Jonathan Frakes' career started when he got killed off a soap opera
The future Star Trek star once recalled his first major TV role on The Waltons.
Today, Jonathan Frakes is best known for playing William Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent movies.
But Frakes didn’t adopt Riker’s beard until the 1980s. Before that, he was just like any other actor trying to make it, first in New York, and then in Hollywood.
Frakes’ first TV role came on a Seventies soap opera filmed in New York, The Doctors.
He played a character named Tom Carroll, whose shady background shifted depending on where the series headed next, starting as a Vietnam soldier haunted by his past, then morphing into a disruptive school teacher, then an untrustworthy bank teller and finally a scoundrel husband and father.
In short, he was a soap opera villain, and though he liked the steady work on The Doctors, he was happy when writers made the decision to kill off his character.
"They killed me off in the soap," Frakes told The Morning Call in 1979. "They had me crushed by a falling beam in a fire, which was great – a great way to die."
Cut free from the soap opera, Frakes left New York for Hollywood on April Fool’s Day, hoping he wasn’t making a foolish move.
"I started auditioning, trying to get used to L.A., the freeways, and the smog, and the guacamole, and the margaritas, and then it started to click, and I started to get a lot of work," Frakes said.
After The Doctors, Frakes took on minor parts on hit shows like Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels, and Barnaby Jones, where he geeked out sharing scenes with Ricardo Montalbán, Cheryl Ladd and Buddy Ebsen.
During this time in the late Seventies, Frakes caught the eye of Aaron Spelling, who tried to cast him in a failed TV pilot called Beach Patrol.
Frakes considered his casting in Beach Patrol a major misstep, calling it "the most absurd casting."
"I was the only comic relief – and I’m really not that funny," Frakes said.
Instead of starring in Beach Patrol, Frakes pivoted back to the world he knew best: drama.
He landed what he considered his biggest guest role yet on The Waltons in 1979.
Across two episodes in the seventh and eighth seasons, Frakes played Ashley Longworth Jr., who becomes one of Erin Walton’s boyfriends.
In "The Legacy," he’s introduced as the son of a former beau of Miss Emily Baldwin, who starts losing her sense of reality and confusing Frakes’ character with her lost love.
Then in "The Lost Sheep," Frakes returns to the Mountain to ask for Erin’s hand in marriage, however their contradictory views on marriage keep them from following through with the proposal, making him in Frakes’ eyes sort of a bad guy on the series.
"I did a lot of TV," Frakes told Newsday in 1996. "Some good. Some not so good. That’s all I used to do, guest spots on TV shows. I was a big guest villain on all the hour dramas – The Waltons, Barnaby Jones, Quincy. I used to play drug dealers, father-killers, ne’er-do-wells."
Throughout the Eighties, Frakes seemed to be stuck in this guest star rut, unable to launch a series of his own to success. He was happy to be offered so many roles on TV, but he was seeking more stability.
"I thought they were great," Frakes said. "But they all ended in a week, those jobs."
Then in 1987, Gene Roddenberry saw in Frakes the perfect William Riker.
Frakes wasn’t sure about how to best play the character, though, and Roddenberry gave him very specific direction never to smile onscreen, seeing Riker as a Gary Cooper-type character.
Frakes said that direction made his first season playing Riker a little awkward.
"My nature is to smile, so I looked, or thought I looked, very uncomfortable – certainly in the first season – because I was playing Roddenberry’s wish," Frakes said.
Soon, though, there was a writers’ strike where Frakes said he started growing a beard simply because he hated shaving when he didn’t have to.
When Roddenberry saw the beard, he "fell in love with the beard, and the beard became a part of the character in a way that was, as Gene described it, was a nautical, decorative beard, which he took great pride in designing on my face."
After that, Frakes felt more comfortable making his own decisions about how to play the role, becoming one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, despite the fact that the actor admitted, "I’m not much of a sci-fi geek."
For Frakes, joining Star Trek at first was mainly about finally having another steady gig.
It’s no surprise that his performance as Riker was so memorable, though.
He’d been acting since he graduated high school, and because he loved the job so much, he felt it was his duty to always show up and do the best job possible.
"The actor’s responsibility is that you better be ready to work when they call on you," Frakes said. "You better be right there and in whatever kind of frame of mind you should be for the character, because it’s your mug that’s gonna go out, however it looked. It’s a great job, and there’s no reason for you to make it any harder on anybody."