The Nod That Launched A Thousand (Star)Ships: How Lucille Ball Saved STAR TREK
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By John C. Alsedek:
Back in 2016, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Star Trek to be the most successful franchise in television history. And it’s tough to argue otherwise: Star Trek has spawned seven television series (with at least three more on the way) and won 31 Emmy Awards, not to mention 13 major motion pictures. But if not for a simple nod from "America’s Favorite Redhead," none of that would have happened. Don’t believe it? Well, read
on . . .
Back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, television was still a new frontier, one that had caught the major motion picture studios largely unawares. For the most part, they were unprepared to produce programming for the new medium, and that left the door open for smaller companies to fill the gap. A whole cottage industry of brand-new, TV-specific production houses sprang up around Hollywood, and one of the biggest was Desilu Productions.
Desilu Productions was formed by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz in 1950. With the stunning success of I Love Lucy, which aired from 1951 until 1957 (plus as a series of one-hour specials for three more years), Desilu became a major player. Already based in studio space next to RKO Pictures, the bankruptcy of RKO in 1957 gave Desilu the opportunity to purchase RKO’s extensive production facilities and therefore vastly expand its own production footprint. Some of the most fondly remembered comedy programs of the period were either produced directly by Desilu or produced by other companies on the Desilu lots: The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, My Favorite Martian, and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. are just some of the nearly sixty shows shot at Desilu.
But they didn’t just do comedy. In the last column, we talked about how The Twilight Zone owed its existence to the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, an anthology program that also served as the launching pad for the popular crime drama The Untouchables. Desilu also produced the spy thriller Mission: Impossible and the hardnosed P.I. show Mannix . . . as well as a show described by its creator as "Wagon Train to the stars."
In 1964, writer/producer Gene Roddenberry pitched a science fiction series entitled Star Trek to Desilu, which agreed to shop it to the networks. While CBS passed, NBC was curious enough to commission a pilot episode, "The Cage," starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike (large portions of "The Cage" would later turn up in the Star Trek episode "The Menagerie"). On viewing the pilot, NBC wasn’t quite ready to get on board with it but, in a nearly unprecedented move, commissioned a second pilot with a revamped cast. That second attempt was "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the very first glimpse of the original Star Trek series. It featured William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk, replacing Hunter as the lead; Leonard Nimoy remained as the Vulcan Mr. Spock but got a bump up in rank to second-in-command, replacing Majel Barrett, a Desilu regular since 1957 who moved into the role of Nurse Christine Chapel. NBC bit on the second pilot, and Star Trek was a go for the 1966–67 season.
Just one problem: Desilu was in big financial trouble. The problem was twofold. First, Desilu was facing ever-increasing competition from the major studios, who were finally taking television seriously and not as just as a fad. And second, there had been a series of questionable business decisions made by Gary Morton, Co-Chairman of the Desilu Board of Directors and Ball’s second husband (she and Arnaz had gotten divorced, and she’d bought Desi out in 1962). Suddenly, Desilu found itself faced with producing three expensive new series at the same time: Star Trek for NBC, Mission: Impossible for CBS, and The Long Hunt for April Savage for ABC. Could Desilu Productions, still a small studio by Hollywood standards, handle the financial demands of doing all three shows simultaneously?
The Desilu Board of Directors clearly didn’t think so. Despite Star Trek already having been ordered by NBC, they voted all but unanimously (Bernard Weitzman was the sole dissenting vote) to cancel plans to produce the show. And that would have been the end of Star Trek if not for a simple nod from Lucille Ball. With that nod to Herbert Franklin Solow, Vice-President of Production for Desilu and Star Trek’s champion in the boardroom, Lucy overrode the Board of Directors—as was her right as Chairwoman—and the rest is history.
Unfortunately, so was Desilu just a few years later. Having seen the end of the "ma & pa production companies" coming, Ms. Ball took an offer of $17 million from Gulf & Western in late July of 1967, bringing Desilu under the same corporate umbrella as next-door neighbor Paramount; by the end of ’67, Desilu had essentially been turned into "Paramount Television." Under the terms of the sale, Desilu productions Star Trek and Mission: Impossible would continue to be produced till the end of their respective runs, and they were. For Mission: Impossible, that end wouldn’t be for five more years. However, the end came much sooner for Star Trek.
Star Trek had begun its run with strong ratings, but those ratings had slid substantially by the end of the first season. A massive letter-writing campaign by the show’s die-hard fans kept it alive for Season Two; however, a move to the Friday night "death slot" and the resulting resignation of Gene Roddenberry as producer spelled the end after a shortened third season.
But that was just the beginning of the Star Trek story. Hoping to recoup some of its production losses from the pricey sci-fi series, Paramount offered Star Trek into syndication; less than a decade after it had originally been canceled, Star Trek was airing in over 200 markets worldwide and had a devoted fanbase far larger than it had ever garnered during its initial run. That fanbase led to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) . . . well, you get the idea. As one of millions of kids enthralled by the adventures of the Enterprise crew, thank you Lucy!
And speaking of Lucy . . . today, she’s probably best remembered for the iconic TV series I Love Lucy. But did you know that, long before I Love Lucy hit the airwaves, she was big on radio, and a frequent guest star on radio’s all-time great anthology series, Suspense? We’ll be discussing how some of the biggest comic talents of the 1940’s got to bring tales of murder and mayhem to millions of homes next time . . . until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.