Earth's Mightiest Hero
By Joe Nazzaro
According to Ted Raimi, who plays the would-be warrior on Xena: Warrior Princess, most hero-types don't actually have their own theme songs. "That's probably good for them, because now they won't have to sing it at conventions!" jokes Raimi, who helped write the ditty for the episode "For Him the Bell Tolls." "That was [director] Josh Becker's idea; he saw this whole scene where I'm cooped up in a cell with Gabrielle, and part of the humor between those two characters is that Joxer drives her insane. She's like the cool girl at school and he's the school nerd, but because she's so nice, she lets him hang out with her.
"Anyway, Josh said, 'I think you should sing this song to her and drive her out of her mind. She's trapped with you, and you should really irritate her as much as possible!' I thought that was the funniest idea I had ever heard, so that day on the set, I started coming up with a little theme song and lyrics. Josh added a couple in the middle about 'righting wrongs and singing songs' but the rest was mine. The thing I felt worst about was the 30 choir members, who had practiced all their life singing Wagner and songs from Showboat, and there they were, on a soundstage, having to sing a song I wrote in two minutes!"
The role of Joxer, a courageous but inept warrior who tags along after Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle, was well-suited to Raimi, who has made a career out of playing average guys ("Ted Raimi types"). Raimi had just finished a three-season run on seaQuest DSV when the chance to do an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess arose. "I had literally just packed my bags and moved back to LA. About three days after I was back and feeling rather out of it, my agents said I had a call-back on a sitcom, so I went over to Universal and read for it and thought I did OK.
"As I was walking out, I saw [executive producer] Rob Tapert, who I hadn't seen in a long time, and he asked, 'Hey, what are you doing right now?' I told him I had just finished an audition, and he said, 'Do you want to go to New Zealand and be in my show for an episode?' so I went off to do Joxer. While I was there, they told me, 'If you're good, you can come back, but if you misbehave and are bad in front of the camera, you don't get to come back!' I'm kidding, but basically, you get a thousand chances to be dramatic in this business, but only one to be funny."
Joxer wasn't especially fleshed-out when he appeared in the episode "Callisto." In fact, Raimi was only given one major piece of information, which wasn't very helpful in creating a character. "They said, 'We asked Wallace Shawn, and he didn't want it.' That's an actor's life, always taking some part that a big guy didn't want, but I'm a huge Wallace Shawn fan, so that was a great compliment to think I might have been second choice. But then you have to say, 'OK, I see the kind of person they're going for,' and I had enough confidence in my abilities not to just do a Wallace Shawn imitation. I tried to bring in my own take on the character, which, fortunately, was very well-conceived. R. J. Stewart is a clever man, and he wrote a character who isn't just a bumbler, which would have been boring to play and probably ended up as one big Jim Carrey gag. There's not much range there, but in this case, Joxer is a bumbling fool who thinks he's a brilliantly talented warrior, and nobody can tell him differently. "The other thing that's appealing is that he's like a big 15-year-old, and that's how I play him. His mind stopped developing at 15, but he pretends to be 30. If you ever found Joxer alone for 10 minutes, you would probably find him with a pre-Hellenic comic book, eating a donut."
While the producers of Xena were pleased with Raimi's performance and started thinking about ways to bring him back for the second season, the response from some die-hard fans was less than enthusiastic. In particular, the Internet brigade began posting nasty opinions.
"There's something I call the 'endearment factor,'" Raimi explains, "which is how familiar and endearing you are. to the fans. Change is not a good thing for TV; people don't like change in their TV shows. They like them just as they were last week, so here comes this character, especially when poor Lucy Lawless fractured her hip, and I had all the Joxer-heavy shows on in a row; my God, the fans were ready to Iynch me! They were saying things like, 'Kill Joxer!' Someone had a column that came out every three days and it would say, 'Here's the 11th way to kill Joxer...' and it was full of these four or five-page diatribes on ways to mutilate and destroy him. After a while, I just turned it off and never looked at it again.
"I finally told Rob, 'Listen. I love doing your show and I certainly wouldn't say anything to jeopardize my job, but I don't think the fans like me. We should find a way to radically change this character.' Rob's a friend, so I was also telling him as a friend, 'If you have to drop me from the show, I would understand. I got the job as a next choice, and if I got kicked out because the fans don't like me, well, that's it.' Rob is a brave guy, and he said, 'I don't care what the fans think. I think you're funny and I want you to be on the show.' "
Tapert was as good as his word, and Xena's writers began coming up with scripts that featured Joxer. The original plan was to scatter those appearances throughout the season, but events conspired to change that. "When Lucy broke her hip, there was a mad scramble to find scripts that would not be Xena-absent, but find ways to work her into the fringes of the story, not on a horse and not kicking anybody. They came up with four scripts and three of them involved me, so I flew down there and shot a block of three shows, mostly with Renee O'Connor and Hudson Leick [who plays Xena's nemesis, Callisto], and I'm as happy with those episodes as anything I've done in TV. It's a testament to the quality of the writing that the show worked so well even when Lucy wasn't around."
One of the high points for Raimi was "For Him the Bell Tolls," in which one of Aphrodite's spells turns Joxer into a fearless warrior whenever he hears the sound of a bell. "I felt very honored that the writers decided to give me my own episode, because guest stars never get that. If you're a regular. it's a round robin: One character has their show, then another and another. Even on seaQuest, we had seven actors and I didn't get my own show until the third season.
Another highlight was "The Xena Scrolls," where cast members got to play different, World War II-era characters. Raimi played an Inspector Clouseau-type agent, as well as a real-life Ted Raimi, who sells the concept of Xena to real-life producer Rob Tapert.
"There was never a boring moment on the set during that episode, and I'm a character actor, so you're asking me to do what I love to do best in that episode. It was also an incredibly clever way to have a clip show. It could have easily been Lucy, Renee and me around a fire, saying, 'Oh Joxer. you knucklehead, do you remember when--?' But Adam [Armus] and Nora Kay [Foster] put so much work into that script that it really shines."
Raimi capped his work on the second season with "A Comedy of Eros," a romantic farce resulting from Cupid's wayward arrows. "Frankly, when I was making it, I thought, 'This is a standard, kooky Joxer episode,' but the response to it was tremendous. I sat down and took another look at the episode, thinking maybe I was a little too rough on it, and it was pretty damn good. It's very tight, well-written, and maybe the fans are starting to like Joxer a little bit and maybe they sort of like to see him and Gabrielle together. They're like brother and sister now."
Joxer even gets to teach his theme song to a lovesick Gabrielle, who becomes his sidekick for the episode. According to Raimi however, Joxer considers himself a warrior, not a sidekick. "The funny thing about Joxer is that nobody would really think that way unless they were psychotic. Let's face it, if somebody working in an office believes he's the president of the company, they would fire him, but you get a little leeway in a show that takes place in pre-Hellenic times, because anything is possible. If you declare, 'I am a warlord,' you are one. You don't have to file a claim, and in Joxer's case, he just says, 'I am one,' and that's fine."
"Seeing as that wasn't working, they went the fantasy route in the second season. Fantasy is always a popular theme, and our ratings were excellent for the first half of that season. NBC said, 'This is it, we want more of these scripts!' so we had this scientific ship from the original concept, which was now being used for fantasy purposes. Since we weren't changing the ship or the crew's attitude, it started to get really weird, and people caught on that we weren't changing the concept enough to fit the story ideas. It was science vs. the supernatural, which was very strange.
"Finally, we figured it all out in the third season. We had a military ship doing military missions, so it became like a military show. The ratings were fair, but not good enough to keep the show going, so they cancelled it. I personally feel that seaQuest really found its stride in its third season. We had some excellent scripts in those last 13 shows, but it was already too late. I wrote an episode for the second season. 'Lost Land,' and as I was writing it with the producer, David Burke, I realized that there were two distinct themes that were difficult to mesh. To give seaQuest credit, I thought the performances were good. The quality of the directors was excellent. The sets were excellent; it's just that the concept was not jibing with the show that we had."
Raimi is happy to respond to Michael Ironside's comments about seaQuest in STARLOG #242. While he confirms Ironside's claim that between shots "the younger actors would take off half their uniforms and would be out in the street shooting hoops," Raimi disagrees that it meant they weren't working as a team. If anything, the opposite was true.
"First of all," Raimi says, "I think Michael is a fine actor, a very serious actor, and very good at what he does. He's an old hand, but his style was very different from our own, very relaxed style, and by the time Michael came in on the third season, we had already done 50 episodes without him. We were all great friends, and are still really good friends to this day, which is really rare. At that point in the show we knew each other so well that if our scene wasn't being shot for five minutes, we didn't even need to watch the scene before it, and it's true, we would go outside and play hoops. I totally understand that Michael thought we were goofing around, but we were just trying to have fun."
Returning his attention to Xena: Warrior Princess, Raimi has enjoyed his appearances thus far, including the multiple-identity entry, "Warrior...Priestess...Tramp," in which Lawless plays three different characters. "'Warrior...Princess...Tramp' was the most popular episode to date. The fans loved it, and there was so much viewer response that they wrote another one. Once again. Lucy has to come up with a completely new character, and she's very funny. We have this fun, unspoken competition going on. She's a terrific scene-stealer and I'm not half-bad myself in terms of stealing focus. In fact, I normally do the dumbest things behind Lucy as she's getting all this information out. When you're a star, part of your job is to give exposition, and I'm always in the background of these shots, doing these really goofy things."
But then again, so does Lawless. "There's a scene in 'Warrior...Priestess...Tramp' where I have all this information to give Gabrielle, and Lucy was playing the priestess and had to stand there, but she was doing these Indian salutations to the Sun, waving her arms and bowing and mumbling behind us, and she stole the whole scene. Nobody is looking at me, they're all looking at Lucy who's not even in focus, which is quite a feat."
The actor relished the opportunity of playing Joxer and Jet, but not surprisingly, found the process exhausting. "I had one three-and-a-half-page scene with myself that took a day to shoot, and at the day's end, I didn't know whose lines I was saying anymore. As it happens, they wrote it very cleverly, so that both characters are wearing the same costume, so that was easy. The difference was in the makeup, because Jet has a big nasty scar down his eye, he's dirtier and healthier-looking, and Joxer is a six-Twinkies-a-day kind of guy."
Raimi also played a different version of his character (just one this time) in a crossover episode on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. "Iolaus goes to a negative universe and meets Hercules, who's an evil warlord there, and Xena is a hussy and a power-hungry chick. When Hercules throws the confused Iolaus in prison, some guy beats the crap out of him, and it's Joxer, head of the freedom fighters against this evil warlord. He's like a Sandinista sergeant general with bad teeth--he's this battle-haggard kind of guy."
In addition to his gig on Xena, Raimi has been busy in other arenas. His recent feature appearances include the horror film Wishmaster, the offbeat drama Pathos, the little-seen show-biz comedy The Shot and another comedy, Between the Sheets, directed by fellow seaQuest alum Michael DeLuise.
He's also hard at work developing his own comedy series, which he'll be pitching very soon, so life is good at the moment. "When I got to LA, I was eating potatoes three times a day, and Cheerios for breakfast," he recalls. "Those were rough days, and to know I have a job ahead of me makes me really grateful.
"Part of the reason I like Xena so much is that I can really work hard on the show. I always bring three or four magazines thinking I'll have time to read them, and I never get through one word. I barely have time to get dressed in the morning because the costume I wear is so complicated, and I'm always rushing onto to the set. I'm usually in most of the shots, so by Friday I can barely stand up. I remember on this last show, I was so tired on Friday that after lunch, my eyes were open but I was actually asleep."
As for the coolest part of working on Xena: Warrior Princess, Ted Raimi is looking forward to his own Joxer action figure, which will doubtless find a place of honor next to his O'Neill seaQuest figure. "Yeah, they can battle each other!" laughs Raimi, prompting a bizarre alternate universe scenario. "Joxer would probably kill Tim O'Neill in a battle. O'Neill would just stand there and take it, and Joxer would beat the hell out of him, but feel really guilty about it afterwards!"