Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Slim Jim Problem

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk
Like any television production, the creative team behind Star Trek found themselves facing a variety of unanticipated challenges during the course of the series. The topic of this week's post is one of those problems: William Shatner's fluctuating weight.

This might seem like a trivial matter, but for an action-adventure series like Star Trek, an overweight leading man had the potential to quickly become a major problem. After all, Shatner had to be fit enough for Captain Kirk's frequent fisticuffs to be credible -- or at least credible for television of the period. The series couldn't afford to abandon these elements (since NBC demanded them), and a lack of believability had the potential to undermine the entire program.

The book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story brings up this issue in respect to the show's third season, when executive producer Gene Roddenberry handed over most of the creative reins to new producer Fred Freiberger. It quotes from a May 8, 1968 memo from Bob Justman to Gene Roddenberry titled 'Relationships,' which was sent a few weeks prior to the commencement of principal photography for the third season:
I think it is extremely important that you find a way to get Bill Shatner together with Fred Freiberger, you and me at least a week prior to production. I think that Bill should understand how you intend for us to work this coming season. He should understand that you are still 'The Great Bird Of The Galaxy' and that Freddie and I intend to follow through in all areas for you. 
Bill is as rapacious an animal as any other leading man in a series and I think it would help Freddie enormously in his relationships with Bill if you let Bill understand how much confidence you have in Fred and how much respect that you, Gene Roddenberry, have for Freddie’s creative talents and executive abilities. 
It also might be a good way to get a fairly close look at Bill and see what sort of physical shape he is in at the present time. Come to think of it, perhaps it would be a good idea to have this get together before the end of this week, so that if Bill is on the pudgy side, it can be suggested that he start slimming down right away.
The book doesn't indicate if the proposed meeting ever took place, but it does quote from a memo which indicates that Shatner had put on weight during the hiatus, and Roddenberry decided to pursue the issue, in a memo sent to Ed Milkis a few weeks later, on May 21, 1968. Titled 'Bill Shatner's Weight' and inscribed as 'CONFIDENTIAL,' Roddenberry wrote:
Please coordinate this with Fred and Bob, but I think we must bring Shatner’s weight problem and the result of it on film to Shatner’s attention. You will remember we once talked about finding some unflattering film clips where belly, face, etc., made the angle unusable or almost unusable. We discussed having an inexpensive print made of three or four such angles, sending it to him from the producer or myself with a friendly note, even at the risk of shaking him up a bit.
Many who saw the Emmy Awards commented that he appeared very heavy. Even though he has taken off a little poundage since the end of last season, if he follows his usual pattern of putting it on again we are likely to have him heavier than ever before long.
If Bob and Fred like the idea of proceeding in this direction, we’d better get it done fast 
--Herb Solow and Bob Justman, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.395
According to the book, Roddenberry's scheme was ultimately unnecessary. The following day, on May 22, 1968, Shatner was invited to the rushes from the first day of photography on 'Spectre of the Gun.' 'He saw himself on screen and that was all he needed,' wrote Justman. 'Bill immediately went on a crash diet.' 

Justman and Roddenberry were certainly familiar with Shatner's weight struggle.  A year earlier, during the hiatus between seasons one and two, the issue had also concerned the production staff, leading Roddenberry to contact both Shatner and Shatner's agent, Joel Briskin. Roddenberry's letter to Shatner, after praising his acting in the latter half of the first season, wrote, in part:
In fact, you were so good that the audience may miss in this Episode the fact that you have been in these last Episodes of the year showing your weight a little too much. The face seems to have tightened up and looks extremely good in Medium Close and Close Shots, but we find ourselves having to stay away from Longer Shots wherever possible, as the simple plain lines of our basic costume render most unflattering any extra poundage around the waste [sic].
In contrast, Roddenberry's letter to Briskin, sent on March 23, 1967, didn't waste any time buttering up its recipient. It said, in full:
Attached a copy of a letter recently sent to Bill. The important part of it concerns his weight. I didn't hit him hard about it, as I have learned from long experience with Bill that when he is working it is not fair to make him self-conscious about this fact. We are going to have to lean on him, however, from several directions and get him to do something about it because he has in many films in the last half of the season looked actually fat and at least ten years older than he looks when he is trim and slim.
I know you agree with me that this is most important, particularly when a fine actor like Bill is playing an action-adventure-hero role. He is very, very good and getting better every week as Captain Kirk. But we're all going to lose something if he doesn't slim down. 
Author's note: while putting the finishing touches on this post, I discovered a similar article drawing on the same archival resources at Splice Today. The author of that article, C.T May, discovered one document at UCLA that I didn't, a May 25, 1966 memo from Herb Solow to Roddenberry which says:
As you know, Morris [Chapnick, Herb Solow's assistant at the time] has been concentrating on setting up some sort of gymnasium for Bill Shatner to use. The thought he had was to set up the equipment in one part of the double dressing room that we were using as a men’s lounge.
This memo was sent during the second day of principal photography on 'The Corbomite Maneuver,' the first episode to be shot following the second pilot. This makes it clear that the production felt that keeping Shatner fit was an important concern from the very beginning.

Image courtesy of Trek Core.

Sources:

The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)

Inside Star Trek : The Real Story (Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, 1996)

Battle over the Bulge (C.T. May, June 28, 2011)

4 comments:

  1. Considering that Shatner was filming 12 hours a day, then had to learn his lines for the next day, one wonders exactly when they expected the poor guy to work out. He was already putting out an incredible amount of energy on the set; I can't imagine being asked to run or lift weights after the kind of days he put in.

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  2. Fascinating. As an overweight person myself, I can certainly relate to his struggle.

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  3. Yes, the whole idea that Shatner was ever overweight during the series is simply absurd. Even at his so called heaviest, he never appeared unfit or rotund. Agreed, working 12 hour days, 6 days a week - when on earth was he supposed to work out. And I don't know if he was ever considered, but Shatner would have been brilliant in The Sting as either Johnny Hooker or Henry Gandoff. I know Newman and Redford fans will balk at this idea, but I truly think that Shatner would have been better than either of them in those roles. Truly, he is one of the most underrated actors of a generation.

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