate that I know what I'm talking about. I've been writing short stories lately...and I might just try to put together a collection. I also want to put together a science fiction series."
When not pretending to be someone else, when not fighting a good cause, when the actor goes home, take off the work coat and professional hat, who is John Rhys-Davies? "I have a lot of books. I use a computer basically as a word processor. I have two sons whom I love very much...but how they lived to be men sometimes escapes me...there is a woman in my life and it would be nice to think that we might finally get our act together and walk off into the sunset. I have a few old cars.
"I have some land I sort of putter around on and drive the tractor from time to time, count the sheep and pretend that I'm a farmer. It just wipes the mind clear, good to taste your own lamb and dig your own potatoes."
Another passion of Rhys-Davies' is to finally get the pilot's license he's been working on for some time. "I'm so close, but then work comes up and you find yourself back a few weeks again." In fact, he had a plane crash in Africa in 1985; rather than dissuade him from flying, it made him take stock of his life. "It was an illuminating experience. The regrets were that I would nto see my sons and my sons' sons, and that I'd not done the writing I had promised myself I would do." But for the most part, he is very satisfied with his life, having experienced much of life's offerings. "I've been everywhere and done quite a lot. I have known truly magnificent and wonderful people, people whose personal richness illuminated my life. I have loved and been loved. It's a pretty full life and I don't think it's over yet!"
Rhys-Davies believes in approaching life with an open mind and good heart. It is not surprising he holds Christian ideals in high regard, even though his questioning side still seeks the ultimate questions and answers of afterlife and God. "I think increasingly I am more impressed with the Ten Commandments and the extraordinary sophistication and more supremacy of Christ's teachings. I was brought up in the Christian faith. I have not met a better set of rules for living by. In the beginning God created the Earth; this is in the most profound sense, true. At the same time the actual mechanics of it is something that is important to find out."
Rhys Davies has great respect for the viewing audience and implores us to take up the campaign for quailty control. "There is this terrible belief that you mustn't be too clever for the audience...If you want good value in entertainment, and good viewing, ask for it. With the internet, you really do have a means of feeding back directly. When you see show after show being ripped off from another film., write in...punish the people who are doing it!"
As for the rumors, and an internet chat by Tracy Torm'e himself, that Rhys-Davies was asked to come back to Sliders: "I hadn't actually approached the show, I simply said that I would be very happy to come back for at least a few episodes if they would allow me to write a few. Because I could write two perfect episodes of science fiction for them that would hold a mirror up to what the show could be."
Another pleasure he found has been the world of animation, namely the voice of Macbeth in the cartoon series Gargoyles and on the long running Batman: The Animated Series. Gargoyles is actually something Rhys-Davies had great fun with and would reprise the role immediately! "Gargoyles, just brilliantly written. The whole history of medieval Scotland and Macbeth, very accurately researched. And he's not the villain he was in Shakespeare. I've been very privledged to work with some very gifted people. They are so clever. They tell stories by pictures then put character words in. You can deepen them, and somtimes improvise and they say 'keep going!'"
If that isn't enough to satisfy your desire for more Rhys-Davies, the actor has been digitized in the space combat CD-Rom game Wing Commander IV. Not only a great game, but according to Rhys-Davies, a great acting experience. "I was very interested in watching that developing as an entirely new art form, and delighted to work with young Chris Robbins, who is a very successful program writer turned program producer/director turned film maker. Very different working largely in a blue screen. You have to stand in an exacting place and put your hand down somewhere, becaues there is going to be a computer starbridge under your hand. These people are so clever." And would he go back? "Oh yes, great fun!"
Besides Star Trek, keep your eyes open for a new ABC half-hour comedy called [You Wish]. "Brilliantly written. It was meant to be a guest part, but they asked if I'd like to be a regular. I feel an obligation to help get the series under way, and I would certainly be happy to do a few of them." But don't expect to see a regular role because Rhys-Davies doesn't like the three camera process used in comedy. "I like the method of film when you come in and sort the day's problems out, shoot it, and go home and forget about it."
With his wide and varied career, John Rhys-Davies is a storyteller at heart. "I'm egotistic enough to believe I have something to say and that what stories I could weave would be challenging and enriching and make people laugh and cry. And I'd like to have the chance to do that. I would like to make a few good films - have the creative control."