Star Trek...and beyond. A conversation with Walter Koenig, aka Chekov.
Walter Koenig is the author of Beaming Up and Getting Off.
In the mid 1960s an unknown actor received a phone call from his agent about an audition for a television show, a science fiction story. The man thought it might be a one day shoot, the kind of job struggling actors get as they try to make it in Hollywood.
The young man’s name was Walter Koenig (KAY-nig) and the show was called Star Trek. He auditioned for the part of a Russian crew member aboard the Starship Enterprise. His character’s name was Chekov. Koenig used what he calls “a funny Russian accent.” He got the job. It changed his life.
Walter grew up in New York in an apartment that from age four to twenty-one never had a rent increase. “…we never paid more than sixty-seven fifty a month in rent.” That’s because his father never allowed the landlords to make any improvements. No paint, exterminators, nothing. The family still had an ice box long after everyone else had refrigerators.
He went to college in Iowa but couldn’t stand the bucolic setting so he transferred to UCLA, got a degree, and headed back to New York to study acting with fellow students like James Caan, Jessica Walters and Brenda Vaccaro.
Back in L.A. he made the rounds, snagging minor parts. Then came the call about a show called Star Trek. A man looked at his head. “You’re here about the part of the Russian?”
Koenig writes, “I nodded.”
The man leaned closer. ”Your hair is thinning in the back. You better come with me.” The man sprayed something brown on Koenig’s head.
Then he stood before Gene Roddenberry, the creator, and read his lines. “It was nice, Walter, but can you make it funny?”
“I clicked my teeth, winked, puffed my cheeks, and ended with an idiotic ear-to-ear grin. The only thing I didn’t do was cross my eyes.”
They laughed. He got the part. Star Trek became one of the most popular and iconic franchises in entertainment history and Koenig went along for the ride. It wasn’t always a good ride. He has said harsh things about William Shatner, who starred as Captain Kirk. He's moderated his opinion now. He was never able to get out from under Chekov because of the pure weight of the Star Trek impact on television and movies. He carried resentment about how it defined him, even as he had successful acting, writing and other career opportunities.
“Now that I’m well into my eighties,” he told me, “I see what a blessed event it was and how lucky I was to have had that opportunity and what it has meant in my life to other career endeavors.”
In other words, he’s come to peace with the most important career move he ever experienced.
If you are looking for something to read as you sit at home waiting for the virus to slink away you may want to pick up Beaming Up and Getting Off by Walter Koenig. He’ a talented, funny writer and has a delightful way of telling his story. Click here for the Amazon link.