Acting on the edge

High impact on a low budget

Published: Mar 22 2014, 01:01:am

Wednesday, October 3, 1973
BUT FOR A TIMELY CASE of laryngitis, William Shatner might today be remembered as the actor they lynched. "We knew we were walking a fine edge," the Montreal-bom television star said Tuesday in an interview. "We didn't know how fine an edge."
    Shatner was recalling an incident that occurred 12 years ago [1961] during the filming of The Intruder, a movie that is one of the lost low-budget classics of American cinema. Made six years before Sidney Poitier made his surprise appearance at Spencer Tracy's table (in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), The Intruder was an attack on Southern American racism actually filmed in a town seething with racial tensions.
    "We went down to the boot-heel of Missouri," he recalled. "That's where Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee all come together. It's called the tristate area. It was either in Charleston [Missouri] or the town right next to it, five or ten miles away, where at that time, no negroes were allowed in town after sunset. A black man took his life in his hands to even appear there."
    The film was based on a 1959 novel by Charles Beaumont, which was, in turn, based on the bizarre, real life story of John Kasper. "Some months after the supreme court in the United States made the ruling that separate-but-equal was no longer constitutional (Kasper) went down to the place in Tennessee where the first school was being integrated and began to arouse the public against it," Shatner explained.
    Beaumont turned his book into a screenplay for independent director Roger Corman. Shatner, a friend of the author's from the days when they worked together on the Twilight Zone TV series, was offered the part of Adam Cramer, The Intruder.
    "The hero of the piece was a young black student who, in the fiction, decided to be a part of the integration and to go to the white school," he said. "That actor was a local boy, Charles Barnes.
    "Corman chose him from the local high school. He was an A student and the best athlete in the school. He was a hero, despite the fact that he was black. He was chosen to be in the movie, to do in fiction what he was actually doing in fact. After the movie was made, he couldn't go home. He finished his schooling in Chicago."
    Unwittingly, the film project was disinterring a lot of old ghosts for the Charleston townsfolk. Gauging the hostility that was building up against them, the movie crew decided to leave the most highly charged scene in a highly charged scenario until last.
    It was the scene in which Cramer, the outside agitator, incites the locals to run amok in the black ghetto. The problem was that, by the time the scene was ready to be shot, "I really  had laryngitis."
    "I didn't want to use my voice. I didn't even know whether I had a voice. So the director said to the crowd, using his bullhorn: 'Mr.Shatner is going to make gestures, and when he says YEA!, you raise your hands and say YEA! too. When he says NO!, you say No, we won't! We won't'."
    "He orchestrated reactions to me, with me not having yet spoken. The crowd thought that that was sort of strange, but they co-operated," Shatner said.
    "It got to be about midnight, and the three or four hundred people that had collected there at 7 in the evening — there had been advertisements on the radio saying 'if you want to be in a movie, come to the courthouse steps.' They didn't tell them what kind of movie. Not even the script girl had a full version of the script — by midnight the crowd had dissipated to about a dozen.
    "It didn't matter any more, because now he turned the camera around and was shooting toward the steps and me talking, and that's when I began to make the speech. My voice was there, the speech was done in two or three takes, and the people never really found out what it was all about.
    "The following day, we found out that 20 years prior to that date, on a tree that we used to have people lean against — it was growing 10 yards from where I was standing — a black man had been lynched.
    "Had that crowd heard the speech that I was about to make, we really don't know what would have happened," he said.
    "Our lives were threatened every day we were there and, on the last night, it was very close. A woman was stabbed — she was a  black woman and, it was presumed, stabbed by a black man.
        "The militia was out, the fire department, the local police and the state police. They had our motel staked out. These were the conditions we worked under."
    An independent production with a controversial theme, The Intruder was quietly buried after a modest premiere release. Critically, though, it had been a hit.
    "I think it was Arthur Knight in the Saturday Review who called it 'one of the best American films ever made'," Shatner recalls. "There was some extravagant praise laid on it.
    "I don't recall how good it really is. I think probably looking at it now, one could say  'what a very interesting film'. It was full of energy and passion, interesting camera work, interesting actors.
    "It was made on location with mostly local people. It was certainly the Easy Rider [1969] of it's time."
    A veteran of  Stratford's Shakespearean festival and television drama, Shatner is best known for playing the part of James T. Kirk, the swashbuckling hero of the landmark science-fiction series Star Trek. Currently, his voice is reprising the role in a Saturday morning cartoon version of the live series.
    Though continuously active on the stage and as a guest star, Shatner has been in demand recently as a salesman. His straightforward manner and familiar, commanding voice are seen as complementary to the image many major advertisers are attempting to project. He is currently in Vancouver [October 1973] recording a series of commercials for a national retail food chain.
    Conscious of the need for personal integrity, Shatner considers himself a consumer advocate. "The performer does himself a detriment if he says 'here I am, I'm honestly selling this,' and then it isn't true.
    "In every case where I might do an ad for something, I've investigated it. I wouldn't try to sell you something that I thought was phony. I turn down a lot of work because of that fact."
    Having once faced a potential lynch mob, Shatner has no desire to face the wrath of a horde of angry housewives. "I'm confident that what I say will be the case," he says of his upcoming grocery store ads. "I think they will honour the promises that I'll be making on television."

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Going into this interview, I was aware that Shatner was tired of answering questions about Star Trek. Because I was personally curious about The Intruder, an obscure civil-rights drama that he'd made for exploitation film-maker Roger Corman, I asked him about that instead. Surprised, and perhaps grateful, he lit up and rewarded me with the fascinating story quoted above. (In 2007, The Intruder was released on a Buena Vista DVD.) Something that I was not aware of in 1973, was that Shatner had recently been through some of the worst times in his life, a series of setbacks he has subsequently referred to as "that period." In 1969, following a divorce and the cancellation of the original Star Trek series, his career stalled. He lost his home and, for a time, lived in a truck camper outside Los Angeles. By the time we spoke, things were much improved. He was acting regularly and had added the role of celebrity pitchman to his resume. In Ontario, he was spokesman for the Loblaws food store chain, and was in B.C. shooting commercials for Super-Valu. He's since done ads for Oldsmobile and, in 1997, Shatner began his long association with the discount travel website Priceline. The word "retirement" seems not to be in his vocabulary. On Monday (March 17), Variety reported that The Shatner Project, five 30-minute episodes chronicling William and Elizabeth Shatner's home renovation, is scheduled for October 2014 on the U.S. DIY cable network.

See also: William Shatner makes his feature film directorial debut with 1989's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.