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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

(continued from page 1)

More movies were to follow, including Judgment at Nuremberg and The Intruder, as well as guest spots on some of the most popular television series of the time, such as "The Fugitive," "Big Valley, "The Twilight Zone" and "Route 66." More than a few of his guest appearances during the early- and mid-1960s revolved around fantasy/sci-fi themes or had him playing an idealistic young hero. Any one of these roles could have caught the eye of a Hollywood writer and director by the name of Gene Roddenberry.

CAPTAIN'S LOG
On September 8, 1966, William Shatner debuted in a television series that promised to take viewers where no man had gone before. Filmed at Desilu and picked up by NBC, "Star Trek" offered the audience "space, the final frontier" as the backdrop to a series of adventures that charged a racially, ethnically mixed crew from the starship Enterprise with the task of roaming the universe in search of new worlds and new civilizations, oftentimes where they weren't wanted.

The show, which co-starred Leonard Nimoy as the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock and DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, was revolutionary on many fronts, including the fact that many of the issues it tackled were still quasi-taboo on television at the time. Issues surrounding war, democracy, women leaders and interracial—sometimes inter-species—relationships were all fair game to Roddenberry and the writers of "Star Trek," as was the show's core story line that the power behind a major country, world or "federation" had the right and obligation to explore and right perceived wrongs in other worlds and other cultures.

Other actors chosen to act on the "Star Trek" series only added to the sense of cultural unity and racial blindness that Roddenberry saw as the future; Nichelle Nichols, an African-American woman, was hired to play Lieutenant Nyota Uhuru, the ship's communications officer, while George Takei, an established Japanese film and television actor, who'd appeared on "I Spy" "Perry Mason" and "The Twilight Zone," came on board as the Enterprise's helmsman, Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu.

Another Canadian actor, James Doohan, played the gruff engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, complete with a credible Scottish accent, and Walter Koenig was hired on to be the Russian navigator, Pavel Chekov. If, with the exception of the scripted bickering between Nimoy's Spock and Kelley's McCoy, there was harmony among the crew of the Enterprise, that didn't seem to extend to the cast beyond the cues of "rolling," "cut" and "take."

In tales too many to enumerate here, almost the entire cast of the original "Star Trek" series have recounted stories of petty arguments, verbal sparring matches and even threatened walkouts over issues involving ego, the number of lines in a particular script and "face time" on screen. With almost every regular cast member from "Star Trek" having written an autobiography, not to mention the thousands of media interviews conducted over the franchise's 40-year history, the one constant has been that while the crew of the Enterprise may have loved and respected Captain Kirk, the cast and crew of the television series disliked Bill Shatner intensely.

Shatner denied or ignored the rumors of unrest for more than two decades, but as the autobiographies proliferated and the cast and crew were repeatedly quoted in interviews following every movie installment or Trekkie convention, he finally acknowledged that he was at least aware of the animosity.

Why it ever existed, he says, puzzles him immensely.

"I feel affronted. I feel that I've been assailed by some of them," complained Shatner in one of his own biography-style documentaries, "and, in defense, I've thought, 'Well, I don't like them,' but that's childish. I have no feeling of animosity. I never did feel or understand what I read is their distaste for me."

Shatner recounts a particularly odd experience in which he was interviewing fellow cast mate Nichelle Nichols for an autobiography that he himself was working on. At the end of the interview, Nichols stopped him with "wait, don't you want to hear how much we hated you?"

Shatner makes it clear that Nichols wasn't pulling his chain, but insists that he's still stymied by what prompted Nichols' comment that day or her earlier reference to him as an "insensitive, hurtful egoist." As recently as the A&E Biography filming, Shatner has continued to express perplexity over others' take on him.

The cable series, usually fairly deferential to celebrity subjects, referenced during the segment some of the accusations made against Shatner by those he'd worked with in the past, and quoted George Takei as saying that "Bill seemed totally immune to the sensitivities or efforts of those he worked with." In the same segment, following some sensitive questions about Shatner's abilities and sensibilities while on the show, even the usually very careful, very discreet Leonard Nimoy offered a modestly tongue-in-cheek response and a spontaneous outburst of laughter.

In spite of other cast mates' and biographers' statements to the contrary, Nimoy and Shatner have long purported to be friends offstage as well as on, and Nimoy is almost always complimentary when discussing Shatner, the man, and Shatner, the actor.

"Bill's energy was very good for my performance because I could then be the cool individual," Nimoy, referring to his Spock character, says in the Biography segment. "Our chemistry was successful right from the start. Very competitive [and] sibling rivalry up to here," he finishes, bringing his hands well over his head.

Nimoy simply smiles after hearing some additional comments from other cast mates, but finally breaks down for an uncharacteristically open laugh when one of the questions seems to imply scene stealing. "Bill Shatner hogging the stage?" Nimoy grins before breaking out into a belly laugh. "Never! Not the Bill Shatner that I know."

Shatner, for the most part, insists that things were great on the set and suggests that perhaps any conflict that's come to light is more about perceptions and perceived wrongs than actual slights.

"I try to explain it this way: [Leonard Nimoy] and DeForest and I were the three people who were there every day. We worked our lengthy day [and] we were three buddies, buddies almost the whole time—with some exceptions—and they came in, the other members of the cast, on occasion...a day a week, maybe. Sometimes not. And when the show was over, everyone was happy, at least as far as I knew.

"Then the conventions started, and the actors would go to the conventions and the audience would get up and applaud, and slowly, I think, the cast members began to consider themselves leads in the film and no longer wanted to take a backseat, [and] their perception of what the reality was had changed. I think of them with affection, and knowing them as long as [I] did adds to the mystique of affection. So I'm puzzled by their reaction."

When pressed to explain whether what he feels could genuinely be called affection or not, he pauses. "Yes...removed. Affection for the image that one sees against the person inside." That Shatner played Captain Kirk with gusto and energy is one thing that can't be denied; his dramatic, highly unique way of emoting lines—always part of his acting style, but rarely as dramatic as on "Star Trek"—became infamous. The delivery was not unlike machine gun fire; abrupt starts and stops, long bursts punctuated with the occasional pause, and then another burst before stopping abruptly again.

This staccato delivery is so unique to Shatner that the style's been nicknamed "Shatnerian" (in contrast to Shatner being known to answer questions in oblique terms, often refusing to answer at all, which is referred to by the media as "Shatnerise"). After years of denying that he delivers his lines in a markedly distinct way, even Shatner now admits that, well, if he does it, he's not aware of it.

It's akin, he says, to the unique speaking styles of truly great actors such as Jimmy Stewart and Edward G. Robinson, even though, he suspects, they weren't aware of it.

The cancellation of "Star Trek" after only 78 episodes, Shatner has claimed, resulted from Paramount Pictures' desire to move the show to the big screen to capitalize on the cult-like popularity that the series had gained.

When National Public Radio's Bob Edwards suggested to Shatner in a 1994 interview that the very concept of "Star Trek" was, for some, a "...philosophy, a religion, something very deep and wonderful for them that fed some need in their lives," Shatner instantly quipped back with "it certainly fed a need in my life, didn't it? Put my kids through school."

Shatner went on to explain that Paramount Pictures had canceled the television series because the studio "...felt that making these films would be more profitable for them. I can't recall at any other time in entertainment history whereby a show is taken off the air at the height of its popularity and it's due to the fact that they wanted to make movies."

As Spock would say, fascinating. Neither history nor Shatner's fellow actors remember it quite that way. In spite of its five-year mission, "Star Trek," at least the initial incarnation, was dry-docked after three seasons due to poor ratings. It gained viewers only after it went into syndication in the early 1970s and began appearing on an odd array of television channels during equally odd hours of the day and night. In fact, Paramount Pictures' first attempt at a "Star Trek" feature film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, didn't come out until 1979, a decade after the original series had stopped being produced.

The impetus for the production of the movie was simple, remembers George Takei. Another George—producer/director George Lucas—and Twentieth Century Fox had had considerable success with another space-themed movie, Star Wars, and Paramount wanted to cash in on what it may have seen as a craze for which it had originally sown the seeds.

CAPTAIN'S QUARTERS
The decade between the television series and the first Star Trek movie wasn't what cast members had scripted for themselves, especially Shatner, who had become divorced from Gloria Rand toward the end of the series' three-year run. According to Shatner, Gloria wound up with the couple's house, the children and some healthy child-support payments, all at a time when the prospect of losing his series was a very real possibility with every Arbitron rating.

Shatner's father had died during this same period, and Shatner's grief, combined with the prospect of losing his family, encouraged him, perhaps, to explore new frontiers—female frontiers—at what has been suggested was warp factor two. Or seven.

Shatner, who for years had either ignored or denied rumors of a rather robust hobby of chasing women, responds to them now with a certain "Shatnerise."

"Doing a series is backbreaking work. It's like coal mining, although you might get some arguments from the coal miners. Still, fourteen-, eighteen-hour days, day in, day out. All the mental and physical work that you're required to do is life-consuming."

If the implication is that the divorce was inevitable based on his strenuous work schedule and his own demanding work ethic, he also apparently saw an obligation to meet others' needs with just as intrepid a work ethic and completion of duty.

"I was lost and lonely. I got divorced in the middle of the series and took affection," Shatner pauses, "wherever I could find it. Not every week from every one of the beautiful girls that was on the show, but there was always someone around who, uh, had needs to be fulfilled and who needed to fulfill."

While his explorations on the romance frontier might have been taking place at light speed, the wrapping up of the series meant that Shatner had not only career goals to fulfill but also child support payments; toward the end of the series, Shatner began to take on big-screen—if not big-budget—projects like Incubus, a sci-fi/fantasy film spoken entirely in the constructed language of Esperanto, Big Bad Mama and Comanche Blanco, a low-budget film that had Shatner playing twin, half-breed Comanche brothers living in the Old West.

Shatner took summer stock roles, driving cross-country to the theater productions and often living in his truck's camper to save money. There were guest appearances on television series like "Medical Center," "Mission: Impossible," "Mannix" and "Marcus Welby, MD" before he was asked to voice Captain Kirk once more, this time for a Saturday morning cartoon production.

Shatner had married Marcy Lafferty, a production assistant, in 1973, and even as the actor was figuring out his next career move, a new generation of "Star Trek" fans, watching reruns of the original series on television, was helping to make that decision for him. He was asked to reprise Captain (soon to be Admiral) Kirk in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984.


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