Published Sep 14, 2016
Happy 80th Birthday, Walter Koenig
Happy 80th Birthday, Walter Koenig
By David McDonnell
Walter Koenig, Star Trek's original and iconic Pavel Chekov, turns 80 years old today. The actor/writer was born in Chicago to Isadore and Sarah Koenig on September 14, 1936. He, of course, earned his greatest measure of fame playing Chekov on Star Trek: The Original Series and in seven feature films, but his acting credits span from The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Lieutenant and Gidget to Columbo, Babylon 5 and Moontrap, as well as the stage show The Boys of Autumn. He's written comic books, including Raver, as well as episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, Land of the Lost, Family and The Powers of Matthew Star. Further, he's directed and taught, and also supported a wide variety of charities and human rights causes. He received his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 10, 2012 during a ceremony in which he was surrounded by family, friends and such Trek co-stars as Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei.
As part of StarTrek.com's celebration of Koenig's big 8-0 today, we're pleased to re-share a guest blog by former Starlog editor David McDonnell, in which he recounts how his long professional relationship with Koenig got off to a horrible start. Check it out:
Walter Koenig wasn’t happy with me. And who could blame him? He was calling from the set of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a soundstage nestled on the Paramount Pictures lot in California. I was in my Starlog office in New York City (Park Avenue, 32nd Street). I had no idea why Koenig wanted to chat with me. After all, we had met once but extremely briefly at a Boston Starlog Festival convention engineered by Creation Entertainment a year earlier. He knew Starlog Publisher Kerry O’Quinn and our ex-columnist David (“The Trouble with Tribbles”) Gerrold, but me? As Starlog’s Editor, I was just a name on the magazine’s masthead.Koenig was direct. And, of course, he didn’t speak in the Russian accent of Pavel Chekov. Actor, you know. He had done a phone interview with a Starlog writer that week (assigned by me), and he was concerned about it. He wanted to read the story before Starlog published it.
Let’s break here for two paragraphs of explanatory matter. Skip them if you want to Choose Your Own Anecdotal Adventure. Everyone else, here’s the thing: As a product of the Watergate-spawned wave of young journalists in the 1970s, I was all Bob-Woodward-and-Carl-Bernsteined up. While at West Virginia’s Bethany College, I even took an independent study course on, yes, Communications Ethics. Topics included “checkbook journalism” (paying folks to talk) and granting interviewees (or their reps) pre-publication story/quote approval. Both were big no-nos!Well, it was years later, but I was still serious about this stuff. I had (and have) delusions of journalism. Starlog may only have been covering entertainment (movies, TV, books, animation, comics, pop culture) but, journalistically speaking, we weren’t going to do anything that Time or Newsweek wouldn’t. On the other hand, they (and other esteemed outlets like The New Yorker) employ “fact-checkers” who might consult interviewees before publication to confirm a story’s basic facts and even “readback” relevant quotes over the phone. Starlog’s policy—firmly (and formally) established after a 1984 incident—was this: Nobody ever got to read a story pre-publication except those crafting it for print (writers, editors, proofreaders and the article’s art director). And at Starlog, editors were our own fact-checkers, consulting reference works and colleagues’ expertise. We didn’t do “readbacks.”
But, back to Koenig. He asked to see the article. And I didn’t even pause to think. “NO. We don’t do that! It’s against company policy,” I declared in a particularly idealistic, incredibly arrogant, certainly smug manner. And I added, “We don’t show stories to George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, so we can’t show you your story.” Even then, that addition sounded condescending, which wasn’t my intent, but... Koenig was taken aback. After all, he had — uniquely among Trek actors at the time (followed by George Takei and John de Lancie years later) — written for Starlog with a three-part excerpt from Chekov’s Enterprise (issues #30-32). He was “one of us.” So (a point I didn’t then consider), perhaps he deserved some consideration. Nonetheless, confrontation continued. “Fine!” Koenig exclaimed. “If I can’t read it before, I’d rather you just not print it at all.”
Now, I was taken aback — and riding tall on my sanctimonious journalistic high (hobby) horse. “Fine!” I exclaimed. “Then, we won’t!”
“All right. They need me on set,” Koenig announced and said goodbye. “Bye,” I said and hung up, too. Uhhhmm, that went well.Now, you don’t have to post critical comments of my handling of this ancient situation; I realized within seconds, three decades ago, that I had screwed it all up. Koenig was blameless. Essentially, I had taken his simple request (reasonable to some, not so per journalistic rules) and transformed it into (at best) nuclear warfare or (at worst) Ragnarok. But, I was young and foolish. A relative rookie, I had served as Starlog’s Editor for little more than a year then, and I was tortured by others constantly second- and third-guessing me (and me fourth-guessing myself, too). That year, I was especially overwhelmed by work (editing 26+ issues of Starlog, Fangoria and other titles).
But... what had the actor declared in the interview that had caused him enough post-conversation concern so as to ring me? Had he inadvertently revealed some plot twist from The Voyage Home? (SPOILER ALERT: Here Be Whales! Kirk & Company Save Earth, Get New Enterprise) Had Koenig been too candid or overly critical? Apparently, he had second thoughts about something he said, fearing (I was later told) that his comments might be misinterpreted. But what had been said? There was only one way to find out. I called my writer, briefed him on the situation and requested that he give me the cassette tape the next time he was in town. I wanted to listen to the interview and find out what’s what. Maybe if I knew what was specifically the problem, I could call Koenig and find a middle path to a solution satisfying to all. Maybe even (like Newsweek or The New Yorker) “readback” only the quotes? So, my writer dutifully put the cassette in his shoulder bag and flew off to a West Coast media event. He left the bag in the press hotel suite and proceeded to an inner room where he interviewed another celebrity, then returned for his belongings. Baboom! The whole bag was missing. Vanished! While he was inside doing one interview, someone had stolen the other. For all practical purposes, that untranscribed (!?!) Koenig chat no longer existed and thus certainly couldn’t be published by Starlog. No need for further brouhaha now. Ironic, eh?
That troublesome talk was gone, but life went on. Afterwards, as fate would have it, I increasingly kept running into Koenig at SF conventions. We were frequently fellow guests. We sat side-by-side at autograph tables, judged costume contests together and dined with con staffers. All those times, I was on my best behavior. I still had regrets about that incident and no desire to remind him of any unpleasantness. And I didn’t want to commit any new felonies, either.
So, I got to know Walter Koenig. Many, many of you have had a similar opportunity because he’s been such a frequent convention guest since the 1970s. If you haven’t gotten his autograph and/or chatted with him at a con, a cruise or some personal appearance, you just haven’t been trying. Koenig has been a warm, charming, if sometimes world-weary, presence at so many Trek conventions. I’ve witnessed firsthand as he was extremely generous to eager fans, gracious to clueless media and kind to perfect strangers; I’ve also seen him deal firmly with the occasional idiot (uhhhmm, you know, like me). Fortunately, all this togetherness led to unexpected friendship. Koenig (I believe) came to think I wasn’t a total fool. And I must admit that my character references got an upgrade when I began dating a young woman whom Koenig had known since she was a teenager. After all, if she (like me, a Syracuse University Graduate School alum) could put up with me, maybe I wasn’t so bad. Hapless and hopeless, yes, rumpled but not without merit.
Wrapping up, let me share a kaleidoscope of Koenig encounters here and there over the years: In 1989, in Florida, Seatrek organizers Joe Motes, Ruthanne Devlin & Carroll Page took a busload of guests and staffers on a post-cruise airboat tour of the Everglades. After the alligators, we stopped at a restaurant (where Starlog Managing Editor Eddie Berganza informed on me, revealing my new status that May Monday). That’s when Koenig, Takei, Jimmy Doohan, Grace Lee Whitney and assembled friends and celebrities sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
We had our brush with death in Canada. Peter Bloch-Hansen (Starlog’s Canadian Correspondent) chauffeured me on a tour throughout Toronto of my favorite places (used bookstores!), and Koenig opted to come along. I sat shotgun upfront, Koenig in the rear passenger seat. And Bloch-Hansen, bless him, made a left hand turn from the right lane just as the stoplight changed against us, across three lanes of impatient traffic. Yes, he did. Unbelievably, this was my second or third near-accident while a vehicle passenger alongside a Trek celebrity. The next came soon after when (much to our open-mouthed incredulity) Bloch-Hansen repeated that same kind of turn at another intersection. Yes, yes, he did. Two nods with death in less than 90 minutes. Baboom!Down Under in Australia in 1993, Koenig brought his wife Judy and daughter Danielle on the Denver-based Starland Conventions tour. I was the other guest. The four of us took a pleasant boat ride together (alongside Starland pals Phil Watson & Sharon Macy-Watson) upriver to a wildlife sanctuary outside Brisbane, Queensland. There we ogled emus, petted kangaroos and held koalas (I have the pictures to prove it).
Australia is where, over a crowded dinner with the Starland gang, I finally brought up that seven-year-old incident, noted my regrets and privately apologized to Koenig. Also, we discussed Babylon 5, then debuting as a TV movie. Koenig was hopeful it would go to series since B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski had promised him an eventual role. I felt the human characters weren’t as intriguing as the aliens, wondering if this would affect the show’s prospects. I was slightly right (a few human roles were reconceived and recast), but fortunately mostly wrong. B5 soon became a beloved SF TV saga, giving Koenig his second best role ever (after Chekov) — as Psi Corps’ Alfred Bester. Actually, Koenig believes it's been his best role.
Over in Pennsylvania, he did a con where my Mom & Dad were on hand to assist our friend the promoter (their only stint at an admissions table). Koenig charmed them, dining at a local Applebee’s with them and other staffers. I was at a Walt Disney World press event and didn’t even attend this con. Still, he was especially nice to my parents.In Illinois, my girl friend and I watched Koenig and Mark Lenard rehearse Bernard Sabath’s fine play The Boys of Autumn. It’s the bittersweet tale of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn meeting again late in life and reliving their triumphs and tragedies. Getting to Chicago early Friday, we were privileged to see a rehearsal and later the full performance Saturday night. We even met Boys director Allan (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) Hunt and playwright Sabath. Koenig was terrific as the troubled Tom Sawyer.
Back in New York, Koenig and wife Judy dropped by Starlog’s Manhattan offices, joining the select group of celebrities who toured the place (Takei, de Lancie, Arthur C. Clarke, Clive Barker, Paul & Linda McCartney, David Prowse, etc.). We had coffee downstairs and talked about Broadway, conventions and mutual friends.
Like most of his TOS colleagues, Koenig wrote an autobiography. Relaxing in New Jersey, I read Warp Factors: A Neurotic’s Guide to the Universe (Taylor, 1998). It’s a candid memoir. And who knew that Koenig, as a youngish summer camp counselor, had known a frequent camp visitor, one of my heroes, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger? Good company! And a good book! Recommended reading.Out in California many years after our Chekov’s Enterprise excerpts, Koenig wrote another article for Starlog (“Are You Who I Think I Am?”), detailing offbeat personal appearances, some made alongside Doohan, Takei and Nichelle Nichols. I published it in issue #233. And he gladly did more interviews not only with the writer involved in that earlier incident, but with Starlog, too, talking to Lynne Stephens, Howard Weinstein, Lee Goldberg, Marc Shapiro, Ian Spelling, Martha J. Bonds, David J. Creek and others. He even gave me quotes for a couple multi-voice survey pieces I was writing. So, all forgiven, I think.
What did I learn from all this? Well, it’s what you all already knew: Walter Koenig is a great guy. I’m (still) sorry we started off as inadvertent adversaries, but I’m glad that our bad beginning was overcome by better days. Like legions of Star Trek fans worldwide, I’m pleased to have made his acquaintance.David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.©2016 David McDonnell