During our interview with Garrett Wang and Robert Duncan McNeill about their podcast The Delta Flyers and their time on Star Trek: Voyager, Robbie McNeill talked about why he didn’t speak up much about his character during the first season of Voyager; his prime directive was to avoid getting fired.
Garrett Wang asked the all-important question: Had he been fired from a job before? The surprising answer—even to Garrett—was yes, so Robbie filled in the details:
I was fired three years before Voyager—I was doing a Broadway play called Six Degrees of Separation. And while I was in that Broadway play, there was a movie casting in New York and Los Angeles called School Ties. Brendan Fraser played the lead. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck. They were all in this movie.
School Ties came out in 1992 to mixed reviews but is still remembered today, mostly because of its young, on-the-cusp-of-fame cast and its story about anti-Semitism at a prestigious prep school in the 1950s. McNeill was hired to play the lead, David Greene.
Before the movie got made, I was doing this play and I auditioned and got the role that Brendan Fraser ended up doing. I was set to star in School Ties. And then the director was unable to direct, he had to be replaced. The new director’s name was Robert Mandel, and he came to meet me in New York, ‘cause I’d already been cast and had a contract and everything. And we had brunch, I met him over at his hotel, we had a long conversation, then he came to see me in the play. And then about a week later, I started hearing from friends of mine that they were auditioning for my part.
I was like, “Maybe they’re just using the sides for my part, to audition—you know, there’s a lot of roles.” My buddies were like, “No, it’s for your part.” Long story short, they ended up releasing me. They paid me off so I did get the contract amount, but I never filmed a day on the movie ‘cause Robert Mandel fired me.
At some point, Noah Wyle, Kyle Chandler, and Matthew Perry all auditioned for the lead. “Anyone who is now between the ages of 40 and 50 auditioned for School Ties,” said co-casting director Pat McCorkle, looking back on it in 2017. McNeill explains why he lost the role:
It’s about a very WASPy private school, like a prep boys’ boarding school, where a scholarship kid, Brendan Fraser, comes in. And he fits in, he’s a football player and at the beginning accepted and very popular, and then they find out that he’s part Jewish, and there’s a lot of racism and anti-Semitism.
The original director’s name was Stanley Jaffe… what he wanted was someone like me who doesn’t look Jewish at all, look like you fit in perfectly and then just because you’ve got some Jewish blood… so Stanley imagined it like Robert Redford—not that I’m Robert Redford—but, you know, a young Robert Redford, playing this role. The new director wanted young Al Pacino. He wanted somebody more ethnic, and more obviously Jewish. He just goes, “I don’t think it works with anybody who looks WASPy at all.” Brendan Frasier looks kind of ambiguously ethnic. You can’t really tell with Brendan Fraser.
Fraser auditioned only three weeks before filming began and went right into rehearsals with the rest of the cast. The movie ended up helping launch the careers of many of its stars.
McNeill admitted, “It would have sent my life in a different direction, that’s for sure.” He doesn’t seem to have any regrets—he always had his eye on directing, and has since become a prolific and successful TV director and producer. The whole story came up only so he could clarify why he didn’t give pushback on Voyager scripts and stories; he didn’t want to lose his job:
Going on to Star Trek, I knew that those things happened. The business is a business, and I was just like, ‘Show up. Don’t ask any questions. Do what they say. Make sure they’re happy.’ That was my attitude.
In addition to Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, School Ties also starred Chris O’Donnell, Cole Hauser, and Star Trek: Discovery‘s Anthony Rapp. Entertainment Weekly spoke to Rapp in 2017 as part of an oral history on the movie.
Anthony Rapp: Because of Ben and Matt and Chris and Brendan, who went on to have such fame and fortune, that’s probably what has retroactively brought attention to it. But I always thought it had real power to it.
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