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Walter Koenig - Chekov in the Original Star Trek
What did you know about Star Trek when you auditioned for the part?
I knew almost nothing about Star Trek. I had flicked the switches from one channel to another and happened to pick it up. I saw what appeared to be very obviously styrofoam rocks and decided on a first impression basis that this was not going to be a terribly interesting show and never really watched it. I came on actually in the second season, so I was not there at the beginning. I was really very much surprised by everything that occurred. I had no understanding of the history of that first season.
An Actor is an Actor is an Actor
Were you looking forward to appearing in the show?
Well, an actor is an actor is actor, to paraphrase someone or other and the opportunity to work, to have a steady engagement, certainly seemed like an appealing concept to me. I didnít even know it was a steady gig. I was told that it was a recurring role and it would certainly depend on how the character was received as to how many appearances I would make. So it was a constant surprise for me because I worked on one show and they said, thank you very much, and then Iíd think that would be it, and then theyíd call me back for a second show etc. So it was really a delightful adventure for me all the way through.
They decided they wanted a Russian, when did you find out about that?
Sort of after the fact. As a matter of fact when I auditioned I think the characterís name was Jones. At that juncture they didnít even have a Russian name. They did ask me to do it with a Slavic accent and I was only one of two people who auditioned for the part, which is quite extraordinary. Considering that this has so materially affected the last 35 years of my life, the actual audition process was so incredibly painless, you would think that that it didnít Ė and now itís the extraordinary turn in my life that occurred.
What Iím trying to say is that certainly when something has this much influence in your life it should have been an enormously difficult job in acquiring the role. It was extremely simple. I heard the same day that I auditioned - a couple of hours after I auditioned I heard that I had gotten the role.
When did you find out they were looking for somebody like Davey Jones out of the Monkeys?
I think I read that in the paper. Or no - I think I heard it behind the camera; what they were formenting or what they were propagandising was that this was in response to the Soviet inquiry about having a Russian on the show. After all, the cosmonauts were the first people in space and hadnít we been appraised of that. That wasnít the case at all because we were dealing at the time with the Iron Curtain and Star Trek was not being seen in the Soviet Union. It certainly made for a good story to think that the Soviets had (coughs) the Russians inquired as to why there wasnít a Russian.
The fact of the matter was yes it was, theyíre looking for somebody too appeal to the bubble gum set. The 8 to 14 year olds, and indeed thatís where most of my mail came from.
What were you told about the character of Checkov?
Not very much. When I auditioned for the role it seemed to me like a very perilous situation where the ship was about to blow up and Checkov is quite nervous and very much the young novice officer. And so when I read for the role I read with the sense of jeopardy, and considerable threat. I thought that pretty much was right on the nose. But when I was through they asked me to read it again and make it funny.
So at that point I realised that they were looking for something beyond simply something to echo the plot danger. Somebody to have some sort of personality, some kind of character, somebody who was a bit of a spunk, and the sense of humour might be what they wanted. But it was pretty much a matter of trial and error.
Can you describe the mix of characters in the crew.
I suppose it was somewhat unusual. Certainly there had been African Americans on television series, regulars. I donít know if there had been a show that had quite the mix that we did having Japanese American and African American and Scottish and Russian as well as corn fed Iowans and southern doctors and of course the Vulcans. I think that was certainly an unusual mix and I think thatís probably as much a reason for its appeal as anything.
We were stating tacitly that peoples of all races and creeds, nationalities could not only co-exist but care for each other deeply and in doing so we were heralding a future that was very optimistic and one that I think that appealed to the audience, to which they gravitated. We would like to believe that the future is not an Armageddon kind of situation as has been so frequently depicted in film, but one where thereís considerably harmony and a kind of one world environment.
Making it Truthful
Was the moral a major thing in script readings?
No, not really. I think we were all reasonably intelligent people and it was very easy to discern that that was the statement that Mr Roddenberry was making. He didnít have to come down onto the set and spell it out to us.
I think perhaps you know thatís more the province of the director who has to put everything together and who has an overall concept. We were really focusing on our individual roles and making them truthful. The rest of it, was really when it came from the writers and from the director. We were well aware that we were making some socio-political statements that were trenchant and cogent and that were worth being made and itís nice to feel that if you have to be identified with one programme for so many years, at least itís a programme whose ideology you can support, and certainly I think we all felt that way.
Did you feel when there was a script that dealt with race relations or war issues, it was unusual in television at that time?
Yeah, I think it was. I think it was. You know we were still very much involved with the Vietnam War and it was it was really sort of verboten to do any kind of drama at that time that that dealt with that. It was a very, very touchy subject and I think, with the exception of perhaps one episode, I think our attack and the posture that we took on social issues and vital topical issues, was, as I say, one that was very easy to support.
Do you think the studio knew what they had?
I donít know. I think, itís easy to cast the studios as the heavies because you know each year they threatened to cancel us, and they might have had a myopic perspective on how effective we were. On the other hand the Nilson ratings - which reflect the audiences involvement and interest and enthusiasm Ė our ratings were pretty low. We were really down there and since the Nilson ratings were the counter by which decisions were made in terms of picking up shows or cancelling them, it was not an egregious error to assume that the audience was not involved with us, or not terribly enthusiastic, because the ratings seemed to reflect that. It was only when we went into syndication and the show began to be seen on such a continual basis, and consistent basis, that the rest of the country really became of us I think and (coughs) began to take the show to their bosoms.
Was there always talk of a return before the first feature film was made?
No. When Gene Roddenberry called up in the Spring of 1969 and said itís been a pleasure working with you and I hope we do it again sometime, it sounded like the kind of salutation that one gives when something is over, you know. It was a nice gesture but certainly no one took it literally. Nor do I think that Gene did initially, although his perseverance and his tenacity were to be admired because I think after NBC cancelled the show Gene perhaps kept the rumours going that we would come back.
But for the longest time I donít think anyone believed that there was a chance in hell of this actually eventuating. When the rumours became stronger and there certainly seemed to be some factual evidence of a possibility of a return, that evidence kept dissolving. The first time I think ever was like in í75 when Gene wrote everybody a note and said, 'Weíre gonna come back Ė Iím gonna lose some weight, I hope everybody else does too' and nothing happened. He also wrote to everybody or called everybody with the exception of me and told them that we were gonna do a show, they were gonna do another Star Trek series etc. Etc.
When I called him and asked him why I didnít receive such a missive, he explained that the show that he had in mind was gonna take place five years before the series and since I was already playing a character whom I was nine years older than, and three or four years had already passed, I would be ending up playing a character who I was actually 19 years the senior to. So it didnít appear that I was gonna be in it but he mentioned that he would like to have me participate as Checkovís father, he mentioned that to me.
But anyway to go on - we went in for costume fitting and I was applauding myself about the fact that - this was another year later or two years later - that I could still fit into my uniform, and kind of snickering very self righteously about how I could and people could not. And I got home and I had not been home 15 minutes when I got a call saying weíll cancelling the final fittings, weíre not going forward. And this went on and on, even after we signed the contracts. We postpone.
We had this huge press conference at Paramount and Eisner and Katzenberg as well as Gene Roddenberry spoke. Leonard and Bill got up and spoke and everybody was very excited about the prospect of going into production. Robert Weiss was there, our director and of course it was postponed again. So it went on and on that way and after a while oneís tendency is to be a bit cynical and not in fact did we Ė until we actually began shooting that day... Not the first shot mind you, it was the third shot of the day when Kirk comes through the elevator door and Uhura, Sulu and Checkov rush up to meet him. We stopped for them to set the lights for that shot, and only then did I believe that we were definitely going to make this movie. So it was a long time coming.
What was it like working together?
Well it was really terrific. It just didnít seem like it was ever going to really happen and then we were actually doing it. Initially, certainly, we were all very excited and thought we were gonna have a terrific film. The unfortunate thing of course was we didnít have a three act film, we had only two acts for a three act film and were forced to go into production before we were ready. We obviously suffered enormous problems as a consequence.
The picture was less than we had hoped for. But to come back and make this film, it was almost unprecedented I think for a television series at that time to have this kind of resurrection as a feature film and it was really an exciting, exciting experience.
Whatís the difference in acting in the films?
The acting isnít any different. Youíre shooting two or three pages a day instead of 10 or 11 pages a day. When you write Ė when youíre shooting for television you have six days to shoot a 52 page script, thatís generally I think what we had. A feature screen play is about 110, 120 pages and you generally have ten weeks to do that. So we were shooting two or three pages a day.
There was a great more attention paid to detail in shooting a feature film and because you have a wide screen, lighting had to be more accurately done, sound had to be perfect, the sets were more involved, everything reflected the fact that we were shooting a feature film that was going... You know that the screen was so many feet high, that there was much more money available to make the film.
How much did you come in contact with any of the science input? How much were you aware you were getting real science advice?
We were aware of it, we were aware of it. I think there were people actually on the set. I know certainly during the first couple of features we had a scientist on the set and I knew that we were we were being helped in terms of the science by professional people. Iím not too clear on how much of an involvement they had.
Some of the stuff that we did was fantastic, fantastical. Many things were a projection of current knowledge. That if we had come this far in science at that time, where would we be in another 200 years? And so there was considerable logic involved in many of the things that we were able to do, based on, as I say, the knowledge at the time.
A Place to Go
Were you very impressed by the ideas like the transporter, warp speed, exciting stuff to work with?
Yeah, I guess, you know. I was mostly just pleased as punch to have a place to go every week and act and perform. I guess youíre an actor and you suspend disbelief and you accept as reality what is presented to you in the script. Okay, we transport: okay all our molecules disengage from themselves and then rearrange themselves later on, okay I buy that. Okay I can point this phaser at somebody and I can stun them or Ė or kill them. Okay, I believe that. You're an actor so you just go about believing it.
Mother of Invention
Bob Justman said a lot of these ideas came out of necessity. Was it these ideas were coming out of economy?
Iím sure, necessity being the mother of invention. But that speared some wonderful things that occur under those circumstances, and indeed if it was only budget it still does not in any way devalue the creativity involved. The process is still the same. That frequently occurs Ė because of costs you have to find another way to do it and the way we found was not only practical but it was exciting.
Did you have particularly technical lines and were they much harder to learn than normal dialogue, did you enjoy learning those parts?
I donít think I particularly enjoyed learning the technical stuff because the things you can memorise most easily are the things that you associate and identify with. Thereís a certain mnemonic play with memory Ė when you recognise the dialogue youíre speaking and you say well I can associate that with this or that with that. When you have dialogue that is incredibly technical and you have no frame of reference for it, then itís like memorising foreign words, and trying to retain it.
Patrick told us he used to write it on the inside of his fingers.
Thatís interesting. I like that... bend mine!
Your character was safe from the painful experiences like Nimoy had with his ears, but how important was Freddie Phillips role in the first series?
Well, Fred did my makeup for a long time. Fred was a delightful man, a charming man who had wonderful stories to tell, just wonderful stories, because he had started doing Ė applying makeup when he was 15 or 16 and one of the first jobs was doing body make up for a group of naked ladies who came out of the water, it may have been in the ocean or something. It was really quite extraordinary and I thought he must really write a book, but he was a man of considerable honour and the stories that he could tell which certainly would have rocked Hollywood he chose to keep private.
Can you remember first seeing your costume, did you like it?
It was okay. You know Iím an actor, I keep repeating the same thing, and I remember when I went to drama school the first thing that they issued me was a dance kit in tights, in a leotard and I felt a bit self conscious about that having never been in anything like that. And James Kahn - you know who James Kahn is - was in my class and Dabney Coleman was in my class and here we are standing around in these tights, a leotard and looking at each other and you know the first reaction is always, God do we look ridiculous Ė do we interpret this as an attack on our masculinity? But after half an hour you forget it all because itís a matter of acceptance. This is what youíre there for. Youíre there to learn and to act and costume is just another part of your tools, thatís all. So, no I didnít have any specific feelings about the costume other than the series uniform did look very much like pyjamas to me.
Iím probably the only one in the entire world who liked the first movie costumes. They were very difficult Ė we needed people to help us get into them. Each of us had our own dresser, but aside from that I just felt it was a real snug fitting, I liked it. But I had no, I had no enormous Ė I would have done the part regardless. I would have done the part in jeans if they asked me to.
The women got to wear lots of mini skirts with holes in, any problems with that?
I donít know. You have to understand that at the time mini skirts were the fashion and everybody wanted to be fashionable and of course I think in retrospect many of the women would possibly - or some of the women might possibly - say, well it was sexist to dress us that way. But it was after all the fashion and they looked good in those uniforms and I think everybody wanted to look good. Certainly the ladies wanted to look attractive and they were attractive outfits.
I think the question more appropriately would be was it demeaning for them to be seen as sex objects? And that I think youíd have to ask each individual. As far as how attractive they appeared I certainly think that the costumes made them appear attractive.
The design of the Enterprise has remained pretty much the same. What is it about that shape thatís so appealing and survived so long?
Almost any design they would have chosen would have become the institutional vision and itís simply that they chose this twin fuselage look. It became a standard and even if you didnít like it initially youíd grow accustomed to it and then expect it and then feel cheated if you didnít have it. Iím not sure ultimately whether it was genius in creating that particular design. I think it was one that just was accepted and became part of the show. It became as much a character in the show as any of the actors.
Storytelling and Sports Teams
Itís a journey, a band of people: what are all those elements that come together that make it so special?
I have to laugh only because Ė and I donít mean to sound patronising Ė itís because Iíve been asked that question for 35 years and I can pontificate at great length on what I consider the answer is and I do believe itís more than one. Ultimately Ė let me cut through or let me touch on what are the obvious reasons first of all and the obvious reasons are imaginative story telling, the ability to transport Ė no pun intended Ė the audience and make them feel that they can identify with the situations and with the characters, and this for all of the series.
The writing, the cogent writing, that very frequently had something worthwhile being said.
The more sophisticated it became with special effects when we started making the features, that too became an integral part of the showís success. But, I think that the reason that, the explanation that can blanket all four series and this disparate feeling of all four series, that they were not the same show reflected over and over again is a sociological reasons and I think it has its roots in the need for people to have something they can identify with, not unlike a sports team.
English football, American baseball, American basketball, you root for a team and you identify with their success. Star Trek had a considerable amount of success. It had a following. People came to associate themselves with that, with that success. This is my institution. This is my team. And just like with any other team, players change, you know theyíre... The Los Angeles Dodgers today are probably 80 percent different than they were Ė the team members are 80 percent different than they were three or four years ago. That notwithstanding, there are people in Los Angeles who will root for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Iíve been rooting for the New York Yankies since 1947. Players come and go. Star Trek casts come and go.
Weíre now looking upon a fifth generation of casts, but itís still Star Trek Ė you have your figurative banner that youíre waving. People go to ball games and they dress in the colours of their team and they paint their faces red and green and blue. How different is that than people coming to Star Trek conventions and dressing in costume? So I think we have achieved a kind of - I hate to sound so pretentious about it, but almost a mythic kind of Ė or an epic kind of quality, that we are an institution so broad and so grand that it has an enormous following that will maintain itself generation after generation, decade after decade, just the way sports teams do.