“Star Trek’s” U.S.S. Enterprise’s ambitious mission was “to boldly go where no man has gone before” in outer space. The same can be said of Desilu Studios in the TV space, where, in 1966, challenges abounded to get the show on the air. Desilu produced the original “Star Trek” series, the first primetime science-fiction color TV series aimed at adults, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.
In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, Herbert F. Solow, 85, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the sales challenges and battles with NBC he surmounted to premiere the now-classic series in September 1966.
Solow. who ran Desilu from 1964 to 1967, immediately saw “Star Trek’s” potential and signed its creator, Gene Roddenberry, to a script deal. He developed the show’s concept with Roddenberry, then persuaded NBC to pony up money to finance two different pilot shows and singlehandedly persuaded the network to put the series on the air. All cast and crew, and Roddenberry too, reported to Solow, the executive in charge of production.
When Solow joined the Desilu as vice president of production, it was a struggling studio. He soon turned it into one so sound that Gulf + Western, which owned Paramount Pictures, bought it and made Desilu Paramount Television.
“Star Trek” would famously go on to become a global money-making juggernaut for Paramount, with four TV show spinoffs – a fifth due in January – an animated series and more than a dozen feature films.
The 13th, “Star Trek Beyond,” imbued with the soul and spirt of the original series and starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana, opens Friday.
Lucille Ball, the star of “I love Lucy,” was the sole owner of Desilu after she and Desi Arnaz, who had run the studio, divorced in 1960. Ball was a superb comic actress but, alas, not a business executive. So she hired Solow to run the shop for her. He was previously head of NBC daytime programming on the West Coast and program director of the network’s film division.
At Desilu, Solow in short order developed three important shows: “Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Mannix.”
When TV writer Roddenberry showed up at Solow’s Los Angeles office in spring 1964 to pitch a show about a spaceship that travels the universe seeking strange, new worlds to explore, the ex-pilot and police officer described one of the crewmembers, Mr. Spock, as a red devil with a pointy tail.
No network would ever buy a show with a devil as one of the lead characters, Solow informed him firmly. Yet, with compromise, negotiation and sales muscle, Solow went on to sell the series to NBC. Half-alien Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy – who died in 2015 — turned out to be the series’ coolest character and largely responsible for “Star Trek’s” enduring popularity. Roddenberry died in 1991.
The show’s first pilot, rejected by NBC, starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. He was replaced in the second pilot by William Shatner as the newly named, lusty Captain James T. Kirk. On the bridge with him was a diverse array of characters: Sulu (Asian), “Scotty,” “Bones,” Uhura (African-American and the only female member), Chekov (Russian) and, of course, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock.
Though “Star Trek” stories were imaginative and had moral lessons, such attributes might have not been strong enough draws to attract a wide viewership in the late 1960s, judging by the ratings. After only three seasons, NBC canceled the show, citing lack of broad appeal. The last episode aired in June 1969. However, during the 1970s, as a syndicated show, where local stations controlled scheduling and targeted viewers, “Star Trek” found an incredibly devoted audience. To date, there has been no let-up in exuberant Trekkies to conventions worldwide.
ThinkAdvisor talked by phone with Solow, now a screenwriter based in California and Idaho. After “Star Trek’s” first two seasons, he joined MGM, where he became vice president in charge of worldwide theatrical and television production. His success in lifting “Star Trek” off the launching pad is a notable lesson in how to overcome sales objections. Here are highlights of our conversation:
THINKADVISOR: How much input did Lucille Ball have in “Star Trek”?
HERBERT SOLOW: Absolutely none. She had no idea what “Star Trek” was. She thought it was about a group of performers traveling to entertain troops in Vietnam – a star trek. She wasn’t joking.
Desi Arnaz, Lucy’s husband, had run Desilu, but they divorced in 1960, and she became “Madam President.”
That was a lot of foolishness. Lucy was a magnificent comedienne. I found her to be a nice person. We got along very well. But she wasn’t anyone that dealt with studio politics, producers, directors, stars. The first day I reported to Desilu, she called me in and said, “Get me some shows.” That’s why I was hired.
Gene Roddenberry pitched you “Star Trek.” What was the gist?
He walked into my office and told me about this series he wanted to do where one of the characters aboard the spaceship, Mr. Spock, was the devil – painted red and with a pointy tail. I said, “Are you crazy? No network is going to buy a show with the devil as one of the leads! If you want pointy ears in order to show there’s an alien on the ship, that’s fine. But get rid of the tail!”
You did two pilot shows. NBC didn’t pick up the first one to make into a series because they said they couldn’t sell it to affiliates in the South.
Right. Susan Oliver played a green dancing slave girl. They said, “You can’t have a naked green girl wiggling on the local Nashville station.”
Then you convinced NBC to make a second pilot, in which William Shatner replaced Jeffrey Hunter — who had bowed out — as captain of the Enterprise. What was NBC’s reaction to that pilot?
The West Coast vice president [of sales] said they couldn’t sell a show to affiliates in the Baptist south that had a character with pointed ears who was perceived as the devil. But I refused to change the ears.
How did that go over?
I made a deal that if, after the first six episodes, the show wasn’t doing well, I’d give Leonard [Nimoy, as Spock] an ear job. The first six shows went on the air, and it was obvious that “Star Trek” had a huge following because of Leonard. The fan mail started pouring in for him. It was proof that Greater America accepted the character, and that ended all thinking about changing his ears.
How would you characterize Gene Roddenberry? His son, Rod Roddenberry, has told me: “A lot of people put my father on a pedestal, but he was just as flawed as the rest of us. He made mistakes.”
The biggest myth about “Star Trek” is that Roddenberry was a talented person. He built an image that he was The Second Coming – except to those who knew him. He took credit for things that other people wrote. He was an untalented, money-grubbing, womanizing, pill-popping fraud.
But he was “Star Trek’s” producer. Did he help you sell the show to the network?
When I went in to pitch it to NBC, I refused to let him open his mouth. He wasn’t the sharpest guy in town – let’s put it that way.
How were the two pilots financed?
Back then, the networks never paid the full cost of a show. They expected the studios to deficit finance. So If NBC gave me, for example, $600,000 to do the first pilot and it cost $700,000, the difference had to come from Desilu.
What was one of your selling points to NBC to make a second pilot?
I told them that “Star Trek” was one of the only shows on TV where you could represent a purple tree. The F.C.C. had just granted rights to the RCA color process. I emphasized that if NBC [owned by RCA] put “Star Trek” on the air, it would help [RCA chair Gen. David] Sarnoff sell television sets. Robert Sarnoff, his son, was president of NBC. I later learned that NBC was keeping a separate rating service where they rated color shows. The highest rated show on that list was always “Star Trek.”