Remembering Harve Bennett, STAR TREK’s Cinematic Shepherd

A personal tribute to the man who helped save the STAR TREK franchise. 

It’s been a time of devastating loss for Star Trek fans. First the iconic Leonard Nimoy passed, now one of TREK and television’s most creative forces, writer/producer Harve Bennett, is gone.

If you watched television in the sixties and seventies, it’s a good bet Harve Bennett’s helped shape your childhood.  His innumerable credits included The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the first TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, to name but a few. Back when there were only three channels, Bennett was considered one of the network giants.

Then there are the Star Trek films. How Harve Bennett revived Star Trek is the stuff of legend, so I won’t repeat it here.  It’s no  exaggeration to say that without him there would be no Trek franchise. No Next Generation, no Deep Space Nine, no Voyager, and no Enterprise.  

While most knew Harve as a talented writer/producer, to me he was so much more. The man went from being a name on my television screen to a true mentor and friend.

To put this into perspective, you have to go back to a time before the Internet, when the only way you  heard Star Trek news was the occasional article in a magazine called Starlog.  I was into all things sci‐fi, especially Trek. Like Devin, I grew up watching it in syndication, played with the toys, and read the photo novels.  I even liked Star Trek: The Motion Picture despite all its flaws. But the film opened to middling box office and poor reviews. Word was that Star Trek was dead.

In my freshman year of high school we moved from the east coast to Houston and I hated it. Back then being a geek was tough, but being a black geek was almost unheard of. Film was one of my few escapes and I’d shot a class project on visual effects.  When I’d heard they were making a new Star Trek film, I sent it to Gene Roddenberry, only to have it returned due to the wrong address.  My heart sunk.

But all was not lost. By coincidence, Wrath of Khan was premiering at a nearby mall. My mom suggested I try again, so I did. Tape tucked under my arm, I pushed my way through the press and crowds. There, being interviewed by a TV reporter was the man who’d made so many of my favorite shows.  I timidly approached only to be shooed away by his assistant. But Harve stopped her and said, “Wait, I’ll talk to the young man.”  I stammered that I was an admirer of his work and asked if he’d take a look at my film.  He smiled, wrote down his address and told me to send it to him.  Needless to say, I was over the moon that evening.

The next night I saw WOK in the very same theater and was blown away. I sent my film with a note telling him I loved his movie. That summer I received a letter from Harve saying how much he’d enjoyed my documentary. That letter inspired me so much I hung it on my wall. I still have it.

After that I followed Harve’s career avidly. He went on to do the TV bio pics The Jesse Owens Story and A Woman Called Golda.  When Harve accepted his Emmy for Golda, he tearfully dedicated it to the movie’s late star Ingrid Bergman.

Then came Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. I staggered out of the theater in shock. The death of Kirk’s son and the destruction of the Enterprise were a double gut punch. But the movie had many wonderful moments.

After I moved to L.A., Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released and became the most popular Trek film yet. I wrote a college paper on the series and movies and sent it to Harve. It impressed him enough to accept an invitation to speak to my class. It was then I realized just how little I knew about the man.  He mesmerized us with stories about his days as a radio Quiz Kid and how he met President Eisenhower on a war bond tour.  How at ABC in New York he produced live television with a young singer named Merv Griffin and an up‐and‐coming comic named Johnny Carson.  But his main point wasn’t to drop names. It was to tell us that he’d gotten most of his opportunities from peers and people he knew, and that we would too.

When a classmate thanked him for Star Trek, Harve merely smiled and said, “Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s Gene Roddenberry’s.  I’m just borrowing it for awhile.”  That’s how modest he was. Harve considered himself the Gene Coon of the Star Trek films. For those unfamiliar with early Trek history, Gene Coon was a writer/producer on the original series.  While Roddenberry came up with the basic concept, it was Coon who refined it with staples like the Prime Directive, the Federation, and much of the political allegory.

After the class, Harve asked me if there was anything else he could do.  I knew Gene Roddenberry was starting a new Star Trek series.  Could he get me a job on it? Harve told me to send a letter to Gene, give him a copy, and he’d take it to Roddenberry himself.  I did just that. Two weeks later I received a friendly rejection note from Roddenberry’s assistant.  It was only later that I heard about the animosity Gene Roddenberry had towards Harve. Yet, this man had walked into the lion’s den for me.

During Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Harve and producer Ralph Winter developed a prequel film called Starfleet Academy about Kirk and Spock in their Academy days.  Bookended by Kirk lecturing at the Academy, the David Loughery script dealt with racial tension (Spock’s the first Vulcan at the Academy) and Kirk’s true love.  Shatner and Nimoy loved the script. It was budgeted at $20 million and Harve planned to direct. But Paramount dragged its feet for two years. Frustrated at being strung along, Harve took his toys and went home.   

So Harve returned to television. Spielberg hired him to do the animated Invasion America.  Harve also produced the series Time Trax. We wrote each other regularly. But I could tell he was more than a bit bitter after his experience at Paramount. 

Harve’s name also opened a lot of doors for me.  In early 1991 I met an elderly guy in a bar wearing a Star Trek jacket.  When I mentioned I knew Harve, his face lit up. That guy was Paul Haggar, a Senior Vice President at Paramount. Based on Harve’s name alone, he tried to get me on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as Nick Meyer’s assistant.  Unfortunately some guy named Adam Nimoy had just been shoehorned into that position.  (“Cock blocked by the son of Spock,” my friends later joked.)  But this meeting would pay off later.

In the late nineties I sent Harve a science fiction script I’d written. Days later I got a phone call at work.  A booming voice said, “Ken Foley, you’ve broken the first rule of Harve Bennett screenwriting: keep it simple!”  For the next hour we not only talked about the script but also personal matters. When he sensed I was a bit discouraged that I was working in a TV station mailroom, he said, “Remember Bennett’s Law number 7:  career trajectory is almost never a straight line.”

And he was right. A few years later Paul Haggar hired me and a whole new world opened up. I got to work on Star Trek: Nemesis and Enterprise. I had access to a plethora of Trek notes and memos (some between Roddenberry and Harve).  When Paul would eat in the executive dining room, he’d bring me along just so I could meet the other suits. All this because I knew Harve Bennett.

Though most of his work was in television, movies were his real passion.  Harve’s letters often contained quotes from older films related to whatever I’d written him about. While I’d seen some of the movies, I quickly tracked down the ones I hadn’t. Thanks to him, my film knowledge improved immeasurably.

When Cinematheque held a screening for Wrath of Khan’s 20th anniversary DVD release, Nicholas Meyer, George Takei, and Walter Koenig were scheduled to appear.  When they walked out, a familiar figure was with them. After the Q & A, the fans all followed Meyer and the actors to the lobby and Harve was left standing there alone.  I approached him and said, “What, no hug for an old friend?”  He blinked, grinned and threw his arms around me. “Ken! You’re all grown up!”  Even though we’d corresponded, we hadn’t seen each other since my class fifteen years prior.  I was shocked to find out Cinematheque hadn’t invited him to the event.  He was only there because Nick had brought him. That night he introduced me to Nick Meyer as family. Like the first letter he wrote me, that’s a moment I’ll cherish forever.

Two year later I was in film school, thanks to recommendation letters from Harve. For my senior thesis I wanted to make a film in the genre that inspired me. Named Final Run, it told the story of an interstellar African‐American mercenary on his last mission. This time I pulled out all the stops: space ship miniatures, elaborate effects, exotic locations, etc.  Paul Haggar got us new reels of Kodak 35mm stock and took care of our telecine (an expensive color correction and transfer process). I basically got tens of thousands of dollars in services for free. All thanks to Harve. 

Though Final Run got me my degree, it was far from complete. My producer suggested not only screening it for Harve, but honoring him by letting him make his own cut. To my surprise, he said yes.

Harve’s screened it twice and gave us invaluable feedback. Despite its truncated form, he thought it was leaps and bounds ahead of my last film. Then my producer put us in a room with an editor and all my footage. “Okay, Ken. We’re going to make your film, better, faster, stronger,” Harve joked.  It was my first time seeing a master at work and he did not disappoint. I learned more in that session than in all of film school.  At one point, when I said he was cutting too much out, he stamped his foot and said, “Dammit, Ken, you’re just as stubborn as Bill!” Then we both laughed. At the end of the night he told us that was the most fun he’d had in a long time.

When I needed a voice for the ship’s computer I jokingly asked Harve to do it. He said he’d be delighted.  After the ADR session he hung out for several hours and patiently answered our fanboy questions.That night we learned just how much of his life experience Harve poured into his projects. When Universal couldn’t figure out how to make Steve Austin run realistically, it was Harve’s idea to use slow motion; something he’d gotten from watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports.  For Vulcan and Klingon languages, he turned to friend Marc Okrand, a linguist he’d worked with at a radio station. The phrase Kobiyashi Maru was from WW II submariners he’d met as kid. “To me Kobiyashi Maru meant one thing:  Japanese destroyer up scope,” he told us. We learned that he got the call to do STAR TREK because  Paramount execs Jeffery Katzenberg and Barry Diller had been his former assistant and boss at ABC respectively.

SAAVIK: “He’s never what I expect.”

SPOCK: "What surprises you, Lieutenant?”

SAAVIK: "He’s so...human."

SPOCK:  “No one is perfect, Saavik.”

From Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Even more important than the career opportunities I got through Harve, was his friendship. When I was going through some family problems, he opened up about his own.  After my producer and I had a falling out, Harve related the time Leonard Nimoy had him thrown off and banned from the Star Trek IV set.  When a close friend was in the throes of addiction, he suggested I get someone in recovery to talk to him. “But I don’t know anyone in recovery,” I said. “Sure you do,” he replied. “You know me.” He then recounted his post‐Paramount dark days and how a certain pointy‐eared Vulcan helped him with his own recovery.

But Harve didn’t suffer fools lightly. When I griped about how much my film was costing me out of my own pocket, he took me aside and rightfully scolded me for being ungrateful.  “In filmmaking you can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it good.  But you can’t have all three. There are people who’d kill for your opportunity and resources.”  That’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

He also warned me not to base my happiness on how my creative projects were received. “For every Mod Squad and Six Million Dollar Man, and Star Trek III, there was a Gemini Man, Salvage One,  American Girls, Powers of Mathew Star" and Star Trek V. “I liked all those,” I confessed. “Yeah, but you’ve got taste,” he joked.  He didn’t consider them failures because each one taught him something new. 

While there was no way I could pay back everything Harve had done for me, I sure as hell tried. When I discovered he had a collection of 3/4" videotapes of his television shows, I had my producer’s post facility convert them to DVD.  Some he hadn't seen in decades.  He left a wonderful “thank you” message on my answering machine, giddy as a schoolboy.

Starfleet Academy had always been a sore subject for Harve. So when AICN gave a glowing review to the script, I sent him a copy, complete with the positive talkbacks.  He was jazzed that someone out there appreciated his unseen work.  He even forwarded the package to writer David Loughery.  

When the WGA strike and recession had me struggling for jobs, it was Harve who called periodically to make sure I hadn’t given up on my writing or my film. To cheer me up, he’d tell anecdotes from his times in the business.  While we sometimes talked film and TV, Harve was not a sci‐fi fan per se.  He’d never seen any Trek films after VI or the later series. Still, his opinions on certain genre shows were priceless. Harve on the Bionic Woman remake: “liked it not one bit,”Battlestar Galactica: “good, but a little dark for its own sake,” and Enterprise: “caught thirty minutes of it and thought, “What is this shit?”.  

As I got to know Harve better, I realized why his Star Trekfilms still resonated with me so much. The  themes of life, death, friendship, war and sacrifice were not merely beats to put his characters through; they were reflections of his own life.  As I got older, I could relate to them more with each viewing.

Unlike his contemporaries Glen Larson, Aaron Spelling, and Stephen J. Cannell, Harve never received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To this day I remain baffled as to why. Here was a man who had literally grown up in show business. I asked sci‐fi journalist Mark Altman and friend Eric (Planet of the Apes) Greene to petition the Academy of Science Fiction to give Harve a Lifetime Achievement Award.  Despite their connections, our request fell on deaf ears.

When I finally did finish Final Run, I decided to hold the premiere at Paramount as a sort of

homecoming for Harve. Unfortunately by that time he had relocated to Oregon. While I was crushed he couldn’t make it, he sent me a wonderful email saying he’d be there in spirit. So I dedicated the screening to him.  

The next day Harve contacted me to find out how it went.  I told him it was a success and thanked him for everything he’d done for me, both professionally and personally, over the years.  “It’s a two way street, Ken. You’re a real mensch,” he wrote.  “Be sure and send me a copy” I did but never heard back.

The last time I saw Harve was on YouTube at a Trek convention in Oregon.  Asked what he thought of Star Trek 2009, he said, “They lost me when they put the Grand Canyon in Iowa.”  I grinned. Typical Harve Bennett humor.

Someone in my class asked Harve what drew him to such a vast array of projects. “It’s simple,” he said. “I do stories about heroes. I do them in space with James T. Kirk, I do them in sports with Jesse Owens, and I do them as politicians with Golda Meir.”

Now one of my heroes is gone, and I miss him dearly. I miss his humor, I miss his wisdom, and I miss his inspiration. But most of all I miss his friendship. Harve Bennett not only made me a better filmmaker, he made me a better person.  For that I shall be eternally grateful.

“I have been and always shall be your friend.”