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The Trek Nation - Terry Lee Rioux

Terry Lee Rioux

By Jacqueline Bundy
Posted at January 10, 2005 - 11:18 PM GMT

"In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that…and perhaps more, only one of each of us."

The first time I heard the character of Dr. Leonard McCoy relate that thought to James T. Kirk in the classic episode "Balance of Terror" I was just a child, but those words struck a chord with me. Now, almost forty years later, as I read From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy the first thing to occur to me as I closed the book were the same words that had such an impact on me all those years ago. Everyone who reads Terry Lee Rioux's incredible portrait of "Bones" will discover that DeForest Kelley truly was one of a kind.

Coincidentally Dr. McCoy also made a large impression on Terry Lee Rioux as a child, although she never dreamed that she would one day grow up to be the historian given the task of exploring the life of the beloved actor who brought the character to life. From Sawdust to Stardust, the first and only family approved biography of DeForest Kelley will be in stores later this month.

After earning her baccalaureate degree in Anthropology from SUNY Plattsburgh, Terry Lee Rioux joined the United States Coast Guard before returning to school to earn a Master of Arts degree in history at Lamar University. She has worked as an assistant to the Graduate Dean in matters of thesis and dissertation reviews and served as assistant to the Director of the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Program for first generation scholars at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

Terry's professional focus has been the preservation and interpretation of individual life stories in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her first book, George Washington Carroll: The Spirit and Proof of an American Christian was published by Eakin Press in 2001.

Terry currently lives and works in New Orleans. She has continued to participate in academic work in Texas through the East Texas Historical Association and is an active volunteer in the collections division of the National D-day Museum in New Orleans.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Terry Lee Rioux about DeForest Kelley and the biography she has so carefully crafted, From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy.


Trek Nation: Although it was suggested to Mr. Kelley before his death that he write an autobiography he never choose to do so--How and why were you chosen to be his biographer?

Terry Lee Rioux: I can't say I was chosen in the usual sense. Yes, DeForest was approached many times about an autobiography. I think it was never really something he would do; he was such an unassuming man. In his last months he gave his permission to write a biography to Kris Smith, who did write a memoir of her relationship with the Kelley's, (Harvest of Memories by Kristine M. Smith) but she felt that she could not write a researched popular biography.

I had been a friend of Kris' for some time and DeForest knew of my work in general. Kris knew I was a biographer, but the final say-so came down to Carolyn Kelley whom I met with only three months after DeForest's passing. Carolyn chose me. If you read the biography you will better understand how the Kelley's decided things - largely by intuition and with their hearts. Carolyn and I hit it off and she opened the way to everything else. Kris made the whole thing possible and doable as a research adventure. Then the Kelley friends jumped in and I continue to feel that knowing them has been the Kelley's greatest gift to me.

TN: It's obvious before you finish the first chapter of From Sawdust to Stardust that the book is meticulously researched--How long did it take to research?

TLR: I began the research September 7/ 8 1999 - Kris Smith pointed out it was so very appropriate – Star Trek and the Kelley marriage occurred on these dates. I had no idea. I made quite a few trips to Los Angeles and did a few interviews over the phone from home. It ended on September 11, 2001. I was in Los Angeles at the time. That was really the cut off - I did see Rick Berman after that date and I did talk to Lawrence Luckinbill - but the rounds had been made, the writing had begun, and it was like a book had closed.

TN: The bulk of your research seemed to be comprised of material you were given access to that are the personal or private archives, of not only the Kelley family but long time friends of the Kelley's--Were there any archives you wanted to use that you were unable to?

TLR: In looking back, I can't say I am missing anything in the research. For such a quiet man he was very well documented and he made sure he kept a record of his life in his garage - for the day someone like me might come along. I would have liked to make the trips to rural Georgia, to Conyers, to Atlanta...but I can't say that all of that would have made it into the narrative...but I wanted to do it, and research archives there.

I was always afraid that I missed something really big during the research months. I did this out of pure heart and there was no publisher or financing behind me - I didn't know what would happen to the manuscript - but I knew the research and the writing had to be done...so I didn't get to travel everywhere or meet face to face with everyone I wanted to.

TN: Wow, I hadn't realized that when you began this project you were working without a publishing contract. Those two years of research were really a labor of love on your part then—When the manuscript was finished, did you approach various publishers or go straight to Pocket?

TLR: Leonard Nimoy was certain that Simon and Schuster would be the biography's publisher and I was pretty excited by his certainty. When I did finally find my agent he did go fishing at other publishers, but I think we all knew it would come back to Pocket.

TN: I know you were a fan of Star Trek but when did your fascination with DeForest Kelley begin?

TLR: I was a very small person when the voice caught my attention. Dr. McCoy wasn't like anyone or anything else. If I could have had him for a Grandfather I would have had a very different life - or at least that was the vibe I caught. He has remained in many ways a grandfather to me - and after the experience of this biography, I know he always will be.

And so... It was not so much of a surprise as a relief that Carolyn Kelley seemed rather like my Grandmother on my mother's side and so we kind of nodded at each other and laughed a bit. I can't explain it very well but it was as if she knew me when she saw me. I visited her as frequently as I could and her friends kept her up on my promise to produce a biography. By the way, she nor anyone else had or claimed any type of editorial powers, once they said go - off I went, I want to make that clear.

TN: Is it true that Leonard Nimoy suggested the title?

TLR: The title was DeForest's as far as I know. I know that of course Dust to Dust has the biblical ring - but beyond that - the Sawdust I learned refers to his father's trail of ministry - following the Cross, the Carpenter - the sawdust trail - it also refers to the fact that De grew up in hill towns in Georgia - Reverend Kelley served rural lumbering towns. Of course, the Stardust we know about.

It was De who thought up: or how I got From Hell and Damnation to Star Trek and the Federation! He really did feel that was his life's story you know.

TN: In the first half of the book we learn that DeForest Kelley felt tremendous guilt over his choice to become an actor—How did he resolve that conflict within himself?

TLR: Kelley was a man of great introspection and even as a young man he was quiet and deep. His mother I believe sent him the poem that I began the book with...if there is anything that points the way to the heart of DeForest it is this poem - how he resolved his conflict was to work toward a very deep understanding of his relationship to the world and what he might do in it as an actor - "Can not an actor be God's man?" I don't mean to say he resolved and did not struggle again, but he grew within the idea that he could live in such a world as Hollywoodland and still be God's man - a tall order, but he did it well.

TN: One of the things that really stood out for me as I read the book is the perseverance Mr. Kelley always demonstrated, he had many disappointments in his career but he never let it sour him—In getting to know him through your research, which career disappointment do you think had the most profound effect on him?

TLR: The hardest period of his life was watching the promise of the third Star Trek season become his and then watching the cancellation process eat away at the joy of becoming recognized as a strong third of the Triumvirate. From there was the real sad grind of a few awful years and then the slow healing of fandom - so he told the truth to a young boy who asked him at a convention what was the worst thing that happened to him during Star Trek - he answered 'when they cancelled it'. He called himself 'the star of a ghost'. I think his friends were really worried for him during those years. From 1970-1980 - man! That is a long time to wrestle with the fates - and he won with a little help from his friends and fans.

TN: Mr. Kelley was on the brink of retiring wasn't he, when Star Trek came along?

TLR: Yes he was on the verge of retiring when Gene called him in 1966 - he had a good career, exceptional really - and the Westerns were giving out - his compadres were riding into the sunset and it really seemed that there was nowhere to go but to go with them. He had been a working actor for nearly 20 years by then. The Kelley's were thinking of mundane careers to help pay off the house and make ends meet. It was a painful idea for him but he was getting around to it. Enter the Great Bird of the Galaxy.

TN: Something else that leapt out at me as I read is that while From Sawdust to Stardust is a biography of DeForest Kelly it is also very much the portrait of an era, and a generation that witnessed tremendous change--As a historian was it important to you to get that across to the reader?

TLR: Yes it was an era, a context that was the real raw energy that created the Trek phenomenon and made all our lives different. I hope I portrayed the 'Greatest Generation' sensibilities and times and then our generation's wrenching with the consequences of their magnificent successes.

TN: Thankfully Carolyn Kelly lived to see the finished manuscript, which must have meant a lot to you. I realize this is a very personal question but can you describe just how much that does mean?

TLR: It was Pocket editor Marco Palmieri who got Carolyn an early copy and a framed print of the book cover when we understood she was sinking. He got it to her overnight and I will always be grateful to him for that response. So she saw it, and it pleased her very much. She departed a few days later.

I think I felt like I got the job done I had promised and she knew it, and I could carry on - with her friends, fans and her story. After all - He made the living but she made the living worthwhile - DeForest said that all the time and I hope I honored his declaration.

TN: I understand that out of respect for the Kelley's love of animals a portion of the proceeds from the sales of From Sawdust to Stardust will be donated to charity.

TLR: I will honor their memory by donating a percentage of my royalties to The North Shore Animal League - their official charity and a real powerhouse in the world of animal welfare and people education. (You can learn more about The North Shore Animal League at http://member.nsalamerica.org/site/PageServer.)

TN: Were you at all intimidated by telling the story of such a beloved man?

TLR: The intimidation factor was the old Star Trek saw - DeForest and Star Trek were always more popular with the people than with the powers that be - and I felt kind of silly perhaps going to the libraries and archives and the studios looking for Dr. McCoy - but of course every time - Every Time - I reached out - there was a Trekker on the other side to help.

From top to bottom there were Trekkers there - and so now the part I am concerned about is that the fans that read this should really understand how much DeForest loved and admired them as individuals and as a group. I hope I can tell them some of their own history as a developing cultural force, a force for good - and that some of the kindness and concern DeForest shared should keep going among the millions of Trekkers that are out there.

TN: What, if anything, surprised you the most as you came to 'know' DeForest Kelly while working on the book?

TLR: I came to really appreciate how deeply loved DeForest was, his co-stars, his neighbors, people he just met for a moment - he had a very profound impact on more than a few lives.

What surprised me most about DeForest Kelley was - the last chapter. I still haven't gotten over it. I don't think I ever will. I hope people can hear DeForest Kelley through the biography - he has a lot to say.


From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy by Terry Lee Rioux and published by Pocket Books has a release date of February 2005 but should start showing up in bookstores and at online retailers in late January. Ms. Rioux will be signing copies of the book in Los Angeles on Saturday, January 22nd at 2pm at Border's Books at Sunset and Vine. Ms. Rioux will also be a guest at Farpoint in Baltimore in February.

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Jacqueline Bundy reviews Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, writes monthly columns for the TrekWeb newsletter and the Star Trek Galactic News, and hosts the Yahoo Star Trek Books Group weekly chat.