BILL MUMY, SPACE CASE:
Will Robinson Becomes a Ranger
by Michelle Erica Green
Anyone who knows Bill Mumy from his two major television roles - boy wonder Will Robinson on Lost In Space and Minbari Ranger Lennier on Babylon 5 - may not suspect that he's a wild man. A child actor who has worked steadily in film and television since his extreme youth, the author of many comic books and co-creator of the television series Space Cases, he claims he'd rather be writing songs than anything. As half of the duo Barnes and Barnes, he recorded "FishHeads," reportedly the most requested song in the history of the Dr. Demento Show, which placed in Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Videos of All Time."
It's a little hard to reconcile serious, spiritual Lennier with the man who created the video "Party in My Pants," but they're both Mumy. "We're releasing our ninth album this year," the California native reported just before his stage appearance at the Shore Leave convention this month. "It's a 25-track 'Best Of' with three brand new songs that we just finished last week: really twisted, sick, in-your-face stuff. Barnes and Barnes is as alien from Bill Mumy as is Lennier; when Robert Haimer and I get together to be Barnes and Barnes, we are fearless and bold."
Mumy is between stints as a television star at the moment: Babylon 5 has wound down production, and he hasn't gotten word yet on whether or when he may appear on the sequel series, Crusade. Not that he's bored: he's juggled several projects of late, including a a new solo album in addition to work with his band The Jenerators, an appearance on The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, and an Aquaman comic with prominent author Peter David, his partner in writing Space Cases. He's also not the only member of his family working in show business: eight-year-old son Seth has appeared in three films. "My daughter [Liliana] is four years old, and she hasn't made a film yet, the slacker!" he joked.
Mumy said he was very happy playing Lennier - despite the prosthetics, which took a long time and hurt his ears - but emphasized that he's really not much like the character. "I tend to be a pretty impulsive, talk-too-much, high energy person, and Lennier was a very Zen-like, focused, serious, capable, loyal good guy - Lennier is indeed really different from me," he cackled. Early on in Babylon 5's run, one of the story editors who knew Mumy was a musician asked if he'd like Lennier to play an instrument. "I'm thinking, Spock with the harp? And I begged him NOT to do that. I really didn't want to bring Bill Mumy into Lennier. I feel that I can better myself from portraying him."
The character spent most of his life before Babylon 5 in a Minbari temple, and was shy and nervous when he arrived. Over the course of the series, he became a member of the War Council, an assistant ambassador, and the pilot first of a White Star and then with the Rangers. While his love for Delenn remained unrequited because of her bonding with Sheridan, he earned her respect and deepest trust. Mumy said creator J. Michael Straczynski has been receptive to his input, "maybe because I write, maybe because I dig the show so much," and confessed that it was his own idea to have Lennier be in love with Delenn: "I've been playing it that way since early in season two."
The actor hopes to see the development continue. "I'm optimistic that Babylon 5 will be able to make a feature film - Joe Straczynski swears we will, and it's been his tenaciousness that I believe has kept the show going for the whole five seasons, so if he says he can do it, I don't doubt him. He has plans to do a film of the great telepath war; Joe has said that all of the original cast would be in that feature film."
Babylon 5 has impacted most aspects of Mumy's life, from convention invitations to the title of his solo album "Lost In Babylon," and even the events of an episode of Space Cases in which the kids on the show find a bear floating in space. "It was Peter [David]'s idea. Peter had written this episode, 'There All the Honor Lies,'" his frequent collaborator admitted, explaining that David's wife had sent J. Michael Straczynski a stuffed bear as a gift, and since Straczynski "hates anything cute with a passion" (unlike Mumy, who collects Beanie Babies with his children), the executive producer added a scene to a Babylon 5 script in which that very bear was jettisoned out into the vacuum of space. "It was Joe saying, ptttttht the bear. So when we were given Space Cases to outline, how could Peter not want to parry the thrust? We wrote in a scene where this bear is found floating in space, the same damn bear, and one of the characters says, 'What kind of a dope would throw a perfectly good bear into outer space?'"
David, who added that the bear was found in a section of space where a group of saboteurs known as the "Straczyn" had been spotted, laughed at reports that the incident had caused a rift between either himself or Mumy and Straczynski, though the two did carry on a "Teddy Bear War" at conventions in which Straczynski sent David a singing bear telegram, then David set up a retaliatory gag involving stuffed bears. Mumy made jokes to David about tribbles and kidded that in most things, David Gerrold was Peter David's inspiration. The actor added he has always wanted to be on Star Trek, but he had to give up an opportunity to do so this season when his shooting schedule on Babylon 5 prevented him from taking producer Ira Behr up on his offer to appear in an episode of Deep Space Nine.
"My only venture into the world of Trek was writing three episodes of the Star Trek comic book with Peter, back in the late '80s, where we attempted to sort of meld Lost in Space with Star Trek to appease a lot of fans who had been wanting to see that," Mumy said. "Hopefully I'll do an episode this year, that would be fun." Peter David (whom Mumy named as the only person to whom he has ever written fan mail) kidded that Mumy could be the host of the Dax Trill, but Mumy rejected the idea when it was pointed out that that might mean he would be married to Worf.
Mumy said that he and David wrote 18 of the 26 episodes of Space Cases that aired on Nickelodeon "and kind of outlined and fixed the rest." They have written short stories together and edited the Pocket Books anthology Shock Rock. Their upcoming story in DC's Legends Annual features illustrations by famed artist Steve Ditko, and they have proposals for a feature film, a television series, and comic book projects in development. "So we could be taking over the industry soon," he laughed.
In addition to Star Trek, Mumy would very much like to appear on The X-Files, of which he is unabashedly a fan: "I don't watch a lot of TV, I watch Lakers games and The Simpsons which is my all-time favorite television show, and I love The X-Files - not that I'm going to stalk Gillian Anderson or anything. I think The X-Files is beautifully filmed, the cinematography is great, I love the chemistry between the actors. And I buy into that whole 'Yes, there's been extraterrestrials here for a long time and yes the government isn't being honest with us.' I personally subscribe to that philosophy, so I think it's great to see that intelligently portrayed on television."
That admission is certain to make Mumy extremely popular among a certain segment of fandom, but then again, the star of Lost in Space and three episodes of The Twilight Zone is already celebrated among them. "Did you call Anthony a brat? You're a bad man!" he glowered at a con fan who mentioned "It's a Good Life," his second episode of what he describes as "the single best television drama sci-fi/fantasy series that has ever been made." In his third Twilight Zone episode, 'In Praise of Pip,' Mumy played the ghost of an eighteen-year-old American soldier who was dying in Vietnam. "To my knowledge, that is the first national television show that dealt with the subject of American casualties in Vietnam - Rod Serling was certainly not afraid to tackle controversial issues of the day."
When Serling's widow called personally to ask Mumy to be part of the alumni for the Twilight Zone feature film, he was happy to oblige, but he wasn't as impressed with the offer of a cameo in the recent Lost in Space movie. "I was approached to do the same size of a role as Marta Kristen and Angela Cartwright did, and I didn't want to do that," he said, noting that if someone had given him $85 million to do a Lost in Space movie, "I would have made a better one." He had written a Lost in Space comic series for Innovation which explained the fate of the Robinsons, but the company "went out of business and disappeared," leaving the final issues unprinted. Mumy said he doesn't care about getting paid, but he really wants the end of the story to make it into print.
The actor stated a preference for the earlier black and white episodes of Lost in Space, though he said that his son prefers the color episodes which he terms "really goofy." When he was filming, Mumy wanted the show to be more science fiction and less campy - "it was the robot, Dr. Smith, and Will Robinson as the Three Stooges" - but now he is able to laugh at them. "I liked it when Guy Williams had a lot to do because he was my hero, he had played Zorro before he was on Lost in Space." Mumy had broken his leg when he was four years old and was confined to the house watching TV, "watching Guy Williams as Zorro and George Reeves as Superman, which made me want to become an actor."
"I think my favorite Lost in Space episode was called 'Return To Earth,' where Will Robinson goes back and gets some carbon tetrachloride to fix the fluid purification system," the actor recalled. "He really did go back to Earth, and he effected enough of a change that if he hadn't been able to go back, they would have died. I loved being Will Robinson. I never had a bad day going to work on that show - here I got the opportunity to be a little superhero. Will really was the guy who saved everybody's butt week after week, he used laser guns to shoot the giant monsters with, and he was controlling the robot and flying the ship. What little boy wouldn't love the opportunity to be Will Robinson? I was grateful for the opportunity to be that."
The end of the series left the entire cast confounded; Mumy said he has always regretted the lack of closure. "We did 84 episodes, three seasons, and were told we were coming back for the fourth season so no one said goodbye. Then it got cancelled due to budget reasons, and we never really closed the door on that project. I was ten when we made the pilot, and fourteen when we went off the air, those were very formative ages - I think I carried it with me more than the others did." In addition to having written a comic book detailing a possible ending for the series, Mumy wrote a movie of the week in 1979 "that almost got made but didn't."
Kevin Burns and Mumy are producing an hour-long Lost in Space special for New Line Pictures and 20th Century Fox which will be syndicated by the end of this year. "It's a look at the history of the show and the movie - mostly a clip show, but hopefully it's going to have some in-character performances by at least Jonathan Harris and myself as Dr. Smith and Will Robinson." Mumy joked that he knows a lot of people worry about the Robinsons' fate, but "my biggest concern is that we don't get residuals." In addition to Harris, Mumy stays in touch with Angela Cartwright, to whom he was engaged to be married in the '70s. "I spent seven or eight years with Angela nonstop, we were best friends on the show, and then we were romantically involved, we were each other's first true love." Their families are friendly now, though Cartwright has largely given up acting to raise her family and run her store.
Burns also produced The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, which Mumy said he knew "was going to be a top-notch, high quality production." The episode of Space Cases on which he appeared also featured Mark Hamill, whom Mumy described as a close friend, "so doing that little Liverpudlian Alien thing together was indeed a joy - we had wanted to work together for a long time." Some of his favorite recent work has been voiceover: he did several installments of A&E's Biography, and hosted thirteen episodes of Inside Space for the Sci-Fi Channel.
Mumy "would love to be just one of the guys on a half-hour sitcom," as a break from science fiction, but also hasn't minded the stretches of his career where music rather than acting took the fore. "After Papillon, I didn't work much because I was out on the road or writing songs for other people, really concentrating on my music. I had other creative avenues open to me - if I had only just been an actor, I might have quit, because you have periods where nothing is happening. A lot of child actors are on one television series for two years or five years, and when that series is over, they don't get work anymore. When it comes to being true actors, look at Jodie Foster, look at Kurt Russell. Look at Roddie McDowell. These are really talented actors and you see it whether they're seven or seventeen or fifty-seven. But there are a lot of other actors who are just lucky enough to get a series and skate through it for awhile, but when that's over, they get all depressed."
Barnes and Barnes, formed in 1970, put out eight albums on Rhino and CBS records, featuring Weird Al Yankovic, Devo, Rosemary Clooney, and others. "Bill Paxton starred in our first four videos and directed 'FishHeads' with us, and Miguel Ferrer is in those videos, and Teri Hatcher - none of them had careers at all, so the trick is, work with Barnes and Barnes, you'll go on to be a god while we languish in suburban obscurity," laughed Mumy. "Teri Hatcher was working at a dance studio that my wife was teaching exercise classes at, and we were doing this 'Party in My Pants' video. It was one of the first things she ever did and I'm sure that if she knew I was sitting here talking about it, she would call her lawyers and say, 'Get that off of the market!'"
Mumy cites mostly folk music influences: "the Kingston Trio and early Bob Dylan, Lovin' Spoonful and the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Taylor, that kind of stuff. I really like bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Pretenders, guitar-oriented rock-and-roll that has something to say. Not to say I don't appreciate a good funk group or a good funk lyric, but I don't tend to write that stuff myself in terms of the Barnes and Barnes catalogue - we were influenced by DC comic books and the Three Stooges, and of course things like the Rutles and Spinal Tap." He has been writing music for and performing with the band America, including several songs on their most recent LP, "Hourglass."
Mumy is appreciative of his fans, up to a point. "I'm working for a producer. I'm letting a director direct me, I'm not working for the fans - I'm working to support my family, and luckily I'm working in arenas that I choose. I know how fortunate I am to do that, but I don't owe any more of myself because I'm an actor than the guy who drives a cab. Nobody ever goes, 'Gee, this was the best cab ride I ever had! Can I have your autograph? Will you write me back because I really love this cab ride and I want to be your best friend?' I'm happy to talk to the fans and shake their hands and all that, but it doesn't have to go beyond that experience to me."
Conventions have treated him well, given his large number of genre series and his sympathy with the ideas and ideals of science fiction enthusiasts. No doubt about it: Mumy seems to have been destined for Space Cases, one way or another.