Grace Lee Whitney: Trekkin’….for God
Dr. Fred Eichelman's interview with a Star Trek legend
Grace Lee Whitney, a star in the original Star Trek was beamed up to Heaven a few years ago and is missed by friends and fans alike. We did not know her long before we found what a strong conservative Christian she was as well as an outspoken Republican.
I met Grace Lee at a media convention in the mid-eighties. They were having their first chapel and she was the earliest to arrive. Grace Lee approached the speaker, a Southern Baptist pastor, and said “I hope you’re going to sock it to us.” We learned right away that she is a powerful Christian. Years later she not only supported an idea of Christian media conventions and publications, she gave them the name “Point North” name. The title was borrowed from her son Jonathan, a public school teacher, who had a Christian band with that name.
The following is an interview that I with her not long before her death..
Dr. Fred Eichelman: One bonus in having this interview with you is that I had another opportunity to read your great book The Longest Trek. You are from the Mid West and an adopted child. You mention in your book this had quite an effect on you. Can you reflect on this?
Grace Lee Whitney: Yes, I was told this when I was seven years old. That my parents were not my parents. They chose me, they went to Ann Arbor, Michigan. They chose me from a Dr. Snow who was my natural mother’s doctor. She gave me to Dr. Snow to look for a couple to give me to. Somehow she got to my adopted mother who had lost several children and couldn’t have any more. They told me when I was seven and I had a negative reaction. I find out now that I looked at the glass as half empty rather than half full. When they told me I was adopted I looked at it as empty. I didn’t look at it as a gift. I found out later that being a chosen child by parents who love you and want you is a tremendous gift from God.
Dr. Fred: What led you to be interested at a young age in show business?
Grace Lee Whitney: I started performing when I was five years old, doing little shows in kindergarten. In the neighborhood we had a neighborhood play house. We put on our mother’s clothes and high heels and did plays. I loved performing. By the time I was ten years old I was starring in plays in grammar school. I graduated from plays in grammar school to band singing in school. Then from band singing in school to night clubs. From night clubs to Broadway stage. I just kept growing, I felt I was advancing. I just kept at it, I was very self willed. I wanted to perform, I wanted to sing, I wanted to dance and I wanted to do all that. I think now as I look back I wanted to get out of myself. I was running away from myself. I think that with a lot of entertainers that is what they do. We play act as it is too painful to be ourselves. Being an adopted child and all that I thought I wasn’t worth much. That I was given away, I didn’t look at it as a gift. Because my natural mother didn’t care enough to keep me. So, I was out to prove that I was better than anyone thought I was. This of course was a total lie to begin with. It propelled me into performing.
Dr. Fred: What got you to Hollywood?
Grace Lee Whitney: I graduated from high school and told everybody I was going to California. I took a train to Chicago and started singing and modeling for a big agency. I sang at a club called The Preview. It was Buddy Rich’s band. I worked two days there and then across the street at The Band Box opening for Billie Holiday. Not until I began to work with her did I know she was “the Billie Holiday.” Some of the band players, Lester Young and some of the horn players, were among the most famous musicians in the whole world. I didn’t know it then and was only eighteen. That was when I got my first taste of Heroin. There were drug dealers practically standing in line to shoot her (Billie Holiday) up. It was pathetic. But see that’s where I was, in a bar. When you work in a bar that’s what you see, and Billie was a junkie. Billie Holiday died from an overdose of Heroin. So many in the entertainment world have overdosed. That’s the business I’m in right now. I’m working every night at recovery houses and these people are coming in trying to get sober. With Billie, that was about sixty years ago; and she was addicted then. When I was in school some of the kids used Benzedrine in their Coca Cola and alcohol. Now it is much more widespread.
Later I was doing a show on the road, Top Banana, with Phil Silvers, Jack Albertson, Rose Marie and Kaye Ballard. They were going to do a movie in LA. We were in New York and I got on a plane for LA. I was married to Steve, a drummer, and was pregnant with Scott. We got an apartment and we tried to do the film. That was when I did the Ernie Kovacs Show, the Red Skelton Show and others that were then “live TV”. We did the movie Top Banana and then we got a call to go back to New York from Freddie Prince and George Abbott; and they wanted my husband and I to do Pajama Game. So we went back to do Pajama Game and we took it on the road. That’s where we made all our money and saved it for a house. We ended up living in Hollywood.
Dr. Fred: Was this about the time you converted to Judaism?
Grace Lee Whitney: I converted to Judaism before I left high school. I had learned in a Bible study that the Jews were the chosen people and I wanted to be “chosen”. I did not know that when I did that I would have to give up my belief in Christ. I didn’t know that until I got married to my husband and had to sign papers before a rabbi.
Dr. Fred: You did get into other films before the Star Trek years didn’t you?
Grace Lee Whitney: I had first chosen my husband over screen testing and missed many good ones. I chose marriage and family life over being under contract to a studio. My husband wouldn’t approve. I did do Some Like it Hot. That was 1958. I was interviewing for one of many TV shows I did, Peter Gunn. It was for the female lead. I was too young. They sent me across the street to see Billy Wilder. He was doing a film, Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. I was sent to see if I could get a job as an extra so I did. Wilder liked me so much he put me on a bandstand with these other girls. He liked me and said there were other women in line before me and if they needed me they would call me. In the next day or two I got a call from Matty Melnick. When I went in, Matty Melnick was there and told Billy “This is the singer with my band” which I was. It was a “God Shot” and two days later they called and said “one of the girls dropped out and you’re in.” That was the first major film I did in Hollywood. That is when the trouble started. Marilyn Monroe was on alcohol and we didn’t set a good example for each other.
Dr. Fred: You did a number of TV roles you might want to mention.
Grace Lee Whitney: I did 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days, Eleventh Hour, Mickey Spillaine, Mod Squad, The Real McCoys, Rifleman, Bewitched, The Big Valley, Batman; that’s just some of them.
Dr. Fred: How did you get enlisted for Star Trek?
Grace Lee Whitney: It was Police Story that led to Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was doing two or three pilots and one wasPolice Story in which I was opposite DeForest Kelly. One pilot was with Jeffrey Hunter and Leonard Nimoy, which was Star Trek Later the captain would be William Shatner. Bob Justman, the assistant director for Police Storyrecommended me to Gene to be Yeoman Rand.
Dr. Fred: Though the show is considered a classic you had some low times too as you mention in the book. You were let go after a year.
Grace Lee Whitney: The writing out of my character was to make room for other characters. I honestly don’t remember much about classic Trek at all. I was heavy into drinking and drugs. Bob Justman did keep urging them to bring me back. Bob wanted me in the episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” one of the top episodes and a part was written for me. I did come back later in Star Trek feature films and appeared in two of the spinoff TV series.
Dr. Fred: You also would become very popular in conventions and you did some music writing relating to the show too didn’t you?
Grace Lee Whitney: A few years after that series I married another musician after a divorce from Steve. I had two sons then, Scott and Jonathan. I began to write with my new husband. We started writing songs for Star Trek. I used original scripts for ideas and took the songs to conventions where they were popular. That’s how I got my music into conventions and it was wonderful.
Dr. Fred: In your book you had a chapter with a title that you later said could be the subject of a book alone. “Sobriety is not for Wimps”. What did you mean by that?
Grace Lee Whitney: Well I didn’t get sober until 1980. I had gone through a lot with Star Trek before I got sober and became a Christian. I switched addictions during Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I didn’t drink, but I ate, the same type of addiction in that they are compulsive addictions. Some people eat and some people drink. I couldn’t drink and work so I went to food. I got kind of heavy. Then I went back to drinking to lose the weight. I’d go from one addiction to another. Then I had to quit drinking as it bottomed me out. I had to give up my drinking buddies, a lot of whom were in film and TV. I was the only one who happened to bottom out. I just couldn’t handle it, I had to get sober. Sobriety is not for wimps because it takes everything you’ve got, to get clean and sober. I couldn’t use diet pills or any of the various chemicals. I was introduced to the Dr. Atkins book and the Dr. Atkins book was about the addiction to carbohydrates and that is what alcoholics do, get addicted to carbohydrates. When I was getting sober I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t eat the wrong things, and that is what I meant when I said it wasn’t for wimps.
Dr. Fred: How soon after this process did you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord?
Grace Lee Whitney: It was two and a half years after I began to become sober and in the “12 Step Program.” I had the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I didn’t know that God, that Christ was Jewish. I found out in Israel that Christ was a Jew. That was what turned me around. I accepted the Lord in Israel and came back home. Hal Lindsay brought me to the Lord on TV. I got a Bible from TBN and I started listening to Christian radio and watching Christian TV. I listened to Christian preachers through the media and got absolutely hooked. I was and remain absolutely on fire. Of course I didn’t do good in Hollywood, as there are people in Hollywood who don’t like Christians or Republicans which I began about the same time. It’s tough to be an evangelist in Hollywood. I left and came up here (Central California). My kids are up here anyway.
Dr. Fred: You are still witnessing and teaching. What are some of your activities in that regard?
Grace Lee Whitney: I’m mostly working in recovery groups, and I do a lot of work with the Salvation Army. They have a recovery program now. I try to take “the twelve steps to them” as a lot of them are under the impression that if they accept Jesus they won’t drink any more. Of course that does not happen. People who go right back to church after they get sober don’t stay sober. My sponsor told me to “please stay in the program, you can go to church on weekends. Don’t not go to meetings. You have to have treatment for at least ten years.” At the end of ten years I was heavily into all of the recovery programs plus the church, both of them. That was when I did thirteen television shows, Christian shows. Getting sober and clean and loving the Lord, this is what opened up for me. I just did a couple of hours on the Kathleen Kennedy show on Salvation and Sobriety Together. You can’t really separate them, you should have them both. It was just wonderful. That’s kind of where I am.
Dr. Fred: I know several years ago you were featured on the Dr. James Kennedy Coral Ridge Hour and they had a short film on you. I notice when I have seen you at conventions that when someone comes to you and has a problem, you give them your time and attention. You’re quite a counselor.
Grace Lee Whitney: Well, I have to give it away to keep it. The “12 Step Program” tells you that. There’s a sentence in the program book that says that the 12 steps are based on the truly Christian principle that “a man cannot get well unless he helps someone else.” That’s the total concept of “The 12 Steps.” .
Dr. Fred: There are people in the film industry who are still trying to make a difference for family and Christian productions. What advice would you give young Christians who want to be in the film and TV industry?
Grace Lee Whitney: They have to get involved with producers who are Christians. The producer of Star Trek IV, Ralph Winter, is a big Christian. There are new films with Christian themes. There are also wonderful Christian films on the internet.
I once had a debate with a couple producers who said Elvis was the king. I told them that they were wrong. “Jesus Christ is the king”. I almost got fired. You cannot do any evangelizing when you work in most films. I see so many miracles. I go to eight meetings a week and I see miracles every day of my life.
Grace Lee Whitney’s life was a miracle in the way she found salvation and she was a real example for young people. We’re thankful that she was a part of Star Trek as this had given her an opportunity to reach others.