The creative genius behind the television, film and literary phenomenon known as "Star Trek" was Eugene Wesley (Gene) Roddenberry. He was born in El Paso, Texas on August 19, 1921, to Eugene Edward and Carolyn Glenn (Goleman) Roddenberry. He died in Santa Monica, California, on October 25, 1991.
Gene Roddenberry was raised in Los Angeles, where his father worked in law enforcement. After earning his Associate of Arts degree from Los Angeles City College, Gene attended the University of Miami, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California. He studied prelaw and aeronautical engineering, and became a licensed pilot.
In the Air Force, from 1941 to 1945, he piloted a B-17 Flying Fortress on 89 missions, including Guadalcanal and Bougainvillea. Among his several decorations were the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. As a pilot for Pan American after the war, Roddenberry crashed his plane in the Syrian desert. Only eight of the flight's 46 passengers survived.
He joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1949, where he obtained the rank of sergeant and was department spokesman and speachwriter for Chief William H. Parker. While with LAPD, Roddenberry began writing and selling scripts for television productions, including "Dragnet," "Naked City," "The U.S. Steel Hour," and "Goodyear Theater."
He left LAPD in 1953 to pursue screenwriting full time. Within a just a few years, Roddenberry won an Emmy as head writer for "Have Gun, Will Travel." The series was a western in which Richard Boone played Paladin, a different kind of cowboy good guy who wore black, got paid to do his good deeds despite an independent streak in his thoughts and actions, and contempt for his rich employers.
From 1960 to 1964, Roddenberry produced "The Lieutenant," which is said to have inspired the classic toy, "G.I. Joe." His greatest fame, however, comes from his creation of the classic TV series, "Star Trek."
As a fan of science-fiction, Roddenberry saw similarities between space explorers and American pioneers. He envisioned a science-fiction series for television that, like the westerns he wrote, would have continuing characters. At the time he conceived it in 1963, this would have been a first for TV. Based on the popular show, "Wagon Train," Roddenberry called it a "wagon train to the stars," or a "star trek."
Produced from 1966 to 1969, the original Star Trek series became the foremost cult TV show in history. Countless volumes of critical analysis have been written about the show, which was about the galactic explorations of the United Federation of Planets starship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, its officers, crew and the alien beings and new lifeforms it encountered on a five-year mission to "go where no man has gone before." It won an Emmy and a Hugo award, was the first show to get better ratings in reruns than in its original run, and it spawned an industry of fan clubs, products, conventions, motion pictures and spin-off TV series. Because of its racially integrated cast, "Star Trek" was given an Image award by the NAACP.
Roddenberry produced the first Star Trek movie, and was executive consultant for the next three. Six were produced during his lifetime. He was also executive producer of the sequel series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He co-wrote the non-fiction book, "The Making of Star Trek," in 1968, as well as "Star Trek - The Motion Picture: A Novel" in 1979. In 1974, he wrote the book, "The Questor Tapes."
Gene Roddenberry received awards from many professional and civic organizations, including the Writers Guild of America and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was a member of those, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Humanist Association, the Association of Professional Law Enforcement, and the Explorers Club of New York.
He married Eileen Anita Rexroat on June 20, 1942. They had two daughters. In 1969, they divorced and Roddenberry married Majel Barret, an actress in the cast of the first two Star Trek series. They had one son. Because his work continues to inspire us to explore space, Gene Roddenberry's cremated remains were among the first to be launched into Earth orbit, where they will remain until the satellite containing them reenters the atmosphere in the distant future.
Bibliography: Ron Tyler, ed., The New Handbook of Texas, Vol. 5 (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1996) pp. 645-46. John Javna, Cult TV: A Viewers Guide to the Shows America Can't Live Without (New York: St. Martins Press, 1985) pp. 57, 232.