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Obituaries / Joseph Pevney, 1911 - 2008

Director's 'Star Trek' work won over fans

May 29, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Joseph Pevney, a film and television director who directed some of the most popular episodes of the original "Star Trek" TV series in the late 1960s, has died. He was 96.

Pevney, a former Broadway actor who played supporting roles in several notable films noir in the late 1940s before directing movies such as "Man of a Thousand Faces" and "Tammy and the Bachelor," died May 18 of age-related causes at his home in Palm Desert, said his wife, Margo.

Focusing on television from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, when he retired, Pevney directed episodes of numerous series such as "Wagon Train," "The Munsters," "The Fugitive," "Bonanza," "12 O'Clock High," "The Virginian," "Adam-12," "Marcus Welby, M.D.," "Emergency," "The Incredible Hulk," "Fantasy Island," "Medical Center" and "Trapper John, M.D."

But "Star Trek," the classic science-fiction series that ran on NBC from 1966 to 1969, was Pevney's most enduring television credit as a director and made him a familiar name to Trekkers.

As has been noted on "Star Trek" fan sites since his death, Pevney directed 14 episodes of the original series, tying with the late Marc Daniels as the credited director of the most episodes.

Pevney directed some of the top fan-favorite episodes, including "The City on the Edge of Forever," "Amok Time," "The Trouble With Tribbles" and "Journey to Babel."

"The first half of the second year of the show, when he was alternating with Marc Daniels, is regarded as the best part of the series," said Jeff Bond, author of "The Music of Star Trek" and editor of the magazine Geek Monthly. "That's when it hit its stride. There was more humor, it was more adventurous, and the tone, I think, was lighter."

Bond said Pevney directed "the first real comedy episode of the series, 'The Trouble With Tribbles,' which was a complete, all-out comedy about the ship sort of getting infested with a bunch of furry creatures. And he certainly worked on some of the strongest dramatic episodes."

"The City on the Edge of Forever," from a script by Harlan Ellison and guest-starring Joan Collins, "is considered to be the best episode of the original series," Bond said.

George Takei, who played Sulu on the series, recalled Pevney as being "very organized and authoritarian" as a director.

"He was very precise in what he wanted," Takei told The Times, "but he was very relaxed -- in fact, jovial -- in the way he directed. I enjoyed working with him."

Pevney's son, Jay, said his father "loved the series and enjoyed working with the actors and being part of the beginning of it. He was surprised at the longevity of it because it was not a popular series at the time; it hit its real popularity [in syndication] after it was over."

Born Sept. 15, 1911, in New York City, Pevney launched his more than 60-year show-business career in 1924 as a boy soprano in vaudeville.

After becoming an actor, he appeared on Broadway in the 1930s and '40s in plays such as "Battle Hymn," "The World We Make," "Native Son" and "Home of the Brave."

During World War II, he served in the Army Signal Corps and staged revues for troops in Europe.

After the war, Pevney was part of actor Paul Muni's "Key Largo" troupe when he arrived in Los Angeles. He made his film debut as the piano-playing killer in the 1946 film noir "Nocturne," starring George Raft.

"Joe's acting career when he came to Hollywood was confined exclusively to noir," said Alan K. Rode, a film noir expert who interviewed Pevney several times. "He carved out a kind of temporary niche of being the sidekick."

Pevney appeared in "Thieves' Highway," "The Street With No Name" and "Body and Soul," the classic boxing film in which he played John Garfield's feisty pal Shorty Polaski.

"Joe told me he was more cut out to be a director rather than an actor," Rode said. "He liked staging and working with actors."

Pevney made his debut as a movie director with "Shakedown," a 1950 film noir with Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy and Lawrence Tierney.

"He made a cameo appearance at the end of the film, and that was the last time he appeared on the big screen," Rode said.

Pevney went on to direct more than 35 movies, most of them in the 1950s, including "Meet Danny Wilson," starring Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters; "3 Ring Circus," starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; "Female on the Beach," starring Joan Crawford and Jeff Chandler; and "Twilight for the Gods," starring Rock Hudson and Cyd Charisse.

At his peak at Universal-International in 1957, Pevney had three movies open simultaneously in Los Angeles theaters: "Man of a Thousand Faces," a biographical drama about silent film star Lon Chaney, starring James Cagney; "Tammy and the Bachelor," a comedy-romance starring Debbie Reynolds; and "The Midnight Story," a crime-drama starring Tony Curtis.

Pevney retired in 1985 and moved to Palm Desert several years later.

His first wife, actress Mitzi Green, died in 1969; his second wife, Philippa, died in 1996; and his son, David, died in 1998.

In addition to Margo, his wife of six years, and his son Jay, Pevney is survived by his daughter, Jan Pevney Holt; his son, Joel; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

At his request, no services will be held.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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