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 StarTrek.com interview cited in this piece, Marvwolfman.com, 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.

Endnotes:

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, StarTrek.com, 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, StarTrek.com, 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, StarTrek.com, May 18, 2013

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

Sources:

3 comments:

  1. In 1996 when 'Inside Star Trek' came out - I over heard Mike Okuda talking to some friends I was with, saying "This is the BEST book written about Star Trek ever" and after reading it I believed him. In the 20 odd years since it came out, I have revised my opinion of it somewhat. I now find it more of a Herb Solow hatchet job against Gene Roddenberry and that personal slant has lessened it in my mind.
    It is certainly full of a lot of great behind the scenes information and tidbits, most never before revealed. The jumbled time line of the narrative and honest inaccuracies can be frustrating but the more I read it, the more I see though the jems of information and see the clear resentments and pettiness of Herb Solow towards Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was clearly no saint but the sole reason this book came out in 1996 and not before, say 1991, was so Solow's prose would be unchallenged by his prime target of resentment. While its clear Star Trek would not have happen had not Herb Solow sold the concept to NBC to begin with and then the affiliates with the second pilot, his inserting himself into key creative decisions and meetings is really a stretch. Mind you he is not near the level of self importance/prime player revisionist that Richard Arnold is - he is in a class by himself, but Solow is certainly in the same orbit of that gas giant!
    It's too bad, Bob Justman's account was much more even handed than Herb Solow's. Instead of their book raising in stature as time has gone on, it's true colors have only become more vivid with each year and as new books come on the market - 'These are the Voyages' by Marc Cushman and 'The Fifty Year Mission' by Ed gross and Mark Atlman, its jems glow a little dimmer.

    Poor Herb, Gene never thanked him for selling his show and he carried that with him all these years.

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    1. In my estimation, INSIDE STAR TREK's greatest achievement is that Herb Solow and Bob Justman made an effort to speak with dozens of key people involved with the development and production of STAR TREK who had never been asked about the subject. Whatever the book's shortcomings (and there are several), that material is invaluable.

      Regarding Solow's resentment of Roddenberry, it's undeniable, though in comparison to some of Solow's later public statements (watch his interview with the Television Academy, for example) INSIDE STAR TREK is rather measured. This may have been due to the moderating influence of Bob Justman, who acknowledged Gene's many flaws, but always considered him a friend. Age was probably a factor, too - Solow's interview with the Television Academy came more than 12 years after he finished the book. Details can fade away over time, but bitterness (warranted or not) often remains.

      Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but it is certainly a shame that Solow and Justman did not hire anyone to review the text for accuracy (or, if they did, that this wasn't done more rigorously). Of course, I would have gladly volunteered for the job back then, but seeing as I was not yet 10 when the book was first published, I doubt I would have been of much help! Alas, if only someone had pointed out to the two men that STAR TREK wasn't the #1 show in color TV households at the time, that D.C. Fontana had multiple writing credits prior to STAR TREK, that Leonard Nimoy's salary demands weren't so extreme in 1967, etc., who knows what other memories these corrections might have brought to the surface? (To borrow a TREK cliche, if only...)

      We're lucky that the archival record has so much information to be found in it that can correct and clarify the oversights of these and so many other books and articles about STAR TREK, but what I'd give to visit the mid-90s, when so many more people involved with the show were still alive (and for those who are still alive, memories were sharper).

      That said, even though the book has plenty of errors in it (and if this blog is any indication, there are undoubtedly more which I have yet to find), I'm still not convinced that there's a better one on the market about the making of the series. RETURN TO TOMORROW, about STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE, is a better book, but it's not about the series - and it's also not nearly as breezy a read. Factual errors and tall tales about STAR TREK continue to breed like rabbits in books about the show (the ones you've mentioned, THESE ARE THE VOYAGES and THE FIFTY YEAR MISSION, are both full of them, especially the Cushman/Osborn books, which I’ve written about a number of times). Hopefully, someone will eventually publish a more definitive history.

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  2. Even Return to Tomorrow, an excellent book, is plagued by the editorial decision not to check or amend anything in the last several decades. There are clear untruths in some of the interviews that are allowed to stand unchallenged. (Raising an eyebrow at Mr. Nimoy here, who probably thought of his interviews as being with a fan magazine and not an archival record meant to serve as ultimate history.)

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