Behind the Scenes

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Cliff Robertson returns to TV's premier science fiction franchise.

By Frank Garcia     November 02, 1999

Actor Cliff Robertson stood in front of the cameras, clad in an astronaut's bulky white spacesuit. Black velvet drapes surrounded him. With diffused spotlights illuminating him, director James Head watching from behind the camera, and a production crew standing by, Robertson pretended he was floating in space. 'So beautiful out here... so peaceful...' intoned the actor, while swaying his upper body with arms outstretched, as if he was twirling in an abyss of blackness, with the blue-and-white glow of the Earth below. Stagehands under Robertson grasped his legs so he wouldn't accidentally fall over. Trying to give an emotional performance under these conditions was not an easy task. Robertson didn't immediately succeed. His initial delivery was not convincing, but on subsequent 'takes,' the vocal inflections kicked in, and everyone who watched felt the voice. 'I'm not alone... for the first time... I'm not... alone... I know that doesn't make any sense, but... I'm sure of it.' At the end of the 'take,' spontaneous applause reverberated across the soundstage.

Incredibly, when Outer Limits executive producer Richard Lewis cast veteran actor Cliff Robertson for the lead in 'Joy Ride,' he had no idea the actor had literally launched The Outer Limits into existence. As faithful viewers know, Robertson starred in 'The Galaxy Being,' the now-classic first episode of the original series, which premiered on September 16, 1963.

'Cliff Robertson was one of four or five actors we were considering,' explained Lewis. 'None of them were necessarily from the original series. I did not know he was in the original pilot of The Outer Limits. How could I not know? I've only watched a handful of the original Outer Limits episodes. I'm not a SF maven. I'm a fairly eclectic filmmaker. I think I'm pretty mainstream. Science fiction isn't the end-all, be-all for me. I'm interested in a wide range of stories from Shakespeare plays to Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, to Alien to Chinatown, I'm not a genre person. My goal is to reach the broadest audience possible. I think I represent the middle of the audience. I hope we do them intelligently enough to appeal to the demanding hardcore SF audience members who knows the science accurately.'

'Joy Ride' is about Ted Harris, an ex-Mercury mission astronaut who experiences a 'close encounter' with something strange while orbiting around the Earth in 1963. Returning to Earth, he publicizes the incident, only to be branded as an outcast throughout his life. Flash forward to the year 2001: Harris, now 63 years old, is given one last opportunity to return to space by Lawrence Powers (Barry Corbin), a rich entrepreneur who has built his own space shuttle dubbed Daedalus. For reasons no one realizes or understands, Harris has an ulterior motive to reach the skies once again.

Aside from the bit of trivia that Robertson was the first actor who starred in THE OUTER LIMITS, the episode also boasts an interesting real-life coincidence. The story, provided by Dan Wright and Dave Alexander and scripted by Sam Egan, mirrored the real-life experience of ex-Mercury astronaut John Glenn. After only one trip into space, the 77-year old U.S. senator (now retired) became a passenger aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on October 29, 1998 and returned to Earth nine days later on November 7.

'The beauty of science fiction is that we're always right on the edges of what is possible,' grinned Egan. 'We're always rolling on the terrain of real science and science fiction worlds. The fact that there are overlaps still shocks us at times when we get close to what's going on. There's never overlap when you're doing fantasy stories. [With] science fiction stories about genetic engineering, you wake up one morning and find out Dolly the sheep has been cloned. Inevitably, you're going to find art and reality converging. The fun of doing science fiction is titillating coincidences with life and art.'

The ironies expand when you realize that Cliff Robertson actually knows John Glenn and has personal relationships with at least a dozen of the surviving astronauts from the Apollo missions including Wally Schirra, Eugene Cernan, and the late Alan Shepherd. Robertson's character, Ted Harris, was intended to be a flipside to John Glenn. Harris was an unproductive outcast throughout his life while Glenn was a U.S. Senator for 24 years.

'I must say these 12 hour days get to you after a while!' quipped Cliff Robertson as he trudged back to his trailer after an hour of working inside a hot and heavy astronaut's spacesuit. Robertson acknowledged that he did recently meet with Glenn in Washington D.C., but did not have the opportunity to discuss NASA's acceptance of the senator as a Payload Specialist in the Discovery mission. 'I think it's wonderful,' remarked Robertson. 'I think the man is fortunate, in good health that he is. Why shouldn't he? I think some day they'll look back and be amused that we thought it was so unusual that a man of 77 years old would go up in space. I think 30 years from now they'll look back and say, 'How naive they were!' They'll have civilians in space.'

Another layer of irony: Robertson starred in the film Return To Earth (1974), depicting the life story of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, after the historic Apollo 11 mission. Asked his opinion of astronauts and the kind of people they are, Robertson thoughtfully replied, 'There's been so many. There's a tendency for people to think of them as superhuman. They are certainly extraordinary, but they are basically highly individualistic even though they lived under a highly structured, environmental matrix. They are, nevertheless, basically independent.'

The scripts' postulation that a private entrepreneur would build his own space orbiter for commercial use is not fiction. There actually are companies actively researching such a goal. To stimulate interest and competition between aerospace companies to reach the ultimate goal of Earth orbit by a commercial space liner, a prize worth $10 million has been put up by the X-Prize Corporation. Currently, there are 14 registered entrants.

One of those contestants is Burt Rutan, whose brother Dick sailed across the Earth on the aircraft Voyager. 'I have a good friend in Burt Rutan,' said Robertson. 'He's the most innovative airplane designer in the world today. I went out to see him last weekend in the Mojave Desert. And he predicts that within this decade, we'll be taking men and women up in a commercial vehicle after a little training period not a long one and go off for five days and sail around the world a few times and come back down again. I told Burt that I was doing this [episode of Outer Limits]. He was very interested. I told him this was all about an entrepreneur who has a space shuttle rocket. And that's what he anticipates doing within this decade.'

The unforeseen coincidences, beginning with the casting of Robertson, have been accidental, but as Sam Egan and production designer Steve Geaghan explained that there are some manufactured in-jokes for the all-seeing and knowing audience to look for. 'One of the fun things about this particular episode is we worked backwards to the original Mercury mission,' revealed Sam Egan. 'The date on the screen, when you first see it, is September 16, 1963, which is the date the original Outer Limits premiered with Cliff Robertson. That's a tip of the hat to the original series. Doing our research, there was a Mercury 10 mission slated that would, by my extrapolation, would have happened about September 16, 1963. There were 10 missions slated, and they did nine. They accomplished all of their objectives of the Mercury program, and so they cancelled the 10th mission. Our show takes the conceit, 'What if there had been a 10th mission?' By the dates, I extrapolated from when the likelihood that mission would have happened. It would have been around September 1963, roughly between the end of Mercury and beginning of Gemini flights. The only license I took was 'Let's make it the exact day that Outer Limits aired.' On the script I had September 9. Then I said, 'Wait a minute!' These are all little resonances that may only have meaning to people who know science fiction, and they're fun for us.' (The discarded irony was that September 9 is Cliff Robertson's birthdate. )

There are additional vibrations from the original series other than 'The Galaxy Being.' The script from which the original series episode 'Second Chance' starring Simon Oakland was based was titled 'Joy Ride.' Beamed Egan, 'It's perfect. We talk about 'second chance' as being the theme of the whole climax of our show. It really has come full circle. I've worked with Simon Oakland, years ago on Quincy. The other thing that comes full circle is that the body of the show takes place 38 years later in 2001. That's a great date for all SF aficionados. And then our production designer, on his own, decided to do a tip of the hat to the production design of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The doorways of our space plane are identical to their space plane.'

'When it became clear that the date was going to be 2001, I went back to my own memory of 2001 the film,' remarked series Production Designer Steve Geaghan. 'In my mind the most striking thing about the Pan-Am space liner, one of the beautiful things that [2001 production designer] Tony Masters did, was the stark black-and-white quality of that particular design. I'm thinking, 'Well, as a homage to Tony Masters' beautiful consistency, that look is perfectly acceptable today.' I decided to take that monochromatic quality the white look with the black detailing,' and incorporate it into Lawrence Power's privately built Daedalus spacecraft.

The Pan-Am space liner in 2001 was modeled after the Concorde. 'That was very needle shaped and extremely long,' said Geaghan. Daedalus is a similar design. 'This one has taken on a chunkier aspect. What we see here on the stage is only the top portion of it. It's a much fatter, triangular shaped craft with short, stubby wingsmore of a stealth fighter than the present-day shuttle. This is actually fairly close to the Lockheed Marietta that's proposed for the future. We did a lot of research on this. We came up with our own design that was close but that was different from everyone else's. We hate to make a copy. We always love to develop an idea to make it close to where the technology is advancing today.'

To depict Ted Harris' Mercury 10 mission, with the capsule floating in space, Geaghan and his art department staff had the enviable task of recreating a Mercury capsule. It was not necessary for the company to go to NASA for assistance. 'We had to go back to blueprints and photographs. It's all there on the Internet!' declared Geaghan. 'We have a very good researcher. She goes in and says, 'Hey, look what I found, Steve!' We take it, duplicate it and blow it up, redraw it. The interior of our space capsule is very close to the existing capsule. Last summer I took my daughter to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and I took photographs of Freedom 7. This is great research!'

Robertson said that he was thrilled to return to the Outer Limits again after a 35-year break. 'It's like coming home again. It's kind of a paranormal, surrealistic thing! I was interested in this because of the aviation aspects. I thought the script was interesting. When I talked with the [series producers] on the phone, they assured me that it would be technically accurate. And it looks good. They've impressed me tremendously with the crew, the quality of the set design. I mean, it's spacious; it's authentic . That rocket is like a major film!.'


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