The two most important characters on a Star Trek show are the Captain and his First Officer. These characters hold the rest of the bridge crew together and set the tone for how the crew functions and how they approach missions and crises.
Because of this, it’s crucial that the casting for these characters is impeccable. Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander William Riker, had the kind of on-screen chemistry that propelled Star Trek: The Next Generation to success. It’s hard to imagine what the show would have been like without these two actors at the helm, but that’s almost what happened.
Three familiar Star Trek actors originally auditioned for the role of Commander Riker, and one of them almost got the part before it went to Frakes.
Vaughn Armstrong Auditioned but was Turned Down
Vaughn Armstrong is the most prolific actor in the Star Trek franchise. He’s played 12 different roles in four different Star Trek shows. Long before he was a Trek legend, he was trying to get in on the ground floor, but it just didn’t happen for him. He told the story during a recent GalaxyCon virtual panel.
When the casting team for TNG was looking for their perfect Commander Riker, the casting director’s assistant reached out to Vaughn. She invited him to audition, and he came in to read for the role. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the right fit.
Vaughn didn’t give up on getting onto TNG though. He tried out for several guest roles in the months after his audition for Riker. However, he didn’t get any of them. Vaughn was so discouraged that he said he’d only try out for Star Trek one more time. If he didn’t get the part he’d quit acting.
Luckily for the franchise and fans, Vaughn was cast as Commander Korris in the episode “Heart of Glory.” He went on to have an incredibly long and successful career with the franchise.
Jeffrey Combs Was a Frontrunner
Another Star Trek regular, Jeffrey Combs, also read for the part of Riker. During the same GalaxyCon panel, he talked about his experience auditioning for the same role as Vaughn.
Combs said he knew the role was a long shot for him. He didn’t feel like he was right for the part, but the new installment in the Star Trek franchise was a big deal. So, he went to the audition. Combs joked that every working actor in Hollywood at the time showed up to audition for Riker.
Though Combs was sure he wasn’t a good fit, according to The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, he was actually a front-runner for the role. Though some of the producers really liked him, they eventually decided to go in a different direction.
Billy Campbell was Frakes’ Toughest Competition
At the time TNG was looking for their Riker, Billy Campbell was kind of a big deal in the television world. He’d had major roles on Dynasty and Crime Story. He was young, attractive and the perfect amount of suave for the role of Riker, which was supposed to be TNG’s version of the sexy Captain Kirk.
During an interview on the Comic Book Central podcast, Campbell told the story of how he almost played Commander Riker. He said that he was friends with Junie Lowry, the casting director for TNG. She called him immediately and told him that he was perfect for the role. Campbell was a huge fan of The Original Series, so he was excited about potentially being on TNG.
Because the role was so coveted, Campbell had to go through several rounds of tryouts. The grueling audition process took its toll, and as he put it, he “so badly got the jitters.” Finally, it was between him and Frakes. They were called in to meet with the entire executive team one at a time.
Frakes went in first, and while Campbell waited in the lobby he began to panic. When he went into the final reading, he completely froze. The audition was abysmal and as he put it “the right man got the job.”
About a year later, Campbell got in touch with Lowry and asked if there was any way he could do a guest role on TNG. He was upset that he’d missed his chance to be a part of the iconic franchise. She got back to him when they were casting the part of Okona in the episode “The Outrageous Okona,” and he got the part. He’ll be reprising the role in the upcoming Star Trek: Prodigy.
Luckily, all of these actors went on to other roles in the Star Trek universe. It is interesting to think about how each of them might have brought a different kind of Riker to life.