Reflecting on his years as producer, director and writer of the "Star Trek" movies, Harve Bennett of Ashland says the success of the series comes from the simple fact that it's been optimistic about humanity in a long period of pessimism and mostly dark and violent Hollywood movies.
Reflecting on his years as producer, director and writer of the "Star Trek" movies, Harve Bennett of Ashland says the success of the series comes from the simple fact that it's been optimistic about humanity in a long period of pessimism, and mostly dark and violent Hollywood movies.
Bennett, 79, retired to Ashland with his wife, Jani, after an extraordinary 65-year career that began at age 10 with a spot on the popular radio show "Quiz Kids." His work took him through producer-director posts at CBS, ABC, Universal and Screen Gems, and then in 1980 he took on the Star Trek movie series.
"They chose me for 'Quiz Kids' because I had good academics, and I had red hair and freckles and looked like Huck Finn instead of a studious kid," said Bennett, who grew up in Chicago as the son of "sob sister" journalist Kate Sussman, who interviewed the likes of Al Capone and Amelia Earhart.
After Army service during the Korean War and with a degree from UCLA's film school, Bennett, at age 26, became producer of the Johnny Carson Show. In the 1960s he was ABC vice president for programming, developing "Batman," "Peyton Place," "The Fugitive" and "Bewitched." He produced the TV hit "Mod Squad" and, at Universal, produced the series "Rich Man, Poor Man," "The Six-Million Dollar Man" and "The Bionic Woman."
At Paramount, he took on the job of producing four "Star Trek" movies. The legend at that point had only three years on television, plus a poorly received first movie. Bennett's "Star Trek II, the Wrath of Khan," is credited with "saving Star Trek as we know it," according to Entertainment Weekly.
"I was called into the office in my first week at Paramount and asked what I thought of the first Star Trek movie. I said it was boring. They asked if I could do better for less than $45 million (the amount of the first movie). I said, 'Yes, and I can make four or five movies for that.' They said, 'do it.' "
Bennett holed up with all 76 episodes of the original "Star Trek" television series, watching them on 16mm film over three months. He emerged with plot ideas, starting with the re-emergence of arch-villain Khan, played by Ricardo Montalban.
Bennett followed with "The Search for Spock," "The Voyage Home" and "The Final Frontier," which together grossed more than $1 billion. During that same period in the 1980s, Bennett produced "The Jesse Owens Story," winning the NAACP Image Award, and "A Woman Called Golda," the Emmy-winning story of the Israeli premier, played by the legendary Ingrid Bergman.
Bennett tells the story of trying to land Bergman, who was dying of cancer, for the role — and of the last moments of her life's work, when she was to be filmed walking across a Chicago street. Bergman flubbed her line on one shot, then stumbled on the next shot, then poignantly explained to the crew her difficulty.
"She said, 'If I say the line, then the picture (and her career) is over,' " notes Bennett. She died four months later.
Bennett's work as producer encompassed many tasks, including raising money for projects, writing and rewriting scripts, creating picture concepts and hanging over the film editor's shoulder, giving a "fresh eye" to the process.
"A producer is what it says on a T-shirt my son gave me," he notes. "It says, 'I make things happen.' "
Bennett became close with the original "Star Trek" cast, noting that Spock, the Vulcan, was pure intellect, Bones, the doctor, was pure emotion while Captain Kirk resolved the gap between them. On the set, he recalls, Bones (DeForest Kelley) was a "kind healer who kept the big egos from tearing each other apart," while Kirk (William Shatner) was "a study in being the matinee idol — brilliant, energetic and rather full of himself."
Bennett says he grew up in an age of heroes and hope surrounding World War II, which faded by the 1960s. Star Trek represented an exception to the fact that "we live in very unpleasant times, and contemporary movies are not helping. They're a big downer. Who would want to make a big movie about the apocalypse coming in 2012, saying 'let's kill the Earth?' "
Despite his credentials as a producer-director covering a wide range of films and TV series, Bennett says that after the "Star Trek decade" he found himself typecast as a franchise film producer. He responded in the '90s by freelancing several TV movies and series.
Bennett is enjoying "semi-retirement," as he calls it. He will celebrate his 80th birthday this month and, in his home, will record commentaries to be added to remastered DVDs of many of his TV series.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.