There are two schools of thought when it comes to actor William Shatner: people either love him or they hate him. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground and I am not sure where this attitude comes from. He certainly isn’t shy about sharing his opinions on various subjects and he has never had a problem being ‘that guy’: the leading man. Call it confidence or conceit, it is interesting to me that he has no trouble embracing both views of himself. Perhaps one of the greatest self evaluation skills an actor needs is the ability to see that they can get a reaction from people, good or bad. I always liked his work in the Star Trek canon and thought he wasn’t afraid to poke a little fun at himself when he got a little too full of, well, himself. In reading his 1993 book Star Trek Memories co-written with Chris Kreski (Harper/Collins), I enjoyed his insider stories about how Gene Roddenberry (aka: The Great Bird of the Galaxy) managed to get Star Trek on the air.
As far as his ego is concerned, Shatner went back to his recruitment for the show’s second pilot and let Trek’s casting director Joe D’Agosta explain his hiring: “As an actor, Bill was of a higher echelon, and hiring him was a really a coup. He was coming out of Judgement at Nuremberg on Broadway and a television series called For the People, and everything he was doing, whether it was on stage, on film, or on television was highly prestigious, I couldn’t believe we got him.” Shatner counters with, “I should explain that not everything I was doing was ‘highly prestigious’…prior to shooting Star Trek’s second pilot, I spent several weeks filming another pilot, Alexander the Great. I played Alex. I mean, this show could be best described as Combat in drag. Here I was, a grown man, running around make-believe battlefields while wearing fitted cotton sheets and sandals and shouting things like “Come on, men, we must experience the glory of taking this hill! HIIIIIII YOOOOOO!!!” Thankfully this Alexander died even younger than the real one.”
The first Star Trek pilot (The Cage) impressed the blue suited executives at NBC a great deal, but in their eyes, it was too deep and cerebral for the average TV viewer. They told Gene they would fund a second pilot but only with some major revisions to the cast, one of which was to get rid of Mr. Spock, a character that Leonard Nimoy was trying to get a handle on. In the first pilot, he was half human/half Vulcan, but not nearly as emotionally repressed as he became in the second pilot. Roddenberry fought for this character because he needed to constantly remind
viewers that this was a show about an interplanetary voyage and Spock was the vehicle he needed to do that. The execs reluctantly agreed with the proviso that they should keep his screen time to a bare minimum, which Roddenberry agreed to with fingers crossed. He had no intention of leaving him in the background. He placed him on the bridge as the Science Officer of the Starship Enterprise and made Mr. Spock a key player in almost all of the story lines. Granted, this could have backfired completely had the uniqueness of the character and Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock not sparked the formation of fan clubs by the middle of the first season. Nimoy said that the first speaking engagement he ever had during the show was in Medford, Oregon so he decided to do the engagement in his Spock garb, ears and all. His car was surrounded by such a mob that he never made it to his engagement, nor did he ever repeat the act after being convinced that people wanted to hear him speak, not the character he played. Noting the cult like rise in in Spock’s popularity, it was only logical that the suits now wanted him on the screen all the time!
When my buddy Wayne was dating his future first wife, her father worked at Lake Superior State University and one of his jobs was to bring guest speakers to campus. Wayne happened to be visiting one week when Nimoy was staying with his girl friend’s family prior to a speaking engagement. Wayne admitted he was a little disappointed to run into the pajama clad Nimoy on route to the bathroom on the upper floor before mentally slapping himself for expecting to see the character of Spock and not the actor who portrayed him. Wayne’s take on it was, “For a famous actor, he looked pretty normal in his PJs.”
Shatner went to The Great Bird to express his concern that Spock’s rising star was kind of new to him – he was used to being THE leading man. Roddenberry convinced Shatner that a great leading man like himself would only be better when surrounded by a strong cast. Shatner may have only heard the part about him being ‘a great leading man’, but Roddenberry’s tactic worked. Shatner also gives Nimoy credit for fleshing out many of the mysterious, mystical cultural practices of the Vulcan race. In one early episode, Spock was supposed to pistol whip an evil Captain Kirk doppelganger in a fight scene. Nimoy insisted that a Vulcan’s extreme emotional control would allow them to use their fingers to disable a human, whereby he and Shatner demonstrated what became known as the Vulcan neck pinch. The director liked the idea and Nimoy added the neck pinch, the split finger salute (borrowed from a Rabbinical greeting), and the mind-meld (done with fingers accessing pressure points in the meldee’s face) to his Vulcan bag of tricks.
Shatner’s book details many instances where the actors went toe to toe with the directors over how their characters would act. “My character would never do or say that,” became watchwords for the writers to heed. George Takei went to great lengths in refusing a director’s request to push the colored buttons on his panel a certain way to fire the phasers. Takei, or rather Mr. Sulu, had already spent a great deal of time performing that task in other episodes so he was not about to let the director change how the action was performed. Roddenberry agreed with his actors because they were the ones who had taken the bare bones descriptions of their roles and fleshed them out.
Nichelle Nichols grew frustrated when her roles kept getting reduced in the script rewrites. She marched in and told Roddenberry that she didn’t even need to look at the script if all she was going to do was sit on the bridge and say, “Hailing frequencies open” over and over again. She gave notice that she was done.
Ironically, the day Nichols quit, she attended an NAACP fundraising banquet after the day’s shooting was done. Someone approached her table and requested she follow him because there was a fan who wanted to meet her. The fan turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King who began to praise her for her work on the series. When Nichols told him she had quit (and why) he told her, “Don’t do this. Nichelle, you can’t do this, Don’t you know that the world, for the first time, is beginning to see us as equals? Your character has gone into space on a five-year mission. She is intelligent, strong, capable, and a wonderful role model, not just for black people, but for all people. What you’re doing is very, very important, and I’d hate to see you just walk away from such a noble task.” She marched into Roddenberry’s office on Monday morning and told him the whole story. She also told him that she was “absolutely, positively staying.” Uhura’s roles weren’t always huge, but the fact that she was in all of the Star Trek episodes and movies with the classic crew gave her a long term visibility that not all actors are afforded.
One myth that Shatner perforates is how the role of Ensign Pavel Chekov came about. The urban legend says it was inspired by a Soviet Tass newspaper article decrying the lack of a Russian on the so-called international/interplanetary crew of the Enterprise. Walter Koenig had previously been hired by the Trek casting director to play a Russian student on a different series. The casting director brought him in to read for what was supposed to be a one time appearance. Koenig sat in the outer office after readding for the part, not realizing he had been hired until the wardrobe department came to measure him for his uniform. The wig he wore in his first
episodes told the real reason he was hired: Ensign Chekov was as close an approximation that anyone would ever find to singer Davy Jones of The Monkees, albeit with a Russian accent. George Takei came into the second season late after filming the movie The Green Berets with John Wayne. Takei was due to get more lines in the script but when he was late coming back, Chekov got the lines and ended up in an expanded role. To this day Koenig claims that he was the first monkey (or Monkee) in deep space.
Shatner doesn’t confine his praise to just the actors and writers in this tale. He is quite effusive on the work done by the light riggers, carpenters, prop masters, and make-up artists. Eventually, this team became a well oiled machine in order to crank out an hour long drama each week during the shooting season. There were times when the learning curve was both steep and humorous. In the pilot episode, there was a scene that required an actress to play a green skinned dancing girl. The make-up artists tried various concoctions (some foul smelling, others none too easy to remove) but the test prints kept returning with the actress sporting a healthy pink glow. The Great Bird was ready to blow a gasket when he called the film lab to find out what the problem was. The exasperated voice on the other end of the phone exclaimed, “Green? She was supposed to be green? I thought you had a bad cinematographer and have been working overtime trying to fix the skin tone.”
In Shatner’s telling, the people who made Star Trek work were able to do so because they functioned more like a family than as a cast and crew. Roddenberry himself was a legendary prankster and like any good family, they all took their turns a pranking one another. When seven foot actor Ted Cassidy (the same actor who played the butler Lurch on The Addams Family) came in so Gene could check out his android makeup and wardrobe, The Great Bird decided he was the right person to help rid the studio of a pesky taylor who had been hanging around trying to sell everyone custom made suits. With the green, bald, seven foot Cassidy leaning back in Roddenberry’s chair pretending to talk business on the phone, the pesky taylor was let into the office. Rather than being terrified, he launched into his ‘Sir, I am here to make you a deal of a lifetime – one suit, two pair of pants for only $49. . .” The whole crew burst in but the joke was on them: they felt guilty enough to each purchase what Shatner calls “some really ugly plaid pants.” Another series of pranks involved Nimoy’s need to get to lunch and back in a hurry so make-up could touch up his pointed ears. He would ride a bike to the commissary and back, at least until Shatner began hiding it, guarding it with dobermans, or locking it up. When Nimoy
attempted to leave the bike locked in his car, Shatner had the car towed away.
At this point in his career, Nimoy was running his own production company and needed some office space for his secretary so they could work near the set between shoots. The room they were given would reach sauna like temperatures by mid-day so Nimoy requested an air conditioner. When they producers failed to comply with his request, he and his secretary staged a little prank of their own. Nimoy summoned the studio medical crew who found his secretary laid out on the floor of their stuffy office. While Nimory ranted and raved about how lucky they were that she hadn’t died of heat prostration, the secretary did her best to remain ‘out on the tiles’. Needless to say, the next day Nimoy’s office had a new air conditioner installed at company expense.
Having thoroughly enjoyed William Shatner’s reminisces about the inner workings of the early days of the Star Trek franchise, it would only be fitting to give Leonard Nimoy a shot at covering the same territory. As I recall he wrote two books entitled ‘I am Not Spock’ and ‘I AM Spock’. Their five year mission may have only lasted three years in the initial run, but they certainly did take television viewers “Where no man had gone before”.
Top Piece Video – some reason’s why Spock became the breakout star of the original Star Trek series