Interview with J.G. Hertzler
A few days before Christmas, Mr. J.G. Hertzler agreed to an in-depth Zoom interview for Warp Factor Trek. However, when the dark waiting room screen transitioned into his country home in the NY Finger Lakes, neither Mr. Hertzler nor his popular DS9 recurring character General Martok could be seen. Instead, Father Christmas greeted us, in Martok’s familiar gravelly baritone.
Next, he playfully removed his Santa mask, with its lengthy, snowy-white beard. He soon realized he’d never played Santa before today — though he secretly thought being a department store Santa was a missed opportunity. Hertzler shared why the good-natured Santa was never in his wheelhouse. “The most interesting character to play in literature, I should say, are the ‘bad guys’ — the evil guys, bad guys, the questionable guys. The good guys are almost always boring. Martok started out as a very bad guy. I’ve always played, in film, TV, and theater, the questionable.”
Leaning into the camera for emphasis, J.G. asserts, “I never played a good guy. And when they [the DS9 writers] transitioned Martok from an evil shapeshifter to a good guy — sort of an angry guy, but nevertheless a good leader of the Klingon homeworld — I lost something. I think he lost something. But I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it.”
Most fans of DS9, now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, would disagree that the character or the actor lost anything. The writers who included Martok (he appeared in over twenty episodes in just three seasons) had full confidence that J.G. Hertzler could portray a good guy with excellence.
Hertzler was referring to the fifth-season storyline where General Martok, mimicked perfectly by a shape-shifting imposter who plots to destabilize Klingon military might and Alpha Quadrant alliances, is eventually discovered. At that point in the show, Hertzler’s acting job developed from playing the imposter to the real Klingon leader — with more noble ambitions. As (the real) Martok explains in the DS9 episode “In Purgatory’s Shadow”, “I’m told the Changeling that replaced me has caused the death of countless Klingons. It is a great dishonor.”
Hertzler poured praise upon the writers of DS9, naming Ira Steven Behr, René Echevarria, Hans Beimler, and Ronald D. Moore as genius-level creators. He also had great praise for his scene partners, the caliber of their skills and the depth of their acting experiences. The most notable to him were Andrew Robinson (Garak), René Auberjonois (Odo), and John Colicos (Kor). At ease, he shared their acting resumes with admiration and fanboy amazement.
Another “stroke of luck” was being cast in a show that was in its stride, with a cast and crew that had invested time and a woven familiarity with its characters and culture. The actors with Shakespearean training, and writers inspired by the bard’s work, blended well with Hertzler’s decades of similar work.
The rest of our discussion revealed how Hertzler can portray a “good guy” with an edge so effectively, even if he doesn’t consider it his strength. The secret is that the influence of key father figures in his past have led him to be a good guy in real life too.
Hertzler shared how remarkable his father had been to him and how this relationship had inspired him to ask for a change in a DS9 script – typically a forbidden boundary, especially since he respected the writers so much. In “Once More Unto the Breach”, Martok shares with Worf the struggles he faced to fulfill the dreams of his father and become a Klingon officer. Hertzler called Ron D. Moore from the set and asked if he could add this line to his monologue: “Unfortunately, my father did not live to see that glorious day,” meaning the day he earned a battlefield commission. Hertzler’s own father died before his acting success, and long before he earned his Klingon stripes.
Growing up, Hertzler did not imagine a life as an actor. He played football in high school and nowadays cites his high school coach, John Merricks, as another remarkable man. Merricks (later added to the Maryland High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame) shaped J.G.’s sense of hard work through team building. Hertzler noted that the same key ingredient in producing Star Trek or success on the gridiron is team effort.
J.G. played college football at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He was a starting linebacker until his junior year, when he voluntarily left the team, realizing it was a heavy commitment. The move, while questioned by his teammates, ended up being a great call. The theater department needed a big guy for a production, and J.G. found the next important father figure in his life – Dr. Harvey Powers, his acting “coach.”
These important figures, no doubt, influenced the “good” Martok, and were key to making him a believable character. The good Martok became a father figure to Worf, and soon after DS9 ended, Hertzler became a father, just shy of his fiftieth birthday. Reflecting on the demands of fatherhood in Southern California, he decided that the Finger Lakes region – near Ithaca, New York – was the best place for his daughter and her older-than-typical father. The simpler lifestyle, stunning scenery and clean air lured him. Following in the footsteps of his college mentor Dr. Powers, J.G. performed and taught acting at Cornell University until funding for this program was not renewed.
Outside of acting, Hertzler’s current passion is activism. He is a strong advocate for the environmental health of his community, the NY Finger Lakes Region. While Hertzler was serving on the Ulysses Town Board, he teamed up with fellow Star Trek luminary James Cromwell in a civil disobedience protest against potential fracking. Both were arrested (along with seventeen others) near Seneca Lake. Hertzler credits the extra PR boost from their Star Trek connections to driving out fracking – which is rampant in nearby Pennsylvania – from encroaching in the Finger Lakes, a location he describes as “the prettiest place” he’s ever seen.
Hertzler is currently writing a book about his career, titled “Confessions of a Klingon Linebacker”. He enjoyed reprising his role as Martok on a recent Lower Decks episode but seemed to enjoy playing the Drookmani Captain – eccentric and profane – even more. The ease of voice work was a breeze for the actor. He heaped praise on Anson Mount and The Orville but admitted he did not have much to say about newer Trek.
Hertzler was aware of a few Picard details. He knows the writers referenced Martok in the second season. He has a lead to get an official 3D-printed copy of the Martok trophy skull collected by an evil Jean-Luc Picard. His only other comment about the show was that he considered it a disturbing habit of the character Raffi to address Jean-Luc Picard as “J.L.” Hertzler found it jarring that a mellifluous name was reduced to initials. This was an ironic observation for a person named “John Garmen” but professionally known as “J.G.”.
When asked if he wished that a new live-action Trek series would cast him, he was all for it and evasive enough for fans to hope that Martok might appear in Season 3 of Picard. Having worked on DS9, Voyager, Enterprise and Lower Decks, fans can no doubt hope to see him in another Trek series sometime soon.
While fans wait to see if General Martok reappears in Trek canon, J.G. Hertzler will be a happy environmental warrior embedded in a small county town in the heart of Central New York. The reason Martok was a great guy – bad and good – is the good heart of J.G. Hertzler himself.
Frank Kennedy writes and performs original material for thoughtful audiences including a once, sold out off-Broadway stage in the pre-pandemic days. He blends his skills as a storyteller and sleight-of-hand magician, telling poignant stories of fatherhood with sons living on the Autism Spectrum. Watching Star Trek almost daily with his Mom as a teen – during the post-cancelation syndicated-rerun days of The Original Series – he is proud that he was part of the fan enthusiasm that turned Trek into a continuum of shows and films, rather than a forgotten canceled show with poor ratings. Along with devouring new Trek content, he has filled his life with adventures to over sixty countries, boldly going and learning about cultures on the planet Earth.