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How the First ‘Star Trek’ Got Off the Ground

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“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.”

Herbert Solow, producer of the original "Star Trek"

Was the TV industry shocked that NBC ordered “Star Trek” as a series?

People were very surprised that a company that Lucy owned would make a deal away from CBS, where she had a show and a development deal for many years. She was a CBS property.

Were you surprised too?

No, because I had come to Desilu from NBC. I’d been there for almost my entire professional life and had direct access to the people who made the decisions. My closest friend there was Grant Tinker [who later became NBC chairman-CEO]. So when I had “Star Trek” in development, I called him.

What was the biggest challenge in producing “Star Trek” as a weekly series?

Staying on budget. It was a very costly show. NBC put up only about $193,000 per episode. So when we had to spend extra money and deficit finance, it came out of Lucy’s pocket. Desilu was solely owned by Lucy.

Was deficit financing a strain on the studio?

It was. In fact, after I got the [initial 16-episode] order from NBC to take “Star Trek” into series, Desilu’s financial vice president told Lucy to turn down the whole thing because they couldn’t afford it. He wanted her to sell the NBC series commitment to another studio.

How did you react?

I said, “Forget that!” When you develop a show, you feel it has a future, that there’s value there. And I was charged to get good shows on the air.

Why was deficit financing so difficult for Desilu?

It wasn’t a motion picture studio, as was the case of Screen Gems being the television arm of Columbia Pictures, for example. If they needed deficit financing on their television series, there was a constant supply of money coming in from the pictures they produced and sold. The only extra money that came in to Desilu was from leasing [sound] stages we owned to other programs. They weren’t Desilu shows; they just rented the space.

Was deficit financing needed for every single episode of “Star Trek” while you were with Desilu?

Yes. The thinking behind it was: Why should NBC pay us the full amount to do an episode when we would sell it into syndication and overseas, and so on? Networks had the expectation that companies wouldn’t need the full amount to produce a series because they were getting money elsewhere.

Must have been hard to stay on budget when some of the episodes called for special outer-space optics or sets that had to be built for only one show.

Going in, I think we controlled the budget very well. But we fought that battle all the time. Controlling the budget meant controlling the creative aspects.  So, if the art director was confronted with a very difficult set to do or if the script called for too many effects, that could cause the show to go over-budget.

“Star Trek” indeed had to create unusual props and wardrobe.

We invented as we went along, but we had to be careful with everything we did. Back then, there weren’t the effects that you have today — no computers, no CGI.  You couldn’t make the individual effects cheaper: Whatever you wrote, you had to do.

What’s an example of a way you tried to keep costs down?

The Enterprise never landed. It would have been very expensive to have it land: Where would it land? How would it land? What would it land on? These were all optical effects. How do the people get off the Enterprise? So the way to ignore all that and the potential costs was to never allow the Enterprise to land.

You say in the book you co-wrote, “Inside Star Trek: The Real Story” (Pocket Books 1996) that for the second season, one of the stars demanded a higher raise than the contract specified.  What star was that?

It was Leonard’s agent. Leonard was the real star of “Star Trek,” who had become known around the world. However, he was making [only] $1,200 an episode, total. But at that point, he didn’t get the increase because we didn’t have any money.

“Star Trek” is known for addressing social and political issues — though always cloaked in science fiction. Were those themes part of Roddenberry’s vison?

“Star Trek” was entertainment. When we did a parallel to the Vietnam War, we did it to get ratings — to entertain and make some money for the studio. Roddenberry wanted to make money; that’s all he wanted to do.

You were still at Desilu in 1967, when Lucy sold it to Gulf + Western. Obviously, you played a big role in making the studio saleable.

I got three series on the air – “Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Mannix.” That enabled Lucy to sell the studio. When I arrived, there was nothing for her to sell.   

Was “Star Trek” important to Gulf + Western in buying Desilu, which became Paramount Television since G+W owned Paramount?

They didn’t want to include “Star Trek” in the purchase because it was a flawed, over-budget show by that time. They didn’t want to buy a losing show because that meant it would keep on losing.  But Lucy’s lawyer convinced them “either you take it all, or you take none of it.” So Desilu ended up as part of Paramount Pictures. What was your role after the acquisition?

I was suddenly vice president of Paramount Television. I was accustomed to running a small studio, but now I was just taking care of a department. The business guys would come in and drive me crazy: “Have I looked ahead to increasing the salability of my product?” they’d say. I had a choice of studios I could work at; so I decided to leave. I chose MGM because all their television series had been canceled. I could start from scratch and run the place the way I wanted to.

Did you keep up a relationship with Lucy?

After I left Paramount, I didn’t see her again for seven years until she stopped me on the street one day in Beverly Hills and asked, “Herb, where’s Giorgio’s [apparel boutique]?” She complimented me about how well I’d done and then disappeared into the crowd.

Lucy is known for not having been particularly funny off-screen. What was your take?

She wasn’t funny at all. She just wasn’t a funny person. Lucy was not a comic. She was an actress who did comedy. That was her job, and she did it beautifully.

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