Walter Koenig is on the phone with StarTrek.com, sounding hale and hearty and ready for an extensive interview comprised primarily of questions provided by you, our readers. Over the course of 45 minutes, the Star Trek legend talked – with grace, candor and occasional sardonic humor -- about his role as Chekov and how Trek changed his life, discussed his non-Trek work and updated us on current projects. As fans know, Koenig’s son, actor and Deep Space Nine guest star Andrew Koenig, passed away last year. Koenig offered a heartfelt “thank you for everyone’s concern and condolences,” but politely declined to answer any questions about the situation. What follows is part one of our interview; check back tomorrow for part two.
Back when Star Trek started, the suspicion about Russians was palpable. Did you ever feel any fallout from Star Trek fans because of that, or did people realize that Chekov was a role and you were an actor?
Koenig: There was no fallout. I remember seeing a complaint that was sent in, not to me, but to the studio, from somebody from Idaho. It said something like, “What are you doing with a Russian on the show during this bad time?” However, my mail was generally from people who were between the ages of 8 and 14. They weren’t that politically savvy to begin with, and it wasn’t a primary interest to them. And the character was so non-threatening. The chauvinistic statements about “invented in Russia” were always a gag and everybody got that, I think.
Did you ever get any reaction from Russians back in the day?
Koenig: None, because Star Trek wasn’t being played in the Soviet Union. That whole promotion thing they did about Pravda complaining that there weren’t any Russians on Star Trek was exactly that; it was a promotional thing by the PR department at NBC. They were really interested, of course, in having somebody that would attract the same fans that The Monkees did. And that’s really why they added the character.
Why didn’t you have more love interests? Why did Sulu get all the girls?
Koenig: No, no, no, no. That’s not true. That’s not true. Sulu didn’t get any of the girls. Why didn’t I get more? I think there were three or four opportunities: “Spectre of the Gun” and “The Way to Eden” and “The Apple.” It’s amazing that they come to mind so quickly (laughs). But in any case, there was a main love interest on the show and that was Mr. Shatner. By the nature of my character on the show, those opportunities would be limited for me.
Which episode of Star Trek that featured Chekov prominently do you think holds up best?
Koenig: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think the one that I enjoyed doing the most and that I thought was my best episode at the time was “Spectre of the Gun.” It was an interesting concept mandated by economics. Our budget was very small and they didn’t have the wherewithal to be a complete, detailed Wild West town, so they did it in a sort of abstract manner, which I thought gave it some class and some style. I thought it was a very, very good decision and it worked very well.
What would surprise us about your time on Star Trek? Something that’s maybe not commonly known?
Koenig: I’m not really sure at this juncture. I wrote my autobiography and I confessed that I used a hair-coloring thing to cover up the bald spot. So that shouldn’t be news to anybody at this point. And I no longer wear the toupee… anywhere. Other than that, everybody knew that there were some contentious moments on the set, mostly having to do with Bill and Leonard and the front office. At that point, we were not feuding. The supporting cast did not hold a great deal of animosity for Bill. That subsequently became a factor, but not during the television series. I would say that what maybe people didn’t know, which was a positive thing, is that Bill was very funny. He kept the set light and there were a lot of laughs. Despite what was happening behind closed doors, it seemed like a very congenial environment.
What is your relationship with Shatner these days?
Koenig: Well, I did Raw Nerve. I did his interview show. It’s going to air on March 1, and I would certainly recommend that people tune in. It was pretty much from the hip. Nobody got angry, but it was very candid, a very honest, candid conversation between us.
What was your single favorite moment on the set of TOS or one of the TOS features?
Koenig: In general and specifically, it was Star Trek IV. I really had a terrific time on Star Trek IV. I felt like I was a member of the cast, like I was making a tangible, viable contribution in a couple of scenes that were very specifically about Chekov. I loved them. I loved the improv scene that we did, looking for the “nuclear wessels.” But I also liked the interrogation scene that I had with the FBI. They were actually moments that didn’t involve other members of the regular cast and just gave me a chance to be more the focus of the situation.
Over the course of your life, how many times do you think you’ve been asked the question about Khan recognizing Chekov in Star Trek II since you weren’t on the TOS yet when “Space Seed” aired?
Koenig: Oh, it’s been quite a few times.
If you could have played a guest role on any other Trek series, what show might you have liked to have been on, and would you have wanted to play Chekov or an entirely different character?
Koenig: I met with the people at The Next Generation. I met first with Brannon Braga. I don’t remember if they invited me or if I suggested that we get together and talk about me doing a guest role. Then he wanted me to meet with the entire writing crew. We were in discussions about what this appearance could be because there were restrictions, like no time travel. Then the meeting was canceled, right in the middle of the meeting itself. They were getting to the end of their last season and they were also preparing for the finale. So the meeting was abruptly postponed and actually canceled, because Rick Berman said he needed the entire writing staff together right then. I’d had an idea for a story. When I learned that Worf in fact had Russian grandparents, I constructed a back story that would have involved Worf and Chekov meeting. I’m a little hazy now, but it was Worf on the ship, he becomes infected with something, and he begins having visions, hallucinatory episodes, and that’s how I was able to introduce Chekov into the story.
Tomorrow, Walter Koenig answers more of your questions. Among the topics: Whether he preferred his Babylon 5 role as Bester over Star Trek's Chekov, what it was like to watch Anton Yelchin play Chekov in Star Trek (2009), and his latest endeavors, which include two graphic novels.