Pro Files: James Doohan

JamesDoohan2001by Jack Jeffers

 

A Tribute to James Montgomery Doohan

I had the privilege of interviewing James Doohan at Dragon*Con in Atlanta in 2001; I found him to be a polite, humorous, intelligent and very well-read man. James was born March 3, 1920 in Vancouver, British Columbia and grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. He served in Europe during WWII as a Royal Canadian Armed Forces Captain. He landed at Normandy on D-Day, as a member of the Royal Canadian Artillery. While he was still on the beach, a German machine gun stitched eight bullets across his chest. The only thing that saved his life was a metal cigarette case in his inner jacket pocket that deflected a round that would have penetrated his heart. He told me, “Don’t let everyone tell you that smoking will be the cause of your death, every time!” He also lost the middle finger of his right hand. He was one of the first British officers on the beach that day.

I asked him what was the most harrowing experience that he had during his military service? He answered, “It was seventeen miles we had to go in our little rowboat to be number one off on my beach. I was in charge of ‘D’ Company of the Winnipeg Rifles and their fifth LCA (Landing Craft Assault). We were just about a mile away from shore and were supposed to land at seven a.m., when a British motor torpedo boat came slashing across in front of us (the water was rough). They announced, ‘H-hour postponed 30… H-hour postponed 30.’ We found out later it was postponed to give the bombers a chance, let the clouds rise up and let the bombers bomb the beach before we landed. This is the worst part; we had to delay thirty minutes. We had to cut across the waves, with the waves. We did that three or four times, and I swear to you, that’s where I did some engineering without thinking of it as engineering. I told my troops, all strangers to me, all experts; beach commandos, beach signals, beach engineers. I told them all to put the weight close to the center, heavy persons to the center, and to move the heavy equipment to the center with the rifles. We had to overcome the waves some way. The Regina Rifles lost three LCAs because they did not do these proper things. You could see the motor torpedo boats disappear behind the waves. That will tell you how thick it was. All of the troops with me had a job to do when they landed. There was one fellow who had an unbelievable number of stripes on his arm. I guess he was second in command to me. He was from Singapore and was Japanese. Can you imagine? He had escaped from Singapore, and here he was to land on Normandy.”

James recovered in a veterans hospital in Canada and was released from service. His brother, six years older than he, was a Brigadier General in the Royal Canadian Army; following the war he was in charge of the Veteran’s Administration in London, Ontario, Military District 1, Canada. He advised Jim to go back to college, under the Canadian Bill of Rights, as he was entitled to twice the length of his overseas military service which was 5 1⁄2 years. They owed him nine years of university training with a living allowance. He moved to London, Ontario to go to school.

He listened to a local radio station between Christmas and New Years 1945 while he was studying. He said that “I put down my books at 8:00 p.m. to listen to a radio drama, and it was the worst I ever heard. I got my Irish and Scottish up and I got some stuff to read and went down to CMPL, the only radio station in London, Ontario. I went to one of the operators there and told him I wanted to make a recording. He said, you mean a transcription. I did it, and horrors of horrors, I heard my own voice for the first time. I told the operator that I didn’t like it. He said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re good!’ I was stumped for a second, and then I asked him where you go to learn. He said, ‘I have a brochure for a drama school that teaches radio [to] veterans.’ I sent them a telegram and I got an answer back. I went to the school in Toronto the next Friday. I made my first professional appearance with a CBC radio show on January 12, 1946. At the end of June, I graduated with top honors and won a scholarship for two years free tuition at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. I went there and was amazed at how brilliant the teacher, Sanford Meisner, was. I was a student there for two years, then he asked me to stay on and teach because Jo VanFleet, his assistant was leaving. I taught for three years.”

He began to work in radio in New York, and was in much demand, as he now could do sixteen different dialects, and coached Broadway actors in speech and dialect. He graduated to television, guest-appearing in such major shows as Tales of Tomorrow in 1952; Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The New Breed in 1962; Hazel, The Virginian and The Twilight Zone in 1963; The Outer Limits, Ben Casey, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Rogues in 1964; and The Fugitive, Laredo, Convoy, and Bewitched in 1965. He continued making guest appearances in many of these series, while also appearing in several movies made for TV during that time.

In 1966 he was asked to audition for Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry. He auditioned for the part of the ship’s engineer using eight different accents. Roddenberry asked him which accent he liked? James answered at once, “If you want a chief engineer, he had better be a Scotsman, because Scotsmen, which includes my grandfather, made the British Empire.” Of course, James’ Scottish heritage had something to do with his decision. And so… “Lt. Commander Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott” was born (the “Montgomery” was from his own middle name!) and he appeared in the pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. And so it began. He was one of the best-liked characters in the TV series and in all of the movies. A little-known fact is that he was also a linguist, and devised the Vulcan and Klingon language dialogue heard in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Over the next twenty years, other linguists expanded Klingon into a full language of its own.

I asked James which episode of Star Trek was the one he liked the best, he answered, “It was ‘The Doomsday Machine’ because of it’s suspenseful mood and because it had a great actor, William Windom, in the lead. The one that was the greatest fun, was ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ where I got to do about 95% of my own stunts. The best film, I think, was number six, The Undiscovered Country, because it was beautifully written and directed. The greatest line [from any of the movies] was when we landed in San Francisco, and William Shatner, as Captain Kirk, said ‘Everybody remember where we parked.’”

In 1966, James was granted an honorary Degree in Engineering by the Milwaukee School of Engineering, as they said over fifty percent of their students majoring in engineering, said that they were inspired to study engineering, by James’ character “Scotty” on Star Trek.

A fine man, a gentleman, and a true hero before he ever stepped into radio, television, and the movies.

Somewhere a voice said, “Beam him up! We have need of him here!” and he went.

But he will be missed.

 

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