The failure of one toga-clad TV pilot completely altered the landscape of Sixties pop culture
William Shatner and Adam West were cast as buddies in ancient history!
Image: The Everett Collection
James T. Kirk and Bruce Wayne. The Enterprise captain and Batman. Two of the most colorful characters, on two of the most colorful TV shows of the 1960s. Can you imagine Star Trek without William Shatner? Could any actor other than Adam West so perfectly pull off the camp tone and "POW!" fisticuffs of Batman?
Well, Spock and Robin nearly had entirely different performers beside them. Audiences would have watched Jack Lord as Captain Kirk and Lyle Waggoner as Batman. The ripples from those castings would have likely altered Hawaii Five-O and Wonder Woman… and so on and so forth. The butterfly effect could have changed the entire course of genre television. Hollywood history is riddled with fascinating "What if…s" like that.
And to think, it all came down to the fate of Alexander the Great.
The TV pilot, not the Macedonian ruler from the fourth century B.C.
In 1964, ABC looked to bring the sword-and-sandal epic to the small screen. By then, the craze that had begun with The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur was beginning to wane, but Cleopatra had cleaned up at the box office in 1963. "I am Spartacus!" was still echoing in the collective memory of armchair adventure seekers. Italian studios were cranking out dozens of cheap Hercules flicks. It made good sense to cast two handsome upcoming actors for some weekly Biblical action.
William Shatner, a Shakespearan-trained Canadian, was coming off a couple of popular appearances on The Twilight Zone when he was cast in the title role of the mighty Alexander. Adam West was arguably a little more successful — having landed a regular role on The Detectives from 1961–62, and having recently wrapped up work on a sci-fi movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars — but landed the gig as Alexander's fun-loving underling and general, Cleander.
The concept behind the series was akin to Maverick, in that lead actor would alternate week-to-week, just as James Garner and Jack Kelly took turns. Only in this case, the audience would switch back-and-forth between the exploits of Cleander and Alexander in the year 333 B.C.
"We did the pilot and Bill was the lead as Alexander and I was the kind of sidekick guy," West explained to The Los Angeles Times in 2011. "I was going to have the next episode and it was supposed to go like that from there."
The two baton-passing leads had entirely different takes on the final results.
"I was deeply, deeply, horrendously disappointed when this series didn't sell," Shatner admitted in the same article.
"It turned out to be one of the worst scripts I have ever read and it was one of the worst things I've ever done," added West. Ouch. That says a lot coming from the guy who starred in The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.
The network seemed to side more with West. Not only was the pilot not picked up, but it also sat locked up in a vault for four years. In 1968, the pilot finally aired as a TV movie, only to capitalize on the fame that Shatner and West had accrued from Star Trek and Batman.
Though Alexander flopped, Shatner and West both got to dabble a bit more in the sword-and-sandal genre on their respective shows. The Star Trek episodes "Who Mourns for Adonis?" and "Bread and Circuses" reference ancient Greek and Roman history… in space. Batman got to sock King Tut in his tunic a few times.
But imagine how different television might have been with the two of them as B.C. buddies!