The mighty starship Galactica hurtles through space like a celestial Noah's Ark, its desperate crew pursued by the sinister robot race of Cylons. But the pressing question of the hour is not whether humankind can survive an outer-space Armageddon. It is whether ABC will strike it rich on the biggest roll of the dice in TV history.
Never mind that the cost of Battle-star Galactica alone is already mind-boggling—$7 million for the first seven hours and a total price tag far greater than that of the show's generic daddy, Star Wars. Universal has shipped film crews to Egypt to shoot the exteriors of pyramids and has sunk a sizable fortune in cinemagician John Dykstra's special effects. Mattel, Inc. is shipping a line of Galactica toys for Christmas. And 20th Century-Fox, not to be outdone, has filed a lawsuit charging a Star Wars rip-off.
The biggest gamble of all, of course, is that the whole megillah is riding on a crew composed largely of greenhorns. Sure, old hand Lorne Greene is around to add Pa Cartwright ballast. But just a few years ago Dirk Benedict was bumming his way around the U.S. Richard Hatch was about to have The Streets of San Francisco canceled on him after his first season. Maren Jensen was hitting the books at UCLA. And Laurette Spang was flat broke and evicted. Today they make up an improbable ingenue foursome—all attractive and unmarried to boot—that is helping Galactica churn out more sexual tension per hour than any Sunday night show since I, Claudius.
"We're all a little panicky," admits producer Greg Larson. But the stars have struck it off well together, and the ratings, so far at least, are stratospheric. Still, Benedict for one is uneasy about the media hype. "We're all beginning to feel like the Bruce Springsteen of television," he frets. Not to worry. Soaring out of the darkness of Burbank at $300 per second, Galactica may be born to run—and rerun and rerun—with its wandering, and wondering, crew.
Lorne's in the green
At 63, Lorne Greene hadn't planned on becoming "the Moses of outer space"—as he perceives his Galactica alter ego, Adama. He stopped roaming the Ponderosa five years ago and today, as a Hollywood multimillionaire, hardly needs another bonanza. Greene and his wife, Nancy, 45, had been planning to spend the summer fixing up their new vacation home on Lake Tahoe before the go-ahead came for Galactica. "I'll admit I was dismayed," he says.
But as the series' most experienced actor by far ("Heavens, I grew up watching him," sighs Laurette Spang), Greene has adjusted comfortably to his off-camera role as paterfamilias. That includes trying to convert his young co-stars to his vitamin-popping regimen and a breakfast gruel of soy lecithin, wheat germ, bonemeal and brewer's yeast. For exercise, he swats tennis balls with Nancy and their daughter, Gillian, 10, at their four-level home in L.A.'s pricey Mandeville Canyon. (The Ottawa-born Greene also has two grown children from an early first marriage.)
A committed ecologist whose recent syndicated series, Last of the Wild, championed endangered species, Greene has served on government boards concerned with world hunger. His Colorado mineral fertilizer firm has developed a hormone that dramatically increases crop yields, a process Lorne recently demonstrated to a Jordanian official. Spurred by Nancy, a defense analyst at a La Jolla think tank, Lorne started campaigning for feminist causes like ERA in his 60s. "It took six months of training, but I am now a liberated man," he says.
Dirk sows his oats
A few years back, when both were appearing in Broadway's Butterflies Are Free, Dirk Benedict tried to date co-star Pam Bellwood, now in NBC's W.E.B. "I asked her out to dinner," Benedict recalls with a laugh. "She said, 'Are you kidding?' She thought I was the biggest hayseed she'd ever met."
True, Dirk is a country boy from White Sulphur Springs, Mont. (pop. 1,400), but it took more than his home-on-the-range good looks to win the role as Galactica's raffish, cheroot-puffing Lieutenant Starbuck. Benedict, it seems, is emerging as the show's lady-killer, on camera and off, because, says Laurette Spang, "He goes around turning on the girls like a light bulb." "I admit I'm a flirt," agrees Benedict, 33. "In college I used to have every girl I wanted, but the relationships were not very deep." Who's he dating now? "I can't remember," he jokes. "Get me the cast list."
Born to outdoorsman-lawyer George Niewoehner and his wife ("You can see why I changed my name"), Benedict spent summers as a wrangler on his uncle's ranch. "By the time I was 101 drove a tractor, lived in the bunkhouse and learned to smoke cigars and drink just like any of the hands," he recalls. "It's the kind of background that gives a kid a real sense of self-reliance." In high school he was an honor student and class president. The day his football team played for the state championship, Dirk remembers, "The sun was shining on the snow in the mountains and my family and cheerleader girlfriend were there. I didn't think I would ever be that excited again."
Unexpectedly, he was—by his studies in classical music and drama at Washington's Whitman College. They led to summer stock in the Midwest and a location trip to Sweden. Then in 1971 Dirk made it to Broadway with Diana Rigg in Abelard and Heloise before slipping into TV guest roles (Hawaii Five-O), forgettable movies (Sssssss) and a series (Chopper One) that crashed after one season.
By 1974 Benedict decided to chuck it all and thumb his way around the country. "I slept out under the stars," he remembers, "and once spent a wonderful morning sharing some beans with a gentleman hobo by the side of the railroad tracks." Later he toured with Lucie Arnaz in Li'l Abner before taking his place on Galactica. "I have this Zen feeling that if you want something too much you will never get it," he muses. "Or if you do get it, it's not what you thought it would be. I will enjoy the things that come my way."
Richard Hatch seeks truth
Near the wrap-up of one solemn Galactica scene, Lorne Greene turned to Richard Hatch, who plays his son, Captain Apollo, and thundered, "You pompous little son of a bitch." Stunned silence fell on the set, then everyone howled with relief. The ad-lib had been written into the script to ease tensions.
Not so long ago, though, the epithet might have been heartfelt. As Michael Douglas' admittedly headstrong replacement on The Streets of San Francisco, Hatch was the co-star Karl Maiden must have wished he had left home without. "I was impatient," Hatch, 32, now admits. "I was learning to cope with the celebrity part, and I had a lot of growing up to do." He turned down Galactica initially because "it seemed too limited and narrow," and didn't change his mind until the script was revised. Even Star Wars, he says, "fell short of what it could have been. It lacked a sense of truth."
Born in Santa Monica, Hatch, a reformed high school beachboy, got hooked on acting at San Pedro's Harbor College. After two years on ABC's All My Children and with TV movies like Dead Man's Curve to his credit, he is the most seasoned of Galactica's younger generation. "But acting is not enough for me ultimately," says Hatch, who has formed a production company with his manager. "Anyone who is creative and reaches a point of authority feels this way."
A health food convert, like Benedict, Hatch relaxes with yoga and T'ai Chi. He is remodeling the first house he has ever owned, in L.A.'s Benedict Canyon, "trying to find what really expresses me." Though Hatch claims to be involved in several "meaningful relationships," he prefers not to narrow the field. "It would take a lot of trust," he says. "Once you are well-known, people get crazy. You don't know whether it's you or your image."
Laurette as Lombard?
As Cassiopea, Battlestar's "Socialator," Laurette Spang plays a sort of intergalactic Mary Magdalene. Her first love scenes with Dirk Benedict were so steamy that ABC demanded a re-shooting. "That's a compliment," says Laurette, 27, with a giggle. "You'll never hear me complaining about re-shooting love scenes with Dirk."
Their on-set chemistry has proved so explosive, in fact, that Laurette's role is being enlarged. "She and Dirk are going to be the Gable and Lombard of outer space," says producer Larson. But there's a problem. "Let's face it," says Laurette, "the Socialator is a hooker. That worries ABC. I think I'm doomed to be reshot as Nurse Nancy."
Still, Laurette knows that any part is better than nothing. As a struggling young actress, she recalls, "I hit the unemployment lines in 1976 and was evicted from my apartment. Finally I started getting some TV, and then Galactica came along." The salary should enable her to indulge in hobbies like trapshooting and scuba diving, but a recent fling at skydiving ended unhappily. "I landed in an onion field on my rear end, and it was really sore. But the doctor said it's pretty hard to put that part of your anatomy in a sling."
Painfully shy as a child, Laurette grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich, and was persuaded to enter speech class by her divorced parents. At 17, she brazened her way onto the set of the Gothic soap Dark Shadows to announce she was going to be an actress. The cast took her under its wing and later helped her win a scholarship to New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. That led to summer stock, TV guest shots (Happy Days, Lou Grant) and a part in Airport '75. Though her No. 1 suitor is actor Don Mantooth, Laurette feels she's not ready for a deeper commitment. "Right now," she says, "I'm happy with my little apartment, my moped and a steady job."
Maren breaks out
Several years ago Maren Jensen was a UCLA prelaw drudge who kept herself in pocket money by making pizzas and waiting on tables. "After three years I said the hell with it. I thought there must be a better way."
Dropping out of school, Maren left her Arcadia, Calif. home to try modeling. Soon the 57" Jensen's exotic Danish-Hawaiian beauty was splashed across the covers of Vogue and Mademoiselle. Acting lessons prepared her for the Galactica role as Greene's daughter, Athena (her first major dramatic credit), and a $100,000 contract. "I'm a little concerned about what will happen to my life if I become a star," admits Maren, 22. She is keeping her old Santa Monica house and still sees her guitarist boyfriend of four years.
So far, Maren acknowledges Galactica has produced "some stress, physically and mentally, and a lot of anxiety." But, as a onetime Star Trekkie, she remains loyal to Galactica's premise and seems grateful that her unisex uniform does not cling like a wetsuit. "This is not a boobs show, and I'm glad," she maintains. "Besides, it sure beats waiting on tables."