Live Long and Prosper
As fans prepare to celebrate Star Trek's half-century, the cast, crew and execs who were there recall the show's early days.
Fall 1966. In Florida, NASA prepares to land the first man on the moon.
Meanwhile, across the country, NBC readies its own historic space adventure: the first primetime science-fiction color TV series aimed at adults.
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before," William Shatner avowed in voiceover at the start of each episode.
Star Trek premiered on September 8,1966, making this year its 50th anniversary. Though the series ran just three seasons and 79 episodes, it has evolved into a powerhouse franchise, spinning off four TV shows (a fifth debuts in January on CBS's All Access streaming network), an animated series and 12 feature films. The 13th, Star Trek Beyond, is set for release this July.
Before he created the series, Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II, piloted planes for Pan Am and walked a police beat in Los Angeles. Segueing to writing in the 1950s and '60s, he scripted many episodic series, especially westerns, like Have Gun — Will Travel; in 1959, he won a Writers Guild of America Award for best western script.
In creating Star Trek, he was largely inspired by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and the feature film Master of the World, which was based on Jules Verne's novel about a flying ship and starred Vincent Price.
Set more than 200 years into the future, Star Trek crafted its main appeal in its imaginative stories, each of which addressed a moral lesson. Using the cover of science fiction, the show tackled white-hot issues of the 1960s, such as the Vietnam War, racial inequality and the feminist movement. Such frank topicality was uncommon, if not unheard of, for scripted fiction series of the time.
William Shatner starred as James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise. His stalwart crew featured six iconic, diverse characters. Leonard Nimoy was Mr. Spock, son of a Vulcan father and Earthling mother. Science Officer Spock was thoroughly logical, emotionally restrained and capable of telepathic thought-exchange through what he called a "mind meld." (Nimoy died in 2015.)
George Takei played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, the ship's briskly efficient senior helmsman.
James Doohan was techno-whiz Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, the ship's chief engineer. (Doohan died in 2005.)
DeForest Kelley played Chief Medical Officer Leonard "Bones" McCoy, a brilliant scientist. (Kelley died in 1999.)
Nichelle Nichols was the ship's only female crewmember, Chief Communications Officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. As a native of "the United States of Africa," she could speak Swahili.
Walter Koenig joined in the second season as the ship's navigator, Ensign Pavel Chekov, a Russian.
Spring 1964: Roddenberry had created the 1963 NBC series, The Lieutenant, starring Gary Lockwood as a marine at Camp Pendleton. When he pitched Desilu Studios a series about a space ship that traveled around the universe exploring unknown planets, he described one crew member as a red devil with a tail.
"Are you crazy? No one will buy a show with a devil!" That was the immediate reaction of Herbert F. Solow, Desilu's vice-president of production.
Even so, Solow went on to sell the series to NBC. The red devil was gone, but he survived in Mr. Spock's Mephistophelean eyebrows and pointy ears.
NBC rejected the first pilot, "The Cage" (1965), starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. The second, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," directed by James Goldstone, was totally recast. Hunter went back to films, so NBC hired Shatner, a Broadway and movie star with several TV guest roles on his resume, as the rechristened Captain James T. Kirk.
The only actor who appeared in both pilots was Nimoy. NBC tried to eliminate Spock — though he was no longer red or sported a tail — but Roddenberry stood firm. Spock turned out to be the show's most treasured character, responsible to a great extent for Star Trek's popularity.
Budget was always a challenge. NBC put up only about $193,000 (about $1.4 million today) per episode, and by the final year, that had dropped to around $185,000. Desilu resorted to deficit financing.
Visual effects were kept to a minimum. Many props were handmade, like most of the little critters in "The Trouble with Tribbles," which were made from the guts of mechanical toys and covered with fur.
After three seasons, NBC canceled Star Trek, citing the show's failure to develop broad appeal. The final episode aired on June 3,1969. Five weeks later, NASA landed the first humans — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — on the moon. By then, Lucille Ball had sold Desilu to conglomerate Gulf + Western, a move that turned her studio into Paramount Television.
Star Trek's budget was cut deeply in its final season. Ratings had dropped acutely, mainly because the show was now airing at 10 p.m. on Friday — the "death slot." This was a particularly hard blow, because Star Trek's young audience was generally out on Friday nights.
In the 1970s, however, syndication allowed local stations to control scheduling and target viewers. This not only revived Star Trek, it made the show a phenomenon by finding and building a devoted audience. To this day, Trekkies continue to pack conventions, where many of the original series' cast and crew reminisce and sign autographs,
Devotees know, for example, that any character wearing a red shirt in the original series was marked for death; that Spock's "Live Long and Prosper" Vulcan salute — which Nimoy devised — was based on a Jewish blessing; and that the catchphrase, "Beam me up, Scotty!" (a reference to the Enterprise's teleportation machine) was never said in any Star Trek episode or film.
Fans maintain that the show's gizmos have inspired the design of many real-life devices, like the flip-open cell phone and a forthcoming medical diagnostic device that echoes the show's tricorder.
Star Trek's semi-centennial is inspiring mega-conventions this summer and fall in New York, London and Las Vegas. A Star Trek-themed kids' camp and slumber parties will colonize New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, where NASA's space shuttle prototype Enterprise is docked (fans demanded the name). And a concert tour of music from Star Trek will touch down in 100 cities.
Emmy celebrates the anniversary with this collection of memories from cast and crew members of the original series, Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Marvin Chomsky (director: three episodes, 1968-69)
When we did "And the Children Shall Lead" (1968), someone had the bright idea of hiring top divorce lawyer Melvin Belli to play the big macher [big shot]. We started to rehearse. One of the kids delivered his line, but Belli didn't say anything. I said to him, "Did you memorize any of the script?" He said, "No, I thought I'd just make it up as I went along."
The crew was in shock. The kids had surprised looks on their faces, because they knew better. They were confused because they couldn't take their cues from anything he said. I told him: "The way it works is that somebody says some dialogue, and the last line is the next actor's cue to start speaking." Belli said, "Oh, that's how you do it!"
Leonard Nimoy always wanted to do everything his way, and I let him. Shatner did whatever he wanted to. They knew their characters, and it worked for them,
Joe D'Agosta (casting director, 1966-69)
A script came up that required twins. I tried to track some down but couldn't find any. One night, taking Hollywood Boulevard home, I spotted a set of beautiful, seductive-looking twins wearing mini-skirts and high heels. Real hot babes. They were carrying a pet mongoose.
I chased them down. They were suspicious; I was aggressive, When they appeared in my office, their skirts seemed shorter, and their bellybuttons were exposed — very sexy. They brought the mongoose along. We read them, and they were not good.
[Assistant director-coproducer] Bob Justman said, "They can't act!" I stared at him: "Bob, they're twins!" Gene [Roddenberry] sided with me. We hired them, but I think we only used them as extras.
Jack Donner (Romulan Sub-Commander Tal in "The Enterprise Incident," 1968)
Playing an alien was fun. They added makeup and made my ears pointy. When I looked in the mirror, I said, "Who is that?!"
Pamelyn Ferdin (Mary in "And the Children Shall Lead," 1968)
I was nine years old and enamored with William Shatner. I followed him around and stood by him when he was having his makeup done. He knew I was smitten, so he asked me to get engaged and gave me a cigar band.
One day, when I thought he was in his trailer, I knocked on the door. I didn't hear anything and opened it a crack. Two big [Dobermans] started barking at me. I was so scared, I nearly peed in my pants....
In the episode, we kids did a chant to call up [Melvin Belli's devil character]: "Hail, hail/Fire and snow/Call the angel/We will go/Far away/For to see/Friendly angel/Come to me."
At the end, we had to cry. I just couldn't turn on the tears but wanted to make it real. So [director Marvin Chomsky] let me go behind the set for a few minutes. I sat there thinking how terrible it would be if my mind were overtaken by the devil and about my dog that passed away.
When I was ready, I did the scene — and cried real tears... Sometimes Walter Koenig would sit all the kids down and teach us about communism. I was enthralled...
Leonard Nimoy was great. He used a high-pitched whistle to let everybody know he was on his way when they called him to the set.
D.C. (Dorothy) Fontana (writer: several episodes, including "This Side of Paradise," 1967; "The Ultimate Computer," 1968; and "That Which Survives," 1969)
I started as Gene Roddenberry's production secretary, but had written eight different shows before the series. In 1964, he showed me 20 pages of material and said, "What do you think?"
It was Star Trek...
The first episode I wrote, from the show's bible, was "Charlie X" , Gene made me story editor after I rewrote "The Way of the Spores" as "This Side of Paradise."
I must point out that nobody else was ever considered for the role of Spock but Leonard Nimoy. He was always the one. And he accepted right away....
The women's costumes were a skunk because they were very hard to get in and out of. With those short skirts, there had to be a piece of material hooked in between their legs. When they went to the bathroom, they always needed a wardrobe assistant to go with them.
David Gerrold (writer: "The Trouble with Tribbles,"1967)
I originally called the episode "A Fuzzy Thing Happened," but we needed to change the title so that we didn't infringe on the book, Little Fuzzy, by [science-fiction writer] Henry Beam Piper. So I made a long list of the silliest words I could think of and crossed off everything that was too silly.
"Tribbles" is what I was left with.
On the lot, Bill Shatner would take me aside and tell me how to write for Captain Kirk: "Don't forget that Kirk is the star of the show. He's the captain of the starship and the one who has to make the important decisions."
I was a little terrified to introduce myself to Leonard Nimoy, because he was so Spock-like in real life. Then, one day, there's this hand on my shoulder, and a voice saying: "I've seen you around here for three days. Who are you?" I turned, and it was Leonard. I told him about the script I was writing. He said, "Oh, yes. That promises to be a lot of fun."
Sally Kellerman (Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in "Where No Man Has Gone Before," 1966)
Gary Lockwood and I had to wear these huge silver contact lenses that fit over the whole eyeball. I could see with them, though not much. I actually liked them. But they drove Gary insane. Every time they said, "Cut!" he'd go, "Get these mother-grabbing things out of my eyes!"
The costume I wore consisted of pants that didn't fit well and a funny blue shirt. The pants weren't cut right. It was like loving hands at home had stitched them up in the back room. I was always thinking I looked so fat.
Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov, 1967-69)
They wanted to add a character that looked like [long-haired] Davy Jones of the Monkees [to attract teenyboppers]. At the same time, NBC put out promotional material saying that Pravda [the official newspaper of the USSR] was complaining there wasn't a Russian on the show. Pravda didn't know from Star Trek!
I auditioned with great intensity — using a Russian accent based on my father's. He was from Russia. When I finished, Gene Roddenberry said, "Can you read it again, but make it funny?"
Afterward, I was in the outer office, waiting and waiting. Finally a man came by and told me to go with him. When we got to Wardrobe, he dropped to his knees in front of me and put his hand below my crotch. I said, "What the [hell] are you doing?" He said, "I've got to measure you for a costume, don't I?"
That's how I found out I was on Star Trek. The first several shows, until my short hair grew out, I wore a woman's wig from Max Factor....
George [Takei] and I did some stock reaction shots to what we supposedly were seeing on the viewing screen. The screen wasn't there, so our focus point was a rigged-up metal stanchion with a stiff white flag. Occasionally, one of the crew would bring in a Playboy centerfold and pin it to the flag.
This gave me the most difficult acting challenge of my career: I had to look at that voluptuous young woman smiling at me and say [in a Russian accent], "There is a ship out there. What are we going to do?"
One of the few times Leonard spoke to me was one day after he looked at the dailies. He told me I was mugging. He was right. I was hugely embarrassed and made it a point not to let that happen again
Gary Lockwood (Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell in "Where No Man Has Gone Before," 1966)
I did the whole damn show blind because I had to wear full contact lenses. As my eyes became more and more irritated, it became harder and harder. Roddenberry said, "We put pinholes in so you can see." But I couldn't see anything. I choreographed the whole job by standing on a mark and doing everything by rote: two steps this way, half a step to the right.
Don Marshall (Boma in "The Galileo Seven," 1967)
The director was my ex-acting coach, whom I had left because he was trying to get everyone to play everything like James Dean.
First day on the Star Trek set, my character — an astrophysicist — had to tell Mr. Spock to bury the dead, which he didn't want to do. The director had me leaning up against a brick wall and turning around very angrily, like James Dean. I said, "I'm an astrophysicist. Playing him like James Dean isn't going to work!"
That afternoon, I was feeling really down. Leonard came over: "What's the matter?" I told him. He said, "You play the character the way you want to. I'll handle the director." So he did. After that, the director didn't say shit to me.
Lee Meriwether (Losira in "That Which Survives," 1969)
My costume was a midriff top and low-riding hip-hugger pants. In those days on TV, the navel had to be covered. So there was a flap sewn to the waist that was wired to make it stand up.
One day, DeForest Kelley came over to me. I was so excited because I'd seen him in many wonderful westerns. He promptly pulled down that flap and joked, "What time is it?" I nearly died, I was so embarrassed.
A few days later, he did the same thing. But this time, he was shocked to see a watch face staring at him — I had glued one in my navel. He dropped to his knees laughing hysterically....
I played a computer-generated image that the planet used as a deterrent to protect itself. She didn't want to kill, but she had to. The dialogue was rather spare. I'll always remember: "I am for you, Captain James Kirk."
Julie Newmar (Eleen in "Friday's Child," 1967)
For that otherworldly look, we shot at the very dusty Vasquez Rocks [north of Los Angeles]. It was all quite bizarre. I tried to imagine what it would be like having a baby in a cave. My [pregnant] belly was built up from underneath and tied on.
I'm looking at the script right now. In the margins, I had written: "Talk naturally. Intelligent. Intuitive. Confident of superiority. It's my right to see him dead! Give him the silent treatment. Scratching, hitting wildcat. Careful walking — never bounce!"
Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, 1966-69)
It's none of your business whether Bill Shatner and I rehearsed our kiss [the first scripted interracial kiss on American TV]. I'll keep that to myself. The only thing you can have is that I enjoyed it, and he enjoyed it. It didn't bother me. It didn't bother him. It didn't bother my grandmother and grandfather. They were the first interracial couple I knew and were married for many, many years.
Gene Roddenberry and I had a [romance] years before. By the time the show came on, we were just good friends. He said, "I've got something coming up and have written a role for you in it." I was delighted, because he wouldn't cast his mother or sister if their life depended on it, unless they were right for a part...
Martin Luther King was a great man and a big fan of the show. I was grateful that he saw me in something that was of interest to him and what he was about. We became very good friends.
France Nuyen (Elaan in "Elaan of Troyius," 1968)
My character had the power to take over men's hearts with her magical tears, and she used it. Bill Shatner played my tutor. When my tears touched his skin, he automatically fell in love with me.
We kissed. But it was a theater kiss with closed mouths — basically, it was going for the chin.
On the first day of shooting, my costume still wasn't finished, so some of it was sewn or glued on. By the time the week was over, my skin had turned brown because the first thin layer of it had been removed....
The show was done on a shoestring. My soldier's armor was made of cut-up plastic dinner placemats. The set was cardboard painted with silver spray paint — but it photographed like a million dollars.
Eddie Paskey (Mr. Leslie/Lieutenant Leslie and William Shatner's stand-in, 1966-68)
The [leads] tried to give their stand-ins a role in every episode,because it increased our paychecks. That's the way I became Mr. Leslie. Bill Shatner said, "Eddie needs a name. Let's call him Mr. Leslie, after my daughter."
I was a hand stand-in for Bill in [close-ups], too, like pulling open cabinet doors. And my hands were a stand-in for Jimmy Doohan, because he lost a finger in the war. Any time you saw Scotty's hands [operating] the transporter, those were my hands....
There were many pranks. One stands out: to get around quickly at lunchtime, Leonard rode his bicycle from the stage to the Desilu offices or the commissary. But the crew would often hide it from him behind a wall or in the alley. This made him livid.
One day, he locked the bike inside his Buick Riviera. At the crew's request, I opened the car. I knew how, because I was a service-station mechanic. They put the bike high up on the catwalk above a sickbay bed that Lenny would be in for the next scene. He lay down, looked up, and right in the middle of the shot, suddenly shouted, "That's my bicycle up there!"
Everybody cracked up. But it was his breaking point. No one hid his bike again....
Gene Roddenberry was a regular guy, not full of himself; down-to-earth but intuitive and futuristic.
Rod Roddenberry (CEO, Roddenberry Entertainment; son of Gene Roddenberry and wife Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Christine Chapel on the show. Roddenberry died in 1991. Barrett died in 2008.)
My father was driven. He had a passion and followed it. A lot of people put him on a pedestal, but he was just as flawed as the rest of us. He made mistakes....
I don't think he set out to have the show change the world. He was just trying to put food on the table...
He wrote some scripts but not all of Star Trek. He came up with the main idea and put the outlines and structures together. He infused his writing with his life experience as a bomber pilot in World War II and a police sergeant walking beats in Hollywood. He brought on some incredibly talented writers.
But he would often adjust their scripts to fit his vision of Star Trek. That really pissed off some of the writers. Fifty years later, Harlan Ellison [who wrote the original script for 1967's "The City on the Edge of Forever"] is still bitter about my father rewriting his work.
Frankly, he did the right thing. My father made that episode a better episode, a great episode.
William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk, 1966-69)
I liked that my character ran a lot and jumped a lot and spoke a great deal and lifted his eyes to the skies and had the heroic look of eagles...
I had the most embarrassing moment of my life doing the pilot. I was in a fight that Sally Kellerman was watching on the screen, and my pants split. Talk about an out-of-body experience!
I did all my own stunts. Every actor says that. Well, in those days, with that budget, I had to. I occasionally got scrapes and bruises but didn't break anything...
It was hard work. There were a lot of words pounded into my brain, a lot of publicity, a lot of makeup and wardrobe to jump in and out of. But the stories were so good, and the actors were such multi-dimensional talents, that there was a great deal of joy, too. We had fun. There has to be a sandlot atmosphere on a set but balanced with hard, disciplined work...
When Nichelle and I kissed, I enjoyed the moment enormously. There was a great deal of pressing of flesh. That's the only time I kissed her, much to my disappointment. I kissed other women on the show as often as I could — frequently....
Leonard and I weren't friends while the show was on. But after it went off, we did Star Trek films and conventions, and that brought us together. A friendship was formed.
Herbert F. Solow (vice-president of production, Desilu Studios, 1964-67)
NBC didn't pick up the first pilot, because they said it wouldn't sell in the Baptist South. They said, you can't have a naked, totally green [slave] girl [played by Susan Oliver] wiggling on the local Nashville station....
When I sold the second pilot to NBC, I said that this was one of the only shows on TV where you can represent a purple tree, The FCC had just granted rights to RCA's color process. I emphasized that if NBC [owned by RCA] put Star Trek on the air, it would help [RCA chair] General David Sarnoff sell television sets.
Robert Sarnoff, his son, was president of NBC. I later learned that NBC was keeping a separate rating service for color shows. The highest-rated show on that list was always Star Trek.
The series was entertainment. We did an episode parallel to the Vietnam War to get ratings and entertain people, and to make some money for the studio. The NBC News department got upset about the episode on the basis that the entertainment division should not be commenting on world or local news....
Leonard was very important to us. Mr. Spock was the character that told the audience this was not the usual spaceship — this was science fiction. When we did the second pilot, NBC's West Coast vice-president insisted they couldn't sell a series with a character who looks like a pointy-eared devil. I made a deal that if, after the first six episodes, the show wasn't doing well, I'd give Leonard an ear job.
The first six shows went on the air, and it was obvious that Star Trek had a huge following because of Leonard Nimoy. That ended all thinking about replacing his ears.
Leonard protected his character. Directors came in and said, "Let's give Spock a little humor to lighten him up." But Leonard would say, "We're not doing that. It isn't my character."
The biggest challenge was staying on budget. It was a very costly show. We fought that battle all the time, especially when some of the episodes called for outer-space stuff, advanced opticals or sets that we had to build for just one episode.
Lucille Ball [president of Desilu] had no idea what Star Trek was. She had absolutely no input into the show. She thought it was about a group of performers traveling to entertain the troops in Vietnam — a star trek. She wasn't joking.
Beverly Washburn (Lieutenant Arlene Galway in "The Deadly Years," 1967)
When I went in to read for the part, the first thing they asked was if I was claustrophobic. I had to sit in the makeup chair for four-and-a-half hours and breathe through a straw while they made a plaster cast of my face and then a rubber mask. It took two hours to take all the makeup off.
My character contracted a disease that caused her to age [very rapidly]. The rest of the crew got it, too. I died — and I wasn't even wearing a red shirt! Everyone else started to age, and it looked like they were going to die also. Finally, Chekov found a cure. But it was too late for me.