Wednesday, June 21, 2006
I keep meaning to write more about it but I am and always have been a big STAR TREK fan. I attended my first STAR TREK convention in the mid-seventies, Don Rosa’s Omnicon in Louisville, Kentucky, where I got to stand next to DeForrest Kelly as he was interviewed by the local TV news. All through that period, I eagerly followed reports of a new TREK series. Finally, it seemed as though everything had fallen into place. Paramount would start a "fourth network" using the new STAR TREK as its flagship program. The new series would reunite many of the original cast along with a new Vulcan character and a bald, female Deltan crewmember. Shatner and Nimoy, both working steadily, would not return. The special effects would be accomplished using a new process called Magicam which, if I recall correctly, involved making everything on a miniature scale and then making it look full-size onscreen. Scripts were commissioned , Gene Roddenberry gave optimistic interviews and everyone was excited. This was around 1976. Delays due to the effects testing became regular news in the fanzines, though, and it began to look as though it was never going to happen. Then Paramount decided to do it as a feature film—no, never mind, a series…hmm…well, maybe a feature film. They waffled like politicians for what seemed like light years before finally making it official. STAR TREK would return as a major, STAR WARS-type motion picture directed by Robert Wise, the man who gave you THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Okay, fine but he also gave you THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL!). Because of the increased budget, William Shatner would be returning as Kirk and eventually even Leonard Nimoy agreed to re-don the pointed ears that he’d been trying to put behind him for a decade. The additional characters created for the aborted TV series would be squeezed into the new Roddenberry script. Thus we come finally to the real subject of today’s piece—Persis Khambatta.
It’s been said that TREK guru Gene Roddenberry found bald women sexy. It’s also been said that he just found women sexy in general. Persis Khambatta was Miss India of 1965 and a familiar fashion model but had only a few small film credits to her name when she was cast as the Deltan Lt. Ilia. She had not really been all that familiar with STAR TREK at the time. The part called for her to shave her head. She was expected to be the breakout star from the film but while the picture made a mint off of fanboys like me it was considered dull and ponderous. The fact that her character was taken over by a space probe with delusions of grandeur and eventually kind of became one with the universe didn’t help. The folks that made her an action figure hadn’t been told about that part.
I saw Persis Khmabatta on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW, either in late December of 1978 or early January of 1979. Figuring that she probably wasn’t getting that much fan mail yet, I wrote her in care of Merv’s show and, in early February, received the postcard response seen here. On the one side was a line drawing of Persis as Ilia, on the other a brief, signed note in her fractured English indicating that she had just finally finished her role on ST-TMP the previous Friday. Sounding as though she didn’t really know what else to say, she then pointed out more talk shows she was scheduled for along with the fact that she really liked being on talk shows.
Her unusual and certainly beautiful clean shaven look in the film apparently turned off a number of folks but it got her a lot of press. For awhile it looked as though she might actually be successful in Hollywood…but then she grew her hair back and looked just like any number of other foreign actresses trying for parts in the US. She was cast as a terrorist in NIGHTHAWKS, to this day Sylvester Stallone’s best film, but her career stalled soon afterward. It didn’t help that she was in a nasty motorcycle accident in the early eighties, followed not long afterwards by needed heart by-pass surgery. She acted occasionally, mostly on television, but was never again given a major role in a feature film. Her last acting role was on an episode of LOIS AND CLARK in 1993. She returned to India and published a book for charity but soon fell on hard times herself. In 1998 (in spite of some initial reports that it was a suicide) Persis Khambatta died of a massive heart attack. The image remains, though, and her unique role in the rich tapestry of STAR TREK history ensures that she will be remembered.