Who is Sean Kenney, and Why Isn't This Man Smiling?
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
...Pike slowly turns his torso-encasing 25th century wheelchair to face them (and us), and we see the full effect of Delta rays on self-sacrificing Starfleet brass.
When Spock reports a distress call from Starbase 11, the easily distracted USS Enterprise takes another whimsical warp-speed detour from her 5-Year Mission and hustles over to the troubled Federation outpost, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beaming down in their columns of sparkly stuff to see what the trouble is. The Starbase 11 commander is quizzical. “We didn’t call you guys.” Kirk reaffirms huffily that Spock reported a distress call from Captain Christopher Pike himself.
“Impossible,” the base commander says. Pike had been horrifically injured months before in an accident and is now a staring, slack-jawed, radiation-burned mute. As in all good sci-fi, the horror-specifics of Pike’s accident are alluded to in Future Space Injury argot. It seems a ‘baffle plate ruptured’ during his inspection of a Class J vessel, catching Pike and his young charges unawares and coating them with toxic space propulsion junk. The Starfleet folk seem unified in their alarm, and there is an awkward pause. Finally McCoy gives voice to their dread.
“The Delta Rays?” To which the base commander merely nods. When the group enters his room, Pike slowly turns his torso-encasing 25th century wheelchair to face them (and us), and we see the full effect of Delta rays on self-sacrificing Starfleet brass determined to save as many cadets as possible in the face of faulty baffle plates.
“If you remember that scene, I’m facing the window,” Sean Kenney says, “and I have to turn around. And you could turn around fast in that wheelchair thing, because it had a joystick, you know. But at 24 frames a second you have to move 1/10th slower, or it looks too fast on the film. We got it in two takes.”
The camera lavishes great attention on the expressions of pity and horror on Kirk and McCoy as they gaze upon their ruined colleague, the director opting to have the close-ups linger a beat too long. Even Spock’s Vulcanized poker face betrays a little something at the sight of his desiccated former Captain, Kirk’s predecessor. The music swells minutely to a muted, minor chord with piccolos as the camera smoothly closes on the disfigured Pike, staring with lifeless but pleading eyes, his mouth open. Speaking of Spock now, Kenney says of the scene, “I had to look at this guy like I hadn’t seen him in 6 or 7 years. If you watch my eyes in that, Spock is scary to me. Why is he here?”
These are The Voyages of Sean Kenney
331 years (and a couple weeks) earlier, and about 4 miles away, Sean Kenney readies himself for that night’s performance at the Gallery Theater, near Santa Monica Blvd. It’s 1966.
A packed house of jostling, coughing theatergoers is settling in for an evening of stirring theater, a play called The Deputy. Kenney is the sound effects guy and has a couple of walk-on roles in the play. For the moment that’s as close as he can get to center stage in the thronged, hothouse atmosphere of L.A. in the early sixties, with Hollywood in the ascendant and aspiring actors from all over the place pouring into southern California like bees into a hive. Kenney can’t know that tonight he will succumb to a “ruptured baffle plate” of his own. The energies that will shortly bathe him, though, are not scarring radioactive poison, but the benevolent rays of a dawning new gig, a new life, really; Kismet rays. Starfleet will reach him this night on a hailing frequency.
Just out of the Air Force, Sean Kenney had been scrambling, but he knew what he wanted. During his last assignment, on an air base outside London, he’d begun to hesitantly dabble in stagecraft, working with a coach who lived near the base, learning how to read from a script during an audition, how to speak written lines. One evening the 21 year-old airman had gone into town and experienced a heart-turning epiphany watching Olivier and Caine tear it up in a London stage production of Ira Levin’s house-of-mirrors story, Sleuth. When some days later his Commanding Officer asked if he wanted to “re-up”, as his obligatory four year enlistment was coming to an end, Kenney respectfully declined.
“No sir. I have to get home.”
“Trouble with family?”
“No sir. I have things I want to do.”
“What do you want to do with your life, airman?”
“ I want to be an actor, sir,” Kenney said.
“An actor? You’re kidding!” the CO said, to which Kenney’s response was a sudden, rhapsodic pouring out of his feelings about Olivier, Caine, the play he’d seen. “It just moved me no end, sir!” Kenney remembers holding his hand to his chest as he spoke. Picture a fresh-faced kid in khakis who has just glimpsed his place in the firmament. After a few minutes the CO waved his hands in surrender. “OKAY, airman, I can see by the way you’re talking and the way you’re feeling you are not going to re-up. I’ll drop it.”
Flyboy Plies the Floorboards
Back in the States Kenney was determined to become an actor but had to earn a living. He and a girlfriend worked at the San Antonio ranch of FedMart millionaire Morris Jaffe, and through that connection was promised a job at the FedMart corporate office in Covina. Kenney jumped at the chance, which didn’t pan out, though he’d finally made it to California. He worked days as a draftsman designer (the trade he’d learned in the service) and nights doing whatever he could to get into the acting game, finally joining the only theater group in the Los Angeles phone book with an opening, and taking what they had to offer; sound effects and a couple of non-speaking walk-ons in a production of The Deputy at the Gallery Theater.
“I go in, it’s my big shot,” Kenney says now. The house was packed, the lead actor was “out in the desert doing a Gunsmoke episode,” and suddenly the understudy calls in sick. The producers are going to cancel the show, tell the ticketholders to line up for refunds. They’re pulling their hair. Kenney raises his hand. “Hey, uh…I know all the lines.” Heads swivel and they look at the kid, blinking. “Yeah, I know every word, man.” They hurriedly start throwing scene and line references at him in the wings. He knows every word, comma and period. By heart. “I was the sound guy,” he says, laughing. “I knew everyone’s lines!” Flabbergasted and seeing a way out, they rushed him into costume and crossed their fingers. Kenney took the stage and killed it, saving the evening, quelling the producers’ acid reflux, and opening a door.
Fate: The Final Frontier
Unbeknownst to Kenney, a talent agent had sidled into the audience. She’d been scouring the town at Gene Roddenberry’s desperate behest, looking for a young actor with a very particular quality. They’d almost given up, and the fate of a struggling new series hung in the balance. 40 years later Star Trek’s Supervising Producer Bob Justman would tell Sean Kenney, “if we hadn’t found you there wasn’t going to be a next season. When Gene found you he was so elated.” Roddenberry had been looking high and low for a young guy with the face of actor Jeffrey Hunter, whose Captain Pike character in the rejected Star Trek pilot episode The Cage would be Kenney’s role, but as a hideously burned and staring shadow of his former self.
Now as Kenney was scraping off his makeup backstage and exulting in the evening, the agent approached him in his dressing room. Would Kenney care to interview with Paramount? She dropped Roddenberry’s name and Kenney had never heard of him, but that didn’t matter. Roddenberry had a show he was trying to put together and she would like to introduce them.
Kenney went to the casting office at Paramount on the appointed day and was shown into Gene Roddenberry’s cozily lit and comfortably furnished office. “It’s like a living room,” Kenney says. There is a little metal starship of some kind on Roddenberry’s desk. “Then it’s, ‘Hi I’m Sean Kenney, hi, I’m Gene Roddenberry’. We shake hands and he starts walking around me, holding my picture. He says, ‘you have a striking resemblance to an actor we are making use of. Do you have any aversion to having your hair dyed?” Kenney says no. Roddenberry has more questions, and Kenney laughs lightly as he tells the story.
“Then he asks me, ‘Are you allergic to latex?’ and I said, ‘uh, no.’ And Roddenberry said, “Well, we might want to dye your hair white and use a little latex on your face. Just wanna make sure you don’t have any allergies.” ‘….Okay’. ‘Also,’ Roddenberry then adds, ‘you might not be able to eat normally during the job, because we’re going to have to tape your mouth down. You might have to eat through a straw during the workday – just liquids.’ And I say “….okay’. When you’re young like that you do not say no! You don’t want any barriers to your career, you know?”
Roddenberry had taken a shine to the young actor. They discovered in conversation they had both served in the same service group, the 8th Air Force, Roddenberry a B-17 pilot. “After we discovered that, we had a real rapport,” Kenney says. After filming Kenney as Pike, Roddenberry would have him back for two more episodes – A Taste of Armageddon and Arena, as the character Lt. DePaul. Within days of the Roddenberry appointment Kenney was on set, being made up as the disfigured Captain Pike.
When NBC rejected Star Trek’s original pilot episode, called The Cage, they ordered Roddenberry to come up with another pilot for the series. In the lost pilot, Jeffrey Hunter had played Captain Christopher Pike, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Kirk’s predecessor as the Big Guy on the bridge. Roddenberry was deeply wounded by NBC’s rejection of the episode. That first pilot would not be seen in its original form until 1988. “Roddenberry was so hurt by that,” Kenney says. “I mean, really sad.”
Roddenberry said to the newly minted young actor, almost as if talking to himself; “That one didn’t go, but this one will.” His idea was to resurrect the lost Captain Pike episode by writing a new episode around it as a framing device. Roddenberry was driven to prove the mettle of the original episode, and in the end The Menagerie did indeed vindicate him – winning a Hugo award and a number of other prestigious writing and production accolades. Today that two-part episode, The Menagerie, is legendary, and Sean Kenney was at the white hot center of television history being made. At the time, he was just wonderstruck to be working in television.
A Menagerie of Personalities
The Menagerie was shot over six days on Stages 4 and 5 at the Desilu Studios. Kenney’s makeup took five and a half hours to apply the first day, and by the last day the makeup artist for the show, Freddie Phillips, who had also lorded over the unnerving makeup effects for The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, had got it down to 3 hours or so. Kenney learned a lot in that time. For one thing, movie magic is sometimes a little more prosaic than the public realizes. When they couldn’t figure out how to render the ghastly dark radiation burn that dominates the right side of Pike’s ruined face, assistant makeup artist Ray Sebastian had a brainstorm, cut out a dogleg-shaped strip of denim from his Levi’s and glued it to Kenney’s face with spirit gum, and that’s what you are looking at onscreen.
For his part, Kenney, in his first big acting breakthrough, had to sit stock still for hours, and then once shooting began had to sit encased to the shoulders in a futuristic prop wheelchair and do all the necessary emoting with his eyes. His role also gave him a privileged fly-on-the-wall position from which to observe the goings on around him, the young acting arriviste staring straight ahead through his latex radiation burns, while his eyes and ears worked overtime to soak up the dynamism of a bunch of disparate personalities working together for 15 hours a day and trying to hold it together. Kenney started to pick up on things. What were the stars of the show like?
I’m a Doctor, Jim—not your stand-in!
“Shatner would bark out his orders and I was just this young guy sitting in a chair, nobody’s going to talk to me, because my character can’t talk, so you become an eavesdropper. You don’t know you are, but you become that. And I knew he was not well liked by anybody. Nobody really liked him at all. It was all ‘me, myself and I’, you know?” He laughs.
“And they’d catch Shatner stealing their light! Check this, man: you’re on the set, you’re up on the bridge, this is when I was dePaul, right? And you turn around and you see Shatner moving to where the light was the best for him, and he would almost body check Jimmy a little bit. So he’d get the best light!
And you know, D (DeForest Kelley) would catch it! He’d be saying his lines, you know, “Jim, Jim, we’ve got to get these people to safety…” you know, and then he’d see Shatner moving and he’d say to Jimmy “What the **** is this?”
“And Leonard was very into Spock, and he was a Method actor, and he never broke out of character, even on the set. My mother and his mother got to be good friends, we come from the same town in Massachusetts, and I said once ‘Hey, Leonard; your mom and my mom are shopping together,’ and he looks at me and says, “Oh really. Fascinating.” And he walks away from me (laughs)..”
Some of the cast were a little more approachable, and Kenney treasures the ready friendships that grew on the set.
“Jimmy (James Doohan – Scotty) was fabulous. You know, he showed me his bullet holes. He had 5 of them. He was shot almost to death at Normandy, and I said, since I was in the service, “Hey man, you were there, you got a Purple Heart”, and he was ‘Fuck that stuff,’ just like that. ‘I was just happy to get out of there.’ What a great guy he was. Always laughing. Great.”
“D Kelley, he was so great. You know I came on later as DePaul and he didn’t know I’d played Pike. You know, it’s three weeks later and I’ve got my hair back, I’m 24, 25. And I’m sitting there on the bridge and Jimmy says “D, this is Sean Kenney” and D is like “Yeah, how are you? DeForest Kelley.” And Jimmy says “…you know, he played Pike...” and Kelley turns to me and says, “You played Pike? Holy shit, man! They made you up like a Christmas turkey!” (laughs hard) “D was a real guy and Jimmy was a real guy.”
Kenney went on to do television during the arguable last Golden Age (Get Smart, Police Story) and a series of Independent films whose directors today typify the outlier auteur. Today he is a successful celebrity and portrait photographer in the Los Angeles area and continues to make the rounds of the Star Trek conventions, where his role as the disfigured Captain Pike seems to make him more of an attraction and curiosity with every passing year. He has written a book about his Star Trek experience and his other adventures in the acting trade, and it can be found at captainpikefoundalive.com
Sean Kenney marvels at the endless fascination with the Star Trek phenomenon. “There’s a guy named Marc Cushman who has written this thing, a compendium, really. These Are the Voyages, it’s called. Every scribbled liner note, every little factoid. These three books are 1500 pages each. The last word, man. He spent twelve years writing these things!”
Does Sean Kenney he ever sit back and realize that his role in Star Trek puts him squarely in the great and timeless pantheon of iconic television characters? “My wife was showing me this U.S. Post Office catalog that a friend sent us, and I saw myself as a postage stamp. ‘Honey!’ She said. ‘You’re a stamp!’ He sighs and pauses. “And it is starting to hit me now, it’s…..wow.”