Master of the Universe

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

YEARS BEFORE HE INHALED DEEPLY AND-WITH A BREATH OF inspiration that would have left H.G. Wells dizzy—sent the Enterprise speeding across the galaxy, Gene Roddenberry knew all about airships. The Star Trek creator flew almost 90 B-17 missions in the Pacific during World War II, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. And for four years after the war, he was a commercial pilot for Pan Am. But his viewpoint was always much farther out, where countries merge into one shining green-blue ball. "I'm a veteran, and I consider myself very loyal," said Roddenberry, who died Oct. 24 at age 70 of a massive blood clot, two days after screening Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. "But I'm also a citizen of this planet." And Star Trek—the most popular science-fiction vehicle in, well, the universe (see following story)—was his passport.

Imagination was always important to Roddenberry, who loved listening to radio serials while growing up in Los Angeles, one of three children of Caroline Roddenberry, a housewife, and Eugene, a police officer. He attended several colleges, including UCLA, without graduating; his writing career got under way in the early 1950s, when he began contributing scripts to TV series including Dragnet, Naked City and Have Gun, Will Travel.

It was another Western, Wagon Train, that inspired Star Trek, which premiered in 1966 on NBC. Like Train, Trek was about a warm and diverse band of roving comrades. But the unit of travel was the light-year, not the prairie mile. The far-out concept, Roddenberry later explained, was his way of dealing with important issues—"sex, religion, union-management, all that stuff"—without upsetting the network. Sex was, in fact, an early warp factor: Roddenberry wanted his wife, Majel Barrett, to play Captain Kirk's second-in-command. When NBC execs balked at a woman character with that much power, the post went to Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy)—who was always too dispassionate to care about such things anyway. Barrett, who's 59, ended up with parts on both the original TV Star Trek and its current syndicated successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, a product of the series' ever-growing cultdom. (She and Roddenberry have a son, Rod, 17; Roddenberry also had two daughters by his first marriage to Eileen Rexroat.)

Star Trek's concept may have been Wagon Train in the sky, but the result at first was less than a gravy train. After the show was canceled in its third season, "it was a hard time for me," said Roddenberry. "I was perceived as the guy who made the show that was an expensive flop. I couldn't get work." But he eventually amassed millions and millions with six theatrical movies (he produced the first and was a consultant on the rest) and the second series (which he executive-produced).

But on the cosmic scale, what do such digits signify? At 6'3" and 215 lbs., Roddenberry was a gentle giant. "He was huge," says George Takei (Sulu on the original series), "and he'd grab you in his big, bearlike embrace." In the past year and a half, though, he had suffered a series of strokes. "It was painful to see him reduced left-and-right by these small hits," says Takei.

But Roddenberry's faith in mankind's trek toward tomorrow was unshakable. "He believed in the inherent goodness of the human being and the ability to rise to the occasion," says Le Var Burton, who plays Lt. Comdr. Geordi LaForge on The Next Generation. Roddenberry's rosy vision was rooted in a simple sense of acceptance that he said he developed at middle age—around the time Star Trek was born. "As you grow older," he said, "you reach a point where wisdom settles in, where you can compare yourself to the rest of the world and say, 'He's got boils and bumps, but he's not bad.' " Top that, Mr. Spock.


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