The Tao of Shatner

Riffing on the wonders of the Star Trek icon as he beams into The Smith Center

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

“Whatever else you may be—and you’re probably mad as a hatter; when they take your brain apart they’ll find that you were singularly nuts—you’re a genuine guy. And more to the point, you’re a true original.” Actress Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager to William Shatner in the documentary The Captains Close Up.

Screw that damn commercial—The Most Interesting Man in the World is not that silver-bearded, supercilious fop in the pompous beer ad.

The Most Interesting Man in the World is William Shatner. … Deal with it.

“I think of myself as callow and shallow and ignorant and so stupid about everything, and yet, every so often, I think, well, maybe I know something,” says the sonorous, iconic voice at the other end of the communicator. (Call it a phone if you’ve never zipped through the Trek-verse, but really … how many of you are there?)

Callow, shallow, ignorant and stupid? Musings of self-loathing were long anathema to the image of the venerable Capt. Kirk—a.k.a. “Capt. Quirk” and “Capt. Jerk” to his detractors (including a few ex-Star Trek castmates).

Such heathens should be banished to a primitive planet in the hinterlands of the cosmos, light years out of beaming range. All the rest of us, at least in Las Vegas, should attempt to squeeze into The Smith Center on January 20 for El Capitan’s one-night-only touring Broadway show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It.

(Yes, this story is a Shatner love-in, 100 percent objectivity-free.)

Write a Captain’s Log entry, Stardate: Early 21st century, on Shatner’s life and it would read: Broadway star. Prolific author. Documentarian. Interviewer. Recording artist (OK, maybe “artist” is a stretch). Hilarious talk-show guest. Pitchman with a comic flair. … Oh, and still-active actor.

“Here I am. I’m still able to talk, I still have my wits about me,” he says. “I’m having the best time.”

Bottom line: Shatner—who’s steaming toward his 83rd birthday in March with a driving life force that mocks his octogenarian status—seems to be The Most Intellectually Curious Man in the World. And The Most Active Man in the World. And The Most Absolutely Delighted to Be Alive Man in the World. And—if your TV  is the gauge—The Most Ubiquitous Man in the World.

Which makes him The Most Interesting Man in the World.

More than 95 minutes, Shatner’s World offers credible evidence to that effect, taking theatergoers on a tour of his life, built around a nearly 65-year career. “To quote a famous Star Trek catchphrase, resistance is futile to William Shatner’s one-person show,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter in its 2012 review of the Broadway version, noting that Shatner “is such an engagingly hammy and funny raconteur that only the most curmudgeonly will begrudge him this celebration of his life and career.”

Predictably, the Star Trek theme sets the mood, but Shatner subverts expectations of pretense—excepting the staggeringly self-important (and wink-wink) show title—by yelling from the wings: “No! No! No! No! No! I’m not beaming in. You said I could make an entrance with a rocket strapped to my ass!” No grand curtain-rising follows—just Shatner ambling in from stage left to laughter, wearing a crinkly grin.

“It’s scary, a one-man show,” he says, recalling his opening night on Broadway in 2012. “I was facing the critics and I had food poisoning. I can’t leave the toilet for more than 30 minutes, and it’s an hour-and-a-half show. But I do it. And the emotion I felt coming across the footlights at me, only stirred in me an equal amount of emotion that went the other  way.”

Beginning with his Montreal childhood, the multimedia Shatner voyage—aided by video clips, still photos, even a song—pinballs from homey memories (summer camp); to acting anecdotes (subbing, terrified, for future Star Trek VI co-star Christopher Plummer in Henry V); to hilarious embarrassments (butchering “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on The Tonight Show as a horrified Johnny Carson looked on); to philosophizing (love, loss, risk, death).

Yes, there are forays into a storied TV career with more series than anyone save hardcore Shatner-ites could rattle off. (Star Trek, T.J. Hooker, The Practice, Boston Legal, Rescue 911, $#*! My Dad Says, Shatner’s Raw Nerve—and others we’ve likely forgotten.) Oh, and that spokesman gig that—paired with his Emmy-winning portrayal of Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal—lent him comedy cred, a second and third career wind and a hip factor among original Trekkers’ grandkids.

“The through-line of the show is saying yes to life,” Shatner says. “It’s so easy to say no—‘No, I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to try something new, I don’t want a new idea, I don’t want to meet somebody new.’ Saying yes requires courage. That’s what you have to do to make your life meaningful to you.”

Late-stage Shatner has been revelatory, a triumph of evolution and reinvention.

Try finding another celebrity whose intense curiosity about the world remains unabated, even amped-up, into his ninth decade of living, coupled with a twinkly, infectious joy about it all. You’re more likely to hit Warp Nine in a Ford Focus.

“He’s still got the things I found so sexy,” says actress Nana Visitor of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the documentary The Captains Close Up. “It’s a fire in his belly that he’s not afraid to light, and show.”

Over his life and career, Shatner has morphed from a strapping leading man and sci-fi icon derided in some quarters as an egotist’s egotist, into a cuddly, life-hugging humanist/leprechaun with a self-deprecating streak as wide as a Klingon warbird.

“The more you know, the more there’s a mystery,” says Shatner, whose inquisitiveness was never more evident than on Shatner’s Raw Nerve, his Biography Channel show that was the quirkiest, most compelling chat-fest since Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow. Part thoughtful shrink, part hard-charging interrogator, part amiable barfly one stool over, Shatner probed marquee names from every corner of the celebrity universe, from Leonard Nimoy to “Weird Al” Yankovic and Rush Limbaugh to Jenna Jameson.

Over the show’s run, Shatner proved to be one of TV’s best interviewers, unafraid to interrupt guests when something they said—a seemingly insignificant aside or a too-pat explanation—raised his radar. Doggedly, often leaning in for emphasis, he kept quizzing until he’d extract insights that would elude many traditional journalists.

Shatner wasn’t doing a job. Shatner was just … interested.

“I loved doing that show, wandering that path,” Shatner says. “That’s why I had the seats so close, because it’s that nonverbal language you see from somebody, that takes you right there. You’re not so close that you’re intimidating, but close enough to see their pupils and the reaction and the twitch.”

How does the Shatner brain function? Ask him about the anti-Semitism he endured during his Canadian childhood, and you get an analogy that begins with Doberman pinschers.

“We have two female puppies. One of the puppies and our 7-year-old [Doberman] attacked the 9-month-old puppy. The puppy is screaming and mauled a little and in shock. I got the other two off her and got her back in her crate. She’s OK, but what will the effect be on that puppy having been mauled?”

This is relevant … how?

“Well, what was the effect on me of all those years having to fight Catholic kids who were mauling me and made me so ashamed of being Jewish, when I had to look both ways where the shul [synagogue] was when I went in for my Hebrew lessons?” he asks. “You’re not aware of how that mauling has conditioned your behavior until much later, when you say, ‘What made me angry? Why did I say that? Is it because I had to fight so hard back then?’”

In a polarized culture where changing one’s mind is less a sign of intellectual growth than a character flaw, Shatner’s willingness—indeed, delight—to have undergone a Star Trek epiphany is refreshing. Initially a critic of the idea of the Next Generation spinoff series, he has warmly bonded with Patrick Stewart (a.k.a. Next-Gen’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard) who persuaded Shatner to embrace his Star Trek legacy. Famously, in a 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch, Shatner told Trek conventioneers to “Get a life, will you people?” Pulling a 180 in recent years, he’s made documentaries detailing the Trek phenomenon, earnestly and respectfully examining the franchise’s meaning to fans.

Employing the word “peripatetic” undersells Shatner, when you factor into everything else, his sidelights as an author (Star Trek novels and the TekWar sci-fi series), filmmaker (nine documentaries) and a quirky (to say the least) music career (recording with Brad Paisley and Ben Folds).

Don’t have time to sample all that? Distill The Shatner Experience into his vampy digressions on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson—whether he’s in the guest’s chair or dropping in on Ferguson’s goofy cold openings, puffing cigars with the offbeat Scotsman and swapping bizarre non sequiturs.

Tell him he’s a stitch to watch because he seems to be having so much damn fun just being himself, and he doesn’t simply accept the compliment, but runs it through the Shatner thought processor. “I never thought of that,” he says. “I heard Ferguson say that and I thought, ‘I wonder how he means that?’ How interesting that is. That’s a truth I never thought of. It’s not like a chore. It’s, ‘Let me entertain you.’”

As Jonathan Frakes—Commander Riker in The Next Generation—says in The Captains Close Up: “That twinkle in his eye has just gotten brighter and brighter and brighter.”

While chronologically in twilight, Shatner spiritually basks in sunlight, which he explains in The Captains Close Up: “I’m saying to life, and therefore to death: I’m not extinguished yet.”

Sum up the Shatner-esque essence in the final scene of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and its reference to Peter Pan:

Chekov: “Course heading, Captain?”

Kirk: “Second star to the right—and straight on till morning.”

That’s the galactic path to Neverland, where William Shatner never grows old.


7:30 p.m. Jan. 20, Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center, $29 and up, 749-2000,

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