Friday, April 12, 2013

Flashback Friday: The Ladybird of the Galaxy

(The following is a segment from a memoir writing project I'm playing with. Hope you like it. Share your own recollections of 1970s Sci-Fi TV shows in the comments. — And yes, I know Trek was a 1960s era show, but Roddenberry did quite a few 1970s TV pilots, all of which Majel appeared in.)

My work with The News Herald in Panama City, Florida, has allowed me opportunities to speak with many of the actors that brought sci-fi TV to life over the years.  In February 1994, and appropo of our subject, I interviewed an interplanetary dignitary when Majel Barrett-Roddenberry — actress and wife of the late Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek — beamed into town for a small sci-fi convention.

Barrett was perhaps best known to fans of the Trek television and movie series.  Not only was she married to Gene (called by his fans "The Great Bird of the Galaxy"), but she was personally involved with every incarnation of the show as an actress and she appeared in each of his subsequent attempts to launch TV series.

She told me that, even though they had hoped (with Trek) to create something new and different for television, “We never dreamed it would be such a cult.  You don’t just get up in the morning and say, ‘Today I’m going to make a legend.’  We just had a job, and we hoped people would like what we were doing.”

Barrett was cast as the starship Enterprise’s female first officer, “Number One” in the original pilot, which starred Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike.  The role was written for her, and she was the first actor cast, she said.  Unfortunately, the network thought the pilot was “too cerebral for those slobs in TV-Land,” she said.  (It was a curse that would haunt all of Roddenberry’s future TV pilots.)

“They liked the idea and wanted to see another pilot, but they wanted some changes.  First, they wanted Gene to get rid of the woman second in command, because they said no one would believe a woman in that position.  And second, get rid of the pointy-eared Spock character because he was too devilish and would upset women viewers,” she said.

“As much as he knew it was going to break my heart, Gene desperately wanted to keep the Spock character.  He thought he could keep some things he wanted if he gave in to some of their requests,” she said.  “So he decided to marry the woman and keep Spock on the show.  Besides, Leonard (Nimoy, who played Spock) wouldn’t have had it the other way around.”

NBC also deflated Gene’s concept of gender equality, Barrett said.  He had originally wanted the crew complement to be half male and half female.  Instead, the female complement was reduced to about 10 percent.   “But that was okay, because Gene figured 30 good women could handle a crew of 300,” she said.

With a bleached-blond hairstyle, the naturally brunette Barrett rejoined the cast as Nurse Christine Chapel during the entire run of the series, which starred William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk.

“I really wanted to be a part of Star Trek, and when this one script (“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which introduced the Chapel character) came in, I knew it was my opportunity,” she said.

She cut her hair and bleached it blonde, then waited in Gene’s office for him to come in.  He passed by her twice, even spoke to her once, before finally recognizing her.  She told him, “If I can fool you, I can fool the network.”

Barrett’s voice was also used for the voice of the ship’s computer.  She later contributed her voice to the animated Trek series which ran on Saturday mornings in the early 1970s.  She appeared as Chapel in two of the Trek films, including her favorite of the series, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

In the 1980s, after Gene launched the syndicated television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Barrett took on the character Llwaxana Troi, the hyper-sensual mother of one of the command staff.  She also continued to provide the voice of the ship’s computer, and she played Lwaxana again in the third Trek series, Deep Space Nine, in the 1990s.

“Gene came in one day and said, ‘I have a great part for you. You won’t have to act.’  He described Llwaxana as ‘the Auntie Mame of the Galaxy,’” she said.  “The way the first script was written, she was very shallow, but by the third and fourth appearance, she started to blossom.  I’ve been very fortunate that the writing has been superb.”

Barrett died Dec. 18, 2008, as a result of leukemia. (Her birthday was Feb. 23, a date that has some importance to me. It happened in the year 1932.) Her cremains are expected to be launched into space in 2014 alongside her husband's.

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