The story comes from “The Fifty-Year Mission,” the invaluable two-volume oral history of “Star Trek” by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, and franchise producer Rick Berman. Campbell, a rising star with roles on shows like “Crime Story” and “Dynasty,” was the first choice for the Enterprise’s new first officer. But Paramount Television honcho John Pike wasn’t a fan. As Berman recalls:
“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.”
On paper, it’s easy to imagine Campbell as the hotshot Riker, a rising Starfleet officer with big ambitions and a twinkle in his eye for virtually every alien woman he comes across. But it’s tough to imagine him capturing the wholesome qualities that make Frakes’ take on Riker so endearing. Campbell’s Riker would’ve been Maverick from “Top Gun” rather than “awesomely dorky Space Uncle who plays the trombone.” We can see this firsthand when Campbell actually guest starred on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” playing the title character in “The Outrageous Okona.” In that not-great episode, Campbell essentially plays Trek’s attempt to have its own Han Solo: a cocksure, too-cool-for-rules rogue who cruises the galaxy being The Raddest Dude Alive. Of course, Okona isn’t cool at all. He’s a big dolt, a middle-aged TV writer’s idea of what the kids would find cool in 1987. It feels out of touch at best, and embarrassing at worst. He’s Poochie.
Okona only returns one more time, as a background gag in an episode of the animated comedy series “Star Trek: Lower Decks.” Campbell would find success elsewhere.