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THEATER NOTES : Actor Boldly Goes Into 'The Time Machine' : Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in 'Star Trek,' will appear in a staged reading of H. G. Wells' classic novel.

March 17, 1994|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It seems as though Walter Koenig can't get too far from science fiction.

The actor, who broke through with his portrayal of Ensign Pavel Chekov in the "Star Trek" television series, keeps returning to the future--in the highly popular series of "Star Trek" feature films, writing science fiction-oriented comic books and novels, and writing and/or appearing in television shows with a science-fiction bent.

On Saturday night, he'll be appearing at the Westlake High School auditorium in a staged reading of H. G. Wells' classic novel "The Time Machine." The performance will benefit the Santa Susana Repertory Company, members of which will co-star with Koenig under the direction of Lane Davies.

Koenig grew up in New York City and attended Grinnell College in Iowa as a pre-med major. After "discovering that I could never match the textbook examples with my organic chemistry experiments," he transferred to Los Angeles, graduating from UCLA with a degree in psychology.

In the meantime, he'd been cultivating an interest in the theater.

"I'd played leads in two plays in high school and performed in 'Morning Becomes Elektra' at Grinnell after discovering that I had a feel for acting, and that I was getting some social reinforcement--I was something of a wallflower," he said.

One of Koenig's UCLA professors wrote a letter of introduction to the Neighborhood Playhouse back in New York City. Koenig's classmates during the two years he spent there included stars-to-be James Caan, Christopher Lloyd, Dabney Coleman, Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter.

Moving back to Los Angeles, Koenig began to land television roles including, prophetically, a defecting Russian student on the high school-set "Mr. Novak."

"I had an interesting variety of roles," he said of those days. "If there was one common aspect to the parts I got, it was that many of them were ethnic--I was an Arabian rock 'n' roll singer in 'I Spy.' And I was always playing parts younger that I really was. Chekov was supposed to be 22 when I started playing him; I was 32 at the time." (He's now 57).

In 1967, Chekov joined the crew of the USS Enterprise as assistant navigator just in time for the show's second season and remained on board for the remainder of the show's brief run; it was canceled by NBC, due to poor ratings, two years later.

When the show left the air, Koenig said, he was despondent.

"After 'Star Trek,' I found myself totally at sea," he said. "I had no reason to get up in the morning. . . . By that time, though I could no longer play juveniles, I was not seen as physically mature enough to play doctors and lawyers." Too, he said, "typecasting may have played a part."

He began writing, contributing scripts to various '70s series, including "Family," "Land of the Lost" and "The Incredible Hulk."

He also began work on a novel, "Buck Alice and the Actor-Robot," which he described as "a strange, satiric fantasy about the world being invaded by aliens and the only people left were losers. Writing it was great therapy, and I got it published 18 years later."

He also returned to the local stage, directing shows around Los Angeles, and teaching acting and directing at UCLA.

Koenig must have been at least as surprised as anybody else when, in 1975, he heard that Paramount Pictures, which owned the failed TV series, was about to make a "Star Trek" movie--prompted, he assumed, by the success of George Lucas' "Star Wars."

Koenig signed on, and the film became a franchise--"Star Trek--the Motion Picture" spawned five sequels (the last in 1991) and led to the TV series "Star Trek--the Next Generation." While the Enterprise crew seems to have retired at last, there has been talk that several of them might appear in the first "Next Generation" feature film.

"The 'Next Generation' film originally included all of us in the forward," Koenig said. "More recently, it was down to Bill (Shatner), Leonard (Nimoy) and DeForest (Kelley). Leonard has made it clear that he won't do it; Bill, who has the biggest part, probably will."

Even without "Next Generation," Koenig's connection to "Star Trek" and science fiction continue. He and Mark Lenard (who played Mr. Spock's father in "Trek") occasionally tour in the play "The Boys in Autumn." Koenig has also written several issues of the comic book series "Raver," which he created, and he has a recurring role in the "Star Trek"-influenced TV series "Babylon 5."

But his Trekkie days may finally be over. Now, he said, he is "very comfortable about moving on. For years, I felt that I was on one end of a very elastic umbilical cord that would stretch but not break. But now I feel comfortable away from the series and would prefer to spend what time I have left in other areas."

Details

* WHAT: "The Time Machine."

* WHEN: Saturday night at 8.

* WHERE: Westlake High School auditorium, 100 N. Lakeview Canyon Road, Westlake.

* HOW MUCH: General admission tickets are $25, a portion of which is tax-deductible.

* FYI: For reservations or information, call 374-8282.

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