Brief Appearances

by Chris Powell

Early in an actor's career, he or she may make brief appearances in films as part of building a reputation within the industry. After they are already established they may make brief appearances for the enjoyment of working with old friends or to fill their schedules during hiatuses between television shooting seasons. Robert Picardo has a long list of such credits, playing a wide assortment of smaller film and television roles. In this column we explore these roles allowing you, our readers, an opportunity to enjoy the Brief Appearances that he has made.

This installment is;

The 'burbs

The 'burbs (1989) is part of a long series of rather quirky genre films directed by Joe Dante. The film centers around a suburban cul-de-sac and the spooky new neighbors that nobody ever sees. The group of neighbors gossips and speculates about the possible evils lurking within the eerie, rundown house until they talk themselves into spying and other invasions of privacy to find out what's going on. The film stars Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher as the couple next door to the mystery house inhabitants and Bruce Dern as a war veteran who mentally hasn't quite returned from Southeast Asia. Another neighbor in the gang is played by Rick Ducommen.

One evening, under the neighborhood's watchful eyes, the unknown neighbors drive out to the curb to deliver a large heavy garbage sack. The spying group decides that the sack must contain the mutilated remains of the previous owners of the house, who nobody can remember moving away. The band disperses for the night, agreeing to return before the garbage collectors arrive in the morning.

The Garbagemen

The following morning the garbage collectors arrive before the planned garbage sack investigation and wild and silly behavior ensues. The scene features Robert as an unnamed garbageman and character actor Dick Miller as his mundane partner Vick. Robert describes his character as "sort of being an old hippie who was still into whatever the New Age thinking of the moment was. In discussing his New Age philosophy he was avoiding working, whether he intended to or not. His frustrated companion was trying to get him to simply stop talking and get back to work. That was a simple gag... a fun little bit." Robert plays the perfect straight-man and comic foil to the increasingly exasperated Vick and the gathering group of neighborhood crazies:

Vick: No way Wednesday night, I'm in a league.

Robert: This seminar could change your life, Vick. The man is a great healer.

Vick: And I'm a great bowler. And Wednesday night we take on Rozelli Plumbing.

Robert: You really should expose yourself to this guy, Vick. He understands paraphysical forces, the healing capabilities of crystals and the laying on of hands.

Vick: You want to try laying on some hands? [Indicating some garbage cans.]

As the scene continues, Rick runs out and begins dumping bags of garbage onto the street, searching for detached body parts. The camera cuts away and when it returns, Rick is in the back of the truck, rooting through the garbage and throwing more into the street.

Vick: Get outta the truck, man. Are you nuts?

Rick: It's gotta be here somewhere....

Robert: Vick, the Supreme Court ruled that a person's garbage is public domain the minute it hits the curb.

Vick: Shut up!

Bruce Dern joins the scene and Tom Hanks comes running from his house, hurdling a short hedge to join the gathering crowd.

Bruce: Did you guys pick up a Hefty bag out of that yard that was bulky and probably a little bit moist?

Vick: What the hell's the matter with these people?

Robert: He has a right to know, Vick....

Vick: Don't start up with me!

The filming took place in 1987, during the hiatus between Robert's first and second season of "China Beach." He was on the set for two days of filming plus an additional evening about four months later as a call-back. About that part Robert says that "Joe (Dante) often casts friends in roles, actors that he has worked with before that he enjoys working with, and kind of lets you create the part. Joe expects you to embellish when he has worked with you before and embellishing is not a problem as long as the writer is on the set and made aware of it."

The film was shot during the writers' strike during which members of the Writer's Guild were not allowed to rewrite. As the film was scripted, the scene contained only one line. "So," Robert continues, "not being a member of the Writer's Guild, I was able to improvise that scene. That scene was pretty much created by me and I gave my idea to Dick (Miller)." Although they had never appeared on screen together prior to that, Robert and Dick have known each other "forever" because of Dante's films. Robert goes on, "We sort of worked it up, then showed Joe, so that way the production didn't get in any trouble because they weren't violating any agreement."

So are we going to see the healing powers of crystals or the laying on of hands on "Voyager"? Robert laughs and says, "Well, you know, the Doctor doesn't always use tricorders, he does lay on hands occasionally. Whether you'll see any healing powers from the Doctor's hands without the benefit of 24th century technology, I don't know. I don't know if we'll ever do a script where there is a paranormal healing technique. I certainly hope to have the opportunity for the laying on of hands." Then, in character voice he adds, "And I certainly don't mean just with Kes, my medical assistant. I mean in a legitimate and ethical and non-harassing way." We can be sure that a certain unnamed garbageman would approve of this addition to the Doctor's repertoire.


© 1996 by Chris Powell. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.

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