Interview: Chuck Wagner, Star of AUTOMAN

PrintE-mail Written by Robin Pierce

He was the world’s first truly automatic super hero. He started his life as a computer game, created by LAPD’s resident computer expert, Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jnr), but the program grew and grew - until it evolved into a hologram. A solid three dimensional image which could be summoned via computer.

He was a wonderful force for good, armed with a plethora of holographic gadgetry which would make even 007 jealous. His sidekick was a mischievous floating polyhedron named “Cursor”. He had the incredible autocar (a Lamborghini Countach), which could easily make ninety degree turns and could transform itself into the awesome autochopper or the wondrous autojet for longer range travelling, all of which defied the laws of physics, obeying the laws of computer games instead… He could scan his memory banks and dance like Travolta, play tennis like Jimmy Connors.

In fact, out of ten, he was, in his own words... an eleven.

He was Automan, the title character in the 1983 TV series now available to purchase on DVD.

In reality, the earnest crime fighter is actor Chuck Wagner, and we caught up with Chuck to discuss his time as the larger than life crime busting super hero. So without further ado, let’s summon the hero himself in the traditional manner...

“Calling Automan - Access Code: Crime Fighter”

Chuck Wagner, NY 2012

Starburst: How did you prepare for the role of Automan? Were you/are you a fan of the super hero genre?

Chuck Wagner: I had finished my collegiate training in Musical Theatre at USC in Los Angeles a couple of years before and had a run as Randall Thompson, General Hospital's 'computer lover' on that ABC soap opera when Automan came along. I've always been a super hero fan, and learned to draw by copying Superman and Spider-Man comics as a kid. I was also a fan of all things Disney and at 10 years old I learned the concept of Imagineering- 'If you can dream it you can achieve it'- from Walt Disney himself. I believe that my focus on super heroes as a child led to my being cast as Automan. It was the fulfillment of a great dream!

The casting call was a trip. I walked into a room full of godlike men, how I imagine Valhalla must be, and thought it was a long shot that I'd be cast, but I went in sincerely, played it honestly and simply and Glen Larson saw something he liked!

The Automan costume was an amazing and eye catching special effect, more so for its time. How difficult was it to work in that costume when effects needed to be added in post production?

The costume was actually quite comfortable, though the 4 inch heels they gave me were a bit awkward getting in and out of the Lamborghini!

The panels that look white in the unfinished shots were actually front projection screen material that was highly reflective. They filmed it with a beam splitter (a rig mounted on the camera that shot a bright light through a two way mirror set at 45 degrees, the light hit the mirror, then the costume and then bounced back through the mirror into the lens) making the panels much hotter than the ambient scene.

Then a negative was made from that film creating a travelling matte, then the star field pattern was added in a 3rd pass. It was a very complicated and expensive film based process, supervised by FX genius David Garber. Much of the Cursor effect was frame by frame animation, so we were a CGI concept rendered in pre-CGI fashion! Today it would be much easier with digital effects.

A rare look at the pre-FX Automan suit

The show was produced at a time when computers were by no means mainstream, your character for example, had to provide an explanation what a hologram was. Desi Arnaz's character had to explain what interfacing meant. How do you think it'll play to today's audience who are much more tech savvy?

It's still a fun piece of ‘80s Americana, and I hope new audiences take it in the spirit of love and fun that we intended. Just remember that personal PCs were brand new back then, and cell phones were huge!

(I was an 'electromagnetic hologram', long before the holodecks on Star Trek, and if you want to be really scientific about it, since no lasers were involved it's a bit of a misnomer. One that continues to be misused over and over in sci-fi shows!)

I did have a great sci-fi moment soon after we finished the series on the bridge of the Enterprise in the first season on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was visiting Brent Spiner (who had starred with me in The Three Musketeers on Broadway). Brent had been asked what influenced him as he prepared to play Data, and he had answered 'Chuck Wagner as Automan'. When told this on set Patrick Stewart in full Jean Luc Picard uniform looked me square in the eyes and said “quelle homage”! It was a very cool moment!

Although I imagine at the time it may have been just another acting job, how does it feel to you as a performer to suddenly have your early work available to a new generation? Did you think the appeal of Automan would reach this kind of cult status.

I'm thrilled that Automan still has a bit of spark left, and Desi, Heather and I are still the best of friends. We never anticipated cult status, but we still love the show. I think the show's good natured innocence keeps it fresh today.

The series concerned itself with routine criminal activity that didn't venture any further into sci-fi than the actual character of Automan and his creation. Had the series continued, in what direction do you think it would have gone? Would we have seen something like a recurring villain like an evil counterpart/computer virus?

Desi and I had high hopes that we could explore the inter- dimensional aspects and higher spiritual implications inherent in the concept, but alas it was not to be. TV in the ‘80s followed predictable formulas, and while many of us on the creative team strove to bring enlightening ideas to the job at the end of the day we were grateful that anything was made!

In our final episode, our Dirty Harry tribute, Automan started to get a bit darker, wanting to stop all crime everywhere. This might have been too serious for the fun we were having at the time.

Autocar

If they were to reimagine the series today - what would you like to see?

First off the effects would be so much easier with today's green screen technology, and the public awareness of what computers can do raises the stakes exponentially. It could be truly global in scope and virtually limitless in what we could do.

In the best of all worlds they could truly computer generate the Automan presence, and I could still provide the voice!

I do like the idea of the arch villian/virus... that seems a more plausible kryptonite than a simple lack of electricity!

Any memorable anecdotes from the set you'd like to share with Starburst readers?

We had some great co stars. Robert Lansing, our seasoned veteran Detective Jack Curtis, had once starred in an old sci-fi film The 4D Man, and I got a kick out of the fact that Automan was a 4D man too! He was the best. While we were shooting the pilot in Big Bear Lake in California we got to meet Danny Kaye - that is sort of unrelated, but he was one of my heroes!

Also it was a thrill to work with Patrick MacNee, John Steed in the pre Marvel Avengers/Avengers Assemble! I loved the episode with Laura Brannigan- she was quite a good kisser- and working with Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas was also an honour. My very first Auto-kiss was with Franz Nguyen, who the original Trekkers will remember as the Dohlman of Elas in the third season Star Trek episode titled Elaan of Troyus!

One of the things my wife really appreciated was the quantity of hours the show took to film, especially the pilot. On a few occasions Desi and I kept working through two different crew shifts, and our overtime was substantial. Some sequences when we merged were shot twice, once keeping me in the Autosuit, and then again in wardrobe that matched Desi's. That schizophrenic aspect was so much fun to do, and it was delightful to watch Desi loop his voice over mine in post. The camaraderie between us was and is one of the great blessings in my life.

Our trip to England to promote the show was also a great adventure, and there we saw the novelization of the show and the rare Auto-toy collection from Acamus toys. I was one of the first to be able to say, 'hey, I'm an Action Figure'!

This DVD collection from Fabulous Films gave us the great gift of getting together again in Boulder City Nevada at Desi's Historic Boulder Theatre. It was as if no time at all had passed, and it was so much fun. The bonus features on the set include interviews from that great trip.

Arnaz Jr, McNair and Wagner - 2012

What have you been working on since the series?

I've spent the last quarter century mostly in Broadway Musicals, in New York and touring the US and Canada. I've been privileged to star in some of the most successful musicals of our generation. I was in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, Javert in Les Miserables, The Beast in Disney's Beauty and The Beast, Van Helsing in Dracula, the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde and much more.

I taught History of the American Musical Theatre and directed several shows as Visiting Artist in Residence at the University of West Florida in Pensacola and I continue to teach Master-classes across the country. I'm currently touring again as the Captain of the S.S. American in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Cole Porter's classic Anything Goes and in conjunction with the tour we are teaching thousands of students the myriad elements involved in mounting a major Broadway show! In the show we are perpetually cruising to London.

I look forward to actually making the crossing again soon to visit all of my great friends there. Thirty years have passed since Automan first rezzed up and I still feel like a wide eyed kid new to this world. Thanks to you and your Starburst readers for all the love and support. The best is yet to come! For more information visit my website or find me on Facebook.

The Dream is Alive. May we all be wonderful forces for good.


Automan: The Complete Series is out now on DVD and is reviewed HERE.


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