'Star Trek' Producer on How the Franchise Turned Actors Into Directors

Star Trek is a franchise with a history of turning its actors into directors. Star Trek: The Original Series stars Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner both went on to direct Star Trek movies, but the trend really came into its own with Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spinoffs.

Rick Berman was the executive producer steering the Star Trek franchise during this era, which turned actors like Jonathan Frakes, Avery Brooks, LeVar Burton, and Robert Duncan McNeill into directors. Frakes even went on to direct two Star Trek movies and returned to the franchise to direct episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.

Looking back on the franchise’s “director school," Berman says it all really started with Frakes.

“Jonathan Frakes, who I was very close to, personally and professionally, was very interested in directing,” Berman recalls in an interview with StarTrek.com. “This was around season two. My theory on that was it was a slippery slope. There were a lot of potential pitfalls. What do you do if their episode is mediocre? On the other hand, actors were extremely good candidates for episodic directing simply because they lived their lives on the sets. They saw everything that went on, technically. Being actors, they knew everything that was going on dramatically, they spoke actor-ese and they’d see the technical elements of production and camera work going on. They seemed, in a sense, better candidates for potential directors than technical people. If a cameraman or an assistant director wanted to direct – and there are exceptions to this rule -- they know the technical elements, but they don't speak the actor-ese. They don't understand how, necessarily, to deal with actors and to deal with character work. It's much easier for an actor who's directing to talk to the director of photography or sound man or production designer, and get information of a technical nature than it is for an assistant director to have somebody to discuss, ‘How do I talk to an actor about his performance?’ So, actors always seemed to me to be decent candidates for directing.”

But Berman wasn’t going to just let Frakes or anyone else simply jump into the director’s chair without a little training.

“However, what I said to Jonathan was, ‘You need to spend some time shadowing other directors. You need to spend time going through the whole process, going through the script, going through pre-production and all the prep a director does, spending time with directors on the stage, spending time with the director as he's prepping each day's work and spending time with the director in editing.’ This was not always easy, because these actors were busy. They didn't have time to necessarily do that because they were working. So, they had to find time. And my feeling was if they really had a passion to do this, they’d make it their business to find time. At some point, whether it was Jonathan or me or somebody else, it became known as ‘going to school’ prior to getting a directing assignment. Jonathan spent numerous episodes, when he was light in an episode, going to school. Even when he was busy and had a full load of pages on a specific episode, he’d find time, whether it was lunch hours, before work, after work, scenes he wasn't doing, to do all the things I mentioned before.”

And so the trend began. In total, 12 of Berman’s Star Trek actors went on to direct and he couldn’t be more pleased with their work.

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“I was happy to give everyone the opportunity,” he says. “Let me tell you that Jonathan was the first and, I think, probably the most successful in terms of Star Trek. He went on to direct two of our movies and then to direct other movies and to do a lot of directing in other television series. After Jonathan, the highlights that come to mind -- and it's years later -- would be LeVar Burton and Robbie Duncan McNeill and Roxann Dawson, who did remarkable jobs directing and who have all gone on to careers as directors on numerous television series. And because we had different series, these actors we're talking about, the four that I've just mentioned, as well as a number of the others, would get assignments on future Star Trek shows that we did. Jonathan, of course, is directing Discovery now.”

Who is your favorite Star Trek actor turned director? Let us know in the comments!