By Chris Hughes
The Starship USS Enterprise boldly went where no man had ever gone before for the first time in 1966 when ‘Star Trek’ made its inauspicious debut on American TV. Garnering only moderate success, it was quietly cancelled after three seasons. Through re-runs, worldwide showings and word of mouth praise, its popularity grew however to become one of the most successful media franchises of all time. The line-up of characters, who were diverse at a time when diversity on the small and big screen was unique, is now embedded in folklore.
The actors that played them soon realised that the public often struggled to disassociate them from their iconic roles. James Doohan, who portrayed the Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott (Scotty), like other cast members, came to know the negative and positive consequences of that. He first became aware of it when he found that fans assumed he was Scottish, like his on-screen persona. His ancestry was though totally Irish.
James’s father, William Patrick Doohan was a pharmacist with his own shop in Bangor, County Down. There, he met Sarah Frances Montgomery, her last name providing Scotty with his first. The two were married at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Ardoyne, Belfast. James was the youngest of their four offspring and the only one not born in Ireland.
The family had immigrated to Canada when he came into the world in 1920. William practised his profession as a pharmacist in British Columbia where his sister-in-law and her husband lived. After firstly settling in Vancouver, the Doohans moved to Sarnia, Ontario. Of both, Catholic and Northern Irish Protestant stock, James was raised Catholic.
After completing High School in 1938, James enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery. He had risen through the ranks to the position of lieutenant by 1940 when he was sent to England with the 14th Field Artillery Regiment Of The 3rd Canadian Infantry. On D-Day his division was tasked with taking the area known as Juno Beach. He did not escape from the operation unscathed taking four bullets to the leg, three to the hand and one in the chest. The latter was halted by a cigarette case causing him to often joke later that smoking saved his life. The bullet to his hand cost him his middle finger, which he tried to disguise when acting.
After the war, James returned to Canada where he intended to study science. His plans changed when he heard a radio drama which he thought was poorly acted. Impulsively, he headed for the broadcaster’s offices and somehow persuaded a radio operator to allow him to make his own recording to illustrate how he could do better. The operator was impressed enough to advise him to enrol at a Drama School in Toronto.
James did just that and eventually won a two-year scholarship to the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York. When he embarked on a career as an actor, he worked prolifically in radio and in guest roles in TV series such as ‘Bonanza’, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ and ‘Bewitched’. In 1966 he auditioned successfully for the part of the engineer in a new series about a spaceship heading off on a five-year mission. Its crew were instructed to explore new worlds and discover new life.
The producers of the show, to be entitled ‘Star Trek’, had been unsure as to what the nationality of the engineer should be. James tried various options, being accustomed to adopting different accents in radio plays, before Scottish was selected. He was thrilled to be involved in the innovative project sensing there was something special about it. “The scripts were terrific, really terrific”, he recalled.
“It was so well written.” The star was regularly regaled for the rest of his life with four words that viewers believed appeared often in those scripts: “Beam me up, Scotty.” They were even reportedly quoted to him by Elvis Presley on one occasion. He said: “That phrase was never said on the show. It was “Mr Scott, beam me up” or “Scotty, beam us up” or something like that. The public caught on to “Beam me up, Scotty”. They attached my name to the ‘Beam me up’ part. It’s a great posterity thing. It’s fantastic.”
Following the cancellation of the series, James found acting work hard to come by although he appeared in the films ‘Pretty Maids All In A Row’ and ‘Man In The Wilderness’. He also supplied the voice of Scotty for 1973’s ‘Star Trek: The Animated Series’. The staggering success of Star Wars in 1977 ignited an appetite for science fiction that encouraged Paramount Studios to resurrect the Star Trek franchise.
They did so by taking it to the cinema in the shape of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ in 1979. Its box office takings led to five sequels which all featured James. He also played Scotty again in a guest spot in the TV series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and briefly in the movie ‘Star Trek Generations’.
James was initially frustrated by an unwillingness on the part of casting directors, who feared he could only be viewed as Scotty, to consider him for other roles. Of typecasting, he remarked: “First 25 years of my career I never had to worry about it then Star Trek came along and I was on every night of the week. That’s very dangerous for an actor. There was a time for 3 or so years from 1972-1975 when I wasn’t making a living. I didn’t like that.”
His dentist, upon hearing his concerns, said prophetically: “Jimmy, you’re going to be Scotty long after you’re dead. If I were you I’d go with the flow.” James said: “I took his advice and since then everything’s just been lovely.” He started taking part in conventions and enjoyed meeting fans whose magnitude and enthusiasm was such that they earned their own term – Trekkies. His ebullience made him a favourite with them.
It gave him particular pleasure when he was approached by engineers who told him that he influenced them in their choice of career. Such was that influence that he was given an honorary doctorate in engineering by Milwaukee School Of Engineering. He explained why: “The reason that I have that doctorate is because fifty per cent of the students who enter that school all give the reason for becoming an engineer is Scotty.” In 2004 when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame the astronaut, Neil Armstrong made a rare public appearance. He movingly said: “From one old engineer to another, thanks, Scotty.”
The thrice-married father of seven’s later years were dogged by poor health culminating in his death from pneumonia in 2005. Regrettably, his family encountered difficulties in their endeavours to comply with his request that his ashes be sent into Space. Much to their delight his wish was finally met in 2008, thanks to entrepreneur, Richard Garriott. He smuggled them onto the International Space Station during a 12-day mission as a private astronaut. As he poignantly and appropriately put it: “James Doohan got his resting place among the stars.”