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The Real McCoy:

Recollecting DeForest Kelley

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Publicity photo of Deforrest Kelly as Dr. McCoy from the television program Star Trek.
Spock May Have Given Star Trek Logic And Kirk Might Have Provided Bravado and Sex Appeal, But As Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, Kelley Gave The Show Some Heart

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

March 30, 2015 — With the recent death of Leonard Nimoy, living cast members from the original TV series Star Trek that ran for three seasons on NBC from 1966 to 1969, are about as rare as an icy blue shot of Romulan Ale.

It was in 1982, shortly before the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, the second in a series of cash-cow theatrical films inspired by the TV series, that we had a sit-down with the chief medical officer of the Starship Enterprise, Leonard “Bones” McCoy as portrayed by DeForest Kelley.

The coordinates to find the meeting place became something almost more troubling than feeding Tribbles spiked amounts of the fictional grain Quadrotriticale. In the telephone arrangements, Kelley said we’d meet at a “Scandinavian” restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino. What he failed to tell us was that the restaurant was an IHOP (International House of Pancakes). Perhaps the characteristic A-frame architecture of the restaurant chain confused Kelley into thinking that the pancake house had been beamed via the transporter from Stockholm.

At any rate, we met up with Kelley in the parking lot where he lolled next to his vintage Thunderbird. Kelley explained that the IHOP is a convenient meeting place because it’s near his home and the nearby Vendome liquor store where he liked to stock up on libations (which, we surmised, might have been the real source of the confusion).

Now seated comfortably in a booth and over a stack of buttermilk flapjacks, Kelley told us that the role as the ship’s doctor provided him a chance to break out of the mostly villainous roles he had been playing on the big and small screens.

“It was not a big role at first, but I thought he (Dr. McCoy) had room to grow,” he told us in that familiar Southern drawl known to all “Trekkers” and “Trekkies.” Kelley, in fact, was born in Georgia in 1920, the son of a Baptist minister. “I told Gene Roddenberry (the creator and producer of the show) that I’d love to do it if somewhere down the line they’d expand the character if he warrants it.”

His role did expand and by the show’s second season, Kelley’s name was listed in the opening credits alongside William Shatner and Nimoy.

Kelley patterned the part after a future-day H.L. Mencken. McCoy, always the cynic, was a “simple country doctor” uncomfortable living in an era of molecule-scrambling Transporter rooms, Phasers and Tricorders. His emotional outbursts, usually directed at the placid Spock, made for some of the show’s finest moments.

During its run, the show revolutionized TV science fiction through its 79 teleplays, many of which addressed hot-button issues of that time (and are still relevant today) such as race and war.

In “The Empath,” for example, two aliens try to teach a young woman to feel the pain of others in an attempt to save her planet from imminent destruction. The characters of McCoy and Captain Kirk (Shatner) are used as guinea pigs, nearly dying, before being saved by the empath. Filmed in a setting evocative of ancient Greek theater, with a simple black stage and spot lighting, the episode still resonates as great television and was far ahead of its time when first aired.

“We worked awfully hard on that show,” Kelley said. “We were supposed to film episodes in six days. The studio, of course, would have loved to have us do them in five, which was impossible. But mostly, we took seven or eight days. We had a lot of laughs doing the show because we were under constant pressure.”

When the series ended its run, a worldwide group of avid fans (“Trekkies”) kept the franchise alive until Paramount reunited the cast in 1979 for the big-budget, bloated and boring Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Under the direction of Sound of Music veteran Robert Wise, the film was successful only because of the pent-up demand to see the franchise resurrected. In 1982, the next incarnation, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, brought back a character from the original series (Ricardo Montalban) and launched the nascent film franchise into space where “no man has gone before.”

It was an entertaining hit.

While Nimoy at one point in his career tried to distance himself from his Spock character, Kelley, who died in 1999, always embraced it.

“I feel that Star Trek is basically a winner and perhaps the biggest winner that has ever been presented on a television screen,” he said. “Gee, I’m a pretty lucky guy when it comes right down to it. So I’ve tried to stop knocking it because I don’t think it is right.”

Homespun advice from the good doctor, who, you could say, still makes house calls wherever the series airs in syndication.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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