James “Jimmy” Doohan was best known for his portrayal of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in the 1960s television series Star Trek. His portrayal of the iconic chief engineer of the starship “Enterprise” would inspire many fans to pursue careers in engineering and other technical fields. Yet he was so much more than an actor. He was an author, a voice actor and a former soldier with the Canadian Army during World War 2. He would land with Canadian forces on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion and be shot six times by a fellow Canadian soldier.
James Montgomery Doohan was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on March 3, 1920 to 1st generation Irish immigrants. The youngest of four children of an alcoholic pharmacist, dentist and veterinarian, the elder Doohan would move the young family to Sarnia, Ontario during the early 1930s. Excelling in both math and science in school, the young James signed up for the Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps in 1938.
At the beginning of the World War 2 Doohan signed up with the Canadian Royal Artillery. In 1940, newly commissioned as a lieutenant in the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, he was sent to England for training. Doohan’s first combat took place during the largest invasion in history: D-Day. The invasion of the Normandy coast of France was a joint operation between Canada, Britain, and the United States, with each allied country assigned to take a portion of the beaches. The Canadian Army, and Doohan’s division along with it, was tasked with taking the area known as Juno Beach.
The first Canadians reached Juno Beach at 7:35 AM and met very stiff resistance from the opposing German forces rallied against them. Fortunately for them, the HMS Ajax had bombed Juno earlier, doing more damage to the coastal defenses than the planes had. After a few hours, they had managed to push back most of the Germans on their stretch of the beach.
Doohan led his men across the sands and got lucky. Despite the anti-tank mines beneath their feet, none went off, as the men were not heavy enough to activate them. As they made their way to higher ground, Doohan managed to take out two German snipers – his first kills of the war.
By noon, they had secured their positions. They could rest, as well as deal with their dead and wounded. Although Doohan escaped the initial moments of the invasion relatively unscathed, his luck would not last.
At about 11:20 that evening, Doohan finished a cigarette and patted the silver cigarette case he kept in his breast pocket. It had been given to him by his brother as a good luck charm… and a good thing, too. Some ten minutes later, he was proceeding back to his command post when he was shot. Six times. By a German. The first four bullets hit him in his left knee, the fourth nailed him in the chest, while the sixth took off his right middle finger.
He walked a quarter-mile – “the adrenaline lets you do it” – to the regimental aid post, Doohan said. He knew about his right hand and the shot to the chest against that cigarette case, but that was all.
“The medic said: ‘You also have four bullets in your left knee.’ I said: ‘Well, I walked here.’”
He had been shot by a German sniper. Fortunately, the cigarette case that his brother gave him for good luck stopped the bullet aimed at his chest. Doohan later quipped that smoking had actually saved his life.
Doohan tried to hide his missing finger in episodes of Star Trek (a hand double was even used in some close-up scenes), but he wasn’t always successful. For example, Doohan’s injury can be briefly glimpsed in the famous episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”:
Doohan recovered from his wounds and joined up with the Royal Canadian Artillery, where he was graduated from Air Observation Pilot Course 40 with eleven other Canadian artillery officers and flew Taylorcraft Auster Mark V aircraft for 666 (AOP) Squadron, RCAF as a Royal Canadian Artillery officer in support of 1st Army Group Royal Artillery. He was later dubbed the “craziest pilot in the Canadian air force” after flying between two telephone poles in 1945 just to prove that he could. He managed a severe admonished by a superior officer for his effort.
James Doohan returned to Canada after the war and intended to use the free education and training allotted to him by the country’s veteran affairs for his military service to study science.
At some point between Christmas 1945 and New Year’s 1946, though, Doohan turned on the radio and listened to “the worst drama I had ever heard,” which prompted him to go to the local radio station on a whim and do a recording of the drama on his own.
The radio operator was so impressed with his work that he recommended Doohan for a spot at a Toronto drama school, where he would eventually be awarded a two-year scholarship to the esteemed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
He returned to Toronto in 1953 and performed in dozens of roles on radio, stage, and television, including some bit parts in famous American series such as Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Bewitched. Then in 1966, he auditioned for a new NBC science fiction series that would change his life — and the life of sci-fi fans — forever.
Doohan auditioned for the part of chief engineer aboard a futuristic spaceship. Since he had mastered dozens of different accents and voices from his years of radio work, the producers had him try out a few and asked which he liked best.
In later years Doohan recalled of the experience: “I believed the Scot voice was the most commanding. So I told them, ‘If this character is going to be an engineer, you’d better make him a Scotsman.’” The producers were thrilled with the character. Doohan would state that “Scotty” was “99% James Doohan and 1% accent”. Doohan would join fellow Canadian William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the cast of Star Trek, the show that would forever cement them in pop culture history. Doohan also provided voices for inanimate characters in various Star Trek episodes, including Sargon in “Return to Tomorrow”, the M-5 in “The Ultimate Computer”, the Mission Control Voice in “Assignment: Earth”, and the Oracle in “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”.
Star Trek had a loyal fanbase in the United States, but one that was ultimately too small to keep it on the air and NBC canceled the series in 1969.
However, the fan-base continued to grow as reruns were played. When Star Wars was released in 1977 and proved an overwhelming success, Paramount decided to get on the band-wagon and release a Star Trek film with the original writers and cast. Doohan reprised his role in not only the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but in all five sequels.
Doohan initially felt typecast by his most famous role. He would sometimes be turned down for other gigs straight away with the dismissal “There’s no part for a Scotsman in there.” After his dentist reminded him he would “always be Scotty”, he supported his family with income from personal appearances. Afterwards he decided to enthusiastically embrace it, and attended dozens of Star Trek conventions and later even declared that he never tired of hearing fans tell him “Beam me up, Scotty.” Unlike some other members of the cast, Doohan loved meeting fans and was always ready to entertain with a story or a song.
Doohan’s influence went well beyond that of a typical television actor. He was actually awarded an honorary degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering after nearly half of the student body reported that they had chosen to study engineering because of Scotty.
But Doohan’s biggest fan was the man who perhaps comes closest to being a real-life Captain Kirk. When the actor received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004, astronaut Neil Armstrong made a rare public appearance to declare, “from one old engineer to another, thanks, Scotty.”
James Doohan passed away from pneumonia on July 20, 2005, at the age of 85. He was survived by his three ex-wives and seven children. In a final tribute to his lasting influence on the Star Trek universe, his ashes were sent into space in a private memorial rocket.