Saturday, August 19, 2006

The President and the Cop Flop

Today marks the birthdays of two well-known American figures who, while they aren’t exactly members of the crime-writing community, nonetheless have been involved with the genre.

The first is former President Bill Clinton, who turns 60 years old today. During his prosperous eight years in the White House, Clinton--an avid, omnivorous reader, unlike his successor--became a champion for this genre. Each summer, the media would inquire about what books he was taking along on his all-too-brief vacations from work. Inevitably, the lists included not only historical texts and novels by famed fictionists such as Gabriel García Márquez, but also mysteries by Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, James W. Hall, and others. And this First Reader was promoting Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde (1994) even before it hit bookstores.

Happy birthday, Bill. We miss you.

It was also on this date, back in 1921, that Gene Roddenberry took his first gasping breath. Now, when most folks think of Roddenberry, what comes to mind isn’t crime fiction. What occurs to them instead is how he created the phenomenally successful Star Trek franchise. But Roddenberry, born in El Paso, Texas, yet reared in Los Angeles, was the son of a cop. After putting in years as a World War II aviator and then as a Pan American World Airways pilot, he joined up with the LAPD himself during the late 1940s, before becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. During his early days in television, Roddenberry penned episodes of Highway Patrol, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Detectives, Naked City, and Dr. Kildare. He was also responsible for a 1963-1964 NBC-TV series called The Lieutenant, a Marine Corps drama set at Camp Pendleton, just outside of San Diego, California.

Of most interest to crime-fiction fans, however, is that after The Lieutenant, Roddenberry sought to launch another TV series, this one called Police Story (not to be confused with the 1970s NBC anthology series of the same name). According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the program was to focus on an “elite squad of police detectives” who handled L.A.’s “toughest and most sensitive cases,” reporting directly to the city’s police commissioner. A half-hour pilot for the series was shot in August 1965, explains David Alexander in his Roddenberry biography, Star Trek Creator (1994)--around the same time that the second Star Trek pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” was being put together. (A previous sample episode, “The Cage,” starring Jeffrey Hunter instead of William Shatner, had already been rejected by NBC execs.) The Police Story pilot starred Steve Ihnat (who would go on to portray a convincingly round-the-bend starship fleet captain in the “Whom Gods Destroy” episode of the original Star Trek series). Also featured in that pilot, but now most familiar from the original Trek, were DeForest Kelley, playing a lab technician (he would instead move into the plum role of Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy), Grace Lee Whitney, later to appear as Captain James T. Kirk’s mini-skirted yeoman aide, and Malachi Throne, playing the chief of police. (Throne subsequently turned down the part of Dr. McCoy, but nonetheless appeared in episodes of both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

Although Police Story ultimately entered the annals of unsold series pilots, Alexander writes that it was the not the fault of “a half-hearted attempt by Gene. He had put a great deal of time and energy into that pilot, as well, pulling a few strings to expose Throne to a real chief of police in hope that would give the show a solid air of reality.” Despite its being filmed in 1965, the IMDb reports that Police Story wasn’t finally shown to TV audiences until 1967.

It’s interesting to speculate on how history might have been changed, had Police Story been picked up by the networks instead of Star Trek. Would Roddenberry have become a storied face in television’s pantheon of crime show creators? Or would be now be remembered for more failed projects than successes?

Roddenberry died at age 70 in 1991 and, quite fittingly, I think, was buried in space.

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