Sandra Gimpel was one of the first people to go where no man had gone before — and that adventurous spirit continues to fuel the Hollywood stuntwoman who hasn’t slowed down as she stands on the threshold of 80.
“That’s why I go to the gym so much,” Gimpel, 79, said by phone from her home in Los Angeles’ Valley Village neighborhood, near Universal Studios. “Most of the ladies that are my age can’t hit the ground anymore, but thank the Lord I’m still in good shape. I’m a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo, so that helps a lot in the fights.”
Gimpel’s illustrious career as a stunt coordinator, including memorable roles in “Start Trek,” brings her to Riverside this weekend for TrekFest XXXV. She’ll be the special guest Friday (6/28) and Saturday (6/29), giving presentations, signing autographs, riding in the parade, judging the costume contest and presiding at various events.
Gimpel starred as a Salt Vampire who sucked the salt of out Capt. James T. Kirk in the U.S. debut episode, “The Man Trap,” which aired Sept. 8, 1966.
She kicked down new doors in 1980 on the television show “Kate Columbo,” starring Dubuque native Kate Mulgrew. Gimpel raised eyebrows when she refused to merely offer advice on how to do the stunts safely — she wanted to be the stunt coordinator, a new path for women she had already forged in movies.
“We’ve never had a girl do it,” she said they told her. But one man went to bat for her, and she had a contract the next day.
Her role as the Salt Vampire actually wasn’t her first “Star Trek” gig.
Earlier, she sported a giant head with pulsating veins to portray a Talosian in the pilot episode, “The Cage.” NBC rejected that episode as being “too cerebral” with “not enough action,” but portions of it were incorporated into “The Menagerie,” a two-part episode that aired in November 1966, almost halfway through the first season.
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“I also went back and played the crew members, but you couldn’t find me half the time, because the ship was always getting tossed around, so we would go flying ourselves against the windows and walls, and fall down a lot,” she said with a laugh. “Those were my ‘Star Trek’ adventures.”
Those also were the early days of special effects, and for the Talosian, her head veins were connected to a hose that ran down her back and into ball in her hand, hidden by her costume’s long sleeves. She had to squeeze the ball to the cadence of the dialogue being read offstage, to make her veins pulse appropriately.
“I couldn’t go out in the sun, because everything would melt,” she said. “Everything was glued to my face, so I had to drink through a straw.”
The Salt Vampire costume was hot and heavy, but at least she could take off the head for a breather. In character, she had to grip the sides of Kirk’s face — but the costume arms were longer than her own, so she couldn’t feel his face. Since the monster head had just tiny slits for eyes, she had to remove the head during rehearsal, so she gauge the proper distance to touch William Shatner’s face.
“Star Trek” led to her work as a stunt woman on such projects as “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Towering Inferno,” “Fear the Walking Dead,” “iCarly,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “My Name is Earl,” “Bruce Almighty,” “Addams Family Reunion,” “Con Air,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “The Lost Boys,” “The Goonies,” “Airplane,” “The Bionic Woman” and dozens more — including “Lost in Space,” where she served as Bill Mumy’s stunt double.
That wasn’t even the beginning of her career.
She started dance classes at age 3, and studied theater in college, intending to become a teacher, but left to dance at a theme park. When she couldn’t get out that contract to audition for the “West Side Story” film, she finished it out, then was hired to dance in the 1961 film “The Pleasure of His Company,” starring Fred Astaire.
“That’s how I got into the business,” she said. Years later, when she was doing stunt work in “The Towering Inferno,” in which Astaire had a role, she walked up to him on the set and said, “You’re the reason I even got into this business.” He was so touched that he danced with her before they started filming for the day.
Her other monster task was dancing in 15 Elvis Presley movies, and last year, a friend called to tell her he saw her face shining from a “Blue Hawaii” poster hanging in Graceland. She became one of Presley’s five main dancers, and remembers him as “such a great guy.”
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“He’d bring lunch in for everybody. We’d sit around and sing songs and he’d play the guitar or play the piano.”
She also enjoyed hanging out in the MGM rehearsal hall to listen to him practice his music, and cast members would sneak away to play softball until “everybody found out,” and they had to quit.
The industry was “very tight” in those days, she said.
“It was a great way to start in the business. I was so blessed it wasn’t even funny.”
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WHAT: TrekFest XXXV: “Aliens of Star Trek”
WHERE: Hall Park, off River (Highway 22) and Ella streets, Riverside
FRIDAY (6/28): 5 p.m. vendors, kids’ activities; 5:30 p.m. Bill Riley Regional Talent Show; 7:30 p.m. Demolition Derby, $10 admission; also “Star Trek” trivia contest, music, co-ed softball tournament, star gazing, 11 p.m. “Star Trek” shows
SATURDAY (6/29): 7 a.m. to noon pancake breakfast; 8 a.m. 5K; 10 a.m. parade; 11 a.m. “Star Trek” costume contest; 2:30 p.m. Sandra Gimpel presentation at Fire Station; also kids’ activities, music, food, games, sports tournaments, fireworks at dusk; 8 to 11:30 p.m. music by Crazy Delicious
SEE SANDRA GIMPEL: Friday: autographs and meet-and-greet, 7 to 8 p.m., Voyage Home Museum, 361 E. First St., followed by “Star Trek” trivia contest, 8 p.m., Railroad Park, across from the museum. Saturday: 10 a.m. parade appearance; 11 a.m. costume contest judging, Hall Park; 2:30 p.m. presentation at the fire station, 271 E. River St.