12 wonderful William Shatner television performances beyond Star Trek
Shatner has played everything from a drug lord to an astronaut who can talk with dolphins.
Who doesn't love William Shatner? Few actors so boldly go for it on camera. Yet the Star Trek legend is far more than Captain Kirk. The 85-year-old has a massive resumé with as much range as his acting.
Shatner has played villain and hero, sophisticated and deranged. He has played a fisherman's son and an astronaut who can talk to dolphins. He nabbed a few more leading roles, as in Barbary Coast and T.J. Hooker. We are going to focus on his guest spots.
To celebrate his birthday, here are a dozen spellbinding performances by Shatner both before and after Star Trek — and before his leap to the big screen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Which was your favorite?
1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Glass Eye"
Stirling Silliphant (Route 66) penned this wonderful script, which casts Shatner as the storyteller. Our man plays a young husband who is cleaning out the apartment of his deceased cousin when he comes across a glass eye. The tale that ensues is both eerie and sad. Jessica Tandy stars.
2. Kraft Theater, "The Man Who Didn't Fly"
Shatner delivers his lines with a snobbish, WASP-y accent in this devilish crime tale of a man who fakes his death via airplane crash (an interesting theme, considering his famous Twilight Zone episode to come). Based on an acclaimed mystery novel of the mid-'50s, this episode also features Jonathan Harris. Yes, two notable space travelers of 1960s television together!
3. Thriller, "The Grim Reaper"
In this deliciously chilling installment of the Boris Karloff anthology series, Shatner portrays Paul Graves, the nephew of a mystery novelist (Gilligan's Island's Natalie Schafer!) who has recently purchased a cursed painting of the Grim Reaper. His howl in the screen grab says it all. This is one of the better horror episodes of the era.
4. Naked City, "Without Stick or Sword"
Sporting an unflattering hairpiece and a hard-to-swallow backstory (he plays a bloodthirsty Burmese Buddhist named Maung Tun), Shatner nonetheless captivates as a man torn by revenge during an existential crisis.
5. Route 66, "Build Your Houses with Their Backs to the Sea"
This being the ponderous and poetic Route 66, Shatner is Menemsha Faxon, a melancholy and smooth-tongued son of a lobster fisherman in Maine. This is Shatner at his moodiest.
6. The Twilight Zone, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
In his second appearance on Rod Serling's serial, following 1960's "Nick of Time," Shatner stole the show as a man who slowly grows unhinged on an airplane after spotting a strange creature tearing apart the wing. It is arguably the most referenced and widely known scenario from the classic series, having been often remade. A lot of that success is due to Shatner's sweat-beading mania.
7. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., "The Project Strigas Affair"
Two years before the Enterprise took flight, Shatner shared the bill with Leonard Nimoy in this delightful season one entry of the spy series. (Werner Klemperer is also in this!) Shatner is a chemist with a pest control company who aids Napolean Solo in a plot to discredit an Eastern Bloc diplomat. In an upscale party scene, the actor gets to really lay it on thick as a lush.
8. The Fugitive, "Stranger in the Mirror"
Richard Kimble, the fugitive, goes to work for Shatner, a former policeman who runs a camp. After some cops are killed, suspicion falls on the drifter, but it turns out Shatner's character has a dark side. The viewer gets the full range of good and evil Shatner here.
9. The F.B.I., "Antennae of Death"
As the mutton-chop sideburns announce, we are now in the 1970s, just after the demise of Star Trek. Perhaps seeking to break from his heroic captain role, Shatner began an interesting streak of bad-guy roles. Here, he is a drug runner in the crosshairs of both the F.B.I. and a narcotics syndicate.
10. Mission: Impossible, "Encore" and "Cocaine"
The villainous streak continued in these two outings, in subsequent seasons. In the first, Shatner plays an elder gangster who the IMF team tricks into thinking he has traveled back in time. In the latter, Bill is Joseph Conrad (not the author), an underling to a drug lord who the IMF tricks into believing there is a machine for manufacturing synthetic cocaine. Alas, Leonard Nimoy was not in these episodes.
11. Mannix, "Search for a Whisper"
Perhaps due to a threatened writers' strike, this later episode recycles a script from Mannix's first season, "Skid Marks On A Dry Run." Interestingly, the character Shatner plays, a politician who hires Mannix to dig up dirt on his own career, was earlier filled by Charles Drake, another Trek alum. Drake was Commodore Stocker in "The Deadly Years."
12. The Six Million Dollar Man, "Burning Bright"
Ah, there's that joyously wild Shatner acting we love. After becoming exposed to electrical fields during a spacewalk, astronaut Josh Lang (Shatner) gains the ability communicate with dolphins. Amusingly loony, Shatner then attempts to take a dolphin into space on a rocket. This is candy for lovers of over-the-top Shatner.