Two Shall Enter, Only One May Leave
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Meeting my childhood heroes, part one.
Me and my captain go back to the late 1960s, before I had ever taken up the thick brown greasepaint and bushy eyebrows of a space pirate. I carried fond memories of him, resplendent in gold and seated, brow knitted, upon his throne-like chair. Holding his pose as the camera rushed toward him, the urgent, brassy underscore blaring as I wondered “How is he gonna get out of this one?!”
My admiration only burned more brightly when his TV show appeared, a few years later, five nights a week on WPIX-11. As a kid without prime-time TV privileges, I could not count on watching a favorite program on a weekly basis. Mom and Dad had first dibs, and my “space shows” had to wait for summer reruns or unexpected opportunities.
But when Star Trek began its syndication run, I was a teenager with the freedom (and spare TV set) to devour all 79 episodes on a daily basis. I learned a lot of lessons from my hero, from cracking jokes, to charming women, to fighting for your principles—even if you had to tear a few tunics in the process. He was an important role model in so many ways, and unconsciously, I was jealous of his easy success as well. We crossed paths several times.
Our third meeting would come as a total surprise. I was in a staff meeting at my college newspaper in late October 1976. Our editor-in-chief Louise was pacing the room, checking off assignments for the next few issues. As one of the newest (and youngest) staff members, I tried to balance my enthusiasm and ability without seeming like an over-eager cub reporter. Our faculty advisor was a youngish red-head with the improbable name of Jerry Olson, so I was spared the obvious Superman jokes.
“As you may have heard, William Shatner is coming to MCC.” Louise could barely contain a smirk as she faced the editorial staff. “We’ll need someone to cover the show.” Vinnie laughs at the back of the room. “Beam me up, Scottie!” A few more staffers join in, and I can feel the familiar tightening in my throat. My hero is always the butt of jokes. The young editor looks around the room. “Anyone interested? Maybe we can setup an interview…”
This is too much—my hand shoots up and I proclaim that I’m the man for this job. That Bill and I go back—a long time. Lou’s eyebrows are in a race with my arm for the ceiling. “Oh r-e-e-a-ally? Do tell.” I go on to explain how we’d first met at the Fourth Annual International Star Trek Convention. He was a judge at the Masquerade Ball, and I was a contestant. It was just the two of us—with a crowd of 4000 onlookers—and I was carrying a three-foot blade and a live mic. Only one of us was going to come out of this alive.
After a perfunctory introduction, I swaggered to center stage, dodging catcalls from the audience. After all, I was playing the big baddie of the show, and up on stage in the bright spotlight I managed to project enough campy villainy to carry the day. And I had a secret weapon: a few bon mots swiped from the series that I could fling across the stage. I tried to lock eyes with my adversary who was seated 20 feet away, but that was impossible without wearing my glasses, which would spoil the effect. I squinted viciously in his general direction and began.
Mr. Shatner was seated at a table with several other judges, pen and paper in hand. He hardly resembled his alter-ego, grinning with bushy sideburns and orange lapels. In these early days of Star Trek fandom, our captain was still a little uncertain about his legacy. This was, in fact, his first appearance at any convention. He’d never faced throngs of Trekkies before. He seemed a little uncomfortable with it. There was no precedent for him or any other TV star of his generation. Lucille Ball was never chased by hordes of fans in red wigs and polka dot dresses.
I was determined to make things more difficult for him. Reaching into my bag of catch phrases, I pulled out this little gem. After an introduction as Commander Krath of the Klingon Empire, I spoke broadly of “Earthers” and specifically of their leader. The original line, penned by David Gerrold, said: “There is one Earth man who doesn’t remind me of a Regulan bloodworm. That's Kirk. A Regulan bloodworm is soft, and shapeless. But Kirk isn't soft. Kirk may be a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood. But he's not soft.”
As I crossed the stage, I parroted the line just as I’d heard it a half-dozen times before. I carelessly swung my broadsword like a weekend tennis player who’d clinched their set and match. And as I drew closer to my target, I tweaked the quote to take out the man as well as his character:
I called Kirk a swaggering, toupee’d, overSEXED, overWEIGHT dictator… pausing at each insult to savor the crowd’s gasps and jeers. The audience sounded like kids on a playground encouraging a fight. I delivered the coup de grace “with delusions of being an ACTOR!” The crowd roared, and I was finally close enough to make eye contact. My adversary had his writing instrument pointed directly on me. In his perfectly pitched, comic delivery, he mock-threatened me. “You may think this is just a pen…” The crowd cheered.
Ka-thunk! Several pounds of steel dropped onto the table, making at least one sci-fi writer among the judges jump out of their seat. With the sword balanced on the edge of the table, inches from Shatner, I made the clever retort. “You may think this is for spreading Promise Margarine...” (referring to his recent turn as a product pitchman). The audience erupts into laughter, and I turn from table, only to catch someone waving frantically from the wings. I saunter off, stage left, full of myself. The convention host rushes toward me and I wonder what the matter could be?
Yelling in a hoarse whisper, the host cries “What were you thinking? Never, EVER do that again!” He rips the microphone from my hand and my broadsword suddenly feels very heavy indeed. I fumble with my dangerous toy, trying to untangle it from the trailing microphone cord. It suddenly occurs to me that someone could have gotten hurt. Only the thick application of terra-cotta foundation masks my embarrassment. I steel myself for a harsh rebuke.
“You always, ALWAYS, let the star have the last laugh!”
He walks back the mic, leaving me standing in the wings, still armed and more dangerous than ever. My words were more deadly than the blade. I stepped on a star’s punchline and got away with it! Victory was mine.
Louise agrees that I’m certainly the most qualified to write the interview, and I get the plum assignment. It doesn’t occur to me at the time, that I am being rewarded for betraying my hero. I went along with the jokes about his toupee, his hammy performances, his relentless work ethic, to raise my own profile. How desperate was I, to sell out my fandom? I didn't give it a second thought.
I believed that I had my cake and would eat it too. Certain that when Bill and I next met, we would take our relationship to a new level. What I didn’t know was that he was learning more about our fans than I could ever guess about his celebrity. The playing field was not as level as I assumed.
To be continued…
Next week, A Dish Best Served Cold
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If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would also enjoy my graphic memoir entitled When We Were Trekkies, now available online from Birdcage Bottom Books