Monday, June 6, 2016

James Doohan (1920-2005), actor

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
July 23, 2005
Star Trek 's chief engineer, Lt.-Cmdr. Montgomery Scott, was irascible, excitable and prone to delivering dire warnings in a Scots burr. As portrayed by James Doohan, a Canadian, Scotty became a favourite of the cult television program's legions of fans.
Many assumed the actor shared traits with his character, but out of his red uniform Mr. Doohan was a serious actor with a substantial list of credits.
As a young man, he led soldiers as part of the D-Day invasion in an attack which he later described as "giving Hitler the finger."
Mr. Doohan's chief engineer character cursed dilithium crystals and coaxed power from overstressed warp-drive engines on the Starship Enterprise. The order to be beamed aboard was directed at Mr. Doohan; "Beam me up, Scotty" became a cultural catchphrase, as well as the punchline to innumerable jokes. Mr. Doohan became so associated with the command that he used it as the title of his autobiography.
Yet, the program's dedicated fans —their numbers legion and their allegiance bordering on the fanatical — insist no character ever uttered the phrase. "Beam me up, Scotty" is to Star Trek what "Play it again, Sam" is to Casablanca.
After the original series ended following a three-year run, Mr. Doohan was upset at being typecast as the irascible engineer with the unforgettable burr. After all, he had earlier performed Shakespeare under the direction of Mavor Moore and won notice for his performances in dramas telecast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He eventually made peace with the character, whom he portrayed in subsequent feature films. He also became a frequent and well-received guest at Star Trek conventions.
A first-class mimic, Mr. Doohan tested eight accents when auditioning for the role. "Well, if you want an engineer," he told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, "it had better be a Scotsman." Mr. Doohan settled on a dialect he described as an Aberdeen brogue.
Scotty's accent, it has been noted by one newspaper, fooled no one north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, let alone a Scotsman. Yet the near-comic urgency of his delivery compelled many fans into worshipful imitation. The actor named the character after his maternal grandfather, James Montgomery, a sea captain.
In many ways, Mr. Doohan imbued the chief engineer with what could be described as Canadian qualities. His practical warnings ("In four hours, the ship blows up") and excitable protestations ("Ah canna change the laws of physics") always gave way to a resourceful fortitude in completing a task, however dangerous or improbable.
The actor may have drawn on his own experiences as a veteran of the Second World War. He was wounded during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Those who found his accent unconvincing were not surprised to learn he traced his Scottish roots to an ancestor who lived three centuries ago. He was Irish by heritage and Canadian by birth. James Montgomery Doohan, conceived in Belfast, was born in Vancouver on March 3, 1920. His parents and three older siblings had just emigrated to Canada, arriving in Halifax on New Year's Day.
In his 1996 autobiography, Mr. Doohan describes his father as a dentist, pharmacist, veterinarian and drunkard. His memories were of a household made unhappy by his father's alcohol-fuelled rages. The family moved to Sarnia, Ont., when the boy was 6. Two years later, while serving as an altar boy at a Catholic mass, Jimmy suddenly felt delirious and was rushed from church. He was diagnosed with diphtheria.
Around home, he was known to imitate the voices he heard on the radio or at the cinema. At 16, he played the title role in a school production of Robin Hood at Sarnia Collegiate Institute and Technical School.
Eager to leave home, he enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Canadian Artillery immediately after Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 10, 1939. After learning Morse code and earning a commission as an officer, Mr. Doohan spent two frustrating years in training in England. He served as a general's aide-de-camp during the planning for the Dieppe raid.
On June 6, 1944, Mr. Doohan commanded 120 men of D Company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. In the early morning of D-Day, he joined the landings on Juno Beach. While he saw a captain go insane and another man suffer a grievous stomach wound, Mr. Doohan managed to lead his men to the seaside village of Graye-sur-Mer without casualty.
Soon, however, they came under fire from a machine-gun lodged in a church tower. Mr. Doohan, a command post officer by rank, borrowed a rifle. His first shot missed, but each of the next two shots felled a German soldier and the nest went silent. He never learned whether he had killed or wounded the enemy.
Shortly before midnight, Mr. Doohan was walking to his command post when a "machine-gun opened up on us. It hit me and spun me around. Staggering, I fell down into the shell hole," he wrote in his autobiography. "Then I looked at my right hand and saw the blood covering it. I could see the holes in my middle finger."
He walked to a regimental aid post where it was discovered four bullets had also imbedded in his left leg. In his shock at the three shots that smashed his right hand, Mr. Doohan hadn't even noticed the other wounds.
He examined the rest of his uniform, discovering a bullet hole in his shirt. He reached his left hand to his right breast pocket. "I pulled out the sterling silver cigarette case that my brother Bill had given me when I was his best man. And there I discovered a dent in it.
"The bullet had come in at an angle, ricocheted off the cigarette case, and bounced away. Four inches from my heart."
The finger was amputated. Years later, Star Trek fans would detail scenes in which the absence of the digit is noticeable. For his part, Mr. Doohan was always self-conscious about the loss. He often subtly camouflaged his right hand.
After six years in uniform, he was left with few plans for the future at the end of war. He became an actor by accident. Annoyed by poor performances in a radio drama, Mr. Doohan went to radio station CFPL in London, Ont., to record himself reading from Shakespeare and other works. He disliked what he heard, but an enthusiastic sound engineer convinced him he was a natural. By coincidence, a brochure for a Toronto drama school had arrived at the station not an hour earlier. The novice signed up, and soon won a scholarship to study at the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theater in Manhattan.
Mr. Doohan was taught by Sanford Meisner, whose eponymous technique of self-investigation was heavily influenced by the great Russian director Constantine Stanislavsky. Others attending the school in those years included Lee Marvin and Leslie Nielsen, a fellow Canadian who became a close friend.
A versatile performer, Mr. Doohan did not want for work. From 1950 to 1958, he appeared in, by his count, 450 live television broadcasts and 4,000 radio shows, shuttling from New York to Toronto. He was called Canada's busiest actor. He starred in Flight into Danger , an hour-long television drama aired on CBC's General Motors Theatre in 1956. Mr. Doohan portrayed a traumatized fighter pilot who takes over the controls of a commercial airliner after both pilots are incapacitated by food poisoning. The script was the first written by Arthur Hailey, a British √©migr√© who settled in Canada after the war and went on to write such blockbusters as Airport and Hotel .
A role as an agent on the television series Treasury Men in Action evaporated without explanation soon after director David Pressman was identified as a Communist. Only later did Mr. Doohan learn he had lost the gig to an actor who secretly accused him of being a Red.
In 1963, Mr. Doohan appeared as a defence attorney in his first feature film, The Wheeler Dealers , a romantic comedy starring James Garner and Lee Remick, directed by Edmonton-born Arthur Hiller. Meanwhile, his list of television credits reads like an anthology of cult hits. He appeared in episodes of Bewitched, Ben Casey, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea .
The three-year run of the original Star Trek series cemented the actor's image in the public mind as a blustery but dependable miracle worker in a red uniform. He was paid just $850 U.S. per episode in the inaugural season.
A cast so familiar now -- with William Shatner, another Canadian, starring as Capt. James T. Kirk; Leonard Nimoy as the logical Mr. Spock, a pointy-eared Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley as the crusty Dr. Leonard H. (Bones) McCoy -- won only a modest audience at first. The series lasted just three seasons, two years short of the Enterprise's promised "five-year mission to explore strange new worlds."
The low-budget series allowed for strong characterizations, which in part explains Star Trek 's success in syndication. The series became a phenomenon, sparking an industry of collectables and conventions. Fans memorized large chunks of dialogue. Among the engineer's most repeated quotes: "The best diplomat that I know is a fully loaded phaser bank."
Mr. Doohan often failed to mask his antipathy for the star's hammy acting. The kindest praise he offers for Mr. Shatner in his autobiography is a grudging acknowledgment that one episode's performance was "pretty okay."
The Scotty character was not often the focus of plot twists, although in an episode titled The Changeling , Bones leans over the engineer's body to deliver the shocking line, "He's dead, Jim."
Happily, the engineer is revived before hour's end.
In The Trouble with Tribbles , perhaps the best-loved of all episodes, Scotty disobeys captain's orders and precipitates a bar brawl with Klingons. The episode concludes on a pun ad-libbed by Mr. Doohan, after he dispatches a growing horde of furry creatures to a Klingon ship. "I transported the whole kit 'n' caboodle into their engine room," he tells the captain, "where they'll be no tribble at all."
Cancellation left Mr. Doohan unemployed and, he feared, unemployable. He complained of being typecast to his dentist, who said, "Jimmy, you're going to be Scotty long after you're dead. If I were you, I'd go with the flow."
He did so, reprising his role as Scotty in seven films. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home , the engineer attempts to give voice commands to a 20th-century computer, including speaking into a mouse. Audiences roared with laughter.
After surviving a massive heart attack in 1989, Mr. Doohan seemed ever more frail. He deferred questions about the rumoured deterioration of his health by quipping: "If I had Alzheimer's I think I'd remember."
What would be his final public appearance came last August at a five-day event in Los Angeles billed as "Beam me up, Scotty -- one last time." He posed in his wheelchair in front of his star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
James Doohan was born on March 3, 1920, in Vancouver. He died on Wednesday at home in Redmond, Wash., a lakeside suburb 30 kilometres east of Seattle. Alzheimer's disease was one of many afflictions he suffered, including diabetes, lung fibrosis and Parkinson's. He was 85. He leaves his wife, Wende Braunberger, and their three children, Eric, Thomas and five-year-old Sarah. He also leaves four adult children -- Larkin, Deirdre and twins Montgomery and Christopher -- from his 15-year marriage to Janet Young, which ended in divorce in 1964. A marriage to Anita Yagel in 1970 ended in divorce two years later. Space Services Inc., a Houston-based company, will send his ashes into space, as he requested.
Special to The Globe and Mail