Gene Roddenberry was the genius behind the groundbreaking television series Star Trek. But there was so much more to Roddenberry’s life – he was a military aviator, worked for the police department, and was a scriptwriter.
Gene Roddenberry was born on 19 August 1921 in his family home in the west Texas town of El Paso. His family would move to Los Angeles two years later when his father became a police officer there. He loved reading pulp fiction as a child with titles such as John Carter of Mars and Tarzan having a great influence on him and his future Hollywood writing career.
Though he would study police science at Los Angeles City College, which incidentally was where he met and started dating Eileen-Anita Rexroat his passion was for flying. He joined the Army Air Force in 1941 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and he flew 89 combat missions during World War II, mostly in the four-engine bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He had been the pilot of a B-17 that overshot the runway in 1943 and crashed into trees, killing two of the crew, but he was absolved of all blame. He was also involved in a crash as a passenger and subsequently flew all over the world helping with air crash investigations.
In 1942, Gene Roddenberry and Eileen were married and they would go on to have two children together, Darleen Anita and Dawn Allison.
After the war, Roddenberry would go on to fly commercial aircraft for Pan Am on some of their long-haul routes. He had another flying accident as the flight officer, and despite having two broken ribs himself, he was able to help some of the passengers escape the wreckage.
Upon retiring from flying in 1948, Gene Roddenberry joined the LA Police Department and also started to take an interest in writing. He first worked in the police traffic department and was able to use his writing skills in the newspaper division that would later become the Public Information Division. He also became the speechwriter for the Chief of Police. Around this time, he also started to show an interest in writing for the new media of television.
Roddenberry served as the technical advisor on a television program called Mr. District Attorney under the pen name Robert Wesley. He also wrote scripts for some major series like Have Gun, Will Travel, Dragnet, and Highway Patrol. However, it became difficult to balance both careers, so in 1956 he resigned from the LAPD in order to focus full-time on his television writing career.
In 1964 Gene Roddenberry created the series Star Trek and worked hard to get it picked up for TV. It debuted in September 1966 on NBC and though the original series only ran for three seasons, it went on to spawn six spinoffs in later decades along with a dozen feature films.
Star Trek struggled constantly during its initial run with the threat of cancelation always hanging over its head. It was saved by the fans who created fan clubs and kept it going for 79 episodes. This initial run became known as Star Trek: The Original Series or TOS for short. Star Trek was revolutionary in a number of ways. For example, it boasted the most diverse cast on television at the time and it was also set in a universe that showed that people could get along with each other, quite an optimistic outlook which was a stark contrast to the evening news, which at the time was showing lots of coverage of the controversial Vietnam War.
Once Star Trek made it to syndication, it stayed popular and even gained more fans. Gene Roddenberry produced the first Star Trek movie, called Star Trek – the Motion Picture, in 1979, and served as the executive consultant for the next two movies, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn in 1982 and Star Trek III, The Search for Spock in 1984. He was also the executive producer of the first spinoff TV series when the franchise returned to the small screen in 1987. The new series followed the adventures of a whole new crew on a future version of the Starship Enterprise. The series was called Star Trek: The Next Generation or TNG for short. The success of TNG which ran for seven seasons has led to several other Star Trek TV shows, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.
In 1985 Gene Roddenberry was the first TV writer to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It is arguable that through his efforts to get Star Trek accepted by television producers he made it possible for series like Babylon 5 and others to get made and was instrumental in bringing science fiction television to the masses. Plus, fans of the series were so devoted that when the first space shuttle was built and ready to be dedicated in 1976, they wrote to then-President Gerald Ford and asked that it be named Enterprise after the USS Enterprise. The name change was approved and on 17 September 1976, Gene Roddenberry along with several cast members of The Original Series attended the dedication.
Gene Roddenberry’s personal life was far more complicated than the lives his characters led. He had an affair with Majel Barrett who played the part of nurse Christine Chapel on The Original Series and the voice of the Enterprise’s computer on The Next Generation. They were married in Japan in 1969 after Star Trek went off the air. Their son Rod Roddenberry, who was born February 1974, would go on to become a television producer himself and bring Star Trek: Discovery to the airwaves. That did not stop Gene Roddenberry’s philandering though as he also had a long-standing affair with his personal secretary. Nichelle Nichols in her autobiography, which was published after Gene Roddenberry’s death and who played Lt. Uhura on The Original Series and in the movies, claimed that they also had an affair, but she called it off after realizing she was woman #3 behind Majel Barrett.
Throughout his career, Gene Roddenberry had used drugs, both recreationally and also as stimulants to enable him to work long hours developing scripts and it is likely that he developed cerebral vascular disease as a result of this. He also suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes and took prescription medication for depression. His health started to decline rapidly following a stroke at a family reunion in Florida in 1989. A second stroke in 1991 paralyzed his right arm and affected his vision in his right eye. On 24 October 1991, Gene Roddenberry died following a cardiopulmonary arrest during a visit to his doctor. He was 70 years old. Following his cremation, his ashes were sent into space aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1992. They were sent into space again in 1997 aboard a Celestis spacecraft along with the ashes of 21 other individuals. After years of orbiting the Earth, the craft’s orbit deteriorated and it along with Gene Roddenberry’s ashes burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Even after his death, Gene Roddenberry continued to have an impact on science fiction television with two new TV series that were developed based on notes and scripts that were unearthed by Majel Roddenberry. The first was for a series called Battleground Earth which was brought to television as a series called Earth: Final Conflict which premiered in 1997 and ran for 110 episodes. The second was called Andromeda which also ran for 110 episodes between 2000 and 2005.
Gene Roddenberry was inducted into both the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He also has several space related things named for him, including an asteroid and the Roddenberry crater on Mars.