The Comeback Kid
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89
William Shatner is laughing and I’m relieved.
We’d been talking for about 15 minutes and I was getting the distinct impression that Shatner, BCom’52, taking a break from filming the last season of his Emmy Award winning TV series Boston Legal, was bored.
In my defence, William Shatner has been interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the course of a singular career that has now spanned more than five decades. You try coming up with original questions for a guy like that. He’s heard it all before.
Also, I’ll confess, I wasn’t at the top of my game. I’ve interviewed Nobel laureates and cabinet ministers, best-selling authors and film actresses, and I don’t get nervous very often when I’m doing my job. But this was William Shatner.
As a pre-adolescent, one of the high points of my week was the Saturday afternoon airing of Star Trek. I was gobsmacked when I discovered that the resolute starship captain who punched out Klingons and grumpily endured Tribbles was in fact a fellow Montrealer. Such a colossus could emerge from my hometown? Wow.
And here I was now, talking to the guy. Yeah, I was a little nervous.
So, I decide, it’s time to share my Grand Theory of Shatner with him.
Not Like the Other Actors
In a nutshell, it’s this: William Shatner endures because William Shatner is not afraid of weirdness. One of the reasons why William Shatner captures our attention in a way that few other celebrities do is because we never quite know what the man is going to do next.
Compare Shatner to other actors who, like him, starred on TV shows during the sixties—Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.CL.E.), for instance, or Peter Graves (Mission Impossible). They’ve had long and successful careers. But they don’t attract the same sort of intense, affectionate curiosity that Shatner continues to inspire from the masses.
William Shatner, after all, is the man who once starred in the only movie ever made entirely in Esperanto (Incubus). His strikingly unusual (some have used much ruder adjectives) interpretations of songs like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” are YouTube sensations. He sold a kidney stone online for $25,000 and passed the money along to Habitat for Humanity.
Somehow, one can’t imagine Robert Vaughn doing any of that.
Not afraid of weirdness? “There might be something to that,” Shatner chuckles.
Whatever the case, 40 years after the original Star Trek series was cancelled for poor ratings (it would go on, of course, to become a pop culture phenomenon in syndication), William Shatner has never been a bigger star than he is today.
“Celebrities tend to appeal to specific types of people,” explains Brett Keller, the chief marketing officer for Priceline.com, an online discount travel agency that Shatner has helped make famous through a popular series of witty ads. Some performers are especially beloved by older women, for instance, while the appeal of certain actors is mostly focused around younger men. Sarah Brightman’s albums don’t tend to do brisk business on university campuses, while Seth Rogan flicks rarely headline movie nights at most senior citizen centres.
“Bill stands out because he really spans all types of groups,” says Keller. “All kinds of people know who he is and they all respond very positively to him.”
It’s not the life that Shatner’s father envisioned for his son. Joseph Shatner was a serious-minded Jewish immigrant, the first in his family to arrive in North America. He worked hard to establish his own business, Admiration Clothes, a manufacturer of inexpensive suits. “They were basically suits for workingmen who owned only one suit,” recounts Shatner in his memoir, Up Till Now, published earlier this year.
Joseph groomed his son to become his business partner, taking him on sales calls. Even today, Shatner remembers the skills he picked up at his father’s side. “I know how to fold a suit with the shoulders touching inside-out, the sleeves down, folded flat so it stays pressed,” he recounts in Up Till Now.
Shatner’s mother, Ann, had a markedly different approach to life from her husband. An elocution teacher with a mischievous sense of humour, she would regularly make her family squirm at restaurants by gaily announcing that it was her birthday—even when it wasn’t. Shatner still remembers feeling profoundly uncomfortable as waiters would circle their table, serenading his mom with an undeserved rendition of “Happy Birthday.” It was Ann who recognized her son’s gift for performing, enrolling him in acting lessons as a child.
No Academic All-Star
It was no accident that when it was time for university, Shatner went to McGill to study commerce. He was going to learn all about modern management practices and bring that new-found expertise to bear on the operations of Admiration Clothes. But Shatner himself had other plans.
“My classes were never very important to me,” he acknowledges during his break from Boston Legal filming. “I barely passed many of them. I had to make up courses during the summer in order to graduate.”
Shatner wasn’t slacking off, though. It’s just that his focus was somewhere else. “I was performing in everything I could find—musicals, theatre productions, radio. The Student Union Building was my headquarters. I did everything there but sleep and, on occasion, I did that there too.”
He was the president of McGill’s Radio Workshop, an active member of the Player’s Club and, in 1949, the producer and director of McGill’s fabled Red and White Revue.
“He was ‘Mr. Theatre’ at McGill,” says Bernie Rothman, BCom’54, a longtime friend who also went into show business, eventually writing and producing TV shows for the likes of Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Burt Reynolds.
“There was no theatre program to speak of at McGill back then,” Rothman recalls. “Whatever took place, happened because students worked hard to make it happen. Bill didn’t just act. He was always busy creating things. He’d find some interesting little experimental play from somewhere and he would make it happen. He just didn’t quit.”
Rothman occasionally lectures to college students interested in the entertainment industry. “The question I’m always asked is, ‘What is the single most important factor for success in show business?’ Is it talent? Is it looks? Is it personality?
“I think the thing that really separates the people who make it in this industry from those that don’t, is that the people who make it just don’t give up, no matter what. I could see that quality in Bill back at McGill. He had that drive.”
During his third year at McGill, Shatner broke the news to his dad about his future plans. He wouldn’t be bringing the latest business techniques to Admiration Clothes after all. “Acting wasn’t a job for a man,” Shatner wrote of his father’s viewpoint. “For him, it was like being a minstrel.” Though clearly disappointed, Joseph encouraged his son to do what he wanted to do.
Within a few of years of graduating, Shatner had secured a spot in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he worked with, among others, a fellow Montrealer named Christopher Plummer. Plummer, the more seasoned of the two at the time, describes the young Shatner in his recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, as an actor who “showed great promise with his versatility and light touch.”
By 1956, Shatner was playing supporting roles on Broadway. TV directors took notice of his work and he began appearing often on the anthology shows that were popular at the time, like Studio One and Playhouse 90, sharing screen space with other up-and-comers like Paul Newman, Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. He was resistant to settling down professionally, though. He turned down lead roles in The Defenders (which made a star out of Robert Reed) and Dr. Kildare (which made a star out of Richard Chamberlain). He preferred doing stage work (including the Broadway smash A Shot in the Dark, opposite Julie Harris and Walter Matthau) and trying his luck with films (among them, Judgment at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy). But after years of being told by those around him that stardom was just around the corner, Shatner’s big break was proving to be elusive. He was married at this point with three kids and a mortgage he was struggling to pay off. Maybe being tied to a TV show wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
In 1966, a role came along that would make Shatner famous—eventually.
Shatner was only Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s fourth choice to captain the U.S.S. Enterprise. Lloyd Bridges had been Roddenberry’s first pick, but he declined the role. The original pilot for the show was filmed with Jeffrey Hunter as the lead. When Hunter didn’t work out, the gig was offered to Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-0), who took a pass on it.
Watching the original pilot, Shatner thought the show’s concept was strikingly original, but that it was all a little too serious-minded. There wasn’t much to differentiate the Hunter character, a captain named Pike, from his first officer, the emotion-suppressing Mr. Spock. Shatner decided that his character, James T. Kirk, would be a little more playful than his predecessor.
Kirk would approach his task of exploring the universe with a greater sense of wonder. A sly strategist when faced with difficult circumstances, Kirk also had more than a hint of mischief about him. Shatner and his two chief co-stars, Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr. Leonard McCoy), established a winning chemistry. Kirk, the good-natured warrior, was nicely balanced against the coldly rational Spock and the hotheaded McCoy.
“A large part of the success of Star Trek has to do with the affection the characters clearly had for one another,” says Shatner. “Audiences respond to that sense of warmth.”
For the most part, Shatner’s recent autobiography is a lighthearted, breezy read, but now and then, he owns up to his flaws and deals with some of the more painful moments of his life. “It has taken me four marriages to understand the part I have to play in a marriage and to learn how to do it,” he ruefully acknowledges at one point.
Up Till Now is at its darkest when Shatner discusses his troubled third marriage, to Nerine Kidd. Shatner was slow to recognize that Kidd was an alcoholic and her addiction to booze caused the couple considerable anguish. She tried rehab three times to no avail. Arriving back home one evening, Shatner discovered her body in their swimming pool. It was ruled an accidental death, one probably related to drinking. “I don’t think you ever get over an event like that,” Shatner writes.
“I wanted to leave a notebook of sorts for my kids,” Shatner says of his book. “I wanted to explain how I felt at different moments in my life. I wanted to be honest.”
While the original Star Trek eventually resulted in four follow-up TV series, 11 films (the latest premieres next May) and, in Shatner’s estimation, about two billion dollars’ worth of related merchandise sold, back in 1969 it was a show that couldn’t attract a big enough audience to ward off cancellation.
Shatner’s first marriage ended at roughly the same time as the series did and the actor found himself unemployed, broke and responsible for the support of an ex-wife and three daughters. He lived in the back of his pickup truck for a time, then moved to a cheap beachfront apartment in Malibu so he’d have someplace nearby to take his children to play when they came to visit. His somewhat unhinged landlady would occasionally storm into his apartment, wielding a hammer, chasing apparitions only she could see.
He was rarely offered juicy roles anymore. He landed frequent guest-starring gigs on shows like Ironside and The Six Million Dollar Man and starred in a string of forgettable (and sometimes laughable) low-budget films in which he faced off against tarantulas (The Kingdom of Spiders), demons (The Horror at 37,000 Feet) and Satanists (The Devil’s Rain). He worked regularly, but didn’t enjoy it much.
“An actor’s life is fraught with difficulty,” says Shatner. “It isn’t always the kindest of professions.” Being good isn’t good enough—you have to match a casting director’s notion of what’s right for a certain role and there is little consolation in being runner-up. “You’re constantly judged on your appearance as well as your ability. Suddenly you are in your 40s and it’s too late to go meaningfully into another career. You reach a point where you don’t know if you should keep sticking it out.”
The eighties, thankfully, were kinder to him. Shatner landed the lead role in T.J. Hooker, a popular, if not particularly memorable, cop show in which he played a stern, old-school police sergeant. He hosted the successful Rescue 911 for several years. The best was yet to come.
The Comedian Revealed
One of the first hints that Shatner had a few more tricks up his sleeve (notwithstanding his now legendary 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live in which he famously urged Star Trek‘s rabid fans “to get a life”) was in a small independent film released in 1999, Free Enterprise. A decade before it became fashionable for Hollywood stars to lampoon themselves on shows like Extras and Entourage, Shatner played William Shatner, a washed-up actor obsessed with the idea of staging a mostly one-man musical production of Julius Caesar (mostly one man because he couldn’t quite figure out how to stab himself in the back).
Around the same time, Shatner was approached by the fledgling Priceline.com. One of the company’s copywriters was a fan of The Transformed Man, Shatner’s much-mocked attempt in the late sixties to contrast popular song lyrics (performed in a colourful style all his own) with readings from classic plays. Shatner’s wry, energetic performances in the resulting ads as a lounge singer belting out over-the-top versions of songs from the sixties and seventies were a hit. “Those spots were really what put Priceline on the map,” warrants Keller.
A series of guest appearances on 3rd Rock from the Sun as the flamboyant Big Giant Head netted Shatner an Emmy nomination. And then he was offered what would become his most memorable role since James T. Kirk —the bombastic and unpredictable Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal.
“That was a gift,” says Shatner of Crane, a larger than life figure struggling to come to grips with the fact that he is losing much of his power to age. “He is this wonderful character who can go off in any direction. He is certainly comedic, but he can also touch your heart.” Shatner’s portrayal of Crane has garnered him two Emmy Awards.
Each episode of Boston Legal ends with Crane sharing a drink and his thoughts with his colleague Alan Shore, played by James Spader. The two men have little in common in some respects. Politically, they are polar opposites and Shore is a few decades younger than Crane—still, their unlikely friendship is the foundation for the show.
“Sometimes, when I’m finished shooting for the day, I stay just to watch them do that scene,” says Boston Legal co-star John Larroquette. “Bill brings so much warmth to those scenes. The two of them together are magic.”
“He was the laughing stock of the cognoscenti for a while,” says Rothman. “Well, some of his biggest detractors back then are looking at his work today and they’re saying, ‘Shatner is so funny.’”
As far as Shatner is concerned, he was always funny. “When I began my career in Canada, right after graduating from McGill, most of the work I did was comedy. I was known for doing comedy.” Somewhere along the line he became pegged as a dramatic actor and the opportunities to do comedy dried up.
Shatner’s knack for comedy is certainly no secret these days. The producers of Invasion Iowa, a recent reality TV show that poked fun at the excesses and idiosyncrasies of the movie industry, had Shatner on their radar. “This was a show about parodying Hollywood and Bill has this phenomenal, self-deprecating sense of humour,” says Invasion Iowa co-producer Rhett Reese.
In the series, the denizens of Riverside, a small town in Iowa, put up with the antics of a Hollywood film crew— unbeknownst to the locals, the movie being filmed is fake and the mayhem surrounding it is staged.
A team of seasoned improv performers was assembled for Invasion Iowa to portray the bogus film’s cast and crew. They rehearsed in the weeks leading up to the show’s filming, to prepare themselves for interacting with the unsuspecting Iowans. “These were experienced improv actors,” says Reese’s partner, Paul Wernick, “but Bill more than held his own. He was one of the best in the room, if not the best.”
The young producers marveled at Shatner’s energy level. “He outworks everyone around him, of any age,” says Reese. Shatner turned up at 6:30 am to work with the Invasion Iowa team, then drove 45 minutes to the Boston Legal set to put in a full day there, then drove back to do more Invasion Iowa rehearsals until 10 pm.
Another collaboration with a younger artist, pop musician Ben Folds, resulted in the 2004 album Has Been. Where The Transformed Man was widely ridiculed, Has Been took music critics by surprise. At times droll, at times heartbreaking, Has Been turned up on several best-of-year lists.
Shatner enjoys working with younger collaborators. “One tends to stay the same,” he says. “You entwine yourself in the same habits—the same clothes, the same styles, the same ways of thinking. People risk becoming stultified in the eras in which they were most comfortable. One way I try to avoid that is by associating with younger people and gaining some sense of how they see the world.”
Looking back on his career—the highs, the lows, the weirdness—William Shatner has no regrets. “You never know how one project will lead to another,” he says. He has been teased about The Transformed Man for decades, he points out, but that album did have its fans, including Ben Folds, and it led, in part, to Shatner’s acclaimed work in both the Priceline.com commercials and on Has Been.
“He has been able to adapt to the changing landscape of his profession and that’s a difficult thing to do,” says Larroquette. “There are a lot of actors who haven’t been able to pull that off.”
Shatner takes a more matter-of-fact view of his place in the larger scheme of things. “There are half a dozen actors out there who get access to the great scripts and they get to make a movie a year for $20 million,” says Shatner. “Then there are the rest of us, trying to maintain something with merit while we work to pay the bills.”
Maybe, but William Shatner will never be just another actor.
According to USA Today, there is a game that one of Shatner’s daughters plays with her husband from time to time. Once they’ve breakfasted and parted company for the day, the two try to avoid coming across any images of her famous dad until they see each other again at dinner time. Whoever succeeds in this, triumphs.
It’s usually a game that no one ever wins.
After all, this is a world where we all want to know what William Shatner is going to do next.