I Have Promised My People…You Will Burn In The Fire!: William Shatner’s Most Unintentionally Hilarious Roles, 1968-1978
William Shatner is more than aware of his ironic cool in this day and age, subjecting himself with a knowing wink to Comedy Central roasts, goofball cameos in the WWE, and spoken word covers of Black Sabbath classics featuring burly guitarist Zakk Wylde. However, there was a time when the Shat played things straighter than his hairpiece, barreling through “serious” fare with the fierce determination of an Eastwood or a Newman (or at least a ham who thought he was an Eastwood or a Newman). Sometimes the material was bad, sometimes Shatner was bad, but we can certainly agree that the following entries on Little Willie’s résumé are LOL-worthy despite the gravity or mood they were attempting to project.
1. Alexander the Great (1968)
Filmed in 1964, this lavish television pilot was deemed unfit for air and shelved, most likely due to Shatner’s insistence on playing the legendary title character as a fast-talking bad boy who couldn’t stop smirking. A nascent Adam West was also in this one as Alexander’s doomed general Cleander. Four years later, when Shatner and West were burning up cathode tubes as Captain Kirk and the Caped Crusader (respectively), MGM licensed Alexander the Great to ABC as a made-for-TV movie. Luckily, they left in the scene where our hero dons a Greek mini skirt and viciously wrestles one of his objectors.
Defining Slice of Shat: “Alright, Antigonus, I admit I was wrong. I was reckless…foolish…impetuous…and all the rest!”
2. White Comanche (1968)
White Comanche delivers what you’ve always wanted to see: William Shatner as a crazy Native American. Actually, Shat plays twins in this wanna-be gritty western — levelheaded cowboy Johnny Moon and his psycho Indian brother Notah. Notah gobbles up some peyote and, under the influence of said hallucinogens, comes to believe he’s the Comanche messiah (come on, I think we’ve all been there). Confused but undaunted, Johnny Moon must somehow stop his drug-addled twin from taking over their small frontier town and not get distracted by the movie’s stupid, inexplicable 1950s bebop soundtrack. Filmed for theatrical release on a shoestring budget in Spain during one of Shat’s Star Trek hiatuses, White Comanche is a definitive entry of “so bad it’s good” cinema.
Defining Slice of Shat: “I have promised my people…you will burn in the fire!”
3. Swing Out, Sweet Land (1970)
In 1970, swaggering Hollywood icon John Wayne decided he wanted to produce some sort of variety show centered around notable events in American history. Thus, the sprawling cornball NBC special Swing Out, Sweet Land was born and stocked with all manner of Wayne’s hokey pals. Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Michael Landon, Ann-Margaret, and Jack Benny all made appearances — heck, Lucille Ball even popped up as the voice of the Statue of Liberty. Shatner, a Canadian, had the honor of portraying American founding father John Adams in Swing Out against fellow Canuck Lorne Greene’s George Washington, although it was clear the old boy had no idea how to properly don a powdered wig. Nevertheless, Shatner’s turn as Adams stands out as one of his more measured performances.
Defining Slice of Shat: [considering what George Washington’s new title should be] “‘Mr. President’…yes…it has the…unroyal simplicity we all seek.”
4. Sole Survivor (1970)
A military bomber crashes in the ocean during a routine mission; Two decades later, the craft turns up in the Libyan desert, allegedly festooned with the ghosts of numerous airmen who perished in the original crash. Shatner plays one of the military brass investigating the disaster in this Cinema Center 100 production for CBS Television. Although Sole Survivor is actually a pretty well-written offering, Shat delivers a performance so cheesy it should have been regulated by the U.S. Dairy Association. He even does jazz hands in one scene!
Defining Slice of Shat: “I was a charity case…from the day I was born until the day I put this uniform on. The military SAVED MY LIFE!”
5. Go Ask Alice (1973)
This ABC Movie of the Week was based on the sensational 1971 book of the same name that purported to be the diary of an anonymous teenage drug addict. While a majority of evidence suggests the book was in fact authored by psychologist and Mormon youth counselor Beatrice Sparks, Go Ask Alice still captured the attention of a rapt nation and squeezed out this rather painful film adaptation. Costumed in a bushy mustache, Coke bottle eyeglass frames, and plenty of tweed, Shatner struggles to care for his wayward daughter while looking like the world’s lamest encyclopedia salesman.
Defining Slice of Shat: [visiting his daughter in the hospital, sotto voce] “Well…just us today.”
6. Pray for the Wildcats (1974)
Another ABC Movie of the Week, one that Quentin Tarantino is bound to remake within the next five years. Andy Griffith stars as a diabolical California advertising executive who forces his employees to embark on a dangerous dirt bike race across the deserts of Baja. Griffith does an amazing job 86ing his squeaky clean image in this one as he forces himself upon young women and angrily chases down hippies…all while flashing a smile evil enough to make Barney Fife wince. Shatner, playing a suicidal tag along, is really second fiddle in Pray for the Wildcats, but he has his moments where he shines through with the strength of ten hams. In a slightly insulting move, the Wildcats filmmakers made Shat wear a yellow shirt with black trim that aped his iconic Star Trek uniform.
Defining Slice of Shat: [trying to stop Griffith from murdering a hippie] “Sam! You won! Everybody knows it! You don’t want him to ruin our trip. We came down here to see Baja, didn’t we? Come on, Sam, let’s…let’s have a good ol’ time…huh? That’s what it’s all about.”
7. Barbary Coast (1975)
This brief series aired on ABC — your network for Shat in the ’70s! — and posited our boy as a 19th Century government agent named Jeff Cable who was also a master of disguise. Jeff Cable worked out of a secret room in a San Francisco casino and thumped all manner of nefarious schemes via wigs, costumes, and funny accents. Despite a strong cast, capable writers (mostly poached from Mission: Impossible), and an absolutely killer theme song, Barbary Coast sank into the briny depths after just one season. Many point to the failure of this series, Shatner’s first starring TV foray post-Star Trek, as the venture that put the lid on his A-list career.
Defining Slice of Shat: [faking southern accent] “I have been inquirin’ in the neighborhood for a gentleman of Spanish extraction…who is in the market for…some rifles.”
8. The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Here William Shatner faces his greatest pre-Khan foe — a Satanic priest played by Ernest Borgnine who brings hell upon Shat’s family when he can’t get some spooky devil book they’ve been hiding from him. Real life Satanist Anton LaVey was a technical advisor on The Devil’s Rain, which makes you wonder about the Church of Satan’s true agenda (this film marked the cinematic debut of one John Travolta). Almost as scary is watching Shatner lumber around in thick flannel and a wicker cowboy hat during various Devil’s Rain sequences, staring into the distance with a look on his face that suggests he just tasted a bad peach. Sure, The Devil’s Rain isn’t as “revered” as Shat’s turn in 1977’s gloriously awful Arachnophobia precusor Kingdom of the Spiders, but how can you ignore a film where robed goat people chase Captain Kirk through desert underbrush?
Definitive Slice of Shat: “Corbis! God…damn you!”
9. Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
Hailed as the greatest of the terrible William Shatner movies, Kingdom of the Spiders pits a woozy and clearly bottomed-out Shat against an army of unthinking, unfeeling tarantulas bent on destroying a rural Arizona village. Behind the scenes, the spiders were apparently more interested in devouring each other than their human co-stars, and when the cameras weren’t rolling each one of the nearly 5,000 arachnids purchased for this Mystery Science Theater-ready bomb had to be stored in its own individual container. Of course, not everyone accepts the whole “tarantulas are natural cannibals” story, and theories abound that the furry stars of Kingdom were driven to cannibalism after experiencing firsthand Shatner’s underwhelming performance. You’ve never felt less assured than the moment Bill’s veterinarian character “Rack” Hansen sleepily insists to his family that they’ll get out alive.
Definitive Slice of Shat: “Why would…spiders…suddenly turn aggressive?”
10. The Bastard (1978)
The Bastard is generally remembered for being one of the more ridiculous romantic period sagas of its time. The overwrought miniseries centers around an illegitimate 18th Century English nobleman named Phillip Charboneau who is basically excommunicated from Europe and finds himself caught up in the events of the American Revolution. The casting in this one is simply out of control. If you thought Lorne Greene as George Washington in Swing Out, Sweet Land was bad, wait until you see Happy Days star Tom Bosley as Ben Franklin in this massive turkey. Apparently always happy to throw on some britches, here Shatner plays Paul Revere with all the borderline intensity you remember from “Amok Time” and “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
Defining Slice of Shat: “Animals…to revel in such savagery…in the name of liberty!”
James Greene, Jr. is a freelance writer who has actually been paid real money by places like the New York Press, Geek Monthly, Crawdaddy.com, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. A visit to his personal blog should eat up at least two minutes of your day.