Monday, August 20, 2012

Birthdays en masse, and RIP William Windom: "He's gone"

It's been such a busy week post-Vegas that I haven't had time to mark the latest birthdays, for Jonathan Frakes and of course Gene Roddenberry ... And now comes this sad news: the death Saturday at age 88 of our own tragic Matt Decker, William Windom.

Gene and Jonathan, each in their own way, were remembered by fans all over on their day Sunday. But I have to stop and say this:

I envy Doug Drexler, Jack Marshall, James Cawley and the Phase II "fan film" crew who worked with Windom, incredibly, ca. 2004 on their episode "In Harm's Way." Doug and Dorothy relate on Facebook here how the retired actor drove eight hours down to L.A. from NorCal to reprise Decker in an older visage for that story. It was a great tale behind a sweet moment in all the fan-generated episodes we have today.

Now, I have no similar story; I saw him at cons and signing shows and really only had one real conversation—in fact, I'm pretty sure it was just about the last time I ever really bought an autograph. Reflecting on it here, I think it's a sign of how even now there are some lingering occasions where you just can't shake "fanboy mode," even after all these years working in Trekland.

Because I mainly saw William Windom where it really mattered: right there, unshaven and unsteady, wearing his gold shirt with the Constellation insignia. For you see, Windom's Matt Decker was the TOS guest star that easily made the greatest dramatic wallop on me back when the term "Star Trek" referred only to those 79 one-hour TV episodes you watched after school. So many great ones, but it was the gripping background of a wrecked sister ship, the Big Four all with screen time doing their jobs under stress, the biggest amount of custom FX shots in TOS, and that great Sol Kaplan score I swear John Williams ripped off for Jaws—in fact, I'm playing the suite as I write this. It all made "DMa" easily the most impactful for me, Windom's broken Decker being the icing on the cake.  

That's the show I recite the most lines from, the most entire scenes from. So much so that, even in recent years, Windom gave me a look that day at Bill Campbell's old Fantasticon charity cons of the late 90s when I asked him to sign his only Decker photo option a certain way.

Now, I admit I do recall, barely, seeing he and Inger Stevens in the sitcom The Farmer's Daughter (they had that cool stair-chair that went up and down the treads, along a wall track). And I recall enjoying the Thurber-based cult classic My World and Welcome To It that nabbed him an Emmy even though it was cancelled, even before I understood what that all meant and why that was karmic payback for the injustice of it being axed (as so many cool shows would come to be mourned when cut down too soon). Not so much with Windom as the doctor on Murder, She Wrote, personally not being a regular viewer—but it didn't matter: By the 1980s, Windom was simply one of those great fixture faces of TV you could always count on.

Yep ... he's a big reason—though hardly the only one—why "The Doomsday Machine" remains one of my two favorite Treks of TOS, and why I can still recite two entire scenes of his. One, Decker's usurping of the Enterprise conn from Spock, which inspires one of De Kelley's best scenes ever (and clearly the Best McCoy Go-To-Hell Look in the whole franchise). I had to be a little older before I realized Windom's one-handed fidgeting with the two microtapes as Decker under siege was an homage to the metal balls Bogie's Captain Queeg handled all through his hearing and breakdown in The Caine Mutiny.

And then, That Other Scene: perhaps the most difficult any early Trek guest was ever called upon to play: traumatic shock. Recite Decker along with me, won't you?: "Don't you know that? There was... but not any more!"

Either Windom had forgotten, or he got asked to sign that zillions of the day *I* asked him. I suspect it was the latter ... but one way or the other, it was why I got The Look. And I wouldn't trade it—the autograph, or the memory—for all the quatloos in China.

(What? None of this conjures up the ghost, right out of hell? Then take a look at this legal demo clip; you need to see it—at least from 0:44 onward:)

So long, Mr. Windom. We really were stronger with you than without you.

Your thoughts? Please share with the crew, below— in comments:

For folks in SoCal, a memorial service for Windom will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles.


Barry Ingram said...

I've seen "Doomsday Machine" dozens of times, and when Decker says "They say there's no Devil, Jim, but I saw it . . . straight out of hell" - the music underscoring it - I ALWAYS get goose bumps the size of marbles.

My other favorite scene is his fight with the security guard, who has the most oddly-shaped head, or maybe it was the camera angle. It marks one of the few times in Trek when we see competent redshirts - he actually gets in a few good licks.

Lisa said...

I would always imagine what a fine captain Decker would have been, before the Doomsday Machine came along. Windom's performance was so sympathetic despite the fact that he takes over the Enterprise and is sort of a bad guy.

William Windom was a wonderful presence in whatever role he was playing. I know I wrote to him for an autograph long ago and he sent back a young photo of himself...I will have to find it and post it on my blog. He said it was his favorite photo of himself, I remember that so well.

Thanks for posting this terrific remembrance of a Hollywood stalwart.

Larry Nemecek said...

Barry: You are so right. That's what I meant—the music is second to none in this ep, and for more than a single moment or scene. There's the Amok Time combat theme, or the Marlena/etc romantic theme... but start to finish: the Jaws rip-off ominous stalk, the Constellation dirge, the cranky transporter, the Decker wistful suicide, the "state of shock"/"doomsday machine" underscore.. and the Enterprise fly-bys, including the closer I use for my TREKLAND Vidchat posts. The music & Acting combo is just huge .

Larry Nemecek said...

Lisa: Totally agree. Your sympathy needle for Decker goes from 100 to 0 and back to 100 again.

Just totally was my fave guest actor/role in TOS—most powerful, indelible. And that's with Edith/Joan Collins, Mark Lenard/Sarek (who's really recurring/family, not a guest).

Gary Hahn said...

Beautiful tribute, Larry. He was a tremendously talented actor. Every moment of the performance is extraordinary to watch. And I also remember "My World and Welcome To It" with much affection, even though I a pretty young kid -- another testament to William Windom's talent.

Anonymous said...

One of the coolest character actors of our time.

William Windom did a remarkable job as the ill-fated Commodore Matthew Decker. I don't know why he didn't receive an Emmy for that role, but he really should have.

God Bless you, Mr. Windom, and thank you for your memorable portrayal of the heroic, yet tragic Commodore. You will be sadly missed.

For fans of the character, check out Star Trek - The Brave And The Bold - Book One. Matt Decker and the heroic crew of the U.S.S. Constellation play a huge part in that story.

Dimitris said...

I am so sorry to hear about William Windom's death. Didn't know much about him except his portrayal of Matt Decker, but it was more than enough for one to instantly understand how great an actor he was. All I can say is RIP...

Anonymous said...

DMa is one of my favourites too and Windom's performance is spell-binding. He goes from pitiable to hateful to heroic in just a matter of minutes!

My only grouse with the episode is the disappearance of McCoy after the showdown on the bridge, but the way Kelley delivers the dialogue: "And so are you....(significant pause) Sir" is masterful.

They do not make them like that anymore.

RIP William Windom and DeForest Kelley. You are MISSED.