Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett's Most Successful Enterprise Isn't a Starship; It's Their 17-Year Marriage
updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
"Majel was preparing dinner at the time," recalls Gene Roddenberry with a smile. "Rod was unusually quiet. Finally he blurted out, 'Mr. Spock!' Neither of us responded. Then he tried, 'Captain Kirk!' Again, silence. So Rod went back to school to tell his pals they were crazy." Now an energetic 13-year-old, Rod is no longer ignorant of his parents' role in intergalactic history; he's simply unimpressed.
Although fanatical Trekkies assert that Roddenberry boldly went where no man had gone before when he devised Star Trek, the international acclaim for the series, books and vastly popular films has never caused a noticeable ego-warp factor in the Roddenberrys' daily enterprises. Still, two decades after the show first aired, the Roddenberrys are very much involved with Star Trek. Gene, 65, served as producer on the first film and as executive consultant on the next three. He is currently working on a TV series sequel, Star Trek: The New Generation, scheduled to appear in the fall. Majel, 55, played Christine Chapel in the first and fourth movies. She also runs the family business, a chaotic firm called Lincoln Enterprises, which provides rabid earthlings with Star Trek paraphernalia out of a rundown warehouse.
Star Trek memorabilia is noticeably absent from the five-bedroom Roddenberry house, perched high above Beverly Hills. Nor is the topic discussed at home. "Otherwise," reasons Gene, "it would become awfully tiresome." The Roddenberrys would much rather relate the story of their wedding. While it may not feature any extraterrestrials, it does have otherworldly aspects.
Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett were married in a Shinto ceremony in Japan. The year was 1969, and Gene had been sent to Japan by MGM to scout locations. "After I had been there a number of weeks," he says, "I discovered I missed Majel a lot. Now, an American bachelor on an MGM expense account in Japan...this can be heaven! But I found myself with these pretty little girls in silk kimonos...."
"...and out of them," inserts Majel.
"I found myself talking to them about Majel," continues Gene. "One night I realized what I was doing. I paid the girl, went back to my hotel and called up Majel to ask her if she would do me the honor of becoming my wife. We wanted to get married in Japan, but Majel didn't have a passport and was told it took a minimum of three days. Luckily, she's a good actress. She went down to the Federal Building, crying 'I know him! The bastard won't wait that long!' "
"I got it in 24 hours," she boasts.
As for the Shinto ceremony, explains Gene, "It seemed sacrilegious to hire an American minister in Japan. Majel had to carry a dagger so she could kill herself if I dishonored her. She also had to carry a purse of coins so she could get home in case I changed my mind, and she had to wear a hat that hid the woman's horns of jealousy. All I had to do was carry a fan to keep cool." With typical understatement and mock thoughtfulness, he adds, "They're kind of man-oriented."
In a perfect example of the dynamics of the Roddenberry alliance, Majel waits for Gene to finish his tale before offering her disclaimer. "I thought the question was popped a little differently, but I like Gene's version better," she says. Their viewpoints may not always coincide, but honest dialogue is expected and countering opinions respected. Mutual respect, in fact, is the key to overcoming the major source of friction in their relationship.
"A lot of good producers use their wives constantly," says Gene. "Sometimes Majel finds it difficult to understand." Corrects Majel, "Not difficult, impossible." Although Barrett has appeared in two of the Star Trek movies, her role has shrunk almost out of existence (she has only one line in Star Trek IV). When Gene wrote her into the series pilot, he wanted Majel to be second-in-command on the Enterprise, but NBC nixed the notion. "Majel often questions my ideas about sexual equality," says Gene, "but it's something I've always believed in. I think they're silly little creatures but..." "He believes in the equality of women," interrupts Majel, "as long as it doesn't interfere with his home life." Anyway, back to deep space. Rather than see her role disappear altogether, Roddenberry gave the character a different name and a blond wig. "We put her aboard as the nurse, and the network never even noticed," he says proudly. "At least it kept us together during the making of the show."
With the exception of her cameo appearances in the Star Trek films, Barrett has made only a handful of unmemorable movies in the last 10 years. "I'd call my agent if I could remember his name," she jokes. Watching her career fade is difficult for an ambitious woman who left her home state of Ohio as soon as she could. "I graduated from high school with a diploma in one hand and a plane ticket in the other," says Majel. After majoring in radio/TV drama at the University of Miami, she tried a year of law school before heading to Bermuda to do regional theater. Next came New York and finally, California, in 1961.
There she was introduced to a TV writer named Gene Roddenberry. The son of a cavalry officer at Fort Bliss, Roddenberry was born in El Paso. When Gene was 2, his family moved to L.A. As a boy, he spent his free time listening to sci-fi radio sagas. He studied pre-law at L.A. City College, then transferred to engineering at UCLA until World War II broke out.
Emerging from Army Air Corps training as a second lieutenant, Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers out of Guadalcanal. While stationed in the South Pacific, he began selling stories to flying magazines. He returned stateside, flew for Pan Am and then ran an import/export business. When he quit to become a writer in Hollywood in 1949, jobs were so scarce that he joined the L.A. police department to pay the rent and gather material.
After selling a few scripts, Roddenberry turned in his badge and served for two years as the head writer for Have Gun Will Travel. Next came The Lieutenant, a short-lived series about Marines that starred Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn. Then in 1966 came Star Trek. Roddenberry had no idea it would turn into a massive hit. Notes Gene: "No one in his right mind gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'll create a phenomenon today.' "
A phenomenon is exactly what Star Trek became. The series and the films have generated close to $1 billion. While Star Trek snowballed, Barrett and Roddenberry's romance also rolled along. "We were friends for many years. We never went out. Then things began to change. We worked together for seven years, lived together one year and have been married for 17 years," summarizes Majel. "We've been together for 25 years now."
After three miscarriages Barrett gave birth to Rod, who provides a joyful second chance at family life for Roddenberry. He has two grown daughters by his first wife. Although Gene jokes that his and Majel's longevity as a couple is due to "fighting once in a while," he is quick to add that "this is a marriage between two people who are adults." And sometimes, contrary ones. "When we were trying for Rod," says Gene, "Majel made it clear to everybody that she wanted another Gene Roddenberry." "I got him," says the thoroughly outnumbered Barrett. "Boy, am I in trouble."