To Star Trek fans, Armin Shimerman is the actor behind one of the most memorable characters to ever inhabit that universe - Deep Space Nine’s Ferengi extraordinaire, Quark.
To Buffy fans, he will always be the ill-tempered Principal Snyder.
He’s also a distinguished stage actor and author (check out his Merchant Prince series), and was another in the long line of my in-depth interviews done on a whim.
I do, however, recall that this whim had its origins in a DVD-fueled binge of both Buffy and Deep Space Nine. Usually these types of immersive binges would lead me to begin tracking down various creators and castmembers of said shows and flicks. That was certainly the case here - and thankfully, I found a wonderful, down-to-earth, fascinating guy, and I hope that translates to print in the interview below.
KEN PLUME: Am I correct in understanding that you’re originally from Lakewood, New Jersey?
ARMIN SHIMERMAN: Yes … a small town in the mid-section of New Jersey, Ocean County. It was a great, great childhood and it was a terrific town - probably still is. I haven’t been there for decades. I keep waiting for them to invite me back to be sort of a VIP at one of their parades, but it hasn’t happened yet.
PLUME: So now you’re dropping hints…
SHIMERMAN: I am.
PLUME: How would you describe small town life in the ’50s?
SHIMERMAN: In the ’50s, yeah. Well, we went to a very small school. The town was dominated by the lake - it froze over in the winter and you skated on it in winter and you swam in it in summer. We kept the doors wide open, everybody knew everybody else… it was a small town. It had a lot of history, so we were always discovering new things about the town. That was kind of wonderful. We were right next door to Lakehurst. Most of my youth I watched the blimps fly over, because it was one of the last dirigible naval bases in the country. So we just grew up with blimps flying over all the time. When I look back on it now, I was very blessed to have been born there and to have grown up there.
PLUME: It almost seems like a stereotypical, ’50s childhood in a small town.
SHIMERMAN: It was. We had some problems, surely. My family was not very well-to-do, and I came from a divorced family and we were always struggling to make ends meet. But my brother and I never knew about that - my mother and my grandmother took care of that, sort of kept that from us. We had good friends, and great neighborhoods, and it didn’t seem to matter. It didn’t make any difference.
PLUME: And you were the first generation American citizen in your family, right?
SHIMERMAN: My mom was first generation on her side, but on my father’s side, I was indeed the first generation.
PLUME: Was there a certain view that you attained via that, as far as a certain way of viewing the country or the way you fit in?
SHIMERMAN: It wasn’t so much viewing the country, but because my father had struggled all of his life and actually had done well in his struggles, although he was always poor, he and my mother - my mother primarily - taught me to be self-reliant, to look towards goals, to try to achieve the best I could. One of the great things about the small town I was in was it had a terrific school system and my teachers were wonderful. They taught me a great deal, and with the tools that they gave me, when I finally moved to Los Angeles in my junior year of high school, I was way ahead of the class.
PLUME: At that time, if someone would have asked you when you were 14 or 15, what would you have said that your goals were?
SHIMERMAN: I probably would have told you that I was going to grow up to be an attorney. Or possibly a writer. When I was 11 or 12, I was doing some writing and actually got published in a magazine at that time. It was never a serious thing, because the family ethic was to grow up and make money. They were very disappointed when I became an actor. But an attorney seemed like the right thing. I’m not sure why, when I look back on it. But I’m sure that at that age that is exactly what I was telling people I was going to grow up to be.
PLUME: Just because it seemed like the right thing to do?
SHIMERMAN: Yeah, because it was the right thing to do.
PLUME: It’s kind of ironic, because didn’t your mother set you on the path to acting?
SHIMERMAN: In a sense. What she did was she had a distant cousin who was a drama teacher in Los Angeles, and when my family moved to Los Angeles when I was 16, she felt that a great way for me to make friends would be through this drama club that her distant cousin was running. That was the beginning of the end.
PLUME: Moving to L.A. must have been quite a culture shock.
SHIMERMAN: It was. It was a great culture shock.
PLUME: That was height of the ’60s, right?
SHIMERMAN: Yeah, we moved in, I would say ‘65, ‘66… I’m not really sure. One of those two years. I know when we moved to Los Angeles, as we were coming down the freeway for the first time, we saw smoke - it was exactly the week that the Watts riots happened. We moved to LA during the riots. But it was a cultural shock. It was a big city, and my brother and I weren’t really used to that.
PLUME: Was your natural tendency to withdraw within?
SHIMERMAN: Exactly. The tendency was to withdraw, to stay to ourselves, to sort of bitch and moan about the fact that we’d lost all our friends. But my mom made a tremendous sacrifice. She moved all of us for many reasons, but one of the primary reasons was so that I would have residency requirements for UCLA, which I eventually attended.
PLUME: Was it her understanding that you were going to be going for law?
SHIMERMAN: I don’t think she was specific about what I was supposed to go for, but she knew that I had to go to college, and she knew that the UC system was a terrifically good system and that you needed to be a resident of California for two years to get the special tuition rates. So she moved us out, as I said, in my junior year so that I would make the residency requirements. I don’t think she cared whether I was an attorney or not… I think she did care when I first told her I was going to be an actor, but that wasn’t really until after I graduated. The moment after I graduated, I immediately went to work for the Globe Theater in San Diego, and that was the path that I took for the rest of my life.
PLUME: When you were first applying …
SHIMERMAN: When I first applied, I had a poly-sci major, so I assumed I was going to be a lawyer.
PLUME: How quickly did the acting bug hit you - and what exactly was the drama club?
SHIMERMAN: The drama club was a local club that was attached to a local community center in Los Angeles. I joined that when we first moved here, and then in the senior year of my high school days, I no longer belonged to that club, because in the high school years, I continually did plays in high school and was the lead in two of the three productions we did that year.
PLUME: Which productions were they?
SHIMERMAN: The first one was The Crucible, John Proctor was the character. The second one, I was not the lead, but I played Claudius in Hamlet. The third was Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.
PLUME: Rather intense characters…
SHIMERMAN: They were. I had a wonderful drama teacher, and he taught us to love great literature - especially Shakespeare. For many years after high school and college, that is primarily what I did, was classical theater.
PLUME: Did that instantly appeal to you?
SHIMERMAN: Yes… It was the language, it was the scope of the characters, it was the puzzle. When you work with Shakespeare, it’s a puzzle, and you have to solve the puzzle. It’s the solving of the puzzle that was always enormously important to me. Even to this day when I research Shakespeare, if I come upon a puzzle that I haven’t solved before, I spend most of the day trying to work it out.
PLUME: So it’s as much an intellectual exercise as it is an emotional one…
PLUME: Right off the bat that struck you in that way?
SHIMERMAN: Yeah, yeah. Because the language was really hard for a high school student to understand. It was in English - you figure you should be able to understand it. My high school teacher, he helped me with the challenge and he also nurtured my talent and kept asking me to do more and more, and it was, I guess, part of being a small town kid - being in the large city, it was a way of disappearing out of the city and going into a more familiar world… even if it wasn’t familiar, it could be familiar after several weeks of rehearsal.
PLUME: Especially after you had invested the time to, as you say, unlock the puzzle.
PLUME: So it was almost a mastering of the domain within which you’d placed yourself…
SHIMERMAN: Exactly. Ironically enough, the local business that I own is called Mastering Shakespeare, so mastering is exactly the right word.
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