My friend Charles Washburn is gone.
If that name is not a familiar one, please bear with me and get to know it, at least now. If the only fact that I relayed here today was that Charlie was the first-ever African-American to be a 2nd assistant director in Hollywood, in 1967 ... after having been the first black admitted and then graduated from the Director’s Guild of America trainee program the year before ... well, that would be enough.
Adding in the fact that both feats happened via the original Desilu Star Trek makes me doubly proud and honored to have known this Treklander, and hopefully helped to share his story and his person.
“When I started at Desilu, there were only three black employees on the whole lot,” Charlie told me once: “Nichelle Nichols, myself, and the guy who had the food truck—who closed it up after lunch and then shined shoes.”
Now THAT puts this “true Hollywood story” in perspective.
Charlie was laid to rest Tuesday in his native Memphis, Tenn., having finally lost his battle with kidney disease at age 73 on April 13, survived by a daughter and son. The word was not made public til a few days ago, and I feel torn that I was in Houston on another shooting trip for The Con of Wrath—thus delaying my putting together these thoughts. What I truly regret, though, is that I had meant to get back and visit him for a antyoher chat and clean-up session in recent months at the Screen Actor’s Home in the west Valley… and just never got it done.
But then, I treasure the many hours we did share these past five years since 2007, when we first made acquaintance due to his stint as an early 1st AD for TNG and the 20th anniversary pieces I did for the old startrek.com team. For, more than any one-line "claim to fame" for the history books, Charlie was simply a gentleman—and a beaming human example of cheery, positive living. He was raised with a certain amount of what we would call middle-class pride for his “people,” and yet growing up in the South of the ‘50s and ‘60s he could certainly use all of the optimism and cheer he could muster. Even more so for an energetic, college-trained young man with talent and the desire to make it, and going so far from home to do so.
Charlie had dozens of credits as he rose in the ranks—like Bill Cosby Show, Vega$, Batman, Six Million Dollar Man. And like everyone else in LaLa Land in all walks of life, he had numerous scripts and stories of his own tucked away, to pitch and plug at any moment—busy doing so even in his last few months (see his Actor's Home desk, below). He also loved Westerns and their stars, especially the weekly Saturday morning serials he watched in color-blind mode as a young boy growing up, and was quite the expert. All of that leaves it no surprise that Charlie was also an exasperating and stubborn pack rat, as I soon realized when I helped him move his stored items ... often ... as he compacted his life “stuff” and moved to an apartment at the Home, kidney dialysis slowing his pace just a bit the last couple years. On the good side, though, that stash allowed him to selflessly share the original call sheets from his Season 2 shows as DGA Trainee, and then his alternating Season 3 eps as a full-fledged 2nd AD….
I have my own interviews with Charlie archived, but thankfully he himself had done the same with Star Trek buddies like director Joe Pevney and others, before they passed. It was all for had completed a chapter or two or three of his book-to-be, entitled “Charlie Star Trek”— his nickname from back in the day, from the way everyone at Desilu heard his greeting as he answered the onstage phone. There’s a lot of history preserved there—and lots from succeeding shows as well that hopefully will come to light.
But of all that Charlie shared with me, I’m grateful for the entrée he gave into his beloved Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, as much as all the Trekland info and insights…and most of all that sunny, warm-hearted cheer that greeted each and every soul he met, or idea he considered. In later years he even organized screenings and shows for residents at the Screen Actors Home himself, until he no longer do so, and I’m proud to have helped him meet-and-greet local L. A. fans who were unaware of him as a local treasure. I wish we could have gotten him out much more, and to some of the larger conventions like Vegas—for, like producer Bob Justman in his final years, he truly was a long-lived eyewitness to the TOS crew that latter-day fans deserved to be aware of while they had him. You can see he and his words preserved, at least, in special features amid the latest remastered editions of the original series Blu-Ray sets.
What might stick in my mind most of all, perhaps, is the joy on Charlie’s face the night I got him over for that nationwide 40th Anniversary remastered screening of “The Menagerie,” and fans in Burbank swarmed him in the lobby after he’d been introduced as the icon he was.
For my part, I’ll help get his words, deeds and legacy out to any Trekfans and filmbuffs I can, in any media that works. That’s the least we can do for ourselves… and Charlie Star Trek.
(And yes, the role of damage control team member Lt. Washburn in "The Doomsday Machine" was indeed named for him.)