William Shatner in Shatner's World: We Just Live In It on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre. In the 90-minute show, Shatner illustrates some of his stories with photos and video clips.
Over the past half-century, the wild range of roles played by William Shatner has included a starship captain, a blowhard attorney and the man who can get you a deal on a hotel room.
Now, for the first time since John F. Kennedy was in the White House and James T. Kirk was just a glint in Gene Roddenberry's eye, Shatner has returned to Broadway and the stage.
NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Shatner about his new solo show, Shatner's World: We Just Live In It, which tracks the wild ride that took him from his Montreal boyhood to playing Shakespeare at Canada's Stratford Festival and on to Hollywood and outer space.
NPR: Thanks so much for being with us.
Shatner: Well, thank you. That was put so well I don't have to say anything about myself during this interview.
NPR: Well, let's try it anyway, OK?
Shatner: All right.
NPR: You did a bunch of Broadway shows in the late 1950s and early '60s ...
Shatner: I did.
NPR: ... including The World of Suzie Wong, A Shot in the Dark.
NPR: What roles did you play onstage when you were at the Stratford Festival?
Shatner: Golly. I played in the chorus of Oedipus. I played comedies and dramas. My big claim to fame during the three years I was at Stratford was understudying Henry V and going on without any rehearsal — and I tell that story in the show. ... Tyrone Guthrie, a great English director of that time, said to me — I was understudying Chris Plummer — and they said, "Plummer's ill. Can you go on?" And I had never rehearsed the part, never spoken the part out loud. And I went on.
NPR: Mm-hmm. And it was a success.
NPR: You didn't open your mouth and nothing came out.
Shatner: No. It sometimes felt like that.
NPR: You've — well, you've just made the point. You go back a long way with Christopher Plummer.
Shatner: I do. In fact, I go further back than that. I go back to early radio at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Montreal. So we've had our history together. He's a buddy of mine now. But my memory of him during those early years was one of total respect and admiration. Of course, he's become one of our great actors.
NPR: Mm-hmm. So by the time you did Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, was that part of the attraction for you — getting him onboard?
Shatner: Absolutely. He comes aboard as the leading villain on Star Trek VI, and I went from being his understudy to being his captain.
NPR: And he gets one of the great — as far as I'm concerned — movie lines of all time. In Star Trek VI, after Plummer speaks a line in Klingon, Leonard Nimoy, as Spock, identifies it as "Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1." Then David Warner, as General Chang, responds, "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon."
Shatner: That actually is a great line, and I worship great lines.
NPR: You, I gather, are pretty open about having tinnitus.
Shatner: Right. I have tinnitus. I got it oh, 10, 15 years ago. It drove me mad. I thought I was going to lose my mind.
NPR: Can I ask you to help us understand what it sounds like, what it feels like?
Shatner: Turn on a television set without the station. A lot of people [with tinnitus] have different kinds of sound. But the most common, and mine, is that hiss static. And that's what it's like. And during the time I was going to the doctor, they attempted to reach the nature of the sound, so they had an instrument that played all kinds of hissing. ... So they tweaked the machine until they reached me. And when they reached the same timbre and tone of my sound, I broke into tears: Somebody had hacked their way through this jungle of sound where I was totally alone in my agony, and somebody had reached me. And it just moved me to tears.
NPR: Well, thank you for talking about that.
Shatner: Well, if it can help somebody else — and a lot of people have it, a lot of returning veterans have it. It's caused by a number of things, age being one of them, medication, and mostly traumatic sound. A lot of sound engineers have it. The cilia in your inner ear dies — some of it dies — and this code of silence that you had when you were born is broken, and so it's the brain's activity. If one person ... listening to this can be helped by [my] saying, 'Don't despair. I promise you, eventually you won't hear it. It won't go away, but you won't hear it ... '"
NPR: Was there ever a moment or — I don't know, 10 moments — when you thought you might not make it in show business?
Shatner: Always. I'm thinking here in New York, what happens if I fail? Now, I have every expectation that won't happen. But always the inculcation of the actor is: What happens if I fail? What happens if they don't like me? And that goads every actor. Getting that audience approval is always a question mark, and it's always that flag that flutters in front of you.
NPR: But you see it as a motivational tool?
Shatner: It goads you. It goads you and worries you and pricks you and [there's] never a restful moment until all the elements are put together and the audience is applauding and approving.
NPR: Mr. Shatner, can you say something for us in your fluent Esperanto?
Shatner: Yes. [Foreign language spoken]. It translates: Is this interview at an end?
NPR: You saw that coming, didn't you? Is that truly Esperanto? Forgive me for not knowing.
Shatner: It's nonsense syllables. But I maintain it is Esperanto.
NPR: Well, we should explain. You did ...
Shatner: I did a movie in Esperanto. ... It was designed to be the language, the universal language of Greek, Latin and German words so that it had the roots of many, many of the existing languages. Everybody could learn to speak it. And so you wouldn't need translators, and you could speak Esperanto to each other, there'd be less misunderstanding. It didn't quite work.
NPR: Didn't quite work out. We should explain so people can find it, it's a 1966 film called Incubus.
NPR: Kind of a horror film. I've seen clips.
Shatner: Yeah. It was kind of a horror film. Or else it was a horrible film, I'm not ...
NPR: You know, it occurs to me just while I'm sitting here and were conversing in Esperanto, can you speak Klingon?
NPR: Oh, OK. Just thought I'd ask.
Shatner: Oh, yes, I'm fluent. And when I say fluent it means I spit a lot.
NPR: It's a great spitter's language, isn't it?
Shatner: Right, a spitter language.
NPR: William Shatner, in any language, is back on Broadway, for the first time in 50 years. His solo show, Shatner's World: We Just Live In It, runs at the Music Box Theatre until March 4.