Sci-fi star still inspires her fans

Erin Gray

Erin Gray

Erin Gray when she appeared in Buck Rogers

Erin Gray when she appeared in Buck Rogers

American screen beauty Erin Gray says she had to be convinced to attend her first popular culture convention.

'‘I kept saying, ‘oh no ones going to remember Buck Rogers, that was ten years ago, please, no way’, and these people looked at me like I was crazy. I was like, ‘trust me, they’re not going to remember’.

‘‘Then when I went to my first event and I saw the line around the building and I said to the promoter, ‘gee this is all really exciting, who’s that line for’ and he went, ‘well, you’, and I went, ‘what? No!’. It was just a chilling moment. And then to sit there with one story after another. I’ve done it for a while now and I’m always amazed.’’

Gray is one of the stars who will make their way down under for the annual Supanova Pop Culture Expo, to be held at Sydney Showgrounds [Olympic Park] on June 13, 14 and 15.

She will be joined a host of stars from the big and small screens, including George Lazenby and Richard ‘‘Jaws’’ Kiel of Bond fame, Jon Heder [Napoleon Dynamite] and Rose McGowan [Charmed] as well as personalities from the world of animation, including Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, on his final Australian visit.

Gray, a former model, rose to fame in the late 70s/early 80s assuming the role of Colonel Wilma Deering in the film and television series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and later as mum Kate Summers in the award-winning sitcom Silver Spoons, alongside a young Ricky Schroder.

As Colonel Deering, Gray portrayed one of the first strong female leads in the sci-fi world. She said the character had served as an inspiration for many women.

‘‘I was just at an event at Washington DC where I had so many military staff members come up to me saying that I was with them in Iraq or Afghanistan or any multiple wars because Buck Rogers is a favourite among the bases,’’ she said.

‘‘Sometimes they are limited with what they can view, but it [Buck Rogers] seems to be timeless in many ways and they always seem to enjoy it.

‘‘And also, just at this last event, this woman came up to me and she’s a major in the marines and she flies jets and she’s about to be one of the few Lieutenant Colonels coming up in the next year or two. She kept saying over and over again that the reason she is there in that division is because of my character. Knowing that I inspired this woman to go after her dreams and to even think that it’s possible for a woman to be a high ranking officer in the air force or the marines is like, ‘wow, aren’t I a lucky girl’. It’s not something I had planned but I feel very blessed to be on the receiving end.’’

For Gray, who has now attended many fan conventions and actually runs an agency [Heroes For Hire] which provides celebrities to the events, the appearances offer just as much excitement for the performers as it does the fans.

''I feel blessed,'' she said. ''Just making a movie ... as actors/artists we always search for making magic and when we find that magic and when we're in that magic it's what makes us all want to be actors. When we've felt this, we get bitten by it. It's so cool this energy that we're feeling and we know we're making something that is going to touch people, and then to feel the reaction to it 10, 20, 30 years later .. oh my goodness. How lucky can you get?''

Gray said that it wasn't until after shooting Buck Rogers that she realised the popularity of the show.

''I was kind of blind to first of all the comic book Buck Rogers - I knew of it, but not intimately - and I think at the time, from our point of view, we spent two years sort of locked in a cavern. We would rarely go outside - there was rarely an outside shoot - so we'd go to work before the sun rose and left after the sun had set and we were just in the grind of producing material.

''I did not really know the success of the show. I was delighted to see it in repeat, but it wasn't until I went to a convention - my first one - in the early 90s that I really felt the success of the show.

''I had fan mail, but I thought, 'every actor gets fan mail so I'm not really special one way or the other'.''

Truth was of course, that in the course of the series, Gray and her costars, including Gil Gerard who played the lead role, had become household names in not only America but internationally.

For Gray, the long days on the Buck Rogers set were made somewhat trickier to manage due to the extreme form-fitting costumes she was forced to endure.

''It was like wearing a girdle from head to toe,'' she said. ''I recommend people going on line and taking a look at Red Skelton's fine performance of a woman getting into a girdle and you'll have a fine sense of what I endured every day. And consequently you'll notice I rarely sat. I rarely moved certain ways because it was too tight and I rarely drank water throughout the day because I didn't want to take it off to go to the bathroom. I tried to limit how many times I got in and out of it each day.

''I know it looked great, but you have to understand the spandex in those days didn't have much expand in it. They hadn't perfected the fabric yet. It was the first of its kind and so it wasn't the most comfortable.''

While Gray looks back on the costuming discomfort with a smile, one not-so-pleasant memory of life on the Buck Rogers set was being forced to spend so much time away from her newborn son.

''I was starting to feel that I hadn't made a good decision as a mother and that I really needed to be with my child in those formative years and so that was pulling at me a lot,'' she said. ''I'd rush home at lunch for an hour and when ever possible, but it just wasn't satisfying enough.''

Luckily for Gray, her next gig, on Silver Spoons, was a lot more family oriented.

''Doing Silver Spoons was a blessing,'' she said. ''Because Ricky [Schroder] was in school, he didn't get to the set until about 2 in the afternoon, which meant there was no reason for having the adults come in until at least noon. So I had the mornings off to take my son to school and do my grocery shopping and my aerobics class and whatever I wanted to do personally, go in to work at noon, work with Joel [screen husband Joel Higgins] for a couple of hours, then Ricky would come in and we'd rehearse for an hour or two and then I was back picking up my son from school and making little league games and having a normal life. That part of it was fabulous.''

Gray described the Silver Spoon years as carrying some of her finest memories.

''I was working with a great cast, a wonderful cast that on the first day I loved and still did on the last day when we finished the series,'' she said. ''We worked well together. They had a great attitude.''

Gray said she also got a thrill out of performing in front of a live audience.

''After you've done all this work all week, blocking it and rehearsing it, and then to have this audience come in and come alive and laugh, you go 'wow', that's instant gratification,'' she said. ''I didn't have that on Buck Rogers - I didn't find out until 10 years later - but with Silver Spoons, Friday night came and it was there. It wasn't Shakespeare, but I felt that it was a good family show with good family values that everyone could enjoy.''

Throughout her career, Gray has appeared in more than 50 television movies, has served as a guest on shows including Magnum PI, Hunter, Baywatch, Murder She Wrote and Starman, and in the last decade has starred in a dozen indie films.

In 2012 she appeared in Dreams Awake, which won two awards at that years Houston Film Festival.

Aside from Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons, one other role Gray expects Sydney convention goers to want to discuss is her part in the Friday the 13th horror film franchise.

Gray assumed the role of Diana Kimble, the half-sister of madman killer Jason Voorhees in Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday.

''There's definitely different fan groups ... you have your sci-fi fans, your pop culture fans and then you have your hardcore horror fans,'' Gray said. ''They love their horror films and everything about it. I laugh, because I am not a horror fan. I find life stressful enough; I don't need to be scared out of my wits about something. My family make fun of me because I'll start screaming before anybody else in the audience.

''It was interesting when I received a call from Sean Cunningham [the film's producer] when he wanted me to do it because I kept turning the part down. Why would I want to be in a horror film when I don't go to see them? But Sean was very smart. He said, 'Erin this isn't a horror film, it's a black comedy' and I went, 'excuse me', and he went, 'trust me on this, you're going to go and see the screening, no one's going to be scared, it's going to be a big party, everyone's going to be yelling at the screen - it's behind the door dummy - and they'll be in on all the in-jokes that are in the film'. He kept begging, and of course actresses love it when directors or producers beg, so I finally acquiesced and went, 'okay'.

''I never thought I'd be in one but it has turned out kind of funny to have fans come up and say, 'oh you got killed off too soon'. I must say, I did enjoy going to lunch with a knife hanging out of my back.''

While acting is still very much a passion, Gray says her role in the business and her own public engagements keep her busy.

''I'm really enjoying running my company and representing a fabulous group of artists,'' she said. ''It is interesting for me to wear a business hat after being a model and an artist and I am really enjoying doing what I'm doing now.''

Gray said that the convention scene had certainly exploded in recent years.

''It is absolutely growing ... it is expanding more than I could have imagined,'' she said. ''Over the last decade it has gone to another level.

''Before, a lot of the shows and conventions were pretty much what I would call mum and pop local shows, held in a school auditorium or a small convention centre, either run by fans or someone who is a vendor and might have a comic book store, and it was real grass-roots and a lot more personable. Now you're starting to see large corporations coming in and looking at this platform and expanding on it and I don't know quite where it's going to go but I do see great potential as an entertainment on wheels, sort of like a roadshow you might say.

''Wizard, for example is up to 25 shows across the United States. Every major city across the United States is going to have a Wizard show where people can go out and meet their favourite artist. Mum, dad and the kids can spend the day looking at the new toys; dad can buy that fabulous Transformer that he had when he was a kid; mum can see her favourite male star from a series; and mum and dad can introduce the kids to that girl they dreamed off when they were young.

''It's great. Sharing memories, sharing stories, inspirational moments ... either receiving them or being able to provide them.''

For more information on Supanova, including a full list of guests and events, visit the official site here.

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