Grace Lee Whitney on Trek, Life - Part I
The saga of Grace Lee Whitney is at once one of Star Trek’s greatest cautionary tales and one of its most satisfying renaissance stories. Whitney played the deeply professional – and stunningly gorgeous -- character Yeoman Janice Rand in eight first-season episodes of the original Star Trek series before being dropped from the series and slipping into an abyss of drugs and alcohol that left her, quite literally, on Hollywood’s Skid Row. She finally got help, found God, and reclaimed her life and career. Star Trek even came full circle for Whitney, as she was invited back into the fold and appeared in The Motion Picture, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country, as well as in the “Flashback” episode of Voyager and the fan films “World Enough and Time” and “Of Gods and Men.” She penned a revealing autobiography, The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy, in 1998. Today, at 81, she’s alive and well and happy, not to mention a grandma, and she remains a popular guest at Star Trek conventions around the world. StarTrek.com recently had the pleasure of engaging her in a life- and career-spanning hour-long two-part conversation that begins below and will conclude tomorrow.
Let’s go all the way back. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Whitney: An actress.
Whitney: Always. From the time I was three years old and opened the refrigerator and the light went on. That’s when I began to perform. Right in front of the refrigerator, I sang right into the ice cubes. The ice cubes were very impressed. In fact, I melted a few of them. That’s how I knew it was the right career.
You began as a singer, working professionally at age 14. What do you remember of that period?
Whitney: I was a teenager and I started out on WJR in Detroit, Michigan. I remember auditioning. I remember the excitement of the adrenaline rush when I was performing with the microphone in my hand. I knew it was the right place. I had been singing with a band at school, but this was the first time anything was actually recorded. I got the job right away and worked with an a cappella chorus. They said I could sing all the different parts, and so if they wanted me to sing soprano, I’d do that. If they wanted me to sing alto, I’d do that. Then tenor, and all of it. I could fill in for a lot of that stuff, and that’s why I got the job. Later, I worked in a little band in Chicago called the Prevue, opposite Buddy Rich’s band. I was in a trio, and the trio was my first time on a stage opposite a large big band, and it was wonderful. I worked there for maybe a year and then I went across the street, where they were looking for a singer to open a show for Billie Holliday. And I got the job. It was downstairs from The Brass Rail, and we called it a padded toilet. It was a joint, and it was a typical Chicago joint. I just loved it and I opened the show every night. And I watched Billie get loaded every night on heroin. It was quite an experience.
Along the way, you also started to act. How hard or easily did jobs come for you? And what are some of the roles/projects you consider favorites, before and after Star Trek?
Whitney: I worked very hard. I started out in Broadway shows. My first Broadway show was Top Banana, with Phil Silvers. I was also in the movie version of that. I understudied Janis Paige in The Pajama Game and I was also in Three Penny Opera, which was one of my favorite experiences. I played Lucy Brown in Three Penny Opera, and I had to dye my hair dark and gain 20 pounds for that. When I came on the stage in the opening of the show my mother did not recognize me. That’s how much I’d changed for that role. I then went out to Hollywood and I did Peter Gunn and I got a role with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. I was Kiki the Cossack in Irma la Douce. I did an episode of The Outer Limits (“Controlled Experiment”) that I’m very proud of. I did a lot of the western shows, like Death Valley Days and Bonanza. I was in the pilot of The Rifleman and I did an episode of Bewitched that I loved, and I did the pilot for Police Story, with Gene Roddenberry, which is how I got Star Trek. DeForest Kelley was in that pilot, too.
Heading into Star Trek, what intrigued you most about Janice Rand?
Whitney: I was supposed to be innocent, dedicated, excellent in my motives for wanting to be on the Enterprise, but very green, with no experience. Rand was willing to learn to be a secretary to the captain, whom, of course, I immediately had a crush on. But, it was unrequited love, like Kitty and Matt on Gunsmoke. It could not be consummated. It had to be love from afar, an unrequited love between the captain and me.
Did you, at the time, think it could go anywhere as a storyline?
Whitney: Well, it was presented to me that the ship was the wagon train in space and that all of us on the ship were going to have these experiences out there in space. There was a scene that Shatner and I did – and I remember when it happened – that scared the producers, because they said, “Uh-oh, they’re getting too close. This is getting too hot. We have to remove her because he’s going to look like he’s cheating when he falls in love with other women on other planets.” So if she’s waiting for him on the ship and he’s out there cheating, Yeoman Rand would be the sympathetic part on the ship and he’d look like a cad. So they said, “Why don’t we just remove the yeoman.” Of course, this went on behind the scenes.
Now, there was a lot going on at the same time. They weren’t doing much with the character. You’d been struggling for years with alcohol. And, as you wrote about in your book, The Longest Trek, you’d been sexually assaulted by someone involved with the production, whom you’ve never named. That wasn’t exactly a recipe for longevity on the show…
Whitney: Oh my goodness. Well, I had the sexual assault from someone at Desilu, which I found out later was done by a lot of producers (during that era). It was before the sexual assault law came into being. I was one of the ones that was a victim. I was fired from the show, but I found later that it was in the works before the assault. I’d been blaming the assault for most of my life, until about 30 years ago, when I got sober. When I got sober I had to go to Paramount and make a lot of amends and talk to a lot of people over there, including Gene Roddenberry. I had to make amends to them for drinking. I didn’t drink that much (during the show). Really, I didn’t. But I did it (went and made amends) because I needed to stay sober and I needed to get back in their good graces. And, of course, they put me in everything after I went over there. I was in the movies and on Voyager, and Star Trek was back in my life.
Just to clarify something. You’re saying that the big discovery for you personally was that you’d not been fired because of a cover-up involving the assault. Is that right?
Whitney: Absolutely. Finding out that I was (already) being written out of the show changed my whole life. It made it easier for me to go back there because I did not have to hold a resentment against any male, against any producer, against anything. It’s show biz, honey.
Tomorrow, in part two of our exclusive interview with Grace Lee Whitney, the actress talks about hitting rock bottom, her post-TOS Star Trek appearances and her life today.