The game show Family Feud made its television debut in July 1976. Its host was Richard Dawson, the person who’d man the mic for the next nine years. However, the first choice for the role was someone completely different: actor William Shatner.
By this point in his career, Shatner had already enjoyed TV success on the back of his iconic role as Captain Kirk on Star Trek. The sci-fi series was canceled in 1969, though episodes continued airing into the ‘70s. Even though the role had brought him fame, it also proved a double-edged sword: Shatner struggled to find work as casting directors saw him only as Kirk.
At one point, the actor lost his home and lived in a truck-bed camper while traveling and performing in theater productions. But Shatner worked to get back on his feet, taking small roles in movies like the Roger Corman-produced Big Bad Mama (1974) and horror flick The Devil’s Rain (1975).
He also made guest appearances on a wide range of game shows, including Hollywood Squares, Celebrity Bowling and $10,000 Pyramid.
Watch William Shatner on ‘$10,000 Pyramid’
“The popularity that I’d gained from Star Trek made me a welcome guest on game shows,” Shatner recalled in his 2009 autobiography Up Till Now. “Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who produced so many of those shows, really liked me.”
The games gave Shatner a chance to stay in the public eye while making a few easy bucks.
“By any ordinary standards, the money was good – maybe not to the $10 million per picture actors, but to me,” the actor explained. “If I hadn’t enjoyed doing these shows, well, I would have done them anyway. We would tape five shows in one day, and I could just hear my father saying to me, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to turn down a thousand dollars for one day’s work? You know what I could have bought for a thousand dollars?’”
Shatner’s popularity led game show mogul Goodson to eye the actor for his next project, Family Feud.
Watch William Shatner on ‘Celebrity Bowling’
Besides his congenial nature, Shatner had another factor in his favor: his wife. In 1973, the actor married Marcy Lafferty, daughter of CBS executive Perry Lafferty. CBS was working with Goodson to create Feud.
But unknown to Shatner, another conversation had gone on behind the scenes.
Dawson, at the time best known for his role on Hogan’s Heroes, had also been a regular celebrity guest on the game-show circuit. For several years he was one of the most popular panelists on The Match Game, but by 1975 his interest in the show had waned.
“They started to write smutty, a little off-color questions, which I didn’t like at all,” Dawson explained years later in an interview with the Archive of American Television. In an effort to appease the star, Goodson, who also produced Match Game, promised to give Dawson the chance to host his next creation.
Naturally, when Dawson heard Family Feud was targeting Shatner as its host, he was livid. Dawson immediately scheduled a meeting with Goodson and demanded an explanation. The TV executive offered to give Dawson an audition, but the aspiring host declared that Shatner’s wife would make such a move pointless. “[Perry Lafferty] was the one who was going to make a decision whether this show would go on or not,” Dawson noted. “And he doesn’t have any daughters left for me to marry!”
Goodson promised an even playing field, and Dawson eventually won the gig. He’d go on to host Family Feud for nine years, earning a Daytime Emmy in the process.
Shatner, meanwhile, spent the rest of the ‘70s appearing in guest roles on a bevy of popular television shows. In 1975, the actor starred in the series Barbary Coast, which lasted only one season before getting canceled. He’d return to the starship for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a success that helped reestablish his leading-man capabilities and set him up for a career-boosting new decade.