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A visionary writer, producer and futurist, "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) creator Gene Roddenberry changed the face of science fiction with a concept that grew to encompass film, television, comic books and video games, and whose influence on the genre could only be arguably rivaled by the likes of George Lucas. Although it barely lasted a mere three seasons, "Star Trek" became the first TV series to have an episode preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and was influential enough to prompt NASA to name one of its space shuttles after the show's iconic starship, Enterprise. Following a resurgence in popularity on television syndication, the series was resurrected on the big screen with the visually impressive, yet ponderous film adaptation "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979). The success of the feature film spawned several sequels, including the more warmly received "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982). And while his involvement in the features became largely ornamental, Roddenberry brought his creative energies to bear on the first of many TV spin-offs; "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (syndicated, 1987-1994). Despite the fact that it had been 40 years since the original...
A visionary writer, producer and futurist, "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) creator Gene Roddenberry changed the face of science fiction with a concept that grew to encompass film, television, comic books and video games, and whose influence on the genre could only be arguably rivaled by the likes of George Lucas. Although it barely lasted a mere three seasons, "Star Trek" became the first TV series to have an episode preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and was influential enough to prompt NASA to name one of its space shuttles after the show's iconic starship, Enterprise. Following a resurgence in popularity on television syndication, the series was resurrected on the big screen with the visually impressive, yet ponderous film adaptation "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979). The success of the feature film spawned several sequels, including the more warmly received "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982). And while his involvement in the features became largely ornamental, Roddenberry brought his creative energies to bear on the first of many TV spin-offs; "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (syndicated, 1987-1994). Despite the fact that it had been 40 years since the original series left the airwaves, the franchise proved to be stronger than ever with the colossal success of the J.J. Abrams-directed feature reboot, "Star Trek" (2009), a prequel chronicling the assemblage of the young Enterprise crew. Beyond merely creating one of the most successful entertainment franchises in history, the influence of Roddenberry's brainchild imbedded itself deep within the very fabric of pop culture, its effects even rippling into the realms of real world science and technology.
Born Eugene Wesley Roddenberry on Aug. 19, 1921 in El Paso, TX, he was the son of Eugene Edward Roddenberry, a police officer, and Caroline "Glen" Golemon Roddenberry. "Gene" Roddenberry was raised in Los Angeles, where he graduated from Franklin High School prior to attending classes in police studies at Los Angeles City College. A young man of many interests, he also enrolled in the pre-law program at the University of Southern California, studied aeronautical engineering, and had obtained his pilot's license by the time the U.S. officially entered World War II in 1941. Shortly thereafter, Roddenberry enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew numerous combat missions in the South Pacific as B-17 pilot. It was also at this time that he began taking a serious interest in writing, and penned several stories for various flying publications. At war's end, Roddenberry took a job as a commercial pilot for Pan American World Airlines in 1946, a position he held until 1948 when he left for Hollywood in the hopes of pursuing a career as a television writer.
In addition to providing income, Roddenberry's position at the LAPD held other advantages. The department was heavily involved in an advisory capacity with the seminal police procedural "Dragnet" (NBC, 1951-59), leading Roddenberry to begin submitting scripts to the show's producers. His first professional television writing credit came with several episodes of "Mr. District Attorney" (syndication, 1954-55), followed by script work on another police drama "Highway Patrol" (syndicated, 1955-56) starring Broderick Crawford. His first foray into science fiction aired as the tale "The Secret Weapon of 117," an installment on the short-lived anthology series "Chevron Hall of Stars" (syndicated, 1956). Roddenberry resigned from his position at the LAPD that same year in order to fully pursue his burgeoning career as a writer, and worked steadily on a variety of military, police and Western series such as "West Point" (NBC/ABC, 1956-58), "Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963), and "Have Gun - Will Travel" (CBS, 1957-1963). Nothing if not ambitious, the busy writer continuously toiled at creating concepts for series of his own. Roddenberry's first series as a writer-producer was the topical, military-themed "The Lieutenant" (NBC, 1963-64), a short-lived production focusing on daily life on a peacetime Marine base.
Undeterred by the show's cancelation, Rodenberry pushed forward with his efforts to get another series off the ground. A life long fan of science fiction, he began shopping a new project around to the networks that he pitched as a sort of "Wagon Train" set in space. After finally finding a taker with Desilu Studios, Roddenberry mounted a pilot for the proposed sci-fi adventure. Although the pilot met with a lukewarm response from NBC - executives felt it played "too cerebral" - they miraculously allowed him to retool the project and commissioned an unprecedented second pilot episode. Premiering in September 1966, "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) was unlike anything else on the air at the time, and soon developed a moderate, albeit loyal, following. Groundbreaking in many ways, "Star Trek" was the first science fiction property to embody a peaceful future, and like "The Lieutenant" before it, allowed Roddenberry the opportunity to tackle social issues under the guise of genre storytelling. It was also the first TV series to feature a multicultural cast, populated with several strong supporting female and minority characters. Chronicling the ongoing five-year mission of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy, the inventive series admirably sought to "go where no man has gone before," despite the production's budgetary constraints.
The series starred William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, alongside a cast largely comprised of actors Roddenberry had previously collaborated with, including DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, and Leonard Nimoy as the logical Vulcan science officer, Spock - a character rumored to have been inspired by Roddenberry's emotionally-reserved former boss, Chief Parker. Couched in stories of action and suspense - along with liberal doses of titillation - the best episodes of the series were also morality tales that delved into questions of war and peace, sexism, racism, technology, and political authoritarianism. Initially, the show, with its combination of swashbuckling space adventure and comic book intellectualism, enjoyed respectable ratings. Viewership, however, soon began to drop and by its second season cancellation appeared to be an inevitability. It survived for a third season only after a massive letter-writing campaign by the show's loyal fans saved it from the chopping block. Sadly, the writing was already on the wall, and a disgruntled Roddenberry abandoned his day-to-day duties on the show after the network reneged on promises to give it better schedule placement, dumping it instead in the dreaded "Friday night death slot" and slashing its already insufficient budget. In the summer of 1969, after a total of 79 episodes, "Star Trek" left the airwaves, despite the fact that newly developed marketing techniques pointed to a strong following amongst a highly-educated, upper-middle class demographic - the advertising revenue sweet spot.
With "Star Trek" apparently dead and buried, Roddenberry moved on. In 1969 he left his wife of 27 years and married "Trek" cast member Majel Barrett, with whom he had been having an affair for years. As always, Roddenberry set his sights on the future, making his first foray into feature films with the sexploitation mystery "Pretty Maids All in a Row" (1971). Directed by Roger Vadim and co-starring Angie Dickenson, the Roddenberry-produced and scripted dark comedy told the tale of a lascivious high school football coach (Rock Hudson) whose libido is equaled only by his murderous tendencies. Unfortunately, the film was scorned at the box office - regarded by many critics as little more than soft-core porn - and Roddenberry refocused his efforts on television. Although "Star Trek" was enjoying a surprisingly vibrant second life in syndication and an animated version of the Enterprise crew's continuing adventures - "Star Trek" (NBC, 1973-74) - was piquing some interest with youngsters on Saturday mornings, he looked to the horizon with a series of original TV-movie pilots. The first three - "Genesis II" (CBS, 1973), "Planet Earth" (ABC, 1974), and "The Questor Tapes" (NBC, 1974) - all shared thematic similarities to "Trek," while the fourth, "Spectre" (NBC, 1977), was an occult mystery. While some came close, none of these projects would ultimately enjoy a run as a weekly series.
Meanwhile "Star Trek" had finally found an adoring mass audience through the outlet of daily syndication, further aided by the short-lived animated series, and even comic book adaptations. Paramount Pictures - who had acquired the "Star Trek" license after purchasing Desilu - expressed renewed interest in the property and began talks with Roddenberry about a series return. From the beginning, the effort was plagued by indecisiveness. Initially, Paramount was looking at mounting a feature film, however, after numerous rewrites and delays the development stalled. Executives then opted to return the property to its roots by creating another television series under the proposed title "Star Trek: Phase II." When at last a pilot script had been approved, then-Paramount executive Michael Eisner was so impressed after reading it that he suggested "Phase II" deserved a big screen treatment. Further encouraged by the recent success of sci-fi hits like "Star Wars" (1977) and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), the studio decided to rush the project into production as a feature film, just weeks before the TV series reboot was set to begin production.
"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979) was immediately beset by problems, not the least of which included an abbreviated production schedule, continued reworking of the script throughout filming, and budgetary overruns due to the massive amount of required special effects work. Regardless, fans rejoiced at the news that the film they had waited 10 years for would at last reunite the original series cast, led by Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley in their iconic roles. Directed by Academy Award winner Robert Wise, the film's plot was largely derived from Roddenberry's earlier script for the proposed TV pilot and centered upon a deep-space probe that had originated from Earth and gained sentience along with nearly limitless destructive power. Working furiously to complete the massive undertaking, the film was completed just days before its scheduled premiere. Although it beat opening weekend box office records at the time, the film met with decidedly mixed-to-negative reviews from critics who generally found it lacking in plot and over-reliant on its admittedly impressive special effects. By the end of its theatrical run, the movie had performed below studio expectations, although well enough to warrant a sequel, albeit at a significantly reduced budget. Roddenberry, on the other hand, would not be invited to actively participate in the next production, as many involved felt his efforts to control the project had become a hindrance.
With his proposed sequel script rejected, he was removed by Paramount from his previous capacity of producer and given the largely ceremonial title of "executive consultant." Roddenberry could only watch as the next film took shape. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, and packed with the action and suspense most agreed had been lacking in the first feature, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was the swashbuckling space adventure fans had long awaited. Featuring actor Ricardo Montalbán as the titular Ahab-like villain - resurrected from an episode of the original series - the film pleased both critics and audiences, eventually coming to be regarded as the best of the feature films to star the original cast. The success of "Khan" ensured further sequels, including "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984) and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986); the latter film depicting the Enterprise crew's effort to travel to 20th century San Francisco on a mission to save the whales. In 1986, Roddenberry received the honor of being given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a first for any television writer-producer at the time. Despite his lack of involvement in the highly lucrative films, Roddenberry took a firm hand developing and acting as executive producer on the series "Star Trek: The Next Generation: (syndicated, 1987-1994). Moving the intergalactic adventures 100 years beyond the timeline of the original series and featuring a new crew of largely unknown actors, the show further explored the themes Roddenberry had only begun to delve into 21 years prior.
With "The Next Generation" performing well, Roddenberry enjoyed the nearly unheard of milestone of having his beloved creation simultaneously thriving on television and in theaters with the release of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989). Although he had long expressed his disapproval with the direction the movies had taken, most critics felt the latest effort, directed by Shatner himself, was the worst of the lot. Roddenberry was given an advanced screening of the final film to feature the original cast, "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" (1991), just weeks before his untimely death due to cardiac arrest on Oct. 24, 1991. The prolific, forward-thinking creator-writer-producer was 70 years old. Even though the progenitor had moved on to other universes, his creation would continue to thrive with further filmic iterations, including "Star Trek: Generations" (1994), "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996), "Star Trek: Insurrection" (1998), and "Star Trek: Nemesis" (2002). Forty years after the cancellation of the original series, an entirely new generation of fans were thrilled by the hugely successful franchise reboot "Star Trek" (2009), directed by J.J. Abrams. It also spawned a multitude of series spinoffs on television, with "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (UPN, 1993-99), "Star Trek: Voyager" (UPN, 1995-2001), and the prequel effort "Star Trek: Enterprise" (UPN, 2001-05). Even years after his passing, non-"Trek" Roddenberry creations such as "Earth: Final Conflict" (syndicated, 1997-2002) and "Andromeda" (syndicated, 2000-02/SyFy, 2003-05), continued to launch with regularity.
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