Do not mistake the Enterprise’s progressive mission for equality: There is a classic “Star Trek” hierarchy.
At the top, of course, are Kirk and Spock – running the Enterprise, making the big calls, getting the glory and, sometimes, the ladies. Then there are the supporting, but no less vital, players in Gene Roddenberry’s Dickensian cast: Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, et. al. And, finally, there are the shooting stars: the villains, the aliens, the red shirts who often fall prey to misadventure early in a mission, the short-timers and the one-timers in the background on the bridge while William Shatner chews the scenery.
Bruce Hyde, who died last week of throat cancer, was one of these. As the Enterprise’s Lt. Kevin Riley, he appeared in just two episodes of “Star Trek.” Though he spent just weeks on the set of the landmark show – and mostly left acting for academe – his contribution was much beloved.
“At some point, I thought, ‘Who wants to hear about what I was doing all that time ago?'” Hyde told the St. Cloud Times last year. “Then somebody once told me, ‘You know, you should be willing to talk about this with people. It’s interesting, it’s something you did that most people didn’t do.’ And so I decided to lighten up about it.”
Hyde was born in 1941 in Dallas. He got interested in acting while studying English at Northwestern University. Though he put in appearances on mid-1960s TV staples such as “Dr. Kildare” and “That Girl,” his most memorable moment on the small screen would come in “Star Trek,” season one, episode four: “The Naked Time.”
In what now seems like an attempt to launch the spirit of the swingin’ 60s into outer space, the crew of the Enterprise is infected by a virus that, more or less, allows a spaceshipful of Type A nerds to channel their inner ids. Most memorably, Sulu runs around shirtless swinging a fencing foil.
“Up until then, Sulu was chained to that console,” Sulu himself – actor-turned-LGBT activist George Takei, who called the episode his favorite – said. “… For the first time with that series, he not only got a chance to leave that console but to show a whole other side of him, and we discover that in his deep-down hidden psyche, he fancies himself a swashbuckler.”
While Sulu’s antics may have gotten top billing, Hyde took an important supporting role: 23rd-century Enterprise worker bee who thinks he’s a rogue Irishman.
“Have no fear – O’Riley’s here!” Hyde says, adopting a thick brogue. “And one Irishman is worth 10,000 of you (Vulcans).” Needless to say, a disapproving Spock quickly relieves “O’Riley” of duty.
There was more to come. Hyde, apropros of nothing, declares himself captain of the ship and belts out the Irish-y ballad “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”
“The singing part is what is still most vivid to me,” Hyde, who had already survived one bout with throat cancer, told StarTrek.com last year. “I feel a certain affinity to that song … It was, for a long time, for me like ‘Over the Rainbow’ was to Judy Garland. I used to be asked to sing that song at every convention I attended. I don’t know if I’ll try it today. Right now, because of my voice, I sound a little like Louis Armstrong or Tom Waits.”
And … that’s pretty much the end of the story. Hyde appeared in just one more episode – but had the privilege of playing the same minor character. Just this made him a celebrity of sorts.
“Bruce is really in kind of a rare club that way,” longtime “Star Trek” historian Larry Nemecek told the St. Cloud Times last year.
However, “Kathleen” endeared Hyde to “Star Trek” fans for the next five decades. He appeared at conventions. He was interviewed about his turn on the show again and again. On the Enterprise, it seems, there is no such thing as a bit player.
“In the early days of fandom, (but) even still today, it’s a really beloved moment,” Nemecek said, calling the “Kathleen” scenes “iconic.”
“Nothing gets stuck in the memory quite like a shirtless George Takei running around trying to enthuse people to death,” the Onion’s A.V. Club wrote in 2009 of “The Naked Time.” “It’s also the first episode of the show to focus almost entirely on the main cast; there’s no shape-shifting beasty killing people, nor do we have an emo guest star for everyone to bounce off. Here the danger is entirely internal, which means there’s a lot of ACTING, a lot of camp, and, depending on your tolerance level, a certain amount of pathos.”
But as legions of “Trek” fans turned their attention to dissecting Hyde’s brief time in the spotlight, the actor was moving on from acting. He later regarded his failure to make it big in a few pilots he made as a godsend.
“Thank God none of them sold because they were all so bad,” he said last year. “Some of the sitcoms they made in those days were awful. … If one of those pilots had sold and I had gotten my 15 minutes of fame at that time in my life, I think it would have destroyed me.”
Besides, he had more metaphysical concerns.
“The last thing I did was I was in the San Francisco production of ‘Hair,’ the rock musical, in which I played a hippie,” he said. “I decided I wanted to be a hippie instead of playing one. I was going to get a Volkswagen bus and a big bag of brown rice and go find god. And that’s what I did.”
After getting a master’s degree and PhD, Hyde landed at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he taught acting as well as “interpersonal and small group communication” and appeared in local productions. An acolyte of Werner Erhard, the founder of the “est” personal improvement workshop movement, Hyde was working on a book about Erhard at the time of his death, as the Dallas Morning News reported.
“He is the person who has most influenced my life in every way, and my colleague and I are writing a book showing how Werner’s thinking is consistent with the thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger,” he said last year. “And it’s a fascinating subject and challenge.”
Though he would forever be associated with a show about technology, Hyde cautioned his students about its ubiquitous role in modern society.
“They’re a little less focused and they live in a world of constant distraction,” he said of his pupils. “They don’t ever have to be alone with themselves. They can always go somewhere else. My sense is that’s affecting their way of being in life and, specifically, in the classroom.”
As far afield as Erhard’s work might be from phasers and Klingons, Hyde did think the Enterprise’s mission of peace – one launched by different people of different races and planetary origins – worth another philosophical look.
“There was something profound about ‘Star Trek,'” he said. “People are moved by the idea that out there in the future – that far – we came in peace, you know? And we didn’t try to blow people up.”
“I think this is what really inspired people,” he added. “What keeps it such a phenomenon.”