Before Star Trek, William Shatner did everything. A peek at his IMDB page reveals a relentless array of guest-starring appearances, minor roles in major movies, major roles in TV movies — really, any role the young actor could get his hands on. It makes him an ideal subject for the PBS series Pioneers of Television, which looks back on the early days of TV and the people who were there. Season 2 of Pioneers hits DVD today, split into four episodes: Westerns, Science Fiction, Crime Dramas, and Local Kids’ TV. (Shatner, of course, did them all.) EW caught up with the iconic star — currently starring in CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says — to talk about working in the Golden Age, with a special focus one of his most famous pre-Star Trek roles: the extremely anxious flyer besieged by a gremlin in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” written by sci-fi icon Richard Matheson.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You starred in two classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. What was it like working on the show?
WILLIAM SHATNER: That’s a long time ago. I don’t know what I can tell you.
Anything. Make up some stories about Rod Serling.
Rod Serling was gay. He and John Frankenheimer had a partnership. No, no… That which I remember was work-a-day. I came in like any other show that I’d been doing over the years, and we filmed. The particular script by Dick Matheson was really inventive and very much a one-man show, really. This young actor was pleased with that, to get all that attention and screen-time. But it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Nobody realized the evocative nature of Twilight Zone and its appeal to the mystical in the human soul. So many of those stories were nightmares come true, dramatized. There was an appeal beyond just the drama.
[The episode] touches another universal in the human psyche, and that is the fear of flying. Buried somewhere in all of us when the going gets rough up there is: If God meant us to fly, we’d have wings. Why are we up here? We’re in the wrong part of the world. We should be on terra firma. That’s the only explanation I can come up with that makes that particular episode as popular as it is.