Christopher Knopf, 'Emperor of the North' Screenwriter, Dies at 91

Courtesy of Knopf Family
Christopher Knopf

A onetime president of the Writers Guild of America West, he also was one of the first to hear Gene Roddenberry's pitch for 'Star Trek.'

Christopher Knopf, the prolific screenwriter behind Emperor of the North, 20 Million Miles to Earth and a host of TV Westerns in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 91.

Knopf died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at his home in Santa Monica, his wife of 44 years, Lorraine, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Knopf wrote for the CBS Western Zane Grey Theater, starring Dick Powell, and its spinoff, Trackdown, starring Robert Culp; penned the pilot episode for ABC's The Big Valley; and created CBS' Cimarron Strip, starring Stuart Whitman.

His much-admired television work also included 1977's Scott Joplin: King of Ragtime (for which he won a Writers Guild Award); the 1981 biblical miniseries Peter and Paul, starring Anthony Hopkins and Robert Foxworth; and 1984's Pope John Paul II, starring Albert Finney.

And he was a co-executive producer on the 1990 ABC legal drama Equal Justice.

Emperor of the North (1973) saw director Robert Aldrich, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine reunite after the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967). The film, set during the Great Depression, features Marvin as a hobo squaring off against a freight train conductor (Borgnine).

Knopf wrote in his 2010 memoir Will the Real Me Please Stand Up about meeting Marvin in Aldrich's Fox office before shooting. "There was that squint in his eyes and the so familiar baritone voice as he held court, dissecting his role," he recalled.

Marvin told Knopf that his character is "a philosopher, a disciple of Kant's metaphysics and ethics, right?" Knopf agreed. "Bullshit," Marvin replied.

"The man was already in character," Knopf wrote.

The black-and-white sci-fi monster film 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) has stop-motion special effects wizardry by Ray Harryhausen. Knopf's screenplay, co-written with Bob Williams, revolves around a top-secret U.S spacecraft crash land in Sicily after returning from the planet Venus. On board are two astronauts and cargo containing a reptilian larva egg. (You can guess what happens next.)

Knopf was friends with TV screenwriter Gene Roddenberry, who said he was tired of the formula of shootouts at the end of episodes. "I would watch a whole show in those early days and at the end would feel like I had wasted time on nonsense," he said in a Star Trek oral history.

So, Roddenberry ran an idea past Knopf and Sam Rolfe (creator of CBS' Have Gun — Will Travel) during a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1961.

Knopf recalled that "during the game, he [Roddenberry] told me he had an idea for a series about a blimp, a blimp that goes around the world in the late 1800s and stops in various exotic places, and that there would be a mixed crew. So that was the beginning of Star Trek."

The show bowed on NBC in 1966 and was set, not aboard a blimp, but aboard the USS Enterprise.

Knopf was one of the five eulogists at Roddenberry's funeral in 1991.

Born in New York on Dec. 20, 1927, Knopf attended UCLA, then joined the Air Force during World War II. His father, Edwin, directed the films Paramount on Parade (1930) and The Law and the Lady (1951) and produced Lili (1953), which received six Oscar nominations.

Christopher Knopf's first film screenplay was the swashbuckling The King's Thief (1955), filmed in CinemaScope and produced by his dad. It starred Ann Blyth, David Niven, George Sanders and a young Roger Moore.

He later was appointed vice president of the International Writers Guild and national chairman of the WGA. The three-time WGA Award-winning writer also received that group's Morgan Cox and Edward H. North honors.

"Few have given as much of their time and devotion as Christopher Knopf," then-WGA president Victoria Riskin said. "Because of his efforts on behalf of guild members for the past 40 years, working screen and television writers face a brighter future."

In addition to his wife, survivors include his sister, Wendy; daughter, Susan; stepdaughter, Laurie; stepson, Andrew; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.