RODDENBERRY, GENE

U.S. Writer-Producer

Gene Roddenberry, who once commented, "No one in his right mind gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'll create a phenomenon today,'" is best known as the creator and executive producer of Star Trek, one of the most popular and enduring television series of all time.

A decorated B-17 pilot during World War II, Roddenberry flew commercially for Pan American Airways after the war while taking college writing classes. Hoping to pursue a career writing for the burgeoning television industry, Roddenberry resigned from Pan Am in 1948 and moved his family to California. With few prospects, Roddenberry followed in his father's and brother's footsteps and joined the Los Angeles Police Department, where he served for eight years. During his years as a police officer, the LAPD was actively involved with Jack Webb's Dragnet series. The LAPD gave technical advice on props, sets and story ideas based on actual cases, many of which were submitted by police officers for $100 in compensation. Roddenberry submitted treatments based on stories from friends and colleagues.

Roddenberry's first professional television work was as technical advisor to Frederick Ziv's Mr. District Attorney (1954). The series also gave him his first professional writing work as well. In addition to writing episodes for Mr. District Attorney, Roddenberry also wrote the science fiction tale "The Secret Weapon of 117," which was broadcast on the syndicated anthology series Chevron Hall of Stars (6 March 1956). Roddenberry gained more success as a writer and in 1956 resigned from the LAPD to pursue writing full time.

Roddenberry continued working on Ziv TV's new series, The West Point Story (CBS, 1956-57 and ABC, 1957-58) and eventually became the show's head writer. For the next few years, he turned out scripts for such series as Highway Patrol (syndicated), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Jane Wyman Theater (NBC), Bat Masterson (NBC), Naked City (ABC), Dr. Kildare (NBC), and The Detectives (ABC/NBC). Even at this furious pace, Roddenberry continued to develop ideas for new series.

The first series created and produced by Roddenberry was The Lieutenant (NBC, 1963-64). Set at Camp Pendleton, The Lieutenant examined social questions of the day in a military setting. Coincidentally, the show featured guest performances by actors who later played a large role in Star Trek. Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, and Majel Barrett. Casting director Joe D'Agosta and writer Gene L. Coon also worked with Roddenberry on Star Trek.

A life-long fan of science fiction, Roddenberry developed his idea for Star Trek in 1964. The science fiction series was pitched to the major studios and finally found support from Desilu Studios, the production company formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The original $500,000 pilot received minor support from NBC executives, who later commissioned an unprecedented second pilot. The series premiered on 8 September 1966.

Like The Lieutenant, Star Trek episodes comment on social and political questions in a military (albeit futuristic) setting. Roddenberry described Star Trek as a "Wagon Train to the stars" because, like that popular series, its stories focused on the "individuals who traveled to promote the expansion of our horizons". Star Trek was the first science fiction series to depict a peaceful future, and Roddenberry often credited the enduring success of the series to the show's positive message of hope for a better tomorrow. It was also the first series to have a multicultural cast. Star Trek, which received little notoriety during its three-year run, was canceled after three seasons due to low ratings. However, it gained worldwide success in syndication.

In addition to producing the Star Trek feature films, Roddenberry continued to write and produce for television, but without the same degree of success. His pilot for Assignment: Earth (NBC) was incorporated as an episode of Star Trek (29 March 1968). Later pilots included Genesis II (CBS, 23 March 1973), The Questor Tapes (NBC, 23 January 1974), Planet Earth (ABC, 23 April 1974), and Spectre (21 May 1977). Roddenberry served as executive consultant on an animated Star Trek series (NBC, 1974-75). A second Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, premiered as a syndicated series in 1987 and had a successful seven-year run.

Roddenberry was the first television writer to be honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (on 4 September 1985). Known affectionately to Star Trek fans as "The Great Bird of the Galaxy," Roddenberry died on 24 October 1991. With the permission of Roddenberry's widow, actress Majel Barrett, the producer's ashes were carried aboard a 1992 flight of the space shuttle Columbia. In 1993, Roddenberry was posthumously awarded NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal. NASA cited his "distinguished service to the Nation and the human race in presenting the exploration of space as an exciting frontier and a hope for the future."

-Susan Gibberman

 


Gene Roddenberry
Photo courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences

GENE (EUGENE WESLEY) RODDENBERRY. Born Eugene Wesley Roddenberry in El Paso, Texas, U.S., 19 August 1921. Educated at Los Angeles City College; University of Miami; Columbia University; University of Southern California; honorary D.HL. from Emerson College, 1973; honorary Doctor of Science from Clarkson College, 1981. Married Majel Leigh Hudec (Majel Barrett), 1969, children: Darleen, Dawn Alison, Eugene Wesley. Served in U.S. Army Air Force, World War II. Pilot for Pan American Airways, late 1946-49; worked for Los Angeles Police Department, 1949-51; television scriptwriter, 1951-62; wrote first science fiction script "The Secret Defense of 117," episode for Chevron Theater, 1952; created and produced The Lieutenant, 1963; Star Trek, 1966 and Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987. Recipient: Distinguished Flying Cross; Emmy Award; Hugo Award. Died in Santa Monica, California, U.S., 24 October 1991.

TELEVISION SERIES

1952 Chevron Theatre "The Secret Defense of 117" (writer)
1955-58 Jane Wyman Theater (writer)
1955-59 Highway Patrol (writer)
1956-58 The West Point Story (writer)
1957-63 Have Gun, Will Travel (writer)
1958-63 Naked City
1959-61 Bat Masterson
1959-62 The Detectives
1961-66 Dr. Kildare
1963-64 The Lieutenant (creator and producer)
1966-69 Star Trek (creator and producer)
1973-74 Star Trek (animated show)
1987-91 Star Trek: The Next Generation (executive producer)

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (producer)

1973 Genesis II (pilot)
1974 Planet Earth (pilot)
1974 The Questor Tapes (pilot)
1975 Strange New World (pilot)
1977 Spectre (directed; pilot)

FILM

Pretty Maids All In a Row (producer and writer), 1971; Star Trek: The Motion Picture (producer), 1979; (as executive consultant) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982; Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, 1984; Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home 1986; Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, 1989

PUBLICATIONS

The Making of "Star Trek" (with Stephen E. Whitfield). New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.

The Making of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (with Susan Sackett). New York: Pocket Books, 1980.

Star Trek: The First Twenty-Five Years (with Susan Sackett). New York: Pocket Books, 1991.

Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation: A Dialogue with the Creator of Star Trek (with Yvonne Fern). Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994.

FURTHER READING

Alexander, David. Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry. New York: ROC, 1994.

Barret, Majel. The Wit and Wisdom of Gene Roddenberry. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

Engel, Joel. Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Paikert, Charles. "Gene Roddenberry: American Mythmaker." Variety (Los Angeles), 2 December 1991.

Van Hise, James. The Man Who Created Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry. Las Vegas: Movie Publisher Services, Inc., 1992.

 

See also Star Trek