Sunday, January 13, 2008

Walter Koenig interview

Walter Koenig was one of the last of the original Star Trek cast members to publish a memoir about his time on the show and his life and career afterward; this interview was made possible by his book's promotional push. Koenig's personal web site is located at

Chekov's Log: Walter Koenig's Take on
Life, Trek, and Everything

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 5/8/98

The first sign that Walter Koenig's book Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe is not your typical Star Trek memoir is the cover photo of the author, who played Chekov on the original series and in seven motion pictures. Instead of a heroic, square-jawed portrait, like those that adorned the books of William Shatner and George Takei, Warped Factors depicts Koenig with a bemused expression, with raised eyebrows and a smile that can be safey described as a goofy smirk. It aptly captures the humorous tone Koenig brings to his recounting of his life and his career before, during, and after Star Trek.

Koenig almost didn't use the photo that appears on Warped Factors' jacket. "When [the publisher] chose that one, my vanity was abused," he said. "But then I said, 'You know what, this really says what the book's about more than any other photo that I have.' There's a little bit of whimsy, there's a little bit of craziness. It stands out, it's different, and it marks the difference between my books and the others."

Warped Factors certainly has a lighter tone than many of his fellow Trek actors' tomes. The light touch nicely balances Koenig's recountings of his early difficulties in school, his constant worry that "the other shoe" was always about to drop, and his early career as a struggling actor. "A lot of the events were quite disastrous at the time they occured. I was not able to see the humor in them. With distance, you know, you develop some objectivity," Koenig said. "And I thought, if I was going to tell these stories, rather than beat my breast and ask the audience to pity me, I could show them the humor I see in it now [and] then we would all be better off for it."

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that it is as much about Koenig's life, from his early acting career to his efforts to break into scriptwriting in the 1970s (at one point he nearly became the story editor on The Incredible Hulk) and his heart attack in the early Nineties, as it is about Star Trek and Chekov. "It's an autobiography. It's about me. That it is about Star Trek is secondary to the fact that it's about me," he said. "Maybe it's just an uncontrollable ego to think that somebody would want to read this. All I know is that I had a great time writing this, and I'm tickled that people are enjoying it."

While his roles on Star Trek and Babylon 5 have made him famous, Koenig emphasizes throughout the book that he considers his success in many ways to be the result of good fortune. "The point I make from start to finish is that I don't consider myself to be an extraordinary person. I think I have a respectable gift as an actor, but I don't think it's at genius level. And I had gone through all the pitfalls, the potholes that everybody else does in life. And I just managed to survive and prevail in a modest way. I think it would be a book that would be encouraging," he said.

There's still plenty of Star Trek in Warped Factors, of course. Koenig opens the book with an imaginary story of the cast joining hands and sharing a moment of spiritual harmony on the set of "The Gamesters of Triskelion." It's a glimpse at the Trek every fan wants to believe in, despite the public disputes between some cast members. "Everybody would like to believe that we were this wonderful family that loved each other and Bill was our spiritual leader as well as the star or our show," Koenig explained. "It was setting the tone as well. There will be stories that will, hopefully, tickle you a little bit."

Koenig also addresses the subject of the problems some members of the supporting cast, whom he dubs the "Gang of Five," had with series star William Shatner. While other cast members have discussed their displeasure with Shatner's reblocking of scenes to focus on his character, Captain Kirk, in both the original TV series and the subsequent motion pictures, Koenig is the first to suggest that part of the problem was the supporting cast's unwillingness to confront Shatner. "I felt as intensely as anyone else did about the things that went on," Koenig said. "But it occurred to me at one point that, yeah, we all got up and complained about him at conventions and interviews, but I couldn't remember any time that any of us stood up to him and told him straight to his face that he was behaving badly. Bill protests, and I kind of believe, that he had no understanding of how we felt. He'd go from his trailer to the set and back to his trailer. So if he didn't know and nobody told him, then maybe we should have told him. We never put ourselves to the test. So if my position is a little different, it's because I feel that we all hold some responsibility."

During the filming of Star Trek: Generations, Koenig finally did refuse to shoot a scene as Shatner suggested. While it was cathartic for him to do so, he doesn't consider that an especially brave act. "He was not the star of that movie, and this was the last movie I was going to do, and there wasn't any danger [of] injury in the future. I think it would have been more courageous if I did it in spite of what the consequences would have been."

Koenig has had one of the most successful post-Trek careers of any of the original series' cast members. He has, of course, won acclaim as Babylon 5's villainous telepath Bester. Though he only touches on the role and B5 briefly in Warped Factors, it's clear that Koenig is having a terrific time playing the part and he has nothing but terrific things to say about his co-stars and B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski.

Koenig also belongs to the Los Angeles-based repertory theatre company Actors' Alley. "We're looking for something that I could direct right now," he said. "I've been to half a dozen plays or more, trying to find something that would be exciting to do. I like to do comedy, Moliere or something of that nature. Or I'd like to do something very modern, Pinter or Pirandello. Something where there's real input by the director. I just don't want to be up there having the actors move from one part of the stage to the other. I love being an integral part of a piece and through direction elaborate on the writing."

Generally, Koenig leaves his science fiction credentials at the door when he's directing for the theatre. "I don't promote it as 'Directed by Walter Koenig, formerly known as Chekov.' The audience is generally not even aware of me in that capacity. I don't even put it in my biography in the program. I don't want it to distract from the work," he said.

When he's not acting or directing, Koenig writes. In addition to Warped Factors he's had several screenplays optioned, written one novel, Buck Alice and the Actor Robot, and plans to return to another, The Man Who Wasn't There, when he finishes promoting Warped Factors. Koenig found his inspiration for The Man Who Wasn't There on a plane ride home to Los Angeles. "It's kind of a mystery. I was on the airplane and I was thinking, what would happen if I came home and the next morning I discovered in the newspaper that the plane I had flown in on had crashed before it landed and there were no survivors? That was my springboard. One agent in New York thought it was quite extraordinary and compared me to Philip K. Dick. Another agent thought it was utterly incomprehensible and didn't know what the hell was going on. So I've got to decide who's right," he joked.

Comedy Central has also given Koenig a chance to showcase his lighter side, both in a sketch on Viva Variety and as the host of a series of cult science fiction movies. "The money was impossibly modest and I had to fly to New York to do Viva Variety. But I did it because it was comedy and I want the world to know that I do comedy, and I thought it might lead to something," he said. "And though it didn't lead to a lead on an NBC sitcom, they did think of me again when they decided to have somebody host this month of cult movies. And maybe this, in turn, will lead to something else."

"I pretty much live my life one step at a time," he said. "I don't know how to plan in advance. I don't know how to take control of my career in an industry which is so capricious, where you blow hot and cold by the rise and fall of the sun. It's just not in my power. So I just do what I can, and hope that I'm planting seeds as I go along."

No comments: