(Shenandoah) -- After weeks of stories devoted to the coronavirus outbreak, the Iowa Primary, and, yes, the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy, it was time for this reporter to boldly go where no interview had gone before.
One of the first shows I remember watching growing up was “Star Trek.” So, it was with the eagerness of a major fan boy that I volunteered to interview Walter Koenig as a segment on Don Hansen’s “Morning Show.”
If you’re a “Star Trek” fan, you know that he portrayed Ensign Pavel Chekov on the second and third seasons of the original series, from 1967-’69, as well as in the original movie sequels. He’s also appeared on a long list of other television show and films, and is a screenwriter, as well. His “Morning Show” interview coincided with the re-release of his book “Beaming Up and Getting Off: Life Before and Beyond Star Trek.” Written in the late 1990’s, Koenig recently updated the book to include the past 20 years of his life.
As a lifelong “Star Trek” fan, it was a challenge for me to ask intelligent, coherent questions without coming across as a big geek (come to think of it, that’s a challenge for EVERY interview I do!). But, the experience of talking to an actual cast member from a show that made a huge impression on my life was too good to pass up. Prior to Monday afternoon—when the interview was recorded—the only other “Star Trek” cast member I had met was the late James Doohan, who played Mr. Scott, the engineering officer.
This encounter with Scotty came at a “Star Trek” event at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1994. My wife Mary and I were on our honeymoon at the time, and a chance to meet Doohan at an autograph session just about made our wedding complete.
As I received his autograph, I mentioned to Doohan that he was part of our honeymoon. I don’t remember his exact reply, but I think it was something like, “lady, you cannot change the laws of physics! You need more power!”
Fortunately, the interview went smoothly, and Koenig was incredibly gracious, and insightful. During our visit, he provided some interest anecdotes:
---Producer Gene Roddenberry cast Koenig as Chekov in an effort to bring a younger character to the program, thereby luring teen girls to the audience mostly consisting of science fiction buffs.
---Koenig was forced to wear a wig to fit the teen idol image, and to make him look more like Davy Jones of “The Monkees.” (Of course, having Chekov be the teen idol made more sense than Dr. McCoy. After all, do you know any teen girl walking around, saying “blast it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer?”)
---Generally, Koenig got along well with most of his cast members, though William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk) remains a lightning rod of controversy, with stories of his off-the-screen antics. However, he says any issues between Shatner and the supporting cast didn’t affect the quality of the program.
---Koenig, incidentally, does a great impression of Shatner. However, I was terribly remiss in not having Walter recite his famous line from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”: “Excuse me, sir! Can you direct us to the naval base in Alameda? It's where they keep the nuclear wessels!”
---Mr. Chekov’s character was the Russian representative fitting Roddenberry’s vision of the Starship Enterprise having a diverse crew. His comments on this subject resonate at a time when this country is once again threatened by racial strife.
“Gene Roddenberry brought him aboard to further broaden the concept of people of all nationalities, races, religions, etc., could work in a humanitarian way, could work together in brotherhood, fellowship and other good stuff, at a time when we were shooting this in the 1960’s when we were engaged in war with the Vietnamese, when we weren’t supposed to be,” said Koenig. “It was our way of letting people know that this is a situation that we would not confront it the future. We would be able to live together—people of all races, creed, nationalities, and we would find a better world—that the future would be a better place to live in.
“That was the compliment of the bridge: On the bridge was had African-Americans, we had a Japanese American (Mr. Sulu), we had a person of a different species, entirely (Mr. Spock). We had a woman in a command position on the bridge (Lt. Uhura). All of that good stuff that we were reluctant to discuss in topical terms, because of all the stuff that was going on, which we could address by putting those stories in the future.”
Of course, the original “Star Trek” lasted three seasons, then was canceled in the summer of 1969—at a time when ironically, the United States was preparing to go to the moon. But, the fan following endured because of the first “Star Trek,” science fiction and comic book conventions that sprang up around the country. Mr. Chekov’s character was part of all six “Star Trek” movies, as well as “Star Trek: Generations,” which served as a bridge between the original cast, and the “Next Generation” crew. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and its separate sequels—“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: The Voyager,” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” kept the fire burning in trekkers (don’t call “Star Trek” fans “trekkies”).
In recent years, “Star Trek’ has been rebooted with three new movies. And CBS’ online streaming service recently featured two new “Star Trek” series—“Star Trek: Discovery,” and “Star Trek: Picard.” (I’m still waiting for even one more new “Star Trek” show—“Star Trek: Herbie the Janitor!”)
One of the more interesting parts of the interview was when Koenig compared the continuing success of “Star Trek” to that of a professional sports franchise.
“You follow a team,” he said, “you follow a team whether it’s doing very well, or not. You following a team when they change players, when they change uniforms. And, you actually attend events in which you are dressed as the players are dressed. The point is, you’re identified with the team.
“And, I think that happened with ‘Star Trek.’ They applaud the players when the players change, or when they move from one city to another. They still follow the team.”
Unfortunately, one portion of our interview left on the cutting room floor was his discussion of his early years. Koenig’s parents where Russian Jews who immigrated to American before he was born. In fact, Koenig’s father was a communist, and was investigated by the FBI during the McCarthy Era—a chilling time in American history.
One other little known fact about Walter Koenig: he actually spent time Iowa, attending Grinnell College as a pre-med major before transferring to UCLA, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. How Koenig caught the acting bug—and some of the ups and downs of his career and life, in general, are detailed in the book.
“Beaming Up and Getting Off: Life Before and Beyond Star Trek” is available to order from Amazon.com. You can also listen to our interview on the "KMA Morning Show With Don Hansen" page under our programming tab at kmaland.com.
If you need a break, and desire to hear insights from an actor who was part of a legendary TV series, this book is for you. Here’s hoping Walter Koenig and all the “Star Trek” fans in the world “live long and prosper.”
Mike Peterson is senior news anchor/reporter with KMA News. The opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of this station, its management or its ownership.