Stratford’s 1956 season kicked off with the already discussed Henry V. On the following night, another Shakespeare play debuted: The Merry Wives of Windsor. In this production, Shatner played yet another of his “romantic young man” roles, a character type that he had basically been playing for the last 3+ years on the regional Canadian theater circuit and at Stratford.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s farces, and has as it’s leading role the comic bungler and hedonistic Falstaff. In the play, Falstaff attempts to woo two married and wealthy women independently. However, he is almost immediately found out not only by the women themselves but by their husbands. The rest of the play is basically the wives pretending to be wooed by Falstaff but in reality working together to make him look a gigantic fool. Hilarity ensues of course.
One of the wives has a daughter named Anne that is being courted by three different men. And one suitors is a young man by the name of Fenton, in this particular production played by William Shatner. Fenton and Anne are in love, but Anne’s father has already rejected Fenton as a suitor, believing him to only be after Anne for her money. After many comic hijinks, Fenton and Anne trick her parents (who are themselves trying to trick Anne into marrying one of the other suitors) and the two young lovers are married at the end of the play.
Shatner, with his youthful energy and knack for playing earnest and charming romantic men, probably found the role right in his wheelhouse…for better and for worse. The role is important in the play but still relatively minor. Falstaff and the wives have many, many more lines than young Fenton the suitor. In many ways, the role is very similar to the one Shatner performed performed two years earlier in The Taming of the Shrew, but even smaller.
For the first two seasons that Shatner was at Stratford, he performed in three plays each year. For this third and final season he only performed in two for some reason, very possibly because he was the understudy for the lead role in Henry V (a role that he would end up having to play when Christopher Plummer got ill one day.) Regardless the reason however, The Merry Wives of Windsor would be the very last play to debut at Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival that featured William Shatner.
The 1956 season ran until about August 19th. I assume that Shatner was there for the entire run of the festival, or at least most of it. He may have taken a day or two off of work…you know, to get married to Gloria Rand, a woman he had basically only started dating a few months prior to the start of the season. From Up Till Now:
That wonderful summer I called her every night from Stratford. We were on the phone so often that the operator from the Canadian Exchange felt sorry for me and allowed me to call for free. I didn’t fit into any of the groups that had formed at Stratford and I was very lonely up there without Gloria. Finally I told her, “I love you, please come up.” She raced to be with me in Stratford, it was so romantic. It seemed like there was only one thing to do: I asked her to marry me.
Marry me? I’d known her for only four months.
I assume that Shatner and Rand were married in Toronto, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything to confirm that. If they did, then Bill would have had to missed at least a day of working at the festival, as August 12th, 1956 was a Sunday. Or maybe, they got married early in the day and then drove right out to Stratford in time for Shatner to perform. Still, it’s a little interesting to me that they didn’t wait another week or so until after the festival was finished. Maybe that date was significant for some reason, or maybe they just wanted to do it as soon as possible…not sure. What is clear is that they got married after only knowing each other for a few months, and it is also clear from his autobiography that Shatner attributes this impulsiveness as one of the main reasons the marriage did not last.
This 1956 Stratford season seems like a bit of a strange one all around to me. Shatner only appeared in two plays (rather than his usual three) and both roles were relatively minor ones. On the other hand, he was Christopher Plummer’s understudy for the major role of Henry V so it’s tough to say whether his star was rising or falling at Stratford. It’s also not clear whether Shatner had always intended this to be his last season there or if that decision came later…after being thrust into the role of Henry V and succeeding so admirably, or perhaps after getting married to Gloria.
What almost certainly helped make that decision easier however was that Shatner won what he calls in his book “Stratford’s Most Promising Actor” award. With the minor roles given him that year, the award certainly stemmed not from those but from his one performance as the titular Henry V. Not only did he finally feel like he was a true actor after that performance but the critical and audience response almost certainly earned him this award, whatever it was called. From the news clipping you can see below, there is no mention of the award’s actual name, and another was awarded to fellow actor Robin Gammell (not “Rovin” as printed.)
The article also mentions that the money is for “acting studies” but it seems clear that Shatner did not use the money for that at all. Instead, he added that money to his savings, and he and Gloria pulled up what very few stakes they had and moved to New York City almost immediately after the end of the Stratford season. From that original small apartment in Queens, Shatner would soon be working (as he always seems to do) nonstop.
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It’s time to detail all of the connections between The Merry Wives of Windsor 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.
As I stated above, this was Shatner’s third and final season performing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Those three years were instrumental in giving him confidence, exposure, a trip to Broadway, and the knowledge that he was definitely in the right line of work. Shatner would never again return to Stratford to perform, but in 2013 he was awarded the prestigious Stratford Legacy Award. He was the third actor given the award, joining (of course) Christopher Plummer and Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith.
Sharon Acker, who played Shatner’s love interest “Anne” in this play, would appear one more time opposite Bill in a 1969 episode of Star Trek, “The Mark of Gideon.”
Veteran character actor John Vernon, who would later be most known as the Dean in Animal House, had a very minor role in this production as a “farm hand.” He would go on to appear with Shatner four more times, in Festival’s “Julius Caesar,” in the pilot of Shatner’s short-lived 1970’s TV series Barbary Coast, in Airplane II: The Sequel and finally in an early episode of T.J. Hooker, “Matter of Passion.”
Richard Easton would later appear with Shatner in a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show of the Month, “The Scarlet Pimpernell.”
Eric House would also appear in “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.
Tony Van Bridge would appear in the 1979 Canadian film, Riel.
Douglas Campbell, who played Falstaff in this play, previously appeared with Shatner in “Billy Budd”, an episode of General Motors Theatre.
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.”
Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”
Douglas Rain would play “Cassius” alongside Shatner’s “Marc Antony” in the “Julius Caesar” episode of Festival.
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.
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.
William Hutt and William Shatner appeared together in one television show, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan,” an episode of General Motors Theatre.
Fellow award winner Robin Gammell also worked with Bill on Festival’s “Julius Caesar.”
Some cool pictures of the festival (most with Shatner) can be found here.