Patrick Stewart has talked openly about how Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry didn’t think the actor could follow in Shatner’s footsteps.
Today, Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek: The Next Generation character Captain Jean-Luc Picard is arguably Star Trek’s most beloved captain; however, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek franchise, hated Stewart’s casting. Although Roddenberry’s attitude reportedly changed before the TV legend’s death in 1991, there was a period during the filming of TNG when Picard felt that Roddenberry didn’t want him in the role.
Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek: The Original Series, and he had a clear vision for the sequel series The Next Generation. TOS developed a strong cult following in syndication after the show ended in 1969, which Paramount leveraged into a series of successful (to varying degrees) movies, starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Paramount officially announced it was developing a new TV series for the franchise in 1986, at which point the original actors were too expensive to cast; as a result, a whole new Enterprise crew was to be introduced. The show premiered in 1987.
When it came to casting for TNG, Gene Roddenberry had input — but it was by no means his decision alone. In a roundtable discussion with The Hollywood Reporter, Patrick Stewart recalls how Gene Roddenberry did not want him cast as Picard, and seemed to disprove of him on set, saying “It was clear he couldn’t understand why I was there.” He went on to say that the situation made him “a little uncomfortable”; however, he does describe having lunch with Roddenberry once, which suggests the late TV legend had warmed up to the actor (at least marginally) after production began.
Had Gene Roddenberry got his way, another actor may have played Captain Picard on TNG. According to a Paramount memo posted to Letters of Note, the Belgian actor Patrick Bauchau was Roddenberry’s personal choice to play Jean-Luc Picard. The preference makes sense: Stewart told THR that Roddenberry didn’t want a “bald, middle-aged Englishman” playing the French captain — who, based on the other names listed on the memo, was intended to be another handsome adventurer like William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk in TOS.
Stewart’s anecdote about his lunch with Roddenberry further illustrates that Roddenberry wanted another Kirk-like character for Captain of the Enterprise. In the original pitch for Star Trek, the captain (then called “Robert April”) is described as a “space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower” — the same literary character Roddenberry would later tell Stewart to base his Captain Picard character on:
“I had lunch with him only once, just the two of us and I said, ‘So Gene, to help me: Where did the idea for the character spring from? Can you give me any connections that I could use and build on for this?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah I’ve got it here with me,’ and he pulled out a beaten-up paperback copy of one of the Horatio Hornblower books, and said, ‘It’s all there.’ So the character, it turns out, was based on Horatio Hornblower.”
Ironically, Stewart’s Picard would go on to embody the spirit of Horatio Hornblower arguably more effectively than Shatner’s Kirk ever did. Hornblower, the protagonist of C. S. Forester’s book series, is known not just for his skill and daring (traits that Kirk has in spades), but also for his determination, classical knowledge, and dedication to duty — all attributes that would go on to define Captain Picard. Given the evidence, it’s safe to conclude that had Gene Roddenberry lived to see TNG become the pop culture icon it is today, he would happily acknowledge that he had been wrong about Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard — and no doubt proud of what the character became.
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