Remembering James Doohan

When he addressed the audience in a soft, Canuck accent, my jaw dropped. "Scotty is Canadian?!"

I read the news today that James Doohan, or Scotty from the original Star Trek series on NBC, passed away at his home in Redmond this morning from pneumonia and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85 years old, and with his family when he passed.

As a rule, I try to avoid meeting celebrities, no matter how much I enjoy their work. As it goes, the more I find their work fascinating, the more I find the people themselves less-than-appealing as individuals. I’m not claiming to be one of Doohan’s greatest fans, but he was the guest speaker at the only Star Trek convention I have attended. This was in 1999, at the Cumberland Science Museum in Nashville, TN. I went with Angela and her cousin, Jonathan. I suppose I was expecting the crowd from the now infamous SNL skit, with Doohan shouting to the costumed masses "Get A Life, People!" (Yes, I know it was Shatner in the skit.)

The level of geekery at the convention wouldn’t have really shocked anyone, unless they were completely unfamiliar with the scifi genre (like, my grandmother, perhaps). However, it was Doohan that was the surprise of the day. When he addressed the audience in a soft, Canuck accent, my jaw dropped. "Scotty is Canadian?!"

He began recalling stories about his youth and his days as a soldier in World War II. He explained the story of how he lost his finger on the beaches of Normandy to a German bullet. He chuckled to the crowd while talking about early acting gigs in radio and television. All the while, you could have heard a pin drop in the main hall of the museum. He had the right amount of charm, wit, and character, real character, to enthrall the entire audience. He barely mentioned Star Trek at all. The audience got to know James Doohan’s life, and it was fascinating. No one asked about the phaser settings in episode no. 37.

I later learned that he was mostly doing those convention gigs as a way to help make money to pay for various medical costs, his own and his family’s. It wouldn’t be too much longer until it was released that Doohan was suffering from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and a number of other ailements. It seemed so horrible to learn that such a nice gentleman (he really seemed to encompass that word) should have to go through all that (not that anyone should).

In reading about his death, I came across this quote from an undated interview:

"The producers asked me which one I preferred," Doohan recalled 30 years later. "I believed the Scot voice was the most commanding. So I told them, ‘If this character is going to be an engineer, you’d better make him a Scotsman.’"
When the series ended in 1969, Doohan found himself typecast as Montgomery Scott, the canny engineer with a burr in his voice. In 1973, he complained to his dentist, who advised him: "Jimmy, you’re going to be Scotty long after you’re dead. If I were you, I’d go with the flow."
"I took his advice,” said Doohan, “and since then everything’s been just lovely."

It must really suck to get typecast as an actor, even if it’s just as a voice and not a specific role. However, it does seem fitting that it was Doohan’s choice of having that memorable accent that stayed with him for the rest of his days. I suppose that just means he made the right choice, and we all just couldn’t picture the Enterprise’s engineer as being anything but a Scotsman. I know he convinced me.

Here’s to Jimmy Doohan.

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