Killing Captain Kirk

A show-stopping visit to Banff last week confirms no one’s mocking William Shatner anymore

Jaime J. Weinman
Photograph by Doug Hyun

On June 16, the last day of the Banff World Television Festival, William Shatner was the subject of the feature interview. You could tell Shatner was in the building because of the line, stretching back and forth across the hotel, to see the Canadian actor and Price­ pitchman. And for the people who got in, he provided the equivalent of a one-man comedy show: getting laughs and applause every few seconds, telling anecdotes about his economics degree at McGill and his work in live theatre, and making fun of the long questions asked by the moderator, Big Bang Theory creator Bill Prady. He asked the video cameras, recording the event, to do a close-up of him so he could re-enact his famous terrified expression from an episode of The Twilight Zone. He delighted the audience with his awareness of a write-in campaign to make him governor general of Canada, saying that a governor general “needs to be old, distinguished and wealthy, and I’m none of those things.”

The questions and answers were so long that there wasn’t much time to discuss his role as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, but there was time to plug an unusual number of projects for a 79-year-old actor: an announcement of an upcoming documentary of his life, and his title role on the upcoming sitcom $#*! My Dad Says. The event confirmed that Shatner, who once had to fight to prove he was more than Kirk, is now a popular personality on his own. Instead of looking for roles, he’s first choice for certain parts; David Kohan, the producer of $#*! My Dad Says, told Maclean’s that when they were looking to cast a man who is “gruff and curmudgeonly and speaks the unvarnished truth,” someone suggested Shatner “and everyone said ‘oh, yes, of course.’ ” And people weren’t lining up out of Star Trek fandom. Gord Lacey, editor of TV Shows on DVD, told Maclean’s he lined up to see the Montrealer because “Shatner is a character by himself.”

Not only a character, but a multi-layered character. The night before his interview, Shatner accepted the festival’s lifetime achievement award with an unusually personal speech, where he admitted to mistakes in “the private part of my existence” and said that his real lifetime achievement award is his marriage to Elizabeth (his fourth wife, who helped him recover from the tragic drowning of his third). Lacey says he saw “some women in the crowd wipe away the little tears welling in their eyes.” Yet less than 24 hours later, he was the wisecracking old actor, the man who, according to Kohan, “can be blunt and still be completely lovable and you’re on his side no matter what he says and to whom he says it.” Which version of Shatner was real, the comic or the sad clown? Even he doesn’t know; when moderator Bill Prady ventured to say that the world’s stereotype of the actor doesn’t fit who he really is, Shatner snapped, “Who am I? If you find out, tell me.”

A few years ago, no one had any doubts about Shatner’s public identity: he was basically a camp figure. Shatner impressionists made a living mocking his habit of pausing in strange places. (He rarely talks like that now; according to him, he asks his wife, “Are they doing me?” when he hears someone imitating his old speech patterns.) Canadian voice actor Maurice LaMarche did an episode of the cartoon Animaniacs making fun of Shatner’s infamous talk-singing performances (like his version of Elton John’s Rocket Man, which he performed with duplicate images of himself); Canada’s science-fiction network, Space, aired a film called William Shatner Lent Me His Hairpiece. He even suffered the indignity of having his character killed off in Star Trek: Generations.

Not that Shatner has been a victim of particularly bad luck. He’s fairly open about the fact that he had a pretty charmed career. As he explained, he got an offer to go to Stratford in its first year, turned it down, and was asked back when it became a success; once there, he got to go on for Christopher Plummer in Henry V, and went to New York with another Stratford production. When he moved to New York, his first role was the lead in a hit Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong. He got Star Trek when a new pilot was filmed and the star of the original pilot, Jeffrey Hunter, pulled out. Everything seemed to come as easily to him as sexy alien women came to Kirk.

But after Trek, his luck seemed to be gone, as it goes for most actors identified with one role. While he pulled out one modestly successful series, the campy T.J. Hooker—in which his toupée always seemed about to fall off—he mostly couldn’t play anything but Kirk, and he didn’t have Leonard Nimoy’s ability to fall back on a directorial career (his one film as a director, Star Trek V, was the worst in the series). The moment that summed up Shatner’s post-Trek career was that Saturday Night Live sketch where he blew up at a bunch of Trekkies with their irrelevant questions.

But something changed. Maybe it was Boston Legal, for which he won an Emmy for playing insane lawyer Denny Crane, helping the uneven show to a 100-episode run. Maybe it was the emergence of a generation that sees his performances as cool rather than mockable: musician Ben Folds collaborated with Shatner on an album that turned his sing-speaking into art, and last year, these stylings were celebrated in the documentary William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet. People used to be afraid of casting him because he’s too associated with Kirk, but now, Kohan says, “There are a lot of people who don’t even know him as Kirk. My 15-year-old daughter knows him as the Priceline guy. I have friends who know him as Denny Crane. He’s iconic to baby boomers as Kirk, but he’s really all over the place now.”

Whatever the turning point was, by the time he arrived at Banff, Shatner no longer needed to tell Star Trek stories to keep people interested. Any time he seemed about to tell a Trek story, he used it as an excuse to segue into something that interested him more, like Stratford director Tyrone Guthrie, or his admiration for the 100-year-old radio and TV writer Norman Corwin. Instead of needing to ask the media to help him promote his projects, he was one of two people the Banff Festival couldn’t prevail upon to grant interviews to individual reporters; the other was Ricky Gervais. Even his following seems to be broader: women, notoriously uninterested in Star Trek (despite, as Lacey says, “how many times he took his shirt off” on the show), laughed at his interview as heartily as they had cried at his acceptance speech.

Shatner didn’t achieve this new status by turning to self-parody like his fellow Canadian Leslie Nielsen. He rarely mocks his work, and insists on being taken seriously: at Banff, he defended his talk-singing of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and said happily that audiences finally came to understand what he was doing. On Raw Nerve, the talk show on which he interviews fellow celebrities (it’s been renewed for a third season), he has serious discussions about issues with the likes of Rush Limbaugh. He’s so confident in himself that he makes people see it his way: TV programming analyst Marc Berman, in town to deliver a lecture on the upcoming U.S. schedule, marvelled to Maclean’s that Shatner “is incredible. They kept joking, and poking fun at him, but he’s pushing 80 years old, and he never stops.”

There’s nothing self-parodic about his performance in the pilot of $#*! My Dad Says, which will air on CTV this September. While his acting style is recognizably his own—broad, old-fashioned—it’s devoid of the weird inflections that impressionists mock: “He performs what the character calls for, not what he thinks William Shatner fans want,” Kohan says. (When a character screams, “My vagina is broken, okay?” it’s Shatner who gets the laugh by disliking that line as much as the audience does.) Because of Shatner’s presence, critics like Berman—who seemed less than confident about the show’s prospects—can’t write it off.

Shatner still has his unintentionally absurd moments. When the new Star Trek movie came out, he publicly complained about not being given a cameo; at that moment, he seemed like his ’90s self, unable to let go of faded glory. But as Shatner left the stage at Banff, to a chorus of boos at having the session cut off after an hour (Shatner agreed with the crowd that the next, boring panel should be cancelled instead, but the management wouldn’t hear of it), it almost felt like the presence of a new, younger Kirk had helped him create his own identity, with a mix of emotion and humour that’s more unpredictable than Gene Roddenberry’s. “Everybody loves him here,” Berman said after he heard the reaction to Shatner’s acceptance speech. It’s Shatner’s triumph that Berman wasn’t talking about James T. Kirk.