On Sunday, January 6th 1957, the Tyrone Guthrie directed motion picture version of Oedipus Rex (starring Douglas Campbell and featuring William Shatner) debuted in Canada (one night before it would make it’s NYC debut.) On that very same night, the ABC anthology television show Omnibus aired a live version of the play, evidently billed as “Oedipus, the King” and also evidently starring Christopher Plummer as the titular character. The play also still (naturally) featured William Shatner.
As with many productions during this “hazy” period of Shatnerica, I was a bit confused by this for quite a long time.
For a number of years, until very recently actually, I was wholly convinced that the two productions were one and the same and that the Christopher Plummer information was a mix-up with his turn as Oedipus in the 1968 movie Oedipus the King. Because of this, when I last visited the UCLA Film and Television Archive I completely overlooked the opportunity to view this episode of Omnibus in order to a) confirm that it was a valid Shatner appearance and b) review it for this website. Believe me, I’m kicking myself right now as I do now believe the productions were separate and that this is a valid production that I should not have discounted so quickly. The final piece of proof came from a contemporary New York Times review of the film version, which referenced the TV version that had played just one night prior to the USA debut of the film.
But do not fear! I have vowed to return to the warm embrace of Southern California in the not-too-distant future in order to watch Omnibus’s “Oedipus, the King” (if available) and make a full review of the program.
In the meantime, and from the limited information available to me on IMDB.com, I will simply say this: for the first time in the four different productions of Oedipus Rex that Shatner participated in, this was the only one where he did not play a member of the chorus (or possibly only a member of the chorus.) Instead, he appears to have a small role as the Palace Messenger…so there’s actually a chance that he can be recognized! In fact, it is wholly possible that the production did not use the stylized masks from the previous productions. I hope to find out someday.
One final note: several Canadians and members of the Stratford company appear in this production (which makes sense for a number of reasons.) After this show however, Shatner would not appear with any of them (outside of Plummer) ever again. In essence, this show marks the line between the actors he had been working with in Canada and the new much-larger pool of professional actors he would not be working with in NYC.
It’s time to detail all of the connections between Ominbus’s “Oedipus, the King” and other Shatner appearances!
Shatner was himself no stranger to Oedipus Rex, having appeared in both the inaugural 1954 production and the subsequent 1955 one at Stratford. And on the same night this show aired in the USA, the film version was debuting in Canada. Thankfully, this does appear to be the last time he would show up in a production of Oedipus Rex.
Christopher Plummer had just a few months prior been the lead in the Stratford production of Henry V. When he got ill one night, his understudy (one William F. Shatner) filled in admirably and garnered a number of accolades that eventually helped him gain the necessary confidence to fulfill his ambition and move to NYC in pursuit of his Broadway dreams.
Plummer and Shatner are an interesting pair to study. 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 notable Canadian 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 play at 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 1956 season was complete (and around the same time he appeared in this TV show.) 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.
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.
Alistair Cooke was the host of Omnibus. As such, he appeared just a few months prior in the other Omnibus episode Shatner was in, “School for Wives.”
Donald Davis, who played the blind prophet Tiresias (and may have been the man to try and feed a dry Shatner his lines when he starred as Henry V), was also at Stratford for all of Shatner’s seasons and also appeared in the film version of Oedipus Rex, playing the same character.
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. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner in 1956, Moliere’s “School for Wives.” He also appeared in the film version of Oedipus Rex.
William Needles also appeared with Shatner in many Stratford productions. He had also appeared on an episode of General Motors Theatre, “Never Say No” and in the episode of Scope, “The Verdict Was Treason.”
Mary V. Ahern and Fred Rickey were the producers of Omnibus, and would have been so for the other episode Shatner was in, “School for Wives.”