Model, Actress, Humanitarian
Though she's known all over the world as Colonel Wilma Deering from the Buck Rogers television series from nearly twenty years ago, Erin Gray only recently started appearing at science fiction conventions. "I didn't know Buck Rogers was so alive and well in so many people's minds, and that's so wonderful to hear," she said a few weeks ago as she waited for the festivities to start at Shore Leave, an annual fan-run con in Towson, Maryland. "You don't realize that people still remember the work that you've done."
Gray has come to the attention of a new generation of television viewers as Chief Monica Johnson, Mitch Buchannon's boss on Baywatch. After appearing in two episodes last season, the producers invited her to become a recurring character on the series. The cast is much smaller this season, so Gray's is one of only seven regular and four recurring roles. "David [Hasselhoff] came on the set and said, 'My God, now the show is all brunettes, the brunettes have taken over,'" laughed the Hawaiian-born actress. With the addition of Brooke Burns and Mitzi Kapture to the series, "it really sort of felt that way, because we all had a strong similarity."
After leaving Buck Rogers less than enthralled with the way women were being portrayed onscreen, Gray has found Baywatch to be surprisingly progressive. When she learned that her part would be recurring, Gray met with the producers and was forthright about her hopes: "I said, 'I'm hoping that you're going to write a strong female character who is [Mitch's] best friend, someone that has known him for 20 years, that he can talk to about anything.'" Gray doesn't believe there will be any sexual innuendo between them, "just two people who've known each other a long time and care about each other. I have a male friend like that - I think it would be nice to see more relationships like that between men and women. They always bring in the love interest, and I don't think that's necessary - it doesn't always have to go that way."
Gray had auditioned for an earlier role on Baywatch, and got the role of Chief Johnson after meeting with the producers. She filmed her first scenes with Kapture and was very pleased with both roles, noting, "Mitzi's was the character I was relating to - I hired her to work with [David Hasselhoff's character], and she's very intelligent, very strong, very capable." Having been a series regular for five years as Kate Summers on Silver Spoons - a bright, amiable character who kept family and career in balance - the actress was happy to find the popular Baywatch - better known for bathing suits than drama - so receptive to the addition of strong female characters.
Parker Stevenson directed Gray's first episode this season, which pleased the actress because she had worked with him before: "We played husband and wife in Official Denial, a science fiction movie filmed in Australia, so we know each other and we're comfortable with each other." That 1994 film had interesting parallels with The X-Files: "Basically, he is saying he is being abducted out of his bed by aliens, and I think my husband is losing his mind!" Gray has also appeared in such genre films as Jason Goes To Hell and T-Force, in which she plays a mayor, plus episodes of Magnum, P.I., Fantasy Island, and Silk Stalkings.
"When I first started acting, I had all these ideals about the kinds of roles I wanted to play, but the reality is that when you do television - and I do a lot of television - you get cast for qualities that you have as a person," she admitted. "So I look for qualities that I like to portray. Every once in awhile I like to play dark ladies, crazy ladies, but most often I look for characters that are strong, intelligent, caring - usually earth women, because that's basically how I see myself." She is pleased to note the number of powerful women she has played over the years: "See, they like me in strong positions! I've enjoyed that aspect of my career, constantly being in uniform or with a title."
It's interesting that an earth woman ended up on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. "Well, she was a strong woman...in a neon green-blue-burgundy suit!" Gray laughed. "She was head of the Earth defense, and that was great, to be able to portray that character - there weren't that many women characters who were that strong. I enjoy going to conventions now because so often I hear from women, 'You were my role model, you're the reason I went into the Air Force' - I was really quite surprised and delighted that I was able to inspire young girls to think beyond what society was dishing out as to what women can or can't do."
But in terms of the amount of input she had into the character, "Nope, zero, zip, none whatsoever. I wish they had asked, because it certainly went in the opposite direction from where I would have gone with her. The role just changed to Miss Dairy Queen in space, from the uniform to my dialogue, 'Are you all right, Buck?' I mean, please! I liked it at the beginning, when I was in charge, someone to deal with, who didn't take any guff from anyone. A woman with her own mind and confidence. I don't think [producer] John Mantley had any idea what the public wanted in terms of a female character, or what I was capable of doing."
Gray is carefully diplomatic in her criticism of the series and in talking about her co-star, actor Gil Gerard. A Method actress who tends to become the character she's playing, Gray said the biggest challenge with being on the futuristic series had to do with the props: "I'd sit down and I didn't know if I'd sink or bounce off the material, and the odd-looking food I had to eat! There's nothing around you which looks like anything you've ever dealt with in the present time; you're flying a plane, and you look down and say let's see, hmm, the prop man used a little bit of a toaster there, and I recognize a little bit of a typewriter here. So there's nothing real. Which is fine...that's using your imagination."
Sometimes, she confessed, you just have to fake it, "and totally commit to the moment." Her book, Act Right, written for lay people and aspiring actors alike, discusses the complications of an industry in which time is of the essence: "'Hurry up and act!'" Gray says she teases her cinematographer husband, one of the crewmembers who can demand countless retakes for technical purposes: "When I did television, I would sit in dailies and I would listen to the director make decisions. Nine times out of ten, they would go for the technically perfect take, not the emotionally inspiring one. But if you don't have the magic up there, the audience is not going to feel it." Method acting, she sighed, can be very difficult "if you've got a dolly man who can't seem to hit his mark, and you have to cry fifteen times in exactly the same way for the close-up and the overhead shot and the master shot...that's a lot of crying over five hours."
The stresses of that sort of performing and a rocky first marriage led Gray to two of the most important aspects of her life: T'ai Chi, which she teaches at UCLA and elsewhere, and Haven House, the oldest battered women's shelter in the U.S., where Gray is now a board member but where she once sought help for herself. "I found the counselors to be fabulous and the work that they were doing to be invaluable - I couldn't understand how I, a strong, capable, intelligent person who was fairly successful, still had an inability to see certain things," she recalled. "I found that traditional psychologists were of no value - I was having a breakdown NOW, I needed help TODAY. My girlfriend literally put me in the car and took me to Haven House. Right away I got the knowledge and understanding to know why I could have let this happen, and stayed in this emotionally abusive relationship. At Haven House they were specialists in their field, and as I did more and more study, I became more and more of a voice for them."
The actress is very open about her past problems, discussing them during speeches and with people in her acting seminars who share their own stories with her. Audience members at Shore Leave, particularly women who related to Gray's experiences, appeared to be moved and grateful that she offered her story so willingly. "It's something that I really care about and believe in," she said. The actress feels the same way about T'ai Chi: "Wherever I go, I'm the Johnny Appleseed of T'ai Chi, planting the seeds of awareness. That's another great thing about these conventions: I can share these concepts, and people are very interested and receptive."
Gray discovered T'ai Chi from James Garner's acupuncturist during a Rockford Files shoot. In addition to UCLA, she now teaches it at Haven House, Harbor Shelter - a transitional housing shelter - and the Theater of Hope for Abused Women. "T'ai Chi is an ancient healing art as well as a martial art, and I was more interested in the healing aspect," Gray explained the basic principles: "There are fourteen channels of energy in our bodies, and when these channels are blocked, we get sick. Our emotions affect our bodies, so if you're in anger or grief or fear, this is going to affect your organs."
The actress became interested in the concept of using T'ai Chi to balance herself at the end of the day. "I noticed as an actress that if you're onstage going from having a fight to crying, you're constantly bringing up false emotions, but your body is reacting as if they're true true. So the glands are screaming. I think that's why actors turn to drugs or alcohol, because you're a little messed up by the end of the day. And if you do this day after day over a long period of time, it can have a lot of damaging effects on the body."
Cynicism about the entertainment industry came early to Gray because she became famous at such a young age. The only child of a photographer mother, Gray began modeling as a teenager and was already established when she enrolled in UCLA as a math major. "My whole life was spent in front of the camera; that gave me a lot of confidence." She felt lost in the huge classes at the university and left during her freshman year, relocating to New York - where, ironically, she did not feel lost - to pursue commercials. There, she became one of the first Sports Illustrated swimsuit models and the Maxi Girl for Max Factor.
"I had a really negative look at the night-life side of Hollywood, which I really didn't like. I went to New York to focus on modeling, and then of course found that New York was not any different from Los Angeles," she laughed. "I ended up discovering an acting class through a friend, and continued studying and preparing when I made the transition back to Los Angeles. I was 28, thinking I was much too old to start a second career - a lot of people don't realize I had a full career as a model for thirteen years before I even went into acting."
She did a series in 1967 called Malibu You with Ricky Nelson, a musical variety show in which she played one of the teenyboppers on the beach "who did these really stupid one-line jokes in between the comedy acts, sort of the brunette Goldie Hawn kind of thing," but several years passed before her first movie role. The veteran of hundreds of commercials, named by Advertising Age as being one of the six top commercial actresses, Gray "figured that if I could be the ugly duckling in the Sears girdle commercial and the 'I'm Worth It' woman in L'Oreal and nobody seems to recognize me, I wasn't overexposed somehow, I could change looks and attitude and be different...maybe I should be an actress."
Now, she finds that her audience divides into Buck Rogers fans or Silver Spoons fans - "there are two sort of camps." Then there are the people who have followed her whole career, even the modeling. "If I'm in New York, it's 'Hey, Ms. Bloomingdale's!' because I did Bloomingdale's ads for ten years." Her favorite role was playing someone she knew personally, model and photographer Betsy Cameron, in the film Born Beautiful. "It was a rare opportunity to play a friend of mine - I felt a certain sense of responsibility to honor her feelings and her choices. She was very understanding, she told me not to worry. Her mom called and said, 'If anyone was going to play Betsy, I'm glad it's you.' That meant so much to me." Cameron created a couple of posters that outsold any other posters ever made, in addition to raising three children. Gray noted, "I've always been in awe of her...and the film was about the modeling world, which was a world I knew a lot about."
The mother of a 22-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter - one in college, the other in kindergarten - Gray particularly appreciates women who have found balance in their lives. "When I give speeches, part of what I talk about is finding time for your mind and your body and your spirit as well as for your family - I'm the kind of person who can't have just a career and not a family, and I can't have just a family and not a career, I need both of them to give my life meaning, but how do I find time?" The key, she said, is knowing when to let go: "You have to let go of guilt and not worry about letting other people down." This was her philosophy when she began to work on her book, co-written by her good friend Mara Purl. "Our motto was, 'Go with the flow.'" The two actresses wrote in between acting jobs and speaking engagements, and plan to turn some of their public speeches into another book.
"Writing was more of a baring of the soul than acting - I was very hesitant to write," admitted Gray. "My writing partner is very responsible. We started taking these long walks every morning, we were both going through divorces and crying on each other's shoulders, we would have ideas and go back and write, whenever we had free time. Then it suddenly had a math-like effect: I could add and take away. We slaved over it! We had the greatest time, though, we laughed so hard. It was a very interesting way to build a relationship."
Gray has been surprised at the interest in detail on some of the web pages devoted to her (she personally corrected the information one one of the largest) and is working on her own homepage at http://www.eringray.com. In addition to her professional acting, writing, and public speaking, Gray does a lot of volunteer work - for Haven House and other shelters, for drug and alcohol intervention programs, for kids. "Being there for someone else is what's really important - this is all glitter and glitz," she stressed. "A child, a family member...that's what really matters. That's what I want to tell people."