Brent Spiner gazes into a mirror and does a double take. The image in the looking glass is not one he's grown accustomed to seeing, i.e., the golden android Data he played on TNG. Instead, the man in the mirror - dressed in baggy pants, bowler hat, and bow tie - is a very reasonable facsimile of Stan Laurel, one of Spiner's heroes. Spiner flexes his eyebrows, widens his eyes, juts out his jaw, and curls his mouth into a "don't worry, be happy" smile that creases his face like an ill-folded napkin. The transformation is complete when he delivers a famous Laurel line. "And our wives will be none the wiser," he says, while simulating the comic's mousy voice, loping gate, and delicate hand gestures.
Spiner, an aficionado of classic comedians, has studied the shticks of Laurel, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, and Jerry Lewis, and, on a moment's notice, he can conjure an imitation of any one of them. He can also tell you little-known facts about their lives. He knows, for example, that Laurel was married eight times (including three times each to two women); that Charlie Chaplin would shoot 100 takes of a scene to arrive at one that satisfied him; and that Jack Benny told the gag that got the longest laugh on radio from a studio audience (Mugger: "Your money or your life!" Benny: [pause] "I'm thinking it over").
"I don't really trust someone who doesn't think Laurel and Hardy are funny," says Spiner, with deadpan delivery, adding that many of the lessons he learned from studying classic comedians surfaced in his portrayal of Data. 'Data was very verbose, but many of his reactions were silent. I'm sure that a lot of Buster Keaton worked its way into Data's stone face." Spiner also credits classic comics with shaping his perspective on life. 'There's absolutely nothing that's not worth laughing about," he volunteers. 'Comedy comes out of pain. If it don't hurt, it ain't funny."
That said, it's clear that Spiner suffers the angst common to most Trek actors: Will the industry ever see me as anything other than a live action-figure? Will I be pigeonholed for the rest of my life? Do people realize there's Data and then there's me?
Spiner is especially aware of that last one, which was driven home recently when MIT invited him to lecture on any topic he's like. "I thought about speaking on how to program your VCR," he says with a laugh. "That's as much as I know about science."
One thing Spiner did not find particularly amusing, however, was criticism of his character in Star Trek: Generations. Some reviewers criticized Data's new-found sense of humor - the result of having an emotion chip implanted in his positronic matrix - as juvenile and cheap. "I thought Data's evolution with humor started at the right place," the actor says a little defensively. "We've got to have room to grow here - we've got more movies to make. Now I'm looking forward to the lust chip."