In my last post I talked about the religious television program Lamp Unto My Feet and how that was quite possibly the first show that Shatner appeared in upon arriving in New York City. Unfortunately, there are no episode or cast listings for most of that program’s history, so it’s just guesswork based on a few scattered comments and incomplete information. The first television show that I can see an official record of Shatner appearing in was The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, in an episode titled “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb.”
But wait…I know what you’re thinking. You’ve read every single post that I’ve ever written, you’ve hung on every word that I’ve ever typed and you are a dedicated student of William Shatner’s genius and strange otherworldly power and magnetism. Didn’t he already appear in “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” back in Canada? Wasn’t this a teleplay written by famed Golden Age of Television writer and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling? What is happening? Why are we talking about this again?!?
Relax, gentle reader. Everything will be explained.
“Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” was originally produced for another anthology series, Lux Video Theatre, in 1952. Then in early 1955, Serling’s teleplay Patterns was aired to great critical acclaim. Rod Serling became a television sensation literally overnight and many of his earlier teleplays were hastily remounted or plucked from the discard bin and produced for the first time to cash in on his newfound popularity. In Canada, the anthology series Playbill grabbed up “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” and quickly staged it, casting young Bill Shatner as a character named Hannify. This was covered in one of my previous posts which is why this all seems so familiar to you, my dedicated and loyal friend.
In this “Golden Age” of television almost all shows were performed and broadcast live. Sometimes they would be performed “live to tape” which allowed the same production to be replayed for West Coast audiences, but often they were just performed live twice in a row. If the network wished to re-air a teleplay, they would have to re-stage the production entirely. This was not the age of the rerun or on-demand television entertainment, you impatient millennial! This “re-staging” appears to be what happened for “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb,” this time for the short-lived anthology program The Kaiser Aluminum Hour.
This hour-long anthology television show only lasted for one year, the 1956-1957 television season, and appeared every other Tuesday rotating with another program called Armstrong Circle Theatre. Despite this, the show (sponsored coincidentally enough by the Kaiser Aluminum company) had a number of current and future Hollywood stars appear on it including Paul Newman, Ralph Bellamy, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood and of course, William Shatner.
In the Canadian production Shatner played a character named Hannify. For this version of “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” Shatner played a different role, someone named Peterson. I have no idea if this was a bigger or smaller role than the one he played previously because I could find very little information on what the episode was about (and I’m not about to travel to Ithica College’s Serling Archives just to read the script.) There is a one sentence synopsis in Dave Thompson’s The Twilight Zone FAQ: it apparently “dealt with one man’s refusal to leave his house after the military decreed his hometown the ideal site for its atom bomb tests.” Sounds like vintage Serling. My guess is that Hannify was a bigger part because that character was played by veteran character actor Harry Townes for The Kaiser Aluminum Hour version.
Regardless of the size of the role, it’s obvious that Shatner was quickly finding work in his new hometown. And just one month later, he would get a meaty breakout part that would put him on the television map in the United States and lead to greater recognition and more steady work. The Shatner invasion had begun.
It’s time to detail all of the connections between The Kaiser Aluminum Hour’s “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” and other Shatner appearances!
Rod Serling is, in my honest opinion, completely deserving of his reputation of being of the greatest screenwriters of the 1950’s and 60’s, and possibly ever. His most famous creation, The Twilight Zone, still stands as one of the best and most influential television shows of all time. If I were forced to choose my favorite TV series, I think I may have to pick The Twilight Zone against some very stiff competition, due to the quality of its writing, its moral and philosophical messages (often timely even today) and simply for its variety of settings and genres. In short, I fucking love that show. And for some reason, it always makes me want to smoke a cigarette.
As mentioned above, Shatner had previously worked on a production of this same Serling script in January of 1955 for the Canadian anthology series Playbill. The Canadian production was only a half-hour in length compared to Kaiser’s one hour running time…I’m not sure if they cut stuff out for Canada or added stuff for the US, but I would bet on the former.
Two years later Shatner would co-star with noted method actor Rod Steiger for another Serling-penned teleplay, Playhouse 90’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” Directed by future celebrated movie director John Frankenheimer, this story also has a character named Hannify (or Hennify, I’ve seen it listed as both) but this was probably just Serling reusing some old names, knowingly or unknowingly.
And then of course, Shatner would appear on two episodes of Serling’s magnum opus, The Twilight Zone, first in 1960’s excellent “Nick of Time” and then in 1963’s masterpiece, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Neither of these episodes was written by Serling (both were instead penned by Richard Matheson) but he was likely around a bit at least for “Nick of Time” and appeared as the host for each episode as he always did.
Finally, Shatner would work with Serling again in 1974 for a radio series called The Zero Hour. Serling did write some of the episodes for this anthology series but, again, not for any of the ones Shatner appeared in. However, he was the voice of the host, with Shatner appearing in five episodes in one week: “Dr. Rivington, Presumably,” Wanted: A Willing Companion,” “Pigs Could Put You in the Pen,” “Sky Lab, Are You There?” and “A Favor You Can’t Refuse.”
Despite being a show that only lasted a year, Shatner must have done something right in this first appearance because he would return for two more episodes of The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, “Gwyneth” and “The Deadly Silence” both executive-produced by Worthington Minor. Minor also created the highly influential Studio One series which featured Shatner in the episodes “The Defender” (parts 1 and 2,) “The Deaf Heart” and “No Deadly Medicine” (parts 1 and 2.) Minor would also be the Executive Producer for the show Play of the Week, which would showcase Shatner in the 1960 science fiction episode “Night of the Auk.”
Bernard Kates would work with Shatner one more time, on the famed 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg.
Paul Mazursky would also appear with Bill only one more time, for a 1958 episode of Kraft Mystery Theatre, “The Man Who Didn’t Fly.”
This was the first time that the aforementioned character actor (and later Episcopalian priest) Harry Townes would work with Shatner, but certainly not the last. Both would appear in the 1958 movie The Brothers Karamazov with Yul Brynner, then later in that same year on a western episode of Climax!, “Time of the Hanging.” About 9 years later, Townes would co-star in an episode of Star Trek, “The Return of the Archons.” Finally, the two would appear one last time together (alongside George C. Scott) in the 1970 made-for-TV teleplay The Andersonville Trial.
Finally, future Oscar winner Cloris Leachman appeared in this episode apparently…although I can see no mention of the role she played. In 1960 she would once again work with Shatner on the western show Outlaws for a two-part episode entitled “Starfall.” 50 years after that she would be seen with Shatner on the behind-the-scenes program celebrating the Canadian Genie Awards called “Making a Scene.” Finally, in 2015 they both were in the movie Baby Baby Baby.
If you haven’t already you should buy and watch repeatedly every episode of The Twilight Zone.
You can Google The Kaiser Aluminum Hour and get more info on that yourself (and there isn’t a ton out there.) Interestingly, I did find that the main reason the show only lasted a year was because it went up against The $64,000 Question, a game show that was so popular President Eisenhower asked not to be disturbed while it was on. In addition, the nation’s crime rate, movie attendance and restaurant patronage all dropped during the game show. Not even Shatner could compete with that!