Every World is A Stage
by Jim Slotek
Jedi Master: “May the Fourth be with you!”
Padawan congregants: “And with all things Star Wars!”
(May 4, 2019 – Toronto, ON) So, here’s a Canadian connection. What’s the direct line between the Stratford Festival, which opens this month, and the unofficial May the Fourth celebration of all things Star Wars?
The answer: On July 13, 1953, Alec Guinness spoke the first words ever delivered onstage in the title role of the festival’s first play, Richard III. “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.”
Guinness, of course, went to his grave best-known (to his great chagrin) as the Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
I’m sorry to inform Star Wars celebrants that the Shakespeare festival’s connection to the Force pretty much ends there. In fact, Stratford alumni are much more closely associated with the hated competing franchise Star Trek.
But in the spirit of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, let’s celebrate Stratford’s various, mostly-Canadian contributions to onscreen space adventurism.
It’s not surprising that Star Trek would scoop up the most Stratford actors (and some British Royal Shakespeare Company alumni like Patrick Stewart and Star Trek: Generations’ Malcolm McDowell). The original series was so Bard obsessed that several episode’s titles were lines from a play (Dagger of the Mind, The Conscience of the King, By Any Other Name, All Our Yesterdays). As for the cast’s Canadian Shakespearean connections, it all starts with Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, whose trademark every-word-is-its-own-sentence delivery was born of his personal stamp on the Bard’s words. The English theatre director Sir Tyrone Guthrie pronounced the then 23-year-old, “Stratford’s most promising actor.”
Where would Star Trek be without its Klingons? On March 23, 1967, the first episode to introduce Klingons, Errand of Mercy, guest-starred Stratford’s John Colicos as the ruthless Commander Kor.
Of course, the most famous Stratford actor to play a Klingon (or simply the most famous Stratford actor) was Christopher Plummer, who played Chang in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. The title itself being a Shakespeare reference, Chang and other Klingons also frequently quoted Shakespeare in this movie, with a funny throwaway line from Chancellor Gorkon (the Royal Shakespeare Company’s David Warner) that, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
I don’t know what it is about Stratford and Klingons, but Canadian Shakespeareans Barbara March and Gwynyth Walsh played the deceitful and scheming Klingon Duras sisters Lursa and B’Etor in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and in the movie Star Trek: Generations.
Walsh also played Chief Examiner Nimira in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the same series in which another Stratford alumnus, Len Cariou played Captain Janeway’s father, Adm. Edward Janeway.
In Descent, a memorable 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stratford’s late alumnus John Neville played Sir Isaac Newton in a poker game with Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Albert Einstein (Jim Norton) and Stephen Hawking (playing himself).
Beyond Star Wars and Star Trek, probably the most famous Stratford veteran to become pop-culturally impactful was Lorne Greene, the patriarch Ben Cartwright on Bonanza for 14 seasons. But that powerful father image would be blasted into space in the original Battlestar Galactica, where he played Commander Adama, the protector of what’s left of the human race, travelling through space seeking a new home after near annihilation by the cyborg Cylons.
While the later reboot of Battlestar Galactica (with Edward James Olmos as Adama) was critically acclaimed, the ‘70s version is remembered as cheese. Greene himself told the Washington Post, “the first four or five episodes were very strong, then three or four were not very good — we didn’t like them, either.
“Originally, it was going to be a three-part mini-series, with one three-hour show and two lasting two hours each. Then it became a series of one-hour shows, and I wasn’t sure I liked it — but when you have given your word you stick by it.”
(Left-field Simpsons reference note: The Comic Book Guy, playing a super-villain in one of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, prefaces his on-one-knee death scene, saying, “Must end life in classic Lorne Greene pose from Battlestar Galactica. Best. Death. Ever!” Great homage, but Adama never died in the original series.)
Finally, there’s the late Douglas Rain, who went to his death still best known (to his great chagrin) as the voice of the homicidal HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (and later in Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Rain almost never gave interviews about either movie, and turned down sci-fi conventions and a lucrative offer from Apple to voice HAL again for a Super Bowl ad. His attitude, according to 2001 co-star Keir Dullea, was that he’d spent 50 years doing Shakespeare, and people only ever wanted to talk to him about a two-day voice job.
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the press and public.
Jim Slotek is a longtime Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter who has interviewed thousands of celebrities. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special. His writing also appears in Cineplex, Movie Entertainment magazines and in the blog Original-Cin.