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Full Speed Ahead

From Captain Kirk on "Star Trek" to Denny Crane on "Boston Legal," William Shatner has played the macho man role with no regrets.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

At 75, Bill Shatner's still got it. • No one who grew up with Shatner portraying James Tiberius Kirk on "Star Trek"—the television series or the movies—the eponymous police hero of "TJ Hooker" or even the longtime host of "Rescue 911" would have difficulty recognizing Bill Shatner today. Sure, there might be a bit more of him to recognize than when he was in his 30s playing Kirk and running around in spandex suits—assuming he wasn't naked from the waist up while kissing green-skinned alien women—but Bill Shatner is still an attractive man. • Even when appearing in those goofy Priceline.com commercials where he can be found warbling songs, comparing women's high-heeled shoes or dressing up in a bellboy's outfit, there's a wink-wink, nudge-nudge flirtation with the viewer that says, "Bill Shatner's still got it. He may be poking fun at himself but, deep down, he is still James Kirk. He is still a man's man, he is still a guy's guy."

He is also exhausted. In the two weeks prior to this interview, Shatner had shuttled between his home in Los Angeles and Cannes to promote his latest films, the animated features The Wild and Over the Hedge, attended a charity event in Israel, worked on a film set in Canada, done an afternoon of voice work in New York and is now back in L.A. for a mix of work and personal business. Within 48 hours he'll be en route to the Caribbean—a vacation this time—and several weeks later he'll begin filming the third season of "Boston Legal."

The television series, David E. Kelley's highly successful spin-off from his previous law drama "The Practice," features Shatner and James Spader (sex, lies, and videotape; Secretary) as the unlikely Laurel and Hardy-ish miscreant attorneys Denny Crane and Alan Shore in the high-priced "Boston Legal" firm of Crane Poole & Schmidt.

The show, crafted each week by Kelley and co-executive producer Bill D'Elia, features an impressive cast of co-stars, including Candice Bergen, Rene Auberjonois, Mark Valley and Julie Bowen, and lets Shatner continue a character that started as a recurring spot on "The Practice," but took on a life of its own under the wickedly adept acting—or impossibly prescient casting—of Bill Shatner.

Denny Crane is a pompous, arrogant yet brilliant attorney who routinely lies, hits on women and forgets things...sometimes when it suits him, sometimes when it doesn't.

For the last two seasons, Denny Crane has contemplated the potential of having early-onset Alzheimer's (or early-stage mad cow disease), ruminated repeatedly on death and regularly offered up script lines that remind viewers that life is short, to stay focused on today and cram as much into the next 24 hours—wine, women, song and pink, Polarfleece flamingo costumes—as you can. To Denny Crane, appearances can't be stressed enough, winning is everything and if you leave a little roadkill behind you on the Alpha Dog Highway, well, circle of life and all that. And, really, Denny Crane might ask the jury, should these folks have even been allowed on the highway to begin with?

What's intriguing is that it's the same message that Shatner conveyed as James T. Kirk, perhaps a tad more subtly, 40 years ago. To be so strongly identified with two different-yet-same character roles—one macho, career-driven and the guy who always gets the alien girl and the other macho, nearing the end of a career and still lusting after and chasing the girl—and to play them with such believability that viewers and critics have trouble differentiating between the man and the character, means that either Shatner is a genuinely brilliant actor, largely underappreciated or overlooked by critics, or an actor lucky enough to have been hired for roles so close to his own persona that the two become inexorably entwined.

Shatner himself has no problem acknowledging that there's a blurry line between Denny Crane, the character, and Bill Shatner, the man and actor. Or at least the industry perception of Bill Shatner, the man and actor.

"David Kelley is a genius, I mean that literally, [and] David himself has said that by watching me work, he writes for me, and I, by watching him write, am able to perform it," says Shatner. "So there's an unusual, if not unique, arrival of two forces that seem to combine, a synthesis of two forces—a writer and actor—that's just very unusual."

As "Boston Legal" fans know, the running gag within the show is Denny Crane's constant—at times absurd—use of his own name to not only introduce himself but to finish a sentence, make a point or simply fill in a conversational gap. Simply muttering "Denny Crane" is a one-stop, two-word response to anything that either intrigues or confuses him. It buys him time, infuriates others and, when whispered into his ear by co-star Candice Bergen, the very hearing of his own name does quite obvious things to a character who's been known to espouse the virtues of multiple partners and Viagra.


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