Can Data Find a Mate-A?
BRENT SPINER HAS A GLOW ON. IN A trailer on the set of Paramount’s syndicated hit Star Trek: The Next Generation, chief makeup artist Michael Westmore is applying just the right touch of opalescence to Spiner’s golden-hued face. Having already been fitted with yellow contact lenses and coiffed in a pseudo-implant hairstyle, Spiner, 43, is in the final stage of his painstaking, hour-long transformation into Lt. Cmdr. Data, the starship Enterprise’s emotionless yet oddly endearing android in residence.
So popular has the character become (he gets the most fan letters, 300 a month) that the show’s season-ending cliff-hanger (airing the week of June 15 in most areas) is a Data-based mystery that sends the crew trekking back to 1890s San Francisco in search of…Data’s head. “It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s confusing,” notes Spiner.
A favorite Trek leitmotiv concerns Data’s futile attempts to comprehend—and mimic—humans’ sense of humor. The earthling who plays him needs no such tutoring. As Patrick Stewart (steely Capt. Jean-Luc Pi-card) sits down for his bout with the powder puff, Spiner breaks into imitations of Jerry Lewis and the young Marlon Brando so dead-perfect they send Stewart and company into phaser jolts of laughter.
His comedy isn’t confined to the makeup trailer. One weekend last March, Spiner and a few of his co-stars beamed themselves into an Orange County (Calif.) arts center production of Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, in which Spiner, as a Russian mental patient, got a favorable notice from the Los Angeles Times’s Timothy Mangan, who called him “the perfect lunatic.”
“He happens to be one of the funniest men I’ve ever known,” says Stewart. And “one of the smartest,” adds LeVar Burton, who plays blind engineering chief Geordi LaForge.
His castmates know him well. He and Burton travel weekly to a Korean health spa for a massage and steam bath. Stewart and Jonathan Frakes (Cmdr. William Riker) are regular dinner companions. Last October, Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher) made Spiner her infant son’s godfather. And, he says, “Michael Dorn [Lieutenant Worf], Marina Sirtis [Counselor Troi] and I tend to go out together a lot.” Last spring, when Spiner, a musical comedy veteran (Little Shop of Horrors), cut a tongue-in-cheek CD album, Ol’ Yellow Eyes Is Back, Burton, Dorn, Frakes and Stewart joined him in an Inkspots “homage,” a rendition of “It’s a Sin (To Tell a Lie).”
But the truth is, away from his TV family the never-married Spiner lives a kind of Lonely Guy existence. In his sparsely furnished (he calls it minimalist) ranch-style house in the Hollywood Hills, the floors are immaculate bare wood; the living room contains a pristine modern couch and an armchair (which Spiner never uses); and one guest room is empty except for a stack of Trek scripts (at last count, 126, spanning the show’s five years) and a box of photos of Spiner as Data, which he sends to fans. Spiner has also installed a gym—with a television set. “When I’m not working on TV, I’m watching it,” he says. “That has become my life.”
In fact, his job consumes a large part of it. Trek’s complicated special effects often require the cast to work overtime redubbing lines—so Spiner is on the set 12 hours a day, six days a week. Which doesn’t leave Data’s alter ego much time for dating. And when he does go out? “This is no reflection on the people I’ve been with,” he says, “but very early in the evening I generally say, ‘Do you mind if I stretch out and take a nap?’ Because I’m so exhausted.”
Yet even before the series, romance had eluded Spiner. Why? “I was never a rake; I was more of a broom,” he quips, then turns serious. “My psychiatrist asks me the same question. I don’t really have any answers.” He muses. “Some people are born to have involvements. I’m a loner. And my neuroses don’t really allow me to get close to anybody, which is why I was the ideal choice for this part.”
Spiner’s childhood was less than ideal. Born in Houston, he was only 10 months old when his father, Jack, a furniture-store owner, died at age 29 of kidney failure. His mother, Sylvia, was left to take over the business (she’s now its corporate vice-president) while raising Brent and his older (by 16 months) brother, Ron. When Brent was 6, Sylvia (whom he praises as “an indomitable personality”) married salesman Sol Mintz. “It was unhappy for everyone,” he recalls of their seven-year union. His stepfather, now deceased, ran the household “like a military school,” says Spiner. A former record-store owner, Mintz brought with him a pop music collection “we listened to every night at dinner,” his stepson recalls, “whether we wanted to or not.” Brent found himself steeped in Sinatra and Garland, whose tunes eventually inspired his own Yellow Eyes album.
But acting was the focus of Spiner’s teenage years. At Houston’s Bellaire Senior High School, he, new age guru Marianne Williamson and Quaid brothers Randy (Davis Rules) and Dennis (Great Balls of Fire) fell under the sway of a master drama teacher, Cecil Pickett (“He was Mr. Chips,” says Spiner). Spiner followed Pickett to the University of Houston, where, in 1972, several credits shy of graduation, he decided to try Broadway. After a bumpy start, Spiner joined producer Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and went on to do TV guest shots in series like Hill Street Blues and, most memorably, Night Court, on which he and actress Annie O’Donnell had recurring roles as an ingenuous hillbilly couple.
Auditioning for Data in the Trek pilot, Spiner had no idea how to play the character—until he came across a line in the script in which Commander Riker likens Data to Pinocchio. “Data is Pinocchio,” says Spiner. “He’s the little doll that wants to be human.”
And what does Spiner himself want? Busy revising a comedy screenplay during TNG’s two-month hiatus, this self-described loner has lately had a change of heart. “I’m available,” he says. “I’m on the market.” As Spiner explains: “I finally turned the corner and realized that it’s probably required for happiness to have someone to share your life with.”
Data himself couldn’t have put it more logically.
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles