Amongst the discourse of Star Trek fans, there is an argument to be made that without Jonathan Frakes, Star Trek: The Next Generation would not have seen as much success as the series did. But Frakes almost wasn’t a part of the USS Enterprise crew as the role of Commander William T. Riker originally went to another actor: Billy Campbell.
While Billy Campbell is most known for starring in The Rocketeer and acting in B-rated thrillers like 2002’s Enough with Jennifer Lopez, hardcore Star Trek fans might recognize him from the franchise. While Jonathan Frakes took over the role of Riker before production officially began, Campbell was still allowed to leave his mark on the series. In the second season episode, “The Outrageous Okona,” Campbell took on the one-episode role of Thadiun Okona, the audacious captain of the cargo carrier Erstwhile.
The news that Jonathan Frakes was not the original Riker was revealed in the Star Trek oral history book, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years. While Campbell had been cast in the role as the Enterprise’s second in command, Paramount executive John Pike wasn’t convinced. According to producer Rick Berman, Pike felt Campbell lacked the necessary sense of command and charisma vital for a character who would lead the crew into battle.
Consequently, the baton was swiftly passed to Jonathan Frakes, forever altering the course of The Next Generation. It was all for the best because Frakes’ natural charisma made Commander Riker an instantly likable character who had that certain je ne sais quoi that would inspire people to follow him blindly into battle, exactly as John Pike envisioned for the character.
While Jonathan Frakes ended up with an iconic role that led to a full and eventful career, this wasn’t the end for Capbell’s association with Star Trek. Decades after playing Okona in The Next Generation’s second season, the actor was invited back for Star Trek: Prodigy. The animated series saw him return as Okona in two episodes, “Crossroads” and “Masquerade,” lending his expertise to the USS Protostar crew.
In the animated series, Okona is a bit older and adorned with an eyepatch. The character is portrayed similarly, still with a penchant for finding himself in tricky situations. Bringing Okona back for the animated series turned out to be a way for Campbell to carve out his own corner of Star Trek cannon unassociated with Jonathan Frakes, as Riker never appears in the animated series.
While the role of Riker slipped through Campbell’s fingers, his portrayal of Thadiun Okona has become an unforgettable part of the Star Trek lore. While Jonathan Frakes may have swept the role of Riker away from him, the alternate path Campbell walked in the franchise certainly secured his place among the stars in the ever-expanding galaxy of Star Trek.
Ee could soon be in for a Billy Campbell revival in the world of movies. The Rocketeer 2 is in the works and while that movie’s story is set to focus on a new character, it seems very possible that we could see Billy Campbell return to his most famous role as Cliff Secord for the sequel.
Meanwhile, the casting adjustment worked out well for Jonathan Frakes who ended up playing Riker for a span of seven seasons on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and across all four TNG movies. Renowned not only as an actor but also as one of Star Trek’s most talented and prolific directors, Frakes more recently made a triumphant return to the Star Trek universe, this time donning the mantle of Captain Will Riker in both Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Picard.