[This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on Simple Tricks and Nonsense.]
“So what do you do?”
It was a simple question, but nevertheless, I was taken aback by it. I’ve met quite a few celebrities in my time, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had good experiences with the majority of them. But only two of them have ever asked me what I do for a living. And one of those was Richard Hatch, who died last week at the age of 71.
Hatch is best known to we children of the ’70s for playing Captain Apollo in the 1978 television series Battlestar Galactica. He also had a significant role as Tom Zarek in the Galactica remake, but personally, I never could get into that one, for reasons that don’t really matter right now. Suffice it to say that, for me, he was Apollo, the son of the noble Commander Adama, the adoptive father of an orphaned boy named Boxey, and the levelheaded best friend to everybody’s favorite cigar-chomping scoundrel, Lieutenant Starbuck.
From the time I was about Boxey’s age until well into my twenties, I wanted to be like Starbuck: impetuous, devil-may-care, cool. But I always knew in my heart that I more closely resembled sensitive and responsible Apollo. Also, as silly as this may sound, I identified with Apollo because he — or rather, Hatch — was a southpaw. You see, I went through this phase as a kid when I was very self-conscious about being left-handed, the result of a misguided school administrator’s efforts to make me conform to societal norms. (The short version is that I started school showing signs of being ambidextrous, or at least I was trying to be, and The Man found that… unacceptable. Eventually, I settled into using just one hand, but the whole experience left me with a bit of a complex.) The day I realized that Apollo wore his laser pistol on the left side and still managed to be bad-ass — a quick draw and a dead-eye shot, as we saw when he easily bested the Cylon duelist Red-Eye in “The Lost Warrior” — well, that was incredibly validating and reassuring to a certain young boy who struggled with the fear that something must be wrong with him because of which hand he held his pencil in.
When I met Richard Hatch at the first Salt Lake Comic Con in 2013, I told him about the left-handed thing. Now, I’m fully aware that actors at conventions hear all kinds of stories about how much their work means to the supplicants on the other side of the autograph table, and that at a certain level all these stories must sound pretty much the same. I’m also not naive about how convention appearances are just another type of performance, or that the celebrity guests are essentially paid to be kind to gushy fans. But Richard had a way of making it difficult to feel cynical about these things. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the thoughts and experiences of the people he spoke with, and he gave me the impression that my story was one he hadn’t heard before. He certainly appeared to light up when I finally got to the point. He seemed both humbled and proud that he’d once helped a kid feel better about himself, and he thanked me for sharing something so personal.
“There wasn’t anything condescending or conceited in his advice. We were just a couple guys with similar interests talking about our experiences and ideas.”
On the second day of the convention, I decided I wanted to get a photo of myself with him to go with the previous day’s autograph, so I went back to his table. I have no idea whether he recognized me or remembered the story about the left-handed kid, but he was friendly and graciously came out from behind his table for a quick snapshot. Then he shook my hand and I figured we were done. But before I could walk away, he surprised me with his question: “So what do you do?”
“I’m a proofreader for an advertising agency,” I answered, hoping I wasn’t stammering too much.
“Oh, so you’re really a writer, then?” he said, with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
I smiled. “I take it you’ve met a few of us?”
He laughed in return. “A few. What do you write?”
And from there we proceeded to have a conversation, a real conversation in which he offered me his perspective on living a creative life, and how not to get discouraged when the necessity of paying the bills gets in the way of your art. He also gave some practical tips about self-publishing and his thoughts about where that area was headed in the future.
There wasn’t anything condescending or conceited in his advice. We were just a couple guys with similar interests talking about our experiences and ideas. Significantly, he listened as much as he spoke. And after a few minutes I walked away feeling like I’d made a real friend. Not one I was likely to ever see again, and certainly not one who would remember me if I ever did, but for the short duration of our conversation, Richard Hatch had been something more than a boyhood hero.
He wasn’t “Apollo” or an idol on a pedestal, throwing his shadow over this little person who stood in awe of him because he’d once been on TV. He was just another human being, a guy named Richard… a guy I really liked. And who I like to think liked me, at least for a moment.
Rest well, my friend. And thanks. For everything.