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.
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.