As if 2020 hasn’t been trying enough, yesterday I learned that actor Richard Herd, whom I’d met and spoken with at many conventions, passed away from cancer on Tuesday, May 26th. Richard Herd had a long and varied career. He was often cast as authority figures, with costarring roles in TV shows such as “T.J. Hooker” (1982-1986), “V” (1983), “V: The Final Battle” (1984), “Seaquest 2032” (1993-1994), and memorable guest starring roles in “Quantum Leap” (1991-1993), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1993), “Star Trek: Voyager” (2001) and, of course, as George Constanza’s boss “Mr. Wilhelm” in “Seinfeld” (1995-1998). He also had supporting roles in films such as “All the President’s Men” (1976), “The China Syndrome” (1979) and more recently in Jordan Peele’s horror film “Get Out” (2017) in a small, but pivotal scene near the climax of the film.
I met Richard Herd for the first time nearly 19 years ago when I attended my very first sci-fi convention in Pasadena. He was in the autograph area, and of course, I immediately recognized him from many projects, but the one that jumped out at me the most was his work as the Supreme Commander “John,” leader of the alien ‘visitors’ in the 1983 Kenneth Johnson miniseries “V”. The character was made memorable by Herd’s calmly authoritative manner, despite an eerily reverberating voice that belied his true extraterrestrial nature. When I met him that was the autograph photo I wanted; a nice shot of Herd in his red uniform. Herd remembered the role fondly, and said that his outward kindly performance was subtly influenced by charismatic former US president Ronald Reagan. John was the kind of authoritative role that was Herd’s bread and butter in those days, but the character’s slight undercurrent of menace made it uniquely his.
Herd would reprise the role of John in the sequel miniseries “V: The Final Battle” the following year, where his human skin was ripped off on live television to reveal his character’s green scaly skin underneath his human facade. That scene sparked a fascination of mine with special effects makeup.
I remember when the miniseries went into reruns in the late ‘80s, when my niece was 6 or 7. I used to apply scaly makeup to my left hand and pretend to ‘rip’ my outward flesh from it. Needless to say, I’m pretty sure I traumatized my poor niece for years to come. I told him this story during the autograph signing, and he got a kick out of it. He described the labored makeup process, as well as the contacts and wig required as well. Wasn’t as easy as it looked onscreen, but Herd was a pro. We had a nice brief chat, but since this was my first sci-fi convention, my fragile attention was being tugged upon from all sides. I said my goodbyes to Herd, thinking that was probably the last I’d ever see of the actor…
In 2005, at San Diego’s Comic Con, my wife and I were staying at the Staybridge Hotel, with was on the outskirts of the shuttle zone to take hotel guest to and from the convention. The Staybridge had a complementary continental breakfast (always a plus!), so we got into the elevator to get our morning chow. To our surprise, we soon shared our elevator with Herd, whom I’d instantly recognized. Instead of shunning any early morning unwanted fan attention (as some are inclined to do in elevators), he pleasantly engaged with my wife and I in conversation.
The actor was also carrying a portfolio of his artwork, and my wife’s ears perked up since she is an art teacher. In seconds, the two of them were chatting about art, and he invited us to take a look at his convention art exhibit, which we did. His work touches on his long career, and his personal memories.
As we exited the elevator car, we shook hands and went our separate ways. I’ll admit, my convention etiquette wasn’t quite what it should’ve been in those days. If I met an actor in an elevator that early in the morning these days? I’d most likely just smile a quick acknowledgment and let them be, but being a bit more uncouth in those days, I started a conversation. But instead of being dismissive, Herd was kind, and sincerely interested to learn what my wife thought of his work. I would later see his work at a table during the convention and I enjoyed it very much. I’ll let his work speak for itself in this link: Richard Herd’s artwork can be seen via this link to the Bilotta Gallery website.
I would meet Herd at a couple more conventions later on. The third encounter was probably our longest conversation, during a less packed convention in Burbank in 2013. Since the venue was much smaller than Comic Con, guests could spend a bit more quality time with the guests at their autographing opportunities. I spoke with Herd about his artwork, and he began to open up about the early days of his career as a young stage actor, with stories about meeting the late legend James Dean (of whom he’d made portraits in this artwork). Herd also wrote poetry as well, and gave me a booklet with links to his artwork and samples of his poetry (it’s still here, somewhere in my rat’s nest of a library room…).
We also had a nice conversation about another role of his I very much enjoyed; that of nuclear plant manager Evan McCormack in “The China Syndrome” (1979), a cautionary tale of nuclear power mismanagement that was released a mere two weeks or so before the real-life nuclear scare at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Granted, Three Mile Island was a belch compared to the ongoing radioactive nightmare that was Chernobyl a few years later, but the disaster’s timing was eerily in synch with the movie. The character of McCormack pushes the reactor beyond recommended safety limitations, causing plant worker Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) to hole up in the plant’s reactor control room with the gun in a Quixote-esque attempt to force his boss to listen to his grievances. The cold-blooded McCormack sees Godell as a crazed lunatic, and ignores his concerns. Without spoiling the film, let’s just say it doesn’t end well. With Herd’s affable nature, it was hard to see how he played such a cold-blooded monster like McCormack so convincingly. Herd told me he didn’t approach McCormack as a villain, but as someone who was doing the ‘right thing’ in his mind. Every person is the hero of their own story, right? McCormack was no exception. That was the key to making him believable.
In 2015, my wife and I attended a Westwood Los Angeles screening of the crowdsourced fan production “Star Trek: Renegades” (2015). This screening was before the crackdown on Star Trek fan productions would later force this series of films (from Skyway Productions & Atomic Studios) to drop “Star Trek” from its title. The series would continue as “Renegades,” with minor edits/modifications that dropped any and all direct references to the Star Trek universe from its continuity. You can still find the pilot episode here on YouTube.
“Star Trek Renegades” was filled with actors from across the various Star Trek series, such as Walter Koenig (“Chekov”), Nichelle Nichols (“Uhura”), Tim Russ (“Tuvok”), the late Aron Eisenberg (“Nog”), and many others. One of those returning Star Trek actors was, of course, Richard Herd, who’d had a recurring role as “Admiral Owen Paris” in the later seasons of “Star Trek: Voyager.” The admiral was, of course, the father of Voyager’s helmsman, Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill). While the film was clearly a fan-made effort, it still boasted decent production values, a game cast, and great theatrical sound. It was lovely seeing a fan-made, fan-funded film get the big-screen treatment at the legendary Crest Theatre in Westwood, Los Angeles. This 2015 screening of “Star Trek: Renegades” would not be the last time I’d see Herd on the big screen, however…
In 2017, I took in the new Jordan Peele horror-comedy “Get Out.” Herd had a small, but very significant role as family patriarch “Roman Armitage,” a former Olympic athlete. At the risk of spoiling this amazing movie to anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’ll leave it at that. In 2017, I would see Herd one last time at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. I wanted to congratulate Herd on his role in the film, and we met again. He remembered me from other conventions (don’t ask me how…I don’t find myself remotely memorable), and we began another chat. When I asked Herd what his experience was like working on the film, he mentioned the film’s writer/director Jordan Peele (“Us” “The Twilight Zone”) and repeated the word, “Genius…genius.”
The 2017 Star Trek convention in Las Vegas would be the last time I would see Herd in person. Herd seemed like one of those types who would always be around to greet his fans at conventions, and I kicked myself for never getting a selfie with him. Whenever I saw him, we just talked. If and when things ever return to something resembling pre-2020 normalcy after this current pandemic, conventions will seem slightly lesser places minus the presence of this gentleman actor and artist.
Rest in peace, Richard Herd. On behalf of this fan, and many others I’m sure, you will be missed.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States officially grimly surpassed the 100,000 mark today. So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing, wear masks in public, and avoid unnecessary outings as much as possible. Take care!