It is no secret that there was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama during the production of Sliders. This sci-fi fan favorite was canceled by Fox after three seasons and then picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel for another two years. With sudden cast departures (more on that later), budgetary constraints, and a new creative direction, Sliders persevered and remained the “quirky little science-fiction show that could,” despite a drastic tonal change.
The series centered on Jerry O’Connell’s Quinn Mallory, a boy-genius who discovers a way to slide into different dimensions, but can’t find his way home. The early seasons of the show offered clever social satire that raised Sliders a cut above routine science fiction fare. When original series regulars John Rhys-Davies (Professor Maximilian Arturo) and Sabrina Lloyd (the gutsy Wade Wells) left after Season 3, it just wasn’t the same show — especially after the introduction of an alien race called the Kromaggs who were hell bent on conquering the entire multiverse.
Left to pick up the pieces were O’Connell and Cleavant Derricks, with new recruits Kari Wurhrer, as Captain Maggie Beckett, and Charlie O’Connell, who aptly played Quinn’s long-lost brother. When both O’Connells departed the show after Season 4, Sliders lasted only one more season.
As part of Yahoo TV’s 30 Best Bad Shows of the Last 30 Years countdown, we spoke to Jerry O’Connell as he candidly gave us the scoop on the rise and demise of Sliders (and a potential reboot!).
Related: The 30 Best Bad Shows: #18-13
I have to tell you, I am a devoted Sliders fan, so it’s a pretty surreal feeling to be talking to you about the show now.
[Laughs] Well, this will be my first Sliders interview since the show went off the air a little more than 20 years ago.
Thanks to Netflix, people are re-watching and discovering Sliders for the first time. Have you been aware of the revival?
I’m on Twitter, though I’m not particularly active, but I go on it. When The X-Files came back on, I got a lot of action about Sliders because we used to be on with The X-Files. So I have been aware. When I started on the show back in 1994, I was only 20 and was attending college at NYU. At that time, there was also a lot of interest in my doing Party of Five on Fox.
According to the Internet, you famously had to choose between the pilots for Party of Five and Sliders.
When I was auditioning for Party of Five that pilot season, I was asked if I would do a screen test for this new science fiction show. To be totally honest, I didn’t really want to. I preferred the more dramatic family show. Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place were very popular at the time, and I thought Party of Five would be the younger, sexier show.
Bob Weiss, who was the executive producer of Sliders, was the one who really pulled me in. He was responsible for all the Zucker Brothers’ movies. Plus, John Landis was one of the original producers, and getting to meet him was a real thrill for me. From a genre standpoint, there’s nobody better. I was at NYU Film School at the time, so I had studied these guys’ work. I just knew with their involvement, Sliders could be something special.
You had the opportunity to work with an incredible ensemble cast: John Rhys-Davies, Cleavant Derricks, Sabrina Lloyd, and Kari Wuhrer. What kind of impact did they have on you?
Any time I step foot on any set, I use something that John Rhys-Davies taught me about how to behave and how to prepare for a role. He’s a Royal Shakespeare Academy alum, and he always knew his dialogue and easily handled all the scientific terms. I mean, I failed Algebra II! I should not be cast as a scientist ever. John just had this gravitas about him that made his turn as a genius totally believable.
John and I had a lot of fun off set, too. We were both single, so we went out clubbing on a regular basis. He was an avid aviator, and I used to go flying with him every weekend. John became a close personal friend. Cleavant Derricks was also a lot of fun. In the early days on the show, the producers let him go crazy with the music, which is his first passion [Derricks originated the role of James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls].
Sabrina Lloyd and I lived together for a little bit, but it was truly platonic. We were roommates for a hot minute because we shot two seasons in Vancouver and then two seasons in Los Angeles. I really miss her, but I stay in touch with her through Instagram [Laughs].
What about Kari Wuhrer, who became a series regular in the 3rd season?
I see her around LA. When Kari Wuhrer came on the show, it was a tough period for me. John Rhys-Davies and Sabrina Lloyd had moved on, and I felt that they had left the party too early, and I was left behind.
And it wasn’t just John Rhys-Davies and Sabrina Lloyd leaving, right?
Right, [co-creator] Tracy Tormé, Robert K. Weiss, and John Landis also departed. While their names were still on the credits, they had nothing to do with the day-to-day operations. I don’t know what happened with the original producers, but somehow they lost control of the show, and new people came in.
I don’t want to speak for John Rhys-Davies and Sabrina Lloyd, but I believe one of the reasons for their leaving prematurely was that they did not like the new regime. I completely understood where they were coming from. It wasn’t what we signed up for.
Everyone did carry on, but the show was completely different. We signed on for a thought-provoking, fun take on parallel worlds that explored the effects of slight changes in the way the world works. The last couple seasons, Silders became more of an action show that focused on our fighting these aliens called the Kromaggs.
Do you think the switch from Fox to the Sci-Fi Channel had something to do with the change in focus?
I do think that Sci-Fi at that time was looking for darker science fiction fare with an emphasis on heavy special effects makeup.
I can imagine that experience would be distressing for you as a young actor working on his first TV series as an adult.
The people who invited us to the party left the party, and that was disorienting. Some of our cast members felt abandoned. Some pretty great people like Marc Zicree, Richard Compton, and David Peckinpah did come on to the show, but everything had just changed directions.
I finally finished the show when I was 25. I didn’t have much clout, but I did get to direct a few episodes, which was a great experience. If you notice, in the episodes I direct, I did manage to get us back to sort of that thought-provoking, parallel-universe fun that made the show popular to begin with. They even let me do a Jerry Springer parody episode called “Lipschitz Live!” That was the most fun we had after John and Sabrina left because we got the great John Kassir to do a star turn.
Have you ever thought about directing TV again?
Absolutely. I’m currently directing a couple episodes of an ABC show called Mistresses. Getting back into directing has been a challenge for me because I’ve been solely an actor for a while. I have been shadowing directors on a bunch of different shows to get my feet wet.
What I really want to get back to is directing fare like Sliders — shows with small budgets but with the freedom to tell off-beat stories using creative directing.
Did your experience on Sliders help you as a director at all?
Richard Compton, who has since passed away, directed a bunch of our episodes. He was an old-school guy who really made an impression on me.
One time we were shooting in Chinatown during the first season, and he said to me, “Look at what I’m going to do here. I’m going to create a different world, based on what I have to work with here.” We were shooting in front of this great Asian society house that was beautifully designed with these ornate Asian knickknacks everywhere, and he used it to give the scene an exotic, other-world feel.
I also learned how to make a dollar out of 15 cents on the set of Sliders. Science fiction is not mainstream. Besides The X-Files, science fiction television shows have always been the stepchildren of regular television with much smaller budgets. We had to work with what we had on Sliders and creativity was a must.
Sliders came at an important time during your transition from teen to adult onscreen. You were learning how to be a leading man.
That’s true, but I had learned all that I was going to learn from the show after four seasons, and I decided to leave when my contract was up. I was hoping that they would go on with my brother, who joined the cast in Season 4. They got pretty mad and decided to reboot the whole thing and blow it up. I know it went a fifth season. I’ve never seen an episode from that fifth season.
You’re not missing much!
I’ve never really sat down with the people involved with the show at that time and asked, “What happened?” I was so young. It wasn’t my place to say, “Hey, what’s going on here? Somebody talk to me.” But I do wonder.
You’ve got to admire John Rhys-Davies for sticking to his guns.
How cool is John Rhys-Davies, though? We’re doing this show for two seasons and they completely overhaul the creative direction. He catches wind of this and says, “Get me out of here.” I’m kidding when I say this, but Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark ain’t going to put up with that, you know?
I’ll never forget the night our producer came to set and pulled John aside and talked to him. I was watching them, and then they shook hands and walked away, and John-Rhys Davies walked over to me and said, “I’m off the show.” I think I said to him, “What am I going to do, John?” And he went, “You’ll be okay.” He said, “You’ll be okay, boy. Don’t let them push you around. Try and keep the integrity of the show, but you’re in charge now.” I’ll never forget that night.
You guys did produce thought-provoking episodes during the first two seasons, so I understand your regret about what went down later. For instance, the first season episode called “The Weaker Sex” takes place in a parallel universe where Hillary Clinton is President.
I love that episode. We were also making statements on glass-ceiling issues, chauvinism in society, and the danger of stereotypes. When the show was about those kind of issues, it was at its most fun.
Wow, I really hope this interview isn’t becoming too negative and depressing about what happened when the show changed directions. I had a lot of fun making Sliders. I’m glad people are rediscovering the show. I want to celebrate it!
I loved how each episode opened with your slide into a new world.
It was always a lot of fun going into the “Wormhole” because I would be sliding into a new universe on every episode and trying to figure out what was happening.
My favorite episode opener was in the “Electric Twister Acid Test,” where you guys bobsled into the parallel world. Corey Feldman guest-starred.
Right. I think the Winter Olympics were happening. That was fun to get Corey Feldman out there, and the opportunity was really happy for him because he was trying to get back on his feet. I was really glad that we were there to help him out with that.
Are you surprised by the show’s longevity, especially considering some of the issues we’ve talked about?
Yeah, I really am. It’s funny in this business. You do something, and you figure that’s it. I haven’t wanted to talk about Sliders because I did the show 20 years ago, and I feel like an old man reminiscing. However, now that people are rediscovering it on Netflix, it has really been fun to revisit.
And it totally holds up.
The only thing that doesn’t hold up is my hair. I just can’t believe how big my hair was back then. Someone’s going to get so effing mad at this, but I remember them doing my hair, and I remember thinking, “This hair is too big. I feel like I’m in an a-ha video or something. Really, I feel like the third member of Wham!”
It looked a little more normal towards Season 4.
Yeah. The last couple of years we had a good time. I shouldn’t have made it out to be so dark and depressing. There were some really fun, super good, sci-fi aspects about the last couple seasons.
And working with your brother had to be a hoot!
I loved carpooling to work with him. We were so young. It was really fun directing him, too. My brother was really into Westerns, so we did a Western episode called “Way Out West.” We had been shooting at the Universal backlot and it was pretty empty at that time. Literally, when I was cruising by the set, I said, "Guys, let’s use this Western set. We pass it every day. It’s here.” We wrote that Western episode for my brother. That was a lot of fun because he got to goof around with cowboy stuff.
Obviously, you have enjoyed a long and thriving post-Sliders career. I’m glad the show holds a special place for you.
Not only that. Just recently, I have decided I did my dance with network television and it was fun, but I’m really starting to look at getting back into science fiction on cable. It’s where my heart is. My wife [Rebecca Romijn] is on The Librarians and getting to watch what they’re doing on that, and getting to see what my wife’s boss Noah [Wyle] got to do on Falling Skies… to me, it’s where they’re having the most fun on TV right now.
Tracy Tormé recently called me and said, “We’re thinking about rebooting Sliders,” and I was like, “I’m in, buddy, make it happen.” So who knows what will happen.
Sliders is now streaming on Netflix. Read more about the 30 Best Bad Shows of the Last 30 Years.