It could easily be argued that there is no more identifiable and evocative icon of modern American pop culture than the Starship Enterprise. Its unique and scientifically sound design has stimulated the imaginations of millions, and endured as a symbol of optimism for the future. That design is the work of Walter Matthews Jefferies, the art director of the original Star Trek who worked closely with Gene Roddenberry to define the look of the classic show.
Born August 12, 1921, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Matt Jefferies had an interest in airplanes and flight from an early age. He fought in World War II as a B-17 co-pilot, serving in England, Africa and Italy, and was awarded the Bronze Star and Air Medal. After the war he worked for an aircraft firm in Maryland, then joined the graphics department of the Library of Congress in 1949. He quit four years later to become a freelance aviation illustrator for magazines, and migrated to the West Coast where most of the work was. Once he got to California, it didn't take long to figure out that the movie studios were paying more than the magazines.
His first film job came in 1957 as something of a fluke. His brother Philip was already working in Hollywood, as an illustrator for Warner Bros. Philip was working on "Bombers B-52," and the art director on that film needed a set designer who knew aircraft, but all the designers in the guild were working. He asked Philip if he knew anyone who fit the bill, and he did — Matthew. With all the union designers busy, the production could turn to someone on the outside. The fact that Matt had a full set of manuals of the B-52 on the shelf at home didn't hurt the situation either.
Later Phil and Matt worked together on "The Old Man and the Sea," Matt doing the technical illustrations for a mechanical shark, and Phil handling the sketches and storyboards. Eventually, Matt began a long career in television when he became set designer on The Untouchables. That was followed by Ben Casey. During that show Matt took a month-long trip back to the East Coast to visit family, and when he got back to Ben Casey, he found out he didn't have a job there anymore. However, he had been set up to meet with a fellow named Gene Roddenberry, who was producing a "space show" and needed an aviation expert to design the spaceship.
Roddenberry and Jefferies had something in common: they both flew B-17's in WWII — Matt in Europe, Gene in the Pacific. "So when he came in, why, we re-fought WWII for about 20 minutes," Jefferies related in a 2001 video interview (link on left of page), "and then he told me what he wanted." Actually, his main requirements were several "don'ts": "No flames, no fins, no rockets." And only one "do": "Make it look like it's got power. And he walked out."
Well, the rest is history, as they say. After struggling through a variety of concepts for several weeks, Jefferies settled on the saucer-and-nacelle shape that he knew was unique and instantly recognizable to an audience, and proceeded to sell that concept to Roddenberry and the network. Jefferies also designed the bridge, and in fact, for six months before the show launched, he and Roddenberry were the only ones on the staff. "Gene was the dreamer, I was more of a nuts-and-bolts type," Matt recounted. He stayed on as art director for the three-season duration of the series, listed as Walter M. Jefferies in the credits.
Jefferies had such a big hand in defining the look of Star Trek that, as a gag among the production staff, the access crawlway where Scotty was often seen fixing the ship was referred to off-screen as the "Jefferies Tube." By Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, "Jefferies Tube" was spoken in dialog, thus making the term "canon." In the Enterprise episode "First Flight," the leader of an engineering team designing early warp engines was named "Captain Jefferies," an homage to the man who played such a huge role in defining the Star Trek universe.
Though Star Trek is what Jefferies will be remembered for, he spent many more years on numerous other TV shows including Mission: Impossible (which was shot right next door to Star Trek), Riptide, Love American Style, Little House on the Prairie and Dallas. In the late 1970's Jefferies returned to the Star Trek world with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" to design the updated and refitted Enterprise. He also continued to be an avid flyer, spending as much time in the air as he could, until health problems in his latter years sadly grounded him.
Jefferies died on July 21, 2003, of congestive heart failure after overcoming a battle with cancer. He was just three weeks short of his 82nd birthday.
The program for his funeral mass held August 2, 2003, included a poem written by Janice Dickenson on the occasion of his 80th birthday. That poem read in part:
And with gifted hand and vision
came what all the world does recognize,
as the most famous spacecraft ever built ...
the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise
That along with other planets
you created and much more,
you have boldly taken all mankind
to where no man has gone before.