The Night William Windom and an Inebriated College Student Had Dinner in My Home

This is a continuation of last month’s post “The Night I Met Gene Roddenberry and Heard Spock Swear on Film.” If you missed it, please click the August link and read it first.

So many actors on television and in film are pretentious and petulant when offstage. I was lucky enough to meet one who was not.

When my husband looked at the list of acts that he could invite to perform at his college, he noticed that William Windom was available to present a dramatic rendition of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from memory. Ironically, I was teaching “The Secret Life” to high school sophomores at the time, so I was excited to learn he would perform the story on campus. From the time I studied it in high school, “The Secret Life” had been one of my favorites.

Windom was an incredible character actor. Previously, he had starred in a television series entitled “My World and Welcome to It” based on the Walter Mitty character. For his role, Windom won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series in 1969.

Windom had other memorable parts. He played a space captain in a STAR TREK episode in which his starship was devoured by a tube-like structure that pulled it in using a force field. My husband always referred to it as the giant turd in the sky that ate a starship.

Captain Decker, played by Windom, was in charge of the U.S.S. CONSTELLATION, whose crew was wiped out when the Doomsday Machine (aka giant turd) consumed the ship. Norman Spinrod, the writer for the episode, said he based his storyline on MOBY-DICK. (Yes, that is the way Melville spelled the title.) It is interesting to compare the storylines. Windom said he based his character on Captain Queeg from THE CAINE MUTINY, played by Humphrey Bogart.

Windom also played Pam’s drunken, shiftless father on the original DALLAS series. He later played Dr. Seth Hazlitt on MURDER SHE WROTE with Angela Lansbury. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Windom played the prosecution lawyer opposing Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

I was excited to be able to see so skilled an actor in person. Windom’s performance that night was impressive. Find a copy of “The Secret Life,” read it again and imagine memorizing it and then standing in front of an audience to recite it. Stage fright would have overwhelmed me if I had tried it. He never stumbled.

You may remember Walter Mitty as a henpecked man tormented by his overbearing, abusive wife. He regularly escapes into a fantasy world in which he performs miraculous and heroic acts. In one imaginary scene, he saves a patient on an operating table when other doctors have given up. Later, he manages to singlehandedly pilot a plane that normally requires two people. At the end of the story, he faces an imaginary firing squad while refusing the blindfold. Mitty’s wife was walking toward him.

That evening, when Windom finished his performance, the audience gave him a standing ovation. As soon as the show ended, I hurried home to make the last-minute preparations for the meal.

Since there were few good places to eat in our small town, I had invited Windom to come over for dinner after his performance. I also invited David and Lisa, friends of ours, because they were fans of the actor.

When the doorbell rang, I assumed it was David and Lisa, but it was Christine, one of my husband’s college band students.

She was quite inebriated.

“I can’t go back to the dorm,” she wailed. “My boyfriend broke up with me, and I got drunk, and if I go back tonight I’ll get expelled.” She sobbed into a wadded tissue.

“Come on in, Christine,” I said.

Because this happened back in the seventies, I don’t remember any of the dinner conversation, so I can’t tell you about any of those. Just Christine’s appeal for help.

When my guests arrived, the six of us sat down to dinner. I gave Christine half my steak, half my baked potato, and half my French onion soup. Luckily, the salad and dessert were easier to divide.

Every time Christine reached for her water glass, I flinched. I had purposely given her water rather than tea in order to save Windom’s clothing in case of an accident. Windom smiled at my obvious embarrassment, but he never said a word. I remember he had a knowing grin.

Looking back, I should have just stuck her in a bedroom with a sandwich.

That evening, however, did give me a fond memory of Windom. He was a true gentleman. He died this year at 88.

P.S. If you are a teacher, have your students read “The Secret Life,” and then ask them to write a short story in which they deal with mean bullies or mean teachers by escaping into a fantasy world. If you send me the best one, I will publish it on this website. If Spinrod can borrow the plot of MOBY-DICK, students can borrow the plot for “The Secret Life.”

This is the second of three posts on STAR TREK.