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Harve Bennett dies at 84; TV producer rescued 'Star Trek' film franchise

Harve Bennett, TV producer who rescued the 'Star Trek' film franchise with the 'Wrath of Khan' sequel, dies

In the wake of the first "Star Trek" movie in 1979, producer Harve Bennett, who had a solid track record in TV with hits like "The Mod Squad" and "The Six Million Dollar Man," was called into a meeting with top Paramount Studio executives to talk about developing the second film in the series.

Asked what he thought of the first one, Bennett — never short of chutzpah — told the execs, "I thought it was boring."

Challenged to make a better movie, he watched every episode of the original TV series and spotted one guest-star creature that intrigued him. The name: Khan.

Bennett, 84, who is credited with saving that blockbuster movie franchise with his "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and then producing three more films in the series, died Feb. 25 at Providence Medford Medical Center in Medford, Ore.

He had been in declining health, said his stepdaughter, Tara Ettley. Bennett and his wife, Jani, retired to the Medford area several years ago.

His death came two days after that of Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the "Star Trek" TV shows and movies.

Bennett, whose other hit shows included "The Bionic Woman," miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" and TV movie "A Woman Called Golda," which won him a 1982 Emmy, got his first taste of show business at 10 when he was selected to be a contestant on the nationally broadcast radio show "Quiz Kids."

He was so good at answering questions, especially on history, that he was on the competitive show 212 times before reaching the maximum age of 16.

Nicholas Meyer, who directed "The Wrath of Khan," said one of Bennett's gifts was the ability to analyze shows and figure out what made them compelling. In the case of "Star Trek," Bennett told Meyer it came down to dynamics among three main characters.

"Kirk was the leader and everyman," Meyer said in an interview Friday. "Spock represented logic and McCoy was the bleeding heart liberal. You put that troika together and it all works."

For the villain, Bennett chose Khan Noonien Singh, extravagantly played in the 1967 "Star Trek" episode and the 1982 movie by Ricardo Montalbán. Khan was head of a race of genetically altered super beings.

He was "a clear-cut antagonist," Bennett told the Seattle Times in 2003. "A man of an intellect which equaled the combined trio's intellect in a way, so it was a worthy adversary."

With the outer space story dynamics in place, Bennett still had to overcome numerous Earth-bound problems to get the film made the way he wanted. Nimoy, for example, had tired of playing Spock.

Bennett said he took the actor to dinner and asked him, "What if I offered you the greatest death scene since 'Psycho?'"

Nimoy's climactic scene was seen as one of the reasons "Wrath of Khan" was a hit, far outdistancing the first "Star Trek" movie.

In a 1996 Los Angeles Times interview, Bennett pointed out that the New York Times review of "Wrath of Khan" began, "Now, that's more like it."

"I'll never forget that," Bennett said. "I'd like that on my tombstone."

Harve Bennett Fischman was born on Aug. 17, 1930 in Chicago. "Quiz Kids" was a formative experience that later opened the door to his career as a producer. But at the time, he had mixed feelings about the show.

"The 'Quiz Kids' was part of the reason I dropped my last name, and partly it was my Jewishness, part of being a bright Jewish kid, having expectations heaped upon me," he said in a 1982 New York Times interview.

At 18 he enrolled at UCLA, earning a degree in film. He served in the Army and then went to New York where in 1955 he got a job interview at CBS television.

The interview did not go well, but as he was leaving the building, he heard someone yell out, "Hey, quiz kid!"

"It was Garry Moore, who at the time had probably the best, most watched daytime television show," Bennett said in a 2008 Academy of Television Arts and Sciences interview. Moore, who was one of the many celebrities who appeared with the kids, took him to personnel and insisted he be hired.

"The moment is enshrined in my memory as the beginning of my career," Bennett said. He worked on several shows, including a daytime program that had Johnny Carson as a guest host. When Carson took over the show and it moved to Los Angeles, Bennett went with it.

He switched to ABC and got his first major post as a nighttime program producer on "The Mod Squad" series that he co-created. The show, which debuted in 1968, was about three youthful crime-fighting agents, famously described as, "one black, one white, one blonde". It has been described as one of the first counter-culture shows on network television.

"The final irony is that in its first season, it was slotted against an NBC show called 'Star Trek,'" Bennett said in the Academy interview. "'Star Trek' didn't do well against 'Mod Squad.'"

In addition to his wife, Bennett's survivors include daughters Samantha, Callie and Susan; and a son Christopher.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

 

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