Gene Roddenberry's Funeral
by Norm Nason
© 2004 Norm Nason. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced in any form without prior approval from the author.
On a mild, cloudless afternoon I parked near a small brick chapel, got out and adjusted my tie using the window of my car as a mirror. Crossing the empty street, I made my way up a hill of shallow steps where a huge marble and bronze stature of George Washington greeted me, his arms outstretched in a pose suggesting strength and leadership. In the distance, gardeners mowed the grass, weeded and raked leaves. A few dark automobiles, some of them limousines, crept silently up the hill like bubbles rising to the surface of the sea.
My eyes lit upon a headstone displaying the name of Stan Laurel; a white marble slab mounted on a low block wall covered with neatly pruned ivy. Here I paused and took in a lovely view of the San Fernando Valley below. Often blanketed in smog, the air was now clear and ripe for the lungs. I recalled the pleasure Mr. Laurel’s films had given me over the years, and felt a tinge of sadness for this great man who rested here, alone but for a stranger who paused only briefly to notice him.
Further on, a large plaza opened before me, where a giant mural stretched well past the limits of my peripheral vision. On close inspection this mural, depicting great moments in American history, was actually an intricate mosaic constructed out of millions of colored ceramic tiles. Designed by artist Neil Boyle and large enough to be seen for miles, it formed the Northern most wall of what was essentially a large, circular amphitheater: the Hall of Liberty.
A small line of people had gathered here, perhaps fifty individuals of every race, sex and age. Most dressed casually; a few wore Star Trek costumes. Polite men wearing dark green jackets and carrying walkie-talkies watched from what seemed to be pre-determined vantage points.
After perhaps twenty minutes we were ushered around to the other side of the building, where the press waited. Cameras and journalists representing all of the major TV networks were there, as well as newspaper and magazine photographers, reporters and support crew personnel. Yet despite the look of things, ours was a quiet procession, and the press made little noise beyond the occasional click of a camera’s shutter.
One journalist addressed a young man wearing a gold Federation uniform. “Pardon me,” said the journalist, “may I ask you a few questions?” The young man proudly stepped forward, undoubtedly pleased to be interviewed. But I was past him by then, and entered the building where a young Asian woman handed me a program, on which the following was printed in brown ink:
I signed one of four guest books, and made my way into an auditorium as large as the Cinerama Dome, one of Hollywood’s most famous movie theaters.
“Whom are you with?” I was asked at the door.
“I am a visitor,” I replied, and with that was shown the balcony. It became apparent that as a member of the public I would be separated from Mr. Roddenberry’s family and friends, assembling in the orchestra below. But it was a fitting separation, for they had known him, after all, while I had not.
The service was to begin in 45 minutes, so I settled back and listened to the fans seated around me, watching at the same time for any recognizable faces. Shatner? Perhaps Nimoy? So far, I couldn’t make anyone out.
“He is dead,” a fan said behind me, “but the dream will live on.”
“Do I know how to pick seats, or do I know how to pick seats,” said another.
Jonathan Frakes (William Riker) entered the auditorium and found a seat near the center isle. A surprisingly large man, he impressed me with his quick smile and willingness to seek out others. A pat on a shoulder here; a handshake there—he cordially addressed several around him before finally taking his seat.
I spotted Wil Weathen (Westly Crusher) next, who selected a seat in front and to the right of Mr. Frakes. Wil seemed to be a bright, alert young man; courteous and attentive, with a fine sense of humor. He was respectful of the occasion, yet at the same time he appeared to enjoy the opportunity to gather in the company of his friends.
Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) appeared wearing a black dress and sun glasses, her long hair pulled back in a pony tail. Accompanied by friends, she gestured with her right arm while clutching a small black purse in her left. Looking radiant as ever, she and her party tried first one row, then another, until finally finding seats to their liking.
Three men appeared on the large stage and after exchanging pleasantries, took seats to the right of the podium. I did not recognize two of them, but the third possessed the unmistakable silver hair and black-framed glasses of Ray Bradbury.
On the other side of the stage, to my left, a woman wearing a wide-brimmed black hat sat in one of the empty seats. Her face was deep in shadow, so I squinted—finally making out the features of Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original Star Trek series.
Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard) ascended the steps of the stage, and for a moment the whispering of the fans around me ceased. A man with a commanding presence in any venue, impressive with his dignified, proper English manner, Mr. Stewart greeted each of his co-speakers in turn. Self-assured without being pompous, immaculately groomed, he took command of the stage exactly as he does the bridge of the Enterprise. He hugged Ms. Nichols long and with feeling—enfolding her with his arms—then took the seat beside her.
As Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan) climbed the steps Mr. Stewart rose to greet her. Wearing a huge, Egyptian-like hairstyle, she hugged both him and Ms. Nichols affectionately, then sat quietly between them.
The lights grew dim and the curtain opened. Slides of Gene Roddenberry’s life slowly dissolved one into the next, set to a beautifully orchestrated version of Greensleeves. These were not photographs of a professional man, a producer of high-tech television shows and films. Rather, these were snapshots of a man who held his friends and family dear: pictures of his wife and children and Christmans trees; vacations and barbecues on sunny summer lawns. Old and new, black and white and color, these photographs provided a touching and rare glimpse into the life of a man who had lived fully. He had been happy and he had made others happy. He had loved and he had been loved. I felt honored to see the photos.
Ms. Nichols then rose to her feet and grasped the microphone. “This song,” she almost whispered, “was co-written by a dear friend of Gene’s: Paul McCartney.”
Her voice, shaking with emotion, was nevertheless clear and melodious. She sang Yesterday, accompanied by Nathan Wong at the piano. She then sang a sentimental song she had written specifically for and about Gene, clearly demonstrating her fondness and admiration for the man.
Ray Bradbury then took center stage, speaking long and poetically of the fondness and optimism Mr. Roddenberry held for his fellow men and women. He spoke of himself, too—as he is sometimes prone to do—and his thoughts sent him dashing off on many tangents. But he made his point. He felt that Gene Roddenberry had actually helped to shape the future; that around the world youngsters and adults alike have watched Star Trek and have bought into a wonderful dream. They are a part of his extended family, said Bradbury, making Star Trek their own personal model of the future. Mr. Roddenberry had helped to mold not only the look of the future—its hardware—but also the future behavior of human beings. This, perhaps more than anything else, had been his life’s work.
It was then Whoopi Goldberg’s turn to speak, and she was both brief and to the point.
“Several years ago I came to Paramount Studios and begged Gene to let me be on the show,” she said. “He asked me why in the world I wanted to be on Star Trek, and I told him because I grew up in the Projects, watching the show on TV. Star Trek gave me hope. It was the only program that believed in having a black woman contributing to the future.”
Christopher Knopf approached the podium then, a man I did not recognize but one who had been a personal friend of Gene’s for many years. Clearly uncomfortable speaking before an audience, he read a prepared statement that was nonetheless full of affection, admiration and respect for his friend. Many anecdotes were brought to light, many fond memories indicating Roddenberry’s enthusiasm for living. On one occasion, Gene drove Christopher to his home in the pouring rain. As they pulled into the driveway, the headlights shown on Gene’s Harley Davidson motorcycle. “Have you ever been riding?” he asked his friend. “No,” said Christopher, “and this isn’t the time.” But off they went anyway, their business suits soaked clear through in the rain.
Rounding a corner, the bike lunged out from under them and crashed through a hedge. The two men tumbled across the puddled pavement, scraping their knees, palms and faces like cheese on sandpaper. Painfully, they gathered themselves together—their suits schredded—and sat on a curb. Just about the time they were wondering whether to visit the emergency ward or walk back home, Gene turned to his friend and said: “Do you realize you may never do that again?”
Next to speak was Jack Neuman who, being a writer himself, drew countless, witty pictures in the minds of those in attendance. He recalled a time when—years before the advent of jet aircraft—he and Gene were flying on one of the more popular commercial airlines. The stewardess offered them drinks and they each had one, then a second, then a third, and then a forth. Somewhere around the fifth drink Jack asked Gene: “Why are we drinking so much?” Gene looked at him. “Because I’m scared,” he said. “Why are you so scared?” asked Jack. “Because,” Gene said, “I used to fly one of these things.”
Mr. Roddenberry had in fact held many jobs. He had been a pilot, and a policeman—which is why Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Darryl Gates both attended the funeral service. “But thank goodness,” Jack recalled, “he gave up those other silly and dishonorable professions in order to become something truly noble: a writer.”
Patrick Stewart was last to speak (alphabetical order, he pointed out). Blessed with a powerful voice and demeanor, he is arguably one of Britain’s finest Shakespearean actors. Quite simply, Mr. Stewart took command of the stage and his audience. Speaking forcefully and with eloquence, he portrayed Gene Roddenberry as being a man of extraordinary vision. “If you ever have anything important to say about the show,” Gene had told Patrick, “say it to me.”
“ This man,” Stewart continued, “looked at a common, hairless Shakespearean actor and said: ‘I want you to be Captain.’” But Paramount executives had second thoughts: “He’s bald!” they argued. “In the future, they will have invented a cure!” Roddenberry held fast. “In the future,” he responded, “they will not care!”
Mr. Stewart referred to a passage of dialog written for an early episode of The Next Generation by Roddenberry himself. In this, a conversation between the android Data and Captain Picard, Gene shed some light on his personal vision of death. In this dialog Data asks Picard what death is. Picard responds that some humans believe that when you die you are transformed into another kind of being, where you join with your maker and are eternally cared for. Still other humans believe that death is like the snuffing out of a flame, where all that we were is lost to the void. Data then asks Picard which of these he believes. He answers that he finds neither alternative acceptable; that when he considers the Universe and all of its wonders, he knows there must be more to it than we presently understand. We simply are not yet capable, he tells Data, of comprehending it.
“Imagine the guts it took to write such a passage for prime time,” said Mr. Stewart.
The auditorium lights again grew dim and a few moments of silence allowed us to regain our thoughts. It was then that two Scottish Pipers in full costume found center stage. Slowly and in unison, they played the classic hymn: Amazing Grace.
The room once again grew quiet as an announcer invited us all to assemble on the plaza outside. Here, he said, an aircraft flyby would occur. He asked visitors to please wait until all friends and family members had left the auditorium.
Without speaking, we in the balcony stood and watched Gene Roddenberry’s family, cast and crew rise and exit slowly through the doors below. And as we watched, they, in turn, looked back at us. It was an odd few minutes: the procession beneath, and we, the fans, above; Star Trek and its public—separated—yet united in their grief for a man of vision.
Fitting it was, then, that we all at last assembled on the plaza under the sun together: actors, friends, family, fans. No barriers kept us apart now; we were free to move about as we pleased. Here was quick-eyed George Takei (Sulu), politely excusing himself as he past my way; and good old James Doohan (Scotty), heavy and gray, looking sad and a little bit lonely. Of course, Mrs. Roddenberry was there in her grief (Nurse Chapel), but she was comforted by Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), Levar Burton (Geordi La Forge), Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) and numerous other character actors who had appeared on various Star Trek episodes over the years.
I did not see everyone I hoped to see, and spoke to no one. But many eyes met mine, and when they did, we spoke volumes. These were kind, caring people, each reluctant to bid farewell to a man who had somehow touched them. But what else did I expect? Gene had hand-picked his actors, after all. And in a funny way I felt he had hand-picked the rest of us, too…his public…his fans. All of us who had bought into the dream.
Four modern aircraft rushed overhead, one of which lagged behind in the classic aviation tribute to a fellow pilot who has passed away. All eyes watched until the planes drifted from view on the Western horizon. Then we lowered our heads, said our silent goodbyes to Gene Roddenberry, and went our separate ways.
Star Trek Fans: check out Bernd Schneider's neat fleet charts.