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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