Denise Crosby, the 'Star Trek' actor who made Tasha Yar legendary, continues to appear in films and on television as heroines in all sorts of universes. I met her recently at a Star Trek convention and, surprisingly, we hit it off. A month later I...
As mainstream cinema focuses its attention on the latest CGI accomplishments and the production of remakes, I felt it was important to remember the individuals who paved the yellow brick road. So I set out with my Polaroid camera to photograph and interview disappearing Hollywood, the version that matters most to me—the directors, actors, special-effects artists, producers, even composers who’ve had great influence but have since fallen under the radar. This is a record and a reminder of the true soul of the movies.
Actor / Producer
Star Trek: The Next Generation, 48 Hrs., Pet Sematary, Miracle Mile, Eliminators, Ray Donovan
Sometime in 1987 the talk amongst the lunch tables at my junior high school was, “Who is the cool new-wave chick inStar Trek: The Next Generation?” At the time we had a lot of interesting women to look up to in music, but this one was living in a future where a woman could be the head of security on a starship. The character was named Tasha Yar, and her backstory was even more inspiring. She was an orphan who had to scavenge for the bare necessities of life, escaped rape gangs, overcame a drug addiction, and through her bravery and determination made her way into a high-profile job aboard the Starship Enterprise. For a bunch of teenage girls facing an uncertain future ourselves, she was the ultimate heroine. Until she was killed by Armus, a malevolent life form made from the byproduct of human negativity and evil. Tragically, our heroine had become a memory contained in a hologram.
But Denise Crosby, the actor who made Tasha Yar legendary, lives on and continues to appear in films and on television as heroines in all sorts of universes. I met her recently at a Star Trek convention, where I saw her walking down the hallway with a small group of admirers. My opening line was one of pure fandom: “You’re awesome!” Surprisingly, we hit it off like old friends, discovering we grew up in the same neighborhood and had a deep affection for anything Fiorucci. As we spoke, the fandom subsided, and I became very much inspired by her legacy. A month later I found myself in her backyard discussing her career over coffee and cookies.
VICE: Being the granddaughter of Bing Crosby and the daughter of Dennis, you were born into the entertainment industry. Was there ever a time when you thought you would not go into showbiz?
Denise: Absolutely. In my youth I had that rebel spirit in me that didn’t want to do anything people assumed I would do. Instead I would purposefully go out and do the opposite. I moved away from home and out of Los Angeles as soon as I could. I loved journalism and wanted to be like Christiane Amanpour or Diane Sawyer. I knew I wanted to be on camera, but I wanted to do investigative reporting or work in the field, so I studied journalism and drama at a college in Santa Cruz. On a fluke I auditioned and got the part in the spring production of the school play, which put me in touch with a part of myself that I enjoyed but wasn’t ready to embrace. I took a year off and bummed around the world, scored a few modeling jobs in London and Paris. Eventually I came back home to my parents’ place in Los Angeles, and it was there that I was contacted by a casting agent who had seen some pictures of me in Playboy.
I’ve seen the Playboy photographs! They are incredible. I don’t think I have ever seen a Playboy model with a punk-rock hairstyle!
It’s true, and no one has looked like that since. What happened was I originally did some test shots with a photographer who had me dressed up like Little Bo Peep. I had ruffles and bows and I thought to myself, This is a mistake—this is not me, and I never want to be this. On an off day I went down to Vidal Sassoon on Rodeo Drive and said, “Cut all of my hair off.” I had shoulder length hair at the time, so the stylist said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Just give me a short, short cut. Buzz it off.”
The next day I showed up to continue the photo shoot, and the photographer flipped out! He pulled me into the photo editor’s office to show her what I had done. They just thought Hefner would never go for it. But another photographer named Phillip Dixon was in the office and interrupted: “I like the way she looks, it’s very modern. Let me do some test shots.” So they gave him a chance, and it was the tests with Phillip that wound up going to print. Playboy is kind of what started my acting career. Thankfully I did it on my own terms, not Little Bo Peep with her boobs showing.
As your acting career began you also started to appear in a ton of 80s music videos directed by Mary Lambert.
Around that time I was also toying with the idea of becoming a musician. I was really into Laurie Anderson, so I thought maybe I would be an avant-garde composer. Then I met Mary Lambert, who was directing a lot of big music videos, and she gave me parts in most of them—suddenly all my interests were lining up. When she started directing features she gave me a starring role in her film, Pet Sematary.
But before you became a sensation, you worked at a furniture shop on Melrose called Dodson’s, which went on to become famous because it was owned by the world’s most achieved bank robber, Eddie Dodson, a.k.a. the New York Yankees Bandit. How did that come to be?
I knew Eddie Dodson because he was the center of the party scene. He was a great friend and the most fun person to be around… probably because he was insane! There were a lot of drugs and always a lot of cocaine. Eventually Eddie gave me a job at his shop. I would rehearse scenes while working, and in my off time I would go on auditions. I worked there until I got a role in the film 48 Hrs.
Did you know Eddie was robbing banks in his spare time?
My goodness, no. But sometimes I would show up for work and he wouldn’t be there and the shop would be closed. By this time his drug use was so out of hand I figured he was passed out—but now I know he was either running from the cops or robbing a bank somewhere.
After 48 Hrs. you started getting regular work as an actor appearing in several TV movies and the awesome feature Eliminators, where you played a robotics engineer. Then, in 1987, you landed the part of Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Throughout your career, you are often cast as strong hard-nosed characters—cops, detectives, security chiefs, stock-market executives—basically women who can handle themselves in tough situations. Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m tall and wear my hair short—in Hollywood they look at the physical first.
Did anyone ever ask you to grow your hair out?
No, not really. I know some men don’t like it when women have short hair, but screw them.
I had short hair for many years. I once dated a guy who made it obvious he didn’t like it. One day he said to me, “You know who you look like? You look like the mom from Pet Sematary.” I said, “You mean Tasha Yar! She’s awesome.” Needless to say, it didn’t work out between us. Because of your strong presence and short hair you were an inspiration to women everywhere, especially with many lesbian and transgender youth, simply because you were someone on television they felt they could identify themselves with.
I have always thought of myself as a feminist, and ultimately I hope I can be an example of someone who is not afraid when facing adversity. If that is an inspiration to women, I am so humbled.
I think one of the reasons why Star Trek: The Next Generation continues to be influential is because of the roles the women played on the show. They were equal to the men, and in Tasha’s case the only man who could take over her job was a Klingon!
In my opinion the intentions were good, but they should have taken it even further—that was my main frustration with the show. I hate to burst your bubble, but it was the writers, not Gene Roddenberry, who were fighting to make the female characters more dynamic. There was a real friction with putting the women in power.
Is that why you left the show?
Sexism was involved, and although I understand it is an inherent part of the world, it is something we must continue to fight. You fall in love with what you do and at that point in my career, I was very passionate about acting. It wasn’t a rash decision to leave the show. I was continuously asking my coactors and the writers what the trajectory was. One day Gene Roddenberry told me, “This is the formula for Star Trek and it works. It is not going to change.” I was simply afraid of staying in that uniform for six more years while I was in the prime of my life. I had to take a risk.
What did you do after you left Star Trek?
I did a movie I really loved called Miracle Mile. I also did Pet Semetary, X Files, Southland, and I have a new show about to premiere on Showtime called Ray Donovan. I play a character named Deb who is an interior decorator and Elliott Gould’s mistress. Don’t get me wrong—I loved the Tasha Yar character. In hindsight I think she became more iconic by dying.
When we met what impressed me most about you was seeing you at my first Star Trek convention. It was late at night and the convention was technically closed, but you were sitting at a table full of fans laughing and talking.
Well I don’t see divides between people. At heart, we are all the same. Especially once you get rid of the autograph table.
Previously - Jeanne Basone