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The Final Frontier 

Sci-fi conventions are where movie stars go to burn brightly one more time

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
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For two days, men dressed as Boba Fett, Imperial storm troopers, Qui-Gon Jinn, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Captain Kirk, and Klingons strut through the convention center. With pistols and light sabers in hand, they swagger through the crowd; they float, convinced for a handful of moments that they are indeed heroes instead of junior-college students, housewives, and accountants. One young man, dressed in his homemade Boba Fett uniform, admits that "Halloween, sci-fi conventions, and Renaissance fairs are the highlight of my year." Another Boba Fett--a 22-year-old junior-college student from East Texas--explains his collecting fetish inevitably led to his designing and donning the suit. "But I have more fun wearing it in a non-sci-fi setting," he says. "Sometimes, we like to barge into a mall, but there has to be a group of you in uniform, because sometimes they give you crap. We live in a town where if you don't look normal, they give you crap."

In the convention center's main hall, exhibitors peddle their exotic wares: Klingon hockey jerseys, Japanese Star Trek posters, bootlegged video tapes of unaired television shows, authentic Star Wars props, wrestling junk and comic-book porn, and on and on until it begins to resemble the world's largest science-fantasy garage sale. Puzzles, toys, games, dolls, and comic books thrown out years ago now go for dollars on the penny; a Starsky & Hutch doll set, still in the original box, sells to a fat, bespectacled man in his 50s for $250. There is no such thing as detritus to a collector of science-fiction memorabilia: One man's trash is another fetishist's treasure.

But the money flows most freely during the autograph sessions, where grown men happily hand over $20 bills for the signatures of cinema's benchwarmers. Richard Kiel charges no less than $15, which, as a starting price, gets you a signed black-and-white photo. Kiel, like all the celebrities in attendance, brings his own photos, and his assortment spills onto several tables. One can pick from The Longest Yard, Force 10 from Navarone, Happy Gilmore, even The Monkees and Cannonball Run II, but the Bond pictures sell best. Twenty bucks and up get you a color picture, a personalized signature, and a private moment with Kiel, during which he'll grab your head and let you feel like James Bond, if but for a moment.

"I've been with other actors who have the one show they did, and all the questions are about that one show, and that would get to be nerve-racking," says the 60-year-old Kiel. "But I still work, even though I was in a car wreck and I have some physical limitations. People still use me, so when someone asks me, 'What have you done lately?' I don't have to cringe. I enjoy this. I live in a tiny town of 7,500 people, and everybody knows me as Archie and Jennifer's father or Diane's husband, and I'm no big deal, so it's kinda nice to go from that--'Would you unload the dishwasher?'--to being a movie star for a moment."

Kiel, like Glover, did not appear on the convention circuit until this year; he was simply too busy to catch a ride on the gravy train. But neighbor Grace Lee Whitney, best known as Yeoman Rand on the original Star Trek, convinced Kiel there was fun to be had and money to be made; the con game is a lucrative one. Kiel attended his first convention in Los Angeles at the beginning of the year, and he figures he will start going to one every other month. How can one turn down adoration and a payday?

Ask them why they do it, and they tell you it's for the fans, which is a little like a stripper telling you she's dancing to put herself through law school. And the fans buy it at $20 a pop, the going rate for a celebrity's signature and, perhaps coincidentally, a lap dance at most topless bars. Kenny Baker, Star Wars' R2-D2 and a ubiquitous presence at the Hollywood Expo, has the car collection to show for his hard work. The con circuit has made him a fortune.

Others are just along for the thrill of it, the loose change and chance to be honored once more before fading into history. Timothy Moxon's biography sits in front of him on a table, to remind those who walk by that he is indeed someone who, however briefly, sat in fame's warming light. Moxon has made but two films, the most recent of which was 33 years ago, but the former solider in the Royal Air Force who served during World War II refuses to be forgotten. He appeared, for a small moment, as Strangways in 1962's Dr. No, the first Bond film, and it was a flicker that has lasted a lifetime. Here, sitting at a table sandwiched between Julian Glover and grown-up Bond girls and the man they called Jaws, Moxon finds a small spotlight shining on him. He bathes in it all weekend, sticking around long after The X-Files' Smoking Man, William B. Davis, and Mr. Chekov have called it quits.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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