James Montgomery Doohan was born on March 3, 1920, in Vancouver, British Columbia. His father was a veterinarian, pharmacist, and dentist who developed an early form of high-octane gasoline. Starting in 1946 Doohan took on roles as a voice actor for radio, developing a reputation for his broad range of accents and dialects. Over the next decade, he performed in more than 4,000 radio programs.
In the mid-1950s, James Doohan played forest ranger Timber Tom in the Canadian version of Howdy Doody. Oddly, at the same time, William Shatner was playing Ranger Bill in the American version of the show. Both men later appeared together on the Canadian TV series Space Command.
Over the years Doohan played a wide range of roles on screens both large and small. However, the one part for which he is best remembered is that of Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer on Star Trek‘s starship Enterprise. Though he was neither Scottish nor an engineer, James Doohan’s depiction of the longsuffering Starfleet officer created a cinematic icon.
While auditioning for the part before Gene Roddenberry, the creator and producer of Star Trek, Doohan suggested that all the best engineers were Scottish. He personally chose the first name of Montgomery to honor his grandfather. The resulting beloved character became a fixture across three years’ worth of live-action television, an animated series, and seven major films.
Doohan’s vocal range was indeed remarkable. He voiced a variety of entities on the TV series to include Sargon in “Return of 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.” He voiced a total of fifty different characters during the animated series to include as many as seven in a single episode. He also contributed heavily to the development of both the Vulcan and Klingon languages for the films.
The Trekkie truly committed to his craft might appreciate, however, that throughout the run of both the TV shows and movies, Doohan takes care with how he positions his hands. However, in “The Trouble with Tribbles” we do get a quick glance. James Doohan was missing his right middle finger. The tale of how he lost that digit is indeed fascinating.
A Young Man Goes to War
Doohan’s father was an alcoholic who made life miserable for Jimmy and his three older siblings. At age nineteen, Doohan enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery and was assigned to the 14th (Midland) Field Battery of the 2d Canadian Infantry Division. He was later commissioned a Second Lieutenant and assigned to the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3d Canadian Infantry Division. In 1940 he was deployed to England. By 1944 he was ready to go to war.
LT Doohan landed on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, alongside 14,000 other Canadian troops. Juno was one of five invasion beaches designated as part of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Opposing the invading Canadians were two battalions of the German 716th Infantry Division with elements of the 21st Panzer in reserve near Caen. The initial landing was a fairly bitter thing. One in every eighteen Canadian assault troops became casualties that first day.
LT Doohan led his men across the beach strewn with antitank mines and personally killed a pair of German snipers. Doohan was ultimately in combat less than 24 hours. At around 2300 that first evening the young Canadian officer was making his way between a pair of Allied positions when an inexperienced Bren gunner fired at the noise. Doohan caught a total of six not-so-friendly .303 rounds.
Doohan took four rounds to his left knee and leg and one to the chest. The sixth round blew off the middle finger on his right hand. The chest wound would have undoubtedly been fatal had it not struck a glancing blow that deflected off of a cigarette case Doohan kept in his left breast pocket. The case had been a gift from his brother. Doohan joked later in life that he was one of the few people for whom smoking had actually saved his life.
LT James Doohan’s No 4 Lee-Enfield rifle was an evolutionary development of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) with which Commonwealth forces fought the First World War. These Tommies called their SMLE rifles “Smellies.” The SMLE was itself a development of the previous Lee-Metford.
The No 4 Lee-Enfield was cheaper and faster to produce than the WW1-era weapon. Fed from either a detachable ten-round box magazine or top-fed stripper clips, the No 4 also cocked on closing and had an abbreviated 60-degree bolt throw. These attributes made the Lee-Enfield arguably the fastest bolt-action military rifle ever produced. In 1914 a British musketry instructor named SGT Snoxall put 38 rounds inside a 12-inch target at 300 yards in 60 seconds, a record that purportedly stands even today.
The Bren gun was a license-produced development of the Czech ZGB-33 light machinegun. The name “Bren” is a portmanteau combining Brno, the Czech city where the gun was first designed, and Enfield, the location of the British Royal Small Arms Factory. The ZGB-33 was itself developed from the previous Zb vz.26 designed by Czech designer Vaclev Holek.
Originally adopted in 1935, the Bren fired the rimmed .303 British cartridge and weighed about 23 pounds. The gun’s sedate 500 rpm rate of fire, its superb reliability, and its quick-change barrel made it an efficient and effective support weapon. The Bren fed from the top via a sharply curved 30-round box or a 100-round pan magazine. However, the latter was a bit ungainly in action. All members of the rifle squad would typically pack spare magazines for the Bren.
In the 1950’s the British re-barrelled the Bren gun to fire the NATO-standard 7.62x51mm round and designated it the L4A4 LMG. This variant served through the war in the Falklands. Final production of the Bren by the Indian Ordnance Factories continued until 2012.
Though expensive and fairly heavy, the Bren has been described as the best light machinegun of its era. Filling roughly the same tactical space as did the American BAR, the Bren benefitted from its quick-change barrel and increased magazine capacity. The L4A4 version used a magazine that was interchangeable with those of the L1A1 SLR rifles employed by British forces at the time.
The Rest of the Story
LT Doohan obviously recovered from the wounds he incurred on D-Day. Afterward, he was selected for pilot training and graduated from Air Observation Course 40 alongside eleven other Canadian artillery officers. Doohan trained to fly the Taylorcraft Auster Mark V observation aircraft. He was assigned to the 666 Air Observation Post Squadron RCAF at Andover, England, in support of the 1st Army Group Royal Canadian Artillery.
Captain Doohan soon developed a reputation for his daring at the controls of his nimble little spotter plane. Once in the late spring of 1945 while flying a Mark IV Auster on the Salisbury Plain north of Andover he came across a series of telegraph poles. Doohan then slalomed his little plane back and forth around the poles, in his words later, “to prove it could be done.” He was strongly reprimanded for this stunt. He left the Canadian Army shortly after the end of the war.
Many of the Star Trek cast, particularly Leonard Nimoy, resented being type-cast in those roles. James Doohan did also strive for a time to shake off the inevitable baggage that came with playing such a popular character. However, he eventually came to embrace his Scotty persona and was a popular fixture at conventions for decades. Most of his film and TV roles after Star Trek included some reference or parody to his most famous part.
William Shatner who played Captain Kirk was notoriously difficult. The strained relationship between Shatner and the rest of the cast is beautifully parodied in the simply spectacular spoof Galaxy Quest. If you have any interest in classic science fiction at all and haven’t yet seen Quest then stop what you’re doing immediately and go watch it. You’ll thank me later.
Doohan once said of Shatner, “I like Captain Kirk, but I sure don’t like Bill.” Of the original cast, Doohan was the only one who refused to be interviewed for Shatner’s Star Trek: Memories books about the show and subsequent films. I’m not too proud to admit to having read and enjoyed both tomes. By their final convention appearance together in 2004 Doohan and Shatner seemed to have mended their relationship.
Jimmy Doohan was married three times and had seven children. Like most Hollywood personalities, his personal life was tumultuous. However, it was of his contributions in the Real World that Doohan was most proud. Doohan once corresponded with a young fan who was contemplating suicide. After subsequently meeting at a Star Trek convention Doohan’s encouragement and support not only got the young woman through her emotional slump but inspired her to complete engineering school. At James Doohan’s final stage appearance before his death in 2005 at age 85 Astronaut Neil Armstrong told him, “From one old engineer to another, thanks, mate.”