Monday, March 13, 2017

Did D.C. Fontana Get Her First Professional Script Assignment on Star Trek?

Still from "Charlie X" (1966)
Herb Solow and Bob Justman's Inside Star Trek : The Real Story (1996) is one of my favorite books about television production, but when rereading it recently, a couple of paragraphs about Dorothy C. Fontana's writing career before Star Trek raised my proverbial fact-checking antenna:
Prior to her job as secretary to Roddenberry, Dorothy C. Fontana worked as a secretary for writer-producer Sam Peeples on the series Frontier Circus. Before that, she had sold a spec story entitled "A Bounty for Billy" to Peeples for the Tall Man series. But Dorothy’s goal was to work as a professional filmwriter [sic], and as yet she had never actually been hired to write a script.
Justman was impressed by the intelligence and orderly thought processes she revealed in her story analyses. He convinced Roddenberry to give her a trial assignment to write the script of "Charlie X." Roddenberry had written the story, then "junked" it, feeling the story didn’t contain enough "action" and, therefore, wouldn’t be acceptable to the network. But Fontana’s script contained another kind of action, dramatic action that came from well-drawn characters.
--Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.132-133
The first thing I did to verify the claims about Fontana's writing career from this passage was check the Internet Movie Database. IMDb relies on user-submitted information, so anything found on it should be thoroughly cross-checked, but it’s a good place to start.
D.C. Fontana's early writing credits on IMDb (accessed March 12, 2017)
D.C. Fontana’s IMDb page gives her two "story by" credits, one "teleplay by" credit, and three “written by” credits on a total of six television episodes produced before early 1966, when NBC placed Star Trek on its schedule.The same page gives Fontana "written by" credit on three more episodes produced during the 1966-67 broadcast season in addition to her work on Star Trek. Many of these credits would seem to directly contradict Solow and Justman's claim that "Charlie X" marked the first time Fontana was hired to write a script. My next question, of course, is this: are Fontana's early credits as listed by IMDb accurate?

To answer that question, I first turned to several interviews Fontana has given about her early writing career. Here's what she had to say about her writing career from 1960-63 in this interview from 2013:
History here - most people ignore the fact that I was a writer before STAR TREK. Between 1960 and 1963, while working for Samuel A. Peeples, I sold two stories and two scripts (produced) to THE TALL MAN series, done a rewrite on a SHOTGUN SLADE script (produced) and sold a story of FRONTIER CIRCUS (produced). In 1963, Samuel A. Peeples left MGM (where he had written a movie script) to move on to other projects, and I decided to stay at the studio.2
Before getting to the matter of Fontana’s credits, I should issue a small point of correction — Samuel A. Peeples (primarily known to Star Trek fans for writing the program’s second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before") actually wrote two movie scripts when he was at MGM in 1962, not one. Boxoffice noted that Peeples had begun work on a movie called Company of Cowards (based on the novel by William Chamberlain) in April of 1962.3 It was eventually filmed and released as Advance to the Rear in 1964. In May of 1962, Boxoffice reported that Peeples was working on another screenplay for MGM called Recollection Creek, based on the novel by Fred Gipson.4 By November, Boxoffice reported that Peeples had "completed the first draft of the screenplay of MGM’s 'Recollection Creek' which Richard Lyons will produce early next summer."5 Lyons had planned to reunite actors Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, recent stars of Ride the High Country (1962), for the movie, but it was never made.

Only about half of Shotgun Slade has been released on home video. When I asked Fontana via email about the episode she rewrote, she told me that, "I did not get credit on the script."6 She did, however, receive credit on four episodes of The Tall Man and one episode of Frontier Circus. Since both of those programs have been released in full on home video, those credits can be easily verified.

D.C. Fontana's four screen credits for The Tall Man (all 1960)
When it comes to The Tall Man, IMDb and Fontana present the same account — that she sold two story outlines, which were then scripted by other writers, followed by two additional story outlines, which she scripted herself. The screen credits on The Tall Man match this account.
D.C. Fontana's screen credit for Frontier Circus (1961)
When it comes to Frontier Circus, on the other hand, Fontana and IMDb present different versions of what happened. According to IMDb, Fontana shared a teleplay credit with Lawrence Kimble on an episode called "Lippizan." Fontana, however, says she only wrote a story outline, not the teleplay. The screen credits settle the matter; Fontana wrote the story outline, while Lawrence Kimble wrote the teleplay. In this case, the listing on IMDb is incorrect.

After The Tall Man, Shotgun Slade, and Frontier Circus, Fontana remained a full time secretary (in fact, she was introduced to Gene Roddenberry when she went to work as his secretary on The Lieutenant at MGM), but she also moonlighted as television writer. Once Fontana adopted the professional name of "D.C. Fontana" (her earlier stories and scripts were credited to Dorothy C. Fontana), she made additional script sales. In a 2013 interview, she recalled:
From 1964 through the making of two STAR TREK pilots, plus two other pilots Roddenberry produced, to beginning of STAR TREK production in 1966, I wrote a script for BEN CASEY (produced), SLATTERY'S PEOPLE (bought but not produced as the series was cancelled) and THE ROAD WEST (produced).7
Fontana’s script assignment for Slattery's People is not listed on IMDb, which does not include unproduced material, but it was mentioned in a 1965 article from The Los Angeles Times (her script for Ben Casey was also mentioned):
She's been signed by Producer Irving Elman to script an episode of Slattery's People. Her story, titled "Question: Who Steals My Name?", involves a smear campaign against Slattery, who must decide if he will fight or ignore it. 
This is not the first teleplay for Miss Fontana, who is secretary to Gene Roddenberry, Desilu writer-producer. Last season she wrote a play for Ben Casey.8
In short, Fontana was hired to write a television script at least five times before Star Trek was even on the the NBC broadcast schedule (in addition to three other assignments in which she provided the story outline only). There’s simply no way that the account presented by Inside Star Trek : The Real Story could be true.

"Charlie X" and Fontana's other Star Trek credits were not even her only writing assignments during the 1966-67 season. She also scripted an episode of The Road West (a Western that aired for one season on NBC) that year called "Never Chase a Rainbow." Contrary to the listing on IMDb, however, there's no evidence that Fontana wrote two episodes of The Wild Wild West under the pen name "Michael Edwards" that year.When I asked her if these credits were correct, Fontana flatly dismissed them, telling me:
No - they are totally wrong. My pen name at the time was Michael Richards. I did not write THE WILD WILD WEST.9
In light of all these facts, I am also skeptical that Justman was needed to convince Gene Roddenberry to hire Fontana to write the script for "Charlie X." By 1966, Fontana had been working for Roddenberry for over two years, and her desire to make a living as a professional writer instead of a secretary was not a mystery to the writer-producer. I find her version of what happened to be much more plausible:
So when we came to production on STAR TREK's first season, Roddenberry assigned me to pick one of the stories in the bible and write the script. I chose "Charlie X," and that was the start of my science fiction writing. I was far from being a novice writer, and STAR TREK was not my first credit - far from it.10
Whether or not Roddenberry needed convincing, it did not take him long to give Fontana the script assignment. By the week ending April 22, 1966, only a few weeks after Star Trek's first story assignments were handed out, Fontana had the job.11

Author’s Note: In addition to the interview cited in this piece,, The Archive of American Television, and the Writers Guild Foundation also have valuable interviews with Dorothy C. Fontana about her life and extensive career in Hollywood. 

Special thanks to Maurice M. for introducing me to D.C Fontana, who graciously took the time to answer all of my pesky questions via email.

Image from "Charlie X" courtesy of Trek Core.


1 Telegram to Andre Richardson, February 27, 1966, Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection, Box 27, Folder 17

2 Interview with D.C. Fontana,, May 18, 2013

3 "George Marshall to Direct 'Company of Cowards,'" Boxoffice, April 30, 1962, p.12

4 "Three New Productions Added to MGM Slate," Boxoffice, May 14, 1962, p.16

5 "Drafts ‘Creek’ Play," Boxoffice, November 12, 1962, p.W-4

6 Author Interview with D.C. Fontana (via email), February 28, 2017

7 Interview with D.C. Fontana,, May 18, 2013

8 "Secretary Knows Her Business," Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1965, p.C15

9 Author Interview with D.C. Fontana (via email), February 28, 2017

10 Interview with D.C. Fontana,, May 18, 2013

11 Writers Report, Week Ending April 22, 1966, Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection, Box 35, Folder 15