Remembering Roddenberry


NOTE FROM LB: One of the artists who created the storyboards for the episode of STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES that I talk about below recently found some of his art from it and shared it with me. So I’m sharing it with you – HERE

And now, on to Remembering Roddenberry:

The first time I worked with Gene Roddenberry was during the Big Writers Guild Strike of the mid-’70s (not to be confused with the Big Writers Guild Strike of the ’80s from which many of us have never recovered–more later, if you don’t watch out). One afternoon, while I was wondering how I was going to make a living while carrying a picket sign, D.C. Fontana, who I had met while writing for a series called THE SIXTH SENSE, called and asked if I wanted to write an episode of STAR TREK.

I may have been a fuzzy-cheeked kid, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew that the show had been cancelled some years ago, and I pointed this out to Dorothy. After she finished laughing, she told me, “STAR TREK is back! Gene’s got twelve half-hours on NBC, and I’m the Story Editor. The show’s animated, but it’s being done for adults, no catering to the kid audience at all. I swear! Besides,” she added, “how else are you going to make a living while carrying that picket sign?”

She had me hooked. I stayed up for a couple of nights, thinking of all the episodes I’d always wanted to see on the show but hadn’t, and three days later I was in her office at Filmation, ready to do my Pitch song and dance. Again, Dorothy’s reaction was to laugh, and usher me back into the hall. “Don’t waste it on me, Brody,” she said. “You’ve got to tell your ideas to Gene.”

I panicked. I had to face Gene Roddenberry and tell him what stories he should use on STAR TREK? Who the hell was Larry Brody to dare to do that?

On the other hand, I was intrigued. After all, hadn’t Harlan Ellison told me this great story about Gene holding meetings in which his secretary would come in topless and wearing an alien mask to serve drinks? Hmm, this could be not only terrifying but interesting as well…

Gathering my courage, I followed Dorothy to Gene’s outer office. No topless secretary. In fact, he had no secretary at all. Dorothy saw the look on my face. “We’re on a very low budget.” Then she called out, “Gene?”

“C’mon in!” I started to shake. It was The Voice of Roddenberry, coming from his Inner Sanctum. Once again, I heard Dorothy’s laughter, and she propelled me inside.

Standing there, looking out the window (at the parking lot), was the tallest man I’d ever seen. All I could do was nod dumbly, and be grateful when Gene asked me to sit down.

He leaned back easily, still managing to look down at me even though our eyes were level. “So,” Gene said. “So…” I looked over at Dorothy. She nodded at Gene. Quickly, I nodded too.

That seemed to satisfy him. Now it was Gene’s turn to nod. “Dorothy tells me you have a fine, weird mind,” he said to me.

“Weird, yes,” I said truthfully. “I don’t know how fine it is.”

“Nonsense!” Gene roared. “Of course you do. You know you’re a good writer. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. STAR TREK is the best written show that’s ever been on television. Ask any critic. You’re about to become part of a great tradition. You deserve to be part of that tradition–don’t you?”

I wanted to look over at Dorothy again, to see how I should react, but Gene’s eyes were on mine, and I didn’t dare. To look away might mean I wasn’t really as good a writer as Gene obviously thought. It might mean I was insulting him. Worst of all, to look away might mean I didn’t get the assignment!

I was lucky. It turned out that Gene didn’t want any reaction at all. He didn’t need one. What he needed was to talk. “I believe in the writer,” he said. “In the beginning is always the Word. I respect the writer. On this show, the writer is the prime force. Whatever the writer says goes. Whatever the writer says is.

“Because of the writer, and the writer’s vision,” Gene went on, “STAR TREK is more than just a show. It is, in fact, a philosophy. I, after all, am a writer, and Star Trek is my view of the universe, both what the universe is and what it should be. You’re young and idealistic, I can tell that just looking at you. Well, regardless of the year on my birth certificate I too am still young, and I too am idealistic.”

Gene’s eyes continued to pierce into me. He leaned forward, his head halfway across the desk. All that I could see was Gene Roddenberry. All that existed was…Gene Roddenberry.

“This new version of STAR TREK is a cartoon,” Gene intoned. “It’s animated. But being animated isn’t a curse, it’s a blessing. We’re freed of budget constraints, freed of primetime broadcast standards. We can do anything on this show. No–you can do anything. Whatever you can imagine, our artists can draw. Let your imagination soar! Let it wander! Open up your writer’s soul to the wondrous and the new! Think of ways to enlighten our viewers as well as entertain them! Think of ways to enlighten the universe! You can do it. Dorothy says you can. I know you can!”

Abruptly, he stood up, looked out the window again. “So,” he said, “what’ve you got? Tell me quickly, because I have a very fast mind. And at three we have another writer coming in.”

He waited, still looking out at the parking lot, and, quickly, I told him my ideas. Gene listened noncommittally. Then, as I gave him my third one (I always give them three–one that’s okay, one that’s terrible, and, lastly, the one I really want them to do) Gene turned to Dorothy with a smile. “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” he said. “Good title. I like it. We tried to do a show on magic the second year of the series. Antoinette Bower guest-starred. But we were limited then, by the fact that we couldn’t do the special effects we wanted. Now we can do it all! Dorothy, I want you to put through a deal memo for Mr. Genius Brody here.”

He turned back to me. “Go home. Get started. I can’t wait to read what you write!”

I hesitated, and Dorothy took my arm. “Thanks, Gene,” she said.

Gene lifted his arm in a half-wave. The meeting was over, and as we walked out he stood exactly as he had when we walked in, pondering–what? The universe? The Starship Enterprise? The parking spaces as yet unfilled?

I never found out, because, on that project at least, that was not only the first time I saw Gene Roddenberry but also the last. Following his orders, I went home and wrote, then turned in my story outline. Later, I wrote a first draft. And a second. Between each step was the compulsory meeting, but not with Gene. Always, it was Dorothy Fontana and Larry Brody, sitting in her office while Dorothy told me what changes Gene wanted me to make. Always, I made them, doing the best I could, and thinking, What does Gene really want? What does this note really mean? Maybe I should call him and find out…

But calling him would’ve meant talking to him, and that was something I couldn’t do. I hadn’t gotten more than a few words out at the meeting, and I knew I would be even more tongue-tied over the phone.

At last, it was over, and so was the strike. I went on to other things. So did Dorothy. So did Gene. Shortly before my episode aired, Dorothy called me to tell me it was going to be on, and she told me that Gene had truly loved my script. “It was his favorite,” she said. “He thinks you’re brilliant!”

Filled with pride, that Saturday morning I sat down to watch the show. The characters were right there, just as I’d imagined them. So were the events. But not one word of dialog was mine. In my mind, I heard Gene’s words: “On this show, the writer is the prime force. Whatever the writer says goes. Whatever the writer says is.” Then why–why had he rewritten me so much?

When the show was over, I called Dorothy at home. “What happened?” I asked her. “I thought you said Gene loved my script!”

“He did,” she said.

“But he changed it. He changed every word.”

“That doesn’t mean he didn’t love it,” said Dorothy. “But Star Trek is his universe, and he wants it exactly his way.”

After we hung up, I thought about what Dorothy had said. And I made a decision: The next time I worked with Gene Roddenberry he wouldn’t have to lift a finger to his typewriter. I would do whatever it took to write it exactly his way.

Even if that meant talking to him.


3 thoughts on “Remembering Roddenberry”

  1. Larry, c’mon! You’re a good writer; I know: I worked with you. He changed every word…and you loved him for it. Were ‘HAMLET’ at stake, or even ‘THE ICE MAN COMMEIH’ — OKAY, but ‘STAR DREK’? EUGENE O’NEIL, TENN. WILLIAMS, ARTHUR MILLER, WRITERS ALL! AND MANY MORE. And sadly, no one out there really cares. No, wait, worse! They don’t know the difference. I need a drink. gs

  2. I recall meeting Larry Gelbart in 1982 He was doing a show called “United States”. Several years earlier, I had written an impassioned multi- page letter to CBS praising M.A.S.H. He actually answered my letter and we corresponded for several months. I actually pitched some ideas to him. I was in a college fraternity and I expected to get a ticket to Hollywood. He shot me down, but I went to his show and he remembered me and we had a nice discussion. He was very gracious and I genuflected my appreciation.

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