By Laura Davis, managing editor
On this date in 1920, Jackson DeForest Kelley was born in Atlanta, the son of a Baptist minister. Given his eventual fame for his role in Star Trek, it seems appropriate that he was named in honor of electronics engineering pioneer Lee De Forest, best known for his invention of the audion and triode, both of which played a key role in the development of radio transmission and reception, and which were used in the first ship-to-shore radio broadcast in 1907. It was a big name to live up to, but DeForest Kelley managed in many and unexpected ways.
During World War II, Kelley served in the United States Army Air Forces. Early in his enlistment, he served as a control tower operator, and later, as a PR writer. In 1945, he was transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. The unit was responsible for producing training and recruitment films for the military. Kelley began his work with the unit as a technical assistant, but ended up in acting roles, alongside Ronald Reagan and George Reeves. It was while Kelley was working on a training film for the Navy that he met a scout from Paramount Pictures, who signed Kelley to a seven-year contract when his military enlistment ended.
I spoke with Bjo Trimble — best-known in fandom as “The Woman Who Saved Star Trek” – who was a long-time friend of Kelley’s, and I asked her for some of her recollections.
“De was sitting at a table backstage by himself,” Trimble says of their first meeting, “and I asked Gene [Roddenberry] if I could meet him. So, Gene took me over and introduced us. He [Kelley] had a picture of a little gray poodle, and I asked if it was his. He just opened up and started talking. Gene chuckled and said, ‘My work here is done,’ and walked off. Every time we met after that, De would haul out a wallet full of pet pictures, and I started carrying pictures to share with him, too. It was so refreshing, because everyone else just wanted to talk about Star Trek.”
I asked Trimble whether “De” was her own nickname for Kelley, and she explained, “Oh, no. Everyone who knew him called him De. In fact, when I first knew him, I always called him ‘Mr. Kelley,’ and one day he asked, ‘Don’t you like me? Why do you always call me Mr. Kelley?’ After that, I always called him De.”
Trimble describes Kelley as a very shy man who was terrified of public speaking. “He said the reason he was a tv and film actor, and never a stage actor, was that when he was filming, he only had to face a crew of people, and not an entire audience. It’s a closed set, and he’d deal with the same people day after day.”
She also wanted to set the record straight with regard to an often-repeated story (also often exaggerated and blown out of proportion, according to Trimble) of an early con appearance at which Kelley was mobbed by fans. “It was one of our very first cons, so fans really hadn’t had the chance to see the actors up close. We were leading De out, and the fans just rushed him. It was love and excitement on their part, but they pushed the table up against the wall, and De was starting to get panicky. A security person jumped up on the table and ordered everyone back. Everyone did back up in about a 20-foot circle around De, and they were all really abashed and apologetic. They were all new at being fans. They didn’t know how to be fans.”
Although Kelley’s early career in film and tv placed him in many villain roles (he was later recognized with a “Golden Boot” award by the Motion Picture and Television Fund for his work in Westerns), he will forever be remembered as the slightly-crusty-but-generally-good-hearted Dr. Leonard McCoy. Gene Roddenberry was quoted as saying he thought he’d ruined Kelley’s acting career with the role. Trimble commented, “Everyone was predisposed to love good ol’ Dr. McCoy. John [Trimble, her husband] once asked him, ‘Do you feel that Roddenberry ruined your movie career?’” She explains that Kelley was a “thorough-going professional and he often said that what you do with a good career is you treasure it and keep it going, and he told John, ‘No, I don’t believe that [Roddenberry ruined my career]. I believe that an actor’s life is one of growth and change and shifting from one role to another. I never felt that Gene did me any harm.’”
I asked Trimble to recount a humorous moment with Kelley, and she told me of a running joke they had between them for many years of conventions. “John and I were there as secondary guests, to help keep things lively, to entertain and make the con seem worthy to everyone who came. De would always tell people, ‘Don’t ask me about medical stuff. I’m not a doctor. Don’t ask me about the ship, either. I’m not up on that stuff.’ But there would invariably be someone who would pipe up right away to ask how the medical tricorders worked, or how big sick bay was. One time, he answered, ‘I’m not up on that, but Mrs. Trimble will be happy to answer that for you.’ I stepped up and gave some numbers I’d just made up, but after we’d been doing this for a while, someone would say, ‘That’s not the same answer you gave at another con!’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, you wanted the correct answer? That’ll be $20. I don’t give correct answers without payment.’”
“It wasn’t just entertainment,” Trimble points out. “It was a matter of educating people, much more than most of them were getting in 1966.” If they weren’t aware of this at the time, everyone who was involved with Star Trek became aware as time went on. Trimble recounts Kelley’s moment of realization. “One of the more terrifying things that happened to him [Kelley] was after the series was done, and he was invited to speak as a guest at a medical convention. He told them, ‘don’t ask me about medical stuff. I’m not a doctor, I don’t know.’ They told him ‘We’re all Star Trek fans, and we’d love to meet someone who plays a doctor so well.’ No one was expecting this, but 3 people stood up at that con and told De he’d inspired them to go into medicine. One of them told him, ‘Watching you made me realize that you could have the personality and relations with other people, not be the perfect out-of-the-box doctor like the ones we see on tv, and have your temper and foibles, and still be a doctor.’ De had never realized that playing a role could be that influential. He was touched and pleased.”
Kelley’s portrayal of Doctor McCoy was the gold standard to which all others after him would be compared. He, however, had no star to steer by. What a doctor on a starship was supposed to be like was his to define. De Forrest Kelley had truly gone where no man had gone before.
We hope you’ll join us this evening in watching an episode or three of favorite Dr. McCoy moments, and remembering DeForest Kelley!