JAMES DARREN, SINGING HOLOGRAM:
The Time Tunnel Takes Him Back To Vegas
by Michelle Erica Green
James Darren's singing career has thrived since he became a hollow man. A successful movie star, television director, and Vegas crooner, Darren was rediscovered by Deep Space Nine executive producer Ira Steven Behr, who turned him into holographic lounge singer Vic Fontaine.
Since his first appearance in the episode "His Way," Darren has performed on numerous television episodes, played Atlantic City, and released a CD of standards sung by his character on the series. At the Farpoint convention in Maryland this October, he sang for the audience and signed copies of new CD This One's From the Heart, as well as copies of The Time Tunnel and the Gidget movies in which he starred.
An unpretentious, witty performer who exudes charm and sex appeal in his sixties, Darren exclaimed, "I'm getting a lot of exposure since I became Vic Fontaine, it's incredible! I'm on Fifth Avenue in New York City, I hear, 'Hey, Vic!' and I actually turn around and wave! Am I an idiot or what? But I'm so happy I did that part. It's changed my life so much. I never expected to sing ever again in my life."
I'll Be Seeing You
The character of Vic, a holographic singer-storyteller created by Dr. Bashir who brought Odo and Kira together, was originally intended only to appear once. Executive producer Behr - who originally approached Frank Sinatra Jr. about the part - spotted Darren at the first autograph signing the singer had even attended, and realized he would be perfect for the character. Initially reluctant to play a singer "because it was so on the nose - 'Let's cast Jimmy Darren as a singer'" - the former Rat Pack buddy turned down the job three times.
"Finally my agent said, 'Would you at least give them the courtesy of reading the script?'" recalled Darren, laughing. "The moment I read it, I knew I had to do Vic Fontaine. It was just so wonderfully written." In the course of the episode "His Way," Vic counseled Odo and befriended Kira, in addition to singing alone and with a holographic representation of Kira (played by Nana Visitor, herself a singer starring in the musical Chicago now that the series has wrapped).
Darren was called in for a meeting and asked to read for the part. But the actor hates cold readings, so during the course of the initial conversation with the production staff, he kept throwing in lines from the script. "They'd look at me and go, 'That's a line from the script, isn't it?' I'd say, 'Gee, I have no idea,' and we'd talk and I'd throw in another line. Finally they caught on, and I didn't have to read, and I got the part - I was so thrilled!"
Behr insisted on authenticity for the Vegas sets and approached Darren about the costumes. "He said to me, 'Where did you really have your tuxedos made in 1959?' I had them made at Sy Devor's. He made my tuxedos, he made Sinatra's, he made Sammy Davis Jr.'s, Dean Martin's, Jerry Lewis'.'" Behr decided that Vic Fontaine would have his tuxedo made there, too. When they went to see Leonard, Sy Devor's nephew who now runs the business, "They still had my pattern! I said, 'I bet those lapels were two and a quarter inches - I used to say when they made my suits, those lapels better not be more than two and a quarter inches." And they were.
Darren went to the place where he had his shirts made in the 1960s - they, too, still had his pattern - then dug out the bow tie and hankie he wore when he worked the Sands Hotel in 1966. "I took those things home from the set every night!" The final piece of clothing had personal meaning for Darren as well as Vic Fontaine. "Twenty-five years ago, there was a man in Los Angeles who made everybody's shoes in the business. I walked in there one day and he said to me, 'I have a pair of shoes that I made for Dean Martin, and he no like. You think you like to have them?' They were terrible-looking shoes! But I said, 'They're beautiful' - I wasn't about to pass up Dean Martin's shoes! I've had them all this time, and I wore them in every episode of DS9."
It's Only A Paper Moon
Thus attired, Vic Fontaine appeared onstage in Quark's holosuite and became an instant hit with fans in both the 20th and 23rd centuries. "Ira was a little concerned because he thought that the fans would not really accept Vic. It was such a departure to have this hologram from Vegas on this space station," admitted Darren. "Once Vic was accepted and the reaction was good, then they all became brave."
Vic returned in the sixth season finale "Tears of the Prophets," then starred in two episodes in which he was the central character - the gangster story "Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang" and the veteran's story "It's Only A Paper Moon." In the latter, battle-scarred Nog immerses himself in a fictional life on the holodeck; Vic finally must turn himself off so that the young Ferengi will return to the real world. In gratitude for his tough love, the crew of the station arranges for Vic's program to be altered so that rather like Voyager's Doctor, he can remain "on" indefinitely.
It is extremely rare for a Star Trek episode to feature a guest star so prominently, and Darren was duly honored. "Ira was very concerned about that, with Aron Eisenberg [who plays Nog] and myself. But he's a wonderful actor, that kid! He is so good!" Darren had hoped to get one more episode, because "they promised me that I would have a girl, a love interest, and it wasn't going to be a hologram. I was going to have real contact!" Unfortunately that never happened...but maybe Vic can be Captain Janeway's next holo-lover.
When he sang "The Way You Look Tonight" in "What You Leave Behind," the direction called for Darren to greet the command crew at the bar in the holographic lounge. "When I moved down, Nana was to my right. When we were filming and I sang, 'And that laugh that wrinkles your nose...' she started to cry. And then I started to cry. And they cut, and we did it again, and she started to cry again. She said, 'I'm a big help, aren't I?' That was a very tough thing for me to do, and I guess for everybody in that group."
Filming the series finale was as difficult for Darren as it was for the rest of the troupe, who had worked together for many years. "The crew was my biggest audience. That was one of the things that encouraged me to come out and start singing again. I don't say this because it's something to say, I say it because I really mean it: they are the most wonderful group of people, they're just incredible people." Darren stopped to wipe his eyes. "There wasn't one person who was a bad apple. Everybody loved one another, and I really had a great time."
Told that Nicole DeBoer had gotten engaged, Darren howled, "She's getting married? Boy, that ticks me off. Could you get me a weekend with her before the wedding? I think Nicole is so cute!" He also praised Avery Brooks, with whom he sang a duet on the show. "Avery has a wonderful voice. He's so talented, that guy, he's a wonderful actor, he's a wonderful director, he's an incredible piano player, he plays the greatest jazz, and he's a wonderful singer." He's a teacher, too. "I knew there was one thing about him I didn't like! But he's a terrific guy."
Asked why he liked Vic Fontaine, Darren replied, "So many reasons. The words were so easy for me to say. Ira Behr and Hans Beimler captured exactly, precisely what was said and how it was said in those days. It was pretty amazing." Of course a lot of Vic came from Darren, but he embellished with attributes from his friends. "I used some of Dean and Frank's mannerisms and speech patterns, not so much in my singing, but in my speech. When I was talking to Odo at the bar in 'His Way,' I took a little bit of Dean. 'Hiya, Pallie' is something Dean used to say all the time."
Darren and his wife are godparents to Frank Sinatra's first grandchild, Nancy Sinatra's daughter. "When we baptized her, Deano said, 'Hey, Pallie, I want to make you a drink.' He had the bartender make me a drink and he said, 'How do you like that, Pallie?' I was on my butt! He had three of them! What a great guy he was."
The actor said he believed Martin could have drunk Worf and General Martok under the table. "I used to fly to Las Vegas just about every weekend Frank was playing, we'd see the show, and then after we'd go down to the Sands lounge and we'd all get plastered, Dean and Sammy and Frank and Peter Lawford. The Rat Pack was there every night and we were with them. It was the greatest time."
Born in Philadelphia, Darren moved to New York City to study acting with Stella Adler and was discovered when he went to have photos taken - not through the photos, but when photographer Maurice Seymour's secretary introduced him to Joyce Selznick, who got Darren a contract at Columbia Pictures. "I've been working, thank god, ever since." Well-known outside genre entertainment for the Gidget movies, the actor was enormously successful in Vegas, playing the Sahara for many years with Buddy Hackett, though he says "the Sands and the Desert Inn for me were the perfect hotels."
Darren laughed that he used to get mistaken for singer Bobby Darren because James did the Gidget movies with Sandra Dee and Bobby married Sandra Dee. "There was such confusion that he started calling us Lipschitz and Lipschitz, because they didn't know Darren from Darren. One fan recalled that in an episode of Raven - a series which James Darren directed - Gidget Goes Hawaiian appeared on the television and two thugs got into an argument about whether it was James or Bobby Darren in the film.
The actor also starred on Time Tunnel, a short-lived but fondly remembered science fiction series from 1966. "We were just going to travel around forever!" he joked of his character Tony Newman. "What happened was, we had done about 34 episodes, then we got the news that we were picked up. I was so excited," Darren recalled. "But then the head of ABC was fired the next day. The guy who took his place brought in a whole new regime. Even when Irwin Allen knew that the show was not going to go on, he did not make anything final with Tony and Doug, so we're still out there somewhere. They talk about doing a movie of Time Tunnel and I wish they would, because with the technology today, it would be incredible."
Irwin Allen had planned to do another show starring Darren, The Man From the 25th Century. "It was kind of like the bionic man - he was like a James Bond bionic man who didn't know where the hell he was going. Irwin's concept was that this guy was very stoic, almost mechanical, and he was from the 25th century so he had powers the people from the century he was living in did not have. Unfortunately the show did not sell. I could have bought a new car and everything!"
After making his directorial debut on T.J. Hooker in the 1980s, Darren started to direct regularly, going on to do Stingray and Hunter. "It was nice, because when you're behind the camera, you don't have to worry about the way you look - you don't have to shave. There are two things I hate in life, and they're both shaving," he joked.
He also got to work on T.J. Hooker with Heather Locklear, who would figure again in his career when Darren both starred on and directed Melrose Place. "Aaron Spelling said, 'Who do you want to be your partner?' I said, 'Are you kidding? Heather Locklear! Certainly not Bill Shatner! I love him, but I don't want to be in a car with him all day!' Bill is terrific, he's a wonderful guy, he's a good friend."
Invited to appear on the last five episodes of Melrose Place, Darren played creepy slimeball Tony Marlin. "He was so mean to Heather, every time I finished a scene with Heather I apologized to her. And I had a bed scene with Jamie Luner, who I had directed in Savannah! She's 24 years old! I worked out like hell! I lost 15 pounds! I've got nothing left here anymore."
Darren proudly showed off his posterior to the convention audience, adding, "My friends said to me, 'Are you crazy? You're dieting, you're lifting weights, you're going to kill yourself, and for what, a nude scene with a 24-year-old?' I said, 'Can you think of a better reason?' I looked forward to getting undressed and going to work! I'm real shy, so I had a pair of boxer shorts on, but she has to look like she's nude, so she only had little pasties on. It was a tough job." Big grin. "Just little pasties!"
However, Darren had to withstand the wrath of his mother when she learned of the role. "My mom said, 'Are you kidding? You're going to do a NUDE scene?' I said, I'm not really nude, Mom!.' 'But they don't know that!' I come from a very strict, prudish Catholic family." Over the course of the convention, Darren repeatedly invoked his mother as his biggest fan, and made jokes about his wife of nearly 40 years, with whom he has two sons.
The Best Is Yet To Come
After many years away from singing, Vic Fontaine has reopened that aspect of Darren's career. "Ira Behr, whom I love dearly, who is responsible for whatever success I enjoy now as a singer, told me, 'You have to start singing again.'" Darren agreed to perform in Atlantic City, spending many weeks getting his vocal chords back into shape. "I would rehearse every day at least four or five hours a day. It's a little too much, but I was so anxious to do it." Though he was able to hit a high A at one time, he can't nowadays "unless there's a bull chasing me. But my lower register is better now, that's what happens with age."
Noting that he prefers working before a live audience, Darren admitted that he never thought he would love working in nightclubs but is inspired by the feedback. "It's very interesting...I was trained in film, my first job as an actor was in motion pictures, but I love to work in nightclubs now. I love the people. When you work on a stage, you get vibes from the audience and it just encourages you to be better than what you are."
The new CD grew out of the work he did for Deep Space Nine; all the songs he performed on television are on This One's From the Heart. While he was given the option of turning down any songs he didn't want to sing, Darren said 99% of the songs were chosen by Ira Behr. "They're all the songs that people love. He's so in tune - he's a young guy, but he knows that era like you can't believe, and he loves that music." Information about the music and about Darren's appearances can be found on his web site, http://www.jdarren.com.
And Vic just might come back to television, one way or another. When a fan suggested that Vic Fontaine should have his own television show, Darren confessed to being in talks about a potential series pilot. "It's not going to be sci-fi, it's going to be shot in Hawaii, and he wants to have Vic's Place. So I may be doing a series for CBS come January."