It was 1990 or ’91 when I found myself and a friend at a very lightly attended Star Trek convention in Newark, New Jersey. I’d been going to these things pretty regularly since reaching adulthood and had even had a chance to go to some of the really early ones as a young child. However, I was especially hyped up for this one. The reason I was so excited to be at this particular con was the scheduled appearance of James Doohan, better known as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, who would be addressing the convention crowd and then signing autographs.
By this point in my life I had already seen, and in many cases met, the entire cast of the original Star Trek TV series but I hadn’t seen Doohan since 1973, when he was a guest at my first convention at the Hotel Commodore in New York City. I was six years old then. Needless to say, the opportunity to see him again and appreciate the experience from an adult perspective was well worth the nominal price of admission. Looking back on the day now, I realize what a phenomenal understatement that is!
I should point out, for those who may not be aware, that a typical Star Trek convention is a frenetic experience, highlighted by large crowds, long lines, and lots of hubbub. In that regard, this Newark, NJ convention was the antithesis of Trek conventions I had been to previously. On the day I attended there was no line to enter, the dealers’ room was rarely crowded, and, most interestingly, there were only about 50 people in the ballroom to hear Mr. Doohan give his talk.
At other conventions I’ve been to, both before and since, the stars will get up on a stage in a large ballroom and speak to the assembled crowd (usually numbering in the thousands) for about 30 or 40 minutes. Sometimes they take questions, but not always. At this little hotel in Newark, the ballroom had no stage. That fact, coupled with the extremely small gathering of fans, allowed Mr. Doohan to comfortably stand directly in front of the chairs where we were all seated. He didn’t even need a microphone to be heard by every member of the tiny crowd.
He told stories, he told jokes, he sang songs, he did accents, and he answered numerous questions. When 45 minutes had elapsed, he was still going strong. An hour; an hour and a half; he just kept on going. For some strange reason, fans began to leave as the talk approached two hours. I think they wanted to grab good spots in the autograph line. That was fine with me. Being seated in the first row, I already had a bird’s eye view but, when the seat next to me was vacated, Doohan sat down and spent the next several minutes talking directly to me. By the time it was all over, my friend and I were the only ones left in the room with him and we got the benefit of spending a few minutes interacting with him on an even more personal level. What a terrific opportunity to spend time with such a warm, fun, outgoing, and, of course, gifted individual! He seemed genuinely thrilled at the chance to be talking with us and would have continued longer but, excused himself because he was overdue to go sign autographs.
At conventions nowadays, the actors who give autographs at all always collect a fee for doing so. James Doohan did not charge for signing autographs. He explained that he did it out of enjoyment – he liked mingling with the fans and making them happy. He took even more time to speak with me while he signed not one, not two, but three different items for me, all the while assuring the other fans in line that he would accommodate them in just the same way.
While I had always been fond of the “Scotty” character he portrayed, I came away from that day with an even greater fondness for the wonderful gentleman who gave the character life. The world would be a much better place if there were more people as good-natured and kind as Mr Doohan. There are some celebrities out there who could surely take a lesson from him.
Today, July 20, 2012, is the seventh anniversary of his passing. It is a poignant anniversary to me for a number of reasons not the least of which is its historical significance. Men from Earth first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. Through his role in Star Trek and his experience as a military pilot, Doohan had a genuine interest in space exploration and the technology used to accomplish it. In fact, he was a frequent visitor to NASA.
On a more personal level, however, the anniversary of Mr. Doohan’s death touches me because he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s, afflictions which have ravaged members of my own family. Recalling him as a vibrant, energetic, and outgoing man brings to mind similar images of my mother, uncle, and grandfather, all of whom withered away much as Doohan did in the last years of his life. Thankfully, he, like they, got to live a relatively long and very fruitful life – even seeing a star in his honor on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Whenever anyone asks me about my experiences with the various stars of the Trek universe, I always smile when I recount the story of meeting Jimmy Doohan and I will always remember him fondly.