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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 3)

At the very start of the interview, Shatner admits, grudgingly, to being jet-lagged, a normal, human, physical impairment that most certainly differentiates him from a certain character who beamed from one planet to another without much more than a nod to an engineer or a solemnly uttered "Beam me up, Scotty."

Shatner's eyes are red, he's terse and obviously anxious to use what little time he's got at home in Los Angeles to visit one of his daughters and a couple of grandkids. Family, Shatner will tell you, is hugely important to him these days. He talks adoringly of his wife, Elizabeth, easily chats about the successes and happy lives of his three daughters, and comes as close to a genuine smile as we'll experience during this interview when he's discussing his five grandchildren.

This closeness to family hasn't always been a major priority to the career-driven Shatner and, apparently, neither was closeness to co-workers. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal, Canada, William Shatner learned very early on that being onstage and acting was great, but that being onstage as the lead—the applause, the attention, the admiration—was even better. "I played Prince Charming a few times and, well, Prince Charming...!" Shatner remembers, the implication being that it didn't get any better than getting to play the hero, have the majority of the script lines and get the girl.

It's a role—both on-camera and off—that Shatner has seemingly aspired to and fought for over his six-plus decades in show business. As a preteen and teenager in Canada, he appeared in theater productions and acted on-air for the Canadian Broadcasting Co. before being pressured by his father to go to business school and join the family apparel business. The young, camera-friendly Shatner earned the business degree but hated the idea of business unless it involved his love of acting and the negotiating of contracts, fees, royalties and the size and location of dressing rooms.

Shatner eventually joined the Stratford Shakespeare Festival under Sir Tyrone Guthrie and, following a role in a Guthrie production that took the troupe to New York, moved to the Big Apple with his first wife, actress Gloria Rand. Shatner managed to nab numerous television roles before, he says, a casting agent noticed that his cheekbones were similar enough to veteran actor Yul Brynner's to earn the young, still-unknown Shatner a role as the youngest brother in the big-screen production of The Brothers Karamazo.

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.

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."

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