If you don’t know who William Shatner is, you might as well turn in your geek credentials right now. And have them shredded. You can’t use age as an excuse either. Beyond the immortal sci-fi character that we all know and love him for, the 84-year-old thespian has had a professional acting career that has extended across 65 years and encompassed film, TV, theater, video games, and even commercials. And he keeps on going.
You might recall him as the terrified airline passenger in the famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” or as the hard-nosed cop T.J. Hooker or perhaps the self-centered attorney Denny Crane on Boston Legal. He should certainly be familiar as the wise and whimsical Priceline Negotiator. You may have even heard his off-the-wall spoken word interpretations of famous pop and rock songs. (You wouldn’t be able to forget those.) And then there is Captain James Tiberius Kirk, the iconic role that sealed his fame.
Shatner is currently promoting two new endeavors. His forthcoming book about the close bond with his late Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy, entitled Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, is due out February 16 through Thomas Dunne Books. And he is still touring his life-spanning one-man show Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It, which debuted on Broadway four years ago and is coming to New Jersey this week.
To get us pumped up for his appearance at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on February 5, he called us for a fast Shatner chat. That in itself was an experience.
How are you, Bryan? Bill Shatner.
Nice to meet you. How’s your life?
Really good. How’s yours? I wish yours was as good as mine. In fact, if I were to wish you well, I’d say I hope your life is as good as mine. Is it?
It’s getting there. I always enjoy what I do.
So you’re the Aquarian Arts?
Yes, we’re a weekly music paper that has been around for over 45 years.
That’s not anywhere near as long as I’ve been around.
I saw your show when you did it on Broadway.
I enjoyed it very much.
Wonderful. I’m so glad you did because I’m bringing essentially the same show to the Count Basie Theatre. I love the name. So you know the show is about saying yes to life. There’s lots of laughter, some tears, a few observations, and a general wonderful entertainment for the couple of hours I’m on.
My favorite part of the show explains the reason why. You talk. Like this! I recall that you were in the Broadway show The World of Suzie Wong, and the actress playing the title character had an issue?
The producer kept distracting her, and you had to keep improvising to fill time each night, right? Hence the unusual cadence you developed.
She formed a distaste [for him] and they wouldn’t let him come into the theater. Every time she saw him come into the theater, she would stop talking. And I had to keep talking. There’s nothing like a bad interview where a guy says, “How’s the weather there?” And you realize you’re in trouble.
So I found this meme online that breaks down the use of the English Comma, the Oxford Comma, the Walken Comma, and the Shatner Comma.
[laughs out loud]
Are you happy that the Shatner Comma is now becoming part of our cultural lexicon?
Yeah, but if you raise the Shatner Comma, you’ve got quotes.
You have a lot going on. You’re still touring the show, you’ve got your book about Leonard Nimoy coming out next month, and I heard a rumor that you’re contemplating a Star Trek musical?
No, no. [laughs] Somebody made that up. But there is a Star Trek musical which is going out on tour called “The Ultimate Voyage,” and it’s the music from Star Trek played by a live orchestra. There are 35 musicians on stage, clips from the show, and the music from the show—Jerry Goldsmith, Alexander Courage, and all that. It should be great. I’m helping put it together. [It comes to NYC on March 5.]
This year is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Is there anything we don’t know at this point about the show or about you?
I imagine there are things about me you don’t know, but about the show I’ve pretty much gleaned everything there. It was the good stories that were told by these wonderful authors, primitive special effects because that’s the way it was, and actors who were trying hard.
Good acting can certainly overcome some obstacles. As much as I love a lot of the effects extravaganzas today, sometimes they beat you over the head.
Well, that’s true. They’re running and jumping and you’re wondering why they’re running and jumping. But another show that I was in that had longevity was Twilight Zone. So this guy on the airplane was actually a Czechoslovakian acrobat in a furry suit like you would buy for your child to go to a Halloween party, but nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about how stupid it is that at 500 miles an hour the guy is not aerodynamic. They just accept what this little suit means, which is, I guess, fear of flying.
You were in a couple of episodes of another great TV show, Boris Karloff’s Thriller. “The Grim Reaper” is one my favorite horror TV episodes ever. I’ve also discovered a lot of your other earlier work, including The Intruder, directed by Roger Corman, in which you played a racist agitator in the South. Then there’s the trippy cult movie Incubus, in which you spoke in Esperanto. I really think The Intruder is very underrated.
It got great notices, just for some reason the Roger Corman audience didn’t come to something that wasn’t a horror film.
It was kind of like a real-life horror story. Do you have any other roles that you think are underrated and that more people should see?
Everything I’ve done, Bryan.
Do you think all of it is underrated?
[chuckles] No, everybody should come and see [everything I’ve done]. Like this one-man show. There’s something that is underrated and everybody should come see it, especially at the Count Basie Theatre.
Have you updated the show with any new anecdotes?
I’ve updated it in this way—going on stage and trying to be fresh at every performance is an ongoing project, and so in the act of doing it I hone the delivery of each line. I go over it, what is the meaning here. I wrote it, and then maybe it has different meanings. I keep looking for different meanings. There is a magic, there is an alchemy, of making a line funny. A person who is not funny can deliver a line that is funny and not get the laugh. Then there’s somebody who’s funny and got a genuine sense of humor, who can deliver a straight line and get a laugh. There’s something mysterious…and I don’t know whether anybody’s ever put their finger on it. So in trying to get an audience reaction out of straight lines, you hone the delivery—maybe I can do this, maybe I can do that. That’s what’s happened in the many performances since the Broadway show, and what would be interesting to me is if you came by and we spent a moment when you would note whether it was substantially different or essentially the same.
I enjoyed the part of the show when you got to T.J. Hooker. Universal HD was showing the original episodes in widescreen around that time. I love that. Do you have fond memories looking back on that show?
I loved T.J. Hooker. I loved the cast and I loved doing what I did. It was great fun, yes. I directed a number of them. It was when I really began to understand the nature of directing and how to do it efficiently. If you’re working on the cheap, how to get three shots of one, that sort of thing.
Somebody made a really interesting comment online about the fact that if T.J. Hooker were a person, he would have really gray hair and be dealing with a lot of stress issues. In those ’80s cop shows you guys were doing so many superhuman things.
Yes, it’s true. But there is a story that I don’t believe I’ve never told. We were shooting in Long Beach [California], and the headlines in the Long Beach paper said that T.J. Hooker is shooting in Long Beach. The next day a police officer handcuffed a perp, and then had to hurry and get the other guy but left him with his hands cuffed. Anyway, the suspect jumped into the police car and started to drive the police car away, whereupon the officer ran after the car and jumped on the hood to stop the guy from driving off. The headlines in the Long Beach paper the next day said, Officer so-and-so did a T.J. Hooker.
I’m excited about your book on Leonard Nimoy coming out.
That’s going to be very interesting. Do you have any deep, deep friends? You have a deep friend? A friend, a brother?
Sure, I have a couple of close friends from childhood.
So you communicate on every level? Even about the most intimate details?
I don’t. And I had that with Leonard, and that was the only time I had it. I envied it for the longest time, achieved it, then the book continues on. It’s a very interesting aspect of life, developing a friendship. Not the “Let’s go get a beer” friendship, but deep, deep down, “Here’s my problem, I need your help.”
I imagine it’s harder in the entertainment industry to develop those kinds of bonds because you don’t always know why people are seeking out your friendship.
Well, that’s over exaggerated. People make friends politically all over the world. But the uniqueness about this profession is you do something that may last a while—you do a play that may last a couple of years, you do a series that might last five years—and you’re put in each other’s company for a period of time, and in effect you’re fighting the battle of fatigue and of excellence. We call it a war, and the cast is doing war with everybody else. So you buddy up and become best friends for everything. “My God, this guy is really great. I love him.” Then the event is over, and you’ve got to go on to something else and he goes on to something else. And you lose track of each other and you never talk to each other again, although you left that relationship in a beautiful form. That’s what happens. That’s what didn’t happen with Leonard for a variety of unique reasons.
Both of you experienced something that I’ve dealt with for many years, which is tinnitus. You both got it from an explosion on the set of the original Star Trek series.
You have it?
I’ve had it for 30 years after cranking thrash metal through my Walkman every day for a couple of years.
That’s plugged into your ear. Absolutely.
As you’ve gotten older, how do you cope with it?
The same way you have, habituation. I’ve talked people down from suicide. A famous musician got a hold of me cold. I didn’t know him. He knew I got it because I was the official spokesman for tinnitus at one period, and I talked him down and encouraged him to do a habituation, you know, the white sound, because when I was asked when I first got it how it affected my life from 1 to 10, it was 9 1/2. Now I don’t hear it except when you and I are talking about it.
I know you have a big love of horses, which I know comes up in your show. How long have you been riding horses?
Are you still riding actively?
Oh yeah, I compete on many levels. And I’m winning.
A lot of people would hit your age and become retired. How do you stay youthful after all these years, especially with horse riding?
I ascribe it a lot to the fact that I’ve to get mounted on a horse, have to get balanced on the horse, and have the strength to control the horse and the determination and memory to remember the pattern. There’s a whole lot of things that if you challenge yourself, no matter what it is, you can keep a youthful air about you, I believe. And that’s what the one-man show is about, saying yes to life.
Do you think that’s the most important life lesson that you’ve learned?
Absolutely, to keep the vulnerability and the enthusiasm to enjoy life, to stay aware of how valuable, how precious each moment is and to value that moment. That’s really what I think my show is about. I think my show is about passion.
And it’s cool that it’s not all about Star Trek.
Hardly any Star Trek. That’s there to satisfy the people who say, “Do you talk about Star Trek?” But what it’s really there for is to encourage you to do what I’ve just said.
Finally, is there any one current rock or pop song that you think deserves the Shatner treatment?
I’m sure there are several. [laughs]
Is there anything that you really love right now?
I was listening to Ziggy Stardust last night, and there a lot of songs there that would lend themselves to spoken word.
Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It comes to the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ on Feb. 5. For more information, go to williamshatner.com and countbasietheatre.org.