“You are so motivated to make sure the trip goes smoothly, because you know that the organs of these two kids are now going to save the lives of more than just a handful of other kids.”
William Shatner has been a staple of popular culture for half a century. He is perhaps best known for playing Captain James Kirk on the 1960s television series Star Trek and in more than half a dozen of the like-titled motion pictures that followed. He later served as the omnipresent discount-travel Priceline pitchman and portrayed the lovable lout lawyer Denny Crane on the TV series Boston Legal, for which he won two Emmys and a Golden Globe award. Turn on your television anytime in recent years and there he was, holding court on his cable interview show Raw Nerve, cooing over antiques with the History Channel guys on American Pickers, roasting bad-boy actor Charlie Sheen on Comedy Central, reading Sarah Palin’s Tweets as poetry parody on The Tonight Show, appearing on the CBS sitcom $h*! My Dad Says, awakening the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery on their final mission or presenting a country music award.
Shatner has had his own musical career of sorts, but his albums are an acquired taste: he’s known for talking his way through the material. His latest, a collection of space-themed tunes called Seeking Major Tom, features guest appearances by such pop and rock artists as Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Lyle Lovett and Steve Miller. He has also written books, including his often-hilarious autobiography Up Till Now (2008) and Shatner Rules (2011).
Last June, Shatner received an honorary doctorate and gave the graduation speech at his alma mater, Montreal’s McGill University. In his talk, he advised the students that “the road of life isn’t linear...it’s dusty and dirty with soft shoulders and high banks. Don’t be afraid of taking chances…Don’t be afraid of failing. Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. I do it all the time and look what I got.” He held up his doctorate and the graduates howled with laughter.
As his speech suggests, Shatner has seen his share of life’s “dusty” side. Following the cancellation of the original Star Trek in 1969, his second wife divorced him and he found himself living in a truck camper, doing a series of forgettable films. He turned down virtually nothing, including appearances on such game shows as Celebrity Bowling and dinner theater productions.
It was a far cry from the days when Shatner took serious, meaty roles on Broadway and the big screen with actors such as Yul Brenner, Jessica Tandy, Walter Matthau and Ralph Bellamy. Initially, he gravitated toward the serious on television as well, starring in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
Today–at age 81–he appears to be back at the top of his game and is involved in a wide variety of activities, some serious, some silly and some just plain fun. He is touring with Shatner’s World, a one-man show that kicked off its national run in February with an engagement at the Music Box Theater on Broadway. He remains a staple of Star Trek fan conventions worldwide. And last year, he produced The Captains, a film about all the actors who have played Captain Kirk in the spinoffs that followed the original Star Trek. Shatner, who is both a private pilot and a frequent user of business jets, flew around to the filming locations aboard a Bombardier Global Express.
In his spare time, he raises and shows champion American Saddlebred and Quarter horses at his 360-acre farm in Kentucky with his current wife, Elizabeth. The couple also compete nationally in equestrian events and are the prime promoters of the Hollywood Charity Horse Show.
As if all that weren’t enough to keep an octogenarian busy, he recently took helicopter lessons and has logged seven hours at the controls of a Robinson R22.
You’ve done two aviation-related dramas, a 1963 Twilight Zone episode entitled "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and a 1972 made-for-television movie called The Horror at 37,000 Feet.
See, I gained 17,000 feet in nine years. That’s almost two thousand feet a year. It’s a slow rate of ascent, but listen, as long as you are going up and not down…
The Twilight Zone episode has become something of a cult classic.
They still play it on Thanksgiving. Why has it remained so popular, this 30-minute show about a passenger who thinks he sees this little furry guy sitting on the wing? You really have to suspend disbelief. It taps into that universal thought of “if God intended us to fly we would have wings.” A lot of people getting on an airplane to this day still can’t figure out why it flies.
When did you start flying privately?
I was playing at the Poinciana Playhouse in Florida and I had always been fascinated by flying. I had my days empty and the airport was very close to my hotel and that is where I soloed. When I did my [instructional] cross-country flight, I flew from Santa Monica to Miami and back in a [two-seat] Cessna 140. I took aerobatics for a while and then did gliders.
I’ve also done paramotoring [powered parachutes]: run like hell with 75 pounds on my back, threw myself into the air and at times crashed to the ground. And there was the image again of that little furry guy on the wing [laughs]. But then I would gain speed and fly. On many occasions, I would fly privately for one reason or another. I’ve been flown around the country for years in quite a few different things. I’m taking helicopter lessons. I’m fascinated by helicopters.
You recently used a Bombardier Global Express to film The Captains…
I have metal in my hip and I am always stopped at [commercial] airports [security]. The guy pats me down. There’s just a lot of inconvenience going through security and I knew I couldn’t do the interviews for my documentary The Captains flying commercially.
So Steve Ridolfi [president of the Business Aircraft division] at Bombardier lent me a Global Express. He told me that Star Trek inspired him to become an aeronautical engineer. I needed to fly from Los Angeles to Toronto to London and then New York and back to Toronto and Los Angeles. The airplane was essential. I’ve been on a lot of private airplanes but this was the most luxurious, quietest and most convenient airplane I have ever been on. It was as quiet as my bedroom. I was able to study on it and do research. The flying was effortless.
You studied commerce and economics at McGill. How did that influence your choices as an actor?
Very much. I never worked as an accountant. I was such a bad accountant. I got a couple of jobs because I had the degree. But at one they fired me as the manager of a theater and hired me as an actor. I owe my career to getting that degree [laughs].
Looking at all the futuristic technology portrayed on Star Trek that we ended up having today–from tasers to airborne lasers to space shuttles and cell phones that look like communicators–doesn’t it seem surreal to you that it came to pass after the show?
I read a lot of science fiction before Star Trek. A lot of science fiction writers were aware of ideas that were a generation away from being a product. You can just imagine things that are an extension of something that becomes real.
After Star Trek was canceled you hit a rough patch. How did you pull yourself out of it?
I was always working, doing something. It was rough emotionally and financially, but I went on tour with the truck camper, playing dinner and summer theater.
Over the years, some critics have faulted you for being “too available,” for being willing to take on just about any acting job. What drives you to keep working now?
It’s called the rent. And food. [laughs] In Shatner Rules, I talk a lot about saying “yes” to opportunity. When you say “no, I won’t do this” or “I won’t come here,” things don’t happen. “Yes” can lead you into difficulties–there are times when you wish maybe you had not said yes, but if you have some judiciousness and a vision, mostly when you say yes it should work out. And even the negatives work out because you learn by your mistakes. That’s the idea in the book.
What has been your proudest moment as an equestrian?
I have been riding for a long time in competition. I have long since forgotten the techniques of riding and I am more into the emotion of riding. The best moments an equestrian can have are when the division between human and horse are melded and you become one with the horse. The more you do and the more skilled you become, the more often you have that experience. I’ve had that on a horse and more recently hovering a helicopter.
On YouTube, after your video about Seeking Major Tom, one person posted a comment that said, “The glorious thing about Shatner is that he is totally unafraid to be himself.”
I don’t know that I am unafraid to be myself, but it is hard to be somebody else.
But as an actor you are supposed to be somebody else.
That’s arguable, too. Every actor brings himself to the role. Some aspect of yourself may be de-emphasized, but it is still you. Actors are themselves–they just say different words in different contexts.
NAME: William Alan Shatner
BORN: March 22, 1931 in Montreal
PROFESSION: Actor, producer, writer, singer, commercial spokesman
EDUCATION: B.A., Commerce, McGill University
PERSONAL: Lives in California and Kentucky with wife Elizabeth. Three adult daughters. Hobbies include flying and horses.