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The Dark, "Deadly" Prank William Shatner Pulled While Filming a Classic Twilight Zone Episode

Shatner tricked director Richard Donner good during the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" shoot. 

By James Grebey
Christine White (as Julia Wilson), William Shatner as Bob Wilson in 'Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,' episode of The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone is famous for its twist endings, but Richard Donner, who directed the iconic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” was relieved to discover a real-life twist when star William Shatner terrified him with a prank on the set. 

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the Season 5 episode featuring the Star Trek lead as a businessman who discovers a terrifying gremlin ripping apart the wing of an airplane he’s on, first aired in 1963. As Donner recounted in an interview he conducted with the Archive of American Television more than 20 years ago, it was a rough shoot — and that was before Shatner started playing pranks. 

William Shatner's The Twilight Zone Prank on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

“It was an airplane … in a tank, elevated way off the ground,” Donner explained. “We had to climb up. We had massive wind machines. We had lightning machines. We had rain machines. We had effects machines working, because we had to also turn the engines. There were no computers or anything to do it. Everything had to be live. Everything had to be synced." 

RELATED: How to Watch SYFY's Super-Sized Twilight Zone New Year's 2023 Marathon To Ring In 2024

During a break in the tight shooting schedule, Shatner was hanging out with actor Edd Byrnes, who happened to be visiting the set. That’s when the two of them decided to scare the heck out of Donner. 

"I hear this screaming and yelling and everything, and I run back and I see [Byrnes and Shatner] fighting. And then they went behind the body of the airplane, and all of a sudden, I see Shatner fall off the wing and fall all the way to the bottom … it’s concrete … and he hit the ground.” Donner said, "I thought he was dead, man.”

But, when Donner ran up to what he thought was the body of his lead actor, everybody started laughing. Unbeknownst to Donner, Shatner and Byrnes had found a dummy on the set and they staged the fight so that they could trick Donner into thinking the dummy was Shatner. 

As far as Twilight Zone twists go, “William Shatner didn’t actually die” is a pretty good one.

Catch the annual New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon on SYFY. The marathon begins on Saturday, December 30 at 8 a.m. ET and runs all the way through Tuesday, January 2 at 1 a.m. ET.  Click here for complete scheduling information.