William Shatner essentially played Walter White three decades before 'Breaking Bad'

By: H&I Staff     Posted: March 23, 2021, 10:20AM   

See if this premise sounds familiar. A high school chemistry teacher in need of money for medical bills begins to manufacture narcotics for a drug lord, which leads to a downward spiral. That's roughly the plot of Breaking Bad, no? That acclaimed series masterfully plotted the descent of an average man into a villain in the span of five seasons. 

But that is also the plot of "Smack," a 1974 episode of Police Woman with guest star William Shatner, who covers the same character arc in about 30 minutes.

A quick refresher: Police Woman, a spin-off of the popular procedural Police Story, starred Angie Dickinson as Sgt. Pepper Anderson. The show was both a milestone — the first hour-long drama starring a woman in TV history — it was also a symbol of its time. Pepper's undercover adventures are often little more than an excuse to get Dickinson in various costumes. Take "Smack," for example, where Pepper goes undercover in a school. They have her pose as a P.E. teacher, of course, mostly for scenes of Dickinson stretching in warm-up clothing. And, naturally, Pepper has to teach Sex Ed.

The episode kicks off with Shatner's character, Mark Ciprio, witnessing a student plunge to their death at the football field. The police show up to investigate, and drugs are blamed for the tragedy. As the cops begin to dig, we learn that Ciprio has "broken bad."

Pepper heads to Ciprio's apartment, which leads to an emotive scene full of juicy Shatnerisms. Ciprio swigs from a tumbler of booze, confessing, "I'm laying to rest the man who never was. The phony Mark Ciprio," Shatner muses. "The big shot idealist who never practiced what he preached."

After another officer goes undercover as a student, the pressure is applied to Ciprio and the story becomes clear. The chemistry teacher has been working for a drug dealer.

"I was a chemist in his lab, making and refining drugs," Ciprio confesses. "It was for my wife. She needed to be on a kidney machine most of the time. It cost a lot of money."

Now, this story is pretty neatly wrapped up henceforth, this being episodic 1970s television. We do not witness a slow, Shakespearean descent into amorality. This is not to say that Shakespearan-trained actor William Shatner does not give it his all in his limited scenes. He is Shatner, after all. 

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is a big fan of classic television. It's possible he had seen this episode before, but we're not pointing fingers. It's a deep cut. But it is still pretty fascinating to see how the germ of an idea for one of the most acclaimed shows of the 21st century can be found in Shatner's Seventies action output.

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