May 16, 2024

From the Vaults: Patrick Stewart (the older)


     In Part 1, we spent a good deal of time detailing how a young Patrick Stewart managed to make the transition from being a barely educated Northern lad from Yorkshire to a full time student at the Bristol Old Vic School of acting.  In his 2023 Memoir Making It So (Gallery Books, Camm Lane, Inc), Stewart gives an interesting account of how he managed to take a fork in the road that kept him from ending up as a tradesman or laborer.  Patrick wasn’t afraid of work (he did a fair amount of labor in construction during his summer break from the Old Vic school), but once he had been bitten by the acting bug, he was all in.  His impoverished upbringing could have been an impediment to his plans, but he had mentors and supporters who helped him land a two year scholarship that covered all of his expenses at Old Vic.

     In this part of our story, we are going to jump ahead to what became his new obsession with his artform:  becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  There were many steps for Patrick to take before he got there and it would take all of this FTV for us to just get him to the RSC.  We do, however, need to mention one particular event that happened before he got to the RSC.  It would help him leaps and bounds down the road.  Stewart was working as a stage manager / actor for a regional theater company when he was offered a chance to do an 18 month world jaunt with the Old Vic Touring Company (not associated with the Old Vic School).  The headliner for this outing was none other than Vivian Leigh – yes, the actress who starred in Gone With the Wind.  

      The gentleman who hired Stewart for the tour liked to torment young, inexperienced actors.  The director first demanded a ‘yes or no’ answer from Patrick before supplying him with any pertinent details (he said ‘yes’).  The acting parts Steward was given on this tour were minimal, but in the end, well worth his while.  Not only did Vivian take him under her wing, but she made him never regret signing on.  As an added bonus, Patrick got to see this haughty director put in his place by both Leigh and the Queen.  In this case, it was the Queen of Tonga who was a special guest at a performance in Australia.  The Queen insisted on meeting the whole cast, and not just the ones the director liked.  It turned out he didn’t even know all their names, but the cast graciously bailed him out by introducing themselves to Her Highness.  Had Mr. Director any inkling of the stellar career the object of his torment would have, maybe he would have been a bit nicer to Patrick – but probably not.  

     Stewart abandoned his plan to keep ‘doing well as an upcoming actor waiting to get noticed by the RSC’ in 1965.  After seeing David Warner in a production of Hamlet, he resolved to seek an audition instead of waiting for one to be offered.  Patrick went so far as to tell his agent he would be leaving his second season working with the Bristol Theater Company after their Christmas shows.  This would  have left him unemployed if the RSC didn’t work out, but he went ahead full bore just the same.  It took a day or two for the director at the RSC to inform him they indeed wanted to hire him for the upcoming season.  The company would be producing Henry IV and Henry V and his wage would be thirty-five pounds per week to play ‘as cast’.  The last phrase reminded him of the low end parts he had been given in the Old Vic World Tour where his contract also said ‘as cast’.  In the end, Patrick thought, “Yes, the roles I will be given will not be the biggest ones, but they will be full blooded characters of ambition and presence.”  It was a gamble he would even be granted an audition but again, it turned out well for him.  

     As with anyone new to a company as world famous as the RSC, it would take time for Stewart to work his way up through the ranks.  He wasn’t even guaranteed a second season with the troupe.  Patrick ended up spending 14 glorious years with them.  Patrick met a dancer / choreographer named Sheila whom he wed.  They had a son and a daughter and purchased two homes;  one in Stratford, the other in London.  The happy couple lived as full a life as they could considering their careers often kept them going in opposite directions.  In the early 1980s, Stewart decided to dial back his role in the RSC to pursue work in other areas.  He did not quit entirely and he continued to perform with the RSC.  He just wanted to work at a reduced level so he could see what other opportunities might arise.  A few movie and television shows had broadened Patrick’s horizon and he felt he was doing some of his best work in the 1980s.

     One of the movie offers he received was for a terrible Japanese film that Stewart admits was one of those roles he took simply because it was a ‘paycheck’.  While waiting for his film call on location in Germany, his agent called and asked if he remembered a script he had sent sometime before.  It was for the David Lynch’s adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune.  Stewart was not a science fiction fan but before he knew it, he was sitting in the first class section of a jet bound for Mexico City.  His agent assured him they could work out a way to schedule around his Germany film dates adding, “They want you for the part of Gurney Halleck.  David Lynch really wants you.”  

     All was not quite as it seemed when Patrick arrived on location.  The actor who was originally cast for the part also came from the RSC, but he ended up not being available.  Lynch had remembered seeing Steward at RSC when he was scouting the other actor, but the Patrick he saw had been in full stage make up.  His disappointment when he met the real Patrick Stewart sans makeup was obvious.  It was a little confusing for Stewart at least until Lynch’s assistant filled him in, but he made the most of his time in Mexico.  When Dune was released in 1984, he was now part of a successful SciFi film.  During his time off camera, Patrick had fun exploring the ancient ruins he had read about as a boy.  As he always said, his education was lacking but he was well read.  Ancient history just happened to be one of his passions.  

     UCLA professor David Rodes had become a good friend and collaborator in a series of Shakespeare lectures and master classes they would conduct.  After a presentation at UCLA’s Royce Hall in 1986, he received a call from his agent in the guest room at Rodes’ home.  His agent asked Patrick, “What were you doing at UCLA last night and why would Gene Roddenberry want to meet with you this morning?”

     Stewart’s children were big fans of Star Trek but Stewart had no idea who or what Gene Roddenberry was.  The meeting they had was not a smashing success:  “It was all very awkward.  A few pleasantries were exchanged among us, but I was not even invited to sit down.  Indeed, it was a matter of mere minutes before Roddenberry called the conversation to a halt, turning to me and saying, ‘Thank you for coming’.”  It was uncomfortable and upon departing, Patrick was just as glad to be removed from the situation .  It was shades of his first meeting with David Lynch all over again.  He later learned Roddenberry had told his lieutenants (who had pitched Stewart for the part), “Patrick Stewart’s name should never, ever be mentioned in my presence again.”  Stewart returned to London with only a vague recollection of the Roddenberry incident.  The only thing that made a lasting impression on him was the hideous carpet in Roddenberry’s office.  Nonetheless, the call from Star Trek producer Steve Dontanville to come to L.A. had flicked a switch in his brain:  “What about Hollywood?  Why not pursue TV and film work in America?”

     A rather surprising second call from Dontanville offering him an audition for a specific part in the upcoming Star Trek – The Next Generation series put him back on a plane to Los Angeles.  He thinks he may have read for the part of the character named Q, but he is certain that Roddenberry was still not happy with him.   While awaiting his audition at his UCLA professor friend’s home, he received a call from Corey Allen.  Allen was slated to direct the new series pilot episode.  He told Stewart he was not operating within the chain of command, but he wanted  to do a read through of the script ahead of the audition.  Always one to be prepared, Patrick thought it was a wonderful idea.  Allen told him to tell no one what they were up to.  When Corey offered to read the second part opposite Stewart, it finally dawned on him;  Allen, too, was an actor and Patrick had seen him in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause.  They met at the studio under the radar, but one other person also knew Stewart was on the lot –  a hairdresser named Joy (she helped him with his hairpiece for the audition).  She had shamed the security men at the gate for not letting him into the parking lot, telling them, “Don’t you know who he is?”.  She had recognized Stewart from the headshots she was sent in preparation for his arrival at Paramount Studios.

     After the reading, Joy was removing his hairpiece and she told him, “That was great.  Let’s get that thing off your head.”  They were interrupted by a knock on the door which Patrick assumed would be a ‘thanks, don’t call us, we’ll call you’ send off.  Instead, the three suits came in and thanked him (again) for coming and wished him a good day.  Joy filled Patrick in after they left:  “You know why they did that?  They wanted to see what you looked like without the hairpiece.  And I think they liked what they saw.” Rather than jump in his car and head home, Stewart decided to take some time to explore the Paramount lot.  The studio had produced so many of the films he had devoured as a kid back in Yorkshire.  He figured he might as well make the most of what might be his one and only visit to the famous studio lot.

     While Stewart had breakfast and played tourist, a rather frantic search for him was taking place.  In those pre-cellphone days, no one could find him.  The studio had called his agent shortly after the audition and said they wanted to offer him the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  Agent Steve began by calling Professor Rodes’ home (where Patrick was staying).  Directed to the English Department at UCLA, they interrupted the professor’s class to take a call from Steve.  Rodes then called Professor Homer Swander (commonly known as ‘Murph’). Rodes knew  Stewart was going to have lunch with Swander.  The professor told Murph to have Patrick call Steve.  When they finally made contact, the exasperated agent bellowed, “Where the (expletive deleted) have you been?  Paramount is offering you the role of the captain.  We will meet them tomorrow, at twelve noon.  Don’t be late – oh, and congratulations, by the way.”  Such was the beginning of a new career in American television and the beginning of the end of his first marriage.

    Though both Stewart and Ian McKellan were alum of the RSC, they did not become close friends until much later in life.  They ended up sharing the big screen in Patrick’s second wildly popular sci fi movie blitz, Marvel’s X-Men.  In fact, when Stewart first told Ian he was going to sign a contract to do TNG, McKellan told him, “NO, absolutely not!  Do NOT sign the contract.  You have too much important theater work to do.  You can’t throw it away to do TV!”  Looking back when they were both starring in the highly successful X-Men run (and after McKellen had already himself been part of The Hobbit franchise), Ian admitted that he had been wrong.

     Stewart has been happily married for more than thirty years but we should note it has been to three different women.  Sheila, his first wife of 23 years, was left in England tending the home fires and her own career while Patrick worked in L.A.  His first contract was for one year and insiders kept reminding him that there was no reason to believe the series would ever make it to the air, much less last a year.  His career as a starship captain ended up spanning seven TV seasons and four theatrical releases.  Being that far away from his family took its toll, however, and they became more distant in their marital relationship.  Sheila confronted him when she visited L.A. for the last time and asked, “Are you involved with another woman?”  Thus marriage number one came to an uncomfortable end.  Both of the children did not take kindly to the divorce and Stewart blames no one but himself.

     There would be a repeating pattern here.  The relationship with the woman that ended Patrick’s union with Sheila fizzled out.  He grew close to another woman associated with the production of Star Trek – TNG and they wed, probably too soon.  Once the series ended, they found little in common and his second wife repeated the ‘is there another woman?’ scenario, thus leading to divorce number two.  Patrick’s second marriage breaking relationship also fizzled and Stewart was left at loose ends for quite a while.  He then met his third (and still current wife of more than a decade) in New York.  She is a singer/songwriter who at the time was working as a waitress.  They got along famously, hit a rocky patch in their relationship, and then patched things up.  They tied the knot twice due to Nevada not recognizing Ian McKellen’s ‘one and done’ certificate to officiate – they married in secret in California and then had to repeat their vows for the guests they had originally invited to the wedding at a favorite resort in Nevada.  

     Oddly enough, both of Stewart’s children were huge Star Trek fans.  They never tired of engaging him in conversations and dialog from a genre of entertainment he knew nothing about.  They certainly saw the irony of a total scifi cipher earning a spot in the Star Trek universe with no knowledge of the cultural phenomenon it had become.  After the first divorce, daughter Sophie remained somewhat estranged from her father but son Daniel, a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, has collaborated with Patrick on a few of his theatrical projects.

     In many ways, the cast of TNG became Stewart’s new family.  The insider tales about how they grew into a superior acting ensemble are fascinating, especially for Star Trek fans.  The first season of TNG, Patrick was all business.  He attacked his role the same way he had in his theatrical career.  During the filming of a season one episode, he gave the entire cast a tongue lashing for goofing off too much.  As Patrick now recalls (and of course, his TNG family never lets him forget):  “I delivered a speech in a tone that might be considered, I now reluctantly admit, rather pompous.  I said, ‘There are people on this set who don’t get early wraps and late calls and the occasional day off like us lot.  We owe it to them to help make the days go as quickly as possible,  Yet look at us:  having our fun, indulging in unprofessional behavior.  Disgraceful.  Do Better!’”

     There was dead silence until cast member Denise Crosby spoke up.  She said, “Oh, come on Patrick!  We’ve got to have some fun sometimes.”  Stewart pounded on the arm of his chair and replied, “We are not here, Denise to have fun.”  When the dam burst, the cast burst into an uncontrolled fit of laughter as Patrick stalked off to his trailer to pout.  Lesson learned.  He now admits that by the second season of TNG, “I had become arguably and ironically, the most unruly person on the set, insisting with conspiratorial glee that every one of us should be responsible for at least one big laugh every day.”

     If one would like to see how Patrick Stewart has adapted to today’s world of entertainment via digital media, there are scores of posts showing a different side of the once super serious Shakespearian actor at work.  It may be hard to fathom, but one of his undiscovered skills as an actor turned out to be . . . comedy.  There is a lot more to Patrick Stewart, it seems, than the catch phrases he became noted for in the Star Trek universe like ‘engage’ and ‘make it so’.


Top Piece Video:  The opening of Patrick Stewarts career as a starship captain!