Tony Earnshaw: Why the star quality of actors like Sir Patrick Stewart never gets old

News that Sir Patrick Stewart is to return to TV screens as Jean-Luc Picard, the signature role that turned him into a cult figure, surprised sci-fi fans all over the planet. It may even have surprised Stewart himself.
Sir Patrick Stewart has come to an acceptance - he can afford to embrace the monster he created. (PA).Sir Patrick Stewart has come to an acceptance - he can afford to embrace the monster he created. (PA).
Sir Patrick Stewart has come to an acceptance - he can afford to embrace the monster he created. (PA).

Maybe after the film and stage successes that followed it, Stewart has come to an acceptance: he can afford to embrace the monster that he created. For make no mistake about it, Stewart became inseparable from Star Trek. It took him a long time to shake off the character – not an easy thing after seven years and 176 episodes. What was initially the fans’ problem became something he inherited. And it irked him.

When I first met Stewart in 2001 he was mindful of the burden of Picard and was keen to focus attention on the work that had followed it. By then the TV series had been overtaken by movies including X-Men, the beginning of a franchise that would arguably eclipse Picard and Co.

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It wasn’t that Star Trek was off the agenda for journalists, just that Stewart was tired of it. In fact it never became a banned subject, just that interviewers invariably received a somewhat weary answer.

Thus Patrick Stewart joined a long line of actors who had enjoyed the fruits of a role but who also sought to shrug off the shackles that accompanied it. That particular ensemble included Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford.

Yet the other link is that each and every one of them eventually returned to the role that made their name, albeit in most cases when they were probably too old. Connery was 53 when Never Say Never Again was released in 1983. Thirteen years later he made The Rock, in which his ex-SAS hard man John Mason was 007 by another name.

Eastwood was almost 60 when he hung up his guns as Dirty Harry in The Dead Pool. He made the right decision not to return in his dotage. Bruce Willis took 12 years to reprise John McClane after Die Hard with a Vengeance. Harrison Ford waited even longer: 19 years between 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Most agreed that he waited too long.

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As for Mel Gibson, he vacillated over a Mad Max reboot for so long that after his career hit the skids the film was remade with Tom Hardy. And that’s that.

The one who played it cool was Sylvester Stallone. When he fell foul of fickle fans he went away and resurrected not one iconic character – Rocky Balboa – but also John Rambo. And he gave action fans The Expendables, too.

Who knows why the time is suddenly right for the return of Jean-Luc Picard. Maybe Stewart is eyeing a pension. A quarter of a century has passed. He’s now 78. But quality never gets old.