William Shatner Reflects on ‘Barbary Coast’ & Jeff Cable’s Many Disguises
Six years after making his intergalactic name as Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek, William Shatner traded his green commander-class shirt for an armoire full of outfits on the 1975–76 series Barbary Coast.
Shatner plays undercover government agent Jeff Cable on the Western dramedy, donning countless getups as he attempts to clean up the famed San Francisco den of thieves in the late 19th century, one fake nose at a time. “On paper, it looked really good — all those disguises, and different characters,” recalls the now 90-year-old Shatner (below, with Doug McClure as Cable’s reluctant partner, local casino owner Cash Conover). “And indeed it was — for a while.”
Take “Arson and Old Lace,” the episode airing July 4 on the retro channel getTV. Cable tries to break up a dockside Mafia-like extortion racket dressed alternately as a ratty, blond-haired, drunken Scottish sailor; a self-proclaimed “gambler, gourmet and gentleman with a woman” sporting a white suit and a pencil-thin mustache; a gray-haired, top-hat-wearing Irish fight promoter; and a badly scarred, hook-nosed vagrant on the trail of the bad guys.
The quick changes made days on the Barbary Coast set as exciting as the plots. “We had Tom Burman, a terrific makeup man. The wardrobe lady would look at the makeup, rush off and come back with something. I’d put it on, jump into character, and they’d have been holding up shooting until I arrived,” Shatner says. “I’d shoot that scene, then run back to the makeup room. And I did that three times a day, every day, every week, to the point of everyone’s exhaustion.”
That pace, plus the Old West milieu, made for a strange intensity on set. “I remember a moment when one of the actors told the director, [Incredible Hulk star] Bill Bixby, ‘I’ll shoot you if I don’t get more close-ups.’ Bixby responded by getting a stunt man with a gun. So, filming continued with two parties having guns!”
When ABC canceled the series after 13 episodes, “there was a collective sigh of relief,” Shatner admits. Although it took his skin weeks to heal from the prosthetics, he has fond memories. “Running to set, and everybody laughing, applauding or whistling, gave me more energy than I should have had.”
Barbary Coast, Saturday, July 3, and Sunday, July 4, 5/4c, getTV