2009-01-10

Book Review 37: Warped Factors -- A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe


Yeah, I know, the analogy sounds a trifle pretentious, but then show me an actor who doesn't mean the whole world to himself.

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Walter Koenig is best known to Sci-Fi fans as the, "Yes, Keptin" spouting Russian born navigator on board to USS Enterprise. The producers added him to the crew in the second season, hoping to capitalize on Koenig's youth and Davy Jones like features to draw younger viewers to Star Trek. Like Nichelle Nichols' Uhura, Koening's Pavel Checkov had an extensive back story that we never got to see in the show. Nevertheless, Koenig's charm and Russian accent added a comfortable international element to the bridge crew, at a time when America was recovering from the disease of McCarthyism and struggling with the Domino theory of South East Asia.

Koenig would act in other movies and TV shows, try out for the part of Charles Manson, write novels, telepalys, and screenplays, and later return to TV in a recurring role in Babylon 5.

In Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe, Koenig takes us beyond a simply recounting of his life events and the random Shatner bashing I often encounter in these memoirs. Instead he takes us into the psychology of the actor. In "I am not Spock," Lenoard Nimoy took us on a trip of the acting process and examined what it means to be an artist who chooses the stage as his tool. Koenig, however, examines the actors mind -- why they react they way they do, and how they get there.

At the same time, he tells great stories. Of all the Star Trek cast members whose memoirs I've read, Koenig comes across as the one who would be the most fun to hang out with at a bar. He seems most like a regular guy.

To top it off, Koenig includes some interesting material in the appendices. His full comments on and early draft for Star Trek II are there. He also includes a proposal he wrote for a Star Trek movie. It would have been much better than Star Trek IV.

Historically, Koenig was intensely insecure. For much of his life, he comes across as a depressed loner who finds the stage to be one of the places he is happy. When he doesn't freeze up in the middle of a performance.

The first crush he had on a girl ended badly. His class participated in a Valentine's Day card exchange:

All this I put in an envelope with Suzi's name on it and dropped into a big basket with the other cards prepared by the children. Except that almost none of the others had gone to the trouble of making cards. Only a neat stack of store-bought Valentine greetings shared occupancy with mine.

As it turned out Suzi's mother had bought these at Suzi's request. For every boy in the class. All twenty-three of them. Except there were twenty-four male gender students in 2A-7.

Yeah.

And so it came to pass that I realized I was a flaming heterosexual, as in carrying-a-torch-and-going-down-in-flames-for-the-unrequited-love-of-a-female-person-and-still-coming-back-for-more flaming heterosexual.

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He goes through experiences with freezing up on stage and panicking, throwing opportunities away out of fear, and just generally having trouble relating to the world around him.

The book is funny and touching. I've known several people like Koenig. When he tells stories about big stars he used to know, it is not out of jealousy or name-dropping (well, maybe a little), but to illustrate something in his life they were a part of.

The individual stories in the book are well written and entertaining. The overall story has some challenges, however. Koenig divides the book roughly into different eras in his life, so it is almost chronological, but not quite. There are several points in it where the signposting breaks down. For example, he was talking about his life after Star Trek went off the air. He describes his acting challenges and how he started writing for TV. This would seem to put the discussion sometime in the mid seventies. Then he tells this story.

Meredith Baxter Birney was one of the leads having taken time off from her hit series Family Ties to guest on this show. She thought I wrote well for women and recommended me to the producers of Family Ties.

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Family Ties didn't start until 1982, so now we are in the early to mid-eighties, which also corresponds to the Star Trek movie era.

Earlier in the book, he tends to jump around in the late forties to early fifties, and I had some difficulty keeping track of when we were and how old Koenig was in these various stories.

There seems to be some filler towards the end of the book. There are several independent anecdotes that feel like Koenig included just to fill space, or because he wanted to tell the stories but had no place else to out them.

Those are really the only issues I had with the book. I enjoyed reading it and learning more about Walter Koenig's fascinating career.

There are several topics in the book that I will explore here: Koenig's youth, his somewhat neurotic personality, his passion for acting, and his Star Trek experience. There's a lot more in the book about his other TV work and his writing, but I won't spend as much time on those topics.

Koenig grew up in Manhattan, the son of a socialist father, and mother who probably wanted to be someplace else. The challenges he faced as a child gave him an "other shoe" mentality . Whenever something went well, he expected "the other shoe to drop" at any minute. Often, in the stories he tells, it did. He developed a dour, neurotic personality that made it difficult for him to enjoy things, gave him several physical ticks, and sent him into counseling. At the same time, this background probably prepared him well for being an actor.

His parents' marriage was a rough one, punctuated by the several month long disappearance of his father. When his socialist father died several years later, his mother was left to unravel a complex web of business deals she knew nothing about and barely had the skills to manage. Fortunately, she was a quick learner.

My mother, Sarah Strauss Koenig, lived thirty years with a man she didn't love, and now he had abandoned her. It was as if he had done it purposely. There were no liquid assets, and she was terrified that we would all starve. Hysteria ruled her life, but it was acrimony that kept her heart pumping. If she hadn't been able to hate my father for the lost years and the destitute state in which he had left us she might have surrendered to her fear and joined him.

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The Koenigs did have to adjust the way they lived as the Red Scare swept across the country. His father threw away his beloved Russian music as the family began getting threatening letters in the mail.

And of course, the notes kept coming. At first I had a morbid curiosity about them and volunteered each day to collect the mail. That was definitely a mistake. Each time one appeared it was like turning over a school paper and discovering a failing grade. The blood drained from my head, my stomach capsized, I had trouble breathing. I never got used to it. I finally avoided the mail deliveries and all mention of them. In a way that made it worse. With my folks now tightlipped out of respect for my wishes I was free to imagine that they not only were arriving with greater frequency but that the inscribed threats had become increasingly more explicit. "We're going to cut your balls off and stuff them down your throats, you Commie bastards" was sort of along the lines of what I envisioned.

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When given free reign, Koenig's mind always goes to the darkest possible conclusion. But it didn't limit itself to just the possibility of a dark future. Koenig was one of the best athletes on his high school track and field team.

One time, at an important race, he took an early lead and seemed to be on the verge of winning. He was concerned about what would happen if he almost won, and then didn't. He made sure that wouldn't happen.

What I did was reach down, tap into the place where the darkest thoughts fester, and purposely trip and fall to the ground so I'd have an excuse for not winning.

Then the race was over and there was no picture of a finely conditioned greyhound breaking the ribbon to satisfy the mind's eye. In its place was only a Rorschach inkblot, one of those psychological drawings which if you looked at it closely enough appeared to be a sick puppy writhing in pretend agony on a cinder floor.

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Through a combination of counseling, hard work, and simple maturity, he began to understand himself better.

In many schools, younger students were not allowed to take psychology classes. Koenig understood why.

The thinking was that young people, being unsophisticated and untrained and very impressionable, might identify with the aberrational cases that came out of textbooks. I think this ruling had been made with me in mind. To this day when I read about some fruitcake discovered rotating a billiard ball in his behind while caressing a patent-leather shoe or found burning tana leaves in religious devotion to his own small intestine I think, my God, with just a little more stress in my life that could be me!

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Koenig found his passion in acting.

People talk about power as being money and position, but I'm here to tell you that there is no greater rush, no stronger sense of omnipotence, than standing within a proscenium in front of a full house and knowing that you can do no wrong.

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It gave him a useful outlet for his inner turmoil. Actors have to bare their emotional souls to the audience. Koenig's neurosis certainly gave him a lot to work with.

Performers expose themselves emotionally to degrees that are not demanded of others. To do this they have to lower their defenses and, consequently, their protection against blindside assault. They are out there being very very vulnerable. The public twitters about mollycoddled actors, the prima donnas who demand excessive attention, the ones who are labeled "difficult." The fact is that good actors are an open wound, and the way you treat an open wound is to sanitize the atmosphere. Disallow the bad air, welcome in the good. Keep discord to a minimum, reinforce a cordial supportive environment.

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Acting gave him a way to explore deeper parts of himself. In the 70s he auditioned for the role of serial killer Charles Manson.

There are those among you who will ask, why would I even want to play such a reprehensible individual. Let me tell you. The monster lurks within us all. It's buried deep within the catacombs shackled to a wall, and in the lives of most of us it never sees the light of day. But it's there. And knowing that it's part of me—as it is all of us—what a rare opportunity to give expression to it, to examine it, to process it, and in the course of doing so to not injure so much as a waterbug.

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Koenig doesn't say he felt alone in all of this; he doesn't pretend his experience as a struggling actor in the 60s is unique.

The next several years were a succession of contiguous high points and low points that made me feel that I was both establishing a beachhead in Hollywood while at the same time being caught it in an undertow that was sucking me out to sea. But what's new? Every actor goes through this. It's the schizophrenic nature of the business. Therefore, although the stories that follow are unique to me, you are quite safe in applying a generalization; every performer can recount episodes similar, if not in actual text certainly in flavor, to the biographies of their lives.

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Before Star Trek, work was still hard to come by, though. So like many young Hollywood hopefuls, he decided to create his own work and produced a movie.

For all of the problems, the frustration, the stress, the disappointment, the lost money, I found making the movie an amazing experience that I would not have missed. We put together a feature film with a beginning, a middle, and an end fully scored, dubbed, and edited, and we did it for twenty-four thousand dollars. As an integral part of that production, along with Tony and Judy, I still consider it one of the undertakings in my life of which I am most proud.

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As should be clear by now, Koenig was deeply insecure and prone to bouts of depression. He felt a strong desire to please others to get some positve reinforcemnt. At the same time, in the back of his mind, he felt it wasn't going to work. He was always waiting for his world to come crashing down.

Koenig tells another story about working with James Caan. They were on the their way back to the set when a production assistant see them and encourages waves for them to get them to come in faster. Koening starts to speed up.

Caan grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

"Stars never run," he said to me. Well, it worked for him.

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When Star Trek ended, every cast member, except Leonard Nimoy and George Takei, floundered a bit. Koenig had trouble finding work ad fell into a deep funk. The problem was he had nothing to do. There was no reason to get up and nothing to be proud of at the end of the day. Fortunately, he found a way out.

And then, because ultimately I do feel that I have what it takes to separate the men from the toddlers, I found the means by which to pull myself from the muck and wade to shore. What I needed was structure. An objective. A reason to get out of bed every morning. I began to write. It was a novel. ...While I was writing it I felt it vitally important that it get published. I was putting in five hours a day and nothing less than bestseller status would satisfy me as a return on my time and effort. ...I made a couple of stabs at getting it published but what I discovered was that, in this case, the process was far more important than the result. Writing the novel put some order in my life, and provided me with some emotional balance. Never was there a creative project whose principal benefit was so therapeutic. That I did sell the book nineteen years later is beside the point.

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But what does he have to say about Star Trek?

He was a late arrival to the cast, joining the show at the beginning of season 2. Already there was a strong split between the big 3 (Nimoy, Shatner and Kelly) and the secondary characters (Koenig, Nichols, Takei and Doohan).

He and George Takei did bond over the years, despite Takei's initial misgivings about Koenig.

The protracted stay of George Takei (Mr. Sulu) on the film The Green Berets meant that his return to Star Trek's second season was delayed. No doubt, I was assigned roles he would have played had he been there. He writes in his biography that my presence, therefore, was a source of considerable annoyance. He does himself an injustce, I think, or he's an even better actor better actor than I had imagined. I was never aware of the animosity he says that he harbored toward me.

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He goes on to tell other great stories about doing signings with Takei and even playing around like pirates.

His favorite Takei story involves the tension in between movies. The actors not involved in the production side were always concerned about their fate and whether they would be in the next movie. At one point after not hearing anything about it, Takei called Koenig and asked if there was any information about the next movie. Koenig said there was.

"They're going to do it in Claymation."

"Oh, my God! [pause] Well ... are they going to use our voices?"

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Koenig offers his thoughts on the movies, too. He doesn't spend as much time on them as the other memoirs I've read, but then he also had less involvement. Because Koenig is also a writer, much of his movie discussion focuses on the writing itself.

Star Trek The Motion Picture nearly killed the franchise. Other cast members have spoken about how nothing actually happens through most of the movie. As Koenig explains it. they made the movie without finishing the scripts.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this motion picture, which few other films can claim, was that we began shooting without a concluding act to the story. I believe that the movie's artistic downfall can be attributed to this circumstance. We painted ourselves into a corner and didn't know how in hell to get out.

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The script was now in the hands of far too many people, each with a vested interest in seeing it go a particular direction. Achieving a consensus under these circumstances was particularly difficult. It was a fait accompli that any decision finnally rendered would be a compromise that diminished the quality of the film.

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Star Trek V was also a disaster. Koenig even uses it as a metaphor for disaster.

We stumbled off the bus ragged and weary. Tempers were short. Even George, the perennial Pollyanna, looked as though he had been broadsided by a runaway truck or a fierce tsunami or the Star Trek V screenplay.

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As Nimoy observed in his book, the movie was awful because of the script. William Shatner directed it, and turned out to be a surprisingly good director. But Shatner was also responsible for the story. And that's why the movie is still his fault. Koenig agreed with that assessment.

What I'm saying is that if Bill is to share responsibility for the failure of this Star Trek entry it should be for the story he conceived and not for his helmsmanship of the project.

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While other cast member have complained about Shatner and talked about how awful he was for the way he cut their lines and took advantage of his star power, Koenig is more charitable. In fact, he says he and the other cast members are in part responsible for Shatner's behavior. The reason? They did nothing about it at the time.

The fear of power is often more potent than power itself. We have complained about him to each other and in interviews and at conventions and in books but no one ever looked him in the eye and said, "Cut the shit, Shatner!" And because we haven't, I'm not sure we can be quite so self-righteous about feeling dishonored.

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Bill Shatner has repeatedly said that he was not aware that we felt the way we did. Knowing his tunnel-visioned approach to his work I think that is possible. If that is true then we must share the burden of guilt with him.

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It's along the lines of the famous Edmund Burke line, “All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” I'm not saying Shatner is evil. The point is that it seems like the other cast members never expressed their displeasure with Shatner back in the sixties when it could have made a difference. They waited until the conventions and the books.

Walter Koenig's Warped Factors is a great memoir to read. It's the story of an actor who is not self assured. While he believes he has the potential to succeed, he is often amazed when he does because he expects something to go wrong.

The books provide another perspective on Shatner, and tell some great stories about Koenig and his co-stars.

Despite some challenges with organization, it's funny and touching. And it makes me hope for Koenig's continued success.

Tomorrow: To the Stars, by George Takei

4 comments:

MilkyWayfarer said...

Thanks so much for the thoughtful, engaging review of WARPED FACTORS. I've always enjoyed Mr. Koenig's work since I developed my 1st celeb crush on him as Chekov at age 10. :-) I read this bio several months ago and loved every minute of it. Your review truly does it justice. If you're interested, I just reviewed his approved Website, repository of all things Koenig, on my blog at:
http://milkywayfarer.wordpress.com/
There I will link to your blog here about his bio. If you'd like to link back, feel free. Thank you again for such an intelligent in-depth review.

Alyce said...

This book sounds like a very fun read. I had to laugh about his comments on Star Trek V - it was so bad!

Tink said...

Great review!

Jon Clarke said...

I just bought this book for 68 censt on Amazon. I'm hoping it will tell me why I haven't quit stand-up.