Monday, July 15, 2013

Star Trek's Chief Engineer Who Almost Wasn't

It's hard to imagine Star Trek without the Enterprise's Chief Engineer, Mr. Scott. James Doohan's performance as the irritable Scotsman was a fixture of the franchise for over thirty years. Doohan played the character in all three seasons of the original series, both seasons of the animated series, the first seven feature films, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, three video games, and a number of television commercials. In popular culture, the character's name has been immortalized by the phrase, 'beam me up, Scotty,' even if those exact words were never uttered on the show.

In light of this, it might come as a surprise to learn that, shortly after NBC picked up the program, series creator and producer Gene Roddenberry sent Doohan a letter explaining that he wouldn't be picking up the actor's option for the series. The actor later recalled this incident in his memoir:
Three or four days after hearing that the pilot had sold, I got a letter from Gene Roddenberry saying, 'Thanks very much, but we don't really think we're going to need an engineer.' I think they were probably trying to save money. I got the letter about eleven o'clock in the morning, and I called my agent, Paul Wilkins. Paul was pissed because the letter should have gone to the agent. He said, 'You just wait there. We'll see about this.' I could tell from the tone of his voice and the pauses he took that he was trying to hold his temper.

He went to Gene Roddenberry and Herb Solow, Herb being the executive in charge of production on behalf of Desilu. Paul was not one who was easily ignored. He was six foot two, with silvery dark hair. Then Paul called me and said, 'You're back on the show.' I didn't have a commitment for 'every show produced'; they only signed me up for some of the episodes.

--James Doohan with Peter David, Beam Me Up, Scotty: Star Trek's 'Scotty' in his own words (1996), p.127-128.
Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman's Inside Star Trek: The Real Story elaborates on on Roddenberry's decision to release Doohan from his contract:
Doohan was confused by Roddenberry's direct communication and informed his agent, Paul Wilkins, that apparently he'd been fired. Wilkins became irate and met with Roddenberry, and by the close of business that same day, Doohan was returned to the Enterprise engine room. Millions of fans should be thankful to Paul Wilkins for getting Doohan back on board. NBC was unaware of Roddenberry's attempt to fire Doohan. 
--Herb Solow and Bob Justman, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.153.
Archival evidence shows that these accounts are mostly correct.  In a letter dated April 11, 1966, Gene Roddenberry wrote to James Doohan:
Dear Jim:  
As you probably know by now, STAR TREK will be on the air this coming September.
Due to changes in format, budget structure, and character concepts, we cannot pick up a number of options, including yours. But we do hope that “Engineering Officer Scott” will reappear in future stories and hope we will be fortunate enough to find you interested and available at that time.  
Let me thank you for your important contribution in the making of the STAR TREK pilot. As mentioned many times before, I value your talent and ability highly and it will always be a particular pleasure for me when we are able to work together.  
Cordially yours,
Gene Roddenberry
Although Doohan remembered receiving Roddenberry's letter 'three or four days' after learning the second pilot had been sold, in truth this more likely happened four or five weeks after he first heard the news.  Daily Variety reported that NBC had picked up the program as early as March 1, 1966, and repeated the news on March 11 and March 15.  Since it's unlikely that Doohan (and his agent) ignored the Hollywood trade papers, the actor must have simply misremembered the order of events. Solow and Justman's book claims the meeting between Paul Wilkins and Roddenberry returned Doohan to the series in one day; Doohan's book suggests a similar timeline, but claims the meeting was between Wilkins, Roddenberry, and Solow. Whoever the participants of that meeting, the official deal between Doohan and Desilu wasn't finalized until six weeks later on May 19, 1966.  On that date, casting director Joe D'Agosta wrote a memo to Desilu business affairs attorney Ed Perlstein:
James Doohan has agreed to work on the television series 'Star Trek' on a non-exclusive basis subject to his availability. He will appear as the recurring character, Scott, for a guaranteed salary of $850 for six days and a guarantee of five shows out of the first thirteen shows.
Obviously, Roddenberry had miscalculated the program's 'change in format.' Out of the first thirteen episodes produced (including the second pilot), Doohan appeared in a total of eight shows, three more than he was initially guaranteed, and as many episodes as series regulars George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney appeared in. Owing to the character's usefulness, Roddenberry had Joe D'Agosta negotiate another 'handshake' agreement with Doohan's agent. Per a memo from D'Agosta to Roddenberry, that deal was finalized on November 11, 1966, guaranteeing the actor another five shows for the first season (again at a rate of $850 for six days per show). In addition, the deal had a provision for extra shows, if Doohan's scenes were scheduled to be completed in less than five days:
If we use Jim less than six days, we may hire him at the following rates: These shows, however, are not to be included in the guarantee.
One day 300.00
Two days 500.00
Three days 600.00
Four days 700.00
If he is originally scheduled to work one to four days and in fact works five or six days, he is to be paid a pro rata of the salary and the show will not be included in the guarantee.
By the end of the first season, Doohan had appeared in a total of 15 episodes, and the producers decided to sign him to an exclusive, four-year contract, as indicated by this March 16, 1967 memo from Joe D'Agosta to Ed Perlstein:
I am happy to advise you that James Doohan has signed an exclusive contract with Desilu for the 1967/1968 broadcast season for three subsequent years after this year on a nine out of 13 of each 13 programs produced and pro rata for cycles of less than 13 shows terminable by Desilu at the end of any 13-program cycle.  
The compensation which is for up to five consecutive days work per episode is:  
First Year: $ 850
Second Year: $1,100
Third Year: $1,350
Fourth Year: $1,600 
Billing is at Producer’s discretion.
Doohan would continue to appear in more episodes than his contract guaranteed him. By the end of the series he had appeared in a total of 66 of the show's 79 episodes, which wasn't a bad run for an actor who was almost dismissed before Star Trek even premiered on television. It remains unclear why Roddenberry chose to release Doohan in the first place; even less understandable is why Roddenberry chose to break the news directly to the actor rather than through his agent, which was and is the standard practice in Hollywood. Perhaps, as Doohan speculated, it was a way of cutting costs, although given the number of first season shows which included Doohan, this was almost certainly unsuccessful. It is also possible that Roddenberry made the mistake of bypassing Doohan's agent out of inexperience; after all, before Star Trek, he had only produced a handful of pilots and a series which lasted only one season, The Lieutenant.

Image courtesy of Trek Core.


The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)

Beam Me Up, Scotty: Star Trek's 'Scotty' in his own words (James Doohan with Peter David, 1996)

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