One of my favorite moments of the Academy Awards broadcast each year, though bittersweet, is the “memorial reel” of those of distinction in the film industry — household name, or not — who have passed away during the last 12 months. But you can bet that I’ll be watching this Sunday with even more interest, if that’s possible — and I hope you will be, too.
Charles C. Washburn was 73 when he succumbed to kidney failure last April 13 at the industry-supported “actor’s home” retirement campus where’d he’d lived with fellow Hollywood vets for the past three years. That’s his full name, but for the old gang at Desilu Studios from 1967-69 he’d be better known as “Charlie Star Trek” — a take-off on the way he answered the phone onstage in his role as an assistant director for Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I first met Charlie just six years ago now, while working on a 20th anniversary timeline for The Next Generation for the old startrek.com — but I had long wanted to track him down for my TNG Companion book for his AD memories from two generations, after I realized he was one of the “old guard” Gene Roddenberry had first assembled for TNG who had worked on The Original Series.
See, efficient and quietly polite Charlie Washburn was a true pioneer in the industry: he landed in Hollywood in 1967 from his native Memphis, Tenn., on scholarship for the Director’s Guild trainee program, and soon became the first African-American DGA trainee graduate in history. In that tumultuous time of social change, the fact that Charlie went on to become the first black full-time 2nd A.D. in TV as well when he finished just adds to the luster. And the fact that a big chunk of this occurred during classic Star Trek’s second and third seasons (one as trainee, most of the next as 2nd AD), well, that’s worthy of a trophy any day.
“When I started at Desilu, there were only three black employees on the whole lot,” Charlie told me once: “Nichelle Nichols, myself, and the guy who had the food truck, who closed it up after lunch and then shined shoes.” If anything can put Gene Rodenberry’s original creation smack in the middle of the times from whence it came, that was it.
He went on to many more film and TV production credits, of course, like the Bill Cosby Show, Vega$, Batman, and The Six Million Dollar Man. Over his long career Charlie worked with the likes of Diana Ross and Sidney Poitier, and even did a little acting with Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, to name a few.
At his passing I wrote a piece in his memory on my regular TREKLAND blog, and included a couple of photos, including a recent shot I’d taken myself. Many fans there and elsewhere have thanked me for preserving his story, but—like so many other “little” tales of Star Trek yet to be recorded or told — it’s one I was thrilled to share, even if in a moment of passing.
Flash forward 10 months: It was only two weeks ago that the unit compiling the memorial reel wrote me to say they had been looking for Charlie items, found my blog, and wondered if I had more photos to share. Did I! We got them in touch with his grateful family, as well, who were thrilled and honored to get the news and share even more pics from his career, in and out of Star Trek. As of Tuesday, I was told it all was a “lock” in the final edit.
Charlie was a bit of a pack rat, but that was because up until the end he filled his days still keeping busy researching and pitching scripts, knowing that some of his historical and unique angles would catch fire with some producer. They never did, but they should have.
As if turns out, they won’t use any of Charlie’s Star Trek shots for his moment in the limelight — makes sense, being the Oscars and not the Emmies of TV — but will use instead a brief clip he assistant-directed from 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross.
That — plus my portrait of him at his office desk just a year before he died. I was stunned to hear that news.
So be watching with me Sunday, will you, as the honor roll of Hollywood takes their final bow. It will only be a couple seconds, but to bid a fond farewell to a good friend in such an arena—and to have had a small hand in making it happen, with a visual to boot—is a “memorial” I will treasure forever. And now, when you see his name flash by in the TOS credits those last two seasons, or even when you hear Scotty say “Washburn has a report” during “The Doomsday Machine”—I hope you’ll smile and think of what an unassuming and talented pioneer Charlie truly was.
He must have been. He’s on the Oscar reel!
Larry Nemecek, author of The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Star Trek Magazine columnist and longtime editor of Star Trek Communicator, is currently producing The Con of Wrath, a documentary about the most “glorious failure” convention ever, and the TREKLAND: ON CD audio series from his interview archives. He will also host the 2013 return of the “Hollywood to Vegas: Trek Film Sites” tour for Geek Nation Tours; click HERE for details. Larry shares his years as Star Trek author, historian, consultant and insider at conventions and on larrynemecek.com. His posts and original video chats with all your favorites are at Treklandblog.com, plus @larrynemecek on Twitter and Larry Nemecek’s Trekland on Facebook.