There are the A-List actors who show up in a few things, but then there are those lucky actors who show up in everything. The late William Morgan Sheppard, often credited as W. Morgan Sheppard in his almost countless appearances in American TV and film (and as Bill Morgan in his animation voice acting career), was one of those guys who showed up in everything. You might not recognize his name, but his face and voice were unmistakable.
Ironically, his best-known part, and one of his few starring roles, was the character who permanently relocated him from the U.K. to the U.S.: Blank Reg, the aging punk with his own mobile pirate TV station, from Max Headroom. He was one of only three cast members to carry over from the original 1985 Channel 4 TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future to the American series meant to capitalize on the character’s fame as an ironic, self-parodying advertising icon.
Born in London in 1932, Mr. Sheppard was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and a long-standing associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, though his acting career was something of a late development for him. After his service in the British Royal Navy, he took up a career as a salesman, though he was already trying his hand at stand-up comedy. A lengthy hospital stay and a surgical mishap left him with a glass eye and a distinctive scar even before he stepped onto the stage as an actor; early in his career, he was cast as characters older than his actual age. Just a few years into his acting career, he had already made the leap to Broadway in a 1966 production of Marat/Sade, and would go on to play a role in the 1967 film version of the play.
In the U.K., he interspersed his busy schedule of stage work with a steady diet of TV roles in the likes of The Sweeney, Z Cars, Target, The Onedin Line, The Professionals, Hammer House Of Horror, and The New Avengers, among others. Somewhere around his appearance in the 1980 miniseries Shogun, Sheppard made his way to the big screen, with appearances in The Elephant Man and Hawk The Slayer, while still doing numerous TV guest roles (including 1981’s BBC-TV adaptation of Day Of The Triffids).
In the immediate aftermath of Channel 4’s Max Headroom movie, Sheppard was back to work on the likes of the HTV West/Disney co-production Return To Treasure Island, as the character of Max Headroom spun off into a wacky music video/interview show on his own, with no Blank Reg needed. But with Max also carving a path through 1980s pop culture in the United States, ABC snatched up the rights to a continuing series built around the character, very much in the vein of 20 Minutes Into The Future, and in fact compressing the script for the Channel 4 movie down into a tightly condensed 45 minutes for the American premiere. Alongside Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays, Sheppard was seen as enough of a vital presence in the U.K. movie to merit bringing him to the States to reprise his role.
Other work on American TV quickly followed: Fox’s short-lived early series Werewolf, the TV movie Gunsmoke: Return To Dodge, an appearance on the big screen in Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark, and the first of many appearances in a franchise he graced with his performance many times over the next 20 years, as the dying cyberneticist Dr. Ira Graves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Schizoid Man (leaving Brent Spiner the unenviable task of having to split the difference between his own performance as Data while echoing Sheppard’s character for the remainder of the episode).
Though he appeared in movies such as Wild At Heart and shows like the original MacGyver, Designing Women, and Murder, She Wrote, Sheppard’s presence on the American sci-fi landscape seemed to be cemented with a second Star Trek appearance (as the brutish Klingon jailer on the planet Rura Penthe in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). Genre appearances piled up fast and thick after that: a recurring role as the Professor advising Captain Bridger’s crew in the first season of seaQuest DSV, a pivotal character in the final episode of Quantum Leap, the Soul Hunter in the early Babylon 5 episode of the same name, and a return to that same show in Narn makeup during its second season. That makeup almost became a semi-permanent fixture, by the way: Sheppard had been the runner-up for the role of Narn Ambassador G’Kar in the original 1993 Babylon 5 pilot movie, ultimately losing out to Andreas Katsulas late in the casting process.
The 1990s also saw Sheppard move into a new realm providing voices for animation, playing Lawrence Limburger in Biker Mice From Mars and the characters of both Odin and Petros Xanatos (the father of a character voiced by Jonathan Frakes) in Disney’s animated series Gargoyles. An appeareance in the full-motion video segments of 1996’s Zork: Nemesis computer game heralded his arrival in the medium of video games, though more often than not he would be a voice rather than a face, contributing his distinctive voice to such games as Outlaws, Escape From Monkey Island, Metal Gear Solid 2, the Medal Of Honor franchise, and as the narrator of Sid Meier’s Civilization V.
He would return twice again to Star Trek – a Voyager episode (Bliss) in 1999, and an uncredited cameo as the head of the Vulcan Science Academy in 2009’s big-screen reboot of the original characters – while also guest starring in Charmed, JAG, TimeCop, Kingdom Hospital, Gilmore Girls, Criminal Minds, Legend Of The Seeker, Mad Men, Dexter, The Librarians, and a memorable Doctor Who appearance in 2011, playing the elderly version of a character played by his son, Mark Sheppard, already a genre favorite in his own right. (The two had also appeared together in an episode of NCIS, repeating the handy casting trick of playing the older and younger versions of the same character, possibly inspiring the Doctor Who casting.)
In an interview with Whatculture.com, Sheppard said that his job as a character actor was to keep the stars of any given show honest. Judging by the sheer number of high-profile guest starring roles on both side of the Atlantic, W. Morgan Sheppard must surely have been a master of his craft – an actor shows up that many times, in that many shows, by being that good.
William Morgan Sheppard died at the age of 86 in Los Angeles on January 6th, 2019.
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