Walter Koenig is an easygoing sort — until you question the Russian accent, which he exaggerated on a famous TV show a long time ago.
“You know, I’ve been accused of having a terrible Russian accent over the years, mostly by students who are taking Russian in college and had been told there are no W’s in the Russian language, and as a result I shouldn’t be inverting V’s and W’s when I talk,” says the man who played Chekov (Ensign Pavel Chekov, specifically) on the original NBC series “Star Trek.” “However, my father spoke that way, and my father was a Soviet-bloc immigrant who spoke Russian fluently. He spoke that way … so that was a little annoying, from time to time, to be told I don’t speak correctly.”
Koenig seems long removed from the science-fiction TV character he portrayed from 1966-’69, but he really isn’t. He has revived and revised the role in a series of films and, as is the case this weekend, represents the indefatigable “Star Trek” culture at the Rio during the annual Star Trek Convention. Koenig is onstage Sunday at 10:15 a.m. in discussion with fiction writer Harlan Ellison.
The event runs from Thursday through Sunday and is hard-focused on the original TV and the many films and subsequent series it has spawned. Highlighting the convention are appearances by a quartet of “Trek” captains: William Shatner (Sunday only), Scott Bakula (“Star Trek: Enterprise’s” Captain Archer, Saturday), Avery Brooks (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Captain Sisko, Friday) and Kate Mulgrew (“Star Trek: Voyager’s” Captain Janeway, Saturday). Other “Trek” stars scheduled to appear: From the most recent “Star Trek” film, Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy, Thursday), Peter Weller (Admiral Marcus, Sunday) and Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike, Sunday); from classic “Star Trek” Walter Koenig (Chekov, Sunday), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura, Thursday) and Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand, Friday); “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Colm Meaney (Miles O’Brien, Friday); and from “Star Trek: Next Generation,” Brent Spiner (Data, Thursday).
Many more figures linked to the Trek franchise and worldwide community will turn up. Last week the number exceeded 100 guest stars. Tickets are still available at the door and start at $35 for single-day general-admission tickets, $149 for general-admission weekend tickets. General-admission tickets for the Saturday evening concert are $35. Show hours are 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 to 6 p.m. Sunday. For information, go to CreationEnt.com
Koenig, 77, talked of his time on “Star Trek” and the show’s cancellation, which hit him unexpectedly when he was a young actor:
After the show ended, did it ever cross your mind that you would be connected to the Chekov character almost 50 years later?
No, no. When we were canceled in spring of 1969, that was it. I was thinking of becoming a Fuller Brush man or selling vacuums door-to-door (laughs). I had no idea what my life would have in store for me. Certainly “Star Trek” was not a viable possibility.
What were your options at that time?
I had none. None. Out of necessity, because I was going crazy and waking up in the morning with nothing to do and staring at the ceiling, wondering, “What am I going to do today?” I finally pulled myself up and started writing. I spent every day writing on a novel. That gave me some purpose and sense of morale. I did that for 6 or 8 months, and I saw I had an order and an objective to my life. I could look forward to that, and certainly while I was writing it, I was hopeful I could sell it.”
I think I know this book.
It was “Buck Alice & The Actor-Robot.” Once it was done, I showed it to three writers I know, very successful. Two of them liked it a lot and thought I should go forward with it, and one thought it was awful and hated it and said I should dispose of it. … I put it in a drawer. Eighteen years later, somebody read it and published it. Eighteen years later, somebody else read it and published it again. It was a therapeutic process.
It’s a science-fiction book, coming right off your run on the show, right?
It was a fairly far-out, fantasy, kind of an ironic fantasy. I enjoyed the process. I didn’t know what I had was good or bad, and it turned out in the minds of some people, it was bad, but in the minds of a lot of people, it was good. Ultimately, I feel fairly satisfied with the effort.
It has become part of American pop-culture lore that you were cast in “Star Trek” largely because of your resemblance to Davy Jones of The Monkees, which made you especially appealing to a younger audience. Why were you cast as Chekov in the first place?”
They were looking to fill a demographic, and the demographic was 8- to 14-year-old kids, mostly girls, who didn’t have anybody on the show they could identify with. That was the reason they had me in the cast.
What is your relationship like with the other cast members?
William Shatner and I have had our problems over the years and have argued about the show (the two got into a heated argument about Shatner’s ego during Shatner’s Biography Channel TV show “Shatner’s Raw Nerve”), and once after I had taken after him, I got a letter signed by eight women — only first names — accusing me of being a, what was it? Oh, an “aging ingénue.” That was funny.
How about the others?
It’s OK. We don’t get together much. I was best man for George (Takei’s) and Brad’s (Altman) wedding a few years ago and was honored to be there for him. We get together at conventions and might sit down for dinner or a chat. Nichelle (Nichols, who played Uhura) I have always loved. Great gal. I liked DeForest (Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy) a lot, and Jimmy (Doohan, Scotty) a lot. Leonard (Nimoy, Mr. Spock) was always kind of unapproachable. But a very good man. Sound ethics and a good sense of morality.
When it came to the attention of the cast that there was a disparity in pay in that George and I were getting the same pay but Nichelle was not getting as much, I took it to Leonard and he took it to the front office and they corrected that.
He was sort of the captain, then?
On that issue, he was. You could count on Leonard for that kind of thing.
What do you like on TV these days?
I don’t watch a lot of network TV. The most innovative shows are on cable, Showtime and HBO and a couple of others. The stuff on the networks, it’s the same shows and the same retread stories. If anything stands out, it’s because the acting stands out, not the stories.