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An iconic figure in television science fiction thanks to his role as Pavel Chekov on the original "Star Trek" series (NBC, 1966-69), Walter Koenig was an actor and occasional writer who parlayed his supporting role on the program into a four decade-long career in films, television and other media. A guest shot on an early TV series by "Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry translated into his turn as the enthusiastic - and accident-prone - Chekov in the show's second and third seasons. Koenig reprised the character in six of the theatrical "Trek" films, earning a bit more screen time with each subsequent film; in later years, he parlayed his "Trek" fame into a string of guest shots and indie features that often traded on the character's enduring popularity. Koenig also enjoyed a second career as a TV scribe for a variety of series, while accepting his "Trek" immortality with particular good humor and cheer.Born Walter Marvin Koenig (pronounced KAY-nig) in Chicago, IL on Sept. 14, 1936, he was the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who shortened the family surname from Konigsberg to Koenig. His family moved to Manhattan during his early childhood, and Koenig's first exposure to acting came while a...
An iconic figure in television science fiction thanks to his role as Pavel Chekov on the original "Star Trek" series (NBC, 1966-69), Walter Koenig was an actor and occasional writer who parlayed his supporting role on the program into a four decade-long career in films, television and other media. A guest shot on an early TV series by "Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry translated into his turn as the enthusiastic - and accident-prone - Chekov in the show's second and third seasons. Koenig reprised the character in six of the theatrical "Trek" films, earning a bit more screen time with each subsequent film; in later years, he parlayed his "Trek" fame into a string of guest shots and indie features that often traded on the character's enduring popularity. Koenig also enjoyed a second career as a TV scribe for a variety of series, while accepting his "Trek" immortality with particular good humor and cheer.
Born Walter Marvin Koenig (pronounced KAY-nig) in Chicago, IL on Sept. 14, 1936, he was the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who shortened the family surname from Konigsberg to Koenig. His family moved to Manhattan during his early childhood, and Koenig's first exposure to acting came while a student at Fieldston High School in Riverdale, NY, where he appeared in productions of classic theater like "Peer Gynt" and "The Devil's Disciple." He attended Grinnell College to pursue a pre-med degree, but later transferred to UCLA, where he received his bachelor's degree in psychology. A professor at the school encouraged Koenig to fulfill his acting ambitions, and he joined the celebrated Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where he received a scholarship from the school's regents.
Koenig earned his first screen appearances as youthful guest leads and support, many of which utilized his skill with accents and dialects on early 1960s television series like "Combat!" (ABC, 1962-67) and "Mr. Novak" (NBC, 1963-65). Feature film roles were limited during this period to a small role in "One Man's Way" (1962), a biopic of Norman Vincent Peale, and "Strange Lovers" (1963), a low-budget potboiler about the consequences of homosexuality. A 1964 appearance on "The Lieutenant" (ABC, 1963-64) introduced him to the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, who reached out to Koenig two years later to join the crew of the Starship Enterprise as crewman Pavel Andreievich Chekov on "Star Trek."
Though initial rumors circulated that Chekov was borne out of Soviet government complaints that there were no Russian characters aboard the racially and ethnically diverse Enterprise, Koenig himself later revealed in interviews that he was hired in the show's second season to provide appeal to younger female viewers due to his passing resemblance to Davy Jones of The Monkees. In fact, Koenig was required to wear a shaggy wig that looked like Jones' mod cut. The character's Russian heritage was a nod by Roddenberry to the country's achievements in space travel. Whatever the case, Chekov held down the navigator position vacated by George Takei's Sulu while the latter actor was shooting the John Wayne Vietnam War actioner "The Green Berets" (1968). When Takei returned to the series, he was required to share his dressing room with Koenig, much to his initial dismay. However, the two soon became close friends, and remained so for decades after; in 2008, Koenig served as Takei's best man at his same-sex marriage in Los Angeles.
Chekov's role on "Star Trek" was to bring a degree of youthful enthusiasm - and occasional naiveté - to the proceedings. He was entirely capable at his job and, on more than one occasion, skilled enough to handle the captain's duties, as shown in the episode "A Private Little War," when he is able to hide the starship away from the warlike Klingons while William Shatner's Captain Kirk and the rest of the main characters are visiting a nearby planet. But for the most part, Chekov could be counted on to fall for the guile of attractive women ("I, Mudd"), bring illegal aliens aboard the ship ("The Trouble with Tribbles"), and be captured, possessed and otherwise manhandled by all manner of foes, which required his rescue by Kirk or Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock ("The Tholian Web," "The Gamesters of Triskelion"). Chekov would also frequently spout references to Russia, many of them highly questionable in regard to their factual nature. Koenig's accent, based in part on his own father's, was also a highlight of the character, especially when it called for him to pronounce any word that began with the letter "v," which resulted in such fractured statements as his infamous "nuclear wessels" comment.
"Star Trek" made Koenig exceptionally popular during its brief network run, though like many of his castmates, he found that life after the series did not afford him a boost in roles or status. However, Koenig worked steadily throughout the 1970s - mostly in television - though he was not asked to reprise his role as Chekov in the short-lived but critically acclaimed "Star Trek: The Animated Series" (NBC, 1973-75), which brought most of the original live-action series' cast back to voice their cartoon counterparts. He did, however, contribute a script to the series, which marked the first of several screenwriting credits to come, including episodes of "Land of the Lost" (NBC, 1974-77) and "Family" (ABC, 1976-1980). Koenig was also a regular at the many "Star Trek" conventions that popped up across the United States in the 1970s and kept the flame of fan appreciation for the show alive.
That level of post-cancellation popularity led to "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), a big-budget feature film adaptation of the series by legendary director Robert Wise. All of the original cast was brought back to reprise their roles, including Koenig, whose screen time was largely limited - save for a moment in which he was (once again) injured during an encounter with the Voyager satellite, which had become sentient. Though the fanfare leading up to the film was deafening, the final result lacked the thoughtfulness and action of the original series, and was regarded as something of a disappointment. Nevertheless, the show's enduring popularity demanded a sequel, and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was released in 1982. The energetic and exciting follow-up also offered Koenig more screen time; Chekov is featured in the film's most alarming moment, in which Shakespearean villain Khan (Ricardo Montalban, reprising his character from the network program) inserting a parasite into Koenig's ear, which makes him a mental slave.
Chekov would continue to be featured in the "Star Trek" sequels that utilized the original "Enterprise" crew; Koenig's knack for light comedy was put to fine use in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), which saw Chekov wandering into a military facility to inquire about nuclear material, while the character received more significant screen time in the final film to feature members of the original crew, "Star Trek Generations" (1994). Koenig also lent his voice to animated Chekovs in a variety of video games, most notably 1998's "Starfleet Academy: Chekov's Lost Missions," which finally put his role front and center.
Koenig remained active between "Star Trek" projects, though mostly in independent features like the sci-fi thriller "Moontrap" (1989), which cast him opposite fellow cult favorite Bruce Campbell. In 1994, he made his first of several appearances on the "Star Trek" spin-off, "Babylon 5" (syndicated, 1993-98) as the villainous Alfred Bester, who uses his psychic powers to advance his career. Ultimately, like most of his "Trek" castmates, Koenig's most prominent roles were those with some relation to the series, no matter how indirect; he appeared on a 1998 episode of "Diagnosis Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001) which focused on alien abductions and co-starred Takei and Grace Lee Whitney, "Trek's" Yeoman Janice Rand, and joined the late James Doohan (Scotty) in an episode of the animated "Futurama" (Fox, 1999-2003), which poked fun at "Trek" backstage lore; most notably Takei's dismay over sharing a dressing room with Koenig.
In addition to his acting roles, Koenig taught acting and directing at UCLA and at several locations across Los Angeles. He also helmed a number of local theater productions, and joined his son, actor Andrew Koenig, in campaigning for human rights for Burma, which included a trip to the Burmese-Thai border to report on conditions there in 2007. Koenig also authored several one-act plays and a pair of books related to his "Star Trek" experiences: Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe (1999) was a humorous autobiographical look at his life before and after "Trek," while Chekov's Enterprise featured the journals he penned during the making of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." In 1994, he created the "Raver" title for Malibu Comics.
In 2008, Koenig penned the script and co-starred in the low-budget science fiction film "InAlienable," which included numerous "Trek" alumni; most notably his son, actor Andrew, best known at that time for his role as dufus Richard "Boner" Stabone on the family sitcom, "Growing Pains" (ABC, 1985-92). Both men would receive attention of the most unfortunate kind in 2010, when the younger Koenig disappeared while on a trip to Canada in February of that year. His grief-stricken father made frequent appearances on television appealing for information regarding the whereabouts of his son, who reportedly suffered from depression at the time of his disappearance. Sadly, the senior Koenig was forced to address the world's press during an announcement on February 25, that his son's body had, indeed, been found in a Vancouver, B.C. park and that he had taken his own life at age 41.
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