Dirk Benedict decided it was time to let his then three-year-old son in on the secret. "My oldest boy was wild over reptiles," says Benedict. "He was fascinated by them, specifically snakes. He even had a pet boa. So, one day I said to him, 'You know your Dad... he once was... I mean... he was a... he... I... oh, here!'" Benedict then inserted a video of Sssssss, the 1973 chiller about a young man transformed into a king cobra -- a role played by... Daddy!
"My son flipped," Benedict laughs. "He loved it. He's nine now but he still loves reptiles. To this day, he's so proud that his Dad turned into a snake."
It was the first time Benedict had seen Sssssss since its release. Although a cult item today, the film (recently issued on video) originally tanked at the box office. Benedict traces one of its problems to its title. "The ad posters said, 'Don't say it... hiss it!' I thought that would start people going, 'I saw Sssssss last night!' In retrospect, people may have had trouble telling their friends [the title]."
The actor even personally encountered people who struggled to pronounce the unique title. "When the film came out, Strother Martin, bless his heart, and I went all over the county doing promotions and we found everyone had a problem with the title. They didn't want to hiss it. Instead, they would say, 'S, S, S, S, S, S, S.' We would go, 'No! It's not S, S, S, S, S, S, S! It's Sssssss! Hiss It!' But they felt silly doing that."
The Snake Man
Sssssss concerns a young man who befriends a crazed scientist (Martin). Believing that only reptiles will survive the inevitable nuclear holocaust, Martin speeds up the process by surreptitiously turning Benedict into a large snake. The film costarred Heather Menzies and Tim O'Connor, but it was the snake makeup that remains its centerpiece.
"The idea of turning into a reptile fascinated me. Other than that, my role was kind of... well, I don't want to say boring, but rather ordinary. I was playing the helpless victim. But I've always been interested in makeup. I had just come from New York when I got this job, so as a stage actor, I was used to doing my own makeup."
For Sssssss, he was in the capable hands of two veteran makeup men. "Dan Striepeke, who also came up with the film's story, had been head of makeup at 20th Century Fox," Benedict says. "Dan and John Chambers won an Academy Award for Planet of the Apes. So, it was exciting to work with them. Both Striepeke and Chambers were much more excited and proud of the snake makeup than they were of their Apes work. It's much more difficult to turn somebody into a snake!"
It was also much more time-consuming, but Benedict looked upon it as an adventure. "Four weeks before filming, the made a cast of my head and then built a snake-head to fit it, like a diver helmet. Then, I was completely shaved, and snake scales made of latex were applied all over my body.
"It took seven hours to apply the final snake makeup. It took four makeup artists, who then painted and textured the scales. And the early transformations, where I'm still half-human, took about four hours to apply. Those are the scenes where my head is a snake's, but I still have wisps of hair and my body is still human. It was a tedious but very interesting process.
"It was a fun film, and Strother was a joy to work with. Unfortunately, the movie was not a success. Universal had high hopes for it and they even had a couple of sequels in line, but it didn't make enough money."
Some of the most memorable Sssssss moments came when the actor was still half-human and writhing around like a snake. "The makeup gave me great support. The transformations became very believable. There's one scene where I fall down and I'm trying desperately to crawl across the floor. The makeup really got me into that moment, acting the way a snake would.
"There's another scene where I see my reflection in a window for the first time, and I see the transformation taking effect. I double up in pain because my intestines are changing. That was easy to play because the makeup was so realistic. I was thinking, 'Man, this is believable.' I loved the look. And I still love it when someone comes up to me and says, 'You're the guy they turned into a snake.'"
Benedict, born and raised in Montana, discovered acting when, on a dare from a fellow classmate, he auditioned for a stage production of Showboat while attending college in Walla Walla, Washington. He won a lead role and decided to switch his major from music to theater. He later moved to New York, where his acting dreams were encouraged by legendary actress Gloria Swanson (with whom he acted on Broadway in Butterflies are Free) and her husband.
After Sssssss, he made the moves to Hollywood, where he costarred in Chopper One. When the 1974 helicopter series crashed, Benedict took time off to write screenplays at his Montana home. Meanwhile, the success of Star Wars had spurred producer Glen Larson to get his TV project, Earth Star, off the ground after several years of rejections. Don Johnson was the leading contender to play Starbuck, the flying ace. However, Larson continued to push for Benedict, who had been rejected earlier by the network. Footage from Sssssss finally won him the role.
As the then-most expensive TV series in history, the retitled Battlestar Galactica played out the 1978-1979 season. "To me it as and still is the most exciting job I've ever done," notes Benedict. The huge cast was headed by Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, leader of the rag-tag fleet pursued across the galaxy by the robotic Cylons. Galactica's mission was to find a shining legendary planet known as Earth. Richard Hatch played Adama's son, Apollo. The supporting cast included Maren Jensen, Herb Jefferson Jr., Laurette Spang, Terry Carter and John Colicos. As the writers and producers grappled to flesh out the concept, Benedict went to work shaping his character.
"Originally, Starbuck was a rather small role. The show was supposed to about Adama and his son. Starbuck was just one of the fighter pilots. I made several actor's choices early on, to bring more dimension to him, and it worked.
"On the surface, Starbuck was a womanizer, a partying kind of guy. He would rather play cards and be with the girls than fight the Cylons. Whenever he was called to fight, I made him act like he didn't want to go. The writers picked up on that and began to write him that way. But when push came to shove, Starbuck would rise to the occasion. He was really a stand-up kind of guy who had some bad habits, including the fact that he wasn't totally honest. He would always get caught in his own lies, and rightfully so.
"I was also influenced by James Garner, who was doing Rockford Files at the time. I was a big fan of his and I played Starbuck like a reluctant hero. That's more fun than playing the straight-arrow kind of hero, which I find boring. Starbuck was a god guy who had trouble growing up. I take a great deal of pride in being responsible for making him the success that he was. Frankly, I didn't know if people would like him."
Ironically, Benedict's dedication to his role nearly got him fired. 'One of the first things I had Starbuck was smoke cigars," he explains. "But the network said, 'No! Nobody wants to see . They're disgusting. They'll turn off women.' They didn't mean for health reasons, they meant romantically. But I loved Starbuck smoking cigars, so I kept puffing. Finally, the network guy, who watched the dailies, announced, 'If we see him smoking one more cigar, he's fired.' They meant it. Glen said to me, 'You know, Dirk, you had better stop.' So I did.
"And then, when the show began airing, every girl in America sent me a box of cigars, and the network suddenly thought that was wonderful. They said, "More cigars! We need him smoking more cigars!' Well, pretty soon, it got ridiculous. I said, 'They've got me smoking in the cockpit, when I'm asleep and when I'm talking... I won't do it!' But the network said, 'No, keep smoking. We love the cigars!' That's the network mentality. They're always chasing the polls, trying to second-guess what the people like."
The Forgotten Man
Benedict recalls the Galactica cast as a happy, professional group who did the best they could under hectic conditions and 14-hour workdays. "Everyone was great fun.. They're weren't any temper tantrums over motor homes, dressing rooms or even salaries. And if anyone would have complained, it would have been me!" he chuckled. "I was making one-quarter of the money everyone else was.
"When my character became a big hit, my agent said, 'Next year, we'll negotiate a new contract.' Of course, we never made it to next year. Meanwhile, I was being paid scale plus 10 and people wondered why I was driving a used car, when I was such a big TV star! But I have no regrets. Doing Battlestar Galactica was a great experience."
Most memorable for the actor -- who also discussed the series almost two decades ago in Starlog #18 -- was the spectacular pilot film. "The production was enormous for television," he says. "It took us 69 shooting days and cost $14 million in 1978 dollars. That would be $29 million today. We had hundreds of extras and creatures. And the special FX were done by John Dykstra, who won an Academy Award for Star Wars.
"He was very excited about doing these kinds of FX for television. And unlike today, where the visuals are all computer-generated, we did ours on film. They had a beautiful miniature of the Galactica and all these little Viper models, and they would film the doing battle. The result was fantastic. I like these techniques better. Some people say to me, 'Oh, you're just and old-timer,' but I maintain I can tell the difference between something filmed, like we did back then, and the computer-generated effects of today. Ours looked real on film because they were real."
While shooting it out with the Cylons, the cast contended with an enormous wave of pre-air publicity. Newsweek, Time, People and TV Guide hyped the show to a fever pitch. Benedict maintains that all the press coverage doomed Galactica.
"The media destroyed the show with all the hype," he says. "All the press worked against us. We didn't become the number-one show in the country and the critics destroyed us. They hated the show: 'Yeah, OK, so what? Battlestar Galactica is no Star Wars.' There were constant comparisons. Galactica was considered a bastard child that pretended to be like Star Wars and the media were saying, 'Everyone knows Galactica is not nearly as good.'
"And then we had many intellectuals and industry people who looked down on us, as if it were beneath them to even watch us. Nowadays, those comparisons aren't made. Movies are movies, television is television, but at the time, the critics tore us apart. It was an easy show to pick on, and that was one of the reasons it was cancelled. The only ones who liked it were the audience."
Battlestar Galactca became a top 10 hit at first, then slowly fell into the top 20 and placed 24th in he seasonal average for 1978-1979. Ordinarily, a show with those ratings would be renewed instantly, Galactica was a special case.
"You could write a book on why Galactica was cancelled," sighs Benedict. "It was an enormously difficult show to launch. Just as we were beginning to roll and everyone was beginning to know their characters and find what worked and what didn't, it was cancelled. There was a political war going on between ABC and Universal. There were also politics between the producer and the network. Then, there was the cost. Universal thought it was too expensive and wanted to end it. They regret that decision now. I've talked to people at Universal and they wish they had made more shows, because Galactica is still hot.
"Another factor was that we played on Sunday nights opposite All in the Family. We were supposed to knock off All in the Family. Well, we didn't. They had a different audience and besides, it's a classic. So in the network's view, we were a failure, even thought we were in the top 20. In their arrogance, ABC wanted a number-one show. They wouldn't accept losing that time slot. And so we were cancelled. That was a complete shock to everyone. We had left our personal belongings at Universal because we thought we would be back for another season. I had to go back and clean out my trailer.
"The funny thing was, I went from being a big TV star on the lot, with my own parking space, my own table in the commissary, to a complete nobody! When I went to get my stuff, they wouldn't let me on the lot. I said to the gate guy, 'Hey, Scotty! it's me! I just want to get my things.' He said, 'You don't have a pass!' So, I had to make all these calls just to get my toothbrush! That's Hollywood. Boom! From star to forgotten actor."
The Con Man
Months later, Benedict learned that ABC was planning a second Galactica series. "The network changed their mind about canceling us. They wanted us to do a new Galactica for next year, but they wanted to cheapen it -- Galactica 1980," The revamped series was set 20 years later, with the Galactica finding Earth. Kent McCord and Barry Van Dyke were the next generation of fighter pilots.
Benedict was very happy not to be involved. "I refused to do it," he says. "I did not like the way they were going with it." However, when Larson showed Benedict a script called "Return of Starbuck," the actor's defenses dropped.
"'Return of Starbuck' was the last episode of Galactica 1980," recalls Benedict. "Starbuck is stranded alone on a lost planet and he creates a Cylon for company. it was a wonderful story, very well written and funny. I certainly found it more interesting and rewarding than any of the Battlestar Galactica episodes, because the storyline was so contained and character-driven. It was touching and funny, and at the same time it had a real sense of danger. At one point I sat down with Glen and said, 'Glen, there's a TV series in this idea. It's part Fugitive and part Robinson Crusoe and Friday. You could have one character wandering through space, trying to find his way.' I thought it would be a terrific way to do a series without the expense of a huge cast, and have all that money go into our production values. It could have been a lot of fun. I really loved playing the character."
From 1983-1987, Benedict costarred with George Peppard, Dwight Schultz and Mr. T on TV's smash hit, The A-Team. Filmed at Universal for five seasons, the show once again made Benedict a big star, playing Face, the con man. "And when The A-Team was cancelled, I couldn't get back on the lot again!" he good-naturedly groans. "That's the way it works. The A-Team was fun, but it was another show everybody loved to pick on and the critics loved to hate."
In addition to acting (recently in the cable SF movie Official Denial and the theatrical feature Alaska), Benedict is also he author of two books: an autobiography, Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy (1991) and ... And Then We Went Fishing (1993).
Meanwhile, Battlestar Galactica has blasted back into the 1990s on video and in reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel. Benedict has even attended a Galactica convention. "I enjoyed it enormously. I would like to do more. I'm waiting for invitations. I was surprised by how astute the fans are about the show. I found Galactica fans, generally, to be much more intelligent and well-read than the average TV fan. They're supremely knowledgeable about the show. It makes an old guy feel great to talk with people who appreciate you for something you did so long ago."
How does the actor account for Galactica's ongoing popularity? "Part of it is that the space genre is timeless. The production values were so good that it hasn't dated like the original Star Trek has. Star Trek is, well... of its time. But Battlestar Galactica stands up because it was so well-produced. Some of the shows were very good. We had many talented people, like Don Bellisario [who later created Quantum Leap], Rod Holcomb and many others."
The Ladies Man
In assessing his favorite Galactica adventures, Benedict says, "haven't seen any of the episodes since they were first aired. It's impossible to remember specifics, but one of my favorites was the show with Fred Astaire ["The Man With Nine Lives"] where he poses as my father. He was an incredible person. We chuckled a lot at each other's silly sense of humor and developed a friendship that continued after filming. I remember he was very much in love with his girl friend, soon to be his wife, and she was many decades his junior! He was a joy to work with.
"Greetings from Earth" introduced Benedict to guest stars Bobby Van and Ray Bolger, who played comical androids. "Bobby and I were sent to Montreal to do some extra shooting for the episode and we had a great time together. we became friends, and it was so sad when he died a few years later. Ray was also funny and great to work with."
During the Galactica space cruise, Starbuck encountered a galaxy of beautiful women: Britt Ekland, Audrey Landers, Katherine Cannon and Melody Anderson to name a few. "I remember all of the beautiful women I met on Battlestar Galactica," he ways fondly. "Some of them I got to know during this very interesting, frenetic time. I fell in love daily! It was a very intoxicating time for a small-town lad from Montana. I was single, recently recovered from cancer -- although no one knew that, not until I wrote Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy -- so I had a blast. I wouldn't trade those times for anything. There isn't a place on Earth with the amount of beautiful ladies as LA. When you're young and starring in a successful TV show and playing the ladies man -- well, it's a good thing the show was cancelled or I would have been old before my time!"
As for specific memories of his costars, he praises the late Lorne Greene as "Classy, simple, hard-working, very professional, even-tempered and giving.
"I was quite smitten over Laurette Spang [Cassiopea], but I never get involved with the ladies I work with. We became close friends and are to this day. She has done better than any of us with her fabulous marriage [to actor John McCook] and her wonderful family.
"Herb Jefferson, Jr. [Boomer] is a marvelous, very underrated actor. It pains me every time I think of him because he hasn't done more. He was a very steady and giving person, both on and off camera. He didn't get the credit he deserved in anchoring much of the stuff between Starbuck, Apollo and others.
"Maren Jensen [Athena] was the only flat-out, beautiful woman I've ever worked with who had no hang-ups about her beauty. There was not one iota of difficulty with Maren. She was always pleasant, open to direction and advice, eager to do a good job. She was relatively inexperienced at the time, but reachable, teachable and a joy to be around. if the show had continued, I'm sure she would have become a big TV star due to her beauty and work ethic. When I last saw her, in 1982, she was even more beautiful than I remembered. I wonder what happened to her?"
Benedict recalls that he and Richard Hatch "never became close during the show. We were working so hard, carrying the show. Also, we had different interests. He was much more serious than I. I was busy laughing and flirting with the ladies. I just enjoyed showing up and saying my lines. Richard was more focused on the storylines and the production. He's a very intelligent and caring person.
"John Colicos [the evil Baltar] is another actor I miss. I enjoyed working with him immensely. It was amazing to have such a large cast, and not one rotten apple. They were all fun to work with and I can't say that about any other film or series I've done."
In recent years, Hatch has tried to spearhead a Galactica film reunion with little success. "In many ways, I would like Battlestar Galactica to come back so that Richard could realize some of the dreams he had for the show. I don't have any regrets or unfulfilled dreams about the series but Richard, more mature than I at the time, saw what Battlestar Galactica could and should have been. If the show was revived and they used the original cast, although chances are they wouldn't, one of the big reasons I would do it would be to get together with the entire cast again."
Although Benedict enjoys talking about the series, it's the show's premature ending that makes the memories bittersweet.
"The sad part is that we never really got to do the series the way we wanted. Some shows were not as good as others, and Galactica spent a lot of time trying to find itself. We were just getting there when were cancelled.
"Glen Larson, especially, never got to fulfill his dream. it would be wonderful it we had done 50, 60 or 100 episodes. Why Universal hasn't gone back and redone the show, I don't know. Glen has been trying to get it redone since it was cancelled, without success."
Dirk Benedict shrugs, "But hey!" he brightens, hinting that Starbuck is ready to roll, "I can still fit into my Battlestar Galactica costume!"