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Obituaries

Michael Piller, 57; Was a Force Behind Later 'Star Trek' Series

November 03, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Michael Piller, a writer and producer best known as one of the creative forces behind the "Star Trek" television franchise and whose scripts brought a human touch to the intergalactic saga, has died. He was 57.

Piller died Tuesday of cancer at his home in Los Angeles, his family said.

The first episode Piller wrote for the syndicated "Star Trek: The Next Generation," in 1989, revealed a love for baseball and a knack for creating morality plays set in the 24th century that resonated with viewers.

When "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry asked Piller to become a staff writer, Piller recalled being scared and saying, "I don't know anything about sci-fi, but I can help your characters evolve," he told StarTrek.com.

Rick Berman, executive producer of the "Star Trek" series, said in a statement, "Michael had more integrity than just about anyone I have ever met. His passion for writing and his ability to recognize and nurture talent in others never faltered." Berman took over the series after Roddenberry's death in 1991.

Piller eventually became the head writer and executive producer of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which aired until 1994. He co-created and produced the syndicated "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" from 1992 to 1995 and UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager" from 1994 to 1996.

He also wrote the 1998 film "Star Trek: Insurrection." The Times review -- headlined "An Enterprising Ninth" because it was the ninth movie in the series -- said the film had a "gee-whiz affability."

In 1999, Piller formed a production company with his son, Shawn, called Piller2.

"I'm at an age in this town that it gets harder and harder to get attention," he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2002. "I bring Shawn with me into the room and suddenly our median age is somewhere in the 30s, and that means a lot."

Their first project was the TV show "The Dead Zone," based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which debuted on the USA Network in 2002 and remains on the air.

King's story of a high school teacher whose perfect life is ruined by a near-fatal crash appealed to him, Pillar once told The Times, because he was looking for "anything that will allow me to do what I think I do well, and that is to explore the life we live in."

Piller was born May 30, 1948, in Port Chester, N.Y. His father was a screenwriter who, according to a story told by Piller, sabotaged his career when he punched a producer at a restaurant. His mother, Ruth Roberts, is a songwriter who expressed her love for baseball in song.

She wrote "It's a Beautiful Day for a Ball Game," the longtime radio theme of the Dodgers, in 1960 and "Meet the Mets," which has been played before every New York Mets home game since 1963. (Her son amassed a collection of more than 200,000 baseball cards, according to IMDB.com.)

Piller graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor's degree in radio, television and motion pictures in 1970 and worked as a TV journalist in New York, North Carolina and Chicago.

"Local news was changing, and I discovered I was more adept at making pictures dance than delivering the news," Piller told the Chicago Tribune in 1993.

When the Chicago station he worked at scheduled Kermit the Frog to co-anchor a newscast, Piller decided it was time to give Los Angeles and the entertainment business a try.

For two years, he worked as a censor at CBS and broke into scriptwriting on "Cagney & Lacey" (1982-88) and "Simon & Simon" (1981-88).

Known for encouraging young writers, Piller donated $500,000 to help launch a screenwriting program at his alma mater. He said the "Southern voice" was much needed in Hollywood.

Attending the university in the 1960s "profoundly affected" him, he once said. "I had the experience of being introduced to an extraordinarily wide section of people, many of whom have shown up in my work in alien disguise."

In addition to his mother and his son, Piller is survived by his wife, Sandra, and daughter, Brent.

Memorial donations may be made to the Michael Piller Distinguished Professorship at Carolina Writing for the Screen and Stage Program Arts and Sciences Foundation, 134 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C., 27514.

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