The Original 'Star Trek's' Walter Koenig (That's Chekov!) on His Walk of Fame Star, How the Monkees Inspired His Character and His New Graphic Novel About Vampires (Q&A)
"I saw Big Bird out there, and it wasn’t such a stretch that there could be also a star for Walter Koenig," he tells THR of his place in pop culture.
At last, at 11:30 a.m. Monday, Walter Koenig, who played Chekov on TV's original 1966-69 Star Trek series, will be the last of the seven main castmembers to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6679 Hollywood Blvd. Koenig (rhymes with "RAY-big") tells The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Appelo what he thinks of the honor, his legacy and his forthcoming vampire comic book.
The Hollywood Reporter: Navigator Ensign Pavel Chekov was the youngest one on the Enterprise, right? The cool young guy.
Koenig: I was supposed to be the youngest, yeah. He was supposed to be 22 and I was 31. I was there to attract that pre-adolescent demograpic.
THR: Chekov was inspired by Davy Jones of the Monkees, right?
Koenig: He inspired the studio. They were looking for somebody that was somewhat like him and that appealed to the same category as him, and it had the desired response. I got an enormous amount of fan mail from kids 8-12, generally on lined paper in pencil.
THR: I trace a development from the Beatles to you, because Davy Jones was on Ed Sullivan the night the Beatles debuted, promoting his Broadway musical, and when he saw the girls screaming, he decided to become a pop star. And he inspired Chekov. So a beam of youth energy extends from the Beatles via you to the 23rd century.
Koenig: True. When finally ran out of air on in 1969, we concluded that it was the end of Star Trek. But when George Lucas saw the effect we had on the public, he was inspired to create Star Wars, and that in turn brought the people of Paramount around to saying, what do we have to make a feature and perhaps a franchise out of? And then they remembered they had Star Trek. So one thing feeds off another.
THR: At your first Star Trek audition, did you think it would make this big a splash, and this would be the culmination?
Koenig: I had no idea where we were going with this. I knew the money was going to be pretty modest. They said the part could possibly reoccur. I’m cynical enough not to put too much stock in that.
THR: But you'd already been a recurring character on TV.
Koenig: The only things that comes close to a recurring role was I played three different characters in three different episodes of a series called Mr. Novak. One of which was a defecting Russian student. I also did the pilot for General Hospital I think in 1963.
THR: You were born in Chicago, but didn't your Russian immigrant father have a thick accent?
Koenig: Yes, he did, very strong and very identifiable.
THR: Did you base Chekov's accent on his?
Koenig: Yes, I did.
THR: In the middle of the partly Russian-backed Vietnam War, how did Russians become cool on Star Trek?
Koenig: [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry wanted to create a show with a sense of one world community. He brought in an African American, an Asian and a Scotsman to play important roles, and at the tail end of the Cold War, he brought in a Russian that wasn’t a threat, and not fitting the stereotype of the military characterization we had drawn of the Russians at that time.
THR: You wrote Chekov's Enterprise about the making of the first Star Trek movie. What was your view of the movie franchise?
Koenig: The transition from television to film was something I had a hard time embracing and committing to, because we had so many false starts, and I’m one to believe that the glass not only is half empty but there's a leak on the bottom. So each time we were postponed, which happened three or four times, I thought, "That’s it, it’s never going to get made." I came in for a costume fitting and they said, “Well your costume fits like it did in 1969,” it's now 1978. They called and the film project had been put on temporary inactivity. And that happened several times. There was a big press conference announcing the film would begin shooting and we never made that thing. It took three shots into the film to actually convince me that no one was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to go home.
THR: Wasn't the campaign for your Walk of Fame star even longer than the Star Trek film was in development? Did it start in 2000?
Koenig: Probably earlier. I had a fan club that I was actively involved in promoting the event, who raised the initial amount when it was only $3,000, but the voters on the Walk of Fame committee chose not to elect me. You must understand I wasn’t out there with pamphlets knocking on doors begging people to vote for me. The majority of people who wanted me on the star were the fans -- everyone else had one and wasn’t it about time. I thought it would be such a nice honor, accepted in a perspective that it’s late and not necessarily an accolade for a great body of work that was executed brilliantly as much as it had to do with taking your place in the pop culture. Once I understood that, I felt more comfortable about receiving one. I saw Big Bird out there, and it wasn’t such a stretch that there could be also a star for Walter Koenig.
THR: How far is your star from the other Star Trek stars?
Koenig: George Takei’s star is a couple of stars away and Gene Roddenberry’s is in the same block as well.
THR: Roddenberry seemed both pop culture savvy, but also visionary.
Koenig: That’s a fair assessment of who is was, business savvy and pragmatic and at the same time quite idealistic. He fought hard to maintain the beliefs woven into the fabric of our show. We were dealing with political issues that were topical for the time and progressive, and I admired him for that.
THR: As Vietnam raged, everyone on TV ignored it, except the Smothers Brothers, who got stomped for addressing issues directly.
Koenig: We were able to express some of those theories because we removed the situation from what was going on currently. Even though were in the 23rd century, were still dealing with the same issues: racial inequality, peace and war, the balance of power.
THR: What's memorable about Chekov?
Koenig: I had an idea my first season that I thought was cute, but it was sophomorically cute so they disbanded the use of it. It was this chauvinistic idea that everything was invented in Russia. The Russians had been known to have said that upon occasion, things that they took ownership of, so that was kind of a gag. Chekov would reference that: “This was een-vented by leetle old lady in Leningrad.”
THR: Who will be there for your star ceremony?
Koenig: Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski -- that was a wonderful experience for me, I performed a third the number of episodes that I did on Star Trek, but it was such an emotional experience to have that character evolve into something complex. And Esther Shapiro is going to speak, a friend for a long time. She and her husband created Dynasty. George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Leonard Nimoy might show up, depending actually on how he’s feeling, he said he would like to. And other people have indicated a willingness to be there but may or may not appear. People really committed to it, and then they have work and I can't begrudge them that.
THR: Are you 75?
Koenig: I turn 76 four days after the ceremony. At my age I don’t care anymore. Most of my vanity, along with my hair, has pretty much vanished.
THR: What's your next project?
Koenig: A graphic novel from Blue Water Publications that’s supposed to be published in October. About an apocalyptic world where vampires are the only sentient beings. A coming-of-age psychological story. They don't know why they’re there and what their purpose or future is. It’s a universal issue despite the fact that they have 4-inch long teeth. I’m having a great deal of fun writing it. The caveat is that if we don’t reach 700 advance orders the chances are the book won’t be published. So we're on a campaign on Twitter and Facebook.
THR: More than 700 fans demanded your Walk of Fame star.
Koenig: Yeah, but maybe they're exhausted.
THR: Who would star in the vampire comic's movie adaptation?
Koenig: I wrote a character who’s balding with white hair, so if it’s made into a movie, I would get a good chance at playing it. He’s one of these people who’s initially very pleased about becoming a vampire, because he didn’t feel he succeeded very much in his human life, and in this kind of existence he might achieve more. So it’s a little different than vampires are usually depicted.
THR: Vampires as ambitous people?
Koenig: In his case, yeah. And vampires as searching for their humanity, wondering why they have been cursed, is this in fact God’s curse on them? Can they get back into his good graces? One group of vampires actually build a church hoping to reconnect with God. Vampires are individuals, their choices and their needs are different. And that’s where a lot of conflict comes in.