Wednesday, May 06, 2009

..And Straight On Till Morning

Now for the first time those characters are about to be played by other actors. Star Trek is now truly in the hands of a next generation: For the first time, none of the producers, writers or actors (except Leonard Nimoy) learned Star Trek directly from Gene Roddenberry and his first collaborators.

These actors had other common experiences that contributed to forging the Star Trek future. They had strong backgrounds in theatre. William Shatner got his first breaks playing Shakespeare. Leonard Nimoy acted on the stage before and after the Star Trek series; DeForest Kelley acted in theatre on both coasts. After studying with famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, James Doohan did repertory theatre. Years later, Walter Koenig also studied and performed at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse. George Takei was an actor on the theatre track—not film—at UCLA. Nichelle Nichols was a musical theatre performer, as well as a singer and dancer.

This theatre experience was important, because with small budgets, Star Trek was all about story and acting. Leonard Nimoy emphasizes this, and William Shatner has observed that on the TV series they were essentially putting on Greek plays every week, dealing with complex but essential human questions. Their experience and theatrical instincts helped shape stories as well as their own characters.

They all grew up with movies as a magical experience shared in a magical environment: the movie palaces. Many of them recall the immersion and inspiration of Saturday matinees, in environments separated from the “real” world, where their heroes were ten feet tall on the big screen.

When they came together to create the crew of the Enterprise, they brought with them real life experience that pertained to their characters and the stories they played, particularly concerning justice, empathy and principle.

As a boy, George Takei was in U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. He remembers the searchlight following him to the latrine at night. The poverty Walter Koenig experienced as a child colored his attitudes for many years. For Nichelle Nichols, bigotry wasn’t an abstract topic—she lived through racial prejudice, and only a decade before Trek went on the air she was denied a hotel room because of her color, while on tour as a singer. She also dealt with an attempted rape, and at a time when prosecutions were much less likely to be brought or to be successful, she testified against a powerful man in his own city and the jury convicted him.

As a boy, William Shatner was taunted and got into fights because he was Jewish. Leonard Nimoy, whose Jewish parents literally escaped from Russia (his mother hid in a hay wagon), had his own problems fitting in, and he felt alienated enough that playing an extraterrestrial came more or less naturally.

War, the military, danger, duty, courage—none of these story elements were abstractions to James Doohan, who had been a soldier storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day, and had visible scars from enemy gunfire (carefully kept off-camera). Similarly, Gene Roddenberry didn't just write about flying a ship-- he had flown bombers in combat. He and writer/producer Gene Coon didn't write antiwar stories from theory; they had both experienced real war. Roddenberry didn't just write about grace under pressure--he survived plane crashes and helped to rescue survivors.

Their lives didn’t end with Star Trek. They’ve been actors, directors, producers and writers on other projects. They pursued other arts and other ways of doing good. Nichelle Nichols recruited real astronauts for NASA, especially women and people of color. George Takei served on local government commissions and became a political player in Los Angeles, and more recently a gay rights activist. Leonard Nimoy marched to protest the Vietnam war and has remained politically active. William Shatner works for his charities and causes, including the environment.

As even casual fans must know by now, there was conflict among them (which occasionally still surfaces.) But Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan, Walter Koenig and George Takei formed close bonds over the years, as did Shatner and Nimoy. DeForest Kelley was beloved by all. Let’s stipulate that none of them was or is perfect.

I never met Kelley or Doohan, both departed now, though I attended the 2004 convention honoring Doohan, his last. I was doing a story for the New York Times and asked a number of Trek people about him. Without exception they praised him, and several—including Nick Meyer and LeVar Burton--used the same words: “I love Jimmy Doohan!”

I also haven’t met Shatner, but Leonard Nimoy was generous with his time, and after the story appeared we emailed back and forth about a publishing matter—for a brief moment it felt like Spock was advising me. I’ve spoken with Walter Koenig several times—he’s thoughtful, funny and forthright. Nichelle Nichols is a great lady, gracious, generous and down to earth. She provided me with the surprise of a memorable moment—as soon as I introduced myself to her in a dimly lit ballroom before a convention dinner, she introduced me to the man next to her. He turned out to be Neil Armstrong.

I heard George Takei at the Star Trek 40th anniversary convention in Seattle, describing his experiences in the internment camp in the context of urging the audience to be politically involved. I met him afterwards, and he showed me a photo album a fan had just given him, from a UCLA student theatre production in which he’d played the lead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check out the new Nichelle Nichols movie coming this fall:

A Military Interrogator Returns from Iraq with Acute Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.