Herbert F. Solow
INSIDE STAR TREK & GENE RODDENBERRY: THE LAST
Both published by Pocket Books.
The interview aired on Tuesday, September 10, 1996 at 9:30pm eastern.
Conducted by Peter Anthony Holder, the evening talk show host on CJAD 800 AM, Montreal.
THE LAST CONVERSATION
CJAD: This is the 30th anniversary of STAR TREK and as a result a lot of books and other memorabilia are coming out to commemorate the milestone. Two of the books out there right now actually brought the two authors together and we'll get to that in a moment. The two books are INSIDE STAR TREK by Herb Solow and Bob Justman and also GENE RODDENBERRY: THE LAST CONVERSATION by Yvonne Fern. Herb Solow and Yvonne Fern are on the line with us right now from California. Hi guys, how are you?
HERB: Fine, how are you?
CJAD: Fine...you two are married to each other.
HERB: We sure are.
YVONNE: Yeah, we are. (laughter)
CJAD: But that's recent, right?
YVONNE: Ah, we're not telling.
HERB: Well, what happens when people ask me...they say, well how long have you and Yvonne been married, I just look them straight in the eye and say, "47 years."
YVONNE: It seems like we've spent our whole lives together. It's a great marriage.
CJAD: Now, STAR TREK, I've often maintained, being a big Trekker myself, actually brings people together. There are some people, like my Mother for instance, who have no idea what this show is about. Don't understand it. But there are people who are big STAR TREK fans and it draws people together and it drew you together, didn't it?
YVONNE: Well, the interesting thing is that Herb was the very person to speak to Gene Roddenberry. When Herb was the head of Desilu, Roddenberry walked in to his office and said, "I have an idea for a show", and I was the very last person to speak to Roddenberry who actually passed away as I was finishing my book on him. So we are the bookends, so to speak, of the Roddenberry era or the classic series.
CJAD: Let's go to Herb for a second. Start off with Herb since you were there at the beginning. You're book, which you wrote with Robert H. Justman, is called INSIDE STAR TREK: THE REAL STORY. We should mention that it's published by Pocket Books and $40 is the Canadian price.....
HERB: Peter, it is published by Pocket books, which is part of Simon and Schuster, of course, but it is not a pocket book perse, like a little paperback.....
CJAD: Right, it's a nice coffee table book with lots of great pictures and stories in it.
HERB: It has hundreds of pictures in the book. What we've also done is to go into our many, many files and search out other files and actually reproduce memos and photos and other documents rather than just referring to them.
CJAD: Now you must have been asked this question a hundred times, now that the STAR TREK thing has become such a phenomenon. When Gene Roddenberry first walked into you office, what did you think?
HERB: I thought he walked very slowly and mumbled a lot, actually, (laughter). I had expected.....what I had known about Gene was that he was a former Los Angeles policeman. That he was a former Pan American airline pilot. And he just finished doing a one year series on the United States Marine Corps. I figured someone who was very sharply dressed who would snap his way into the office and stand at attention. He kind of came in sloppy and mumbled. So I figured this is a very special person, actually. Gene gave me a piece of paper he was holding, and it had just had the basic concept of STAR TREK. I thought some of it was good and a lot of it I did not like. That's how it all started.
CJAD: And as far the book, which is just out, there are a lot of books out there about STAR TREK. They are all competing in one way, shape or form. I would assume that even you and your wife are competing on the bookshelves for STAR TREK fans. Did you feel that you had the definitive story to tell? You had something to add.....
HERB: Well you see, most of the books that are out there are written by two groups of writers. One are journalists and authors, talented in their own right, but they were never there. They, in hindsight are looking back, trying to find files, talking to anyone they can find who was alive at the time, and saying, "do you know anything about STAR TREK you can tell me, because I'm writing a book about it?" That's group one. Group two are the actors all writing about what happened. Now we love the actors, who did a spectacular job for us back then, but when you prepare a television series, about 90% of the work, of the preparation, is done before you even meet the actors. Before you hand them a completed script. So the actors also had to go around and ask questions and try to find out what was going on. And then both groups also dealt with the legend and lore. Many of the myths that had been established over the years and had been told and retold and changed a great deal. The difference with my book is that I was there. I ran the studio. I was the one who dealt with Gene, who developed the concept with Gene and worked with Gene on the script, who sold the script to NBC, sold the pilot, sold the series to NBC and supervised it. That is quite different from people who were just looking back. Yvonne has a viewpoint in that Yvonne was also there. Not back in the 60s, but in the late 80s. Because Yvonne was the one who physically met with Gene. Walked with him, talked with him, lived at his house for awhile with Gene and his wife, Majel. And in fact, Yvonne was the one who was with Gene when he had his stroke. Yvonne drove him to the hospital. So we are dealing with two books and they really don't compete. They talk to a different Gene Roddenberry, 30 years or 25 years apart, but written by people who actually experienced the events.
CJAD: Now Yvonne, we've heard Herb's dissertation as how he got involved with STAR TREK, because he was there at the ground floor, literally. How did you become involved in the STAR TREK galaxy?
YVONNE: I became involved because I was teaching at Berkeley and also working as a developmental editor for the University of California Press. They were familiar with my writing and asked if I would please be an author of one of their books on people who had influenced American culture. Now everyone else was writing about politicians, scientists and people in so-called traditional and respectable areas of life and I thought the entertainment industry had certainly influenced American culture and of that entertainment industry STAR TREK was probably the most influential. I knew a little bit about it because my children had loved the series when they were young, and I had investigated it being kind of a strict Mom as to what they watched and found it to be a valuable show. So I thought I would go to the source and find out how this pervasive influence in American culture had occurred. I wrote to Gene Roddenberry, who I was told would never entertain the notion, being sick of interviews, sick of writers, sick of everything else, and he was intrigued by the idea and said, "come on down to the studio."
CJAD: Well that's what I wanted to ask you. After all these years of this show and the films and the other books and the spinoffs becoming part of a major cultural event, he must have been tired of talking about it to people. Why would he be willing to open up again?
YVONNE: Because, he said, of a letter that I wrote him. I simply said, "I'm not interested in the actors, I'm not interested in doing a delineation of the episodes. I am simply interested in who you are and what you think." I mean, no biography, no "my kindergarten teacher's name was...I used to like peanut butter best when I was six." None of that crap. I just wanted to talk to him about who he was, how he thought and how it had influenced the show. It was a mind walk, and he loved the idea.
CJAD: Herb, you were there at the beginning. You knew Gene Roddenberry. In the information that was gathered in Yvonne's book, did you, as someone who knew Gene find out anything new?
HERB: Well, what I found out that over the years Gene had obviously changed a great deal. The Gene Roddenberry I knew was many years younger, fairly inexperienced at what he was doing. We were working very hard on a series that everyone said was impossible to do. We were constantly fighting bad ratings and bad press. So that was the Gene Roddenberry I knew. What I learned was that Yvonne mirrored for me Gene Roddenberry aged 69-70, who was an entirely different person at the time. And again, I'm an entirely different person at the time. I was a young me, dealing with a young Gene. Now I'm an older me dealing with the Gene that Yvonne so beautifully portrays in her book.
CJAD: Do you have any idea, either one of you, how STAR TREK itself changed Gene, or was it just the change that was natural in someone who ages.
HERB: I think early on, and I put this in the book. I talk to it a lot....in that as the fan adulation built and built with Gene....this was the hard core science fiction fans that truly adored STAR TREK and what it had to say....I think that Gene changed and I found that at times almost became one of the gods he was talking about. Gene and I used to discuss this a lot over lunch. We constantly had lunch every day. To talk about what was going on with the series and with the people doing the series and just Gene.....Gene changed. What I learned from Yvonne's book is that...and she can tell you much better then I can....how much he regretted some of the things he had changed into.
CJAD: Did he at any time....I'm sorry, you were saying Yvonne?
YVONNE: Well he came in as an inexperience, not particularly successful writer and had in the ensuing years, a great amount of adulation, adoration, worship....just putting him on a pedestal, as Herb said, as a god, and then reaching a pinnacle of ego from which he then descended And when I met him he was quite a reflective, interesting, kind person and expressed a few regrets about his past. Not a whole lot. He wasn't particularly regretful about a lot, but he had mellowed and changed and become a little bit more cognisant of other people's feelings.
CJAD: Was there ever a time in that whole span of the STAR TREK phenomenon that he felt he was either in complete control of what was going on at all times, or overwhelmed by the concept that, "how can I keep up with what the fans want from this machine."
HERB: Well, I can only talk to the first series. Gene never was in complete control and the understanding was that he was not in complete control. He in essence worked for me. I worked for Lucille Ball, who owned the studio. There were certain obligations and responsibilities I had to Lucy and also to NBC who put up a lot of money to buy the series. Gene was treated as every other television producer was treated in that you have leeway to do what we had discussed you should do. If you go past those boundaries, then of course we at Desilu, myself would come down and NBC would. As I said, as he grew and grew in stature, what he would do is take out the frustrations of not being in total control by picking scapegoats, so he would treat NBC as someone who was against him, for instance, which just wasn't the truth. NBC was trying to be supportive, but if there was a problem, Gene would turn it around and blame NBC, at times blame Desilu. That was the motus operandi for him in those later years while doing the first series.
CJAD: It is my understanding that the show at one time or another always at death's door during the three years it was on and during its development. The thing I find interesting is the fact that it had more then one pilot originally shot, correct?
HERB: That's correct. It had two, which is rare in the annuls of television history.
CJAD: How come that rarity?
HERB: The rarity was....STAR TREK was the first development deal Desilu ever had with NBC. Bear in mind please that Lucy was a CBS property. Lucy's show and Lucy's allegiance, so STAR TREK was the first one with NBC. I had just left NBC to join Desilu, so I was working through old friends of mine, especially Grant Tinker who later became the CEO of NBC, but at that time was the Vice President of Programs on the West Coast. So I could call Grant and I could say, which I did, "I have something that I think would be good for you guys. It's exciting, it's in color," and NBC was priding itself on becoming the first color network at that time. So with that behind me I kind of forced NBC to put up money for a script and later for a pilot. We did the pilot. It was a spectacular pilot called THE CAGE. Unfortunately, NBC did not feel it made a good sales tool. A good prototype to take to affiliates and advertisers and say, "this is an example of what our series will be about." But they liked what we did so well, that they finally came back and said, "what do you want to do, Herb," and we had a meeting. And out of the meeting came a second pilot. A guaranteed second pilot. Our first lead, Jeffrey Hunter, for whatever reason, I covered in the book, did not want to do it and we hired Bill Shatner. Made it, sold it, got it on the air and as you said, fought every week to keep it on the air, which lasted until the end of the third year when they said goodbye to us.
CJAD: Your book, you mentioned the fact that you're out there to set the record straight and put an end to some of the myths that have surrounded STAR TREK. What are some of the biggest myths that you felt need to be corrected?
HERB: Well one of the myths is that...and I can readily understand how this occurred in the first place and then grew and grew and was magnified....is that one man did the whole thing. One man had the idea, wrote the scripts, directed, produced, cast all the actors, designed the sets, did the costumes and the hair and everything else, and that just isn't true. We had a complement of about 125 enormously talented men and women who contributed greatly to the success of STAR TREK, and if you reduce it down, it comes down to five basic people, and I talk about that in the book. The five people without whom STAR TREK just would not have gone...I don't it would have gone past the early development stage. Those are the ones, I think, the public should...or the STAR TREK fans should know about and realize their great contributions.
CJAD: Yvonne, in talking to Gene Roddenberry, having the last chance to speak to him, did you get the feeling....because you mentioned at one point earlier that there was a period of time where he changed and he went through his ego period and so on and so forth. Did he feel that he was the center of the universe as far as STAR TREK was concerned, or did he recognize the work that a lot of other people did.
YVONNE: Well, that's a very interesting question, and also a strange one, because yes, he did feel he was the center of the STAR TREK universe. No question about it. He said to me over and over again, "I am STAR TREK," which as Herb pointed out, if he had said that while they were making it, they probably would have stoned him to death. But, "I am STAR TREK" is something he said over and over again. Now I know from other people that he did appreciate the work that other people did, but he didn't publicly acknowledge it, which is a mistake on his part and it leads to conclusion that he tended to be the be all and end all of STAR TREK, and he wasn't. Matt Jeffries was enormously....Matt Jeffries designed the Enterprise. Matt Jeffries designed the bridge, the sets, the props. Herb of course.....Grant Tinker, who was the Chairman of the Board of NBC and previously the Vice President of NBC said that without Herb Solow there would be no STAR TREK. They would never have bought it from Gene. They only bought it because of Herb. So it owes its whole existence as a television show to Herb. As an idea to Gene Roddenberry. Bob Justman, who ran himself into the ground making the series, certainly and Bill Theiss who did the costuming. Gene Coon, whom everybody in the STAR TREK world knows did the writing and producing beyond anybody's expectations. So, you know, it's really unfair for everybody think that Gene did everything. On the other hand, I have to do him honour. It was his idea. He did push it, and he did become the focal point of the fans as the representative of STAR TREK and he did it very, very well.
CJAD: Before his stroke, he was a little bit in ill health, was he not?
YVONNE: Yes he was.
CJAD: So do you think he might have realized...one of the reasons again, giving you the opportunity to talk to him. Do you think he was realizing that it was coming to an end, for him anyway?
YVONNE: I think he knew he was ill. I don't think he knew he was dying until about half way through our interview sessions and maybe even a little bit beyond that, but I do think the appeal of my particular book, and I mean this is not denigrating any of the others, is that, you know, people keep asking the same questions. He told me, "you're asking me questions I've never heard before. These are the things I want to talk about." And so it was a personal happiness for him and at that time in his life he didn't feel that he had to please anybody else but himself, so he did.
CJAD: Herb, 30 years later, the phenomenon STAR TREK is. As I mentioned earlier, I myself am a Trekker. I'm also a person who has every single original episode in store bought form.
CJAD: So, I'm a big, big fan of the show. I'm reminded, however, of the episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in which William Shatner did a spoof on STAR TREK conventions and STAR TREK fans by saying, "get a life!"
CJAD: How do you two feel knowing what you know about the STAR TREK phenomenon? About STAR TREK fans? What do you say to them?
YVONNE: Well, I happen to think that was very funny actually.
CJAD: That was a great skit, by the way.
YVONNE: It was hilarious. I think there are several different kinds of fans, and I understand Bill's position, because he really is kind of a private person in a lot of ways and unless you've been there yourself, you don't know what it's like to be absolutely mobbed by a bunch of people you don't know and who think know you. So a little bit of self defence in there. There are people who go to far. They make it a life, they make it a religion. They make it the be all and end all of their existence. Most people do not. Most people love it for what it is. Take a lot of value from it. Get a lot out of it. Put a lot into it. And are spectacular, wonderful people whom I've met thousands of and like very much. I think he hurt a lot of people though, (laughter). And perhaps it was a little unkind, but yeah, he was just trying to be funny.
CJAD: Herb, in the three years the show was on, again it had a certain amount of fan base. Fans certainly wrote in. They were certainly rabid fans of the show, but obviously not to the numbers that justified it staying on air.
CJAD: What types of fan response did you get? Did you get an inkling of the way the majority of fans feel today about the show when it was on the air from the fan response you did receive?
HERB: Well that was different. Bear in mind that the main fan response during the first series was in the end of the second year, or just before the end of the second year when the renewal was coming up and all the fans realized that that fan outpouring was orchestrated. It was a campaign. A tried and true, almost like a political campaign. A campaign to gather as many letters as possible from various parts of the United States and Canada, to write to NBC and just beseige them. It was a war. The unfortunate part about it was it was blown out of proportion because of a letter that Gene Roddenberry wrote to Isasc Asimov when he talked to the fact that a million letters was sent to NBC and that of course wasn't the fact at all. In the writing of the book, I located the man at NBC back in 1967 who was responsible for answering all the fan mail. So what we learned that one million letters was really 12,000 letters. But 12,000 was huge. It was the largest outpouring of mail NBC had ever received. But again, it was an orchestrated event. The executives at NBC became aware that it was orchestrated and kind of resented the embarrassment. So it helped to get STAR TREK renewed from year two to year three, but when year three came along, STAR TREK found itself in a terrible time period with very little promotion behind it, so you have to say the letter writing campaign helped and hurt at the same time.
CJAD: We have just about a minute to go and I want to ask Yvonne one last question. Do you think we've come full circle considering your book is GENE RODDENBERRY: THE LAST CONVERSATION....talking about how important this man was. You've got Arthur C. Clarke to do the forward.
YVONNE: Well, Arthur C. Clarke is a great fan of Gene Roddenberry's and vice versa and a good friend as he is of mine. He just felt that the book was a really important book in the STAR TREK world. Yes we've come full circle as far as the original series. There are spinoffs out there. They have very high quality and I think that they take their energy and their life from the original series and will continue as long as people want them to continue.
CJAD: Well it certainly is a fine set of books to add to one's collection for STAR TREK fans. INSIDE STAR TREK: THE REAL STORY by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, published by Pocket Books and also Yvonne Fern's book, GENE RODDENBERRY: THE LAST CONVERSATION, published by Pocket. I thank you both for talking to us.
HERB: You're very welcome. Thanks for the good questions.
YVONNE: Yes, excellent questions.