The Star Trek: The Next Generation Cast’s Best Non-Star Trek Roles
LeVar Burton as Host of Reading Rainbow (1983 – 2006)
LeVar Burton came to Star Trek as one of the top-billed actors in the cast, thanks to his breakout role as Kunta Kinte in the television adaptation of Roots. Although Brent Spiner’s Data eventually ate up most of the screen time initially intended for Geordi LaForge, Burton remained a warm presence on the show, even when writers gave him terrible romance stories. That innate likability came through in Burton’s work, before and after Trek. In addition to directing several episodes of the series and its spin-offs, Burton appeared on Murder She Wrote and Christy, lent his voice to Captain Planet and the Planeteers and Family Guy, and poked fun at himself in a wonderful episode of Community.
But even those who grew up with TNG have to acknowledge hosting Reading Rainbow as Burton’s most important role. Burton took the job in 1983, several years before coming aboard the Enterprise, and continues to work with the series in its various forms. In every episode, Burton invites viewers to experience the joy of reading. Burton’s encouragement and kindness taught generations of fans (including this writer) how to read, building a legacy that outshines even the best Trek tale.
Jonathan Frakes as David Xanatos on Gargoyles (1994 – 1996)
The tall, handsome Jonathan Frakes seemed like an apology for fans who couldn’t accept the patrician Stewart in command of the Enterprise. Frakes’s good looks and swagger recalled the swashbuckling attitude of James T. Kirk, and with good reason. Before getting cast as William T. Riker, Frakes portrayed Captain America for Marvel in-person events and had a recurring part on the soap opera Falcon Crest. However, Frakes discovered his true passion while shooting TNG: directing. Frakes directed eight episodes of TNG, and has become a mainstay of the franchise’s bullpen, helming the movies First Contact and Insurrection as well as episodes of Discovery, Picard, and Strange New Worlds. In addition, Frakes hosted 45 episodes of Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, a role that lives on in the form of internet memes, and continues to do voice work on Lower Decks and Very Short Treks.
In fact, voice work gave Frakes his best non-Trek role, playing villainous David Xanatos on the Disney adventure series Gargoyles, a show that employed several TNG cast members, including Marina Sirtis and Michael Dorn. As the rich and devious Xanatos, Frakes puts his smooth baritone to good work, breathing menace into every line reading, especially when pitted against Gargoyles leader Goliath. However, Xanatos also gives Frakes layers to play, as the seemingly heartless businessman carries a soft spot for his wife and child.
Brent Spiner as Earl Mills on Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)
One need only watch the TNG episode “Masks” to see that Brent Spiner can be so much more than an emotionless android. The episode, in which an alien community possesses Data via the titular headgear, functionally operates as Spiner’s demo reel, showing off the talents he brings to other roles. Spiner worked on and off-Broadway throughout the 1970s and enjoyed a few credits in film and television, including six episodes on the comedy Night Court. TNG raised Spiner’s profile, leading to regular work in genre shows and movies, appearing in Independence Day, voicing the Joker in Young Justice, and playing a police captain on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
However, Spiner’s most impressive work came in a drama, the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. Spiner plays Earl Mills, Dandridge’s manager and romantic interest, a man whose love and admiration for the titular actress and singer drives him to advocate for her against racist restrictions. Spiner earned a Satellite Award nomination for his performance and with good reason. As Mills, he got to not only show off his considerable charisma, but also play notes of anger, hurt, and resolution against the bigots his client encounters on a daily basis.