Anyone but Jonathan Frakes playing Commander William Riker is unimaginable, but Star Trek: TNG originally cast someone else for the role.
- Rick Berman reveals that Billy Campbell was originally cast as Commander Riker, but John Pike vetoed the choice, citing a lack of command presence.
- Jonathan Frakes was the second choice for the role and turned out to be iconic in the role.
- Billy Campbell’s impression on Berman and Paramount executives earned him a guest spot in a season 2 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation as Thadiun Okona.
Star Trek producer Rick Berman reveals that Jonathan Frakes was actually the second choice for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Number One, with the role of Commander William Riker originally going to a different actor, Billy Campbell. While Campbell didn’t become Riker, Campbell’s impression on Berman and Paramount studio executives would later earn him a guest spot in TNG season 2, episode 4 “The Outrageous Okona”. Campbell stars as the eponymous Thadiun Okona, a roguish cargo captain requesting assistance with his ship’s guidance system.
In the Star Trek oral history The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross, Berman ventures a guess as to why Billy Campbell didn’t stick as the production’s first choice for Commander Riker, attributing the casting change to John Pike, President of Paramount Studios at the time Star Trek: The Next Generation was beginning production. Pike was present for the Star Trek: The Next Generation actors’ auditions, and as studio head, ultimately had veto power when it came to deciding who would land a part on the USS Enterprise-D bridge. Read Berman’s thoughts below:
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. I think it was really more that he 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.
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Billy Campbell’s Okona Returns to Star Trek
3 Star Trek Shows Acknowledge Okona
Thadiun Okona returned to Star Trek on Paramount+, appearing as an animated cameo in Star Trek: Lower Decks and an Easter egg in Star Trek: Picard. Okona’s most significant return is his appearance in Star Trek: Prodigy for a 2-episode arc that sees Billy Campbell lend his voice to his Star Trek: The Next Generation character. In Prodigy season 1, episode 14 “Crossroads” and episode 13 “Masquerade”, Okona is older and still skirting the authorities, but contrary to John Pike’s audition notes, this Okona is someone that the young crew of the USS Protostar would, in fact, follow into battle, as their loyalty becomes a source of conflict.
Considering Berman’s assessment of John Pike’s thoughts, it’s not hard to imagine Billy Campbell as the Riker that could have been. Okona shares some of Riker’s charm and zest for life, but lacks Riker’s morals and conviction as a Starfleet officer, since his face turn at the end of “The Outrageous Okona” comes more from a loophole than a real desire to change his ways. With that in mind, Billy Campbell may well have been at the top of the list when it came time to cast Thadiun Okona for Star Trek: The Next Generation, in a part truly suited for him.