Guardians of Forever: George Takei

“By the way, Mr. Sulu, any chance of teaching me that body throw? Could come in handy some time.”
“I don’t know, sir. It isn’t just physical, you know. You have to be inscrutable.”
“Inscrutable? Sulu, you’re the most scrutable man I know!”-Captain Kirk and Mr. Sulu in “The Infinite Vulcan”

When speaking of James Doohan a couple of weeks ago, I of characters whose roles expanded greatly. And while Scotty’s presence certainly expanded throughout the run of Star Trek, his place in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is consistent with that in later episodes: there’s never a doubt that Mr. Scott is anything but the jovial chief engineer. But for Doohan’s dressing room roommate, things were not so straightforward: instead of being constantly visible as the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Mr. Sulu’s first appearance was as the ship’s astrophysicist. And while Sulu’s personality still shines through in his fairly brief appearance, his role is nothing like it would eventually be. But for George Takei, this small opportunity would completely change his life.

Takei was born in 1937 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles shortly after the coronation of King George VI in the UK (as this is the inspiration for his first name). However, for the duration of World War II, he and his family were subjected to one of the great injustices of US history: the mass internment of Japanese-American citizens following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. After being moved from converted stables in Santa Anita Park, Takei and his family spent time in the Rowher and Tule Lake interment camps before returning home to Los Angeles. After high school, he spent time at Cal studying architecture before eventually getting his B.A. and M.A. in theater at UCLA. He also studied at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and Sophia University in Tokyo.

However, Hollywood at the time was not exactly beating down the doors of Asian talent, so his first big break while in school was providing voices for the dubbed versions of various Japanese kaiju films, including Godzilla Raids Again (in its notoriously re-titled form as Gigantis: The Fire Monster) and Rodan. He also appeared on Playhouse 90 and in the Twilight Zone episode “The Encounter”, which is mostly remembered for being one of the few episodes pulled from the American syndication package. There were other appearances in movies and TV shows, but Star Trek afforded Takei his first chance to actually become a recurring character on a TV show. Furthermore, Takei was quickly convinced in not only the ability of Gene Roddenberry, but in the validity of the concept, particularly the optimistic aspect of Star Trek‘s philosophy. Takei has long been one of Star Trek‘s staunchest advocates, and walks the walk with his advocacy for LGBT rights (for the two people on the internet who don’t know who George Takei is, he’s a happily married gay man) and continual spreading of positive vibes online through the power of memes.

Next week, we’ll be going back to the ’80s….to talk about a pair of cartoons from the ’70s.

Assignment: 1965: I Spy

In the ’60s, the “hot” genre in film and television was that of spies and espionage. The obvious inspiration for this was the James Bond movies, which were incredibly popular (and which we’ll be getting to in due course), but another big reason is that they allowed for the entertainment industry to engage with the Cold War in a way that was not only exciting, but avoided the frankly depressing questions surrounding the nuclear arms race (while ironically still allowing for nuclear bombs and missiles to be used as a threat-cognitive dissonance is a hell of a thing).

In the ’80s, however, one of the “hot” genres was the “buddy” genre, which featured two guys (there’s a severe lack of “buddy” films and shows featuring women), often from two varying backgrounds (and always with opposite personality types), getting into various situations. It’s not a horribly original idea, but it’s surprisingly easy to write, and as long as you cast well, even a formulaic plot can prove to be an enjoyable vehicle. And, best of all, it’s tailor-made for comedy, even though it’s supposed to be an “action” genre.

And, on September 15th, 1965, these two genres intersected, and first buddy TV series, I Spy, premiered on NBC. Developed for television by David Friedkin and Morton Fine and executive produced by Sheldon Leonard, with major contributions by cinematographer Fouad Said, the show centered on Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, two top agents for the Pentagon who travel around the world under the cover story of Robinson as a traveling amateur tennis player, and Scott as his trainer. The hook for the series, however, was that the show was actually shot around the world, on location, with studio work being filmed at the Desilu studios in California. This “hook” meant that I Spy was at the forefront of technical innovation in location shooting, in particular those surrounding the shooting of dialogue on location (close inspection of the early James Bond films, for instance, shows that most location dialogue was either recorded in post production, or shot against blue-screen backdrops). This alone made the show unlike anything on TV anywhere in the world, where most “location” shoots were actually filmed on a studio backlot in America, or minimal and technically limited (pretty much everywhere else).

The stories on I Spy ranged from deadly serious drama to outright comedy, and traded heavily off the chemistry of its two leads. Better still, there was a lot of improvisation on-set that elevated even the strongest of plots. However……

One of the show’s stars is Bill Cosby.

Now, in the ’60s, Cosby, a first-time actor, was a revelation (and won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for each of the three seasons that the show was on the air), and when I first encountered the show in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he was an institution. But now, following the allegations against him, the immense goodwill that Bill Cosby built over the years by being an incredible performer is tarnished. And while this is not where the bulk of the discussion on the Cosby rape accusations will happen (Bill Cosby is going to make two more appearances on this blog), but it must be noted.

And it’s a shame I have to, because Cosby deserved his Emmys for TV’s other “Scotty”, and to be honest, Robert Culp had a pretty good claim on them, as well. Watching I Spy, it’s easy to see why the buddy genre is still a thing: Culp and Cosby absolutely sparkle on-screen with their natural on-screen chemistry (which quickly became real, as the two were real-life friends until Culp’s death in 2010), and their improvised dialogue (which, for Cosby, included sly references to his stand-up act) works beautifully. And for Culp, I Spy is a unique triumph: in addition to starring, he wrote multiple episodes (confirmed to be the only ones shot exactly as written), some of which he directed. But the true triumph of the series is that I Spy is a landmark in race relations on TV: Robinson and Scott were equals on-screen (with Scott being the analytical member of the team, a total inversion of the common stereotype that most buddy pictures still adhere to), and Culp and Cosby refused to make an issue out of what they determined should absolutely not be an issue. And that we’re talking about the personal shortcomings of one of its stars instead of I Spy on its 50th anniversary is a true shame.

Next week, it’s time to introduce another member of the cast of Star Trek, and it’ll be the most internet savvy of them all.

Assignment: 1965 The American Football League

 

6400

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can have your shield-I’ll take this logo any day of the week.

It’s September 12th, 1965. On Thursday the 8th, Hurricane Betsy hits New Orleans, causing $1 billion worth of damage (which equates to nearly $7.6 billion in today’s dollars), while Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers gets his fourth no-hitter in four seasons in a 1-0 perfect game against the Chicago Cubs (amazingly, the Dodgers only manage one hit themselves). But today, on NBC it’s the debut of the American Football League on NBC with the New York Jets at the Houston Oilers, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs at the Oakland Raiders. While something of an anti-climatic start (the Jets’ #1 draft pick, Joe Namath, did not play in the game), the day signaled one of the major turning points in American sports.

Of course, the AFL was nothing new-the league was established in 1959 in the wake of the massive influx of interest in professional football following the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, or, as it is now known, “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. The original 8 teams (the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, New York Titans, Houston Oilers, Dallas Texans, Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, and Oakland Raiders) began play in 1960, and by 1964, had achieved a modest amount of success despite some truly difficult circumstances. The National Football League, which had been in operation since 1920, wasn’t about to let a competing league interfere with their newfound success. To this end, the NFL went as far as to lure away the AFL’s Minneapolis, Minnesota ownership group after they had been awarded an AFL franchise: the AFL had to scramble to find an eighth ownership group, eventually awarding it to a group in Oakland led by F. Wayne Valley. Additionally, the NFL returned to Dallas in order to compete against the AFL’s Texans (owned by Lamar Hunt, son of oil magnate H.L. Hunt).

From the start, the AFL sought to bring football to new and/or previously abandoned markets: Boston, Dallas, and Buffalo had been previously abandoned, while Houston and Denver had never fielded a pro football team before, and the Texans would later become the Kansas City Chiefs while the Chargers would depart LA for San Diego. Furthermore, the teams played and looked far more colorfully than their NFL counterparts. The Chargers, besides their lightning bolt motif, had bright powder blue jerseys. The Raiders wore silver and black and adopted a pirate mascot. The Texans/Chiefs wore red. The Oilers had light blue jerseys and helmets with red trim. The Broncos, after wisely abandoning a hideous brown and yellow color scheme, wore orange. And while the Bills and Patriots wore red, white, and blue uniforms like the NFL’s New York Giants, their white helmets and pants (along with the Patriots’ bright red jerseys) were far different from the competition. And the Titans, upon renaming themselves the Jets, adopted iconic kelly green and white uniforms. And the style of play? Pass, pass, pass your ass off! Led in the early days by Chargers coach Sid Gillman and the Raiders’ emphasis on the long bomb, the games were far more exciting than the run-oriented NFL.

However, where the AFL was truly colorful was in the racial makeup of its teams. While the AFL happily competed with the NFL for big name draft picks from the start (the Oilers having scored an early coup by signing 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon), the younger league had to look for talent that the NFL was unaware of, which meant smaller and predominantly black colleges, while the Redskins didn’t integrate until 1962, the AFL’s third season. By 1965, the AFL could already lay claim to such talented African-American players as Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist (who would lead a revolutionary boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game), Broncos running back Abner Haynes, Chiefs Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell, Chiefs Hall of Fame defensive tackle Buck Buchanan, and Broncos (and later Raiders) Hall of Fame defensive back Willie Brown. The AFL would also sew the seeds for minorities in the coaching and front office ranks (Brown in particular has had a long career coaching and scouting).

However, for everything the AFL did entering 1964, it was the deal to have NBC broadcast games starting in 1965, which was worth $36 million (a bit more than $277 million in today’s dollars), and meant that all games would be broadcast in color, months ahead of the NFL (whose games on CBS didn’t reach full color until 1968). Like the earlier deal with ABC, the money was shared amongst the eight teams, which was a huge boon to the teams. The result of the deal was that the Jets drafted Joe Namath, signing him to an astounding $427,000 contract (about $3.2 million today, though Namath also received a new car), and the Chiefs made a serious play for Gale Sayers. Also, the AFL made plans to add a ninth team in Atlanta before the NFL swooped in and stole the franchise (the league ended up expanding into Miami with Joe Robbie and actor Danny Thomas as the owners, collecting a $7.5 million entry fee, or $56.8 million today). Professional football, already growing in popularity by leaps and bounds, was a lot more interesting, and more than a bit reflective of the great social upheaval happening in the United States.

Next week, we’ll talk about another revolutionary NBC program, as well as the first of three increasingly troublesome looks into the career of a gifted comedian and actor who has suddenly become extremely notorious in recent years.

Guardians of Forever: James Doohan

“I can’t change the laws of physics. I’ve got to have thirty minutes.”-Scotty in “The Naked Time” (note the correct transcription of the line reading)

There are roles on TV shows that expand well past their initial scope and intended longevity. Fonzie on Happy Days is the generally-accepted (and often maligned) textbook example. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, are loaded with characters whose roles expanded greatly in scope from the original conception (and this subject is tangentially related to a non-Star Trek Debriefed blog post that’s coming in the not-too-distant future about Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But, oddly, Star Trek had two such characters in its second pilot. This week, it’s time for the first of those two extremely fortunate actors who benefitted: James Doohan.

James Doohan was born in Vancouver in 1920, and has the most colorful backstory of the cast for the sheer fact that he served in World War II, with his first combat action being the storming of Juno Beach on D-Day as a member of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. Serving as a lieutenant, he shot two snipers and led his men through a minefield before setting up defensive positions for the night, and was shot by friendly fire. Four of the six rounds hit him in the leg and one in his right middle finger (which was ultimately amputated). The last round hit him in the chest, and would have been fatal if not for a cigarette case given to him by his brother.

After the war, Doohan moved to London, Ontario and his life changed forever when he went to a local radio station to perform after deciding that he could perform better than the people he was listening to. This led to a two-year scholarship to Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, and soon Doohan was appearing in a wide range of roles on the CBC both on radio and television. Like William Shatner, Doohan also appeared on the Canadian version of Howdy Doody (though I could find no evidence that their paths crossed, as Shatner was mostly a fill-in player) and was a regular on the (now almost entirely lost) sci-fi program Space Command, which Shatner made numerous guest appearances on. Ultimately, Doohan made the move to Hollywood and became just as prolific a performer on American television as he had been in Canada.

It was this long run of reliable performances that led James Goldstone to cast Doohan as Chief Engineer Scott, who was supposed to appear in just this one episode, with the possibility of a recurring role. Doohan got in with Goldstone because of his skill with accents, and after running through a few of them with Gene Roddenberry, he stated his preference for the Scottish accent. Roddenberry agreed, and even allowed Doohan to give Scotty his first name, Montgomery, in honor of his maternal grandfather (humorously, Doohan had forgotten in his excitement that Montgomery was his own middle name). And while Scotty’s role is small in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, Doohan instantly shined in the part.

With the part of Scotty his, Doohan received another offer to be a regular on Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which he turned down. Suffice to say, it was the right decision.

Next week, we’ll look at the other cast member who joined on with James Doohan (and even shared a dressing room with him while filming the second pilot).