Walter Koenig

As the Starship Enterprise's navigator, Pavel Chekov,
Star Trek actor Walter Koenig gave life to one of Russia's most famous exports. A Chicago-born son of Russian immigrants, Koenig began his career with a series of stage productions and TV guest-spots before landing the role of the Enterprise's new youth-orientated character in 1967.
Post Trek, Koenig has played diverse roles in everything from the sci-fi movie Moontrap to the TV comedy Son of the Beach, and during the 1990s he earned a new generation of sci-fi fans thanks to his portrayal of the Psi Cop Bester in Babylon 5. Review Graveyard caught up with Koenig as the special edition of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was about to be released on DVD...

ReviewGraveyard: Why do you think Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has been the highest grossing of the Star Trek movies to date?

Walter Koenig: I think it's a wonderful film that has cross-population appeal. It doesn't appeal exclusively to science fiction fans, but to the general public as well. Anyone can relate to the film's plot device the fish-out-of water-syndrome, with people from another time visiting our world and all of its humorous moments and jeopardy-inducing plot points.

The film also makes a socio-political statement. That's very important and probably made the film more like the television series than any of the other films we did. There's no question that it's my favourite Star Trek film.

RG: What was the actual making of the movie like?

WK: Making Star Trek IV was an absolutely delightful experience and one of the highlights of my involvement with Star Trek. I had a wonderful time on it. Shooting on the streets of San Francisco was a lot of fun. And the fact that I had more to do in the movie certainly added to my enthusiasm. Star Trek IV stands out in my mind as being among the very best experiences I've had in this business.

RG: Chekov was always getting injured in the original series, and he ends up in hospital on Star Trek IV. How did you feel about that?

WK: Oh I don't care about Chekov getting injured if it means I have something to do. It beats pushing buttons on my console, which is what my duties on Star Trek most frequently were! So the injury thing didn't bother me.

I loved the scene where I was being interrogated by the FBI, I had great fun running across the aircraft carrier and I loved the scene where Chekov is asking where the "nuclear vessels" are. All of that was really quite delightful. The fact that the character fell and got injured was incidental to me.

RG: Is it true that not all of the San Francisco locals Chekov encounters during his search for "nuclear wessels" were members of the production?

WK: Some of them were professional extras and some of them were members of the public who were hired to work in the scene with the exception of one woman who kinda just blended in. And she was the one I ended up having the conversation with. She was not hired [until after the scene had been shot].

It was just serendipitous she came along. I guess everyone else had been instructed to ignore me, but she did not know this and engaged in this conversation which became quite a fun little moment.

RG: How was Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek IV's director, and in what ways if any was his approach different from his movie-directing debut, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock?

Leonard sort of directed by omission; he would only say something if he felt it wasn't going correctly. And that happened very infrequently.

Once I understood how he worked and stopped looking for praise and realised the praise was in the silence, I figured I was doing OK. He was very well organised, he had a very strong sense of what he wanted and he created a very receptive environment where you could experiment and try out things, which was all very good.

RG: Going right back to the start of your involvement on the TV series, what was the appeal of joining the cast of Star Trek?

WK: It was a job. The idea of having some semi-regular work was extraordinarily appealing. The fact that I was playing a Russian had some merit as well. My regret, then and now, was my father who was very much a Russian was not alive to see me do this thing and play this character.

As time went on, I learned that Star Trek was a show that was making some fairly pertinent statements that should be addressed and were perhaps not being addressed with the same candour and courage in the rest of television. So I was pleased to be a part of it.

RG: What was your approach to playing Chekov?

WK: I didn't do a great deal of profound research to play Chekov. I just sort of went in and did it. Chekov was brash, cocky and had a sense of humour. Although that's not necessarily the face I show the world as Walter Koenig, they are certainly very easily accessible elements of character I can draw upon.

I didn't need to do a great deal of preparatory work. I think it would have been pretentious and self-serving to do so because there's only so many ways you can say, "Warp Factor 4!"

RG: When you were working on Star Trek, did you have any idea it was destined to be remembered as one of the most popular and influential TV shows of all time?

WK: No. I don't think anybody did. I remember when we started the third season, we were concerned that the show would not go beyond the third year, if indeed we finished the third season. The show had been given such a bad timeslot, there seemed to be something of a defeatist attitude on the part of the show's personnel.

I was quite convinced the show would not be picked up and when we received that call, I was equally convinced Star Trek was behind me and would not be a significant part of my life from then onwards.

RG: Chekov's most recent appearance was in the fifth-season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations, which digitally inserted the Deep Space Nine cast into footage from the 1967 Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. What did you think of that?

WK: I enjoyed watching that show. I thought it was really quite a lot of fun to see the young Chekov standing next to Colm Meaney [Chief O'Brien], even though 30 years separated us!

RG: You've been quite vocal over the years about the drawbacks of being so strongly associated with Star Trek and the limitations of your role as Chekov. How do you feel about your involvement with Star Trek today?

WK: I feel exceptionally lucky to have been chosen to be in Star Trek. I have complained many times over the years that I don't think my role was a fair reflection of the talent I have.

But that notwithstanding, there are well over 90 000 members of the Screen Actors' Guild and very few get a chance to actually establish themselves and create a niche no matter how modest that might be in the business. So I feel very, very lucky indeed to have been involved with Star Trek all these years.

RG: Do you still encounter a lot of adulation from Star Trek fans these days?

WK: I get it at conventions Lord knows, the enthusiasm at conventions is still as strong and dynamic as ever. The folks are really wonderful and just so supporting, and that's heart-warming.

I'm less recognised in public these days; I can walk around fairly anonymously. I think with the passage of time and the distance between now and the last time we got together to make a Star Trek movie, my image has at least dimmed somewhat in the public's mind.

RG: Finally, how's life for Walter Koenig these days?

WK: Life is pretty good. Right now I'm working on two film projects, Illegal Alien and Heroes, performing in a play by David Mamet, The Duck Variations, and writing and directing a short film called Actor. All of that lets me feel I'm a functioning and contributing member of society and a member of the craft and that is a very worthwhile feeling.

RG: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Frederique Slezak at Paramount's Press Office

Star Trek IV - Special Edition is available to buy from Paramount Home Entertainment from 02 June 2003 RRP £24.99 (DVD)

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