He’ll never shake the association with a certain science fiction TV icon, nor does he want to.
But the older he gets, the more William Shatner seems determined to eclipse that role with an astonishingly diverse litany of credits.
Star of a hit ABC legal drama; recording artist and master of the spoken word with his … penchant … for … dramatic pauses; author of memoirs and science fiction novels; horse breeder and champion of an equestrian charity, as well as celebrity spokesman and fundraiser for the American Tinnitus Foundation; huckster for Priceline.com; and the man who, as host of one of the first reality shows, helped millions of Americans remember the number for 911.
Add to that list host of a game show (albeit a canceled one) and, coming soon to the cable channel A&E, host of the talk show “Raw Nerve.” His eponymous Web site offers the latest details, as well as a host of merchandising, and live ShatnerVision allows the star to personally keep fans up to date.
Is he a workaholic?
“I’ve never thought of myself that way,” he told The Jewish Week in an interview to promote his just-released memoir, “Up Till Now,” published by Thomas Dunne Books. “But I suppose there are some lazy people who would look at it like that.”
Among the memoir’s stories of growing up in a Montreal family of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Hungary is one about how, after graduating from McGill University with a degree in commerce, Shatner was expected by his father, Joseph, to follow him into his moderately successful clothing business.
But after several years of theater work in summer camp and college, the younger Shatner had other plans. He was going to go to New York to pursue a full-time acting career.
Perplexed and disappointed by his only son’s decision, Joseph encouraged him to do what he wanted, with one provision: Don’t be a “hanger-on,” someone who can’t earn his own keep, depending on the generosity of others.
“That was definitely the skywriting in my personal universe,” Shatner recalled last week.
While he kept the promise to his father, the years before stardom were lean and tough.
Even after his breakthrough role as Capt. James T. Kirk on “Star Trek” from 1966 to 1969 (his father passed away during season two), there was a period in which Shatner slept in the back of a truck behind the theater where he was appearing and worried incessantly about supporting his three daughters. He accepted roles in films so bad they were never fully released, or not released at all, and worked so hard on them that he occasionally risked his life performing dangerous stunts, all the while dreaming of having more than $1,800 in the bank. He jokes that when the phone rang with acting jobs, he often said yes before picking it up.
It was only after “Star Trek,” canceled after three struggling seasons, gained a much larger life in syndication that major doors started opening for Shatner. He became the industry’s most sought-after host and narrator of science and technology documentaries, and later starred in seven “Trek” features and the four-season cop drama “TJ Hooker.”
“Up Till Now” contains more than everything you ever wanted to know about Shatner’s life journey and didn’t think to ask, from his early days at a Canadian Jewish Federation summer camp, where his innocent reading of a scary story to a child Holocaust survivor so disturbed the boy that he had to be sent home, to his battles with anti-Semitic bullies on the way to Hebrew school (sadly, no phasers were available to fend them off).
“They were kids that didn’t know any better,” Shatner recalls. “I just thought of it as normal.” He notes that he later got into McGill because of a Jewish quota, which no longer exists.
Shatner also writes of his long, sometimes rocky friendship with “Star Trek” costar Leonard Nimoy, another child of Jewish immigrants who became the family black sheep by heading to Hollywood.
While Nimoy famously tweaked his character with Jewish characteristics, notably the Kohanic hand gesture that would become Mr. Spock’s salute, Shatner said he gave no such nuance to his character. “Leonard was much richer in that regard than I was,” he said.
Raised in an observant home, Shatner is still in touch with his Jewish roots, celebrating holidays with his daughters, who are from his first marriage to Gloria Rand (nee Rabinowitz).
“The mystique of being Jewish is something you wear as part of you, as though it were clothing,” says Shatner. “You don’t think about it, but when you do you feel like it’s nice to be a member of the club.”
He’s visited Israel three times in the past 10 years, most recently to launch a therapeutic horseback riding charity with the Jewish National Fund to aid Jewish and Arab victims of violence by lifting their spirits.
“Israel is a magical place,” says Shatner. “I’ve followed the history of Israel and their exploits very closely and the imagination and passion Israelis have is enormous and very touching to Jews in and out of Israel.”
But Shatner laments about the country’s political situation. “I wish the Israelis would continue to use the imagination and perception and political savvy they had when the state was in its formative years. There’s less of that now, but I don’t know whether the political situation has changed or whether the individuals don’t have the stature of the founding fathers of Israel.”
In his youth, he said, “I had only the most romantic notions about Israel — nothing grounded in the sweat and blood it took to defend the state and continue the state — and so the romance of the Jewish state was what I was brought up on. Having been there, I see now in a more practical sense how tough it is to be a Jew in Israel. They have nothing but my admiration.”
Wikipedia lists a Mordechai Shatner, a signer of Israel’s declaration of independence, as a relative, but William Shatner says he’s never heard of the man.
Just before Passover, Shatner and The Jewish Music Group released “Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts,” in which he reads selections from the biblical chapter accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony. “The audience just grabbed it and were mesmerized by it,” he says in typical promotion mode. “The feeling between actor and audience was palpable.”
Despite the Judaic theme, Shatner says the CD didn’t spring from any newly discovered connection with the Torah. He was invited to do the show by conductor David Itkin.
“Maybe they called 10 other people and they said no,” he jokes.
Asked if reviewing the biblical text reminded him of his early Hebrew school days, Shatner said “that was before the continents had formed and the planets had not yet aligned.”
Another project with a Jewish sensibility is “The Shiva Club,” a comedy he hopes to produce that is inspired by his mourning for his third wife, Nerine Kidd. Looking for a diversion during the shiva after her death, he envisioned a film in which a group of comics crash a similar sepulchral gathering at a Jewish Hollywood mogul’s home in order to win auditions and make contacts.
In his memoir, he addresses Kidd’s accidental drowning, which, given the circumstances, made him the subject of tabloid speculation, though Shatner was never accused of wrongdoing. Detailing her long battle with alcoholism that plagued their marriage, Shatner writes that he dialed 911 for help, rather than immediately pulled Kidd out of his swimming pool, because deep inside he knew it was too late to rescue her.
He’s now remarried, to the former Elizabeth Anderson Martin, a professional horse trainer.
When Shatner was given the chance to direct the fifth “Star Trek” movie, “The Final Frontier,” he wanted the film to reflect a spiritual quest, the search for God, but it proved too controversial for the studio and the series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry.
Shatner wanted Kirk and Spock literally to go to hell to save a trapped Dr. McCoy, building up to encounters with God and the devil. But the film that was produced had the crew face a deluded Vulcan who believed he knew the path to the creator, and culminated in another clichéd science-fiction face-off with a god-complex alien. The film made money, but was the most poorly received in the series.
“I learned a lot about the art of compromise making that film,” says Shatner, who says he believes in “the mystery of God” but adds “whose God, which God?”
Some have interpreted the “Star Trek” universe as Roddenberry’s utopia in which science and galactic curiosity have replaced religion as the driving force behind mankind. But Shatner views it more simpler terms: “I think it’s the dream that mankind has all the time: that people have learned to celebrate their differences.”
With the death of Kirk in the seventh film in 1994, Shatner may have found closure with the role. But he has continued to pen “Star Trek” novels with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens that take place in an apocryphal universe, and he knows that in sci-fi no character is truly dead.. Spock died in the third movie and returned in the fourth. Kirk may yet have a similar resurrection, but it’s on no one’s immediate radar.
“I’ve lost some influence in that area because of the change in management,” says Shatner, referring to the recent handoff of the franchise from Rick Berman to J.J. Abrams, who produced the forthcoming “Star Trek” prequel. That film, for the first time, features another actor as Kirk. Although he’d reprise the role if the right script came along, his preference, of course, would be to see one of his “Trek” novels made into a film.
Meanwhile, Shatner is content to continue as Denny Crane on “Boston Legal,” now renewed for another season, and to promote eclectic projects like “Gonzo Ballet,” a documentary about a dance production based on a song from the album he recorded with Ben Folds, “Has Been.” One project continues to pave the way for the next, and he shows no sign of slowing down.
“I will, someday,” he says. “But not yet.”