The television show Star Trek already had one season under its belt in 1967 when Walter Koenig belatedly joined the cast as Pavel Chekov, young navigator of the USS Enterprise. But half a century later, Chekov — and Koenig — are essential parts of the Trek epic that has spawned a dozen movies, five more TV series and countless books, comics and video games, much of which he's had some part in.
In the 1990s, Koenig returned to science-fiction in a very different role, playing the deliciously wicked telepath Alfred Bester in the series Babylon 5.
Koenig, 78, recently spoke to the Herald-Leader from his home in Los Angeles, in advance of his appearance this weekend at the Lexington Comic and Toy Con.
Question. You joined Star Trek at the start of the second season. Was it intimidating or did you see it at the time as just another acting job? Did you have any idea what was coming?
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Answer. I truly did look at it as just another acting job. I was told the Chekov part might reoccur, but there were no guarantees. So there wasn't much pressure from that. But there was so much fan mail — kids writing in pencil on lined paper, telling me I was groovy. Mr. (Gene) Roddenberry (the show's creator) decided I had youth appeal. It became clear the part would continue and I would be a member.
It came slowly and it was hard realizing while we were working on it how big this project was. You couldn't see the forest for the trees. I couldn't see what I had been lucky enough to fall into until years later.
Q. On the show, Chekov was supposed to look up to Captain Kirk like a father figure. But in real life, William Shatner (who played Kirk) was considered difficult to get along with. How was your relationship with Shatner off-screen?
A. No, we were never close bosom buddies. With the exception of Leonard ("Mr. Spock" Nimoy) and perhaps DeForest ("Dr. McCoy" Kelley), I don't think Bill was close to anyone out of the cast.
He was OK. I mean, we all had fun together during the series, he had a good sense of humor and a lot of energy. It was only when we started doing the movies that we began to have some antipathy among the cast members. But I think everyone has covered that pretty well in their books. I don't know that it benefits anything to get into that again.
Q. NBC canceled the series in 1969, citing poor ratings. Five decades later, Star Trek is a cultural phenomenon. People stand in line for your autograph. How did that happen to an old TV show? Nobody is making $140 million movies out of Car 54, Where Are You?
A. That question is one I'm still trying to answer on a daily basis. (Laughs.) I think it had to do with the creativity of the writing, the integrity of the acting, the dreamers in our audience, with the fact that we presented this humanistic vision of the future and this sense of fairness that I think was highly important to the show.
And the show's imagination and the way it was produced was impressive — you know, for the time.
Q. Around 1990, you pitched to Paramount Pictures a movie script that you wrote for Star Trek VI where most of the cast would get killed. What was the story there?
A. (Laughs.) I thought it was the last movie we were gonna do, so I wanted to give us a decent — a nice curtain call. Everyone would have died but Spock and McCoy. I don't remember all of it anymore, but we were on a mission on a far-off alien planet, things went wrong, there was a catastrophe, and there were almost no survivors. It went absolutely nowhere, so I never gave it much thought after that.
Q. Actors once feared fantasy and science-fiction roles because they didn't want to be typecast in a genre that wasn't taken seriously. Now everyone wants to be a superhero or a space warrior. Meryl Streep is playing a fairy tale witch. What's changed?
A. Well, yeah, everyone is more engaged now in doing science-fiction and fantasy and stories that lend themselves to visual delight. And I think that's because the technology has come so far along that we can better tell these kinds of stories, we can show on the screen all of these foreign worlds and these extraordinarily different kinds of lives.
In fact, to some degree, when we talk about the pyrotechnics on the screen, I fear we're losing the art of storytelling, of making a story pertinent to our lives rather than just turning everyone into a space warrior.