by Alex von Thorn
At the Toronto Trek 15 convention in July, I had the opportunity to talk to Robert Trebor, better known to fans of Hercules as Salmoneus, the travelling trader who was always involved in a variety of money-making schemes, from the first Olympic Games to the first beauty pageant. Trebor appeared in more than 20 episodes of Hercules and a few episodes of Xena as well. I caught him just after his panel on Xena and Hercules on Friday evening.
One element lost in the process of transcribing this interview was the wonderful impressionistic manner Robert used in speaking. It was like being washed over with words. Another thing that can't be conveyed in print is the way Robert recounted a story. Whenever he quoted someone else, he spoke in a voice particular to that person. He possessed a great memory for visual and auditory detail. And throughout the convention, he was generous in giving his time and energy to fans.
I'm going to ask you about your book [Dear Salmoneus: The World's First Guide to Love and Money (2001)].
A wonderful, extremely valuable book that people need in order to improve their love life. Or at least it will give them the chuckles. Since my character was never killed, my conceit is that he was reincarnated forever. Therefore, he answers questions over the millennia, all the way from Greece and Hercules up to Donald Trump, Stanley Kubrick, Monica Lewinsky and Ken Starr.
What were some of your favourite ad-libs on
We didn't actually ad-lib that much. We rewrote some lines, but that was done during table reads, because ad-libbing would involve the director. It's very expensive to do television; you can't just stop the cameras while you think of something clever.
Okay, tell me about something you rewrote at the table.
Well, I guess there's a lot that comes to mind. The first time I meet Xena in "The Gauntlet" episode of Hercules, after she spared my life, she's going to give me some chicken to eat. I'm trying to impress her by saying, "You know, you really should use your left side: it's your best side." I added, "What is your titular—I mean, how do you like to be undressed—addressed?" This was as I'm looking at her chest. The original was "How do you like to be undressed-addressed?", but "What is your titular?" was mine. And also the song that I made up for her:
"Xena, coming to your town
That was an improvised song. People seemed to like it.
You worked with Renée O'Connor in the first TV-movie [Hercules and the Lost Kingdom] as Waylin and Deianeira, and you would have seen her a number of times since then. I want to know how she developed as an actor and as a person.
She was always terrific. She was a sensational actress from the very beginning. She had a persona of this feisty little kid sister, and she was always trying to make my character "Be a man!" She wasn't super-feminine; she was very aggressive. But she was fabulous, a wonderful actor to work with. In my first couple of episodes of Xena, she was still kind of feisty, aggressive. I wish I could have worked with her more when she was more womanly, when she came into her own, after she cut her hair. I think she is remarkable. She has a huge career ahead of her as an actress. I think she's expecting her firstborn. I know her husband Steve [Muir]; we went out to dinner a couple [of] times. I wish her the best.
Do you keep in touch at all?
It's very hard, especially now that she's going to be a mom. But Renée used to safari all over. I know her mom, Sanday, and I kept in touch with her for a while. They go all over the place. I think Renée is moving back to the country, although Steve is a New Zealand resident.
When I did the Son of Sam [in Out of the Darkness, 1985], Martin Sheen and I were very close during the period of time. It's very hard to stay in touch with actors.
I read that you did some interesting research when you did the role of the Son of Sam.
It's interesting because I changed some stuff in the original Son of Sam text as well. I did research about Berkowitz because he's a living character. There was a line where the detective says to Berkowitz, "So how'd you shoot these people—you just fired?" The original [answer] was, "Yeah, I just fired and ran." But I read Berkowitz's transcript and he actually said, "Well, I used a one-handed stance first and I was lousy; I kept missing everybody. Then when I used a two-handed shooter's stance, I was more accurate." I took that to the director and I said, "Which do you want me to say?" He looked at the lines the writer gave me and pointed to the research: "Say that, say that!"
So did you find anything like that for Salmoneus?
You can't really find anything like that because there's no factual research you can do. The writers originally made him very greedy and kind of lustful; that's not that far from me. I'm not nearly as greedy, but the lust thing works pretty good. And I'm not as materialistic. Salmoneus is very materialistic, so I acquired that for the character. I think I gave him more humanity and roundness, that he's not just after money and babes. In fact, he wants to incur Hercules's good opinion, and therefore Herc brings out the greater good in him. With Xena it's somewhat similar, although Xena is such a mixed character, evil and good. It was a flirtatious thing with her, although, you know, she'd kill me if I ever got close to her that way. But the arc for Salmoneus is to try to be a good person, but his essential mercantile instincts kept interfering with that. I never saw him as a thief. Autolycus was the thief. I never saw him as a con man either, although I could understand why other people could. He was just a very enthusiastic guy who didn't read the fine print and needed to make a living when he wasn't a farmer or fighter. He lived by his glib tongue.
I read that you were sensitive to portraying a stereotype.
There was a thing that was essentially about money-grubbing that I don't want to do. Both [producer] Eric [Gruendemann] and Kevin [Sorbo], for instance, said, "I don't want the Jewish stereotype," even though I'm obviously a polytheist. But he is what some people would consider a Jewish character; the energy and humour is Jewish. We were very serious about removing lines about "money-grubbing" or "totally greedy." I did want to play the character. The producers encouraged me to make it rounder.
I felt that one of the strengths of the Hercules and Xena series was the way they used mythological symbols to expand and redefine classical archetypes. The role of Salmoneus was written for you.
Right. Specifically, I was told by [co-producer] David Eick at that time, "There were just two characters at the beginning. If you want it, it's yours." I didn't audition for the role. If I had turned it down, it would have been because of another project that was going to interfere. But when I read the script I said, "This is a great character," although at the time it was just a two-episode guarantee. Then, because of my work or the popularity of the character, they wrote me into a third, then the Xena arc, and there were eight episodes in the next season, and then they gave me the show to direct.
Did you ever think of Salmoneus as more than a character—as, say, a new 21st-century archetype, a new template for other actors?
My! That's a very burdensome responsibility to put on my shoulders. No, I never think of any character as a stereotype or as an archetype. The job of an actor is to bring a person to life. And the most important thing to me is the human behaviour from whatever era or millennium you're playing, to make it living, breathing, and as full and as interesting and perverse and flawed and heroic as most people would like to be. That's my job as the actor. The audience can think "archetype" or "role model" or whatever. That's not my job, and if I start thinking like that, it actually screws up the work.
Okay, maybe that's my thing. I recently wrote an article about Xena, and one of the things I found most interesting was the Alti arc where the characters were being reincarnated in different roles across the ages. And in your book there's a focus on the reincarnation theme.
In a very humorous way, as you'll see when you actually buy three or four copies. But it's fine for you to think that way. The show is the audience's, you know; we've done the show, it's now out there, the audience can enjoy it or accept it for what it will. If we start thinking like that at the beginning, the character will get too caught up in the head, and it kills the impulse.
[The point Robert made about not thinking about the artistic import of his work when he was working was echoed that weekend by another convention guest, Andreas Katsulas. He told a story of a young man with a terminal illness who so enjoyed Babylon 5 and the stirring words of G'Kar that he went to his deathbed and died listening to the recorded speeches of G'Kar. Katsulas heard this story after the series had completed filming; he said that if he had heard that people were taking it so seriously during the filming of the series, he would have found the responsibility a terrible distraction.—AvT]
I have a quote here: "I don't want to make Hercules the end of [my] career, but it's still a nice showcase." The contact I used to track you down had only your home phone number...
Yeah, yeah; I don't have an agent. I am my own agent.
That works for you?
It works for me better than having a poor agent. I've had poor agents and poor managers, and I've had casting or producing friends who would say, "Why are you with this person? You're better than they are, and you're reduced to this. They're known for representing bit players." Unfortunately, the big agencies don't want anybody over 32 unless you're already a huge name, male or female. In the past I smugly thought, "Well, when a woman reached 40, that was it, but men are different." Bullshit. In Hollywood, it's a very ageist sort of thing, even for a character actor, even though I'm popular and I go to conventions and sign a lot of autographs and I think I'm a pretty talented guy, going back to the Son of Sam. I mean I have a wide range of material. A top-flight agent at this point does not want to sign with me, and I don't want to sign with a middle-level agent. So that leaves me to do the work on my own. It's not the best of all possible worlds.
Do you have any plans to appear in anything interesting in the near future?
Well, I sure hope so. There are a couple [of] projects—two that I've written. One is called My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, an original screenplay I wrote that I both want to act in and direct, once it gets financing. It's got some interest from both Oliver Stone's company and Blake Edwards' company. Unfortunately they want to buy it outright and give it to a "name" to star in. So for now I'm keeping it to myself. I'm willing to work for scale-plus-10[%]as an actor, but I wrote it for myself; I'm playing it for myself. And a one-man show called Diary of a Madman, updating Gogol's short story to modern-day Russia. I've been doing this for closed workshops in Beverly Hills. Look at what's happening in Russia now, where people who had good jobs now have to sell bad liquor or rotten fruit, with the Russian mafia and all that stuff. So I'm working on that.
There are two TV series which, if they're financed, I will be a regular [in]. One's called Tropical Storm, which is a modern-day kind of inspiration of Xena and Gabrielle. I'd be playing the character of Xena's boss. [Xena's] like the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street. She buys companies and dismantles them, and I try to help them. And a thing called Dragonsail, written by one of the frequent writers of storylines for Star Trek, Jimmy Diggs [DS9 and Voyager]; he wrote a part for me and he's trying to get it financed through some cable companies. In the meantime I'm still auditioning for things when people call me in. Those four things are personal projects that, once the money comes through, I'm in.
Have you ever thought about working on one of the Canadian shows?
I'd love to. There's a thing called "Canadian content." I know that you have a Canadian audience, and I love this country and I love Toronto. But unfortunately, as an American actor, I'm prohibited because of Canadian content tax rebate laws. For instance, my friend Kevin Sorbo does a show [Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda] which at the end says, "We'd like to thank the Government of Canada" in big bold letters, which means they get a huge tax rebate for not using American actors. So all the guest stars are Canadian. I was about to do a show with Martin Sheen's business partner, and the man said, "There's a part that's perfect for you. Unfortunately, we cannot cast you; we must cast a Canadian." So if there's any way you know to get around these Canadian content laws...
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