EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Herbie J Pilato’s new book, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR: TV’s Top Male Icons from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, published by Taylor Trade Publishing, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.
The Great Bird of the Galaxy
by Herbie J Pilato
The Great Bird of the Galaxy.
That’s how the iconic Gene Roddenberry, who died October 4, 1991, is mostly remembered. As the creator of the original Star Trek, its initial TV follow-up, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and ultimately the subsequent and ongoing legacy of sequels and remakes for both the big and small screen, Roddenberry’s uplifting and majestic vision of the future will forever live long and prosper. A pilot in the US Army during World War II, Roddenberry would decades later become one of the first people to be “buried” in space. It all seemed to fit.
A genius of mind and spirit, Roddenberry created Star Trek, which became more than just a TV series or a multimedia franchise. The original and additional incarnations of the series have served as inspiration for countless TV viewers, moviegoers, Hollywood insiders, and humanity. As Roddenberry once said:
“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. [. . .] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind—here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
Ann Hodges says Roddenberry “keyed into something that audiences were hungry for at that time”: the science-fiction/fantasy genre. “They loved Star Trek, and they loved what he had to say with that show, and how he said it. He was smart. He knew how to present the material, and he did it in a way that was believable. He also had an eye for casting. He knew how to cast particular characters that would appeal to the mainstream audience.”
Gene was born Eugene Wesley Roddenberry on August 19, 1921, in El Paso, Texas, and raised in Los Angeles, California. He joined the Army Air Corps after studying law enforcement at Los Angeles City College and flew several missions during World War II. While stationed in the South Pacific, he contributed stories and poetry to publications. After the war, Roddenberry took a job as a commercial pilot for Pan American World Airlines before moving back to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a television writer.
Roddenberry had worked as a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman and as a speechwriter for Chief William H. Parker in the early 1950s as he attempted to gain a foothold in the entertainment industry. Fortunately, the LAPD regularly consulted for fellow male-icon Jack Webb’s police series Dragnet, giving Roddenberry the chance to develop his writing style. His first TV credit was for a segment of Mr. District Attorney, followed by episodes of West Point, Naked City, and Have Gun, Will Travel, for which he won the Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic TV Script.
Before Star Trek’s famed writer/story producer D. C. Fontana began working on Roddenberry’s historic space series, she had served as his secretary during the production of another of one of his ground-breaking, if short-lived, shows: The Lieutenant. This series, which starred Gary Lockwood, who Roddenberry would later utilize in his Trek universe, originally aired on NBC from fall 1963 to spring 1964. As Fontana recalls, that’s when she “saw the initial pages for Star Trek … when The Lieutenant was in its last stages and we knew it would not be renewed. “
As she continues to explain, since MGM, proprietor of The Lieutenant, had a “first look agreement” with Roddenberry, he initially brought Trek to that studio, but they turned it down. “Imagine where MGM might be today if they had said yes,” she suggests with a smile.
That said, Fontana recalls Roddenberry pitching Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” in reference to the classic TV western Wagon Train, which aired on NBC and then ABC from 1957 to 1965). “Wagon Train wasn’t about the journey,” she relays. “Every episode was about someone ON the journey in the wagon train … their problems, their crises, their relationships, successes, and failures. Gene’s pitch was that the spaceship [on Trek] was just a vehicle to cross space. The real stories were in the crew, the new worlds, new civilizations that would be encountered in space. And I think we accomplished that. Big time.”
Roddenberry’s original unaired Trek pilot titled “The Cage,” which featured Jeffrey Hunter (who played Jesus in the 1961 movie King of Kings) as a pre-William Shatner captain, was rejected by NBC as “too cerebral.” Roddenberry then made another attempt at the concept with a second pilot called “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which guest-starred The Lieutenant’s Gary Lockwood and replaced Hunter with Shatner, now paired with Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, who was held over from “The Cage.”
The series aired only seventy-nine episodes over three seasons on NBC, before becoming nothing less than a sensation in syndication—and on to the mammoth expansion in all media that it has turned into.
After this initial Trek was cancelled in 1969, Roddenberry stuck with the science-fiction theme as a writer and producer for TV-movie/pilots like Genesis II (1973), Planet Earth (1974), and The Questor Tapes (1974). Meanwhile, Star Trek was enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to syndicated reruns and an animated version, and in 1975 Roddenberry was tapped to revive the franchise under the name Star Trek: Phase II. But due to the popularity of the first Star Wars movie, which premiered in 1977, Paramount Studios, owner of the Trek franchise, was prompted instead to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the big screen. Five sequels with the original cast followed, though Roddenberry had limited involvement after the first film as an “executive consultant.”
Renowned writer Larry Brody worked for Roddenberry on the animated Star Trek series, original episodes of which NBC aired from 1973 to 1975 (ultimately completing the historic “five-year mission” of the Enterprise that commenced on the original live-action series, where it was aborted after only three years).
“Gene was amazing. Huge energy and the biggest ego of anyone I’ve ever met—but it seemed completely justifiable in light of his talent and influence and totally unassuming. That is, he wasn’t pretending to be better than anyone else, he was better at what he did than almost everyone else—and he loved being so damn good at it that you couldn’t help but admire him for it.
“If I had to compare Gene Roddenberry to a fictional character, it would be to the Doctor on Doctor Who. A supreme manipulator whose goal was to solve his problems utilizing the talents of those around him—which meant that he had to help them become the absolute best they could be. The great thing about Gene was that even when he messed with you or screwed you over you didn’t care . . . because it was so much fun watching him do it.”
Herbie J Pilato is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. You can learn more about him HERE. Click HERE to order your copy of DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR: TV’s Top Male Icons from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, by Herbie J Pilato.