Hasslein Blog: Revisiting Wrath of Khan: Ricardo Montalbán, Harve Bennett and Judson Scott


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Revisiting Wrath of Khan: Ricardo Montalbán, Harve Bennett and Judson Scott

Star Trek II: 20 Years Old 
and Still Feeling Young, Part One

Reminiscing with producer-writer Harve Bennett and 
stars Ricardo Montalban and Judson Scott...

by Rich Handley

Originally Published in 
Star Trek Communicator #139 (August 2002)

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from Hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool, and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"
                                          —Moby Dick, Herman Melville, chap. 135, pg. 477

In 1979, Star Trek arose from the ashes of the original series and its short-lived cartoon spinoff. Taken off the racks of obsolescence, dusted off with care, and breathed new life with a new writer/director team and improved effects, Star Trek: The Motion Picture gave the franchise a complete face-life, ushering in Star Trek's rebirth. And yet, in a turn of events so ironic even Alanis Morissette would understand the term, the same was required only two years later.

Though financially a box office success, The Motion Picture was deemed an artistic disappointment for its dragging pace, its focus on effects over acting, its drab color scheme and its similarity to "The Ultimate Computer." Star Trek had been reborn, yes, but the same decisions guiding that rebirth had almost doomed it to a quick demise. A lot of effort had gone into the film, yet it had failed to meet expectations, earning instead the nickname The Motionless Picture.

Thus, when talks of a second Star Trek feature began, Paramount sought a new creative team who could rejuvenate the series... again. A long-shot, to be sure―but, then, such a move wasn't without precedence; the same had happened with the original series, which required a second pilot after "The Cage" failed to excite network execs.

Enter Harve Bennett, veteran producer and writer. "They brought me in," Bennett recalls, "as a successful producer of several television series and miniseries," including The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Invisible Man and The Bionic Woman. Hired to re-invigorate Paramount's television drama department, Bennett says he received a call from friend and former assistant Barry Diller after only a week on the job. "I walk into Barry's office, and there is Barry, his then-number two, Michael Eisner, his then-number three, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and his boss, Charlie Bluedorn. And in the corner sits my boss, Gary Nardino, Head of Television. And Bluedorn says, 'Listen, let's get right to it. You seen Star Trek: The Movin' Picture?'"

The question un-nerved him, Bennett says, for he'd taken his then-young children to see the film, and they'd hated it. "They loved movies, but with ST:TMP, they went out to the bathroom four times, they wanted Pepsi five times―they could not sit still. And he says, 'What did you think of it?'" Knowing the wrong answer could damage his career, Bennett opted for complete honesty. "I said, 'Well {gulp}, I thought it was boring.' And Bluedorn turns on Eisner, 'You see? By you, bald is sexy!' And he turns to me and says, 'Could you make a better picture?' And I say, 'Yeah, yes I could.' And he says, 'Could you make it for less than forty-five bleeping million dollars?' And I say, 'Well, I'll tell you truth, Mr. Bluedorn―where I come from, I could make four or five pictures for that.'"

Bennett understood the importance of getting Star Trek II right, he says; the future of the franchise (and his career) depended on it. "An historian of television and film would say there's a line between the series and its syndicated resurrection―its enormous success in the '70s in syndicated run―which created this appetite for the movie." Unfortunately, he says, despite the best intentions of director Robert Wise, it didn't work. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a 'shaggy V'Ger' story," says Bennett. "It pre-supposed some kind of awesome super-power returning to do [harm] to all of us―and the shaggy part, of course, is that it was Voyager, something of our own making. There was no antagonist in the story. There was only an intellectual concept, and that doesn't make for drama." (Bennett admits he himself made the same mistake on Star Trek V, ironically enough.)

With Mod Squad airing opposite Trek, Bennett missed its original run; thus, he viewed all 79 episodes over a three-month period, determined to understand the series' success. The secret, he found, was in its concentration on three characters: "a triangle of Kirk at the top, Spock pulling at one side, coldness, intellect, logic... Bones on the other corner, pulling from passion and humanity... and Kirk, who was both logical and human, having to be what he is―the decider." His goal: "to go back to what the show was; I wanted to go back to these three men, to the hope of the future, the optimism of the best of the series."

Bennett places science fiction in two categories. "One says, 'The future is a place of horror.' Terminator is like that... H.G. Wells... Ray Bradbury... 1984, by Orwell... Alien... Blade Runner... you don't want to live to see this, folks―you name it, it's a terrible place." The other kind, and much rarer, says "What a wonderful world we will have―we will be better." The attraction of Star Trek, he realized, was that "it dared to say that by the 23rd century, we would have progressed, come together in certain diversities... we would be exploring new worlds... you know, all the good stuff. And that, of course, is Roddenberry's greatest contribution: optimism about people and their future."

Bennett found that one episode stood out above the others. "It was after I ran 'Space Seed.' I didn't run it at the beginning of the three months, but rather near the end―and I ran it a second time to be sure. Near the end of the episode, there's a musing by Spock; he says, 'I wonder if a hundred years from now, will we ever see his like again.' And Kirk says something like, 'I wonder.' And I remember getting up, and I said, 'Alright guys, lights, that's it―that's what we're going to do.'"

Bennett decided he'd bring back one of Trek's most fascinating villains, the genetically bred twentieth-century tyrant Khan Noonien Singh, played with delicious malevolence by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán  Resuscitated fifteen years earlier after centuries in cryogenic sleep, Khan had been exiled to a harsh, uninhabited world with the rest of his crew and wife Marla McGivers after a failed coup to take over the Enterprise. As such, he was the ideal foil to resurrect in a film dealing with aging and regrets, for he forced an older Kirk to examine his past and admit that not all of his decisions had been correct. He later learned his gut feeling was correct; for "Space Seed" remains among the best-selling episodes on video, alongside "City on the Edge of Forever."

Thus was born Star Trek II: The Vengeance of Khan, later re-named The Wrath of Khan. With Bennett aboard as producer and story writer, the search for a director ensued. It wasn't long before the choice was made in Nicholas Meyer, who'd proven his talents with The Seven-Percent Solution and Time After Time and would go on to write and/or direct Fatal Attraction, Star Treks IV and VI, and The Prince of Egypt. Meyer and Bennett hit it off extremely well, working together to deliver the best script they could create. "I would say this, and I'm certain Nick would agree: it was a total collaboration, in which each of us brought something radically different. I brought what he called a television mentality―in the good sense, which was respect for the series, respect for the IDIC and all the stuff I had studied and wanted to reproduce in some fashion. Nick is an iconoclast, and he wanted to rip things up and change everything―he wanted to theatricalize."

The result was a powerful script built around the themes of Melville's Moby Dick (a motif used again in 1996's Star Trek: First Contact) that evoked the best of the series, pitting Kirk against his greatest enemy, with the lives of his best friend, crew, and son he never knew (David Marcus, played by the late Merritt Butrick) hanging in the balance. Once again overhauling Enterprise and re-designing the crew's uniforms to distance the film from The Motion Picture, the creators of Star Trek II treated this film not as a sequel to the first but rather as a second attempt.

In the end, the gamble paid off. Trek II, to this day, remains the standard by which all Star Trek films are judged, and Bennett is credited with saving the franchise and paving the way for four more series and eight more films to follow. Bennett's predecessor, in fact, even acknowledged his success. The producer recalls, smiling, "Robert Wise is so generous―he once said to me, at a Director's Guild function, 'It's an honor to see you―you made a better picture than I did.' And I said, 'I'm not worthy of that, Mr. Wise.' And it's true, I'm not... but I did make a better picture."

The success of Star Trek II was due in no small part to the scene-stealing performance of Ricardo Montalbán  who returned to the role of Khan to portray a man obsessed with a thirst for revenge. That he was even cast as Khan in the first place, though, is something the Mexican actor finds ironic. "I won an Emmy," he laughs, "playing a Sikh! Today I couldn't do that; it wouldn't be politically correct. But that's how I won my Emmy."

At the time, Montalbán says he was grateful for any role he could get, as he needed to support his family. He'd been a contract player for MGM, paid weekly for years, but that had stopped in 1953 and he was working job to job, with only partial success. "Nothing was open for me with my accent and being from Mexico," he says with frustration, "so when Khan came, I took it. I didn't know about this tremendous thing called Star Trek, but it was an interesting role―a super-man―and I thought, 'Yeah, I could do something with this.' So I did, but I didn't expect anything from it whatsoever."

Certainly, the actor never expected to return to the role, and was both excited and wary when he received the script for Star Trek II. "I thought it was well-written, and it had a wonderful director, Nicholas Meyer. He took care of me, protected me. You see, I did Fantasy Island for seven seasons, and this was the end of the sixth season, and just about a week before we went on hiatus, they sent me the script." On his first pass, he wasn't convinced. "When I read it, I scanned it and thought, 'Gee, I don't like to count pages, you know, but there weren't really that many scenes.' If I were going to be back on the big screen, I wish it were something with a little more size." After shooting Fantasy Island, however, he read the script more carefully and realized he'd underestimated the role. "Even when I was not on the screen, they were talking about me."

The writing of the older Khan intrigued Montalbán  "I thought, alright, this man is bent on vengeance―not for himself, for that would be ignoble, but rather vengeance for the death of his wife whom he loved passionately. He was a passionate man, he loved her passionately, and how he has this sense of a passionate sense of vengeance against the man, Kirk, whom he blamed for her untimely and horrendous death... he just lives for that moment. And, of course, he never knows―he doesn't know if he's ever going to make it in the terrible environment of this planet. But, finally, here's the opportunity!"

Montalbán agreed to do the film, but still had reservations. The actor knew he'd need to play the character fully for the script to work, making sure not to go too far. "I had the help of Nicholas Meyer, who agreed with me and kept me from going over the top―and sometimes pushing me to go a little higher. He is a great man, and I'll always be grateful to him." A bigger concern, though, was that he might not be able to re-capture a character he'd played so many years before. "When I finally decided I was going to work on the character," he explains, "and I started articulating the dialogue, I thought, 'My God, I sound like Mr. Roarke! Nobody's going to believe me after six years on Fantasy Island!' And I really couldn't sleep, because I'd already accepted the role. I thought, 'I'm going to make a fool of myself here!'"

To that end, Montalbán asked Bennett for a copy of 'Space Seed.' "I ran it, and then I ran it again. I ran it about three or four times; by the third time, I started going back in time and remembering what I was trying to do with this character, how I interpreted it, what I brought into it. And little by little, he became a part of me again, and I went into this part adding an enormous amount of passion to it, and all of a sudden, to my satisfaction, I felt that Mr. Roarke had disappeared."

As Fantasy Island viewers knew, Montalbán was in exceptional physical shape. This perfectly augmented his performance as Khan, a man who'd had to survive the harshest of environments for fifteen years. Still, he recalls with a hearty laugh, many were astonished at how well-developed the man truly was, particularly with regard to his pectoral muscles. "Nick told me that when he went on the road to promote the film, he was so full of all the technicalities of space travel, he became an expert. And he went to do all these interviews and gatherings, and yet he said the most commonly asked question, wherever he went, was 'Was that really Ricardo Montalbán's chest?'"

Co-star Judson Scott, who played Khan's assistant Joachim, often hears similar questions at conventions. Says Scott, "I'd tell them, 'No, we put on fake chests every morning. I want to wear the rich Corinthian leather today!'" A joking reference to Montalbán s 16-year stint as commercial spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba, this response always elicits a smile, Scott says.

Playing a non-Mexican character like Khan was nothing new to Montalbán  something the actor feels very strongly about. "I've had to play so many ethnicities. I have played a German innkeeper, I have played Italians, I have played Greeks, I have played French... anything I could play, I did―but there were no Mexican roles." He blames Hollywood, saying it has so much to answer for in the way Mexicans have been portrayed.

"If they gave me a romantic role at MGM," he points out, "say, Two Weeks With Love, with Jane Powell―I was a Cuban. In another role with Esther Williams, a film called Neptune's Daughter, I was Argentinean, I believe. And then I would work with Lana Turner and I'd be Brazilian. See, Brazilian or Cuban or Argentinean―all that sounds very nice. But Mexican... that doesn't sound good, because Hollywood has perpetrated this horrendous image of us, and until they rectify it, our relationship between the countries is missing something; we can never really be together or understand one another." To that end, he created a charity called Nosotros―and, more recently, a spinoff organization, the Ricardo Montalbán Foundation.

At age 81, Montalbán is still in remarkable shape, though a spinal cord injury has left him physically handicapped and in a great deal of pain. "I'm going to a new doctor now, who offers me great hope about reducing the spasm―which causes me a lot of pain―and also my left leg, which shoots way out and I can't get out of bed until I can bend it again." The ever-optimistic actor isn't one to let the pain defeat him, however. "It's an inconvenience, it's painful, but I have learned to accept pain. I offer it as a prayer to God, for my family, for friends, for people in need, for the terrific things that are going on now in the world. I offer it as a prayer to God because I accept his will, so mentally I'm in fine shape."

This August, in fact, he will appear in Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids sequel for Miramax, The Island of Lost Dreams. As Grandpa Cortez, Montalbán will have a flying wheelchair that is sure to thrill child viewers and make Montalbán a star for yet another generation. "So now he [Rodriguez] is talking to me about doing Spy Kids III," Montalbán laughs, "because he thinks this picture is going to be more successful than the other one. He said, 'You know, Ricardo, I think when people see this picture, they're going to want to see more of you, so in the next picture, boy are they going to see more of you!'"

Actor Judson Scott speaks reverently of the elder Montalbán  "He's naturally charming in person... he's so charismatic and bigger than life, yet real and human and funny. Foremost in his mind are his roots; he puts a lot back into the community." Earlier this year, Scott had the pleasure of presenting Montalbán with a Lifetime Achievement Award at a breakfast in Pasadena, California. "He looks fantastic," says Scott, adding, "His face looks beautiful and his upper body is strong and virile-looking, but obviously he's had some problems with his spine, and one of his legs is a little under the weather right now."

Scott has acted in a number of television shows and films, often as a villain; he admits his height, muscular physique, and high cheek-bones keep him typecast as a villain but has no regrets since he enjoys his work. Prior to playing Joachim in Star Trek II, Scott starred in The Phoenix, guest-starred as Lawrence of Arabia on the ill-fated Voyagers, and played a villain named Float on The Powers of Matthew Star, starring Peter Barton. The latter series, in a strange twist of fate, led to his playing Joachim.

"There was a terrible accident on the show one night," Scott remembers. "He [Barton] fell on a magnesium flare, which has now been outlawed―you're not allowed to have them on the set." Such flares can burn a hole through metal in a matter of seconds; they give off a beautiful light, but the danger involved makes them unusable. "He fell back on it and kind of smothered it, and it exploded. Landing on it would be enough to totally ruin you, but then he had the unfortunate thing of smothering it, and it couldn't get any oxygen and blew up and just completely eliminated all of the skin on all of his back, from his heels to the back of his head."

The burns left Barton in a hospital for a year, putting Matthew Star on hiatus. Thus, when casting began on Star Trek II, Scott was both available and a known talent. "The people at Paramount asked me to come over and do Star Trek II. I had to read for them, but really I knew no one else was going to do it."

Scott and Montalbán tried to play their roles as though father and son; in fact, Scott says, some cut scenes would have established Joachim as being the son of Khan and McGivers. "There were some long scenes cut where I'm sitting down at his feet and we're in the nebula, and he reminisced about my mother and I said, 'Don't worry about it, we'll find a way out.' But I think it was too long and they needed to get back to the shooting."

Scott was amazed by his elder co-star's energy. "Early in the morning, Ricardo would come in and we'd have coffee and he'd say, 'Come on, get over here, let's arm wrestle,' and we'd wrestle and do push-ups and see how many we could do." To his chagrin, however, not everything on the set was designed to withstand the strength of genetically bred supermen. "We had these chest-exposing outfits on, and there was this scene where the shields were dropping, it must have been during the battle, and the first take I said, 'Fire, damn you!' and I smashed down on the console. Well, in those days, it was just stage props―it wasn't solid hardwood―and I just ripped the little desk off the wall!"

Scott was very embarrassed by the incident. "I felt terrible that I'd stopped filming―because when you're a kid like that, you don't want to get in the way of anything." 45 minutes later, when it came time to shoot the scene again, Scott was afraid of hitting the new console. "When I look at the scene now, I look like a little Nancy-boy," he laughs, assuming a self-deprecating whine. "I'm going, 'I can't! I can't! The shields are dropping!' It's very painful for me to look at. And, of course, Ricardo is over there with the throttle, yelling 'Full steam ahead!' like he's shifting a boat. He's doing all this macho stuff and I'm stuck over in this little corner, afraid to hit it too hard for fear of breaking something again."

Sadly, an unfortunate chain of events led to Scott's name being left out of the credits―an oversight he didn't know about until seeing the final cut. "One of my assistant agents was doing the negotiations for this deal, and he was told by a superior agent that we wanted billing at the top of the show or whatever, and they said 'We can't provide that,' so I guess the guy on the other end was a novice, too, and he said, 'Do you want to waive billing?' not knowing that basically you're asking a person to not have any billing at all."

To his regret, the un-seasoned assistant agent agreed to waive billing, eliminating Scott's name entirely. "I had no idea that was going to happen. I went to the screening and sat through the film, and I thought 'Oh, my God, I know that was me up there!' That was awful." Not surprisingly, the junior agent lost his job over the mix-up.

Scott describes his two on Star Trek II as magical. "I remember saying, 'Damn, this is good! This really works! They say Hollywood has no good scripts―what are they talking about!' Going from plays and theater, where everything has to be well written, I just went, 'This is good... this is good... this is good' all the way through." It's a sentiment both Bennett and Montalbán share in spades... as do Star Trek fans worldwide.

Be sure to tune in to Part II of our exclusive look at Star Trek II's 20th anniversary―next issue!

To create a more positive image for Mexicans in Hollywood, and to train and promote the hiring of Hispanic actors in general, Montalbán formed Nosotros in 1970. Montalbán is Chairman of the Board of the charity, which fosters awareness and offers seminars to promote a sense of community. "At the beginning, it was a Mexican organization," he explains, "because Mexicans were the bandits. But then our friends and brothers from Latin America said, 'Ricardo, please include us because there are not roles for us either,' and I said, 'Alright, fair enough' and I chose the name 'Nosotros,' meaning 'We, all of Spanish-speaking origin included.'"

One stereotype Montalbán finds particularly irksome is that of the Mexican bandit. "You never see Cuban bandits, or Venezuelan bandits or Panamanian bandits," he points out, "always Mexican." It's a fight he takes up whenever possible. "I called the President of Frito-Lay, and I got him on the phone; he was very kind. I said, 'You know, you're doing something that is really the straw that broke the camel's back,' and he said, 'What do you mean?' and I said, 'The Frito Bandito. Why didn't you make him the Frito Amigo, giving the chips away? He loves the chips so much he wants to share them with his friends, his amigos. Alright, make him fat, with a little mustache, make him the cute guy, fine―but no, you made him the Frito Bandito, stealing the chips! That is the image Hollywood has created in your mind, sir, that you think of Mexicans as bandits!' And you know what? He said, 'Mr. Montalbán  I never thought of it that way. I promise you that in two weeks, the Frito Bandito will disappear.' And he did!"

Nosotros' new spinoff, the Ricardo Montalbán Foundation, is buying the old Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood and renaming it the Ricardo Montalbán Theater, to own and operate the building and support the mission. "We hope, through this theater, to present plays including people of other nationalities―it's not just Mexican or Latin, it's community theater. We haven't stopped dreaming, and now our dreams have become a reality. I am very impressed with the work that Jerry Velasco, the President of Nosotros, has been doing; it's been a work of love for him, as well as for me." (To offer donations to either effort, send them c/o 650 North Bronson, Suite 102, Hollywood, CA 90004.)

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