Erin Gray was juggling two careers when the offer of a lifetime came her way.
At age 28, the model received an acting contract with Universal Studios but was only being paid $600 a week, prompting her to continue modeling despite a grueling schedule.
“When I was shooting ‘Evening in Byzantium,’ on my last night, which went from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., the studio called me and said, ‘We’d like you to come in at 10 a.m. for screen tests for ‘Buck Rogers,’” the actress recently recalled in a chat with Closer Weekly.
“’I’m sorry, I just finished a four-to-six -eek shoot and this is my last night and you want me to screen test for ‘Buck Rogers’?’” Gray continued. “'I haven’t read a script. I know nothing about this project. Please let me go home and we can do this another day.' Nope. I came in with such an attitude. And I got the part.”
“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” which premiered in 1979, was the story of a 20th-century astronaut emerging from a 500-year stretch in suspended animation to find a strange and unfamiliar future -- and plenty of alien baddies. The light adventure series starred Gil Gerard as Capt. William “Buck" Rogers, while Gray played Col. Wilma Deering.
Gray said tackling sci-fi was daunting.
“I was scared to death on the one hand,” the 69-year-old admitted to the outlet. “You know, ‘Oh, this is science fiction, which means that everything I’m dealing with isn’t real.’ There’s no normal telephone, I’m saying words that are a little Greek and a little Latin put together to make something new. The only way I could get through it was just trying to make it as real as I possibly could.
"I think it was Barbara Stanwyck who said, ‘Speak the truth and the character will play itself.’
“That was kind of my guiding force,” Gray continued. “So it’s like: ‘OK, just make it real. Just commit to the realness of this.’ You know, use my memory training to create the reality and sort of commit to it. Again, I throw myself into things that are scary and hope for the best. The other thing is that there’s a part of my personality that is fearless, but there’s also a part of my personality that has dealt with a certain amount of abuse in my life. So there’s a very fragile part, right?”
Gray said her upbringing inspired her to take on a new challenge in Hollywood.
“There’s a part that is not used to speaking up for herself,” she explained. “I was raised as an only child in that old situation where children are to be seen and not heard. I never felt the freedom to speak up or argue or discuss certain things. My mom was a single mom and working long hours and had to fend for herself. Going into Col. Wilma Deering, I had to think, ‘How does a colonel act? ... It was like putting on a cloak of strength. I got to pretend to be strong, and it was a really wonderful exploration to bring that within myself. It was an opportunity for me to work that muscle and see how it felt. That absolutely had an impact on my life.”
Gray said Gerard was the jokester of the cast, and he put everyone at ease. Initially, she wanted to remain serious, learning as much as possible on set. However, it didn’t take long for her comedic side to shine while filming.
“First there was dead silence and then you saw the ladder with the guys holding the lights starting to shake, just dying of laughter,” said Gray. “Nobody expected that out of me. From that point on it became, like, who’s going to get the joke on camera this week? Gil, of course, had to top me, so it was a constant back and forth. Gil is very funny and there would be times when I would say to him: ‘Just shut the f---k up. Just stop. I’ve got a stitch in my side and I can’t remember my lines anymore.’ But that’s just his natural way.”
The series was relatively short-lived. It ultimately came to an end in 1981.
“I wanted to be [Wilma],” said Gray. “I didn’t want to take crap from anybody, you know. That helped that part of me to grow and, as it’s turned out, I inspired other women to be strong. I don’t feel responsible in one way because I didn’t go out there and lead the way or something — it just happened. But I’m very grateful for it. It’s a certain legacy that I have that I’m honored to have been part of.”
Still Gray recalls her time on the series as a mixed blessing.
“When I got ‘Buck Rogers,’ it was like getting the golden ring,” she explained. “I worked hard, I studied all those years in acting class, I traveled to Los Angeles and stuck it out. At the same time, I had a baby, so the timing was not really optimal. Also, I was on the set for so long, for so many hours, and sometimes sleeping in my dressing room overnight, because there was no point in driving an hour to your home and then driving an hour back to the studio.
“I might as well just stay in my dressing room kind of thing. But that pulled me away from my responsibilities as a mother and it just killed me. I ended up moving so I could be close to the studio so I could just drive home at lunchtime and just hug and feed my baby. Then head back to the studio.”
“I feel very blessed,” said Gray. “There’s no doubt I’ve had people come into my life without whom I don’t think I’d be the person I am today. I feel very blessed for the genes my parents gave me and their acumen. I’m glad I did it my way, even though I made some mistakes. I’ve been very blessed with beautiful children and an incredible husband — my second husband. ... I pinch myself every day. I’m glad I took chances. I’m glad I took risks."