I picked this book up on a whim. We were at the library for the first time in years, having for some reason let our cards lapse. I was walking the stacks looking for a different book, and the gently smiling face of Dr. McCoy caught my eye. In my excitement at rejoining the ranks of proud library users, combined with my fondness for the original Star Trek series and for the feisty Southern doctor in particular, I snatched it off the shelf. If I had been able to find the book I’d originally wanted, if I’d spent more time browsing for other things to read, maybe I wouldn’t have checked out From Sawdust to Stardust, which in the final accounting is a decent (but not great) book about a decent (but not great) actor who achieved stardom thanks to a decent (but, I must be objective here, not great) television show.
Sawdust is a linear account of the life of DeForest Kelley (1920-1999), and during the first handful of chapters, during which Rioux recounts his childhood as the son of a poor itinerant preacher in Georgia during the 1920s and 30s, I wondered if perhaps my Star Trek fandom had led me astray. He was poor, his family were conservative rural Southerners, he was well liked but somewhat shy. Things took a promising turn when he moved to Long Beach, California in the late 30s and eventually became interested in acting, but I remained somewhat bored. He was a stage actor, he had friends, he had pets, he liked to drink and dance. We’re still 25 years from “boldly going” anywhere.
When the US entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, Kelley entered the service, where he worked in radio and as an air traffic controller. Later he joined the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit, where he made training films with such Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan and George Reeves (with whom Kelley became good friends, and who would become famous as the guy who played, and became depressingly typecast as, Superman, and then probably killed himself in 1959).
After the war De attempted to make a career in the pictures, and signed a contract with Paramount that was ultimately disastrous for him (this was the era of the Studio as Tyrant, when actors were treated almost like indentured servants). He had trouble finding roles and eventually moved to New York with his new wife Carolyn and their friend Reeves to try their luck on Broadway. At this point we’re still over a decade away from any “five-year missions” and I’m still wondering if I want to keep reading this book. The most interesting part about their three-year stint in NYC was that they had a parakeet which was trained (apparently by their friend John Carradine) to say “Fuck Hollywood.”
Speaking of Hollywood, when they returned in the early 50s, Kelley managed to forge a legitimate career as an actor in Westerns, which were still vastly popular then. By the mid-60s though, the Western was disappearing and Kelley’s career was languishing. The turning point came when Gene Roddenberry (with whom Kelley had done a legal thriller in 1960) offered him the role of a pointy-eared alien in a science fiction pilot he was making. Kelley turned down the role of Spock (can you imagine how different the series would have been?). Roddenberry offered him the role of the doctor, but the studio heads didn’t want some scruffy cowboy villain actor playing a space doctor. On Roddenberry’s urging, DeForest got a haircut. Equipped with a new ‘do, and some good audience reactions he’d gotten for a role in a cop show, he landed the part that would define the rest of his life: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
Star Trek is why I picked up the book in the first place, and from this point forward I was a happy fan. The original series itself lasted just three years, but by the end it had gained a fanatical cult following that would sustain it through the barren years of the 1970s until the first movie was released in 1979. Kelley and the rest of the cast began doing conventions and interacting with the fans, and his stardom paradoxically increased (at least among the Trekkies) while his career as an actor had essentially ended (he did one horror B-movie about killer bunny rabbits and a stint of dinner theater in Lubbock, Texas, and other than that it was all Star Trek).
In the final accounting Sawdust to Stardust was worth reading for the portrait it painted of DeForest Kelley as a genuinely Nice Guy. He made real connections with his fans, he engaged in animal welfare philanthropy, and he cherished his wife and was intensely loyal to his friends.
The book contains some funny and touching anecdotes, including the one about the profane parakeet. He was invited along with other real and fictional doctors to take part in the retirement ceremony for Julius Erving, better known as basketball player Dr. J. When he came onto the court at Madison Square Garden he got a wild standing ovation and a Vulcan-salute high five from Dr. J. himself.
Requested to by the father of a terminally ill little boy, Kelley visited the little boy in the hospital as Dr. McCoy. From the time his mother died in the mid-50s until the end of his life, he wore her diamond ring, including on screen in the Trek show and movies. By all accounts he was large hearted, down to earth, sincere and immensely beloved.
His relationship with the Trekkies was fascinating. From the early days of the show in 1966, he got fan mail from people who were inspired by Bones to go into the medical profession. By the mid-80s when the movies achieved massive popularity, he would get letters from some of those same people who were now nurses, doctors, etc. He and his wife took great care to write back to as many fans as possible, and by the end of his life some of his closest associates had begun as fans (including the woman who helped to nurse him through his painful final months while he died of cancer).
I would recommend this book to only the most fervent of Trekkies, but I do recommend it. It isn’t spectacular or amazing, but it is a full portrait of a man who was an integral part of a cultural phenomenon that consumed the final 30+ years of his (and his wife’s) life.