All the news about Harvey Weinstein in the last couple of weeks has gotten me thinking about this age-old question again: Where do you separate the art from the artist? What do you do when you discover that the creator of a work you love is an asshole, has done something heinous, or is even an outright criminal? Is there a point where a person becomes SO repugnant that you can no longer support the creative work they were involved in?
If you’re a fan of someone’s work, you really want to believe that they’re a good person, too. And when they’re not… It’s tough.
I’ve got lots of examples from my own fandom. David Letterman was my late night comedy idol. He also admitted to having sex with several women on his staff. Roman Polanski directed Chinatown, one of my favorite films. He also pled guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Bill Cosby was one of the greatest stand-ups of all time. I grew up listening to his comedy albums. He’s also, by all evidence, a serial rapist. I’ve loved Gerard Jones’ work as a comics writer and historian. I’ve even interviewed him via email. And late last year he was arrested under suspicion of possessing and distributing child pornography. And I’ve read so many different versions of allegations against Woody Allen, it’s tough for me to know what to think.
Usually, I can separate this stuff pretty well. But sometimes, I can’t. I was able to watch Letterman until the end of his show, partly because he manned up, admitted what he did wrong, and apologized. But I still haven’t been able to go back to the Cosby albums I own. I don’t know if I ever will.
Greg Hatcher wrote about this issue last year, calling it “The Cosby Problem” and “The Card Line.” In the comments section of that column, I wrote:
My opinion of Gene Roddenberry has plummeted over the last decade or two, and more or less cratered out in the last year. it would take too long to explain why, but I’m now of the opinion that he was a marginally-talented writer who was a piece of shit human being. But I’ll still always love the original STAR TREK. I might have a tougher time if GR was one of the people on camera.
That’s still more or less how I feel, although I guess I’ll try to explain a little further where my negative feelings about Roddenberry came from. Because it’s really tough for me to like “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” these days.
When I love something the way I do the original Star Trek, I want to learn everything I can about it. So I’ve read a lot of books about the making of the show. And most of the time, I end up becoming even more fascinated by it. But in the case of Gene Roddenberry, the more I learn about him, the more my opinion of him lowers. It boils down to four basic reasons:
He constantly lied to build up his own myth as a television visionary. Roddenberry claimed that Star Trek was the first show to ever receive a second pilot. (Not true. Gilligan’s Island and The Dick Van Dyke Show had both done it first.) He claimed that the mixed race crew on the Enterprise only happened over network protests. (Not true. NBC was all for increased diversity on their shows. They’d already aired the 1965 series I Spy with Bill Cosby as a equal costar with Robert Culp, and in 1968 ran the Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia. And outside of Susan Oliver as a green Orion slave girl, the cast of Star Trek‘s original pilot “The Cage” was lily white. Even the character named “Jose” was a blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy.) He claimed that NBC didn’t want a female first officer on the show (Not true. They just didn’t want Roddenberry’s mistress, Majel Barrett, playing the role. Roddenberry ended up cutting the part of Number One rather than recast it with someone else.) He claimed that the character of Chekov was added because of a review in Pravda complaining that there were no Russians on the Enterprise. (Not true. Russia wasn’t airing Star Trek during its original network run, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had been featuring a Russian character as a regular three years before Star Trek did. Roddenberry & company actually wanted to get a young, cute moptop in there, like Davy Jones from The Monkees.) And Roddenberry constantly repeated the myth that Harlan Ellison’s original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” had Scotty dealing drugs on the Enterprise. (Not true. The character of Scotty doesn’t appear anywhere in Ellison’s script, and Roddenberry kept repeating this lie even after Ellison called him out on it.)
He did some really shady stuff to squeeze every last dime out of Star Trek. Roddenberry stole unused film clips from the Paramount vaults to sell to fans through his company, Lincoln Enterprises. He rewrote a scene in a third season episode of Star Trek just to showcase a Vulcan pendant he was planning to sell to fans. He wrote lyrics to the Star Trek theme song just so he could get 50% of the royalties, thus screwing composer Alexander Courage out of half of his money. He was going to have James Doohan and Majel Barrett do the voices of Sulu and Uhura on the Star Trek cartoon series until Leonard Nimoy raised a stink about it, insisting that he hire George Takei and Nichelle Nichols. And that’s not even getting into all the shady stuff his attorney Leonard Maizlish did in Roddenberry’s name.
He constantly hogged credit from others. Roddenberry took credit for the conception of Edith Keeler, even though the story of “The City on the Edge of Forever” originated with Harlan Ellison. He surreptitiously rewrote screenwriter Harold Livingston’s drafts on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, putting his own name first on the cover sheet, even though he wasn’t supposed to. And he somehow got sole creator credit for Star Trek: The Next Generation, even though he only rewrote D.C. Fontana on the premiere episode to expand its length, and David Gerrold wrote the original version of the series bible.
He used the casting couch & commonly cheated on both of his wives. Roddenberry had affairs with both Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett before Star Trek. According to Herb Solow and Robert Justman’s Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, he only cast Andrea Dromm as Yeoman Smith in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” because he hoping to “score” with her. He announced that he was divorcing from his first wife Eileen at his daughter Darleen’s wedding. And after he married his mistress Majel Barrett, he carried on a 17-year affair with his assistant Susan Sackett.
But the final straw for me was when I read the opening excerpt from Grace Lee Whitney’s book The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy on Amazon. In it, she describes an assault she suffered at the hands of someone involved behind the scenes at Star Trek, and it’s a harrowing read. After reading it, I became convinced that “The Executive” who assaulted Whitney after a cast party was Roddenberry himself. (I’m not trying to convince anyone else of this – believe what you want to believe – but all of the pieces fit. Especially when you read in Inside Star Trek that one of Roddenberry’s hobbies was polishing stones and read in The Longest Trek that Whitney’s assailant gave her a polished stone by way of apology. Yes, it’s circumstantial evidence, but it’s such an unusual, specific detail that it points the finger square in Roddenberry’s direction.)
So yeah, I don’t think much of Gene Roddenberry as a person. I’m convinced that, as charming or charismatic as he could be, he was a pretty crappy person. But fortunately, I don’t have to interact with him as a person. John Byrne probably put it best when he said that yeah, Gene Roddenberry may have been an asshole, but he was the asshole who gave us Star Trek. And like I said, I’ll always love Star Trek.
Bob Kane is another one. I love Batman more than anything, but sometimes it’s really tough to overlook that his co-creator was such an egotistical, two-faced bastard.
I’m honestly not too upset with Kane for using ghost writers like Bill Finger and Gardner Fox on Batman, or ghost artists like Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, and Sheldon Moldoff. Using ghosts was a common practice in the 30s and 40s, and Kane wasn’t doing anything that lots of other cartoonists weren’t.
The problem with Kane is that he kept up the lie long after it was no longer feasible, and instead of trying to make things right and give his collaborators some of the credit and money they were due, he doubled down on the lie. He commonly lied about how much writing or drawing he did on Batman stories, even to the point of claiming that 1960s stories obviously drawn by Irv Novick or Carmine Infantino were really drawn by him. He went out of his way to deny that Bill Finger had anything to do with the creation of Batman, to the point of writing a vicious letter to a fanzine for daring to suggest the idea. Kane’s logic ran like this (see if you can follow): Bill Finger obviously isn’t the co-creator of Batman, because if he was, then I would have credited him as the co-creator of Batman. Kane had others do paintings of Batman and Robin that he claimed were his own work. He did conceptual drawings of Batman for the 1989 movie that were largely swiped from Todd McFarlane panels in Batman: Year Two. Hell, in his (ghost-written) autobiography, Kane even claimed that he hooked up with a pre-fame Marilyn Monroe, using her as the model for Vicki Vale.
Kane was also lucky enough to live long enough to reap some of the glory that his collaborator Bill Finger didn’t get. And yeah, Kane expressed some regret in his bio that he didn’t give Bill Finger the credit he was due during his lifetime, but that was a full 15 years after Bill Finger had died in poverty. For all his contrition in print, Kane proceeded to do jack shit about the credit issue the remaining nine years of his life. It was only due to the efforts of people like Mark Tyler Nobleman that Finger is credited on Batman today and his heirs are finally seeing some money from the character, nearly 80 years after his creation.
Hell, if you ever doubt Bob Kane’s towering ego, just take a look at his gravestone:
So yeah, much like the guy who created Star Trek, the guy who created Batman was kind of an asshole. But again, I can compartmentalize it pretty well, probably because I didn’t grow up on Bob Kane’s Batman. I grew up on the Batman by folks like Gerry Conway, Doug Moench, Don Newton, Gene Colan, Mike W. Barr, Jim Aparo, and Alan Davis, along with reprints by people like Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin. And outside of the broad strokes, those Batmen are pretty far removed from what Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and others were doing in the 1940s. So distance helps. But imagine if all of those gentlemen had chosen not to work on Batman because of stuff Bob Kane had done 30-50 years before. Wouldn’t we all be a bit poorer for it?
…Is it a copout to compartmentalize this stuff? I don’t think so. My feelings on this matter are pretty well expressed by a sequence from the 1980s Bloom County, where Binkley and his friends try to become vegetarians for moral reasons. They keep making more and more adjustments to their lifestyle in the name of moral purity until finally, they end up like this:
Life is imperfect and filled with compromise, and everyone has to walk the line that they’re comfortable with. If you try to cut yourself off from every piece of art from someone you find morally objectionable, at some point you’re just depriving yourself of things you might enjoy, or learn something from. And that’s just making your world smaller, bit by bit.
So while I will never excuse the heinous shit that Harvey Weinstein has done to people in his lifetime (and good lord, is there a lot of it – fuck that guy forever), I can still consider myself richer for loving films he had a hand in, like The Tall Guy, Bob Roberts, Pulp Fiction, or Swingers. I’m a better person for having seen them, even if he’s not a better person for having made them.
See you next week with something less heavy.