The Pre-Kirk William Shatner

We can't stand the sight of each other

Ralph Bellamy, William Shatner and Steve McQueen try not to kill each other during McQueen’s murder trial.

William Shatner is known for many things: his portrayal as Captain Kirk on Star Trek; his recording career; and his hair.

Let’s leave these tantalizing topics to the experts, and focus instead on a young Shatner as he appeared in the 1957 television drama, The Defender.

The Defender is a two-hour television play that was part of the Westinghouse Studio One series. These teleplays, broadcast from New York, ran every week on CBS from 1948 to 1958. This Emmy-winning series featured some of the era’s best writers, directors and actors. Check out this alumni list: Charlton Heston, Gore Vidal, Grace Kelly, James Dean, John Frankenheimer, Joanne Woodward – to drop a few names. Studio One was a place for established actors to practice their skill, as well as a place for new actors to be discovered.

Did we mention these shows were performed live? The 1950s were the days of live TV, baby! No re-takes, no do-overs, no breaks to collect jangled nerves – this was all in, one take, do-or-die television.

It was here that our young Shatner made an impressive appearance in 1957, along with an equally young Steve McQueen and a crusty Ralph Bellamy.

The scene is a courtroom where a father-and-son legal defense team (Bellamy and Shatner) have been asked to defend McQueen. McQueen is terrific as the nightmarish client: he’s ungrateful, uncooperative and unlikable. An exasperated Bellamy would be just as happy chucking him out a window; however, his sense of moral duty dictates that he gives McQueen a professional defense.

The movie is really about Bellamy and his relationship with his son. Shatner is the impulsive fresh-out-of-law-school apprentice, learning the ropes from his old man. He respects his father, but also becomes impatient with Bellamy’s views. Shatner is serious and restrained, and utterly convincing as a son trying not to push his father too far. The role is not a flamboyant one, but Shatner still makes himself crucial to each scene. He has real presence. Here is a pro at work, who gives us glimpses of his charisma.

(Digression: We hope you’re able to watch the version that includes the live Westinghouse commercials, starring pitch-person Betty Furness. These commercials are truly fascinating.)

If you feel that William Shatner has become a parody of himself in recent years, we recommend you watch The Defender. It’s a thought-provoking story with a smart young actor who really knows his craft.

The Defender: starring Ralph Bellamy, Steve McQueen, William Shatner. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Written by Reginald Rose. Columbia Broadcasting System, 1957, B&W, 130 mins.

23 comments

  1. Ruth, THE DEFENDER sounds like a contender! I congratulate you on being able to see and enjoy this great find; often you have to go somewhere like NYC’s Paley Center or The Museum of The Moving Image for such things. I remember that for a while, the Fox Movie Channel ran a show called “HOUR OF STARS,” in which notable stars were in hour-long versions of classic films. For instance, one episode remade LAURA, with Dana Wynter as Laura Hunt and George Sanders as Waldo Lydecker! More of these kind of shows are turning up, so we’d best keep our eyes and ears open! :-) Thanks for an enjoyable and informative post, Ruth!

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  2. Both Shatner and McQueen look like they’re having a bad-hair day in the photo above. Shatner had a long and prestigious tv career before Star Trek – his appearances in The Twilight Zone are now considered classic. He also did a highly praised performance in a Roger Corman film called ‘The Intruder’ (1962), dealing with the then-controversial subject of segregation.

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  3. Found your blog because of a comment you left on mine. Glad I did, very well done and I greatly enjoy watching old films, mainly westerns, as I’m kinda corny like that. But I’m a huge trek fan as well and found that 5 minute clip captivating. I’ll keep my eye out for this one. Great blog!

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  4. I’m so glad to see you do a post on this one, Ruth! I’ve been eyeballing the (sadly OOP) DVD set of this for a while, and it looks really interesting. I’m a big fan of these “Golden Age of TV” plays. I’m also glad you’ve championed the Shat’s early work. People forget what a good, serious (and well-regarded) actor he was back in the day. And early Steve McQueen too!

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    1. I think Shatner has become an easy target in recent times, and it’s great to see that so many people really appreciate his work.

      I don’t have a full set of Studio One DVDs, just this one play but I hope to get my hands on more!

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  5. My Dad used to talk about The Defender, but I have never seen it. It sounds like something I MUST see. I hope the library has a copy…..how lucky are you that you found it in the discount bin? I need to search these a little harder, don’t I? Thank you for this tip! I’d love to see William Shatner in something that’s pre – Star Trek.

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  6. A good post and a great suggestion. I will look for some of this series. Maybe on YouTube.

    The episode with Shatner and McQueen also featured Martin Balsam and Ed Asner. Plus, the judge was played by Ian Wolfe who went on to appear in two “Star Trek” episodes in 1968 and 1969.

    Make sure you check out my Bit Part Actors blog for more early Shatner stuff in my ‘B4 They Were Stars’ series.

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  7. Sounds good. I will have to check it out. Shatner is also good in a small role in “Judgment at Nuremberg” though all the big names in the cast get all the kudos.

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  8. SS,
    I laughed at your mention of Shatner’s hair! I loved him on The Practice and I was gutted when it ended. He was hilarious on it. I also remember him on a few Columbo episodes which I loved.

    I don’t like Star Trek and I’ve never been a fan. When we were kids one of my aunts watched it religiously and every time we went to visit she was watching Star Trek and she would try to explain what was going on. I was bored to tears!

    Thanks for looking back at William’s early career. It was an interesting read.
    Page

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