This is a story that was going to be just a bit of "Actor Nerding"--a hobby of mine where I seek out interesting connections in the roles played by lesser known celebrities--but it quickly became a twisty, tragic and mysterious tale, an unexpected excursion that has left me with the kind of feelings I'd expect when exploring an abandoned subway station that once teemed with people. This is the peculiar and unfinished story of Merritt Butrick, known best for his role as Captain Kirk's son.
Kirk (William Shatner), having just winded David in a fistfight: "Where's Doctor Marcus?"
David (Merritt Butrick), wheezing: "I'm Doctor Marcus!"
This was the moment when the subway station's platform was rampant with life and had no visible end. Merritt had moved on from brief appearances as a rapist in Hill Street Blues to a major supporting role as "Johnny Slash" in an early 80s TV comedy called Square Pegs that also starred Sarah Jessica Parker, a role that some say would have made Merritt the next "Fonzie" (a la Happy Days) had the series not been cancelled after one season.
It was while Square Pegs was being prepared for its first broadcast that Merritt was picked to play James Kirk's son, a curly-haired hunk in spandex for the upcoming Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a role that he'd reprise but retire in the sequel Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
I'd picked on Merritt for Actor Nerding because I was browsing through Hulu for a Star Trek fix, settling on an episode from the first season of The Next Generation called Symbiosis. It's the one about the race of humanoids who've become addicted to a potent narcotic derived from a plant that only grows on a neighboring planet, so much that the cargo of drugs from their disintegrating freighter is worth more to them than the lives of two crewmates. As soon as the pathetic and dependent characters beamed onto the transporter pad I was thumping my skull trying to remember where I'd seen those actors before.
Butrick plays one of the unwitting addicts, fully believing the drug is a lifesaving medicine for a disease that his people have actually long since recovered from. Judson Scott plays one of the dealers, and when you see Scott you're going to smack your head and try to remember where you've seen him before as well. Here's the spoiler: Scott also starred in Wrath of Khan as Khan's right-hand man, and his last line in the movie is the homoerotically tinted "Yours... is superior!"
When you're in a fit of Actor Nerding you head for IMDB where Butrick's entry is puzzlingly short. Born in Gainesville, Florida, Merritt studied theater at the California Institute of Arts but was dismissed because his instructors didn't think he had what it took to be an actor. But he persisted, collecting roles in Hill Street Blues, the ill fated Square Pegs, and--inbetween Star Trek--various minor roles such as the greaser in the teen sex-comedy Zapped!, plus bad-guy roles in horror movies such as Death Spa and Wired to Kill.
Death Spa in particular, also known as Witch Bitch and Butrick's last film, is easily the archetype of what the British came to call the Video Nasty: a low-budget splatter movie designed for VHS, with plots stolen from earlier movies and spoonfuls of full-frontal nudity. Butrick played a computer programmer working at a high-tech health club, only to become possessed--Norman Bates style--with the spirit of his dead sister who wants to claim the soul of her widower husband and a number of barbie-doll actresses along the way.
These are the kinds of roles that pay the rent, but not the ones which express an actor's skill and range. There's only so much stage presence that one can convey between comically bad special-effects gore and formula scripting, which is why Butrick's latter role on The Next Generation is so bittersweet. While Star Trek is not usually considered fine art by connoisseurs, one of its virtues has been a zeal among its cast and crew to deliver their best interpretation of Roddenberry's dream, eliciting a few delicious moments of great acting. Butrick can be considered among them.
But Merritt's resume stops in 1989, for he died then on St. Patrick's day from complications due to AIDS, specifically toxoplasmosis of the brain. Toxoplasma is that parasite you get from domestic cats, and while it's normally non-fatal the insidious nature of AIDS is that it destroys your immune system so that even minor infections become lethal. In the late 80s AIDS was both a stigma and--in death--sometimes an honor as society wrestled with how it ought to think and cope with homosexuality and addiction.
And this is also where the story becomes mysterious and lost to time, because nobody seems to agree on how he contracted HIV. In a memorial commentary on the 2008 DVD release of Square Pegs, Sarah Jessica Parker--miss Sex and the City herself--recalled a young man who was chronically late for the set, a sweet guy whom she took upon herself to rouse every morning and get him to work while he brushed his teeth and applied deodorant in the back of her Honda. In a eulogy, Parker described Merritt as a homosexual, but others dispute that either he was or that he contracted AIDS this way. Rather, some think he was infected by a dirty needle and a heroin addiction, a history that some associates of Merritt contest as well.
There's even disagreement on whether he died in New York City or Los Angeles. When you search the holy Internet there's little to be found except fragments on shaky servers, such as this fan page hosted on Angelfire, a free web hosting service from the late 1990s that flourished in the heyday of GeoCities and was acquired and shuffled around after the Dot-Com crash, ending up as a minor brand of the beleaguered Lycos.
This fan-site is our abandoned subway station, with empty vending machines and scraps of newspaper smothered in dust and rat droppings. Its last update was five years ago, in 2008, and still sports a late 90's-ish hit counter and CGI guestbook script, badly out-of-fashion in today's world of blogs and forums. It shares a few emailed concerns from an anonymous lady who "knew Merritt on a personal level," contesting the rumors that Butrick contracted HIV from shooting up drugs. In its biography of the actor, the site treats homosexuality with a Not-That-There's-Anything-Wrong-With-That attitude which, thankfully, seems quaint today.
But the site, like Merritt, has itself caught an infection of the ages. Not only is it hosted on a forgotten brand of a forgotten brand, perhaps destined to be junked like GeoCities was, it's littered with un-hyperlinked URLs that now lead only to 404 error pages. Link-rot is to the Internet what a parasite such as Toxoplasma does to the human brain, deleting connections, erasing memories.
The link to Butrick's California State death certificate? "404 NOT FOUND".
The link to a post on Google Answers? Same error.
As the social memory bank forms and reforms, consolidates, prunes, deduplicates and discards, all our pasts slip away. IMDB attributes a quote to Butrick that captures the young actor's sense of past, present, and a future he couldn't then know:
Butrick wasn't going to be the next Robert Redford, but he might have been the next David Warner or Michael Ironside, a character actor you enjoy watching, even if for the flash of familiarity that makes you smack your head and wonder where you've seen him before, someone you'd gladly wait in line for to sign an autograph simply because he was part of a legend like Star Trek.
Legends can be choosy, they can hold out for good actors. Merritt Butrick, despite the poverty of roles he was offered in the short time he lived, was a good actor. I would have wanted to see him star in more, because I liked his screen presence and I liked his style.
The truth about Merritt Butrick's death might soon vanish entirely, however, as sites like Angelfire go the way of GeoCities and floppy disks. He joins other Trek alumni such as Persis Khambatta--Ilia from The Motion Picture, who died of a heart attack in 1998--captured only in celluloid and the unreliable memory of machines.
Eerily, Merritt may have forecast his own fate, in his silver-screen debut:
Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch): "I don't think there's another piece of information we could squeeze into the memory banks. Next time we'll design a bigger one."
David (Merritt Butrick): "Mmm.. who'd want to build it?"