Today in TV History: Stephen Hawking Plays Himself on Star Trek
On the Season 6 finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, Starfleet Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) played poker with holograms of, as he put it, “three of history’s greatest minds”: Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. The first two were portrayed by actors John Neville and Jim Norton (for obvious reasons). But famed physicist Hawking was played by the real deal—marking the only time a guest star appeared as himself on any Trek series. It all began during a publicity screening for the documentary adaptation of his most famous book, A Brief History of Time.
Gordon Freedman (executive producer, A Brief History of Time): Leonard Nimoy introduced Hawking at the screening for the documentary. I told him that Stephen was a Star Trek fan. It was later arranged for him to visit the Next Generation set, where he sat in the captain’s chair—something he liked very much. I told executive producer Rick Berman that I was sure Stephen would appear on the show.
Spiner: When I first read the script and saw that “Stephen Hawking” was a character in the episode, I wondered if maybe they’d let me play him. I’d done multiple roles before, so it was not out of the question. When I heard that he was playing himself, I was, of course, excited. But I still think the guy cost me an Emmy.
Berman: We sent Stephen the pages for the poker scene and he punched the script up a little bit—he made a funny line a little bit funnier. It was delightful. We loved the fact that he had done it.
Ronald D. Moore (screenwriter): On the day of the shoot, there were a lot of people around. People would squeeze through the door and pretend they had a purpose on the set.
Norton: The actors were a little bit reticent initially to communicate with him. But Hawking was absolutely charming. He wanted to know what actors did when they were in the green room. We told him all kinds of outrageous stories, which he was really enjoying. And then we were told not to make him laugh because it affected his breathing and swallowing.
Spiner: Between camera setups, and this is no joke, they put him in a room the size of a closet and closed the door. I asked his nurse what was going on, and I was told he liked being alone so he could just think without distractions. If I had his thoughts, I’d probably want the same.
Norton: The extraordinary thing about looking at him was that his eyes were full of life and vitality and energy and mischief. And yet he spoke through his talking machine.
Berman: During the course of my career, I have met a lot of very important, special people—presidents of the United States and people like Bill Gates—and I would say that, undoubtedly, the visitor who stands out above all the others was Stephen Hawking.
Spiner: [At the time,] I really thought this was a very special moment in TV history. And then he did The Big Bang Theory!