Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand in the original Star Trek TV series and several of the movies, died on Friday at her home in Coarsegold. She was 85. I had the opportunity to interview the actress in the late 1990s. Here is the story
It goes without saying that Grace Lee Whitney could never have known.
It would have required in 1966 the wildest leap of sci-fi fancy for the Detroit-raised actress to imagine speaking of ”Star Trek” more than 30 years later. To imagine the NBC program spawning a string of syndicated spinoffs as well as a two-decade movie franchise. To imagine Gene Roddenberry’s ” ‘Wagon Train’ to the stars’’ enshrined as a pop culture icon.
But such is the power of television.
By the same token, the millions who have seen Whitney’s portrayal of
Yeoman Janice Rand could not begin to imagine the drama that is the actress’ life.
To imagine such triumphs as opening for Billie Holiday and being directed by Billy Wilder. To imagine also the tragedies — abortions, drug and alcohol abuse and the sexual assault that Whitney maintains precipitated her dismissal from ”Star Trek.”
Such, too, is the power of television.
Whitney has rectified that in writing her autobiography. Written
with Jim Denney, ”The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy” (Quill Driver Books, $14.95) certainly plays up Whitney’s Enterprise association. The cover photo comes from a 1966 TV Guide shoot and features the author wedged between Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Capt. Kirk (William Shatner). But as Nimoy notes in his foreword, Whitney’s work is more than mere memoir. ”This is a ‘Star Trek’ book which will transform people’s lives.”
”There are a lot of people who want to hear that you can turn your life
around,” Whitney said recently from her Yosemite area home. ‘’But ‘Star Trek’ has so much to do with the whole platform on which I’m standing.”
That association almost guarantees a strong turnout when Whitney signs copies of ”The Longest Trek” this afternoon at Maxwell’s Bookmark. The appearance comes a day after the ninth ”Star Trek” feature, ‘’Insurrection,” opened.
”I’m just totally amazed that they’ve just kept going with this,” Whitney said. ”There seems to always be an audience. Each person that gets involved in the show seems to create a name for himself.”
”It’s just that people are crazy about ‘Star Trek’,” said Quill Driver
senior editor Cindy Wathen. ”The Longest Trek” is in its second printing, with sales nearing 3,000.
”’Star Trek’ is so powerful, so overpowering,” Whitney said. ”We’ve
all done a lot of work but nobody thinks of any of the original crew being in anything other than ‘Star Trek.’ So I wrote the book to give the fans a complete picture of what my life has been.”
It has, it seems, been anything but peaceful.
The trauma began at age 7, when Whitney learned she was adopted. She spent the next 40 years resenting her birth mother and grappling with the sense there was ”something terribly wrong” within herself.
As a teen, a keening need for acceptance led Whitney to overindulge in
alcohol and men.
Seeking public approbation, Whitney took to performing, moving to Chicago (where she met Holiday) and New York (appearing on Broadway with Phil Silvers) before settling in Los Angeles.
Whitney pined for Hollywood success but soon found the personal often collided with the professional. She writes of rejecting a contract with Universal because of her drummer-husband’s objections. An emissary from Howard Hughes offered her a deal at RKO if Whitney would become the billionaire’s concubine.
There were movie successes — she appeared in the Wilder movies ‘’Some Like It Hot” and ”Irma La Douce” — but it was TV where Whitney found steady employment. She guested on everything from ”Death Valley Days,’’ ”Surfside Six,’ and ”Bonanza” to ”77 Sunset Strip,” ”Batman’ and ‘’The Outer Limits.”
Whitney met Roddenberry after appearing on an episode of his 1963 Marine Corps drama ”The Lieutenant.” She played the sergeant in a later Roddenberry vehicle, ”Police Story,” before the producer cast her in ”Star Trek.’’ As initially envisioned, Kirk and Rand would share an unexpressed passion.
”You’re going to be like Miss Kitty on ‘Gunsmoke,’ ” Whitney recalls Roddenberry saying.
Rand is featured prominently in a number of early ”Star Treks,” getting trapped with Kirk in the ”Miri” episode and becoming the object of ‘’Charlie X’s” obsession.
Whitney writes of Rand becoming a sister to her … and a means of personal salvation. Rand ”was an innocent — sexy and efficient but also very wide-eyed honest and virtuous.” When in costume, Whitney ”was Rand.”
She wouldn’t be for long.
In August 1966, at a wrap party following filming of the 12th ”Star
Trek” episode, a studio honcho approached Whitney. Both she and The Executive, as she refers to him, had been drinking.
He said he wanted to discuss ways to expand Whitney’s role. Instead,
he sexually assaulted her. Whitney’s account opens ”The Longest Trek.”
”I was absolutely terrified to write it,” she said. ”I had so much fear I almost couldn’t get it down. I had to wait 15 years into recovery before I could actually figure a way to tell the story without implicating
anyone. It was a purging of the soul.”
Within a week, The Executive had brought sufficient pressure to bear
that Rand was written out of the show. Years later, Roddenberry would apologize for not fighting to retain Whitney; but in September, 1966, it meant she was without a job or hope.
”I think I was born with alcoholism,” Whitney said. ”But the resentment of what happened to me caused so much pain that I just had to drink. It caused me to just say, ‘What’s the use?’ ”
It would be 15 years before Whitney began to find an answer. In the meantime, she divorced, married and divorced; turned from alcohol to drugs and back again; and regularly engaged in ”wild sex.’’ All in the name of validation.
It was only after Whitney sobered up in 1981 that she found contentment. She already had returned to the Enterprise for 1979’s ”Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and went on to appear in movies III, IV, and VI.
Today, at peace with her past and herself, Whitney has her own theory
as to ”Star Trek’s” continued success.
”There was just something about us that’s different,” Whitney said.
”I think it’s absolutely the most perfect mix of characters. The chemistry between the actors was exquisite.
”Look, what are the chances at getting a series like ‘Star Trek’ where
I’m still working and promoting a book 33 years later?” she added. ‘’It’s bloomed into a very wonderful life for me.”