Gil Gerard, best known for playing the title character in the TV series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” is coming to Tulsa for a pop culture convention.
Last time he visited Oklahoma? It was so far in the past that he can’t remember specifics, but the question sparked a story about a long-ago trip to Broken Bow.
Gerard grew up in Little Rock and attended the University of Central Arkansas when it was known as Arkansas State Teachers College. During college years, he accompanied a frat brother to Oklahoma.
“There was a dance in Broken Bow,” Gerard said. “And we went to this dance and I was dancing with this gal.”
Gerard pitched a whatcha-been-doing question to the girl. She told him she had been splitting logs all day.
Does dancing with a log-splitter qualify as the best time he ever had in Broken Bow?
“It’s about the only time I ever had in Broken Bow,” he said. “It was nice. It was fun. I just thought it was a great name, Broken Bow.”
In 2001, the pilot episode of the “Star Trek” prequel series “Enterprise” was titled “Broken Bow” because a Klingon crashed his vessel in the Oklahoma town. When that information was shared with Gerard during a recent phone interview, he responded with this: “That’s wild. They must have known that Buck had been there a long time ago, before he was even Buck.”
In the 21st century, the man who played Buck Rogers will be among celebrity guests at the Tulsa Pop Culture Expo, a first-year convention scheduled Oct. 14-15 at the Wyndham Hotel, 10918 E. 41st St. For tickets (starting at $15) and information, go to tpopexpo.com.
When Gerard was a kid, he wasn’t keen about sci-fi and he (gasp!) didn’t like Buck Rogers.
“I was a Johnny Mack Brown, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, Jungle Jim kind of a kid,” he said. “My Saturday entertainment was taking a quarter and going to the movies downtown in Main Street Little Rock in this little theater and paying my dime and getting my popcorn and my Coke and spending the day watching all these series and then a John Wayne movie usually and a cartoon and I would make my way home.”
Did that kid in Little Rock allow himself to dream about someday becoming an actor?
“Not really,” Gerard said. “I always enjoyed it, but I didn’t think you could make a living at it, and I didn’t think it was a serious endeavor, to tell you the truth.”
Gerard worked as an industrial chemist in Arkansas.
He said he made a good living and drove a company car and served on advisory task forces for the governor.
“For the Industrial Development Commission, I did a study of the petroleum industry in Arkansas, trying to save it because it was going downhill,” he said. “So I did stuff like that. But I was just kind of bored. I was like this is OK, but this is not something I want to be doing when I’m 70.”
Gerard gave up his job and flew to New York in hopes of becoming an actor. Experience? He had been in a singing group in college and had acted in and directed plays. He said the last thing he did before leaving was a play that helped put a community theater in Little Rock in the black for the first time.
There’s a difference between thinking you can make it as an actor and knowing you can make it as an actor. Gerard said he knew he could do it. As his plane flew over Manhattan he looked down and said, “Some day you are going to be mine.”
Added Gerard, “I didn’t mean I was going to own it, but that was the attitude that I went there with was I was going to make it and you are going to know my name.”
Gerard didn’t build up a nest egg before heading to New York, so he had to work to pay bills.
He tried driving limousines (didn’t pay well enough) and bartending (got fired by an impatient boss who wanted the rookie bartender to immediately know where the Perrier was) before becoming a taxi driver.
Gerard said he drove 12 hours a night, went to acting school during the day and slept in between. He caught the break of his life while steering a taxi. He picked up a passenger for a drive across town (“it’s funny how I remember the route”) and they struck up a conversation. The passenger told Gerard he didn’t have the “vibe” of a taxi driver. Gerard ‘fessed up that he was in pursuit of an acting career. The passenger, who was well-connected in the entertainment industry, asked Gerard if he would be interested in working as an “extra.” With the passenger’s help, Gerard soon found himself on the set of the 1970 movie “Love Story.”
“That saved me like, 10 years,” Gerard said. “The interesting thing is, this same guy ... started Erik Estrada on his career, almost the same way.”
Gerard’s bit part in “Love Story” wound up on the editing room floor, but the paycheck cleared, so therefore the experience was a success.
Money was so tight during Gerard’s initial time in New York that he said there were some days when he didn’t eat. At the time, he was sharing a $120-a-month room (“it was a dump, but it wasn’t a bad dump”) with another student from acting school.
“We became friends with the superintendent of the building,” Gerard said. “And he used to get like day-old bread and stuff like that, so he would give us things. We would go out and get like a frozen bag of mixed vegetables or something and make that and have that with some bread. It was good. It kept us alive.”
In better times, Gerard spent holidays helping to feed the homeless.
“I went down to the L.A. mission and served food,” he said. “I would grab a plate when I got hungry and go out and sit with the folks and talk to them about where they were from and what their life was like and stuff like that. That’s really the Christmas spirit isn’t it, being of service?”
Gerard said he was active with Special Olympics in L.A. for more than 30 years. Now he lives in Georgia and helps a church serve and provide meals.
Working as an extra was easy compared to driving a cab, according to Gerard. He also started getting work in commercials.
“I ended up doing over 400 commercials while I was in New York,” he said. “At one point I had 27 national spots running at the same time. That was pretty wild.”
Gerard appeared in movie and TV fare (he was in the cast of the soap opera “The Doctors”) before landing a role which put him on big and small screens. “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” was a 90-minute movie which was released theatrically and was one of the biggest-grossing flicks of 1979. NBC waited for box office results before green-lighting a follow-up television series, then trimmed down the film to serve as a pilot episode.
Why did NBC wait? This was in the heyday of the “Star Wars” craze. Why not hop aboard the sci-fi train without hesitation?
“Understand that ‘Star Trek,’ in its initial run, was only on for three years, and it got canceled,” Gerard said. “The networks, they never really, at that time, knew what to do with sci-fi. And understand that Universal was the studio that turned down ‘Star Wars.’ That tells you something about what they thought about sci-fi.”
What did Gerard think about sci-fi?
“It was fine with me. I didn’t want it to be a cartoon, and I thought the character had a sense of reality about him. The sense of humor I liked very much and his humanity, I liked. I thought it was kind of cool. He wasn’t a stiff kind of a guy. He was a guy who could solve problems on his feet and he wasn’t a superhero.”
Gerard got his introduction to the convention world during the era that “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” aired on NBC.
The series began in 1979 and ended in 1981. The former limo driver was transported in a limo from L.A. to his first San Diego Comic-Con.
“I had no idea about cons,” he said. “They had me come down to San Diego to sit on a panel and I didn’t even know what a panel was. So I came in and there was this room with about 3,000 people in it and I had no idea what I was in for. They gave me a lot of money to come down and do it, so I did. These people were asking me all kind of stuff and I’m like ‘hell, I just went where they pointed me and said the words. I didn’t write this stuff.’ They said ‘How come this and this?’ I said ‘I don’t know. That’s just what they wrote.’ It was amazing. These people really knew what they were talking about.”
If, at that point, someone had told Gerard that fans would be seeking his autograph in 2017, he would have thought they were out of their mind.
“I did a Q&A in San Diego a few years back and it was standing room only,” he said. “I’m amazed. I’m amazed that there is more than just me in the room. And I’m very, very grateful for that. The fans (including a younger wave of fans) have been really, really good to me, and I appreciate the fact that they have been loyal and they still like the show.”
What does it mean that Buck Rogers is still signing autographs?
“I think it shows that people still relate to the character, the way he responds to emergencies and to difficulty. I think Buck is a kind of heroic figure in the sense that he is a guy you can count on. I don’t know that he goes around and saves little puppies and is a gets-cats-down-from-trees kind of hero, but he’s just a guy that you can count on. I think, people, that’s something they have always liked. Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon.’ There’s a guy you can count on. ...People love that character. Rick in ‘Casablanca.’ He is a guy you can count on. He stands up for his friends. It’s all those kind of characters. I think Buck is the same type of character.”