Tuesday, October 11, 2016

During the 50th anniversary celebrations for Star Trek, a lot of people made claims that Lucille Ball not only "created" but also "saved" the show.

No, I don't think so. Lucille Ball had a lot less to do with Star Trek than people think. In their book Inside Star Trek, executive in charge of production Herb Solow and co-poducer Robert H. Justman talk about how Lucy really didn't know what Star Trek was and didn't have much to do with the show.

When Solow was hired, Lucy told him "I'm just the girl from Stage 12." (Stage 12 is where The Lucy Show was filmed.) She made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with running the studio, and that she'd had no experience doing so. She'd relied heavily on her husband, Desi Arnaz, to run the business side of things. But Lucy and Desi had divorced in 1960, and Lucy bought out Desi's interest in Desilu in November 1962. Lucy may have occasionally relied on Desi (with whom she remained friends) for personal business advice, but the studio was going to be run by Oscar Katz and Herb Solow. (Katz was a producer whom Desilu had hired to be Executive Vice-President for Production. But since Katz had little in the way of television experience, that meant Solow.)

In 1963, CBS had given Lucy a $600,000 TV pilot develpment fund out of gratitude for what she'd done for the network with I Love Lucy and then The Lucy Show. By that time, Desilu was almost moribund, with just two series in production -- You Don't Say! (a game show entering its fourth season), and The Lucy Show (entering its fifth season). (A bunch of other programs -- The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC, I Spy, and Hogan's Heroes -- all filmed on the Desilu lot, however.) The studio was dilapidated, antiquated, and small. To try to generate some production, Desilu signed a deal with Ashley-Famous, a talent agency that represented writers. In March 1964, Ashley-Famous sent Gene Roddenberry to meet with Solow. Roddenberry's existing series, The Lieutenant starring Gary Lockwood, had just been cancelled by NBC. Roddenberry had a 16-page treatment for a science fiction series he called Star Trek, and Solow committed to it on the spot.

As is well-known, Roddenberry next set up a meeting with CBS without Desilu assistance, and fucked it up. CBS passed on the show. (Star Trek was not very original. Television had been littered with outer space exploration shows throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.) In early May, Solow set up a meeting with friends at NBC, which included future network head Grant Tinker. NBC agreed to consider the pilot.

Roddenberry now began writing a script for a pilot. An outline was ready by the end of June, and a first draft by mid-September. A final draft was ready for pre-production by the middle of October. As usual, Solow gave all Desilu executives -- including Lucille Ball -- a copy of the script for the Star Trek pilot, "The Menagerie". Months later, Solow was in Lucy's dressing room and saw the script laying exactly where she'd put it down months earlier. Unread. As per her agreement, Lucy allowed Solow to run the studio with carte blanche.

Work on "The Menagerie" was finished in December 1964 and shown to NBC, but the network wanted changes. So a second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before", was produced and completed in in January 1966. NBC approved it the following month.

Solow met with the Desilu board members in April 1966 to discuss the studio's slate of productions for the coming year. The board included Lucy herself; Mickey Rudin, Lucy's personal attorney; Art Manella, Lucy's tax attorney; Katz; Ed Holly, Desilu's Vice president for finances; Argie Nelson, Desilu's Vice President for production; Fred Ball, Lucy's brother; and Bernie Weitzman, Desilu's Vice President for business affairs. Lucy was chairman of the board, but she was content (Solow says) to let her executives make the decisions. She might ask an occasional question, but that was all. Nevertheless, once her executives reached a decision, it was her job to approve or not. She'd nod her head, yes or no, and that was that.

NBC had agreed to paid Desilu just $160,000 per episode of Star Trek, but each episode was going to cost $200,000. Desilu was going to lose money on the series. The board had to approve these losses, which the studio hoped to make up in syndication sales, merchandising, and so on. But that came later: Right now, Desilu would lose money. That was a problem, because Desilu also had a second, expensive series which CBS had purchased: Mission: Impossible.

Solow met privately with Lucy before the board meeting. He knew that most of the board opposed greenlighting these two series, on which they'd lose a lot of cash. So Solow laid it on the line: You've got a hit show, you've got fame, you've got other shows renting your studio. You've got the money. And if we keep things just the way they are, you'll do fine. But don't you want to rebuild Desilu's prestige? Don't you want to make it into a major player?

Rudin and Weitzman supported Star Trek. Holly and Nelson didn't. Fred Ball and Art Manella didn't involved themselves in the debate. Katz, as COO of Desilu, had no say. So the decision was up to Lucille Ball, and Lucy approved production on Star Trek.

At the next board meeting three months later, Lucy asked Solow "about that celebrity variety show". Solow was taken aback; had there been a memo or meeting he'd missed? Lucy, sensing his surprise, said, "Yes, the one where all my old friends from Hollywood are going to show up. The one set in the south Pacific." Solow stammered out something about how that show didn't sound familiar. "You know the one," Lucy said, annoyed. "Star Trek. The show where the movie stars in the USO go across the Pacific during World War II and entertain troops and have adventures."

Solow said everything was fine, and the meeting ended. He later had a private discussion with Lucy to bring her up to speed on what Star Trek was. She listened, and thanked him. Meeting over.

After that, Lucy rarely got involved with Star Trek. On one occasion, she blew her top. During the second season, Nichelle Nichols had been found naked under Roddenberry's desk. At a staff party, Nichols showed up in a tennis sweater and nothing else. Her behavior and affair with Roddenberry were scandalous. But she wasn't the only one having an affair with Roddenberry, who was a well-known lothario and who had had a number of sexual encounters with women in his office, on the set, and elsewhere. When Lucy learned about this, she went ballistic. Solow and Justman had to reign in Roddenberry (a married man with two daughters). On another occasion, Lucy pestered Justman about Green Stamps. It seems her husband, comedian Gary Morton, had seen Star Trek crew and actors using the Shell gas station across the street. She didn't understand the studio, but she understood what Green Stamps were -- and wanted Desilu to be collecting them.

Lucy didn't like that Star Trek lost money. She was furious about it. But what could she do?

In February 1967, Gulf + Western announced they were buying Desilu. The sale closed on July 27, 1967. Star Trek had seen its first season come to a close, and NBC had ordered a second season.

But Lucy had nothing to do with "saving Star Trek". Rumors about NBC's desire to cancel the show didn't begin until December 1967, long after Lucy was gone. NBC renewed the series for a third season on on March 1, 1968.

No comments:

Post a Comment