"The only real reaction I got was from the little kids who thought the character was groovy." Interview with Star Trek and Babylon 5 icon Walter Koenig
Last Friday, The Digital Fix was in attendance at the opening day of Destination Star Trek, the biggest Star Trek convention in Europe. While there, we were fortunate to grab an interview with one of the franchise's original stars, Walter Koenig, best known as playing Russian Starfleet character Pavel Chekov.
Koenig joined the show in its second season and remained for the third and all the original cast movies that followed, making his last official onscreen appearance at the beginning of 1994's Star Trek: Generations. Koenig has also had a varied career out of Star Trek on film, television and theatre, with one of his best loved roles being evil Psi Cop Alfred Bester in 12 episodes across all five seasons of Babylon 5.
Koenig is still a strong ambassador for Star Trek, continuing to celebrate the franchise to this very day. And at 82, he was there to help kick start the celebrations at this year's big event in Birmingham. Joined by my assistant Gemma, we caught up with Walter to reflect on the franchise and his wider career...
Thank you Walter for taking the time to talk to The Digital Fix. I understand that Gene Rodenberry created the character of Chekov to appeal to the younger audience members. Was there pressure to keep up that appeal to the preteen crowd?
That was the reason, that was the impetus behind the decision to create the character. And Davey Jones name was mentioned; Gene said let's bring in a character like the young fellow on The Monkees to attract the preteen crowd and so that was the intention behind Chekov.
What NBC put out was that the Soviet Union complained about not having representation and that it was their suggestion or their impetus that we brought in a Russian. That was nonsense. That was just publicity.
I’ve also read that you got a lot of fan mail for Chekov’s groovy haircut. Did you have to maintain a certain image for the role as you came on board the show?
Well my hair was very short at the time. So the first six or seven episodes were done with a wig. Then my hair grew out but it didn't grow out as generously as it should! So we used some spray and combed it up a little bit so it was my hair with a little help. But I did not wear a wig again on the series after those first handful of episodes. I began wearing a wig when we started making the movies.
How much direction, if any, was given on using the navigation console on the Enterprise bridge or was it all improvised?
No, it was all made up. I mean, the buttons didn't move. They were just solid and pasted in. I've been known to say that when I was feeling depressed I would hit the blue button and when I was feeling rage the red button and that kind of thing!
Fantastic. You mentioned NBC's publicity before. How much pressure if any, was there in playing a Russian on US network television in the 60s, and did that impact on how you played the character Chekov?
There was no pressure. And the only real reaction I got was from the little kids on lined paper and pencil who thought the character was groovy. And they liked the accent. But I received no correspondence, nothing of a controversial nature. The character was inoffensive. He was not an aggressive character. He kidded about things being made in Russia. But even though this was the time of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, there was that people could take issue with on that kind of basis.
Is there anything you didn’t get to do as Chekov in the series or films that you would have liked to have done?
Yes! A whole lot! My character was brought in to fulfil the requirement for the writing team to have someone who would spout exposition, there to say "Captain, the ship is going here and there's something in front of us." And then the captain would say "I don't know what that could be!" And then we'd get all the personal emotional stuff from one of the three main characters. Chekov and Sulu and Uhura were just there to establish the plot, but not to invest their own personal feelings, and the way they thought into the story.
I guess they didn't have their own lives onscreen?
If you could have played any other Star Trek character on any of the shows other than Chekov, who would it have been and why?
You know, I don't think that way. I go to a movie and I see terrific acting and I'm very proud of it. I go to a movie and I see bad acting and I don't find myself saying "Gee, I should have had that part, I could have done that part." It's not part of my mentality.
Although I'll give you two examples that may contradict that. There was a two-night series in LA in the 80s I believe, which was about Charles Manson, the famous killer and they couldn't find anyone in LA to play that role. And I came in and read for that and the director was blown away. He said "this is my guy, that's Charlie Manson." And I thought I had it. I didn't. They found an actor in New York that Elia Kazan, who was a very famous director, recommended. And he was terrific. I didn't want to watch the show when it was on. It was over two nights and I did watch the second night and I found myself really relieved that he was so good.
So I find that curious, my reaction. I thought it would be might be more petty than that. On the other hand, another time, I was doing a play in LA called the Steambath, which was a comedy, where I played the part of God. And at the same time, they were going to shoot it as a television show for public broadcast and I didn't get in to read for it. They guy they got was a one note actor. He just did the same thing throughout. And that made me furious because I could have done such a better job, playing a Russian Jew!
I wanted to move onto Babylon 5 briefly, where you played Psi Cop Bester, a character with very strong convictions. How did you approach the role and did you see him as a villain?
That's a fair question. Whatever Walter Koenig might feel about it is set aside, because in order for me to play the character, I have to believe in the character. I have to feel that the character is justified and that his behaviour commeasured with what could happen. So, I just didn't think of him as a bad guy. I knew the things that he did but I found a way to justify it for the purpose of playing the role. He's being loyal to his people, he's being part of a minority that was being picked on - there was a great deal of prejudice to towards him - and that's the way, when I stepped on the set each morning, I chose to look at it.
What was it like to work on another big sci-fi series like Babylon 5?
Well it wasn't that it was science fiction, it was that it was a good part!
The character was, in a very substantial way, able to create how the plot was developed; he was pivotal to the action and had defining relationships with many of the regulars. All that was missing from what I was playing on Star Trek, so I found it to extremely good experience. I was extremely enthusiastic and very stimulated by the opportunity. And I really liked playing with those folks.
This was over two decades later [after Star Trek] and the way the television was set up had changed. The cast system they had back in the 60s was not as prevalent as when we were shooting Babylon 5. In other words, everyone was pretty much on equal terms, everyone received their credit before the titles and that's the way Bruce Boxleitner and Claudia Christian and Jerry Doyle treated the other cast members. They all treated each other as being the same and that was very different and made me feel far more important to the proceedings than when I was on Star Trek.
Bringing it back to Star Trek to finish off, what was your fondest memory of being involved in the series as a whole?
Well I think my fondest memory was just doing [Star Trek IV:] The Voyage Home. I had a great time doing it. First of all the movie was terrific. I was very proud of the scenes with Bill and Leonard in the truck, I thought it was very funny, they did it extremely well. I enjoyed the work that I had, which is more than I'd really had in any of the other Star Treks. And again, as later proved to be [with Bester] on Babylon 5, there were scenes that were actually written for Chekov.
I read the script and I knew it was going to be successful. And you don't normally know that when you read a screenplay but I could see that all the components were there. The conflict and the relationships, the personalities, the objectives; everything was there and needed to be there in a good screenplay. So in general, that's my favourite memory of Star Trek.
A huge thanks to Walter Koenig for his time and the crew at Destination Star Trek for providing the opportunity. You can also read our thoughts on the opening day of the convention (including more from Walter) here and we have one more treat in an interview with Star Trek's Armin Shimerman coming to the site very soon!