William Shatner wrote an early TV episode for himself but lost the role to Bob Newhart… who also lost the role

'Checkmate' ended up being a losing game for two rising stars.

The Everett Collection

Read to Me

In 1961, William Shatner was a common sight on television but hardly a star. The stage-trained actor had largely appeared in dramatic anthology series such as The Kaiser Aluminum HourStudio One in HollywoodKraft Theatre and Playhouse 90 — shows that could essentially be seen as theater shot on camera.

So, to give himself a leg up, the Canadian wrote his own screen story. He could give himself the lead role. Shatner whipped up a yarn for the show Checkmate, a stylish detective series starring Sebastian Cabot, who is now best known as the dapper "gentleman's gentleman" from Family Affair

Shatner's titled his tale "The Button Down Break." The plot centered around a cocky, creepy killer named Luther Gage, who vows revenge on Cabot's character after being sent to prison. It was a meaty role for a young actor. Shatner intended for himself. Unfortunately, Hollywood does not always work that way.

"You'll get a kick out of this," Shatner told newspaper columnist Hal Humphrey in July 1961. "I just sold a script to the CBS Checkmate series and naturally I figured I would play the lead guest part. Then comes word from the sponsor that they want a bigger name."

Drat! This is where it gets interesting. 

The "bigger name" is now a legend, though, at the time, the pick made Shatner scratch his head.

"They're trying to get Bob Newhart, the comic," Shatner confessed in disbelief. "But I understand he's never done any acting."

That was true! Newhart had never done acting, certainly not a drama about a killer. But Newhart was a hot name at the time. A few month early, the funnyman had won the Grammy Award for Best Album for his stand-up album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. He also took home the trophy for Best New Artist at that 3rd Annual Grammy Awards.

The guy behind The Button-Down Mind must have seemed like an obvious choice for "The Button Down Break." At least, it was probably something as simple and stupid as that.

But here's the thing — Newhart lost the role, too!

Who did play the killer? Well, if you paid attention to the photo up top, you know the answer. It was Tony Randall!

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4 months ago
I have always loved Tony Randall. Does anyone remember The Tony Randall Show? His supporting cast was excellent!
Andybandit 4 months ago
I would have rather seen William Shatner then Bob Newhart. I liked the Bob Newhart show, even though I don't think Bob is that funny.
AgingDisgracefully 4 months ago
Sebbie and Bill! Future Golden Throats!
SC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVlcVa3MEIw
WS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o74J6JcDr9U
EN-joy.
LoveMETV22 4 months ago
I remember seeing Sebastian Cabot in Ghost Story way back lol.
WordsmithWorks 4 months ago
At least Shatner sold the script.
MrsPhilHarris 4 months ago
I wouldn’t mind watching Checkmate. They made 70 episodes.
ncadams27 4 months ago
Same thing happened to Carl Reiner when he cast himself as the lead in his show called Head of the Family. They liked everything about the show except him - who was essentially playing himself. They hired Dick Van Dyke and renamed the show .. well, I think you know!
stephaniestavr5 ncadams27 4 months ago
This is not quite the same thing. Carl Reiner as you said, did cast himself in HOTF and he did appear...in the pilot.
ncadams27 stephaniestavr5 4 months ago
True. Shatter wrote a single episode for an existing series, whereas Reiner wrote multiple episodes for a new series. The point was that both Shatner and Reiner were rejected by the sponsor even though they wrote their own scripts for shows that they wanted to appear in.
Reiner eventually cast himself as Alan Brady, Rob Petrie’s borderline-psychotic boss, in “The Dick van Dyke Show.” By strange coincidence, the episodes in which Brady appears are probably the best in the series.
ncadams27 F5Twitster 4 months ago
Actually, it’s Shatner.
Catman 4 months ago
I loved "Checkmate" but I haven't seen it in years. Decades, actually. Not even in this century. ...sigh...
justjeff 4 months ago
Here's an image you don't get to see often - Sebastian Cabot without a beard!
cperrynaples justjeff 4 months ago
Yes, and did you ever see him on Twilight Zone with a white beard? "This IS the other place!"...LOL!
justjeff cperrynaples 4 months ago
I sure did... It's amazing how a bit of "clown white" makeup run through the hair turns a younger man into a geezer in no time flat. I had to grow into my gray...
Mike justjeff 4 months ago
This is from the reference books:
For that Twilight Zone episode, Sebastian Cabot had to have his hair and beard bleached blonde, for black-and-white film.
Cabot didn't care for the experience; when filming was over, he had to allow about three months for his real hair color to grow out - and he couldn't work for all that time.

Fast-forward to the '70s: Cabot was offered the Kris Kringle part in a TV remake of Miracle on 34th Street - which he nearly turned down because he didn't want to bleach again.
The makeup people came up with a way of removing Cabot's beard and putting backing on it to keep it intact, so he could keep working while the real thing grew back.
One of the tabloids caught a picture of a beardless Cabot; I wonder what became of that photo ...
(That's not the picture you've got here; that came from a period when Orson Welles used in in a movie, and insisted that he shave. After that was over, Cabot went to work on a Western clean-shaven: as he told the story later, the director saw him on set and yelled: "Who the hell's this guy? I thought we had Sabby Cabot for this part!")
That was an awesome episode.
He looks a little like Dennis Franz from early NYPD Blue
srrainwater justjeff 4 months ago
Thanks for sharing!
cperrynaples 4 months ago
Interestingly, Newhart would appear years later in an Hitchcock Hour called How To Murder Your Wife! Even stranger fun fact: Checkmate was produced by Jack Benny, who cast himself in an episode!
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