In 1961, William Shatner was a common sight on television but hardly a star. The stage-trained actor had largely appeared in dramatic anthology series such as The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Studio One in Hollywood, Kraft Theatre and Playhouse 90 — shows that could essentially be seen as theater shot on camera.
So, to give himself a leg up, the Canadian wrote his own screen story. He could give himself the lead role. Shatner whipped up a yarn for the show Checkmate, a stylish detective series starring Sebastian Cabot, who is now best known as the dapper "gentleman's gentleman" from Family Affair.
Shatner's titled his tale "The Button Down Break." The plot centered around a cocky, creepy killer named Luther Gage, who vows revenge on Cabot's character after being sent to prison. It was a meaty role for a young actor. Shatner intended for himself. Unfortunately, Hollywood does not always work that way.
"You'll get a kick out of this," Shatner told newspaper columnist Hal Humphrey in July 1961. "I just sold a script to the CBS Checkmate series and naturally I figured I would play the lead guest part. Then comes word from the sponsor that they want a bigger name."
Drat! This is where it gets interesting.
The "bigger name" is now a legend, though, at the time, the pick made Shatner scratch his head.
"They're trying to get Bob Newhart, the comic," Shatner confessed in disbelief. "But I understand he's never done any acting."
That was true! Newhart had never done acting, certainly not a drama about a killer. But Newhart was a hot name at the time. A few month early, the funnyman had won the Grammy Award for Best Album for his stand-up album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. He also took home the trophy for Best New Artist at that 3rd Annual Grammy Awards.
The guy behind The Button-Down Mind must have seemed like an obvious choice for "The Button Down Break." At least, it was probably something as simple and stupid as that.
But here's the thing — Newhart lost the role, too!
Who did play the killer? Well, if you paid attention to the photo up top, you know the answer. It was Tony Randall!
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