Persis Khambatta Suffered the Scrape of Her Locks, but Star Trek Justified the Loss
01/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
It took three years and $44 million to bring Star Trek to the big screen. But, as it turns out, the most chilling enemy faced by the stolid crew of the Enterprise, including India-born beauty Persis Khambatta, may not be interstellar gas but critical bile. Ridiculing the most expensive movie ever made as "passive," "soporific," "sluggish" and a sort of dim-bulb Spockalypse Now, the critics would seemingly have dissuaded all but the cult's most ardently oppressive Trekkie fanatics.
Yet Star Trek's box office—unlike the plot—took off at warp speed, grossing an unprecedented $11.9 million its first three days. While its long-term prospects (it has to reap more than $125 million to break even) remain in doubt, the critical hairsplitting certainly has had no effect on the delightfully ingenuous Khambatta, 33, who plays the depilated demoiselle who navigates the starship. "I don't want to spoil my fun by reading negative things," protests Persis, a former Miss India who personally combines a quirky Judy Holliday sense of humor with a background almost as exotic as a Vulcan's. "I think the movie is wonderful."
Offscreen, however, the woman who has been justifiably dubbed India's Sophia Loren suffered seven excruciating months in her bald pate for her art. Pouts the chrome-domed Persis: "If someone kissed me, you know, was really making out with me, he would get five-o'clock-shadow burns."
Persis—perhaps because she and Stephen Collins, as the starship's young commander, are the crew's only newcomers—sometimes brought problems to the set that threatened to cauliflower the ears of the passionless Spock. "I do not hide my feelings," Persis admits, "though sometimes I get carried away. I can't remember what humiliation I had suffered at the hands of one of my boyfriends, but one day I was sitting weeping. Director Robert Wise patted my shoulder and said, 'Come on, Persis, this is costing about $10,000 a minute.' He was joking, but I got the point in a hurry."
Though she became a sensation of the disco set (and was linked to German financier Alex Marcus-Zellermayer), her boyfriend troubles weren't helped by her Hare Krishna hairdo. "I thought I was very pretty without hair," she shrugs. "Naked, more honest somehow. No glamor, just bald old me. I seldom wore wigs or hats. But some people must have thought I was an exhibitionist or a religious fanatic." Now that she has resprouted her once luxuriant mane, she is still having romantic difficulties. "My current boyfriend is French and he doesn't treat me very well," kids Persis about Sunset Strip boutique owner Pasquel Chevillot. "He is very put back—I mean, lay back—about everything. He is like all of Hollywood, light and fluffy. Everybody smiles."
Persis, surely, is different. She belongs (as does conductor Zubin Mehta) to the 85,000-member Parsi sect, followers of Zoroaster whose ancestors originally immigrated to India from Persia. Her father deserted the family when she was 2 and she never saw him again. "It was very hard. Our people stress family," says Persis. "I developed a sense of humor and something of a toughness of skin, but I suffered from being different." She began modeling at 13 while her mother fended off matchmakers. Persis' selection as Miss India of 1965 led to movies in New Delhi, modeling in London and roles in two 1975 films, The Wilby Conspiracy with Sidney Poitier and Conduct Unbecoming with Michael York. She then repeated her modeling success in New York for Air India (among others), acted in the 1977 TV movie Man with the Power, and won the Star Trek role over 100 contenders.
While her pay for trimming her tresses was only an estimated $35,000, the movie has advanced Khambatta's trek to stardom. After a flying trip to London, Paris and Australia, she begins work next week on Sly Stallone's upcoming Attack! She and Pasquel have rented a two-bedroom Hollywood duplex decorated with Indian carvings, rugs and wall hangings, where they socialize quietly with friends from L.A.'s European community. She lets no alcohol pass her lips but chainsmokes. "I really don't know how things could be better," Persis sums up, though, strangely, she sometimes feels a certain nostalgia for her days as a skinhead. "Yes," she sighs. "It felt real sexy when I soaped down in the shower."