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Walter Koenig Gets His Star

Septmember 12, 2012

With three of his fellow original Star Trek cast members in attendance, Walter Koenig got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Coinciding with the 46th anniversary week of the September 8, 1966 debut of Star Trek, Koenig was joined at the September 10, 2012 ceremony by alums Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei.

In addition to his work on the original Star Trek series, Koenig also performed as Pavel Chekov in the first seven Star Trek feature films, and as the nefarious Bester of Psi Corps on Babylon 5, among numerous other roles. He is an accomplished screenwriter, novelist and comic book scribe. As he detailed in a 2002 interview he is also a longtime comic collector.

Walter Koenig is known to millions as Pavel Chekov from the original Star Trek television series and seven of its subsequent feature films. To another legion of fans, followers of the television series Babylon 5, he's known as Alfred Bester, the menacing agent of Psi-Corps.

He might have achieved an altogether different type of fame, though, if he had followed his early experiences in collecting.

Koenig began "as early as 1941 or 1942, when I was five or six years old," he says. "The Superman gum cards had come out and my brother was collecting them. I followed in his footsteps. Then, it was baseball cards.

"Then," Koenig continues, "I started with the Pep buttons, the pinbacks from Pep cereal. It was really dreadful. It was one of the worst cold cereals that you could possibly imagine. That's what started me on my life of crime because I couldn't possibly eat that stuff, so I used to steal the buttons out of the bottom of the boxes.

"I would go into the supermarket and wait until I didn't see anybody in the aisles. Then, I'd slice open the bottom of the box. [The button] was between the wax paper containing the cereal and the box itself, so I would just take my fingernail and slice open the bottom of the box and get the button. I did that successfully 30 or 40 times ... and then I was caught.

"I was hauled into the back of the store. They threatened to put me up on one of the hooks with the meat, and I was definitely going to go to prison. Bear in mind, it was 1946 and I was all of 10 years old. I was terrified. So, I never again stole the buttons. What I did, though, was I had a bunch of friends who were very competitive. I set up a competition to see who could bring them to me.

"In a very short time, I had all 86 buttons," he says with a laugh.

"Then, I sent away for the Fawcett buttons," Koenig says, "and I had a few Lone Ranger premiums, and other things. I also had some Big Little Books. Then, of course, I went off to college and my mother, to maintain the reputation of mothers everywhere, took all my stuff and threw it down the incinerator."

From growing up in his Manhattan neighborhood in the 1940s through his career, his life thus far has provided him with not only memories of acting and collecting, but with enough material to fill his 1997 autobiography, Warped Factors - A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe (Taylor Publishing, 1997), with stories ranging from pleasant to painful. Many of those stories, of course, concerned Star Trek.

For the second and third seasons of the original series, Koenig, the child of Russian immigrants, portrayed the Russian-born Pavel Chekov. Far from the meatiest role of the series, it still earned him a loyal fan base whose scope he couldn't have imagined at the time. Then, the series ended in 1969, and that - everyone thought - was that.

After the show ended and before the first Star Trek feature, Koenig did very little television work. "In retrospect, one of the conclusions I reached was the role I played was so limited, it wasn't that I was type cast as a Russian, it was that I was typecast as an actor of limited ability. The role I had was so undemanding. 'Aye aye, keptin,' and 'yes, sir,' and the occasional scream. That was pretty much it.

"That's when I started writing," Koenig recalls. "I wrote a novel that actually got published 18 years later. I also wrote for television, about a half dozen shows." Those shows included episodes for Land of the Lost, the Star Trek animated series, Family, and Powers of Matthew Star. He also sold scripts for a couple of telefilms, but they were never produced.

When Star Trek - The Motion Picture finally got off the ground, though, it didn't seem like the rebirth of a franchise. The shoot took 16 weeks instead of the scheduled five, the story wasn't that good, and the film was greeted less than warmly by the critics.

And Chekov basically only got to scream and say "yes, keptin" again.

The fans, though, made that first Trek film a financial success, and Paramount ordered a second feature. Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan and, later, Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home, offered Koenig a chance to really sink his teeth into the role for the first time. He returned for each of the first seven features, ending with Star Trek - Generations.

"Although I mentioned that I never had a whole lot to do on the show," Koenig says, "that isn't to say I was embittered in any way. I'm enormously grateful for the opportunity it has afforded me. It hasn't been the most well-rounded career, but when you consider the alternatives that most actors have to deal with, I've been very lucky. I never lose sight of that."

It wasn't his popularity from Star Trek, but the casual acquaintance of a producer who liked Koenig and his work - and who had a new series brewing - that led to one of his favorite acting jobs: Babylon 5's telepathic enforcer Alfred Bester.

"My best experience aesthetically was playing in Babylon 5," Koenig says. "I had a wonderful time. The role was challenging, with nuance and depth. The character was integral, not ancillary."

It was also not a part he auditioned for, but one written specifically for him by Babylon 5 series creator J. Michael Straczynski (who has since created the hit Top Cow Comics titles Rising Stars and Midnight Nation). The recurring part has earned Koenig a second worldwide fan following, one which he says he has really been able to appreciate the second time around.

"I sort of thought of myself as movable furniture on Star Trek," Koenig says, "but Bester was pivotal. Certainly, I appreciated the role more at this point in my life, and I was really grateful for the opportunity. I really felt like I was making a contribution, like I was being creative."

Away from the set, Koenig resumed collecting in 1967, and continues to collect enthusiastically today. In addition to figurines (particularly PVCs), Big Little Books, and trading cards, he has a sizable, wide-ranging collection of pinbacks.

"My wife bought me my first Big Little Book, Alley Oop. They literally were $1.00 a piece. I bought them at a place called The Cherokee Bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. Then, around '71, I got into the Pep pins again and thought I'd collect them. You mainline one too many times and you're hooked. I've been a collector ever since. I still collect gum cards, war cards, comic character cards, and other things.

"But, if you can use the word 'passion' without sounding totally psychotic, the pinback buttons are my collecting passion. I have one [3'x4'] display case, and the buttons in it are from 1896 to 1966. They're all comic characters. I don't limit it to Disney or super-heroes or anything like that. It's everything I can find including a lot of advertising."

Koenig says his celebrity may have helped him in his searches for rare collectibles, but not distinctly so. He suggests more dealers know him as a serious collector rather than as an actor who collects. Still, there is at least one odd angle provided by the many action figures, pinbacks, and trading cards featuring Chekov or Bester.

"All that stuff that I collected when I was a kid and have re-collected in my supposed adulthood, I've appeared on. That is a little strange," he says with a laugh.

"I'm still actively pursuing rare and unusual pinback buttons, and anyone out there who thinks they have something can get in touch with me," Koenig laughs again, "because I'm certainly in the market."

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