Walter Koenig appeared as Pavel Chekov in Star Trek: The Orginal Series as well as in seven Trek feature films. The actor has just released Beaming Up and Getting Off: Life Before and Beyond Star Trek, an update to his 1998 autobiography Warped Factors. TrekMovie spoke to Koenig about the new book and his time in the final frontier.
What prompted you to do the update to your autobiography?
Well, I was approached by Jacobs Brown Publishing and it sounded like a fun project. Writing an autobiography is a lot different than writing fiction. I don’t have to worry about story structure. I don’t have to worry about relationships. It’s just all from memory, and I can just go in chronological order. I enjoy the process of writing, so when they approached me, I was otherwise at liberty as they say and said, “Sure!”
The 1998 autobiography got positive reviews and was lauded for its honesty, perhaps even brutal honesty. But was there anything you held back for this one?
Not really. I was pretty candid. It’s not masochistic. It’s not like I am pointing to failings in my character that I have burdened with over the last two decades and finally decided that I would therapeutically put it down on paper. Over twenty years have passed and there have been events and situations and people that were introduced into my life that were not there previously. Also, I felt looking back and evaluating how I felt then with how I think now might be interesting for folks. We all transition during the course of a lifetime and develop attitudes and habits and philosophies, etcetera, that may have been incipient early on but develop to a way leading one’s life. Although I don’t think what I have written is terribly profound, it is the current state of my mind and what I project as far as the future is concerned.
In that vein, have your views on Star Trek and your time with the franchise changed in that last two decades?
Yeah, I think it has. I was always very pleased when we were shooting the show and the motion pictures, to be identified with Star Trek. I thought we were putting forward some very trenchant socio-political philosophies that needed to be articulated. I think we did that by projecting problems that were current into the future where it was more admissible. I was always pleased that we were dealing with issues of mankind and humanity and how we can achieve a better moral society and be inclusive of all races, creeds, sexes, philosophies, etcetera.
But there was always something a little nagging in the back of my head and that was while we shooting the shows and the feature films I felt this is current and part of my life and I could, without reluctance, take a bow or two for whatever small participation I had in the show. But I have been somewhat detached from the creative process for quite a while now. So, when I go to conventions and people tell me how much they not only love the show but how much affection they had for my character, I feel a little awkward, a little uncomfortable.
That is really dealing in the past. I don’t want to wallow in the past. I want to be a creature of the present and the future. I don’t think I am done. God knows the industry may not have the same sentiment, but I don’t think I am done. And I don’t just want to rest on past laurels. When I go to make public appearances, I would love to be able to present a current list of accomplishments and unfortunately, they have been in less abundance [laughs] before I wrote the first autobiography.
Speaking of conventions, your updated memoir has a recent story regarding yourself and a candid conversation you had with William Shatner backstage. Your first memoir also had a few candid Shatner stories as well, do you think this recent, and somewhat awkward moment backstage at STLV, is going to be as good as you get for closure with Bill?
No, we don’t have closure. But yes, I was candid, and what you see in the memoir reflected my sentiment at the time, and they do now. Mr. Shatner comes from a different place and a different philosophy and different set of values. He argues that he is not at fault and not guilty of any social misdemeanor, and I say misdemeanor and not felony because it never achieved that status. They were just little things along the way that were disappointing and disillusioning, but not enough to change my life or go to bed tossing and turning thinking about Bill Shatner. In the book, I also acknowledge his talent and acknowledge his availability and responsibility in making Star Trek the success it was. He was an enormous part of the reason why Star Trek continued through three seasons on television and the six movies.
But yes, there are a couple of stories. And in the new edition of my book, there are anecdotal stories I tell about Bill. But I don’t think they are mean or vicious. I think they are more funny than anything.
Your first memoir was Chekov’s Enterprise, about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That project went through a lot of changes early on, including the Star Trek: Phase II television series concept, which you were also signed up for. Do you ever think a new television show would have been more fulfilling to you as an actor?
More fulfilling? I don’t know. It is pure speculation. When Gene [Roddenberry] called us all in the spring of ’69 and thanked us for our participation in Star Trek and hoped we could all work together again someday, that was not prophetic, that was just a salutation and a punctuation mark to say our careers involving Star Trek were over. So, I don’t know what would have transpired if we had gone back to doing a television series.
I had some fairly rewarding experiences doing the original series. Many times, I just sat there read a readout on my console. I don’t exactly consider that an artistic achievement. As a matter of fact, I left the show in the third season for a month to do a play, because I felt a little frustrated with the amount of participation I had on the show. In the third season, my contribution was relatively minor. A play gave me a chance to do a leading role and be on stage every day and be on stage opposite Jackie Coogan.
So, it didn’t portend well that if we came back and did a series in the ‘70s that I could anticipate greater involvement. As for the feature films, Star Trek II and Star Trek IV were really high points to me and I am certainly grateful I had the opportunity to perform in both of those films. But I don’t do a lot of reflecting on “What Ifs.” I am pleased with the way things turned out.
You highlighted two of the Star Trek films. Do you have regrets about the other films where you had less to do?
I didn’t have much to do in Star Trek [The Motion Picture]. I had less to do in Star Trek III and [Star Trek] V. And that’s okay. I didn’t have any problem coming to work knowing that the part would be very modest. I thoroughly enjoyed being on the set and working with my compatriots and getting to perform even in a minimal way. I was glad to be there. I was a little frustrated and would have loved to do more.
Star Trek VI was a different situation. With VI I was culpable with my less than present attitude with which I approached the work. I really thought Star Trek VI was our last film. I was bitterly—and I use that word understanding the drama of it—I was bitterly disappointed because since it was going to be our last film, that there should be a curtain call for each of the supporting actors. We should each have some small moment that gave us some insight into who these characters were and would wrap up their stories. That was not forthcoming. It was treated like just another episode without that sense of finality.
Whether I was justified in feeling that way is really a matter of conjecture. As a consequence, I took that to work every day, and boo on me for feeling that way. My first responsibility was to be a professional and to be conducting myself in a manner that reflected that. I don’t think anyone was aware of how I felt. I didn’t throw tantrums, but I was unhappy. I was unhappy that myself and George [Takei], Nichelle [Nichols], and Jimmy [Doohan] didn’t have a little more to do. We were from the start, expository characters. When you belong to an operation like Star Trek that receives such high regard and the recognition extended beyond oceans, you want to feel you are making a contribution that is comparable and commensurate with that kind of popularity. Maybe it is just a little selfish on my part and egocentric and a little neurotic, but that is the way I felt.
You were happy with how much you had to do in Star Trek II, but you were also involved early on, giving the script a review to make sure it fit with the show. Did you ever feel guilty that you didn’t point out that – contrary to the script – Khan never met Chekov on the show?
That’s a great question because the fact of the matter of fact is in the script for Star Trek II when Spock dies, I called up the new producer Harve Bennett and he didn’t even want to talk to me because I was an actor and I was calling about acting problems. But I explained to him—because I got an advance copy of the script—that there was a fault in the story structure that had to be addressed. I said you cannot have Mr. Spock die in the second act. Along with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise, these three elements are quintessential to Star Trek. They are synonymous with what Star Trek is and you cannot eliminate one of those and not have it be the dramatic ending of the story. And to my utter surprise and bewilderment, nobody had mentioned that to him.
So, he was impressed enough to have me do a “Trekkie run” on the rest of the script and tell him what other missteps there were from what we had established on the Star Trek series. And one of the things I recognized right off the bat was that Chekov had never met Khan because I had not been in the first season of the show when he made his appearance. So, as industrious as I was and as committed as I was to pointing out Spock can’t die in the second act, I was determined not to mention that Chekov didn’t meet Khan as described in the script. I didn’t want the possibility that they would say, “Oh, in that case, we will give the part to Sulu.” [laughs] Yeah, I was aware of it. Never, never did I feel guilty about it. I was prepared to suffer the hostility of fandom over this inconsistency.
You are one of the very few Star Trek actors with a Star Trek writing credit – for the “Infinite Vulcan” – during your time with Trek, were you pitching story ideas?
I certainly wouldn’t have done it during the television series days. I was the new kid on the block coming in during the second season. Everything was in high gear. The machinery was functioning very smoothly. It didn’t even cross my mind to do that. There was a moment or two, such as in “Spectre of the Gun” I thought there was a flaw in the logic of the story, and I did bring it up to the story editor. At that juncture, I had more integrity and I mentioned to the story editor that it was illogical for Chekov to be alive before we had discovered it was all an illusion and to my surprise, the story editor said, “We figured that out but we said screw it!” [laughs] That was the only literary contribution I made, and they just ignored it, which I was just as happy about.
After Star Trek V, we seemed to be at an impasse regarding what the next Star Trek film would be about. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes conflict going on and wars being waged over the story of Star Trek VI. Mr. Bennett wanted to junk the cast and start over with a new concept, with new fresh faces. None of us were terribly pleased with that. During that time Nick Meyer was proposing a story that included the original cast. The head of Paramount concurred there was still one more in us. Even though we were all growing a little older, they believed the audience was still up for another Star Trek story with the original cast.
During that period, I wrote an outline for an alternative Star Trek story and submitted it to [Paramount CEO Frank] Mancuso and he tried to call me back and missed me, and then we never made contact. But I did include that at the back of my autobiography. The movie that we actually did was very well written by Nick Meyer, and it was successful with Star Trek fans. They wouldn’t have been happy with mine because I killed off just about everybody except Spock and McCoy. Again, I thought that was the end of our participation, so I felt that was a reasonable ending.
Moving forward to something a bit more recent, a few years back I moderated Q&As for a series of Star Trek movies at a theater in Santa Monica, and when you were the guest for one of them, you chose that day to reveal your true self…
[Laughs] And you want to know what it was like?
Well, I guess I was wondering, why after so many years did you decide that was the time to lose the toupée?
I think it was around 2011. looked at the mirror one day and said what is this 70-year-old man doing wearing a hairpiece? First of all, the hair that I had left was growing more conspicuously lighter in tone and my hairpiece was a real contrast with the real hair on my head. The reason I ever wore the hairpiece, beyond some vanity, was pragmatic. I was supposed to be the youngest member of the crew. The studio wanted to promote the idea of this younger character who could be identified with younger fans.
So, I kept it on and then it became habit. But then the moment came where the vanity was unbecoming and misplaced. Because I have problems with self-esteem, it was a little difficult to do. I was anticipating the first gasp of “Oh my god, look how old he is!” Actually, it was uncomfortable doing it that first day when I was asked to speak at a screening of one of the Star Trek movies with a full audience in attendance. But once having done it, I thought I made the proper choice and decided not to go back to wearing that hairpiece again.
CBS is developing multiple Star Trek projects. At one point there was even some consideration to bringing back Nichelle to play Uhura for one of their new Short Treks. I know you returned to the role of Chekov for some independent films a few years back, but would you consider it for official Star Trek, if approached?
I did a couple of low-budget feature films regarding Star Trek before CBS put the kybosh on that kind of thing. And my stipulation for Star Trek: Renegades was that we killed off Chekov. It’s not that I have any antipathy for him. I have great affection for all of my time I spent on Star Trek and for the character. I did [Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II “To Serve All My Days”] because it added some dimension to the character. My frustration was always I never really got to fulfill the character and so when I was approached to do that, I decided to do it, even though it wasn’t under the most professional circumstances. And when I did Renegades, I told [producer] Sky Conway, that would be it. I had exhausted everything I needed to say about him that needed to be said.
To answer your question, I would not be very receptive to coming back as Chekov with these new iterations. That is not to say I wouldn’t mind coming back as another character. I would love to perform as another character in Picard or one of the other new Star Trek series. That would be great.
Can you talk about any possible acting projects? I believe you are attached to something called Savage Midlife.
Savage Midlife is kind of fun, but it is one scene and totally different than anything I have got to do. They have cast my wife opposite me. These are folks I have worked with before up in Oregon where we will shoot. But we are also very aware of the circumstances of getting that done with the virus, etcetera. There is another science fiction project that Sky Conway has asked me to appear in, which would be fun. It is not Star Trek and certainly not Chekov. It is a part I can sink my teeth into, and that is what I am looking for. This is what I was trained to do and spent six decades doing. There is a third project which would be really fun to do, playing a cranky old guy who is very funny.
You have remained active on the convention scene. When in-person events return, do you expect to continue with public appearances this year?
Well, I had six conventions planned for this year, and I was drawing the line there. As I mentioned before, it becomes a little awkward to feel all this praise and affection for something I have not contributed to greatly over the course of so many years. And there are a lot of people out there who have no idea who I am. They see this 83-year-old bald guy walking around and they say, “Who is that?” Because their focus is on anime, superheroes, or game players. That’s fine, but I don’t know who those folks are. So I feel I am a little out of date.
However, without the opportunities to do them because we are all in quarantine, I miss them a little. So, if the opportunities to do them are there next year, I would certainly like to take advantage of it at least to the degree I had limited myself to this year, maybe five or six.
Updated autobiography out now
Walter Koenig’s updated memoir Beaming Up and Getting Off: Life Before and Beyond Star Trek is available now. You can pick it up at Amazon in hardcover and e-book.
Keep up with all the interviews at TrekMovie.com.