When Star Trek returned to television screens after two decades in 1987, it looked very different from its predecessor. Gone were James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Bones, most of whom planned to return in the original sequel series Star Trek: Phase II. In their place stood a bald Shakespearean actor, the breakout star of the television miniseries Roots, and a member of Muppet creator Jim Henson’s team.
From those unlikely beginnings, Star Trek: The Next Generation grew to match and, for some, exceed the original series. Much of that success came from the cast, who had a far easier camaraderie than their predecessors and, some might argue, a more impressive resume. Before and after Trek, these actors became beloved figures in genre cinema and television, proving that they are even more than the crew who boldly went where no one had gone before.
Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier in Logan (2017)
Although he had only a few film credits to his name, including playing Gurney Halleck in Dune because David Lynch confused him with another actor, Patrick Stewart came to Star Trek with a respected actor on stage and television. He played John le Carré’s Russian intelligence agent Karla on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, V.I. Lenin on the BBC historical series Fall of Eagles, and numerous parts in Shakespeare productions. Although Stewart suffered from some typecasting, he managed to continue an impressive post-Trek career, playing against type in films such as Conspiracy Theory and Green Room. Also, he voiced a Poop Emoji in The Emoji Movie.
However, Stewart’s most impressive performance came as an aging and confused Charles Xavier in the third Wolverine solo movie Logan. Stewart’s stately and kind Professor X in X-Men made use of the persona he built as Jean-Luc Picard, a take on Xavier so pure that not even Kitty Pryde would call him a jerk. But Logan pushes Stewart to flex his acting muscles, playing Xavier as a man both bitter and saddened by his decline into dementia. Even more than Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine without a healing factor, Stewart’s Xavier shows the tragedy of mutant powers in old age.
LeVar Burton as Host of Reading Rainbow (1983 – 2006)
LeVar Burton came to Star Trek as one of the top-billed actors in the cast, thanks to his breakout role as Kunta Kinte in the television adaptation of Roots. Although Brent Spiner’s Data eventually ate up most of the screen time initially intended for Geordi LaForge, Burton remained a warm presence on the show, even when writers gave him terrible romance stories. That innate likability came through in Burton’s work, before and after Trek. In addition to directing several episodes of the series and its spin-offs, Burton appeared on Murder She Wrote and Christy, lent his voice to Captain Planet and the Planeteers and Family Guy, and poked fun at himself in a wonderful episode of Community.
But even those who grew up with TNG have to acknowledge hosting Reading Rainbow as Burton’s most important role. Burton took the job in 1983, several years before coming aboard the Enterprise, and continues to work with the series in its various forms. In every episode, Burton invites viewers to experience the joy of reading. Burton’s encouragement and kindness taught generations of fans (including this writer) how to read, building a legacy that outshines even the best Trek tale.
Jonathan Frakes as David Xanatos on Gargoyles (1994 – 1996)
The tall, handsome Jonathan Frakes seemed like an apology for fans who couldn’t accept the patrician Stewart in command of the Enterprise. Frakes’s good looks and swagger recalled the swashbuckling attitude of James T. Kirk, and with good reason. Before getting cast as William T. Riker, Frakes portrayed Captain America for Marvel in-person events and had a recurring part on the soap opera Falcon Crest. However, Frakes discovered his true passion while shooting TNG: directing. Frakes directed eight episodes of TNG, and has become a mainstay of the franchise’s bullpen, helming the movies First Contact and Insurrection as well as episodes of Discovery, Picard, and Strange New Worlds. In addition, Frakes hosted 45 episodes of Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, a role that lives on in the form of internet memes, and continues to do voice work on Lower Decks and Very Short Treks.
In fact, voice work gave Frakes his best non-Trek role, playing villainous David Xanatos on the Disney adventure series Gargoyles, a show that employed several TNG cast members, including Marina Sirtis and Michael Dorn. As the rich and devious Xanatos, Frakes puts his smooth baritone to good work, breathing menace into every line reading, especially when pitted against Gargoyles leader Goliath. However, Xanatos also gives Frakes layers to play, as the seemingly heartless businessman carries a soft spot for his wife and child.
Brent Spiner as Earl Mills on Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)
One need only watch the TNG episode “Masks” to see that Brent Spiner can be so much more than an emotionless android. The episode, in which an alien community possesses Data via the titular headgear, functionally operates as Spiner’s demo reel, showing off the talents he brings to other roles. Spiner worked on and off-Broadway throughout the 1970s and enjoyed a few credits in film and television, including six episodes on the comedy Night Court. TNG raised Spiner’s profile, leading to regular work in genre shows and movies, appearing in Independence Day, voicing the Joker in Young Justice, and playing a police captain on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
However, Spiner’s most impressive work came in a drama, the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. Spiner plays Earl Mills, Dandridge’s manager and romantic interest, a man whose love and admiration for the titular actress and singer drives him to advocate for her against racist restrictions. Spiner earned a Satellite Award nomination for his performance and with good reason. As Mills, he got to not only show off his considerable charisma, but also play notes of anger, hurt, and resolution against the bigots his client encounters on a daily basis.
Marina Sirtis as Orli Elbaz on NCIS (2013 – 2016)
Of all the main cast members in TNG, Marina Sirtis had it the worst. Writers rarely knew what to do with Counselor Deanna Troi, too often forcing her to sit on the bridge and sense anger from the raging aliens on the viewscreen. Thankfully, writers did occasionally let Sirtis show off her acting chops in off-beat episodes such as “A Fistful of Datas” and with the drunken rant she delivers in Star Trek: First Contact. However, these parts appear too rarely in Sirtis’s filmography, overshadowed by ignoble roles as an assault victim in Death Wish 3 or adding some gravitas to cheapies like the 2007 sci-fi production of Grendel.
However, Sirtis did get some parts equal to her abilities, including stints on Titans, Grey’s Anatomy, and the teen series Make It or Break It. Among these guest appearance run came Sirtis’s best part outside of ship’s counselor. Sirtis made three stops on the military procedural NCIS as Mossad Director Orli Elbaz. Elbaz allies with NCIS protagonist Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon), but Sirtis gives the character a slightly untrustworthy air. In all three of her episodes, Sirtis plays Elbaz as a savvy player on the complex international stage, willing to work with other nations, if doing so advances the goals of her country.
Gates McFadden as Allison Rourke on Mad About You (1995 – 1996)
If you’re reading this, you know Gates McFadden as the actor who plays Dr. Beverly Crusher on The Next Generation, as well as bit parts in The Hunt for Red October or The Muppets Take Manhattan. However, you may also know the name Cheryl McFadden as a choreographer in the Jim Henson Company, where she directed the dance numbers in Labyrinth and other productions. The two names refer to the same person, even if McFadden likes to keep the two sides of her work separate. That professional pride allowed McFadden to stand up to sexist writers in the first season, eventually leading to her firing from the series after season one, only to return — with better-written parts — for season three.
Although McFadden has only two post-Trek film credits to either of her names, she did plenty of television before returning as Dr. Crusher for season three of Star Trek: Picard. While she remains regal and impressive in every case, McFadden shows off her full skills during a four-episode stint on 1990s must-see TV staple Mad About You. McFadden plays Allison Rourke, Paul’s (Paul Reiser) boss at a new job. The role gives McFadden plenty of mistaken identity sitcom bits to play, which she does with as much verve as she ever has, whether using a tricorder or getting goblins to dance, baby, dance.
Michael Dorn as Steel on Superman: The Animated Series (1996 – 2000)
As the third season of Star Trek: Picard reminded viewers, Michael Dorn has always been the funniest member of the cast. However, with his rich voice and physical presence, it’s no wonder that he got the part as Worf, the noble Klingon warrior, raised by humans and blazing new trails in Starfleet. While Dorn has been able to exercise his comic chops elsewhere, especially as the narcoleptic Sandman in The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, most of Dorn’s non-Trek work included either nods to Worf, as in Ted 2, and voice acting roles.
So it comes as no surprise that Dorn’s best part beyond the Son of Mogh was a vocal performance, namely playing John Henry Irons aka Steel on Superman: The Animated Series. Steel debuted in the season one episode “Heavy Metal,” in which Irons donned his signature armor to help Superman fight the Kryptonite-powered cyborg Metallo. Steel made full use of Irons’s vocal range: the intelligence of a scientist, the playfulness of an uncle, and the pride of a hero.