“They’d had their chance with the whole exploration thing with what they had tried previously and couldn’t make it work. When I came on I was determined to take it in another direction, starting with having nothing to do with that Dolphin. It was a superfluous character. I mean – he didn’t talk to fish…” –
– Michael Ironside, actor, seaQuest 2032
For audiences around the world, the name Michael Ironside often projects a very specific image – one of a dead-eyed, humourless tough guy/henchman, invariably with a low growl in his throat. The kind of venomous, relentless adversary that, when he meets his inevitable demise, its often gruesome and solicits cheers from the audience. And while this general perception may be valid, if you’re a fan of ‘cult’ movies and television, you’ll be more than aware that Ironside is in fact one of the most versatile and prolific actors of the last forty years, appearing in numerous action and sci-fi projects to this day.
I first became aware of Ironside not through performance, but from the shelves of the video rental shop, where the big-box (remember those?) VHS cover for ‘Scanners’ featuring what appeared to be a pulsating zombie disturbed my pre-teen self almost as much as John Carpenters ‘The Thing’ with its tagline ‘Man is the warmest place to hide’. Just like ‘The Thing’ It would be decades before I saw and fully appreciated David Cronenberg’s Influential picture and Ironside’s introduction as Daryl Revok.
In the meantime, Ironside was a face that would continue to pop-up all over. During the video age I was so taken with the villain ‘Overdog’ from the oft-overlooked ‘Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone’ that I would rewind the credits just to find the actor’s name. And not much later, as a huge fan of Sci-FI and already caught up in the TV event that was ‘V’ (a huge deal on UK TV in 1984) that when Ironside showed up as loveable rogue Ham Tyler, It felt like I was the only person who knew him as Overdog.
There may have been many projects in between (most notably and memorably as ‘Jester’ in Bruckheimer’s ‘Top Gun’ but for me, his best performance was in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, where, apparently still wearing Ham Tyler’s costume, he relentlessly (and often comedically) pursued Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hapless Douglas Quaid across Mars. His character Richter, a cold-blooded mercenary who mercilessly guns down anything in sight may have gotten the memorable ending he richly deserved, but its down to Ironside’s skill as an actor that when his girlfriend (Sharon Stone) is killed, there’s a moment of real empathy as his granite visage momentarily cracks.
And so by 1994, Ironside, always in demand and appearing in hugely popular series ‘ER’ was rumoured (alongside Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Jonathan Frakes) to be in the running to replace Roy Scheider as the Captain of sinking Submarine series seaQuest DSV for its third (and ultimately final) season. This wasn’t the first time I’d been upset Scheider had been replaced in a franchise, however. As a huge fan of his ever since JAWS I remember how crestfallen I was that for the upcoming series of my favourite film of the era, John Badham’s ‘Blue Thunder’ Gil Gerard (another hero of mine) was to take over the pilot’s seat. When James Farentino was eventually cast I watched of course, but it wasn’t the same. And now here we were with my beloved seaQuest, where, yes, like all other fans of the show I agreed it had gone way off course in its second season.
Unfortunately, while the fans had been campaigning for some time for a return to the original concept, Scheider had been rather more vocal and had branded the show ‘childish trash’ to the Orlando Sentinel, a quote that resounded across the world. With that, despite an apology, Scheider’s position was untenable and it was thought that the second season finale, ‘Splashdown’ would mark the series end . However, due to a failed pilot, NBC renewed seaQuest last minute with an 13 episode order and the show was rebranded seaQuest 2032 – with Ironside cast as new Captain Oliver Hudson.
With the series change in direction to ‘more traditional science fiction’ seaQuest 2032 inadvertently became the 90’s equivalent of other cult Universal Studios properties before it. Galactica 1980. ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century‘Season 2, ‘Airwolf’ season 4, where concept and cast revisions to combat falling ratings succeed only in alienating its audience and lead to inevitable cancellation. Through no fault of his own, and despite a solid performance seaQuest 2032 would not be picked up for the remainder of the season. To date it 2032 remains a divisive topic amongst fans. For anybody fond of the original concept its somewhat reviled, whereas some think had it been given opportunity (and better writers) the show would’ve gone on and on.
As a dedicated fan of the original Spielberg/Scheider/O’Bannon/Ballard premise, for me as a viewer first time round I confess that 2032 left me cold, and though I’d seen it all before, this time I just couldn’t accept Scheider’s replacement, especially after reading sometime later that he’d hoped to get past the controversy and continue on with the show for ‘at least a few more seasons’. That being said, with the show now on Blu-Ray I think 2032 holds up very well. And while it may be true that Ironside never once sits in the Captain’s chair in the show he never lost his standing as a vital addition to the cast.
So it was with all this in mind that decades later, when the rare opportunity of meeting Mr. Ironside became a possibility this year, I was very excited to take it. As a longtime attendee of London Film & Comic Con I hoped there would be a possibility to speak to him (however briefly) about his memories of the show. I always find it never hurts to represent, so I took the liberty of wearing a screen-used costume to the show. Armed with 10×8’s and other items from across the pond to be signed, I joined the queue and eagerly awaited my turn…
It may surprise you to learn Ironside is the antithesis of his screen persona – and while the voice may be recognisably gruff, the easygoing manner, welcoming eyes and above all, the time and care he invests in everyone he meets – asking their names and where they’ve come from along with quick observations about whichever item he’s being presented with (I noticed that the pile of stills from ‘Starship Troopers’ was getting very low). As any fan that has had the honour to meet him already knows, It turns out Mr. Ironside is a gentleman and a real class act. What follows is a transcript of our conversation. While short, it was enough to have the ever-growing queue cause for complaint but nonetheless had me spellbound –
MI (sees me approaching in the Seasuit) Oh wow, look at this…
ML Mr Ironside sir, its a real pleasure. (lays photos etc. on table) I’m afraid I’m going to keep you busy for a little while…
MI (looks at still of Captain Hudson) Oh boy. I remember the day this shot was taken…
ML At Universal Orlando, right?
MI Yeah…it was my first day…and I’d just had an argument with the producers about that damn Dolphin. I’d told them there was no way I was going to interact with it.
ML Oh really? Darwin?
MI Right. I’d come on with the understanding we were doing something different. They’d had their chance with the whole exploration thing with what they had tried previously and couldn’t make it work. When I came on I was determined to take it in another direction, starting with having nothing to do with that Dolphin. It was a superfluous character. I mean – he didn’t talk to fish…
ML Well, If you don’t mind me asking, as an actor what was it like replacing the lead in an established show? Did Roy Scheider express any regret to you about leaving?
MI Well, he’d trashed it! He’d gone on air and trashed it and they were trying to pick up the pieces and do something new.
ML Right, but he came back for a few episodes though? I thought the scenes with the two Captains pitted against each other were pretty electric.
MI He was under contract. He would…he would shoot just his scenes and go home. Usually in a two-shot both actors are there for reactions but he used to go back to his trailer. I said he’d better not do that with me and he stayed. Actually later he came by and told me he respected the fact I told him to stay around. He was a pro, but could be a bit of a knob. And that’s, that’s something I’d say to somebody’s face, I’d never say anything that I wouldn’t say to their face. But he didn’t want to be around. Probably off getting another facelift…(Laughs)
ML Well, I have something for you to commemorate your time on the show, just to say thanks from the fans as we thought you were awesome (presents plaque)
MI Oh wow. That’s amazing
ML There’s a guy from the US that found out you were coming here. He’s military himself so had this made for you
MI I appreciate it. I had a great time on that show. Shame it didn’t go on.
ML Thanks so much for your time!
MI (looks at uniform again) that’s so funny…I like your haircut.