A couple of weeks ago I had the huge pleasure to interview Star Trek legend Walter Koenig who played Commander Pavel Chekov in the original Star Trek series between 1967 and 1969 along with the first seven Star Trek feature films. Walter will be attending the Destination: Star Trek London convention next week (October 19-21) along with a host of other guests. TrekCore will be reporting live from the convention, so be sure to check back with our Destination London coverage for more news very soon! In the meantime, enjoy our interview with Walter!
Walter Koenig Interview
Interviewed by Adam Walker for TrekCore.com
TrekCore: Hi Walter, great to talk to you. I wonder if we could kick off by talking a bit about your iconic Star Trek role. How was the character of Chekov received by Russian fans?
Walter Koenig: Well at the time, Star Trek was not really being played in the Soviet Union. There was an iron curtain, and it was in some cases more literal than figurative, and [Star Trek] was kind of blocked out so Russian fans did not discover Star Trek for several decades. The fact that Paramount Publicity Department issued a statement that the Russian newspaper Pravda was complaining about the fact that we didn’t have any Russians aboard the Enterprise was strictly a publicist’s fantasy, my appearance on the show had nothing to do with the Russians at that point. It was to do with the fact that they were looking for somebody who appealed to the younger demographic I think.
TrekCore: When the show started getting played in Russia after the iron curtain was lifted, did you have a good reaction to your character?
Walter Koenig: Well, it’s curious. Two year ago I was invited to Russia by a group of fans. However, they were not Star Trek fans – they were Babylon 5 fans! And the reason is that Babylon 5 was playing in primetime and Star Trek was playing at two in the morning. So these fans were more familiar with Babylon 5. They were not totally unfamiliar with Star Trek and the fact that I played Chekov, but they brought me out there to celebrate Babylon 5 and my character of Bester. By the way, I had a terrific time – I had not been to Russia, and we were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it was just a great experience.
TrekCore: How did working on Babylon 5 as the wonderful villain Bester compare to filming Star Trek back in the sixties?
Walter Koenig: Well it was a much more substantial role, much more dimensional – I’m talking about Bester. When I appeared in a story, the character was pivotal to the plot. That particular story evolved beautifully. The cast and staff, down to the last man and woman, were very easy to work with – they were very comfortable, very professional people. I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere on the set and I really could have gone on to do it for another five years, that’s how loving and stimulating it was for me.
TrekCore: That’s wonderful to here. Does Chekov as a character ever leave you as an actor? We’ve seen you reprise the role so many times and each time you seem to fit back into his shoes as if you’ve never left them.
Walter Koenig: Laughs. Well, he doesn’t have as much character certainly. Whatever is there is my invention. I don’t boast about it, there’s not a lot you can do with lines like “Warp Factor Two, Captain”, that’s what he’s saying most of the time. [He was] an expository character, used as a vehicle to explain the story line, we didn’t investigate how the character was feeling, what he was going through emotionally, personally. But that’s ok, I have enormous gratitude for my experience on Star Trek and the years that I’ve been involved with it.
TrekCore: We’ve recently seen the very touching ceremony of you finally being awarded your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now you’ve had a couple of weeks to process it, what does it mean to you to be immortalized on a sidewalk?
Walter Koenig: Well it’s… you know it’s… laughter… I’m still trying to figure that out! What does it mean to me? You know, I mentioned it to a couple of other people – I walk down that Walk of Fame and I see John Gielgud’s name and I see Jascha Heifetz and I see Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brandow – and I think “what the blankety-blank am I doing here!?” Then, on the other hand I see Big Bird and characters of that nature and I think “well, there must be a place for me here!” I think I’m certainly as good an actor as Big Bird! That really makes me proud of myself. I’m very pleased – for a long time over the years I’ve thought about it, it has not been obsessive in my thinking and not something that I pined for, but something that I fantasized about on occasion and wondered how that would feel. And now that it’s here, I’m still wondering how it feels! I don’t think I’ve entirely come to grips with what it means to me. I know it has to do with popularity and pop culture, and all the thanks go to Star Trek, because that’s what launched my career in terms of the public. I mean, I had worked before Star Trek but not with the same sense of public consciousness I had after Star Trek. So, I give a great deal of gratitude and thanks to Star Trek’s influence on this. I also have an enormous gratitude… I’m very pleased that the fans were so participatory in making this happen.
Very frankly, in all of the other cases the financial support came either from the studio or from communities that helped get the other actors installed. In this case, the fans were – across the world – were heavily responsible for making this happen with their contributions. I hate to talk money and the mercenary aspects of this, but when they were first installing stars, or at least as far back as I remember – you had to come up with $2,000 and then it became $5,000 and then $10,000 and then $15,000 and this year it’s $30,000. Could I afford that? I could not in all conscience put out the money, because I couldn’t let other actors feel I’d bought this thing. I couldn’t live with that – I mean, all the joy and sense of pride that goes with having your name immortalized, as you say, is sort of lost in the fact that you’ve paid for it. So, I didn’t, and my determination was that if we didn’t raise the money then it wouldn’t happen. Well the fans did come through – as I say, from all over the world – and it was really heart warming. And the ironic part is that Star Trek launched me on this road and Gene Roddenberry specifically, since he cast me, and his son Rod Roddenberry came up with the final amount that was still needed to make this possible, and it was a substantial amount of money. So I am indebted to the Roddenberrys, who have been very important in my career in one way or the other.
TrekCore: We’ve seen many an interview with you sat proudly in front of your collection of models and memorabilia in your house. We’re all dying to know, what does your wife Judy Levitt think of it?!
Walter Koenig: Laughter. She’s very tolerant! As long as… we built an upstairs, and that’s where I have everything. She’s very tolerant of my collection and my collecting so long as it doesn’t come down the stairs into the living room or any of the bedrooms.
TrekCore: Tell us what inspired you to write a graphic novel about vampires. We understand it will be released in October this year.
Walter Koenig: Yes! Well to go back a way – and I’ll try to make it as succinct as I can – I was at a convention 20-25 years ago, and the Star Trek editor at DC Comics was giving a speech and I raised my hand at the back of the room hoping I wouldn’t be seen, and that only my voice would be heard, and I said “When are you going to do a story about Chekov?” And the editor recognized me and said “Well, why don’t you do it?” And we agreed on an idea, and it entailed that Chekov got the girl and that he saves the day and that he’s prominently displayed on the cover. Having achieved both conditions, I went ahead and wrote an episode of the Star Trek comic, and I had a good time doing it.
I was at that time in the middle of a quiet period – which is a euphemism for a period of unemployment – and I came up with an idea for a kind of superhero, and I went to Malibu Comics which was a thriving publishing company at the time, and we contracted for a series of three comic books about this character called Raver. Incidentally, Raver is coming out as a graphic novel too with the first three episodes being the ones from the 90s, and the fourth one being a brand new one, which I think is the best of the lot. But in any case, I jumped from there in the 90s to now and I was trying to come up with an idea for a screenplay which I thought would be viable and commercial, and would not only be about the things that interested me, but that had a universality, at least a current popularity. So I wrote an outline for a movie based on vampires after the apocalypse being the only sentient beings on Earth, and how they got to be here, and what is their significance, and what does the future hold for them, and these are the thought processes that they are going through. And there’s a considerable amount of turmoil and conflict because they don’t all think the same way. So in one aspect, it’s kind of a coming-of-age story. It does have the necessary ripping out of throats, but not in an excess that most vampires do! But it doesn’t have much of a love story, it’s not that kind of a story.
TrekCore: One final question Walter, if you were a young actor starting out today – would you still want to go into the business as it stands?
Walter Koenig: Laughter. I thought you were going to ask me what I would tell a young actor! And what I would have told them today is “Go Back! Go Back!! Don’t take another step forward!” Laughter. Actually, I feel very lucky – I feel very, very lucky. And that is not false humility. It’s downright candor. I think I have talent. I think it measures up to most people, but certainly not to an extraordinary degree. And [that] I have come this far and succeeded as much as I have is a testament to something since I have very little faith in deities, I have got to stay that I’ve had an extraordinary run of luck to be an actor for four to five decades since I started.
TrekCore: Walter, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you, and I look forward to meeting you at the Star Trek Destination London in October!
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