ICON: William Shatner

Posted on 19. Apr, 2009 by in Profiles

words by Randy Gambill

William Shatner qualifies as a cultural icon with the utterance of just two words: STAR TREK. As Captain James T. Kirk, Shatner created a lasting impression on popular culture with his legendary role in the seminal, original series and its many spin-offs including: seven feature films, an animated series, Star Trek-related books, video games, and the eventual DirecTV ad. But wait (dramatic Shatner –esque pause) there’s more. Shatner is also an Emmy award-winning actor, a reality show host, an author of autobiographies and science fiction literature, a wily game and talk show guest, and memorably, on occasion, a golden-throated recording artist. Shatner is a fully-equipped cultural icon in this universe and any other. 

Shatner was born in Montreal, Quebec and after graduating college in Canada he began his acting career. One of his earliest roles was “Ranger Bill” on the Canadian version of The Howdy Doody Show. But Shatner was trained as a classical Shakespearean actor and soon the Bard beckoned with Shatner essaying a number of Shakespearean roles including a stint in Henry V. He made his Broadway debut in another classical play, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great

Shatner’s first substantial feature role came in the 1958 MGM film The Brothers Karamazov with Yul Brynner, in which Shatner played the youngest of the Karamazov brothers. After a series of increasingly important stage, film, and TV roles including Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg and a particularly memorable Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, Shatner replaced Jeffrey Hunter from the original Star Trek pilot to become the Captain of the USS Starship Enterprise, thereby carving out his place in our pop cultural legacy. 

It is easy to be dismissive of Shatner’s work on the show: the overly arch line readings, odd dramatic pauses, and the gratuitous tendency to lose his shirt; but there is a reason Shatner’s performance in Gene Roddenberry’s landmark series resonates - it is simply amazing. Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk was one for the ages - by turns heroic, intellectually curious, extremely emotional; Shatner is bursting with the kind of star wattage that transforms a show from a usually cold genre into a heated inter-galactic star vehicle. The chemistry between him and Leonard Nimoy as Spock is truly something to behold, a splendid dance between two equally matched polar opposites forging a mutual understanding and affection for one another while traipsing through the universe mingling with Vulcans and green-skinned chicks. It was a quintessential screen duo and one of TV’s earliest and most definitive bromances. The show was only a moderate hit at first, but it developed a fervent cult following, and it’s resurgence in the late 70’s made Shatner a bona fide star, and he top-lined the series of big budget theatrical films that canonized the Star Trek phenomenon.

The decade or so between the end of the series and the start of the feature films was not pretty for Shatner. He fell on hard times. There were lengthy periods of unemployment, a stint living in a truck bed camper in the Valley, a series of unmemorable guest turns on 70’s cop shows, and regular appearances on silly game shows (He infamously threw a chair on The 20,000 Dollar Pyramid when his mistake cost a contestant a big money win). A spoken word album, The Transformed Man featuring Shatner’s unintentionally (?) hilarious renditions of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Mr. Tambourine Man, began his descent into camp. An even more hilarious televised rendition of Elton John’s Rocket Man cemented it. There was the occasional really odd tribute - Shatner’s visage in the form of a cheap Halloween Captain Kirk mask was altered, painted white, and used as the mask for Michael Myers in the Halloween films. Even in career purgatory Shatner’s presence was felt in unusually significant ways.

Of course he made a triumphant return. Shatner’s resurgence as Kirk in the movies led to another successful TV vehicle, the 80’s cop series T.J. Hooker, and he hosted the popular reality show Rescue 911 from 1989-1996. In the new millennium, Shatner navigated a career resurgence that is nothing short of miraculous. He landed the most lauded role of his career and entered into another successful TV bromance, this time with James Spader. As the idiosyncratic lawyer Denny Crane in not one, but two David E. Kelley acclaimed series The Practice and Boston Legal, Shatner performed with such perfectly crafted brio that late in his career he was showered with the industry’s most prestigious awards, including two Emmys and a Golden Globe. He even redeemed his singing career by collaborating with musician Ben Folds on his album Fear of Pop. In 2004 Folds returned the favor by producing and co-writing Shatners well-received second studio album, Has Been, with collaborators including Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, and Joe Jackson.

Shatner has actually managed an impossible feat, going from serious young actor to television star to campy has-been and back around again to respected, accomplished actor. He has sunk into the depths of pop-culture irrelevancy and climbed back to the heights of show business esteem. He has definitively parodied his most famous creation (On a classic SNL skit he screams at some Star Trek fans to “Get a life!”) and has memorably deviated from it with moving and accomplished performances. 

He has been roasted, despised openly by co-stars, banned from the game show circuit (the chair throwing incident), been a guest photographer for Playboy magazine, participated in the first interracial kiss on U.S. dramatic television (with Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura), withstood painful, tabloid-worthy personal crises, and is currently hawking for Priceline, but through it all he has maintained a career that has ultimately become truly impressive. Because at his core, beneath the over-acting and hammy grandiosity resides a true artist and a gifted actor - an undeniably charismatic persona that refuses to be denied. 

And though, true to controversial form, he is not associated with JJ Abrams’ eagerly awaited re-interpretation of Star Trek, this space voyager’s star is not diminished. There is a permanent place in the Icon Universe for William Shatner. And he can beam us up there anytime.

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