Although Gene Roddenberry passed away October 24, 1991, his legacy remains as Star Trek continues to flourish and grow, as there has been 10 movies, and 7 television series, all of which maintained his vision of the future.
Gene Roddenberry, often affectionately referred to as the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” led a life as colorful and exciting as almost any high-adventure fiction. He was born in El Paso, Texas, on August 19, 1921, and nearly escaped death as a toddler, when a house fire almost took Gene’s life, as well as his siblings, Bob, Doris, and their mother, but a milkman came along and woke them in time to avoid any injuries.
Gene spent his boyhood in Los Angeles, where he later 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. 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. He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
It was while in the South Pacific, that Mr. Roddenberry began to write. He sold stories to flying magazines, and later poetry to publications, including The New York Times. He even wrote a song lyric “I Wanna Go Home”, which became a popular song during the war.
At war’s end, he joined Pan American World Airways. It was on a flight from Calcutta that his plane lost two engines and caught fire in flight, 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 impact. 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.
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.
It wasn’t until 1966 when Roddenberry created and produced Star Trek, that he found his voice in Hollywood. The first of the two pilots were pronounced “too cerebral” by the network and rejected. Once on the air, however, Star Trek developed a loyal following as viewers grew to love the Starship Enterprise and its crew, which included the heroic Captain Kirk and the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock.
“Space…the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise,
Its five-year mission
….to explore strange new worlds
…to seek out new life and new civilizations
…to boldly go where no man has gone before.” — Gene Roddenberry (August 10, 1966)
This set the tone and mood for an entire generation of Star Trek fans.
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.
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.
Star Trek was so wildly popular that it 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.
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. Sadly, Gene died within 48 hours of screening Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), the last Trek that revolved around his original characters. 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.