You may best know John Billingsley from his career on Star Trek: Enterprise as the lovable Dr. Phlox. Recently, John sat down with me on my podcast before participating in Trek Talks 3 on January 13th, 2024.
In addition to that interview, John was kind enough to answer more of the questions we just didn’t have time to cover on air. So enjoy a little more from John Billingsley, Dr. Phlox, a wonderful man who is unhinged in all the best possible of ways.
You recently participated in Trek Talks 3, which is a Star Trek-themed event to support a charity you love called The Hollywood Food Coalition. Tell us about that and why Hollywood Food Coalition means so much to you.
To begin with, the nature of the work itself appeals to me, the idea of helping people in need. Far too many people struggle to survive in this world: even in the US, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, tons of our fellow citizens fret about getting a hot meal every day, or buying a warm coat during the winter or affording a doctor’s visit; tons of people can go days at a time without so much as a kind or thoughtful word from somebody who loves them.
I know how many people in this world depend on groups like us for such basic necessities, and for the expression of such basic sentiments as ‘I hear you,’ or ‘I’m so sorry you’re sad’ . . . it just seems such a basic priority, to care for the people who need care the most . . .
Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I was a struggling theatre actor for many years and never really had a pot to piss in. Well, I had a pot, but it was the same one I had to make tuna casserole in . . .
I made l0K a year for many years, and I always gulped when the rent was coming due. I shopped yard sales and rummage stores and got free samples from Costco. I got Food Stamps, and I knew how to stretch leftovers, who’d be willing to buy me a beer if I was going out for drinks after a show. I never starved, and I was never homeless, and I was never afraid of ending up flat on my back, though, because I always had tons of friends and a loving family who I knew would backstop me if needs be, and because I knew I had the ability to fend for myself, and scratch out a buck if absolutely necessary, doing some dumbass temp job. I was poor, but I was happy.
But I was poor. And I feel a certain debt, I suppose, to people who didn’t have my good fortune, which came a little later in life for me. Lots of folks don’t have that critical ‘backstop’ of familial care; the ‘backstop’ of loving friends, of a decent education . . . and maybe the most important backstop of all, the backstop of fundamental ‘soundness’ which comes cuz you had a decent childhood and you weren’t cuffed around by circumstance.
Then there is the specific splendiferousness of Hollywood Food Coalition and the people who work there; its dedication to providing an ‘open door’ for volunteers to walk in and get right to work, the nature of the warmth and compassion with which our team welcomes people to our kitchen and to the dinner table, and helps steer them towards other service providers. I was also lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to jump in right away: I went from fruit salad maker and 3rd backup dishwasher to board prez pretty quickly . . . and to a great extent, I think the place you feel that you help build you cannot help but feel DEEPLY attached to.
Speaking of charities, you have also worked with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network or PanCan. You have been teaming up with Jonathan Frakes, Armin Shimerman, Kitty Swink, and new to the team, Juan Carlos Coto to raise money for pancreatic cancer awareness. Why are you so involved with PanCan?
My mom passed away from P.C. in l990. From diagnosis to death: two, maybe three months. The rate of survival, back then, maybe 2-ish percent. Because of the work that PanCAN does, in large part, the ‘survival’ rate (i.e, after diagnosis you live at least five years) is now up to somewhere around 13%. That’s still a low number, but it translates into thousands and thousands and thousands of lives saved.
And being part of a family that gets torn asunder, in what feels like an eye blink, by pancreatic cancer, I guess I think it’s an obligation, again, to help do something to stop that from happening to other people.
With 97 episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise under your belt, What has being a member of the Star Trek Alumni meant to you?
It’s come to mean more and more and more to me, candidly, as the years have passed, in large part because of the interactions I’ve been lucky enough to have with fans of the series, including tons of people in the hard sciences and people with a philanthropic bent.
I have become ever more interested in figuring out ways to help be part of this way cool network that exists, a network unique to Trek, a network that embraces Roddenberry’s vision of a ‘civilized’ future in which we embrace our differences and celebrate our diversity and come together to do cool stuff for the benefit of mankind.
Hokey sounding, but in practice, on the ground, every day, it’s the difference between a Utopian and a Dystopian future. I think if you’d asked me that question some years back, I would have answered from the vantage point of an ‘actor’, and I would have talked about how it impacted my career or what it might have meant to me professionally – as I move deeper into my 60’s and leave professional ambitions behind, being an alumn of Trek means a shitload more to me cuz of what I think it provides me by way of a platform and an opportunity to be of value . . .
What was the greatest lesson you have learned from the character of Doctor Phlox?
Having played a lot of sociopaths and nutjobs in my day, it was – especially in retrospect, looking back over my career – the most gratifying acting experience I ever had, getting to play Phlox. He was so deft at co-mingling a sense of humor and playfulness with rigorous but non-judgemental honesty. I don’t know if I ‘learned’ this from him, who’s to say he didn’t learn this from me . . . hmmmm. . . or, of course, if you’re on the writing staff, you’d say EXCUSE ME maybe you both learned this from US . . . in any case, regardless of what did and didn’t entirely work about Enterprise, I did come away from four years there feeling that the doc managed to tell a joke and cut the bullshit at the same time, and if there’s anything I kinda want to emulate about him, it’s that.
Were you happy with the way Enterprise ended, or would you have liked another season to flesh out storylines?
Well, complicated answer, in that the handwriting was on the wall for our show for YEARS before it got canceled. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the network we were on, UPN, didn’t have anything else to air (nobody wanted to pitch shows to UPN), we wouldn’t have survived Season 1, much less 2 or 3. To that extent, I’d say that our latter seasons WERE the lagniappe . . . if you’re asking would I have liked the show to continue, absolutely, and I definitely would have liked to learn more about the Denobulan culture, maybe drop in for a visit to Denobula and see how things were getting on there. Since there are a gajlllion Denobulans, and we’re all more or less married to each other (you do the math), I would have been interested in learning about our, uhm, hmm, how do I say this . . . mating customs . . .
What is John Billingsley reading now, and what is a book that you always recommend for people to read?
I just finished a Hilma Wolitzer novel called The Doctor’s Daughter, which was lovely. I just started a novel called The Changeling by a Japanese writer, Kenzaburo Oe, loving the way it begins . . . I am chary with recommendations unless I have a sense of what people like cuz some of my favorite books are most definitely not for everybody. I adore Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, as a for instance, cuz I think it’s both hilarious and moving, but it’s tough to get into and not to everybody’s taste. Ditto Faulkner, my fave writer, if I had to pick one fella . . I loved Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Probably easier to randomly pick books I read recently that I thought were marvelous, and two that come to mind are Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family by Robert Kolker, about a middle-class family in mid-century America with twelve children, six of whom were afflicted with schizophrenia. Amazing story on a gajillion levels: the history of 20th-century psychiatry, to an extent, and the misdiagnosis of the ailment, but mostly an amazing story about how a large family coped with a series of profound tragedies. Also love the Slow Horses series by Mick Herron and recently enjoyed The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Oh, stop me, stop me now. I could go on and on. Reading is my favorite thing in the world to do.
Growing up, what influences around you encouraged you to reach out for a career in the arts?
Well, and this is kind of a riff on the question you asked about books, I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who read books, who went to the theatre, who were culturally literate and interested in making sure their kids were readers. They weren’t artists, and they certainly weren’t intellectuals – they liked good yarns, you’d have never caught my dad reading Faulkner or David Foster Wallace, he’d have said pretentious hogwash – but they always had a book going. They had a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the living room that I used to sit in front of, as a toddler, and gape at . . . I didn’t really know what wonders books contained, but I understood they contained wonders . . . And so, having vowed to learn to read ASAP, and as backward as I was (and still am) at many things, I was a reader from an early age, and being a reader led me to so many things. For one thing, when there were mandatory school auditions for A Christmas Carol in the 5th grade, I was the only kid who could read aloud fluidly and swiftly, and with some degree of emotional involvement . . . I was cast as Scrooge (a lisping, gap-toothed, four-eyed Scrooge, but still . . . SCROOGE!) A ham was born.
Other than answering my questions in an interview, what’s your favorite way to recharge your batteries when it’s time to relax?
Well, would it surprise you to say . . . reading??? I also love to travel, and I think the missus and I have made a conscious effort to ensure that we get out of town at least once every other month to recharge . . . I adore my friends, and seeing them (either cuz we volunteer together or we go martini-ing together – and I know that’s not a word, but it should be – . . . I am also a Dodgers fan, which can recharge my batters (they win) or run down my batteries if they lose (Houston cheated, Houston cheated, Houston cheated).
What’s your favorite song, and what about that song makes it your favorite?
I don’t really have an answer to that question. I love music, and I love tons of songs, but I can’t say that I have a favorite. I guess if you ask the desert island question, what musical piece would you want playing night and fucking day on the desert island you’re on . . . oh man . . . you’d end up getting sick of anything eventually . . . but I’d probably want something classical (NOT the Bolero, cuz ain’t it hard enough to be on a desert island without the Bolero playing . . . ) If I could cheat and bring an oeuvre with me, I’d bring Mozart’s oeuvre. This is some desert island I’ve got, huh? It comes with its own oeuvre.
When people complain that Trek has become too “woke”, what is your reaction to that comment?
In all honesty, as I get older, I become more and more certain that it doesn’t do any good to try and disabuse people of the things they believe or fail to understand. I think what people are responding to when they respond to words like ‘woke’ is the sense that they are being criticized for having been asleep at the wheel, intellectually.
People feel that they are being called dumb or blind.
It is a lamentable but unavoidable truism about human beings that nobody but nobody likes to be criticized. For what it’s worth, when I travel and I am hanging out at a bar with somebody who has different opinions than I do – I’m an ardent progressive, I should state – I find that turning the conversation to ‘the things we both do to help people who can’t help themselves’ is a more fruitful path to mutual affection.
It seems to me that there are people who try to divide and people who try to connect. People who try to divide seize on words and try to turn them into cudgels. I would prefer to direct the conversation, to the extent possible, away from words to ‘deeds,’ to the doing of shit, to what people do that makes their heart expand, to what it is that makes them feel really good about themselves. I’m not a religious person, but I have read the Bible, and I do believe that the biblical adjuration to focus on ‘works’ is pretty sound. That and the whole ‘mote in the other guy’s eye as opposed to the board in your own’ part . . .
Shower singer or car singer? Which one gets your best performances?
I go to a spa for a monthly massage, and there’s a hot tub there, right in the middle of a giant tiled room, and when there’s nobody around . . . my song stylings reach heights of plangency and emotional resonance that cannot be equaled (at least by me, whether it be in car or shower . . . ). You also neglect the SIMON AND GARFUNKLE-Y OPTION, ie., ‘KICKING DOWN THE COBBLESTONES, LOOKING FOR FUN AND FEELING GROOVY’, cuz singing on a stroll is the best singing of all . . .
What piece of Star Trek technology do you wish was real and why?
Well, I ain’t ever gonna get my atoms separated, at least not willingly, so the transporter is out, and I’d be deathly afraid of a ray gun backfiring, and the medical tricorder is just gonna give me bad news about my cholesterol numbers, it ain’t gonna help me lay off the cheeseburgers and DID SOMEBODY SAY CHEESEBURGER???? MAN, IF ONLY I HAD A FOOD REPLICATOR!
Thanks to John Billingsley for answering our questions and having a comfy seat on our couch with the rest of us nerds.
You can still donate to TrekTalks and help the Hollywood Food Coalition. Please consider giving even just a little; it all adds up and helps those who are truly in need. Click the link here to give – https://givebutter.com/c/trektalks3
Live long and prosper!