Gene L. Coon: More than just Star Trek

Poster for The Killers, a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Poster for The Killers (1964), a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

For the purposes of this post, we’re stretching the definition of “unsung.” Gene L. Coon was a major figure for the original Star Trek series (where he was producer for part of the first and second seasons) and he’s mostly remembered for that.

However, the writer-producer performed work in other genres. That included 1960s spy shows, serving as a producer for some episodes of The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief. He also wrote episodes of war dramas and westerns.

Coon also did the script for the 1964 version of The Killers, with a cast headed by Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan. The crew included composer John Williams.

The Killers was intended by Universal to be a made-for-television movie. What producer-director Don Siegel delivered was deemed to be too violent for the small screen. So The Killers got a theatrical release instead.

Coon had a reputation as a hard worker. He had an admirer in director Ralph Senensky. Here’s what Senensky said about Coon in a reply to a post about an episode of The Wild Wild West titled The Night of the Druid’s Blood:

I think Gene Coon is one of the unsung heroes of television. Both on this series and later on STAR TREK his work (and he was a rewriting machine) set a standard that elevated both series to levels that were seldom reached after his departure.

Coon produced only six episodes of The Wild Wild West near the end of that show’s first season (1965-66). The following television season, he joined Star Trek as producer, working under creator-executive producer Gene Roddenberry. Coon’s main task was to secure and produce a steady stream of scripts.

Coon’s major contributions included the Klingons and co-writing Space Seed, the episode that introduced Ricardo Montalban’s Khan character. Khan would be brought back twice (once with Montalban and once with Benedict Cumberbatch) as villains in Star Trek movies.

Put another way, Coon’s contributions had an impact on Trek productions long after he first made them.

The writer-producer continued into Trek’s second season but departed. He ended up at Universal’s television operation. However, he did some moonlighting, writing some Trek scripts under the pen name Lee Cronin.

One of them, Spock’s Brain, in which Spock’s brain is taken from him, still generates groans from Trek fans decades later. Well, everyone has an off day and the writing conditions (doing it on the side while working full-time at Universal) weren’t ideal.

Gene L. Coon died of cancer on July 8, 1973, just 49 years old. His final writing credit was for an episode of The Streets of San Francisco titled Death and the Favored Few. That show aired in March 1974.

A director reflects on making episodes of spy TV

From The Night of Big Blast directed by Ralph Senesky

From The Night of Big Blast directed by Ralph Senensky

Ralph Senesky directed a lot of episodic television, including installments of 1960s spy-related television series. In 2009 and 2010 ON HIS BLOG, Senensky described some of the episodes he helmed in detail.

For example, there was The Night of the Druid’s Blood, a first-season episode of The Wild, Wild West. At this point, the series producer was Gene L. Coon, who “told me that because of the uniqueness of the series, he rewrote most of the scripts; that he used the writer’s first draft submission as a frame for him to build on.”

One of the guest stars was Don Rickles. “Don was always on, with his incredibly sharp wit and acute skills of observation. It seemed almost no one was safe. Robert Conrad was not the tallest creature on the planet, but according to Rickles he barely reached the height of Billy Barty.” However, the director also wrote all that ended when the cameras started to roll. “he was fanatically serious about his work.”

Senensky was back a few months later for a second-season West episode, The Night of the Big Blast. Gene Coon was gone, with Michael Garrison (who had been executive producer) in the producer’s chair. There was one other big change: the series was now being made in color.

To save money during those early years of filming in color, not all of the daily rushes would be printed in color. For each sequence only one setup would be printed in color (it was usually the master shot for the scene). The rest of the takes for that sequence would be printed in black and white. Therefore the work print of the film would bounce back and forth from color master to black and white closeups. It wasn’t until the final answer print that we got to see the entire film in color.

Senensky also describes the work habits of old Hollywood (guest star Ida Lupino) and the then-newer variety during the first day of filming.

The crew reported at the usual 7:30 am; filming was scheduled to begin at 8:00 am. Five minutes before 8, Ida Lupino reported to the set, in costume and makeup, ready to film. At 8:25 am our Miklos, MIchael McCloud, arrived; at 8:50 am Robert Conrad showed up and we were able to start filming. Allthough these late arrivals were not standard practice throughout the television industry, they also were not sole occurrences.

(snip)

But studios and production companies, in the age of television were at a disadvantage. Once an actor was established as a bona fide star of a successful network series, they seemed to hold the stronger hand. If the studio fired Vince Edwards, how does BEN CASEY continue on the air? Or Peter Falk on COLUMBO? Or Robert Blake on BARETTA? It was a different world. I know of a show (which shall remain nameless) where the producer challenged one of the show’s stars. Guess who was the one dismissed! I remember the stunned look on the face of the show’s story editor when he came into the office of the production manager (I was present) and announced, “I’ve just been made the producer.”

At the same time, Senesky describes how Conrad and the stuntmen arranged and rehearsed fights, with Conrad not needing a double being a big help. As for co-star Ross Martin, his “wide range as an actor proved invaluable for Ross to assume many, various identities. In this episode he had the rare chance to be the romantic hero, since Jim West has allegedly been eliminated from the story.”

You can read Senensky’s full posts about Druid BY CLICKING HERE and Big Blast BY CLICKING HERE.

There’s also a post about a late first-season episode of Mission: Impossible (filmed as star Steven Hill was being phased out) that you can view HERE and a second-season episode of The FBI involving an espionage story HERE. Senensky also directed an I Spy episode, but didn’t write about it on the blog.

45th anniversary of TV spy mania part II: spies and cowboys

In the fall of the 1965, CBS wasn’t about to let rival network NBC gain a monpoly on spy-oriented entertainment. But the Tiffany Network’s choice was a little unusual: it opted to air a spy show set in 1870s America.

The result, of course, was The Wild, Wild West. That wasn’t always the planned title. The version of the show’s pilot shown to network executives was just called The Wild West. At one point, CBS was keen on 6-foot-3 Rory Calhoun to play Secret Service agent James West but ended up casting the much-shorter Robert Conrad. The memorable animated main titles depicted a tall, lanky James West, who seemed to more closely resemble Calhoun.

Versatile character actor Ross Martin got the odd nod as fellow agent Artemus Gordon, a master of disguise who also dabbled in advanced science.

The show had a rocky first season, with no less than six men (Michael Garrison, Fred Freiberger, Collier Young, Philip Leacock, John Mantley and Gene L. Coon) getting either a producer or executive producer credit. Garrison produced the pilot (also taking the creator credit even though the pilot was written by Gilbert Ralston) and would retake command late in the first season. Garrison died during the second season, and Bruce Lansbury would see the show through the rest of its four-year run.

HMSS has written before how the original series captured lightning in a bottle, something was extremely difficult to do with 1980 and 1981 TV movie revivals and a 1999 theatrical move.

Anyway, here’s a 1965 CBS promo for the series. That includes music from Richard Markowitz, who composed the show’s catchy theme but would be denied a credit for it (Markowitz would only get credits for individual episodes he scored). It’s followed by the “boxes” of the original verison of the pilot leading into commercial breaks: