Profile: William Shatner
William Shatner has just gotten off the phone with a NASA astronaut at the International Space Station. “Think of it,” he says. “Gregory Chamitoff, Ph.D. He was 300 miles from here. Every time I said something, I had to follow it with ‘Over.’”
Shatner was doing work for a new cable talk show. Called Raw Nerve, it will give him a chance to speak with people about areas in their lives they are not known for. Chamitoff, who, like Shatner, was born in Montreal, “talked about his father, a scientist,” the actor says. “There were tears in his voice. He said he became an astronaut because of me.”
Shatner is wearing casual blue trousers and a navy T-shirt—hardly the streamlined tunic of his Star Trek days. The loose-fitting clothes are kind to a physique that has gotten stockier over the years. Shatner’s face is jowlier, too, than it was when he played a handsome intergalactic hero. But the spirit of Captain James T. Kirk clearly hovers nearby.
The Star Trek series lasted a mere three seasons, from 1966 to 1969, producing only 79 episodes that are remembered fondly (and often word-for-word) by millions of fans. Shatner’s career, though, has extended for decades, encompassing theatrical productions in Canada and on Broadway, television, movies, commercial campaigns and, most recently, an Emmy-winning role as attorney Denny Crane in Boston Legal, a popular television series that ended its five-year run last month.
The talented but flawed Crane is a seriocomic character, originally created by writer-producer David Kelley for a few episodes of his earlier series, The Practice. As a partner in Crane, Poole & Schmidt, Shatner made a fascinating foil to James Spader’s Alan Shore, with whom he always shared a closing cigar-and-brandy scene. It has been a truly juicy part for Shatner, who credits Kelley with the opportunity. “I believe he watches what I do, and he writes to that,” says Shatner. “I’ve seen that in plays, where the playwright reacts to an actor and the audience, but not on TV.”
Now that the show has ended, Shatner is faced with a mix of emotions. “I’m looking forward to the time I don’t have to get up at 5 or work till 8,” he says. “[But] I will miss everything about Boston Legal: David Kelley’s words, working with talented people. My parking space….”
But he will still have Priceline. His appearances as The Negotiator for the Internet company go back to the 1990s and made Shatner recognizable to generations that grew up long after Star Trek and even T.J. Hooker, a television cop series that ran from 1982 to 1986. Beginning with radio and then continuing on television, Shatner has acted in dozens of Priceline commercials that parody other celebrities as well as himself. A 2004 commercial paired him with fellow Trek star and friend, Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock).
Shatner is “a fascinating character, with four or five different mini-careers in his broader career,” says Ray Richmond, a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. “There are a lot of different William Shatners. At Priceline, he capitalizes on his persona, and no one is as successful at becoming the butt of his own personal joke. On Boston Legal, he’s almost comic relief. He was one of the first people to see himself as a brand. I give him huge credit for transforming himself—making fun of himself and at the same time winning Emmys for dramatic roles.”
How the actor managed to accomplish all that is told with disarming self-deprecation—and hundreds of colorful anecdotes—in his recent autobiography, Up Till Now, written with David Fisher (Thomas Dunne Books).
Born in 1931, Shatner says his father, Joseph, had an almost cliché story. He came over on a boat at 14 from Eastern Europe, earned enough to eventually bring over 11 family members and went on to make a living in the garment business. “He was always reading and listening to the news,” the actor recalls. “Father was intelligent, and he married a pretty, comparatively well-off woman [Ann], a bit of a contrast in personalities.”
They kept a kosher home and went to shul. Shatner had a bar mitzva and learned to put on tefilin, though religion plays little role in his life today. Indeed, he says he questions the whole process. “The reasons for religions are obvious,” Shatner acknowledges, “the comfort they give the living and the dying. But I find it difficult to accept that comfort.”
Instead, he embraced the family traditions of hard work and theatrical flair. While in high school he got a job as a stage manager for a touring production, and a few years after getting his business degree from McGill University in Montreal, he was working at the Canadian National Repertory Theater in Ottawa. Before long he was onstage at Tyrone Guthrie’s prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
By the mid-1950s, he was married and living in Queens, New York, appearing regularly in the live dramas of television’s Golden Age—Goodyear Television Playhouse, Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater. Shatner appeared in one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, as airplane passenger Bob Wilson, who sees a monster outside his window (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”).
Working constantly but always below celebrity status, Shatner starred on Broadway in The World of Suzie Wong; played the youngest of The Brothers Karamazov on film; had a character role in Judgment at Nuremburg; acted in a low-budget but high-emotion Roger Corman flick about Southern bigotry; and filmed an entire movie in Esperanto.
And then there was Star Trek. The series had its share of volatile personalities. “It was intense” working with Shatner, recalls Nimoy. “We were both theatrically trained and experienced actors determined to make our mark. The results were often electric.” Over time, the tensions relaxed, until the two “became more like brothers than colleagues or competitors.”
Star Trek catapulted Shatner into the stratosphere of worldwide recognition. “First and foremost, he’s always Captain Kirk,” says Richmond. “The show wasn’t about interplanetary travel, it was the personalities.” Once the sci-fi geeks found it, they turned the show into a phenomenon.
“Star Trek was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me,” Shatner says. “I look back on it as the miracle that changed my life.”
Through syndication, the series took on a second life, giving birth to conventions, spin-off movies (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock…and on and on), an animated series and an estimated $2 billion’s worth of merchandise. The success has allowed Shatner to pursue an astonishing range of activities, from racing cars and horses to creative endeavors in music, literature, film and science.
“Of all the benefits that fate and luck brought me, one of the major ones is the ability to say, ‘I’d like to do that,’ and have someone say, ‘Let me help you,’” he says.
Last year, he recorded a three-act oratorio, Exodus, with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. David Itkin, the composer and resident conductor, had asked Shatner to narrate. Instead of simply doing a couple of performances in Little Rock, the actor released a CD that can be played every Passover.
Shatner has published several books, from behind-the-scenes stories about depicting Captain Kirk to tales of Trekkie conventions and numerous sci-fi novels. One of his more unusual projects wasStar Trek: I’m Working on That with Chip Walter, a nonfiction examination of the science of Star Trek. Shatner flew around the country interviewing scientists. He may not have known the questions to ask, but he was with someone who did.
He prizes collaborations like that. “Almost everyone stultifies at a certain age,” he says, “but the key to staying within the culture’s shifting lines is to associate with people who are current. I never connected with rock ’n’ roll until I worked with [singer-songwriter] Ben Folds [on the album, Has Been]. Then I understood the energy and the passion and the source.”
Collaboration on the personal front has proved more challenging. He and his first wife, Gloria Rand, had three daughters—Leslie, Lisabeth and Melanie—before they divorced in 1969 (Rand and Shatner have several grandchildren). Shatner was married to Marcy Lafferty from 1973 to 1994, and to Nerine Kidd from 1997 until her accidental drowning in 1999. Since 2001, he has been happily married to Elizabeth Martin, a former horse trainer with whom he breeds and shows American saddlebreds and quarter horses.
His third wife’s death was the result of her addiction to alcohol, but tabloids seized on the story with frenzy. Shatner eventually gave an interview to the National Enquirer in exchange for a quarter-of-a-million-dollar donation to the Nerine Shatner Foundation, which he formed to help addicted women and which runs the Friendly House shelter in Los Angeles. “They’re saving lives,” he says simply.
It is just one of several charities he supports. In connection with a longstanding interest in horses—Shatner owns an 87-acre horse-breeding estate in Lexington, Kentucky—he visited a therapeutic riding center in Israel and has worked with the Jewish National Fund to raise money for it. He had one caveat: The facility had to be open to Palestinian and Jordanian children as well as Israelis.
And he has volunteered for the American Tinnitus Association. Both he and Nimoy have suffered for years from debilitating ringing in their ears as a result of standing too close to a special effects explosion on Star Trek.
But the main cause Shatner promotes is the Hollywood Charity Horse Show, which benefits several children’s groups. “We work on it for six months of the year,” he says. “We make a party. I get talent, I get the sponsors with a small staff and a group of dedicated volunteers. It’s tough to raise money—humiliating work.”
His efforts are widely appreciated, notes Variety columnist Army Archerd. Shatner is “multitalented, generous both onscreen with his fellow performers and offscreen with those less fortunate, mostly children,” he says.
That tone is notably different from his familiar tongue-in-cheek persona. But it would be a mistake to equate Denny Crane, or The Negotiator, or any of Shatner’s roles with the man himself, who is artful about the impression he wants to convey and definite about the things he still wants to accomplish.
“The days are short,” he says, and there are many projects on his plate: There’s Raw Nerve, and a movie called The Shiva Club, which dates back to an idea he had after Nerine’s death. “I originally envisioned it as an improvisational work for the screen, but I couldn’t sell it,” he admits. “No one saw the jokes. Now I’ve got a wonderful script, and I’ve enjoyed the process.”
And he has an idea for another nonfiction book, about horses, as a springboard to tell dramatic stories.
“Time is my enemy,” says the actor who introduced us all to warp speed. “I have to ration it, like weighing gold dust on a scale.” H