Actor Sets a New Course : Theater: Walter Koenig is best known as navigator Chekov in 'Star Trek,' but he hopes his stage work helps change that.


No matter what else they do, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy will probably always be remembered for their roles in "Star Trek." But at least those were meaty roles.

Walter Koenig is worried that the only thing he'll be remembered for is saying "Aye, aye, captain."

"Because of my close association with 'Star Trek' I have not had all the good opportunities I would like," said Koenig, who played Pavel Chekov, the navigator with the Russian accent on the show. "I never got established as a character actor; people are not aware of what I can do.

"There are casting directors who won't even consider me for a part. I can't even get in to see them."

Out of frustration, Koenig has created his own opportunity to work. He has produced and co-stars in a production of "The Boys in Autumn," a two-character play by Bernard Sabath that will be at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center for one performance, on Sunday evening. The other actor in the drama, which spins a tale of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn reuniting in their 60s, is Mark Lenard, who played Spock's father in several "Star Trek" episodes and in four of the films.

"I love doing the play and I love working with Mark," said Koenig, a young-looking 55, over coffee at a Ventura Boulevard coffee shop. "But there is no question that part of the reason that I am doing it is that I have not had the opportunities in films and television that I would have liked.

"I don't want to come off as beating my breast and saying, 'Poor, poor me.' I had a great run on 'Star Trek.' But it is true that at this juncture in my life, if I am going to be working as an actor it is probably going to be in theater."

Koenig started his show-business career in theater. Born in Chicago, he went to college in Iowa and then UCLA, intending to get a degree in psychology. But while at UCLA he took the one acting class that changed his life. "After that I was not that fond of the prospect of a career in psychology," said Koenig, who lives in North Hollywood.

He went to New York and enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included James Caan, Dabney Coleman, Elizabeth Ashley and Brenda Vaccaro. Back in Los Angeles he acted in and directed several plays at the small Company of Angels and won a role in a professional production of "The Deputy" directed by Gordon Davidson at UCLA.

From 1967-69, he was in the "Star Trek" TV series, which brought him a good deal of notoriety but not many other opportunities. "I cannot lay all the responsibility on getting typecast because of 'Star Trek,' " he said. "There is also the whole issue of supply and demand, with there being so many more actors than parts. But it was a disappointment that I did not get offered better roles."

He did guest shots on several series and made-for-television movies, and also achieved some success as a writer, turning out scripts for several TV shows, including "Family" and "The Incredible Hulk."

He appeared in all the "Star Trek" films, beginning in 1979, and as with many of the cast members, supplemented his income by making personal appearances at "Star Trek" conventions, of which there are several a month.

A lot of fun has been poked at rabid fans of the show, who are disparagingly known as "Trekkies," but Koenig does not join in the bashing. "To be sure, there is a certain amount of tunnel vision in their perspective," he said, "but not to the point where they don't have a life. They get a bum rap. Generally, the people who are militant fans are very bright."

That does not mean that the convention appearances were fulfilling. "I know the routine," he said. "I tell little stories, I sign autographs. But I don't go away feeling like I have created anything, that I have left something behind."

A few years ago he thought to combine the lucrativeness of the convention appearances with his desire to act. He and Lenard--who in addition to playing Spock's father has appeared in several Broadway productions, and is the only actor to have portrayed three different aliens on the "Star Trek" series--worked up a production of a short play called "Actors" and performed it at "Star Trek" conventions.

"The fans were very supportive," Koenig said, adding that he and Lenard stopped doing the backstage drama only because Koenig felt he had aged too much for his role in the play.

Lenard saw "The Boys in Autumn" when it appeared briefly on Broadway in 1986 with George C. Scott and John Cullum in the lead roles. The play, which supposes that many unpleasant things happened to Huck and Tom in their later years, had previously been done in San Francisco with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Neither production met with much critical success.

"But what impressed me was that the audience adored the show," said Lenard, who lives in New York. "And it seemed ideal for us--two characters, a simple set, something that would travel well."

Lenard obtained a script and sent it on to Koenig.

"I fell in love with it, for all the wrong reasons," Koenig said. "I saw all the Angst of my character (Tom). I saw this wonderful chance to play all this disillusionment and pain," he said with a laugh.

With the help of his old friend, Allan Hunt, who agreed to direct the play, Koenig saw it differently.

"I realized that if I played it that way right from the start, it would become very boring very quickly."

They performed the play at a "Star Trek" convention in Denver where a sell-out crowd of 700 bought tickets to see it in a hotel ballroom. Koenig produced the play at the small Los Angeles Art Theatre in North Hollywood last year, putting up most of the funding himself. "Although I could have afforded to put up all the money for it, it was important to me that I had at least a couple of angels aboard too, just from a psychological point of view."

Among his angels were friends Richard and Esther Shapiro of "Dynasty" fame.

Koenig also didn't give himself the title of producer, he said, to avoid the perception that it was a vanity production.

The show got good reviews, including some raves, and did good enough business that in the last weekend of the six-week run many people had to be turned away from the box office. Joan Simmons, who packages arts programs for college and community theaters, saw it and took on the show.

"It's a wonderful show and people know Walter and Mark from 'Star Trek,' so I thought this was something I could work with," said Simmons, who has booked tours of shows with Julie Harris, Rita Moreno and others. She booked "The Boys in Autumn" into a theater in Poway, outside San Diego, and into Lancaster and hopes it will be done several times this summer.

The show's success in Los Angeles was gratifying to Koenig, but it has not attracted new offers. He has publicly spoken about his disappointment at not having a larger part in the recently released "Star Trek VI" and he has no new work in the offing other than the play.

But he thinks that by making his own opportunities in theater, he is at least edging toward the kind of parts that will make him known as someone more than just one of the crew members of the Starship Enterprise.

"One of the great frustrations in my life is that the breadth and depth of my contribution as an actor, as far as the general public is concerned, has been the character of Chekov," he said. "But all that attention that I got for it is based on what I think of as a minor contribution. What I would like is for the attention, the positive feedback, to come with a contribution that is worthy of it.

"When I do this play and people say, 'You were really good,' 'We really like watching you work,' 'We really like you,' then it means so much to me. Then it is not just because I was part of something famous."

"The Boys in Autumn" plays Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, 750 W. Lancaster Blvd., Lancaster. Tickets are $18 and $13. Information: (805) 723-5950.

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