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How Star Trek's Worf wasn't a wuss thanks to Michael Dorn

The star of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" talks about his first years on the show, how he turned Worf into a lovable character and why he loves his Tesla Model S.

CBS

As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I talked to a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to whether they really could speak Klingon.

When Michael Dorn was getting ready for his role as Worf on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the showrunners barely told him anything about his character.

Well, that's not entirely true. He did get one hint from Gene Roddenberry, the former airline pilot who dreamed up Star Trek. "Gene just said, 'Make the character your own,'" Dorn said.

Worf was born to a warrior race of aliens called Klingons. They routinely went to war with the United Federation of Planets, the organization upon whose Enterprise starship the show took place. Now, Worf was going to be a member of the crew.

Dorn as Worf. It may look simple, but that forehead took hours to put on.

CBS

Dorn though it would make sense a Klingon would find it hard to be accepted.

So, while watching his colleagues act out scenes without him, Dorn noticed the camaraderie developing among the characters. He decided to do something different -- make Worf an outcast.

Dorn took many subtle actions to make Worf feel out of place. For the character's voice, he spoke in lower tones and in a more deliberate way. He also made Worf seem more anxious to go to battle than the rest of the crew, always the first to warn that an alien wasn't trustworthy or that they should be ready to fire on a likely adversary.

The result was that Worf was a commanding presence. But Dorn was worried it wouldn't last. The security officer he played was routinely beat up by aliens invading the ship. Soon, he believed, the audience wouldn't trust that Worf was a capable warrior.

Roddenberry reassured him the scenes weren't meant to make Worf look weak, but rather to make the invading aliens look strong. Still, Dorn protested. So they found a compromise. Worf would use sword-like weapons in battle, making him seem more capable and harder to defeat.

After some research, Dorn and the show's visual-effects producer, Dan Curry, invented the bat'leth, a double-sided scimitar-like weapon. They also created a form of Klingon martial arts with which to use this new weapon in battle.

The bat'leth has since become one of the most iconic pieces of Star Trek lore.

Skipping the scary stunts

After Dorn and Curry came up with an idea about how a battle should unfold, they'd bring it to the stunt choreographers. Worf may have always been a man of action, but Dorn, the actor, wasn't always willing to do the stunts.

startrek50cropped2.jpg

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In one episode, "Ethics," some cargo fell and landed on Worf, paralyzing him. Dorn remembers that for the scene, the camera crew wanted to show the viewpoint of the barrel as it fell. "This 500-pound camera is coming down," he remembers, "and they said, 'Don't worry, we know what we're doing.'" Dorn opted to use a double.

Dorn, now 63, went on to become one of the most prolific actors in the Star Trek universe. He signed on as a regular on "The Next Generation," which ran from 1987-1994 and then "Deep Space Nine," which ran from 1993-1999. He ultimately appeared in 277 episodes by one count. He's also appeared in five movies: "The Undiscovered Country," "Generations," "First Contact," "Insurrection" and "Nemesis."

Getting into makeup for the character helped Dorn become one of the most well-informed actors on the set. It took two and a half hours in the makeup chair for a prosthetic forehead to be painstakingly attached to his own, giving him plenty of time to read the Los Angeles Times cover to cover and finish the crossword puzzle.

What made Worf popular, Dorn thinks, wasn't how he was different from his shipmates, but how similar he was. The Sting song in which he sings, "I hope the Russians love their children too," is how Dorn said he thought of Worf's character. "I keep that with me -- of course they do, everybody loves their children." Even the Klingons.

Dorn still acts, though he spends more time these days in stage plays. He's currently preparing for a production of "Antony and Cleopatra" in Orlando, Florida.

Here are edited excerpts of Dorn's answers to our warp-speed (make that Worf speed) round of questions.

What piece of Star trek tech do you wish we had today?
I'd like a warp drive. I'm a speed freak (he's also a pilot). I love jets, and the faster the better. To take off from where I live and go around the moon in 10 minutes or so, that'd be pretty cool.

What's your favorite piece of real-world tech you have today?
The smartphone is the most amazing thing I've ever seen. I was dating this lady in Seattle. I was in Germany at a convention and we were Skyping. Then I said, "I've got to go downstairs because they have this party that they have for the actors, and I have to go make an appearance." She goes, "Take me down with you." So I leave the room, go down in the elevator, I'm talking to her the whole time, go into the party, and I'm showing her the party on the phone. And that to me is insane.

Worf in action with his bat'leth.

CBS/TrekCore

But I gotta tell you, I just got a Tesla S. And that is an amazing piece of machinery. It's a little egotistical because I'm driving on the freeway and I'm looking around going, 'I can smoke everybody on this freeway.' If there's a Bugatti or something like that, OK maybe not. But everybody else, I can just smoke them.

Who's your favorite captain?
I love Kirk for the time, but I think Patrick (Stewart, who played Jean-Luc Picard on "The Next Generation") is probably the archetypal captain I think there would be if Star Trek was real. That's the kind of guy that you would have.

He became more like a hero type later on in the movies and the latter stages of the TV show. But at the very beginning, he was a guy that sat and he asked for opinion. He got something from everybody and then he made up his decision from there. He was very cerebral, I think that's what it would be.

I also liked him because he wasn't a big guy. But his being, who he is, his outer-ness, made him seem a lot taller. You really didn't see him as shorter than you. And that to me is part of it. That you don't have to have a full head of hair. Or you don't have to be 6'1" or 6'2" to be in command. I think he epitomized that whole thing.

Did you ever have to learn Klingon?
No, no. There's a dictionary -- a Klingon-to-English, English-to-Klingon dictionary. So, you never had to speak it. And they don't do a lot of Klingon talk on the show. You know, there's not paragraphs of dialogue or soliloquies and things like that in Klingon.

Except for when they translated Hamlet.
But we didn't have to say it on the show. You had a line here and a line there, so that was kind of it. You didn't have a chance to really learn.

Star Wars or Star Trek?
I was a big fan of both but...they couldn't be more different. Star Wars was just a different feel altogether. It was so smart. That exciting and epic moment when Vader comes on the scene -- I mean, have you ever seen anybody more evil? You know? It was just great.

After the second one, he says, "Luke, I am your father." I'll be honest, I think the whole audience was like, "My God!" I didn't see it coming.

There's definitely room for both. Star Trek and Star Wars are two different things.