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), television writer and producer and creator of the legendary science-fiction television and movie series Star Trek.

Roddenberry was one of three children of Eugene Edward Roddenberry, a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army and a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, and Carolyn Glen Goleman, a homemaker. Roddenberry was just three years old when the family moved to Los Angeles. He graduated from Franklin High School in 1939 and from Los Angeles Community College (LACC) in 1941. While earning his associate of arts degree at LACC, he joined the Civilian Pilot Program, which was run by the U.S. Army in an effort to train pilots for the coming conflict. Roddenberry served with distinction during World War II as a pilot in the Pacific theater from 1941 through 1945.

Prior to being sent overseas, Roddenberry married Eileen Anita Rexroat in 1942. The couple had two children. After the war Roddenberry became a pilot for Pan American Airways. He had started writing during his wartime service and continued taking classes even while working for the airline and, later, as a police officer. In 1956 he began writing full time.

From 1956 to 1963 Roddenberry wrote dozens of scripts for some of the most popular television shows of the time, including Highway Patrol, The Virginian, Dr. Kildare, and Have Gun Will Travel, where he was the head writer. While writing these scripts, Roddenberry formed the idea for a show that has often been referred to as the "Wagon Train to the stars," a reference to a popular western of the time, Wagon Train. Thus was born one of the true cultural phenomenons of the twentieth century, Star Trek.

Roddenberry conceived the show as a method for illuminating social issues that would never have been allowed on air except through the medium of science fiction. He assured the show's acceptance and popularity by creating realistic, likable characters confronted with scientific, moral, and ethical dilemmas that required solution through employing a balance of logic and emotion.

Roddenberry worked with fellow scriptwriters Samuel Peeples and Jerry Sohl to polish his program proposal. First he pitched the show to executives at the Colombia Broadcasting System (CBS), who initially seemed interested. However, they ultimately declined, citing their own science-fiction vehicle, Lost In Space, then under development. On 11 March 1964 Roddenberry teamed up with Oscar Katz of Desilu Productions to sell the show to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television network. The story of Captain Robert April and his crew aboard the SS Yorktown intrigued the network executives. They paid Roddenberry $435,000 to shoot the pilot episode, "The Cage." By this time, the Captain's name had changed to Christopher Pike, and the spaceship was renamed the USS Enterprise.

Roddenberry worked with assistant art director and former fellow World War II aviator Matt Jefferies to develop a believable look for the starship. He approached many actors to play Pike. Those considered for the role included Lloyd Bridges, Jack Lord, and James Coburn. In the end, he chose Jeffery Hunter, who unlike many motion picture stars, was interested in acting in a television series. He then asked actor Leonard Nimoy, who had appeared in an episode of The Lieutenant, to play the role of the alien from the planet Vulcan, Mr. Spock. Nimoy was intrigued by the idea of a regular series, although he was not impressed with the pointed ears he would be required to wear. Rodden-berry told him to have faith and made an agreement with him that if after thirteen shows the ears were still not working, they would alter them. This convinced Nimoy that using the pointed ears was worth a try.

"The Cage" revolved around the Enterprise, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike and his coolly logical female second in command, "Number One." Mr. Spock was a junior officer in Pike's mostly human crew. Network executives were overwhelmingly positive about the pilot, but NBC rejected it, because they feared their general audience would not understand the show. They also wanted more action in the episodes.

Desilu executive Herb Solow, believing in the concept, asked for a second pilot for Roddenberry's proposal. NBC consented, but insisted that Spock be written out of the script because of concerns about his satanic looks. Rodden-berry revamped the premise, but fought to keep Spock, whom he considered essential to the show. "Where No Man Has Gone Before" had plenty of action and featured Spock as second in command to Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. This time, NBC bought the series and slated it for a September 1966 premier.

NBC executives were not pleased with Star Trek's performance in the ratings and tried to get Roddenberry to alter what they saw as imperfections in the show, but Roddenberry refused. By December 1966 Star Trek was in danger of being cancelled, so Roddenberry enlisted the help of the author Harlan Ellison to get the science-fiction community involved in saving the show. The letter-writing campaign they conceived worked, and the show continued into 1967. When faced with possible cancellation a second time, Star Trek fans again made NBC realize that the show had a large and loyal viewer base. The show was renewed for a third season.

The crew of the USS Enterprise traveled to "strange new worlds" for seventy-nine episodes. But the fourteen-hour days, six-days-per-week, shooting schedules required to complete the episodes took their toll. Roddenberry spent much of his time away from his wife and family, and his marriage, already strained, suffered accordingly. In the third season, the quality of the show also began to wane. Roddenberry himself, angered by NBC's insistence that Star Trek be moved to a 10:00 p.m. Friday time slot, stepped down as producer. The final episode of the original Star Trek series aired 3 June 1969.

Later that year, Roddenberry and his first wife divorced, and the writer married actress Majel Barrett, with whom he had another child. Following the demise of Star Trek, Roddenberry worked on several other projects, including serving as executive consultant to Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Star Trek's utopian vision and emphasis on diversity, female equality, and bold exploration had captured the imaginations of an entire group of people, who came to be known as Trekkies. Eventually, recognizing the commercial potential of the Star Trek concept, Paramount Pictures underwrote Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which premiered on 6 December 1979. Roddenberry also created and consulted on the first of several spin-offs, the highly successful Star Trek: The Next Generation, which first aired in 1987. Besides the first two series, there have been three more based on Roddenberry's original vision. Six movies were based on characters in the original version and four on The Next Generation's crew. Countless video games, fanzines, websites, clubs, conventions, and more have spread the myth through U.S. culture. Episodes of the four series still in syndication have broken all records for longevity and commercial appeal. The fact that Roddenberry's imprint can still be seen in every product associated with the Star Trek phenomenon attests to the strength and appeal of his original vision.

Roddenberry continued to engender support from the fans and consult on Star Trek: The Next Generation, until a series of strokes culminated in his being taken to Santa Monica Medical Center, where he died of a heart attack. His remains were cremated, with part of his ashes being transported aboard Pegasus Rocket Earthview 01—The Founders' Flight and launched into Earth's orbit. The rocket detached from a Lockheed L-1011 over the Canary Islands on 21 April 1997. The rest of the ashes were buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

The man responsible for the catch phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" and for advancing a vision of hopefulness for humanity remains a force in popular culture, with successive generations finding meaning in his creation. This impact was no more strongly felt than when NASA was asked by the White House to rename the first space shuttle test vehicle Enterprise due to requests from Star Trek fans. Attending the 17 September 1976 rollout ceremony at Rock-well's Air Force Plant 42, Site 1, in Palmdale, California, were Roddenberry and most of the original series cast.

Roddenberry's biography is David Alexander, Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (1994). Joel Engel, Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek (1994), is a less-than-flattering portrait. This is balanced by James Van Hise, The Man Who Created Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry (1992). A firsthand account of the Star Trek universe is Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, The Making of Star Trek (1968). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (25 and 26 Oct. 1991) and the New York Times (25 and 26 Oct. 1991).

Brian B. Carpenter