A while back, based on a few clips and stills from 1957's courtroom drama Studio One: "The Defender" we acknowledged uncertainty about whether a 26-year-old Bill Shatner was wearing a toupee in this television drama. This made a full toupological analysis an inevitability - and that detailed analysis has now been completed. We have to say that at first this was a very difficult call to make. In most shots, it looked as if Bill Shatner was not yet wearing a toupee - but in others it looked as though his hair appeared a little too thick. Since the two-parter was filmed and broadcast live, we knew that only one of these two options was possible.
After a painstaking study by our entire team, we are ready to make a call: Bill Shatner is not wearing a toupee in either of the two episodes of Studio One: "The Defender". We'll get to our reasoning in a moment, but first a little about this drama.
Westinghouse Studio One (Westinghouse Electric Corporation was the sponsor) ran on CBS television from 1948-1958. Each week, a unique drama was produced; an array of future stars featured in Studio One including James Dean and Robert Mitchum. Bill Shatner made five appearances in Studio One - the first and second in the two-part episode "The Defender"(broadcast Feb-March 1957), the third in an episode entitled "The Deaf Heart" (broadcast October 1957) and the fourth and fifth in the two-part episode "No Deadly Medicine" (broadcast December 1957).
In "The Defender" Bill Shatner plays Kenneth Preston, a young lawyer working in his father's law firm. The two spar when Shatner's character tries to persuade his father Walter (played by Ralph Bellamy) that their client Joseph Gordon (played by Steve McQueen) may actually be innocent of murder. Despite offering a competent defense at Gordon's trial, Walter Preston believes his young client is probably guilty of the crime he has been charged with. Kenneth has a trick up his sleeve that could help free the man - will he persuade his father to use it?
Even the most ardent Bill Shatner fan would have to admit that throughout his career, the actor has made his fair share of crap. This show is definitely not an example of that. The extraordinary thing about "The Defender" is that this courtroom drama was performed and broadcast live. That means that every camera-move, every focus pull, every picture edit and every lighting set-up had to be meticulously planned and rehearsed in advance. There was simply no room for error - no ability to redo anything should there be the slightest mistake either by the actors or the behind-the-scenes team during the broadcast.
The show doesn't just take place in the courtroom either, but rather unfolds in the corridors and in several rooms beyond too. That means that the transition from one set to another also had to be perfectly co-ordinated: characters leave one set, we focus on other characters in the same set, while those that have left quickly position themselves elswhere for the next scene. The logistical nightmare that such a live broadcast represents is almost impossible to fathom today and watching the show unfold, one definitely gets a sense of a bygone era of quality theatrical drama.
What is surprising is just how smooth the entire production is. Despite the above, you would be forgiven for thinking that the entire thing was a single-camera movie-shoot that had taken weeks to film.
"We don't think alike, you and I...I don't really know you," Walter Preston tells his son. "Nor I you..." Kenneth replies in a very rare moment of on-screen vulnerability for actor Shatner. The scene echoes Bill Shatner's complicated relationship with his own father.
Bill Shatner gives a solid performance surrounded by top-notch actors such as Bellamy and McQueen. The latter displays such raw visceral energy as a performer that stardom seems inevitable. Do McQueen and Bellamy outshine Bill Shatner? Yes. But then the overall standard is very, very high.
"The Defender" was preserved by means of a kinescope (more here too) recording of the original broadcast. This means that a film camera recorded a cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor playing back the show. Due to the rounded shapes of period CRTs versus flat celluloid, this led to a relatively strong amount of distortion in the image around the edges, which will be obvious to you as you examine the stills presented here.
Look at Bill Shatner's head - distortion caused not only by a backcombed hairstyle but also by the kinescope transfer.
Now, to the hair. After some analysis, it appeared pretty clear to us that Bill Shatner was not wearing a toup in "The Defender".
One important key to understanding the hair in "The Defender" is understanding what Bill Shatner's hair was doing at this particular time. The show was filmed during a brief period in 1957 when Bill Shatner grew his hair long. Witness two images from an appearance in Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Glass Eye" (more here and see here for more on the overall toupee timeline):
At this point, Bill Shatner's hair was thinning fast, but he still had a full frontal hairline, while a patch of sparseness at the back was still concealable with combing and sprays.
Bill Shatner dons pretty much exactly the same hairstyle in "The Defender" albeit one that is bulked upwards and absolutely soaked in hairspray and/or thickener. This turns Bill Shatner's hair into a fragile, yet rigidly immobile eggshell; a carefully constructed illusion of plenty, which the slightest disruption could shatter.
A toupee produced a far smoother, more rounded and thicker contour at the back of the head than is evident here. The lighter color of the hair on top, rather than evidence of a toupee, is an indication of thinning hair.
The deleniation line between thick hair at the back and sides and the thinning hair (meaning follicle thickness as well as the per-square inch hair count) on top that will soon fall out is evident in numerous shots when the lighting strikes it in a particular way.
The times when Bill Shatner's hair looks thicker (this had initially confused us) corresponds directly to more flattering lighting and the high contrast of black-and-white photography:
And again here (the kinescope distortion is also a factor below):
We should note that Bill Shatner's other two appearances on Studio One are unavailable for commercial viewing. We would very much like to see them - particularly "No Deadly Medicine" which we believe was one of Bill Shatner's last ever on-screen toup-less performances.
You can buy the very enjoyable and entertaining Studio One: "The Defender" here. Dear readers, please feel free to contact distributors KochVision to politely suggest that they release on DVD Bill Shatner's other two Studio One appearances. Thanks!