'Star Trek' writer, IAF founder Harold Livingston dies at 97

Livingston joined as a Machal volunteer aiding the nascent Jewish state in the 1948 War of Independence - in fact, it would prove to be instrumental to Israel's victory.

 Harold Livingston (photo credit: Above and Beyond)
Harold Livingston
(photo credit: Above and Beyond)

Jewish American sci-fi writer and founding member of the Israeli Air Force, Harold Livingston, passed away Thursday from natural causes at the age of 97 surrounded by loved ones, family members said. According to an obituary in Daily Star Trek News, he is survived by his son David, daughters Leah and Eve and nephew Robert.

Livingston had written for many TV shows such as the original Mission: Impossible and had written several books. However, his most famous work of fiction is easily 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the cinematic debut of the iconic and revolutionary sci-fi franchise, featuring the original TV series cast.

The film, while met with mixed critical views, was a major hit and spawned several more Star Trek films and TV series, helping keep the franchise running to this very day.

But in Israel, Livingston is remembered for something very different: Being among the founding members of the IAF. 

He had joined as a Machal volunteer aiding the nascent Jewish state in the 1948 War of Independence - in fact, it would prove to be instrumental to Israel's victory.

 Harold Livingston, younger. (credit: Above and Beyond) Harold Livingston, younger. (credit: Above and Beyond)

Years before, Livingston had served in the US military as part of the transport squadron. This experience served him well when he joined the IAF's Air Transport Command, flying supplies, weapons and planes to Israel from Czechoslovakia. 

“Listen, I wanted to fly again,” he said in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “That afternoon I was in New York and didn’t go home for a year. We were breaking the Neutrality Act, and theoretically our citizenship was in jeopardy, but that made the adventure even more glamorous.”

His experience was recounted in the documentary Above and Beyond, directed by Nancy Spielberg, which focused on the American Jewish pilots who helped create the IAF.

"My heart is broken for Harold. He was the last one. Smoky Simon passed away about a month ago and now him," Spielberg said following Livingston's passing. 

"I fell in love with Harold when we were filming above and beyond. From the moment he pulled up in his convertible jaguar and swaggered toward us on our set, I knew this guy had spunk and more! I often said that he may have been short in stature, but he was a giant in my eyes! He was an incredible writer. A wonderful storyteller. When people compliment us on the making of our film, we always say that it was these salty characters that made the film and we were just blessed enough to have the cameras rolling! He was curmudgeon, true to himself, didn’t put up with any crap."

Spielberg recounted just how pivotal Livingston's role was in the 1948 war.

"His contribution during the War of Independence was critical. Without the transport that he flew, there would not have been any supplies brought into Israel and ferried to the Negev during some of the darkest days in the War of Independence," she explained.

"After the film was released, he told me how he went to his neighborhood diner, where he had breakfast every day. When he was done eating, he asked for the check but the waitress told him that another table had picked up his check. The man from the other table came over and said that he recognized him from the film and thanked him for his contribution to the State of Israel. Harold was tickled pink! He said to me 'my dear, I came into this world a little Schmendrick, but I’m leaving it a big Star.'"

Describing his experience in a blunt and exaggerated manner in another account, Livingston wrote: “Ben-Gurion’s Foreign Legion. They took anyone. Misfits from America, English communists, South African Zionists, Soviet army deserters, Polish noblemen, ne’er-do-well soldiers of fortune. If you want excitement and adventure, come on over... If you want to write a book. If you’re running from the police. If you want to get away from your wife. If you want to prove that Jews can fight. If you want to build a new land.”

"Harold was a true renaissance man," his nephew Bobby Livingston said. "He witnessed the Great Depression in America; he served in World War II; he volunteered as an American to help the birth of Israel; he returned to the US Air Force and was involved in the Berlin Airlift; and he then went to Hollywood, used these experiences to build his career as a writer for the second half of his life."

Many of his stories he wrote in his career were heavily inspired by his experiences in Israel, and it is the many novels and works he left behind that help define his legacy.

"Harold Livingston is not going to disappear from history," Bobby said. "He left behind a record of everything he witnessed in the 20th century."

"My dad was surrounded by loved ones when he passed, and he remained quick-witted and spirited right up until the end," his daughter Eve said.

"He wrote, directed and produced his entire life until the very end. He really lived the life that he wanted. He designed a beautiful life for himself."

She described how important Livingston's role in helping Israel in 1948 was to him.

"It was a profound and deep honor for him to help and support the people of Israel when the state was forming," Eve explained. "It brought him a deep sense of meaning and he carried that honor with him his entire life." 

May his legacy live long and prosper.

Hannah Brown and Tom Tugend contributed to this report.