For the third consecutive summer, Shatner headed back to Stratford, Ontario for what would turn out to his last season performing in the Shakespeare Festival. For this fourth season of the festival (Shatner’s third) there would be one major change, though.
Legendary British theater director Tyrone Guthrie stepped down as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival after the 1955 season. Stepping in to fill these enormous shoes was Michael Langham who had previously directed Shatner in Julius Caesar the year before. Although I’ve read that Guthrie did do some directing of various Stratford productions in 1956 (and possibly later) it seems clear that he was not involved with either of the ones that Shatner was…despite what Bill might have stated in Up Till Now. In the end, Langham would remain Artistic Director for 11 years and Guthrie would be forever known for having “had a strong influence in the development of Canadian theatre.”
The headlining production of the 1956 festival was Shakespeare’s Henry V, and the headlining actor was Christopher Plummer. Like the previous year with Lorne Greene, the big draw of the festival was a Canadian actor rather than a British one. But Plummer was much younger than Greene, just a few years older than Shatner and beginning to make a name for himself as a major force in the theater world. Like Shatner he had ties to McGill University, being not only an alumni who attended for most of the same time that Shatner did, but also the son of the “secretary to the Dean of Sciences” and the “great-grandson of Canadian prime minister and former McGill law dean Sir John Abbott, and a great-great-grandson of Anglican clergyman and McGill president John Bethune.” Plummer had the pedigree, the recognition and the station in life (and the acting chops, of course) that middle-class Shatner desperately aspired to.
In the play, Shatner played the Duke of Gloucester, brother to the titular King Henry the Fifth. This sounds pretty important, but the role is exceptionally minor. In fact, I don’t see a single line from Gloucester until Act IV, where he gets one: “My liege!” Impressive, no? In fact, my very cursory review of the text only shows about three lines total for Shatner’s character. This seems like a major disappointment for a young actor who was marking his third straight year at Stratford. And yet Henry V would actually provide him with an opportunity to shine more brightly than ever before.
In Henry V, Shatner was the understudy for Plummer’s lead role. Now, every theater production ever has designated understudies for each role…ever. For most performances however, and especially for limited engagements like those that ran for short seasons at Stratford, those understudies are very rarely if ever utilized. As Shatner himself said in the 1999 video interview for the Archive of American Television:
Now, when you’re an understudy 10% of your mind is saying ‘I’ll go on’, I mean the other 90% is saying ‘Oh my God, if I do go on what’ll I do?’ The possibilities of going on as an understudy are very limited and the concept of going on on while in rehearsal…never entered into anyone’s mind including management’s so we never had a rehearsal. And then one day Christopher Plummer, who was playing Henry V, got ill…instantly, in the afternoon. And they came to me they said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’
Plummer did indeed get ill. In fact, he was beset suddenly by an excruciatingly painful kidney stone (which he originally thought was a venereal disease…Shatner would have his own 50+ years later…a kidney stone, not The Clap) that sent him immediately to the hospital. Despite desperately trying to recover enough to go on, Plummer realized that he was going to have to miss that night’s performance and Shatner instead took his place in the largest and most prestigious role of Stratford’s 1956 season.
Shatner gathered the other lead actors in the performance to discuss the situation, actors he had “barely spoken to” because everyone was so focused on learning their own lines and performances and because Shatner’s role was supposed to be so minor. So…no rehearsals, 2200 audience members waiting to see the great Henry V with Christopher Plummer, very little rapport with the fellow lead actors and to top it all off this was very early in the season and so there were several theater critics in the audience. And now we come back to something Shatner said about this experience, something that highlights one of the essential truths about William Shatner’s character:
None of that daunted me. It never occurred to me that I would fail. It never occurred to me that I would never remember a word. It never occurred to me to be fearful. And so I went on. And the thought, as later expressed, was that the muse was on me…I was blessed. I was in some kind of other dimension as I spoke these many speeches.
In Plummer’s memoir In Spite of Myself, he writes warmly (and wryly) about Shatner taking over for him that night. He must have heard about it later because from I read he was down and out after a shot of morphine in the hospital, but he said this about Shatner’s performance:
Ignoring all my moves, he had made sure he did everything I didn’t do – stood up where I had sat down, lay down where I had stood up. I knew then that the SOB was going to be a star.
And from all accounts, the production and Shatner’s performance in it were a rousing success (with one minor hiccup…more on that later.) From Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now:
I received a standing ovation. Even the cast was applauding. The critics loved it, lauding my instinctive and original movements onstage and my halting interpretation of the part. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
That was the night I knew I was an actor.
I mentioned above that there was one hiccup in the night’s performance. Shatner, the great line memorizer, managed to get through the entire night without a single hitch…until near the end. As he explains it, he went through all of the very long and famous speeches of Henry V with otherworldly confidence and precision, buoyed by the muse and the rapt audience. But for the end of the play, after all the battles are over, Henry has “some playful scenes with the French princess and the play is over.” But then disaster. Shatner went blank.
I looked across the stage, hopelessly. I have met so many thousands of people in my lifetime that sometimes it’s difficult to recall the names of people I’ve known for years. Yet as long as I live I will never forget Don Cherry. Don Cherry, with blondish hair and the longest blond eyelashes I’ve ever seen. There stood salvation. Don Cherry had a photographic memory. He knew the entire play! Every line…I leaned in closely and said, ‘What’s the line?”
And Don Cherry with his photographic memory looked at me blankly. He had not the slightest idea. But in that instant I remembered the words I was supposed to say and continued on successfully to the end of the play.
Now, that’s a good and funny Shatner story. It’s also a typical one…typical in that Shatner’s stories are often embellished and/or contain some incorrect information. In this case, it’s at least the latter.
You see, there was no Don Cherry in the cast of Henry V. There was no Don Cherry in any of the casts for any of the productions of that year. The only Canadian Don Cherry that I know of is the hockey commentator (and former coach and player) who dresses flamboyantly and is a mainstay of Hockey Night In Canada.
I’m pretty sure this Don Cherry has never done any Shakespeare, and certainly not with Shatner. And yet, Bill says that “…as long as I live I will never forget Don Cherry.” LOL. OK, Bill. I guess I’ll take you at your word that Don Cherry was there, in one of his flower suits, feeding lines to fellow actors as they needed them. In all honesty, that makes the story way better in my mind anyway.
My guess is that Shatner was really talking about Don Davis, who played the Earl of Westmoreland in the play. Afterwards, I found this article from The Globe and Mail in Canada that lays out the whole story in more detail than I ever could, so check it out. Hilariously, it too riffs on the whole Don Cherry aspect while doing a deeper dive into who Shatner may actually have been talking about. They even contacted Shatner trying to get clarification…but he just doubled down on his claims!
With Henry V, Shatner was given a nothing role and then thrust into a situation that he almost certainly did not anticipate. When his opportunity suddenly presented itself though, he seized it without hesitation. His starring turn, however brief, was nonetheless momentous. It showed the critics, and more importantly Shatner himself, that he was a real actor…that he could actually do this on a grand stage. And it would soon lead to some accolades and even a little bit of money…but more about that in my next post wherein we follow Bill into one last Stratford play before saying goodbye to bachelor life and to Canada!
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It’s time to detail all of the connections between Henry V and other Shatner appearances!
Pretty much the entire company would appear in the other 1956 Stratford Festival plays. Many had also acted in the 1954 and 1955 seasons. Indeed, many of them had also appeared in the Tyrone Guthrie directed Broadway production of Tamburlaine the Great earlier in 1956 and the Guthrie directed film version of Oedipus Rex in 1957. Rather than list all of those actors here, and name each and every production they appeared with Shatner in, I’m going to cherry-pick some of the more interesting connections.
Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are an interesting pair to study. As I noted above, Plummer is about the same age as Shatner, attended the same college in Montreal and took to the stage just like Bill. But where Plummer came from a fairly notable family and was getting a lot of attention as a serious Shakespearean actor, Shatner was wallowing in a lot of (mostly) smaller roles and trying to desperately make ends meet both at Stratford and on television. For many years, it was clear that Plummer was the far more successful of the two.
Plummer would return to Stratford off and on for more than 10 years, playing many notable and starring roles. He also would do a lot of Broadway and Off Broadway stuff, including originating the role of Lewis Rohnen in the short-lived play Night of the Auk just a few months after Stratford’s season was complete. Night of the Auk is very interesting, not the least because it is a science-fiction play written in blank verse. But Shatner would perform in a TV version of the play in 1960…in the role of Lewis Rohnen. Many people mark that as the first true science-fiction that Shatner ever did, although I suspect Space Command may have a claim to that.
Just a few months after Henry V wrapped in Canada, the two would appear again on the Omnibus anthology TV show in the USA, for a production of “Oedipus, the King.”
In 1965, Plummer would gain international fame playing Georg Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. 22 years after “Oedipus, the King,” he and Shatner would finally appear in the same production again, 1979’s Riel. It should be noted that Shatner has a minor role as a carnival barker and Plummer plays Prime Minister John A. Macdonald…so…yeah. 1979, however, would probably mark the last time that Plummer’s star would eclipse Shatner’s (monetarily at the very least.) One year before, Plummer had appeared in (with what I assume must be his nadir) the laughably terrible Starcrash with David Hasselhoff and Marjoe Gortner. Meanwhile, Shatner was about to get back on the horse with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and never look back.
Star Trek fans, however, probably know Plummer most for his portrayal of the villainous Klingon General Chang opposite William Shatner in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Much was made at the time about Plummer and Shatner, two “classically trained” Shakespearean actors with shared and similar backgrounds appearing together again. These Shakespearean ties were reinforced over and over again in the film, from the title (The Undiscovered Country is from a line in Hamlet) to Chang continually spouting Shakespeare in both English and in “the original Klingon.” I mean, the dude literally dies after reciting a Shakespeare line.
Plummer would also briefly appear in the 2010 behind-the-scenes anniversary special about the Canadian Genies, and then finally in 2011 for the Shatner-produced, directed and hosted Star Trek documentary, The Captains.
Tony Van Bridge would also appear in Riel.
William Needles also appeared with Shatner on an episode of General Motors Theatre, “Never Say No” and in the episode of Scope, “The Verdict Was Treason.” His final appearance with William Shatner would be in the 1957 Omnibus TV version of “Oedipus, the King.”
William Hutt and William Shatner appeared together in one television show, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan,” an episode of General Motors Theatre.
Jean Gascon also appeared in Scope’s “The Verdict Was Treason.”
Robert Goodier appeared with Shatner at Stratford for all three seasons The Shat was there, plus in the 1956 Broadway version of Tamburlaine the Great and the 1957 film version of Oedipus Rex. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner in 1956, Moliere’s School for Wives.
Bruno Gerussi was seen previously with Shatner in “Forever Galatea”, an episode of General Motors Theatre, and in 1960’s Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”
Douglas Campbell and Max Helpmann appeared with Shatner in “Billy Budd”, an episode of General Motors Theatre.
Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”
Robin Gammell also worked on Festival’s “Julius Caesar.”
Richard Easton would later appear with Shatner in a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show of the Month, “The Scarlet Pimpernell.”
Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”
Gratien Gélinas appeared in the 1985 comedy film, The Canadian Conspiracy.
Eric House would also appear in “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.
Douglas Rain would play “Cassius” alongside Shatner’s “Marc Antony” in the “Julius Caesar” episode of Festival.
Louis Negin was also in an episode of CBC Theatre with Shatner, “The Man Who Ran Away.”
Fellow Canadian Lloyd Bochner would go on to have a very prolific career, appearing in a number or films and television programs for next six decades or so. One of my favorite Bochner roles was in The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” It’s a cookbook, Lloyd!
He also appeared as “Cecil Colby” in the TV series Dynasty in the 1980’s. He is most famous in that role for having a heart attack while fucking Joan Collins, in one of the most hilarious scenes ever filmed.
Bochner performed at Stratford for at least all three years Shatner was there and then would appear again with Bill on Broadway in Tamburlaine the Great. Bochner also appeared in a 1960 TV movie made for the CBC titled Point of Departure. They would work together again when he appeared on a 1965 episode of Shatner’s first TV series For the People, titled “Seized, Confined and Detained…” Ten years later, he would work with Le Shat in “Jesse Who?”, an episode of Shatner’s only live-action “Lost Years” TV series, Barbary Coast. Finally, they would both appear in the sprawling Canadian film, Riel, in 1979.
Some cool pictures of the festival (most with Shatner) can be found here.
An article about Plummer and Shatner where they “swap tales” is here.
Read a bit more about Night of the Auk, which I will review when I get to 1960. It was a pretty interesting little thing.
You should watch Starcrash if you haven’t already. It’s fucking ridiculous. If you have already, watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version on Netflix.