Paul Winfield, Star Trek guest star, also played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: Cherry blossom trees bloom at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on March 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: Cherry blossom trees bloom at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on March 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images) /

Paul Winfield, favorite Star Trek two-time guest star, also played Martin Luther King, Jr.

Star Trek fans know Paul Winfield, who died in 2004, from his two appearances in the franchise. He played Captain Clark Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)—a relatively small role, but so indelible the character has appeared in multiple novels and comics. He also played the Tamarian captain Dathon in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.” But Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an especially good day to remember Winfield’s highly praised portrayal of the civil rights leader in the 1978 TV miniseries, King.

Paul Winfield was only one member of King’s all-around impressive cast . The late Cicely Tyson played Coretta Scott King. Roscoe Lee Browne and Ossie Davis appeared, among many others. Several actual leaders in the Civil Rights Movement had cameo roles or played themselves, such as Julian Bond. Tony Bennett (partial inspiration for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Vic Fontaine) also played himself. Abby Mann—the Academy Award-winning author of Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which counted a pre-Star Trek William Shatner in its cast—wrote and directed the three-episode miniseries.

It “seemed certain that a miniseries about Martin Luther King would be a hit with critics and viewers,” writes Jennifer Fuller in Cinema Journal (49:2). “Instead, King met with controversy and failure.” Because of questions about its historical accuracy and its proximity in time to Dr. King’s assassination, the miniseries garnered low ratings and divided audiences. NBC had hoped to match rival network ABC’s success the year before with Roots (starring future Star Trek luminary LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte) but came nowhere close.

Even so, many viewers and critics appreciated Paul Winfield in his role as Dr. King. His performance as MLK still deserves attention, more than four decades later.

Paul Winfield performs Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major” sermon

Despite his own caveats about the King miniseries, Dr. Robert Greene II deems it “one of Winfield’s finest performances.” Indeed, Winfield received an Emmy nomination for his work, as did Tyson and Davis for theirs. (King received nine Emmy nominations in all but won only the statuette for Billy Goldenberg’s musical score.)

You can find the entire production, as well as several clips from it, on YouTube and can see for yourself how powerfully Paul Winfield captures Dr. King’s passion and purpose. Here, for example, Winfield performs a portion of King’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” which he preached just two months before he was murdered.

As Nichelle Nicholas has related, Martin Luther King Jr. watched Star Trek with his children. And while the science fiction show was far from the source of King’s fierce moral vision, it did and does resonate with that vision. Star Trek calls us, too—in Dr. King’s words—to “make of this old world a new world.”

It’s fitting, then, that Paul Winfield, one of the franchise’s most popular and accomplished guest stars, should also have played one of America’s greatest advocates for and champions of true equality and justice.

Next. That time Martin Luther King convinced Nichelle Nichols not to quit Star Trek. dark