Monday, April 21, 2008

Getting to know Walter Koenig

Jay Garmon and Walter Koenig
Photo Credit to Michael Eckhardt.
Walter Koenig is not Pavel Chekov. Walter Koenig is not Alfred Bester. Walter Koenig is a lot more than that.

I just spent the weekend as Mr. Koenig's (pronounced kay-nigg, for those that haven't heard it properly) guest liaison for the local science fiction convention. I ran his autograph sessions, during which we chatted, and he was gracious enough to buy me dinner Saturday night as a very generous gesture of thanks for the minor service I rendered over a couple of days.

During our various conversations, I got to know someone far more interesting than just an actor who played two iconic science fiction television characters.

(For my foodie friends, we went to Martini. I had the rigatoni bolognese, he had the eggplant parmesan. Walter doesn't eat red meat, for various health and philosophical reasons.)

Walter, as he insisted I call him, isn't just an actor, though he is still acting in many things -- Star Trek and otherwise -- at 71. He is a writer, having penned everything from movies scripts to television episodes to his autobiographies to comic books. He is also an activist, working with his son on the U.S. campaign for Burma. Still, these are all things you could learn from his Wikipedia entry.

What I learned is that Walter is very patient, fiercely intelligent, and one hell of a sports fan. I'm sure he wearies of constantly recounting tales Trek and B5, so during dinner the two of us talked family and sports. Walter is a Brooklyn kid, having spent much of his youth there, and is passionate about the Knicks and the Yankees. He was ecstatic that Isaiah Thomas was fired as Knicks coach, and is a little frustrated that Brian Cashman is relying so heavily on two second-year pitchers for the heart of the Yanks' rotation. (FYI, he can't stand the Angels.) He also recounted the entire starting lineup of the 1950 Knicks from memory, and spoke admiringly of Willis Reed and Earl Munroe.

Where we really hit it off, however, was college hoops. Walter is a UCLA alumnus, with a breadth of passionate memories that begin in the Wooden glory years and end with a visible anxiety that the top six players from this year's Bruins squad may be gone next year, five of them to some form of pro ball. (He also isn't too optimistic about the Bruins' football team for 2008, either, citing a very suspect offensive line.) We talked Denny Crum, a UCLA alum who became a Hall of Fame coach at Louisville, my hometown team. We recalled the 1975 Final Four (him from memory, me from family stories and books), where Wooden announced his retirement and promptly defeated Louisville in the national semis before trouncing Kentucky in the final. This led to our discussion of the rematch in the 1980 final, where Crum's Cards defeated a Larry Brown-coached Bruins squad.

Walter also grew up a boxing fan, with a devotion to Joe Louis. We touched on Muhammad Ali -- another Louisville kid -- and the decline of the sport. Walter has a fascinating theory about the rise of immigrant classes in America, and how that upscaling can be traced through boxing. Whichever is the dominant ethnicity of the working class in America is the dominant ethnicity of boxing. Jewish boxing stars gave way to the Irish gave way to African Americans, who are now giving way to Latino boxing stars. As each group moves up the class scale, they leave the ranks of boxing behind.

If ESPN had half a brain, they would have Walter doing guest color commentary on welter-weight boxing matches, Yankees/Angels match-ups, or any UCLA hoops game. Even if it's just on ESPNU, he'd make for fascinating listening.

Walter is also extremely proud of his children, and spoke glowingly of his son's involvement in the Campaign for Burma. He also recounted the tale of his kids' 70th birthday present -- a faux-documentary that "revealed" Walter's real career as a sleeper agent for the Soviet Union. Apparently, Walter has never actually been to any Star Trek conventions; that's when he's actually meeting with his KGB handlers. I'd pay money to see that film.

What I did catch glimpse of were some of Walter's current projects, including InAlienable, an indie sci-fi film that he wrote, produced, and starred in. You can download it here. Walter's eyes lit up when he talked about it, his passion (and occasional frustration) with the project shining through. As to why he didn't direct the film himself, Walter modestly believes he has no eye for film direction, claiming to shoot everything in proscenium. There are worse sins.

Finally, he did briefly touch on J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek film. Walter had a guest day on the set, and watched Chris Pine film a scene as a young Captain Kirk. Yes, I was privy to one very infinitesimally minor spoiler -- the kind of thing that may never appear in the actual film -- but I'm not about to reveal it here. In the unlikely event that somebody at Paramount reads this blog (Odds: 1 in 60 kajillion), gets mad, and it gets back to Walter -- well, I'd simply never allow that.

So far as inside knowledge I will reveal, Anton Yelchin (the new Chekov) has decided to go with the classic Chekov accent, despite the fact that Yelchin was born in Russia and -- in Walter's estimation -- the classic "noo-klee-arr wessels" accent is rather decidedly inauthentic. Karl Urban, the new Dr. McCoy, apparently sounds "just like DeForest" to Walter's ears. Abrams has made little effort to cast actors that look much like the original Trek cast, but apparently he wants at least two of them to sound familiar.

And one last note, Walter is the only member of the original main Trek cast not to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I don't know what the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce's problem is, but I suspect a simple phone call from Paramount -- explaining that Walter getting his due would be very helpful publicity-wise to the premiere of Abrams' Star Trek movie -- would solve the issue forthwith. Trekkies, I'll be very disappointed if an online petition doesn't appear to address this issue in the near future. Make it so.
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1 comment:

  1. As an aside, Walter has since lost his son but gained that Walk of Fame star. I'm absolutely certain he'd rather it were the other way around.