by Ana Hamilton, 12 December 1976
Nick Tate, poked his spoon doubtfully into a bowl of wheat flakes - a poor substitute for the Swiss health cereal to which he's devoted and which the posh New York hotel did not offer on its breakfast menu.
"I have this certain aggression in me." he said. His lean face serious as he began to swirl milk in the bowl purposefully, "so I was right for the part of Carter."
And the part was right for him. After years on the London stage and British TV, a starring role on the Australian hit TV series Dynasty, and parts in highly-rated films like A Man For All Seasons and Battle of Britain, he was eager to work on a syndicated series that would be shown all over the world. "We're on in 101 countries now." he said proudly. "The voices are dubbed wherever English isn't spoken. I've seen myself talking in Japanese - weird!"
Weirder, even, is the fact that he's still on the series, its most popular star, because he wasn't scheduled to last beyond the first episode.
"'The Carter character, the first flight lieutenant, was originally supposed to be an Italian. An Australian was brought in to play alongside the Italian in the first segment. Well, they made some changes and decided to get rid of the Italian and use Carter as a regular character in his place."
He was taping a courtroom drama for British TV, playing a heart surgeon accused of malpractice, when he received the call telling him he'd be a Space: 1999 regular. Elated, he returned to the set and convinced the jury, unrehearsed members of the studio audience, that he was innocent. He was recently voted Best Australian Actor of the Year for his performance as a priest with a tortured conscience in the film Devil's Playground, soon to be released in the U.S., but he fondly remembers that set-side call as the most exciting moment of his career so far.
Nick looks younger in person than on screen, and his hair is blonder, too. In light green French-cut trousers, a forest green sports jacket and silky green print shirt open two buttons at the neck, he looks like a Continental Robert Redford - though definitely not an Italian one. But he feels confident that the flight lieutenant's nationality switch posed no real problem for the scriptwriters because hot, aggressive Italian blood flows in Australian veins.
"We Australians have always been regarded as a very virile nation and when I was growing up everything was very physical." So naturally he was "big on swimming," and despite a brief stint as a professional child actor, did "all the normal things," like cutting up in class so outrageously that he was guaranteed a daily caning. (''There was one master who rapped my knuckles before class. He'd say, 'That's for what you're going to do, Tate!") Eventually, of course, maturity set in, and among the other jobs he held between acting assignments, Nick worked as a lifeguard, facing life-or-death situations with as much regularity as Lt. Carter. Today he still has the tightly-strung, all muscle-and-bone body of an athlete - and vivid memories or what it's like to be a saviour.
"Some people are so grateful to be rescued, but others are so angry, so humiliated, really," he says with obvious wonder. Not that he has trouble understanding emotional or physical pain, in fact, letting all the suffering hang out is his personal cause on camera.
"TV and movies never show people getting hurt when they get punched. It hurts like hell to block a punch with your arm and it hurts to deliver a punch."' His year in an army commando unit taught him a lot about unarmed combat, and he learned the value of working with a stuntman the afternoon he floored another Space character with a punch the actor hadn't been properly trained to duck. Though no one blamed Nick, of course, he felt "'just terrible'' and now refuses to do a right scene unless he's pitted against a fully qualified stuntman.
Nick himself knows all the tricks - he can flick his jaw away at just the right moment to give the impression that he's been soundly socked while his adversary's fist goes sailing through thin air. But it's very important to him that the effect looks bone-crunchingly realistic.
"I always show that Alan Carter feels pain. The producers and directors like it, actually, because they want me to do my own interpretation." His all-time favourite scene was in California Split, when swaggering gambler Elliott Gould, bloody-mouthed from a men's room punch-up, finally breaks down in front of his pal, George Segal, and doubles up, groaning in agony. Nick's all in favour of letting the gut feelings pour out off camera, too, particularly the ones that juice up his performance.
"I do get nervous every time I perform - not so much on Space anymore, but other times - and I draw on that feeling. I have to have it churning in my stomach, in order to turn in a good performance. The adrenalin starts flowing and all my senses get revved up. You know, it's very hard to sit perfectly still in a chair and sweat, just because the script calls for it. But the adrenalin enables you to do it. When I feel that nervous feeling coming on, I hate it on the one hand and on the other hand I think good, it's coming - I'm going to be able to do this scene well."
His standards are high. too, because he comes from a theatrical family with a reputation for excellence. "My great grand mother was an opera singer, so was my grand-mother, and my grandfather was an old-time vaudevillian." His mother, the late Neva Carr-Glynn, was a distinguished actress, and he was honoured to play opposite his father, John Tate, in the Dynasty series. The senior Tate lives on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, and when Nick left Sydney and set off for that country in 1965, it was both to gain experience on the British Broadway, London's West End ("that's where my mother trained"') and to visit his father, whom he hadn't seen for seven years since his parents' divorce.
Now Nick maintains a bachelor pad in London, a short commute to Pinewood Studios, where Space:1999 is filmed. Once on the set, though, the cast count easily forget they're in the rolling green countryside of England, or for that matter on the planet - if atmospheric conditions and the laws or gravity didn't occasionally bring them back down to Earth with a thud.
"It must be 100 degrees on the set," says Nick, "and it"s so damn hot in those space suits, you wouldn't believe it. Naturally our helmets are mock-ups, not the airtight contraptions astronauts would have to use, so sometimes at the end of a right scene you roll over - and your helmet comes off. When that happens, you have to do the scene all over again.''
It's hard to imagine the former classroom clown deliberately tumbling about for laughs these days, though he has done plenty of comedy and claims it"s his forte. There's something about the man that says cool sophistication - perhaps the way his smile starts with a twinkle in his ice blue eyes, then etches its way, down his face to reveal an even row of very white teeth. With his resonant British accent (off-screen there's not so much as a trace or an Australian twang), the effect is very James Bond-ish -- though he"s more of a Mel Brooks at heart.
"Martin Landau and I clown around a lot on the set to break the boredom and the tension. We do these little comedy routines in the form of interviews. He'll come up to me and in this thick German accent, he'll ask me, "Zo! How long haf you been on zis planet?" And I'll answer. 'Vell. let's see..."
But they've got the most famous Space:1999 comedy routine on tape - and it was definitely not part of the script.
"You see, we were all supposed to be fighting this wall or foam - it was actually a 10 foot high mountain or soap bubbles.
There were something like 20 special effects men working on this scene, foam coming at us from all directions, and four cameras covering the action. The segment was being directed by Charlie Crichton, a terrific director who's a real British general type. Always has a pipe in his mouth - the sort who shouts. 'Over the top, chaps!' in the old war movies. Well, after we'd fought our way through this wall of foam, he rushed forward, full steam ahead, shouting "Cut!" slipped on the roam and still shouting, disappeared horizontally under 10 feet of bubbles! Fortunately, when the director shouts 'Cut!' the film continues to roll for about four seconds. So when we got the rushes back, there was Charlie, sliding under the bubbles with a cry still on his lips! Now we play it back every so often, just for laughs!"'
Nick claims Star Trek was "the best sci-fi series in its time - but Space:1999 will be just as good, if not better. It's natural for the fans of Star Trek to want some sort of continuation or that series, and I'm not insulted when people refer to Space as a 'sequel' to Star Trek." In fact, he'd come over from England at the invitation of the organizers of this summer"s Star Trek Convention at the University of Maryland to be their guest speaker. "'We are beginning to win over even those fans who had a very strong loyalty and allegiance to Star Trek. I'm not saying they should stop loving Star Trek - they shouldn't. Our series should just be seen in a parallel light."
With 5000 fan letters a week pouring in for Nick Tate, It's obvious he's been winning over a lot or love. And why not? In any light, he looks very good.