Jonathan Frakes’ role as Commander William Riker is nearly as synonymous with Star Trek: The Next Generation as Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. However, Jonathan Frakes was not the first choice to play the bearded, grinning commander. Instead, the young actor Billy Campbell was the original choice to play the part.
“For the role of Riker, we cast an actor named Billy Campbell, who later did a bunch of other good things, and [John] Pike didn’t like him. He didn’t feel he had a sense of command. He wouldn’t follow this guy into battle.”Rick Berman, Star Trek: The Next Generation producer
It was surely no easy feat to cast the next generation of Star Trek, because the producers knew the actors would have big shoes to fill. When it came time to cast Commander William Riker, Billy Campbell was the first choice since he was a rising star at the time. He had been in shows like Crime Story and Dynasty, so he seemed like a natural fit for the show’s new first officer.
After the choice had been made, John Pike, an executive at Paramount Television, realized they had made a mistake. According to franchise producer Rick Berman, it was clear that John Pike did not like the actor, saying, “He didn’t feel he had a sense of command. He wouldn’t follow this guy into battle.”
Soon after, the classic Star Trek role was given to Jonathan Frakes, an actor that many fans would likely follow into battle. Reflecting on the decision, Rick Berman said, “I think it was really more that he [Billy Campbell] didn’t audition that well for the part, and that’s when we went to our second choice, who was Jonathan Frakes, who turned out to be a terrific choice.”
The entire story was recounted in The 50-Year Mission, an oral history of the Star Trek franchise by Edward Gross, Mark Altman, and executive producer Rick Berman.
Back in the 80s, Jonathan Frakes was not yet a well-known actor. His biggest role back then had been as Tom Carroll in the soap opera The Doctors, along with many brief appearances in other popular TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Charlie’s Angels, and The Dukes of Hazzard. It wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987 that he got his big break that has since carried him through his entire acting career.
“I think it was really more that he [Billy Campbell] didn’t audition that well for the part, and that’s when we went to our second choice, who was Jonathan Frakes, who turned out to be a terrific choice.”Rick Berman on casting William Riker
Since his casting in the Next Generation TV series, Jonathan Frakes has reprised his role as Commander William Riker in countless Star Trek TV shows and movies. In fact, in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, he rose through the ranks to finally become Captain. Most recently, he was in Star Trek: Picard, the legacy sequel series that just wrapped up its third and final season.
Over the years, Jonathan Frakes has become one of the most beloved Star Trek actors. Many fans see him as the wholesome Space Uncle they can easily relate to and even learn a thing or two from. His charming, down to earth attitude makes him approachable and likable, which makes the franchise that much better.
As for Billy Campbell, he ended up becoming a star in his own right, just not in the Star Trek franchise. Instead, he starred in the 1991 action-adventure film The Rocketeer, landed the role of Quincey P. Morris in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and starred alongside Jennifer Lopez in the 2002 film Enough.
Jonathan Frakes has reprised his role of William Riker multiple times, and even Billy Campbell has been back, playing Thadiun Okono on Star Trek: The Next Generation and later again on Prodigy.
Even though Billy Campbell did not end up getting cast as Commander William Riker, he still appeared alongside Jonathan Frakes in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In season two, episode four, he played the flirtatious and hilarious Captain Thadiun Okona. And in 2022, he reprised his role as Okona when he voiced the character in the animated TV series Star Trek: Prodigy.