Thursday, July 21, 2005

Beam me up Scotty!

B.C. born actor made 'Scotty' an icon
JIM BAWDENTELEVISION CRITICJames Doohan used to complain that "everywhere I go people come up to me to say `Beam me up, Scotty.'"
Once Doohan even groused to his dentist about it. "And he said get used to the fact. You're always going to be Scotty, so why not just enjoy it? Which is what I learned to do."
Doohan, who played burly chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott on the original Star Trek TV series and later movie spinoffs, died yesterday at his home in Redmond, Wash., with his third wife, Wende, at his side. He was 85 and was suffering from pneumonia but also had Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, lung fibrosis and diabetes.
In real life he was a proud Canadian along with William Shatner, who starred as Captain James T. Kirk in the series. Doohan never missed an opportunity to "come home" as he termed it. A military hero on the beaches of Normandy, he was forthright about his Canadian heritage.
The first inclination Doohan was failing came in what was to be his last public appearance in August 2004, as he proudly accepted his star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Son Chris had mounted a hectic campaign that took years to get Doohan what was his due, but at the ceremony he clearly looked dazed and unwell. It was his farewell to public life.
To get the coveted part in 1966, Doohan remembered he was asked to audition before creator Gene Roddenberry and NBC vice-presidents. A veteran of radio drama, he surprised them by trying out seven different accents including French, German, Russian.
Nobody could decide on one until Doohan suggested the Scottish brogue could be warm and friendly but also authoritative. "If this character is going to be a chief engineer, make him a Scotsman!" is how he remembered putting it and his advice was taken. The character's name? Montgomery Scott (Doohan's middle name was Montgomery). And so he joined the Starship Enterprise along with Shatner, who took over after Jeffrey Hunter asked for too much money, plus Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), George Takei (Lieut. Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Lieut. Uhura).
Some of the actors were extremely stiff, but Doohan projected a burly friendliness that fans immediately warmed to. And Doohan also had a bearing that came from his military training. When ordered to get the ship into motion he always looked like he'd try at any cost.
Doohan liked to remind interviewers that the original Star Trek was not a ratings smash. "It only ran three years. We had fierce fans but not enough of them." So the show folded, but reruns gradually gave it a cult following that vaulted the decades.
Doohan later became bitter he could not get the quality acting work he wanted. He'd walk into an audition "and everybody would only see me as Scotty." But he gradually came to terms with his Star Trek identity crisis and began appearing with other cast members at conventions. He always attended the Canadian conventions because he liked coming home.
According to Doohan, some of his original sounds were expanded by others into an official Klingon language (credited to Marc Okrand) for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Ironically in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Scotty complains about his difficulty reading Klingon. He was born March 3, 1920, in Vancouver, youngest of four children of a pharmacist, but grew up in Sarnia. In his autobiography Beam Me Up, Scotty, he described an unhappy childhood because of his father's alcoholism.
At 19 he joined the Canadian Army, becoming a lieutenant in the artillery division. He was one of 18,000 Canadian soldiers who stormed Juno Beach in Normandy on D-Day and Doohan described the stormy conditions as harrowing. "What really scared us was the very real possibility the boats might capsize."
That night he took six machine-gun hits: one took off a middle finger, four hit one leg and another struck his chest. The last one was stopped by his silver cigarette case, which saved his life. The missing finger can be spotted in some Star Trek episodes if one looks diligently.
In 1998 Doohan was one of a number of war veterans who publicly thanked Steven Spielberg for not holding back on the intensity of the Normandy invasion war scenes in the movie Saving Private Ryan.
In later years Doohan would chuckle and say, "I've had far more adventures than Scotty ever did."
After the war Doohan enrolled in acting school in Toronto. He then went to New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse where he studied with Leslie Nielsen and Tony Randall. His first TV series was another sci fi show, Space Command in 1953. He also guested on such series as Last of the Mohicans, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Doohan publicly credited the Star Trek movie spinoffs for making him well off. The sequence started in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture; they include Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).
Rather than rest on his laurels he'd go out and do episodic TV: Fantasy Island (1983), Hotel (1985), MacGyver (1990), Ben Stiller (1992).
In 1996 he received an honourary engineering degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering after a poll indicated fully half the student body said they were inspired to study engineering by his role in Star Trek. In 1999 he toured the continent as a spokesman for Philips Electronics HDTV.
In person Doohan was warm and friendly — and very patriotic. "I'll never miss an opportunity to come home," he told me at one Star Trek convention. "The way people relate to Scotty, it always astonishes me. I can't remember half of the trivia fans tell me."
And that famous phrase? "Beam me up, Scotty"? Nobody ever said it exactly that way, but like Casablanca's similarly misquoted "Play it again, Sam" the line acquired an iconic life of its own. Doohan told me he'd heard it shouted at him on the L.A. freeway, in airports, supermarkets.
He recently said "I'll get worried when I don't hear it. It's been said to me for 31 years. I hear it from just about everybody. It's been fun."

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