Veteran actor William Morgan Sheppard, who passed away this week at the age of 86, was one of those people you don’t easily forget.
Visually and temperamentally, he was somehow an impossible cross between Popeye and Father Christmas, a young mischievous soul inside a savvy, dry-witted veteran’s body and one whom you could easily imagine telling the most fantastical fairy-tales or the most salty anecdotes depending on his audience. He loved telling those tales but while many in that business of show are happy to talk, you’d probably be pushed to find as good a listener as ‘W. Morgan’. He might grant you an audience, but he’d always see the value into turning into a proper two-way conversation.
It was around eight years ago that I interviewed him and his equally successful son Mark at the London Film and Comic Con and though that was our one and only formal meeting face to face, in the years that followed, he became a frequent pro-active presence on my own facebook page – never backwards at pro-actively coming forward when something in life irked him. Offering profound, passionate agreement or abject disagreement with the subject or opinion at hand, any thread or subject that Morgan W. Sheppard contributed to was worth the read as we all set the world to rights.
“I work off anger, like a lot of actors do. You can’t beat the system but you can subvert it from inside, which is fun (laughs)” he mused. “You create something with validity and honesty. I’m very involved in independent movies and the Action on Film Festival. They gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, which meant a lot. The first recipient has been David Carradine, then Bill Dukes – all really good actors. I’m in that august company of what I think are ‘real’ actors and all involved in the independent film movement. Not bad for a guy who’s working from home. I’m out there… I’m still enjoying it. How do I keep my passion? It’s the only way to deal with rejection. Actors get rejected every week. It doesn’t matter whose thumb-prints are on the scripts you get, it’s what you do with it then… Something will come along that’ll get my interest. I’m not sure what it’ll be. I’m not grand… I just work a $250 a day job… which could be worse! I like doing what I call ‘cameos with impact’. If you can say ‘This is what I learned…’ from ANY job, then that’s a good thing!”
Though he quickly developed a taste for it, his entrance into acting and acceptance at the prestigious RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) was largely spun out of a £5 bet at the tail-end of the 1950s for which he gained a scholarship. He enjoyed the challenges offered and – he admitted, with a wry smile – the attention it brought from the ladies. His teachers were impressed by his zeal and their only advice was to lose the edge from his broad Irish accent. His subsequent career would put more familiar names to shame and includes Z Cars (1962), Crown Court (1974), The New Avengers (1976), The Sweeney (1975), The Onedin Line (1977), Minder (1979), Sherlock Holmes & Doctor Watson (1979), The Shogun mini-series (1980), The Day of the Triffids (1981), Max Headroom (1987), Quantum Leap (1993) Frasier (1995) and Alias (2005) and films such as The Duellists (1977), The Sea Wolves (1980), Hawk the Slayer (1980), The Keep (1983), Cry Freedom (1987), Wild at Heart (1990) and Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991).
Acting dynasties may not be that unusual in Hollywood, but it must be rare for a father and son to have played different versions of their same character in the same show on many occasions. In projects, including those as diverse as NCIS and Doctor Who, Morgan and Mark appeared as the same character at different ages and it became something akin to an in-joke or tradition when the opportunity repeatedly presented itself. (“Mark’s a great character actor who’s becoming a lead actor now, but he’s always been a master of irony, which they don’t always get out there…” Morgan winked…)
Sheppard Snr. was one of those character actors for whom you’d always remember the face if not always put a name to it.
“I think one of the reasons I’m not a ‘star’, so to speak, is because I love the CRAFT. The RSC started me off by giving me a role that no-one else wanted to play and I was told later it was ‘because you love the challenge and the obstacle and you can play well the roles that no-one has ever heard of…’ That was what started getting me nominated for awards… it was the freedom to try things. Sometimes that’s what gets you the notes, the mentions and the reviews. Some people were saying ‘If I don’t get the lead, I’m not going to do it!’. Me? I was always ‘Give the role they don’t want to me! I’ll love it’…” he explained. “That’s kinda why I think the Soul Hunter in Babylon 5 (1994) is one of my best performances. Creator J Michael Straczynski and I really worked on it and we were able to explore things beyond the usual ‘guy in prosthetics who has a voice from downtown Nebraska’. I loved being able to experiment. In Hollywood you’re not usually allowed range.”
He could flip between Shakespeare and sci-fi and treat them both the same – and that was just the way he liked it, a jobbing actor who enjoyed some freedom to pick the people to work with as much as projects All he expected was for everyone to be as committed as he was and then take him as they found him… even on a mega-budget blockbuster like Transformers (2007).
“Michael Bay knows everybody’s job. For Transformers I was in costume and walking towards Michael when he looked at me and said ‘Are you fit?’. I said ‘Why? You wanna fight?’ and so he turned to the guy on his left, Harry Humphries – who’s an ex-Navy Seal Team Five and his technical advisor and said ‘Do you know him?’ Harry replied that he’d trained me and my son and ‘I wouldn’t muck around with the Sheppards!’ After that Michael Bay and I got along great!” he laughed. “I was supposed to go the Arctic and then they decided it was too expensive. So then the plan was to go to Greenland. No, we won’t go there. Maybe Canada? No. We’ll go to Marina Del Ray in California! It was done in the Hoard Hughes hangar just a few miles down the road from where I live! But y’know I’ve never seen the full film. Mark and I too his son to the cinema to see ‘grandpa in Transformers’. I came on the screen and he stands up and shouts ‘THAT’s my grandpa!’. Before he finished the line I’d made a run for it (laughs)”
“In my humble opinion science-fiction is now where the artistic, the poetic and the lyrical reside,” he added. “The writers that are working in that genre are great. Remember the impact of Blade Runner, Inception, Memento… we’re getting more and more into the things that Harold Pinter talked about, the fact that a play shouldn’t be talked about like a play, but an investigation. We’re getting a lot more of that questioning in the science-fiction genre instead of providing answers. That’s an aspect I teach in my classes… always play the questions.”
W. Morgan Sheppard was one of the best and most versatile players. Of that there is no question.
Our condolences to Mark and Morgan’s surviving family.