Robert Duncan McNeill isn’t your typical actor. Yes, he has spent plenty of time on camera and carved out a nice living when he got his role as Tom Paris on Star Trek: Voyager but acting was not his first love. And it shows by the direction his career has taken.
Here’s what pulled Robert Duncan McNeill away from acting after Star Trek, and where he is now.
Master Of The Universe
Robert Duncan McNeill was born in North Carolina but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia where he first dipped his toe into the acting scene. He performed in local and regional productions getting such a feel for it that he took his talents to be honed at the Juilliard School in New York City.
These studies helped because it wasn’t long before Robert Duncan McNeill got his first gig on an ABC Weekend Special titled Jeeter Mason and the Magic Headset. He turned that into an episode on The Twilight Zone and then a German TV movie called A Fenster in Manhattan. His next role was in the 1987 feature Masters of the Universe, the Dolph Lundgren-led movie about He-Man and his battle against Skeletor. Duncan McNeill played Kevin Corrigan, boyfriend to Courtney Cox.
’87 was also the year that Robert Duncan McNeill found a guest spot on a couple of episodes of the long-time running soap opera All My Children. From that time on, he continued to find spots on TV series. They included Quantum Leap, L.A. Law, Homefront, Second Chances, Wild Oats, Murder She Wrote, and Sisters. He was in the TV movies Mothers, Daughters and Lovers, Spies, and One More Mountain.
Robert Duncan McNeill On Star Trek: The Next Generation
1987 was also the time that Robert Duncan McNeill got his first taste of Star Trek when he grabbed an episode on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He played Cadet Nicholas Locarno in the fifth season episode “The First Duty”. He’s the elite of the elite at Starfleet Academy until he causes the death of a fellow cadet. Because of his actions, he’s expelled.
Robert Duncan McNeill’s character in this episode was likely the inspiration for his character on Star Trek: Voyager. In fact they basically are the same characters, they just changed the name.
Tom Paris On Star Trek: Voyager
Robert Duncan McNeill’s big chance came in 1994 when casting for the new Star Trek series began. The Trek team was already familiar with him after his work on The Next Generation, and it may be that the role of Tom Paris was even written specifically for him. So Robert Duncan McNeill won the role of Tom Paris and the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager premiered in January of 1995.
Tom Paris was a chief helmsman and medic aboard the Voyager, a series which lasted 7 seasons, seeing Paris go through the many up’s and down’s the galaxy could toss his way. Tom would go on to marry the half-Human/half-Klingon chief engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) and the couple would eventually have a daughter.
While Robert Duncan McNeill was making a name for himself as an actor on Star Trek: Voyager, his passion for acting was beginning to wane. Instead he became interested in working behind the camera. He told the Star Trek magazine, “My memory is that literally on day one of the pilot, we — Rick, Garrett Wang, Brannon Braga, and I — were walking away from the sound stage and I said to Rick, “You know, I’ve been observing directors for a few years now, on different shows, but every show I get on seems to get canceled before we complete a full season. So, I haven’t had a chance to direct on anything up until now. I’ve been shadowing and observing, and you guys have had a history of letting actors direct. So, I’m just letting you know…”
The “history” to which Robert Duncan McNeill was referring to the unofficial “Treks Director’s School” where series creator Rick Berman has allowed fellow Trek stars to direct episodes of the series. Berman’s initial response to Robert Duncan McNeill’s request was less than enthusiastic.
Berman didn’t seem to be taking Robert Duncan McNeill seriously when he told him, “Yeah, we’ll see. In a couple of years. Let’s get the show going, and we’ll see.” But to his credit, Robert Duncan McNeill countered, “I was like, “No, no, I want to direct first season, because I’ve been on shows that got canceled. As much as I believe this will run a long time, whatever it takes, I want try to direct as soon as possible. Will you let me know what I need to do?”
It took some time and fate, but Robert Duncan McNeill eventually would get what he asked for. It would happen during Voyager’s third season. Next Generation’s Jonathan Frakes was scheduled to direct an episode titled Sacred Ground but had to bow out due to overwhelming demands with the feature he was shooting, Star Trek: First Contact.
“Rick Berman gave me a call. I was at a Star Trek convention in Cleveland. It was about a week or two from shooting, at that time, so I wasn’t prepared for it initially. I hadn’t expected to direct quite that quickly, or have an assignment with such short notice, but I was really thrilled. That episode was the perfect first episode for me because I think it had what are my strengths. It had a real spiritual kind of story-a real character-driven story. It wasn’t a big action show. It had a lot of wonderful characters in it. It had great guest stars, and I thought it was one of Kate’s [Mulgrew] best performances,” he said to Cinefantastique.
The groundwork was laid and directing became Robert Duncan McNeill’s full-time passion. He would finish with Star Trek as an actor after seven years on Voyager, but during that time he would have the opportunity to direct three more episodes. He would also get a chance to direct four episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise.
Robert Duncan McNeill Now
Robert Duncan McNeill ended his time as an actor on Star Trek: Voyager in 2001. Since that time, he has been in front of the camera on five more occasions, twice with five years breaks in between. His last appearance came on the TV series Chuck back in 2012. Acting was now an afterthought as directing stood front and center.
Over the years since Voyager left the airwaves, Robert Duncan McNeill has focused firmly on directing episodic television. The list of series is long and impressive as he continues to build his directing resume. Some of the shows include Dawson’s Creek, Desperate Housewives, What About Brian, Chuck, 666 Park Avenue, Blue Bloods, The Orville, The Gifted, and A Million Little Things. These are just the tip of the iceberg. His listed credits are 47 deep.
With two Star Trek series in his director’s pocket, Robert Duncan McNeill was recently asked if he’d be up for directing an episode or two of Star Trek: Discovery. He was very open, honest, and blunt with his answer when he told the Star Trek magazine, “The last few years, there’s been a seismic shift toward female and diverse directors. That reality now has meant that what used to be normal — which was a lot of white guys, to be quite honest — has changed. It’s a wonderful thing that’s happening. Discovery does a limited number of episodes, and a priority there is to get female and diverse directors. So there are fewer opportunities for people like me, which is a great thing. But, yeah, if the opportunity arose to direct Discovery and I fit what they needed and it fit my schedule, I’d love to do it.”