Before they were heroes
William Shatner and Adam West reflect on their TV pilot about Alexander the Great.
Stardate 1964: William Shatner and Adam West head to a toga party.
Capt. Kirk and Bruce Wayne together — and in togas?
Yes, before they took on their iconic roles on “Star Trek” and “Batman,” actors William Shatner and Adam West worked together on a buddy project called “Alexander the Great.”
“It was so long ago,” Shatner said of the fizzled project, which started life as a1964 television pilot. “It was great fun to make. It was a pilot that was monumental for ABC just before I went and did ‘Star Trek.’ And I was deeply, deeply, horrendously disappointed when this series didn’t sell and then the following year or so I started work on ‘Star Trek.’ ”
The pilot depicted the Battle of Issus with a thenunknown Shatner as Alexander leading his Macedonian army in triumph and a less-than-famous West as his compatriot, Cleander, who enjoyed a good party as much as a good fight.
“Bill was a very good Alexander and as the general Cleander, I was the winewomen-and-song, Errol Flynn kind of guy,” West said. “However, just between us, it turned out to be one of the worst scripts I have ever read and it was one of the worst things I’ve ever done. We had wonderful people involved like John Cassavetes and Joseph Cotten and Simon Oakland in the cast.”
Shatner said he had high hopes that the show would find an audience for its spirit of adventure — it was made just eight years after Richard Burton’s big-screen turn in writer-director-producer Robert Rossen’s “Alexander the Great” — but it was destined to occupy a far different place in pop culture.
“Every piece of entertainment is made with the idea that it will be terrific but then it hits the public and then that’s when you find out if it’s really good or not,” said Shatner, whose current pursuits include the just-premiered documentary “The Captains,” an upcoming album called “Seeking Major Tom” and an October book titled “The Shatner Rules.”
“Alexander the Great” did make a comeback of sorts — it was aired as a television movie in 1968 to capitalize on the surge in fame by both Shatner and West, who had become a sensation as the star of the campy “Batman” series that aired from January 1966 to March 1968. The program also was released on DVD in 2006 by Bayside Entertainment (and there are clips on YouTube).
West, 82, who just staged a Gotham City reunion at San Diego’s Comic-Con International last month with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar, has new generations of fans with his work on “The Family Guy,” so he doesn’t look back toward Macedonia with much regret. He said it’s still fun to think about what could have been, especially with the format the producers had in mind for the aborted series.
“Bill and I were supposed to alternate every week with the lead part,” West said. “We did the pilot and Bill was the lead as Alexander and I was the kind of sidekick guy, and I was going to have the next episode and it was supposed to go like that from there. Bill had a lot more in that first episode than I did, of course.”
The 80-year-old Shatner has called the show “‘Combat!’ in drag,” referring to the World War II series that was made by the same producer, Selig J. Seligman, and noted that West was “a neat guy to work with,” but he wasn’t especially interested in speaking more extensively about the long-gone endeavor.
West, however, offered a vivid snapshot of the forgotten toga days.
“Four o’clock in the morning out in the desert of St. George, Utah, where it was mighty cold, they were putting body makeup on us so we could wear our little thongs and ride around on Arabian studs and fight the Persians,” West said with melodramatic vibrato. “You had to see this thing. It was like ‘Land of the Lost.’ But Bill was remarkably effective. I think he’s always good. If you’re one of those people who have presence and poise and that aura, whatever you want to call it, things work and it entertains people. Like me, let me check — oh, look, I’m a national treasure.”
BEFORE “STAR TREK”: William Shatner, left, and Joseph Cotten in the TV pilot “Alexander the Great.”