Top Ten Lessons from the Life of Star Trek Founder Gene Roddenberry
By Frederic Marsanne
Published on December 27, 2016
Every once in a while, the market does something so stupid it takes your breath away.
Indecision and delays are the parents of failure.
Nothing is worth more than this day.
Only those who have patience to do simple things perfectly ever acquire the skill to do difficult things easily.
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
(Cambridge, MA) — Eugene Wesley “Gene” Roddenberry (August 19, 1921 – October 24, 1991) was an American television screenwriter and producer. He is best remembered for creating the original Star Trek television series. Born in El Paso, Texas, Roddenberry grew up in Los Angeles. In 1985, he became the first TV writer with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he was later inducted by both the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. Years after his death, Roddenberry was one of the first humans to have his ashes carried into earth orbit. The popularity of the Star Trek universe and films has inspired films, books, comic books, video games, and fan films set in the Star Trek universe.
Roddenberry had a pretty unusual curriculum allowing lots of food for thought. Here are ten lessons you may draw from his life.
- You can study for one thing and end up doing another. You can launch a career while having another job. You never know which one will carry the day. One may lead to the other…
Roddenberry majored in police science at Los Angeles City College. Later he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Los Angeles Police Department. Simultaneously, he began to write scripts for television. He spent his first sixteen months in the traffic division before being transferred to the newspaper unit. This became the “Public Information Division” and Roddenberry became the Chief of Police’s speech writer. He became technical advisor for a new television version of Mr. District Attorney, which led to him writing for the show. He began to collaborate with Ziv Television Programs, and continued to sell scripts to Mr. District Attorney, in addition to Ziv’s Highway Patrol. In early 1956, he sold more story ideas. Only then did he find that it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a writer as well as a policeman. In June of that year he resigned from the force to concentrate on his writing career.
- Openness, fairness, social justice
Roddenberry was asked to write a series called Riverboat, set in 1860s Mississippi. When he discovered that the producers wanted no blacj people on the show, he argued so much with them that he lost the job.
- Stand your ground
While working for Ziv, he pitched a series to CBS set on board a cruise ship, but they did not buy it as he wanted to become a producer and have full creative control.
Roddenberry created The Lieutenant, which was produced with the co-operation of the Pentagon. During the production of the series, Roddenberry clashed regularly with the Department of Defense over potential plots. The department withdrew its support after Roddenberry pressed ahead with a plot titled “To Set It Right” in which a white and a black man find a common cause in their roles as Marines.
- Work a Lot, Produce a Lot, Lose a lot, to Finally Win a Few and Transcend One
Adam Grant, in Originals: how non-conformists move the world (Viking, 2016), writes this: “…the most prolific people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume … It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but that turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. Original thinkers … will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a large pool of ideas—especially novel ideas.”
He also writes, “When the London philharmonic orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six pieces by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand… The more pieces a composer produces in a given five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.”
The same pretty much applied for Rosenberry. Screen Gems backed Roddenberry’s first attempt at creating a pilot. His series, The Wild Blue, went to pilot but was not picked up. The three main characters had names that would later appear in the Star Trek franchise. He pitched a police-based series called Footbeat to CBS, Hollis Productions and Screen Gems. It nearly made it into ABC’s Sunday-night line-up but they opted to show only western genre series that night…
He discussed an idea about a multi-ethnic crew on an airship travelling the world, based on the 1961 film Master of the World, with fellow writer Christopher Knopf at MGM. As the time was not right for science fiction, he began work on The Lieutenant for Arena Productions. This made it to the NBC Saturday night line-up at 7:30 pm, and premiered in September 1963. The show set a new ratings record for that time slot.
Roddenberry developed several possible scripts that ended up being ditched These are three of his failures but they prepared him to win big time. Roddenberry often rewrote submitted scripts including for Star Trek. In the end, he never stopped writing, producing and… failing or at least risking failure to create one of the biggest shows on the planet.
- Take care of your fans
As the second season of Star Trek was drawing to a close, Roddenberry once again faced the threat of cancellation. He enlisted the help of Isaac Asimov, who, in a TV Guide article entitled “What Are a Few Galaxies Among Friends?” originally criticized Star Trek for getting the science wrong but ended an ally, fan and friend of Roddenberry’s through years of exchange and collaboration. Roddenberry even encouraged a student-led protest march on NBC. On January 8, 1968, a thousand students from twenty different schools across the country marched on the studio. Roddenberry began to communicate with Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble, who led a fan writing campaign to save the series. Trimble later noted that this campaign of writing to fans, urging them to write NBC, had created an organized Star Trek fandom. The network received around 6,000 letters a week from fans petitioning it to renew the series. On March 1, 1968, NBC announced on air, at the end of “The Omega Glory”, that Star Trek would return for a third season.
The groundswell of fan support (6,000 attended the second New York Star Trek convention in 1973 and 15,000 attended in 1974, much larger figures than at older events) led Paramount to hire Roddenberry to create and produce a feature film based on the franchise in May 1975.
- Take no victory for granted. There will be ups and downs even after major wins.
Following the cancellation of Star Trek, Roddenberry felt typecast as a producer of science fiction, despite his background in westerns and police stories. He later described the period, saying, “My dreams were going downhill because I could not get work after the original series was cancelled.” He felt that he was “perceived as the guy who made the show that was an expensive flop.” Nobody remembers the struggles, but even superstars invariably hit lows and must risk it all before they can make a comeback. Remember actor John Travolta’s career before Pulp Fiction?
- Man or woman, if you ever had thoughts of polygamy, well, you’re not the only one. And he did not just think it; he sort of acted upon it…
While at Los Angeles City College, Roddenberry began dating Eileen-Anita Rexroat. They became engaged before Roddenberry left Los Angeles during his military service, and married in June 1942 . They had two children together. During his time in the police, Roddenberry was known to have had affairs with secretarial staff. Before his work on Star Trek, he began relationships with both actresses Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett. Nichols only wrote about their relationship in her autobiography Beyond Uhura after Roddenberry’s death. At the time, Roddenberry wanted to remain in an open relationship with both women, but Nichols, recognizing Barrett’s devotion to him, ended the affair as she did not want to be “the other woman to the other woman.”
- Don’t do drugs
In the late 1980s, Roddenberry was likely afflicted by the first manifestations of cerebral vascular disease and encephalopathy as a result of his longstanding recreational use of legal and illicit drugs, including alcohol, cannabis, secobarbital, methylphenidate, and cocaine (which he had used regularly since the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Throughout much of his career, he had routinely used stimulants to work through the night on scripts, especially amphetamines. The effects of these substances were compounded by deleterious interactions with diabetes, high blood pressure, and antidepressant prescriptions.
- The sky is the limit
In 1985, Gene Roddenberry was the first television writer to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When the Sci-Fi Channel was launched, the first broadcast was a dedication to two “science fiction pioneers,” Isaac Asimov and Roddenberry. The Roddenberry crater on Mars is named after him, as is the asteroid 4659 Roddenberry. Roddenberry and Star Trek have been cited as inspiration for other science fiction franchises, with George Lucas crediting the series for enabling Star Wars to be produced. Work hard and be passionate, and you just never know how far – or high – it will all go…
- You can survive a plane crash!
Roddenberry flew eighty-nine combat missions in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and worked as a commercial pilot after the war.
He obtained a pilot’s license through the United States Army Air Corps-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. He enlisted with the USAAC on December 18, 1941. He graduated from the USAAC on August 5, 1942, when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was posted to Bellows Field, Oahu, to join the 394th Bomb Squadron, 5th Bombardment Group, of the Thirteenth Air Force, which flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. On August 2, 1943, while flying out of Espiritu Santo, the plane Roddenberry was piloting overshot the runway by 500 feet (150 m) and impacted trees, crushing the nose, and starting a fire, killing two men. The official report absolved Roddenberry of any responsibility. Roddenberry spent the remainder of his military career in the United States, and flew all over the country as a plane crash investigator. He was involved in a further plane crash, this time as a passenger. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
In 1945 Roddenberry began flying for Pan American World Airways, including routes from New York to Johannesburg or Calcutta, the two longest Pan Am routes at the time. He experienced his third crash while on the Clipper Eclipse on June 18, 1947. The plane landed in the Syrian desert, and Roddenberry dragged injured passengers out of the burning plane and led the group to get help. Fourteen people died in the crash; eleven passengers needed hospital treatment. The hero resigned from Pan-Am on May 15, 1948, and decided to pursue his dream of writing, particularly for the new medium of television, and creating, what else, heroes for the screen.
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