Born March 3, 1920 in Vancouver, British Columbia, James Montgomery Doohan enrolled in the 102nd Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps in 1938. By the outbreak of WWII “Jimmy” was a Lieutenant in the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
Doohan’s first taste of combat took place on D-Day, on the Normandy beach Canadian landing forces remember, as “Juno”. Crossing through a field of anti-tank mines, the Canadian’s luck held. None of them were heavy enough to set one off. Leading his men to higher ground, Lieutenant Doohan personally shot two German snipers before taking up positions for the night.
That night, Doohan had just finished a cigarette and was walking back to his command post. A nervous sentry opened up with a Bren light machine gun, striking the Lieutenant four times in the leg, once in the chest and again on the middle finger of his right hand. Fortunately, the chest shot lost much of its punch when the bullet hit a cigarette case his brother had given him, for luck. Doctors were able to save his life but not, the finger. That had to be amputated.
Following a convalescent period Doohan served as courier and artillery spotter aboard a Taylorcraft Auster Mark IV. In spring 1945 he wove his aircraft through telegraph poles like a slalom skier, just to prove it could be done. The man never was a formal member of the CAF, but the stunt forever marked his reputation as “the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force”.
Doohan was always interested in voices and accents which he practiced, since he was a kid. He became good at it too, a skill which would serve him well in his later career, as an actor.
After the war, Doohan listened to a radio drama. Knowing he could do it better, he recorded his voice at a local radio station, winning a two year scholarship to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. There he studied voice and acting with the likes of Leslie Nielsen, Tony Randall, and Richard Boone.
Doohan appeared in over 4,000 radio programs and 450 television shows throughout the 1940s and ’50s. He played “Timber Tom” the northern version of Buffalo Bob, the Canadian production of Howdy Doody. Around this time a young actor named William Shatner was playing Ranger Bill in the American version. In the 1950s, the two would appear together on the Canadian science fiction series “Space Command”. It wasn’t the last time the two would appear together.
Auditioning before Gene Roddenberry in 1965, Doohan performed several accents. Asked which he preferred, he responded “If you want an engineer, in my experience the best engineers are Scotsmen.” He chose the name “Montgomery Scott”, after his grandfather.
Chief Engineer aboard the Starship Enterprise was supposed to be an occasional role. Roddenberry actually considered killing the character off in episode two but Doohan’s agent, intervened. In the end it was Doohan himself who proved the character, irresistible.
“Scotty” soon became #3 in command, a regular cast member playing alongside William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy). Doohan’s voice talents helped behind the scenes as well, developing the Klingon and Vulcan “languages”.
Star Trek was canceled in 1969 due to poor ratings but returned to broadcast syndication in the 70s. The series has since become a cult classic. There is hardly a woman, man, puppy boy or girl among us who isn’t steeped and marinated in the program.
Fun fact: The Vulcan Salute, a hand gesture the New York Times once described as a “double-fingered version of Churchill’s victory sign” comes from a Hebrew blessing Leonard Nimoy witnessed as a child, at an orthodox religious ceremony.
Doohan’s character was so iconic many fans credit him with sparking an interest in the technical fields. Among these was the engineer-turned-astronaut Neil Armstrong, who personally thanked the actor in 2004. Another was a female fan who once mailed the actor, a suicide note. Alarmed, Doohan invited her to a Star Trek convention. The pair stayed in touch for two years before she cut off contact. 8 years later she reached out once again to inform him she had completed a degree in electrical engineering. And to say it was he, who had saved her life.
Doohan learned to hide his injury from the war. For years it was rare to spot the missing digit in the early episodes, a fact which never fails to amuse hard-core “Trekkies“.
It’s a singular part of our electronic age that we live in, isn’t it? We come to know these people sometimes quite well, at least we think we do, and yet they wouldn’t know us, from Adam’s off ox.
In his later years, Doohan’s health began to decline. He developed Parkinson’s disease and diabetes along with fibrosis of the lung, a condition blamed on exposure to noxious chemicals during WWII. By 2004 he’d experienced symptoms of Alzheimer’s, though he was still able to attend the ceremony in his honor marking his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
James Montgomery Doohan passed away on July 20, 2005, survived by his third wife Wende, the couple’s three children, his four adult children from a previous marriage and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Doohan’s youngest daughter Sarah was five, at the time of his death.
The actor long wished for his ashes to travel into space and “rest among the stars”. In 2007 a portion of the ashes were launched on a suborbital flight which failed, and fell back to earth. It was three weeks before the capsule containing the ashes, was recovered. In 2008 a second attempt, failed.. Christopher Barrett Doohan, an actor who has followed in his father’s footsteps and himself played the “Scotty” character, had an idea. The American video game developer and entrepreneur Richard Garriott was at this time preparing for a voyage to the International Space Station and under quarantine, in Kazakhstan.
It was all quite clandestine at the time but a portion of the ashes was smuggled in and laminated to the back of a card, bearing the actor’s likeness. Everything that goes up there is carefully catalogued and inventoried but the card, made it. So it is the fictional astronaut Montgomery Scott found his way to the stars where he remains to this day, somewhere on board the ISS. Garriott got the last word on the story twelve years later when the truth, could finally be told. “James Doohan got his resting place among the stars.”