William Shatner, who’s celebrating his 90th birthday, will always be remembered most for his performances as Captain James T. Kirk.
But Shatner has been acting since he was eight years old and has been performing in front of film and TV cameras for more than 50 years. Captain Kirk may be the ultimate character he has created, but he is hardly the only memorable one.
To celebrate the birthday and impressive career of William Shatner, let’s look at three of his great performances before Star Trek.
These are roles in which young Mr. Shatner proved his early command of his craft—his acting craft, not an interstellar one!
William Shatner as Alexey, The Brothers Karamazov (1958)
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel of family conflict and the struggle between doubt and faith amid Russian social turmoil, The Brothers Karamazov stars Yul Brynner as Dmitri, Richard Basehart as Ivan, and, as youngest brother Alexey, William Shatner in his first major movie role.
In its review of the film, Variety passed no judgment on Shatner’s performance, focusing instead on the bigger stars in their bigger roles. But in the first two minutes of the clip below, you can watch Shatner project a gentle serenity and sweetness Star Trek afforded him relatively few opportunities to display.
“William Shatner is saintly,” noted the New York Times. His turn as Alexey the monk proves him a subtler thespian than anyone who’s only familiar with him from Captain Kirk’s over-the-top moments would know.
William Shatner as Captain Harrison Byers, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
A fictionalized version of the 1947 U.S. military tribunal holding officials in the Nazi judicial system accountable for their role in the Third Reich, Judgment at Nuremberg won wide critical acclaim, including 11 Academy Award nominations and two wins.
It also boasted an impressive cast. Maximilian Schell, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland—one big name from Hollywood’s Golden Age after another.
In the thick of it all was William Shatner, playing an aide to Spencer Tracy’s Judge Dan Haywood.
Shatner’s role is small, but he holds his own opposite a silver screen legend. You can see and hear hints of how Shatner would later play another captain’s approachable professionalism.
William Shatner regarded the film as a marvelous opportunity to learn from so many great actors. “It was a monumental moment in my life,” he would later recall, “and still is.”
William Shatner as Don Carter, “Nick of Time,” The Twilight Zone
William Shatner starred in two iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-64).
His depiction of traumatized airline passenger Bob Wilson in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is impressive. But I’d argue Don Carter, a man on the cusp of letting superstition rule his life, is the more fully realized character of the two.
Shatner perfectly portrays someone who suddenly realizes he’s on the brink of ruin and pulls himself back in… well, in the nick of time… with help from his loving wife, played by Patricia Breslin (who also starred in a second Zone episode, “No Time Like the Past”).
Unusual among Twilight Zone stories, “Nick of Time” contains no supernatural elements, and doesn’t even really have one of the series’ trademark twist endings. But its mundane setting makes Shatner shine all the more.