Roddenberry, Eugene Wesley (“Gene”)

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Roddenberry, Eugene Wesley (“Gene”)

(b. 19 August 1921 in El Paso, Texas; d. 24 October 1991 in Santa Monica, California), writer and producer who created the Star Trek television and film series.

Roddenberry was the oldest of three children born to Eugene Edward Roddenberry, a lineman for a local electric company, and Caroline Glen Golemon, a telephone operator. Because the employment prospects in El Paso were limited, the Roddenberrys moved to California in 1923, and Roddenberry’s father became an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in July 1923.

After graduating from Franklin High School in Los Angeles in the winter of 1939, Roddenberry enrolled at Los Angeles City College (LACC) in February 1939. He studied the police curriculum and served as the president of the LACC Police Club. In his second year at LACC, Roddenberry joined the Civilian Pilot Program, a U.S. Army initiative to recruit pilots in anticipation of World War II. He received his pilot’s license on 17 September 1940 and his associate of arts degree from LACC on 26 June 1941. On 18 December 1941, less than two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roddenberry reported for duty.

Roddenberry served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945. On 20 June 1942, while he was stationed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, Roddenberry married Eileen Rexroat, whom he had met while attending LACC. They had two children. Roddenberry received his officer’s commission on 5 August 1942, and one month later he headed to Hawaii for his first military assignment.

Roddenberry flew a B-17 Flying Fortress on eighty-nine missions, including a stint on the sweltering island of Guadalcanal in 1942. Serving in the South Pacific as a second lieutenant, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. While still in the military he began to submit his writing to periodicals for publication. After the war Roddenberry and his wife moved to Jamaica on Long Island, New York. Roddenberry became a commercial pilot for Pan American World Airways and moved to River Edge, New Jersey, in 1946. He also took writing courses at the University of Miami and Columbia University.

Roddenberry routinely piloted flights from New York to Johannesburg, South Africa, and Calcutta, India. In June 1947, while returning from Calcutta, Roddenberry was involved in a terrible plane crash in the Syrian Desert. The Pan American Clipper he had boarded as a passenger lost two of its four engines and crash-landed in the Syrian Desert on 18 June 1947, killing fourteen people. Roddenberry led the rescue effort and received a commendation from the Civil Aeronautics Board for his bravery. Because of his family and his increasing concern about the safety of the airplanes he was flying, Roddenberry resigned from Pan American on 15 May 1948 to write full-time.

In August 1948 Roddenberry and his family moved in with his parents in Temple City, a suburb of Los Angeles. His writing career stalled because there was little television production occurring in Hollywood at that time. At his brother’s request, Roddenberry joined the LAPD and served as a police officer from 1949 to 1953. He honed his writing skills by reading science fiction and listening to radio dramas such as Dragnet.

Roddenberry landed a job in 1953 as the technical adviser to Mr. District Attorney, a drama syndicated by Frederick W. Ziv. As he reviewed scripts, Roddenberry became convinced that he could write just as well, and in March 1954 he sold an episode of the program to Ziv Productions. He soon received permission from his police superiors to do “freelance writing” to supplement his income. For three years Roddenberry moonlighted as a writer under the pseudonym Robert Wesley. His work appeared on programs such as Science Fiction Theater and Space Patrol. On 7 June 1956 he resigned from the LAPD with secure writing prospects.

From 1956 to 1962 Roddenberry wrote dozens of stories and scripts for Screen Gems, a television production company. Roddenberry’s marriage was not happy, and he routinely had affairs with other women. At Screen Gems he met Majel Leigh Hudec, an actress known as Majel Barrett, and they soon began an affair.

On 11 March 1964 Roddenberry completed a treatment of his Star Trek idea. He teamed up with Oscar Katz of Desilu Productions to sell Star Trek to the NBC network, which paid Roddenberry $435,000 to shoot a pilot, “The Cage.” NBC did not broadcast it at the time, but the network bought the show in February 1966.

Star Trek debuted on 8 September 1966 on NBC to mixed responses. Most reviewers appreciated the intent of the first episode, “Man Trap,” but found the show too cerebral. Despite a positive reception from science fiction fans, the initial ratings were mediocre. As the season progressed, however, a more loyal audience began watching and writing fan mail to NBC. With a $500,000 weekly budget, full-color, otherworldly sets complemented space scenes of the majestic starship Enterprise. Fans also liked the show’s characters, including Captain James Tiberius Kirk (played by William Shatner), Dr. Leonard Horatio (“Bones”) McCoy (played by DeForest Kelley), and Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy). The depiction of human civilization surviving into the twenty-fourth century also inspired a cold war audience.

Star Trek continued for two more seasons, totaling seventy-nine episodes, before it was canceled on 2 September 1969. By that time, however, Roddenberry had made a legendary impression. Star Trek, which featured the first interracial kiss on television, had shown viewers a world in which humanity had largely overcome its prejudices and destructive tendencies. Roddenberry’s personal life also changed dramatically. He and Eileen divorced on 26 December 1969. He married Majel Barrett on 29 December 1969. They had one child.

Star Trek fan conventions began in 1972 and the attendees ushered in the explosive popularity that the series continued to have. From 1973 to 1974 Roddenberry worked as the executive consultant to an animated version of the series. Soon after, Paramount returned Star Trek to television in syndicated reruns. The program became a classic.

Roddenberry brought his work to the large screen with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which premiered on 6 December 1979. Although the film received poor reviews, it grossed $80 million. The sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), was both a critical and financial success. Other sequels followed: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

Roddenberry’s work inspired several spin-off series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), on which he consulted; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999); and Star Trek Voyager (1999- ). The Next Generation characters also revived the Star Trek film series in Star Trek; Generations (1994), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), and Star Trek: Insurrection (1998).

Roddenberry was an imposing man who stood six feet, three inches tall. He had graying brown hair and bright blue eyes, lending him an air of gentle but uncompromising authority. William Shatner once said that Roddenberry’s “stature was superseded by his towering imagination.” Roddenberry died at the Santa Monica Medical Center on 24 October 1991 after suffering a heart attack in his doctor’s office. His remains were cremated. On 21 April 1997 some of his ashes were transported aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft and launched into the earth’s orbit, where they would remain for up to ten years. Although he never escaped the bonds of Earth in his lifetime, Roddenberry was a visionary who led millions into space. Because of his optimism about the future of humanity, Star Trek from an ambitious dream into a worldwide phenomenon. Appropriately, Roddenberry was often called “the Great Bird of the Galaxy.”

Roddenberry’s authorized biography is David Alexander, Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (1994). A less-flattering portrait is Joel Engel, Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man behind Star Trek (1994). The firsthand account of the Star Trek universe is Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, The Making of Star Trek (rev. ed. 1991). Obituaries are in the Seattle Times (25 Oct. 1991) and the New York Times (26 Oct. 1991).

Leroy Gonzalez