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.
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.
It's the ultimate on-screen example of not only an ego-driven, self-loving boor wanting to hear his own voice, but to hear his own name as well and Shatner offers up the "Denny Crane" name gag as a great example of how he and Kelley feed off each other.
"[David] will see something I do and write to that. An example of that is using my name, Denny Crane. I began to use [the utterance of the name] 'Denny Crane' as an exclamation point, an everything, a flicker of a taste of what's in store. A probe for approval. Name the emotion and it's like a card, a 'how do you feel about this?' It's a litmus test. So [as] I began to do that, he began to write for it. It became something between us.
"I read," Shatner continues, "what he's written and see where he's pointing the character and try and invest the things he writes with a solidarity, an anchoring point, so that the buffoonery is serious and the serious parts are buffoonery...there is a continuity within my contribution to this thing."
Certainly, two of the things that Shatner's contributed to "Boston Legal" are additional Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Shatner took home the Emmy award last year for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series—he was nominated for the award again this year—and he also snagged the 2005 Golden Globe award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
The role of Denny Crane was good to him previously as well; in 2004, while still guest-starring in "The Practice," Shatner won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for the role he was to keep making his own in "Boston Legal."
Shatner gives much of the award credit back to Kelley and D'Elia for the writing and direction, but also offers that he's having fun on the set, something he's rarely said about prior productions.
And, according to a few of his co-stars, he's right; the ensemble cast is having some fun. Mark Valley, the actor who plays the uptight, square-jawed (square, period) attorney Brad Chase, and Rene Auberjonois, the veteran actor who plays the oft-exasperated senior partner Paul Lewiston, both describe Shatner as a "professional" on the set, with the younger Valley referring to Shatner (and Shatner's role as Captain Kirk) as "iconic."
Shatner claims that at least part of the fun he's experiencing on-set is simply due to playing off co-star James Spader. While Kelley has written their characters as polar opposites in many ways—Spader's Alan Shore is a left-leaning Democrat, opposed to the death penalty who, often to his own dismay, takes on the problems of the little guy who can't always afford to pay; while Shatner's Crane is a money-motivated, beef-eating, gun-toting Republican who, when he can't catch a fish via normal means, shoots it—the two male characters share a common love of the law, beautiful women and closing the day out with a stiff drink and a fine cigar.
In what is now the traditional ending to each episode, Shore and Crane wander out to the spacious balcony off of Crane's office and, Scotch and cigar in hand, rehash the high points or lessons learned of the previous 60 minutes.
The wrapping up of each show this way, insists Shatner, just evolved naturally after the first episode aired. A lot of cigars have been lit since then, including a couple—or 10—that Shatner would like to forget.
"We were doing a scene on the balcony," says Shatner, "and the reason we choose long cigars and light them so that it looks like they're freshly lit is because a scene on the balcony could take all day, which means that once you light a cigar, you're stuck with it all day long.
"The further away it is from your face, the less inhalation you're doing. Now," Shatner continues, "James is always telling me, 'Don't inhale. I'm not inhaling, don't inhale.' I, on the other hand, can't get past the fact that puffing on that cigar and letting the cigar exhale from your face, your nose, your mouth, your ears is what somebody who loves a good cigar like I do does. You fully taste it. It's hard to cheat for me, [although] it's easy to be talking with a lit cigar in your hand and drinking and looking like you're smoking...and not draw.
"So I took that to its furthest. I thought, 'With these long cigars, it looks like you just lit them up. Why don't I cut those cigars in half and light half the cigar so it looks like I'd been smoking it for an hour?' So without thinking, early in the morning, we lit up one of those shorter cigars. I'm smoking one of the cigars that we have cut in half, so that it's now close to my mouth and nose and eyes. What I couldn't anticipate was [that] the scene went much, much longer than we expected. I counted 20 small cigar pieces at the end of the scene. I had smoked 20 cigars over a period of several hours, OK? I haven't been sick to my stomach since I was six. That's the truth! I've avoided vomiting like the plague, [and] I went home and I vomited. You know what aversion therapy is? I had aversion therapy for cigars for about six months. It made me sick to even smell one. I'm now back, I'm back off the wagon, but I gave myself aversion therapy and I won't do that again."
Actually, Shatner says, he still smokes a cigar or two when he's off the set, but says that he gets so many as gifts—and has so many problems trying to store them—that he pretty much smokes whatever's at hand.
"I prefer a full-bodied cigar to something subtle," muses Shatner. "The moisture factor in the cigar is critical for it to be a good smoke. If it's too dry, too hot, if it's too moist...it doesn't draw. So keeping the cigar in the exact right condition is critical; it's essential for the enjoyment of a cigar. So that can be a problem on a set."
Shatner discovered that it could also be a problem off the set, especially for someone like himself, who sometimes gets gifts of cigars. "One day, several years ago, I took a pile of the cigars that I had, and I had various humidors—which you've got to keep filling up, and I keep thinking, 'Is it distilled water? Why can't I use water from the tap?'—and I went to a local shop and I said, 'I'd like to rent a humidor.' And I put in thousands of dollars worth of cigars in their rented humidor. And then something happened in my life—it was a very traumatic moment—and I lost track, I lost the memory of having put the cigars there until about a year and a half later when I recalled, 'My God, that's right.'"
Shatner went back to the store, asked for his cigars and was told that, because he'd not frozen them before bringing them in, the cigars had become infested with bugs. As a result, the cigars had to be destroyed and the humidor fumigated. "And I thought," says Shatner, "'that's the worst excuse I've ever heard for stealing my cigars and smoking them because I wasn't around.' I don't know what the truth of the matter was...I'm still puzzled."
While Shatner doesn't elaborate on the traumatic moment in his life that caused him to forget his cigars for a while—one assumes that it may have been the 1999 alcohol- and valium-related drowning of his third wife, Narine, in the couple's pool—it's not hard to imagine Shatner losing track of at least a few things, if not his mind, while changing as many time zones and juggling as many work projects as the man seems wont to do.
In an A&E Biography segment that aired this year, "Boston Legal" co-star Candice Bergen lightheartedly described Shatner as "...an overactive child. He's the Energizer Bunny."
Bergen is referring, one assumes, to the septuagenarian Shatner's schedule, both on-camera and off. When he's not filming "Boston Legal," Shatner can be found on a horse—he and his fourth wife, Elizabeth Anderson Martin, breed award-winning American Saddlebreds—on a motorcycle, on another film set, in a recording studio or en route to yet another time zone.
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.