The term Renaissance man has a tendency to be sprinkled around a little too liberally. But what other term can you use to describe William Shatner and a career that dates back to a 1951 debut as a criminal in the Canadian film The Butler’s Night Off?
Since that time, Shatner has been the epitome of the hard-working actor, hustling for gigs in television, film and theater and who, according to a New York Times Magazine article, “…became a working actor who showed up on time, knew his lines, worked cheap and always answered his phone.” He’s also made his bones as a noted philanthropist, musical performer, author and equestrian. With six-plus decades under his belt, the man is taking a lifetime of anecdotes, advice and experience on the road as part of his critically-acclaimed one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It. But in having packed so much into his life, it all goes back to acting for the Montreal actor, who touches on what sent him down the path of becoming an oft-employed thespian.
“I was a kid in a summer camp and did a play that was meaningful to the audience—it had to do with Nazis and made the audience cry,” he recalled. “As a result of that and the approbation I got, it’s one of those stories of a child being enamored of something and that affects their whole life. There are many cases of that and that was mine.”
While late theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie, (who Shatner worked with in the ‘50s at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario) compared the young actor to peers Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen, Shatner’s hunger for work at that point of his career found him plunging into quite the convoluted path of roles and projects that included appearances in westerns (The Virginian), sci-fi (The Twilight Zone), spy shows (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and courtroom dramas (The Defenders). One of his more curious roles was as the lead in the 1966 black-and-white horror film Incubus. Written and directed by prolific television writer Leslie Stevens, the twist on this film was the dialogue was entirely in Esperanto. It’s a memory Shatner laughs about when reminded of it.
“Leslie Stevens wanted me to play the hero, and I was only too glad to do so. Then somewhat before production, he came to me and said we’re going to do it in Esperanto,” Shatner explained. “Then he asked me if I realized that there are 17 million people who speak Esperanto and that we’d appeal to all of them? What he didn’t realize was that there were seven people in Chicago and three in Cincinnati who spoke Esperanto (laughs). The other part of that which I find funny is that I learned Esperanto by memorizing the vowels and learning it like nonsense syllables, so I had no direction in how to pronounce the words. But I’m sure there are many people who did speak Esperanto looking at the film and thought they were pronouncing it wrong all this time.”
Star Trek was of course what wound up catapulting William Shatner from omnipresent character actor to a pop culture icon whose persona would eventually become indistinguishable from Bill Shatner from Montreal. It’s also where he first met the late Leonard Nimoy, whose friendship would eventually deepen with Shatner until his death last year at the age of 83. And while the duo’s relationship started out as strictly professional and had it’s share of rough patches on the set (Shatner admits “…when [Nimoy] received a lot of attention that I didn’t get, I was jealous but it worked its way out in a very short period of time and we began to build on that relationship”), it became the inspiration for Shatner’s forthcoming book, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man. In it, Shatner examines the question of male friendship and how delicate a manner the nature of it is for men.
“Speaking for myself, friendship was very sparing as a kid. I can’t really think of having a friend in the depth of the meaning that I wish to tell it,” Shatner said. “People playing a game of ball or saying hello—I’m not talking about that kind of friendship. I’m talking about a brotherly love that’s more like that beautiful phrase, ‘A friend knows all about you but still loves you.’ That kind of friendship is very rare. I had that with Leonard due to a number of circumstances which I iterate in the book and I delve into that. I delve into this wonderful man named Leonard Nimoy and what he did with his life and my association with him.”
Music has also played a significant role in Shatner’s career. And while his 1968 debut album, the spoken-word The Transformed Man, has often been held up as an example of bad celebrity singing, the multi-talented entertainer redeemed himself via more recent recordings. While he’s most recently worked with Billy Sherwood of Yes (2013’s Ponder the Mystery) and the star-studded concept album revolving around songs about outer space (2011’s Seeking Major Tom), it was friend and collaborator Ben Folds who helped him gain credibility in the arena of music by way of 2004’s Has Been. It came at a time when a pair of executives from Golden Throat Records approached the actor about a recording project that would have been done in a less-than flattering light. Just then Folds wound up calling in the middle of this meeting.
“[Ben] called me during that exact moment and I said to the guys if they would accept Ben Folds as the producer. They said yes and when I asked him if he’d produce it, he said yes,” Shatner said. “They left and I asked [Ben] what we should do because I knew they were going to mock me. He said, ‘Tell the truth.’ So I sat down and wrote 50 songs with lyrics, used 10 or 12 and he set the music to it and we’ve got a wonderful record there.”
For everything he’s done, Shatner does acknowledge the huge role Star Trek has played in his life. He’s a fan of the J.J. Abrams reboots (“I think it’s terrific…he’s renewed the franchise and everyone is grateful to him for doing so”) and is very measured when he replies to what he thinks the legacy of this storied franchise is.
“It’s an interesting question to ponder on and go off on. You could really do a treatise on that,” he said. “The legacy is an enormous number of people in the millions, if not the billions, came to see Star Trek as a hope for the future. And as a result, tied their own future to the theses promulgated in Star Trek. We know that a lot of people saw the show and came back to the show and the show’s message was that of a positive future against what we keep hearing, which is how dismal that it’s going to be. And that’s part of the charm of Star Trek. The other part of it is mystical and mythical.”