The forgotten role of William Shatner before “Star Trek” proved the need for a utopian vision of the future by Gene Roddenberry. William Shatner had a varied stage and screen career until he landed the role of Captain Kirk, replacing Pike Jeffrey Hunter in the second successful Star Trek pilot. While it’s the characters of James T. Kirk and T.J. Hooker who guarantee Shatner’s legacy as an actor, there’s a lesser-known role that deserves to be seen more widely by audiences.
Primarily a theater and television actor, William Shatner starred in several films before he got the role of Captain Kirk in Star Trek. His first film role was the role of Alexey in the 1958 film “The Brothers Karamazov”, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel and Yul Briner’s traveling companion from “The World of the Wild West”. Four years later, Shatner got his first starring role in the 1962 drama about social problems, “The Intruder,” directed by legendary director Roger Corman. It’s an incredibly crude and powerful film, and its anti-racist message largely echoes Gene Roddenberry’s vision of “Star Trek.”
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In the film “The Intruder”, based on the novel by Charles Beaumont, William Shatner plays Adam Kramer, a charming stranger who arrives in the city of Caxton on a mission. The city’s high school is on the verge of desegregation, which will finally allow black children to receive the same education as white children, allowing them to interact in society beyond racial differences. The hostility towards Caxton’s black community in the film reflects the racism that was ubiquitous in many American cities in the 1960s. Later that decade, Martin Luther King called Uhura from Star Trek (Nichelle Nichols) a character who could change perceptions and inspire young black girls. “Malefactor” is a film about how charming scammers benefit from social tension for their own purposes, and the charismatic Shatner is ideally suited for the role of an insidious and ingratiating racist who inflames tensions in Caxton. His later involvement with Star Trek also highlights how right MLK was about how important the show was to changing attitudes towards race. In particular, the contrast between the two roles and their political context highlights how important the subtle social commentary of “Star Trek” was when it first appeared on screens.
William Shatner was ridiculed in films such as Family Guy for his peculiar style of acting in his later career, but he is completely devoted to his role in The Intruder. In Star Trek, Shatner played Kirk with a certain amount of fraudulent charm. Kirk was a womanizer, he also violated the Main Directive of Star Trek and took risks, but his violation of the rules was always aimed at doing the right thing. Adam Kramer in “The Malefactor” is also a swindler-a womanizer who does not respect the rules. Except that he’s not interested in doing the right thing. Where Kirk and the Enterprise explore the universe in search of discovery and understanding, Kramer is obsessed with upholding outdated racist and repressive standards of American society. Nevertheless, although these two characters are diametrically opposed in many ways, both roles give an idea of progressive thinking, albeit in completely different ways.
To carry out his plan, the Attacker’s Kramer organizes the burning of crosses and delivers inflammatory racist speeches, inflaming tensions in the city until it spills over into violence. A church is blown up, and the film culminates in an attempted lynching. The events of Corman’s film are painfully close to real events, such as the horrific murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the bombing of a church in Atlanta in 1958, the same year that Beaumont’s original novel was published. “The Uninvited Guest” is more of a vicious polemic than the political allegories of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.” Corman later reflected on how he moved to a more allegorical approach to social and political messages in his more well-known genre films. The more explicit message of the Attacker proves how necessary the anti-racist message of the film was. Four years later, “Star Trek” will address similar topics in a sci-fi context, having a positive impact on viewers. That’s what the show continues to do today. In many ways, this important role was anticipated by Shatner’s earlier performance in the almost forgotten Corman project.