“And Introducing William Shatner”
For many years, while the idea for and structure of this blog percolated in my head, I assumed that this would be the very first post that I would ever write and those words above would be the very first to appear. That was because “All Summer Long” was the oldest extant William Shatner appearance in my library for a long time. But two things came along to change that plan. The first was that I found two other earlier Shatner appearances to review (The Butler’s Night Off and “Billy Budd.”) The other was that I decided to post not only on viewable appearances but on all other Shatner work that I could reasonably verify because I’m OCD and/or fucking obsessed. And so you loyal reader(s) have been subjected to over 3 dozen (!) posts up to now about the great Shatner’s many appearances in movies, TV shows and in the theater.
But “Introducing William Shatner” is still a very apt description of the importance and impact “All Summer Long” was to have on Bill and his career. Before this program Shatner was almost a complete unknown in the United States, having only moved to New York City a month or so prior and before that doing all of his work in Canada which then, as now, had a much smaller viewership than almost anything shown in the USA. As Basil Rathbone once told Shatner on the set of “Billy Budd,” “…in the United States there’s thirty to fifty million people watching a television program, but in Canada it’s only five to ten million.” With this one episode of Goodyear Television Playhouse, William Shatner was about to perform for an audience 3 to 6 times larger and potentially more influential than ever before…
“All Summer Long” began life as a play on Broadway in 1954, running from September 23rd to November 13th of that year. The play, written by Robert Anderson and based on a novel by Donald Wetzel, centers around one summer in the lives of a dysfunctional rural Midwestern family living on the banks of a threatening river. This television production of the play was directed by Daniel Petrie, an already prominent television director who would soon go on to have success in films, most notably with 1961’s Raisin in the Sun. Indeed, it was Petrie who suggested that Shatner be cast in “All Summer Long” after having seen him earlier that year on Broadway in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great.
As Shatner explained in a 1999 filmed interview for the Archive of American Television:
I played a part (in Tamburlaine the Great)…and his name was Usumcasane. And I remember the name and I remember very little about anything anywhere, but Usumcasane was the name in Marlowe’s play. And Daniel Petrie…cast me…and ever since then, every time I saw Daniel, including today, he says “Usumcasane!” This funny bond we have that goes back all these years.
If you recall my previous post on Tamburlaine the Great, that production (though very short-lived) garnered Shatner a fair bit of attention. That trip to New York is where he got his green card, his first agent and exposure to the highly influential theater and television community of New York City. Exposure which really started to pay off with this live episode of Goodyear Television Playhouse, yet another live anthology program that ran during the 1950’s.
Shatner plays Don, the oldest child of the Munson family, a family with so many issues that they take every bit of fun out of the word dysfunctional. Don is immediately introduced prior to the credits hobbling forward on a crutch and explaining directly to the camera that the story we’re about to see “is about Willie, my kid brother Willie.” He quickly lays out that the play is really about one very important summer in the lives of his family, of Willie especially, and that the theme of the story is going to be one of “the end of innocence.”
Just in case you were sleeping during this rather explicit explanation of the summer’s importance on Willie, Don’s mother (Katherine Squire) will hammer that point home repeatedly for the first 20 minutes or so of the production, constantly telling her husband (Raymond Massey, who often looks like his head is way too small for his body) that this summer is really important to Willie at this point in his 10-year old life. She says this so often to her husband because good old Dad quickly reveals that he is pretty ambivalent towards Willie. You see, he never wanted another child and makes no bones about it, saying disparaging things around Willie so often that you wonder if Willie is going to grow up to be one of the most damaged human beings on the planet.
Rounding out this wonderful family is Ruthie (Sandra Church) and her new husband Harry (Michael Strong.) Harry’s a good-natured lug who divides his time between building an electrified fence for Dad (it’s purpose to kill the chickens that are encroaching on his property from the poor family next door and generally making Dad even angrier than usual) and trying to fuck Ruthie every chance he gets. Ruthie seems to be a happy young thing at first, but she almost immediately betrays herself as being a complete and utter egotist, only concerned with staying beautiful and quickly getting angry at anything considered gross or ugly in the world around her, especially if it relates to childbirth (more on this later.) For example, Willie is friends with one of the little girls next door but Ruthie tells him to stay away from her because she and her family are poor, dirty and ugly. Yep, Ruthie is a real peach.
Willie Munson, for his part, is an introverted little kid who apparently works for the Army Corp of Engineers since he seems to know everything there is to know about the river that runs next to the family’s house. He knows that it is cutting underneath the foundation (down to the exact location on the property where the water is), and that if the family doesn’t do something about it soon it could eventually collapse the house completely. But Dad doesn’t want to hear about it. He knows the river is an issue but refuses to pay for a retaining wall (even though they have the money) because he believes the state should pay to fix the problem. When Shatner asks him if he’s reached out to the state, Dad mumbles that he hasn’t yet but he will write to his assemblyman at some point.
Willie and Don are fairly close siblings though, and Shatner’s character is clearly the most invested in trying to be a kind and calm guiding presence in Willie’s life, an increased presence to due Don’s leg injury which he apparently suffered in a car accident (more on this later, too.) Before the leg injury, Don was at college on a basketball scholarship, to my knowledge the first and only time 5′ 10″ (MAYBE) William Shatner would ever play a basketball player, collegiate or otherwise. I guess it was the 195o’s but…my god. Anyway, with the crippling leg issue Don is back at home hoping somehow to get back to college…perhaps by reading to a blind boy. Yep…the 1950’s. Harry offers to get Don a job in his machine shop so that Don can make some money but Shatner refuses, deciding instead to mope around the house and hope that he can someday get back to college.
So the dry summer continues. Willie splits his time between gathering supplies in case he decides to run away from home (I fully support this course of action) and building a makeshift retaining wall out of loose stones with big brother Don. At one point, Willie expresses that he wants to grow up to be a doctor so that he can help Shatner walk again, which is kind of an odd thing to say because Don can walk…he just needs to use a crutch. Harry and Ruthie continue to fuck, Mom continues to worry about Willie, and Dad just carries on ignoring the river issue, complaining about his sons (Don is a “burden” because of his leg, Willie is unwanted, rinse and repeat) and bitching about those fucking chickens to anyone who will listen. Over dinner one evening, Shatner speaks my favorite line in the entire production: “Why all this ridiculous effort and cunning given to the slaughter of a bunch of stupid chickens?” Oh, Don…this is the only area of agreement I have with your Dad. Chickens are very clearly Satan’s tiny minions. Ignore them at your own peril!
And then Ruthie gets pregnant. It’s a slightly confusing scene as she hysterically screams at her husband, the pregnancy not really explicitly said (I assume because it was the 1950’s and television?) but the implication is pretty clear. Ruthie, obsessed as she is with physical beauty and hateful of anything that might ruin said beauty and be considered ugly, is distraught at the idea of a) being pregnant and b) giving birth. Harry tries to calm her down but it’s pretty evident that she is not happy. And a few scenes later, while Don and Willie talk in the shed, Ruthie throws herself belly first onto Harry’s electrified chicken wire.
Now, although I’ve never been pregnant myself I do have three children and I can confirm that attempting a homemade abortion using electrified chicken wire is a very understandable and valid response to finding out that you may have to extrude a 7+ lb. screaming and writhing object out through your hoo-ha. I don’t think I can count the number of times my wife attempted this same thing, actually. At one point, near the birth of our third child, it got so bad that I had to remove ALL of the electrified chicken wire from our property! Can you believe that?!? Ridiculous.
Just like my wife’s attempts though, Ruthie’s chicken wire belly fire is not successful. In fact, the entire incident is quickly suppressed by her lovely family and no one really speaks of it again. But Ruthie is obviously still distressed as evidenced by her reaction to finding out that Willie is under the deck watching the family dog give birth to puppies in a later scene.
As you can see in the clip above, Ruth goes absolutely apeshit at the thought of her brother watching this disgusting display of nature and attempts to strangle poor Willie (and yes, “strangling poor Willie” is my new metaphor for masturbation.) Luckily Shatner is there to intervene, and Willie is saved from the cruel hands of his gonzo older sister. Not willing to risk death again though, Willie takes off.
Dad finds Willie’s stash of runaway supplies in the shed along with a note asking whoever might find his dead body to tell “my brother Don and perhaps you’d better tell my mother.” Mom sobs, Dad yells at Shatner some more about how much of a bad influence he is on Willie and about how he is a terrible burden to the family, and then says that Willie will come back so that he can be like Don, waited on hand and foot and given everything he needs without having to work for it. Ohhhhh, snap! Dysfunctional family BURN!!! Extra points for it because at one point in the show we learn that the car accident that crippled poor Don was at least partly due to miserly Dad refusing to fix the car when it needed new brakes or something. I mean, that’s some next-level dysfunction when your cheap ways end up crippling your son and making him leave college, and then you blame HIM for needing help. Mr. Munson must be one of those Republicans I’ve heard so much about.
But return that night Willie does, and Ruth apologizes to him and everyone bottles everything up again and the summer continues. But not for long as the rain finally comes…and the river rises quickly and washes away Don and Willie’s makeshift retaining wall. As the storm rages outside, and Don attempts to console Willie, Shatner realizes that he should have gotten a job after all that summer…that he should have done more to contribute to the family and possibly help pay for a retaining wall. He resolves to getting a job the very next day, to save money for a real wall and to gradually build up enough money to send Willie to college to be a doctor. If Dad isn’t going to help any of his kids pay for college, by golly Don will. But suddenly there is a loud cracking noise in the house and the lights flicker. It’s obvious to all now that the foundation has been compromised and that the family must evacuate immediately.
Ruthie runs upstairs to get her bag, Dad and Harry start frantically packing the car and Willie runs outside to get the dog and the puppies. Don throws his coat on and runs after Willie, soon discovering that Willie has fallen into the raging river and is hanging on to a tree branch for dear life. Don frantically screams for his dad, for Harry, for his mother, for someone to come help him save Willie (there is a serious drinking game to be had with this show, where you drink every time anyone screams anyone else’s name. Trust me, you will be tipsy faster than you can scream “WILLIE!”)
On her way down the stairs, Ruth trips and falls hard. Harry runs back into the house to find Mom consoling Ruthie while she cries and moans about how “I want my baby, Harry. I want my baby!” Meanwhile, Dad rushes out to the river and jumps in to save Willie. He pulls Willie from the rushing water and manages to crawl out himself, just as an off-screen crash seems to indicate that the house has come tumbling down. As the three Munson men lay exhausted on the grass by the river, Willie once again expresses regret that he spent his summer building a wall that didn’t work. But Shatner assures him that “Willie, It was the most important thing you ever did in your life!” He hugs Willie, and then even Dad embraces him…the family coming together in the face of terrible tragedy and hardship.
I mean, I guess they did? In those last couple of minutes the family seems to have come together and learned…stuff…but man it’s hard to just dismiss the first 48 minutes of the program where there was almost nothing but hysterics, detachment, meanness, denial, delusion and complete and utter dysfunction. Plus they lost the house…what happens next? A Shatner voice over at the end seems to indicate that the family did indeed learn and grow because of that summer, but I’m not sure this production really does a great job of selling that growth. Frankly, it’s all a bit of an overwrought mess. Some of that may have been due to cutting the play down from it’s Broadway length to a 50 minute television length, some of it may have been due to Sandra Church’s dialed up to 11 performance as Ruthie, and a whole lot of it must be due to the script itself.
Shatner, however, acquits himself admirably in this his first major US television appearance. It’s live TV of course, which Shatner was very familiar with, and thus there are some stumbles here and there from the cast but nothing major. This is really the first time we get to see the true acting style that would come to define Shatner throughout his career: we see the quiet intensity, the calm and soothing presence, the wry smile and chuckle, the charming wit, some hysterical over-the-top yelling and my favorite, the really bad laugh.
To get a sense of just how hammy and fake Shatner’s full on acting laugh is, just check out the clip below. In it, a maniacal Raymond Massey gathers the family together to watch the encroaching neighbor chickens get electrocuted by the infamous chicken wire only to find that it doesn’t work (my hope is that Harry turned it off after his wife tried to use it to abort their unborn child.) The family laughs at the fact that the chickens escape death (even Ruthie who you would think would be a lot more disturbed about this whole chicken wire thing since she attempted an abortion with it just two scenes prior), if only temporarily as an irate Dad grabs his gun and shoots the chickens…further disturbing poor Willie who really really seems to love those terrible animals. Fool! I warned you about how they are Satan’s tiny minions! Death is too good for those evil and sinister creatures!
Despite that incredibly fake laugh this is a true starring role for Shatner, probably his very first, and he gets the majority of both scenes and lines. For comparison, he played the title character in the General Motors Theatre production of “Billy Budd,” but the real star of that program was Basil Rathbone. The doors were now opening for Shatner, with all of the hard work he had put in slowly but surely gathering steam and exposure. With “All Summer Long” Shatner was indeed introduced properly to the US audience, beginning what would become a 60+ year career in this country.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go strangle poor Willie and then take a nap.
Shat Level: 4 = Shat-tastic! (Shatner’s performance really merits only a 3 = Solid Shat, but I bumped it up a notch due to the fact that this was really his first major work in New York City.)
It’s time to detail all of the connections between Goodyear Television Playhouse’s “All Summer Long” and other Shatner appearances!
Fellow Canadian Raymond Massey would go on to star as Dr. Leonard Gillispie on the hit 60’s show, Dr. Kildare. Famously, Shatner was actually offered the title role of that series. He turned it down (not wanting to get trapped in series television) and the role went instead to Richard Chamberlain, catapulting him to fame. Shatner would however appear on the series six times with Massey, first in 1961’s “Admitting Service”, then again in 1966 for five consecutive episodes: “The Encroachment,” “A Patient Lost,” “What Happened to All the Sunshine and Roses,” “The Taste of Crow” and “Out of a Concrete Tower.” Interestingly (to no one but me) I once saw Shatner live at Massey Hall in Toronto, a building named after Raymond Massey’s grandfather who helped finance its construction in the late 1800’s.
Michael Strong, who played Harry in this production, would go on to appear again with Shatner in just a few short weeks in the Omnibus TV production of Moliere’s “School for Wives.” 10 years later Strong would again be seen with Shatner, this time as Dr. Korby on the early Star Trek episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Finally, he and Shatner would both appear in the two part TV miniseries Vanished in 1971.
Director Daniel Petrie would direct Shatner one more time in 1965 for an episode of The Shat’s legal drama For the People, “Guilt Shall Not Escape Nor Innocence Suffer.”
This episode of Goodyear Television Playhouse is not commercially available on DVD, and I didn’t see it streaming anywhere obvious on the web as of this writing. However, a quick Google search for a DVD copy of it did turn up a few places you can find it if you would like to view it yourself!
If you are looking for another entertaining review of this program, check out the blog Shatner’s Toupee. Of course, the focus is once again on his hair but there are more pictures and videos to view if you are so inclined.