A Remembrance Of Jimmy DoohanBy Ron Wilkerson
Posted at July 21, 2005 - 1:53 PM GMT
Screenwriter Ron Wilkerson has worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes such as "Imaginary Friend," "Lessons" and "Lower Decks," and Star Trek: Voyager episodes such as "Learning Curve," "Fair Trade" and "Ashes to Ashes." At one point in his career, he also had the opportunity to work with James Doohan on a television commercial. Wilkerson sent us the following remembrance of Star Trek's Montgomery Scott actor:
I've written multiple episodes of Star Trek: TNG, Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate SG-1 and other shows, but one of the best experiences I ever had in the business was writing and directing a commercial video project seen by a considerably smaller audience than any of my broadcast episodes. The reason? This commercial project starred James Doohan.
In 1998, I was in between TV writing projects and, falling back on my advertising resume to pay the bills, was hired to do an industrial trade show video for Alesis, one of the premier electronic companies in the Musical Instrument Industry. The marketing people at Alesis needed a concept for their updated ADAT digital multitrack recorder -- the recording industry standard in the '90s. Since their new product was an advanced engineering technology, I came up with the wacky idea of using a "Famous Engineer from the Future" who traveled back in time to help today's musicians and keep them from messing up their recordings by using inferior audio technology. Who better to tell the story than the best engineer I (or anyone else) ever knew?
I had a blast writing the script and it got instantly approved by the powers-that-be at Alesis. I can still see the dropped jaws of the real digital engineers around the conference table when I presented the idea. "You don't think we could actually get Scotty, do you?" I sent the script off to James Doohan's manager Steve Stevens who approved it, sent it to James and, next thing you know... showtime.
I'll never forget picking up this seemingly frail elderly man the day before the shoot at the Burbank airport. I held out my hand. "Mr. Doohan, this is an honor," I said. "Please call me Jimmy" was his quick reply. He was then 79, definitely slowed by age (it had been a few years since the great TNG episode "Relics"), and as we drove to his hotel he spoke very softly and slowly. I seriously wondered if he was up to the task. Had I just committed professional suicide by hiring a legend who couldn't live up to the expectations? I decided to put these thoughts out of my mind as we had a delightful dinner together and shared our various connections.
The next morning, I picked up Jimmy and drove him to the soundstage where we were shooting the spot. He was met with nothing but love and admiration from all the other cast and crew that were there. He approved the costume and the futuristic engineering set that we had rented from several prop houses here in LA. But as I had felt the night before, he seemed so slow and soft-spoken that I was in near panic (and trying extremely hard not to show it) all the while we prepped for our first shot. But the moment Jimmy entered the set in costume and makeup, all my fears were put to rest. Suddenly, under the lights and now in character, this consummate professional dropped thirty years. The twinkle came into his eye and the strength emerged solidly in his voice. I was so relieved I almost melted.
The script called for the "Famous Engineer" to interact via viewscreen (blue screen) with several slacker musicians who didn't have a clue when it came to their recording equipment -- at which point the Engineer used the power of his elaborate control panel to "gently" instruct them in the error of their ways. It was all in good fun. One know-it-all jerk he turned into a Vulcan (to help him see the logic of the Engineer's argument), another arrogant creep he compressed into a little cube a la the Kelvans (to instruct him in the ways of data compression) and when the last stoner musician just couldn't quite get a clue, the "Famous Engineer" out of sheer frustration zapped him with the big red button, triggering our admittedly cheesy phaser. Jimmy had a lot of fun with the part working with my actress wife Beverly, who provided able assistance as a darn good (if I do say so) Computer Voice.
Through a long day of shooting, Jimmy couldn't have been any more kind, gracious and generous with his time. He was never seemingly tired, not in the slightest way (although at 79, he certainly must have been) and was always ready for anything I asked of him. He loved kids, and got a particular glow when our then 3-year-old daughter Meredith came to the set and sat on his lap. Over lunch he shared many of his life experiences. The cast and crew were in rapt attention as he recounted his landing with the Canadian Expeditionary forces on Juno Beach on D-Day where he took four (or was it five?) German machine gun bullets (in the chest, in the leg, and the middle finger of his right hand was literally shot off, though you'd never know it from the skilled way he disguised it on set). Jimmy also had nothing but kind things to say about Star Trek, even though we knew Trek wasn't always as kind to him.
A month or so later, our post-production work finished, the completed video spot ran every 20 minutes on a wide-screen projection at the Alesis booth at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show in Anaheim. At the end of the piece, the "Famous Engineer," his work in the past now done, settles back in his lab chair to lay down some of his own multitrack bagpipe tracks -- a really fun fade-out. Jimmy flew down from Washington to see the show and was delighted with how well the spot was received by the many fans that were constantly lined up. To say it was the talk of the trade show was an understatement.
That night, Alesis threw one of their typically lavish concert/parties for all the musicians and music dealers at the show. Herbie Hancock's band was the featured entertainment. But the highlight of the night was when Jimmy Doohan took to the stage to address the huge reception. "What are you going to say, Jimmy?" I asked, having no idea what might happen in turning an actor loose on a stage without a script. "Ron, don't ye' worry about it," he said, and then as he took to the stage, he literally brought the house down with his Star Trek anecdotes, peppered with humor and warmth. He singled out the work I did as a writer and director of the video spot. He certainly didn't have to be so generous, but that's the just way he was. The applause I received from the crowd was great, but not as touching as were his words. Afterward, as I escorted this frail elderly man through the surging crowds from the stage to our waiting car, I felt as though I was with one of the Beatles. Everyone there just wanted to touch him.
It's so rare in Hollywood to meet someone who lives up to your expectations of them. Over the past ten years, in writing and in teaching screenwriting classes at UCLA Extension, I've gradually stopped referring to characters in film or TV by the actor's name because the character you see on the screen is frequently so much larger and better a person than the actor you meet in real life. Jimmy was the exception to that. Trek fans all over the world loved him as Scotty, but I want to tell you from personal experience that James Doohan the man was every bit Scotty and quite a bit more. God bless you, Jimmy.
Sherman Oaks, CA
Ron Wilkerson has worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes such as "Imaginary Friend," "Lessons" and "Lower Decks," and Star Trek: Voyager episodes such as "Learning Curve," "Fair Trade" and "Ashes to Ashes."