There’s no easy answer to the question, What’s your favorite Bob Gunton role? One of Hollywood’s best and most-prolific character actors, Gunton played President Juan Peron in the original Broadway production of Evita, Chief Earle in Demolition Man, Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption, Burton Quinn in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, Ethan Kanin on 24, President Pinera in The 33, Leland Owlsley on Daredevil, and Captain Benjamin Maxwell in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Wounded.” StarTrek.com recently chatted with Gunton about his career, current projects and Trek memories, and here’s what he had to say:
What are you up to these days in terms of work and life?
I’m still “toiling in the vineyard.” I’ve just finished the first season of an NBC comedy called Trial and Error, starring John Lithgow. I recently guest-starred on Law & Order: SVU, playing a very charming and evil and rich predator (in an episode airing January 18). Anyone come to mind? I also have a couple of films awaiting release. I played the President of Chile recently in The 33, about the Chilean mine rescue. I’m also finishing the first draft of a memoir.
Trek fans know you from your TNG episode, but if people run into you on the street, what of your other performances are they most eager to talk about with you? We’re guessing The Shawshank Redemption and 24. So, those and what else?
Of course, Shawshank is what most fans come up to me about. They’re really paying homage to the movie itself, which is tremendously revered around the world. I have to say that many are also interested in my TNG appearance, after all those years, as well as Ace Venture, Dead Silence and, yes, 24. Surprisingly, many folks come up to talk about Broadway shows I have starred in, including Evita, Big River and Sweeney Todd.
How did you land your role as Captain Maxwell on Trek? Take us through the process.
There was no process. Because of the spectacular popularity of Evita, casting directors were becoming acquainted with my work. Right after I left Evita, I starred in an off-Broadway play about Vietnam — where I had served in combat — playing 22 different characters of both genders and three races. It was a critical smash for which I won an Obie Award. That play turned out to be the greatest “audition” a character actor could be given. Thereafter, I was regularly called to L.A. for guest-starring roles. And that eventually included, Star Trek.
What do you remember most about your Trek experience?
Well, first of all, it was a wonderful reunion with Brent Spiner. He and I had played the comic villains, the King and the Duke in the musical Big River. I recall dozens of plaques posted around the soundstage citing many of the tongue-twisting word-burgers which Brent’s Data had had to unscramble and deliver.
How did you enjoy working with the rest of the cast, especially Patrick Stewart?
I enjoyed the whole cast, especially Patrick Stewart, since we both came from “the stage.” Patrick was especially fascinated by my descriptions of what it was like playing Sweeney Todd eight performances a week on Broadway. He seemed to be well acquainted with the songs. I’m not sure, but he may have ended up playing Sweeney at some point, on the London stage. Colm Meaney and his family had lived near my wife and daughter and I in New York City, so that, too, was a bit of a reunion.
What’s the line in “The Wounded” script that you got that you just couldn’t wait to get on the stage to play? And why were you so excited to play it?
I was most excited about the scene in which Colm and I reminisce about a massacre that killed my family, which explained Capt. Maxwell’s deep distrust of the Cardassians. And part of their shared memory was that of a young kid, kind of a Gunga Din figure who lost his life there. They both recalled a song that he used to sing and begin singing it together. It was the old Irish ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”
Most fans feel that Captain Maxwell did the wrong thing for the right reasons. What’s your take on his actions?
Indeed, Picard had it absolutely right. As understandable as Maxwell’s actions are, and no matter how accurate his analysis of the Cardassian threat, the principal of command structure and obeying orders must be upheld in order to prevent, especially in the world of hyper-space and devastating weapons, catastrophes brought about by disobedience to a higher command.
If you could play any character from Trek other than the one you played, who would you want to play — and why?
Spock, of course! I empathize so strongly with one who is condemned, in a way, to promulgating the rule of reason, without full access to the joys and sorrow and challenges and consolations of human emotion.
Star Trek just celebrated its 50th anniversary. What does it mean to you to be a part of the franchise on this huge occasion?
I am proud and humbled to be a tiny part of the great legacy of the amazing world of Star Trek.
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