Updated: September 10, 2021
IN MEMORY OF WRITER GENE RODDENBERRY
In September 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation continued the legend that Gene Roddenberry began 25 years prior. As creator and producer of the original Star Trek television series, he launched a phenomenon without precedent in show business and attained a celebrity status unique among his peers.
Although Gene Roddenberry passed away October 24, 1991, his legacy remains as Star Trek: The Next Generation continues to flourish and grow in movie theaters, and three television series based upon Star Trek — Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and now Enterprise — maintain his vision of the future.
While making Star Trek, Roddenberry's reputation as a futurist began to grow. His papers and lectures earned him high professional regard as a visionary. He spoke on the subject at NASA meetings, the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress gatherings, and top universities.
As creator of the beloved Starship Enterprise and its crew, which included the heroic Captain Kirk and the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock, Roddenberry unwittingly unleashed a phenomenon in which Star Trek enthusiasts became a veritable cult, numbering physicists, aerospace engineers, housewives, senators, children, teachers and intellectuals among its devotees (affectionately known as "Trekkies," and later, "Trekkers"). The show went outside television to win science fiction's coveted Hugo Award and then spawned an animated spin-off, as well as a series of feature films.
Gene Roddenberry led a life as colorful and exciting as almost any high-adventure fiction. He was born in El Paso, Texas, on August 19, 1921, spent his boyhood in Los Angeles, studied three years of policemanship and then transferred his academic interest to aeronautical engineering and qualified for a pilot's license. He volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the fall of 1941 and was ordered into training as a flying cadet when the United States entered World War II.
Emerging from Kelly Field, Texas, as a Second Lieutenant, Roddenberry was sent to the South Pacific where he entered combat at Guadalcanal, flying B-17 bombers out of the newly-captured Japanese airstrip, which became Henderson Field. He flew missions against enemy strongholds at Bougainville and participated in the Munda invasion. In all, he took part in approximately 89 missions and sorties. He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
While in the South Pacific, he also began to write. He sold stories to flying magazines, and later poetry to publications, including The New York Times. Upon his return from combat, he became a trouble-shooter for the Air Force working out of Washington, D.C., investigating the causes of air crashes. At war's end, he joined Pan American World Airways. During this time, he also studied literature at Columbia University.
It was on a flight from Calcutta that his plane lost two engines and caught fire in mid-air, crashing at night in the Syrian desert. As the senior surviving officer, Roddenberry sent two Englishmen swimming across the Euphrates River in quest of the source of a light he had observed just prior to the crash. Meanwhile, he parleyed with nomads who had come to loot the dead. The Englishmen reached a Syrian military outpost, which sent a small plane to investigate. Roddenberry returned with the small plane to the outpost, where he broadcast a message that was relayed to Pan Am, which sent a stretcher plane to the rescue. Roddenberry later received a Civil Aeronautics commendation for his efforts during and after the crash.
Back in the States, Roddenberry continued flying until he saw television for the first time. Correctly estimating television's future, he realized that the new medium would need writers and decided that Hollywood's film studios would soon dominate the new industry. He acted immediately, left his flying career behind and went to Hollywood, only to find the television industry still in its infancy, with few openings for inexperienced writers. At a friend's suggestion, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department, following in his father's footsteps and gaining experiences which would be valuable to a writer.
By the time he had become a sergeant, Roddenberry was selling scripts to such shows as Goodyear Theatre, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Four Star Theater, Dragnet, The Jane Wyman Theater and Naked City. Established as a writer, he turned in his badge and became a freelancer. Later, he served as head writer for the highly popular series Have Gun, Will Travel. His episode "Helen of Abiginian" won the Writers Guild Award and was distributed to other writers as a model script for the series. Next, he created and produced The Lieutenant series, starring Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn; it told the story of a young man learning the lessons of life while in the United States Marine Corps.
Star Trek followed (1966-1969). The first of the two pilots was pronounced "too cerebral" by the network and rejected. Once on the air, however, Star Trek developed a loyal following and has since become the first television series to have an episode preserved in the Smithsonian, where an 11-foot model of the U.S.S. Enterprise is also exhibited on the same floor as the Wright brother's original airplane and Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis." In addition to the Smithsonian honors, NASA's first space shuttle was named Enterprise, in response to hundreds of thousands of letters from fans demanding that the shuttle be named after the beloved starship.
After the Star Trek series ended, Roddenberry produced the motion picture "Pretty Maids All in a Row," starring Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson and Telly Savalas, and also made a number of pilots for TV. Among these were Genesis II for CBS (1973), about an Earth recovering from World War III. Next came The Questor Tapes for NBC (1974), the story of an android in search of his creator, then a sequel to Genesis II — Planet Earth, for ABC. He also co-wrote and produced "Spectre" (1977), a two-hour horror movie for NBC.
Roddenberry served as a member of the Writers Guild Executive Council and as a Governor of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He held three honorary doctorate degrees: Doctor of Humane Letters from Emerson College (1977), Doctor of Literature from Union College in Los Angeles, and Doctor of Science from Clarkson College in Potsdam, New York (1981).
On September 4, 1986, Gene Roddenberry's fans presented him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first writer/producer to be so honored. Star Trek: The Next Generation, in its first year in syndication, was awarded with the 1987 Peabody Award for the "Best of the Best." The series also garnered many of the prestigious Emmy awards throughout its seven year run. In February 1990, the March of Dimes honored Roddenberry with the Jack Benny Memorial Award of lifetime achievement.
On Thursday, October 24, 1991 Gene Roddenberry passed away and a world not so far away mourned the loss of one of television's foremost pioneers. At the time of his passing, Gene was survived by his wife Majel Barrett ("Nurse Chapel" from Star Trek and "Lwaxana Troi" in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and their 17-year-old son, Gene Roddenberry, Jr., his two grown daughters from a previous marriage, as well as two grandchildren.
In addition to having served as executive consultant on Star Trek feature productions, Roddenberry added "novelist" to his writing repertoire. His novelization of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (Pocket Books, 1979) sold close to a million copies and was ranked number one on the national bestseller lists for many weeks.
The legacy of Star Trek, as created by Gene Roddenberry, continues to grow as the newest series, Enterprise, joins Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Star Trek: The Next Generation has evolved into a feature film series, debuting in 1994 with "Star Trek Generations." Roddenberry is often affectionately referred to as the "Great Bird of the Galaxy."