William Shatner Interview: 'Shatner's World' In his new one-man show, William Shatner talks about his childhood growing up in Montreal — and the ups and downs of creating iconic characters, from starship captain James T. Kirk to lawyer Denny Crane.

In 'Shatner's World,' Stories About Acting, Loss, Life

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

William Shatner has played two iconic TV roles decades apart. In the 1960s, he was Captain James T. Kirk in NBC's "Star Trek." More recently, he starred as unpredictable attorney Denny Crane in ABC's "Boston Legal." And at the age of 80, he's still performing. He's recorded and released a two-CD concept album called "Seeking Major Tom," and currently, he's starring in an autobiographical one-man stage show called "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." The show just concluded a limited Broadway run and begins a nation-wide tour Saturday in Los Angeles.

William Shatner was born in Montreal, studied economics at McGill University, and performed at the Shakespearean Stratford Festival of Canada before embarking on the stage and screen career in the U.S. Before "Star Trek," his other memorable TV roles included playing to a terrified airline passenger in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a 1963 episode of the "Twilight Zone."

Our TV critic David Bianculli spoke to William Shatner last week when he was in the final days of performing "Shatner's World" on Broadway.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: William Shatner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WILLIAM SHATNER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be at FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: I've seen one-man Broadway show...

SHATNER: Have you? Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ..."Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."


BIANCULLI: And you're about to go on a nationwide tour.


BIANCULLI: As a conversational biography, it seems pretty complete. It's got your early acting roles, your love of horses, the days of TV's "Star Trek" and "Boston Legal." But I want to start off by asking, there's an early TV highlight that you don't mention, and I'm really curious about why you didn't. So it's all the way back to 1957. It's a live TV installment of the CBS anthology series "Studio One."

SHATNER: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: So, yes, it's 55 years ago, but I consider it a really important moment in TV history.

SHATNER: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: It's Reginald Rose's "The Defender."

SHATNER: Yes, "The Defenders." I did a lot of those live television - I refer to them, ending up with "Playhouse 90."


SHATNER: Reggie Rose's "The Defenders" was a huge thing, and - but...

BIANCULLI: And this was the pilot, where - it's father-son lawyers, and in the pilot, Ralph Bellamy was the father and you were the son. And the client that you were defending on a murder charge was, indeed, Steve McQueen.


BIANCULLI: Well, let's hear a clip from it. This is from "Studio One," "The Defender," 1957.

SHATNER: Wow, you are going back.

BIANCULLI: I am going - well, it's only 55 years. I'm sorry. You've had a very long career.

SHATNER: That's true.

BIANCULLI: So this is you as a young defense attorney, and you're doing a preliminary interview to try to pull more information out of your client, who is played by a very young Steve McQueen.


SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Now when you brought the delivery up in the elevator, what did you do with it?

STEVE MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I told you. I rang the bell. She opened the back door, and I handed her the package.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Don't you usually ring the bell, leave the delivery leaning against the door and get back into the elevator?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah, that's what I do.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Why did you wait?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I told you. I thought maybe I could get a tip.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) I see. And then you came back down in the elevator.

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) But the elevator man says you didn't.


MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I don't care what he said. What do you want from me, huh? I came down on the elevator.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Then what did you do?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I got on the subway, and I went home.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Why didn't you call the butcher shop and tell them you were sick?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I was too sick to call.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) What do you take for your headaches, Joe?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I told you: codeine.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Do you have any at home?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Where do you keep it?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Next to my bed.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Did you take any when you got home?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah. How many more times even ask me?

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) I'm asking you because you might have forgotten something, something important.

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I didn't forget nothing.

BIANCULLI: That was Steve McQueen and our guest, William Shatner, as client and defense attorney in the 1957 live TV production of "The Defender."

SHATNER: That sounds good, doesn't it?

BIANCULLI: When is the last time you heard that?

SHATNER: I've never heard it.


BIANCULLI: That was not the answer I expected. So what goes through your mind as you're hearing something from...

SHATNER: Oh, I'm listening to a younger voice. I'm listing to how good Steve McQueen is. I'm listening to the rapidity of the delivery. I'm listening to the spontaneity involved in there, and I'm thinking, hey, that sounds darn good.

BIANCULLI: I thought it was darn good, too. What are the differences in intensity between acting on live TV and on Broadway, and even before an audience on a sitcom, all of which you've done?

SHATNER: Well, I suppose the immediate answer is that there's no difference. You start from a germ of truth, and if it's a comedy, you go to a comedic area that's almost inexplicable. So many people on Broadway wanted to do live television, because it was a way of earning a living that was very similar, but it was also intimidating. You're intimidated by the fact that you had to be perfect. If I had fluttered at all, uh, uh, uh, uh, I'd have been left out to dry. There's no help. Then there's the cameras. The cameras come floating in. They're huge. They're warm, and they're like animals. And then this red light goes on...


SHATNER: ...and it's staring you in the face, and you've got to be truthful. So it's intimidating to a lot of people.

BIANCULLI: You say in your most recent book that by the time you get on stage, you're no longer thinking about the words. Is that still true?

SHATNER: Well, that's the epitome. That's what you want to work for. You want to work to the point where you no longer - I ride horses a lot, and in riding a horse, you need to be in balance. So you're taught to be in balance - head, shoulders, hips, legs all in balance, and there's a whole technical thing that you're taught that sometimes can take years. When you're done, the technical part - I ski.

When you're done, the technical part of skiing and horses, you're then into the joy, into the Zen, you're into the mysteriousness, into the mystery of the thing you're doing - like the mystery of a horse, like communicating with a horse with your hands and your legs and your voice - that is almost imperceptible, both to you and the horse. When you're skiing a hill and you swoop down over a swell and you you use the swell to caress your skis and you're playing the hill like a piece of music, and that's at its epitome. That's what an actor does with the words.

BIANCULLI: The night I saw your play, the most memorable thing to me, the most touching thing wasn't even words, and it wasn't a story that I would consider that you had told many, many times. It was you folding and a jacket, and the way, the preciseness with which you folded it and why. Can you talk about that?

SHATNER: Well, my father was in the clothing business, and he once showed me how to fold a jacket for shipping. The thought was when I was a young man, I was going to go into this small business, and with my youth and vigor and his intelligence, we would make it a bigger business, and the family would have more sustenance. We weren't poor, but, you know, we weren't rich. We were in the lower end of the middle-class and we had enough to get by, but we weren't in luxury, by any means. So the whole idea was I was the only son. I was going to go into the family business.

So my father showed me how to fold a jacket, and I remembered that, because he folded it with such care. It was like a sculptor putting the last touches on his sculpturing, sanding that last moment. And it became, in my mind's eye, for years, a part of my father. So when I thought of telling the story of my father's death, it came to me that I would tell it through the act of his jacket and how - so I take my jacket off, and it becomes part of my father. And then I lay it to rest in a coffin, and then I bury it. And then the most moving moment for me is that I come to the conclusion that life doesn't have to end with death if love is present, and I put the jacket back on.

BIANCULLI: There's no way of getting around an interview with you when we're talking about your whole career without getting to your most iconic role of James T. Kirk in "Star Trek."

SHATNER: That's cool.

BIANCULLI: But I thought that we would start by playing a clip. I found something where you're giving a little speech, so it shows the way you act as James T. Kirk, but it talks about a philosophy that sounds not too far removed from the one that you talk about in you new Broadway show. So here's a scene in which Capt. James T. Kirk is encouraging his team to see that the advantages of a starship trump its risks.


SHATNER: (as Captain James T. Kirk) Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon, or that we hadn't gone on to Mars, and then to the nearest star? That's like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to. I'm in command. I could order this, but I'm not, because Dr. McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this, but I also point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great. Risk. Risk is our business. That's what this starship's all about. That's why we're aboard her.

BIANCULLI: That's our guest William Shatner in his iconic role as a starship Captain James T. Kirk in the 1960s TV series "Star Trek."

SHATNER: God, 50 years ago. Unbelievable.

BIANCULLI: Almost. Almost. So, well, you say in your Broadway show that it's easy to say no. It's risky to say yes.


BIANCULLI: Does that speak to you through the world of "Star Trek," that long ago? I mean, are you speaking to you?

SHATNER: You know, I listen to that speech - yes. It's easy to say no, I'm not going to do that. I'm not leaving the house. I don't - I'm happy with what I've got. No, I'm not going there. No, I don't want a new idea. The old idea is fine. No. And you're safe. You're right in your little hole. You haven't moved, and what you did before is what you're doing now, and that's safe. That's comforting. You're going to die that way. Yes requires you to move out of that hole. Yes is like those little animals that pop their head out...


SHATNER: ...you know, that look around, what, what's going on? I'm back in my hole. But some of them don't go. Some of them, what is that wonderful series where these little animals...

BIANCULLI: The meerkats?

SHATNER: Meerkats.

BIANCULLI: "Meerkat Manor."

SHATNER: Yeah. There you go. It's a meerkat. You want to be a meerkat. We can be a meerkat. Taking risk is the way we should leave our lives.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with William Shatner, who's about to tour the country with his one-man Broadway show "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: My guest is William Shatner, who's about to embark on a national tour of his one-man Broadway show, "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."

I guess it was 1976 when "Saturday Night Live," in its first season, did a long spoof of "Star Trek." And the audience that night reacted with such love and familiarity to John Belushi as you, that it was clear that something was up. Of all the imitators of Captain Kirk, do you have one that's closest to your heart? Or farthest away?

SHATNER: Well, no, I always thought I did the best imitation, but geez, no.


SHATNER: I'll tell you the iconic moment. We did a - I was on. I was the host of "Saturday Night Live" - they've never asked me back, by the way, in all these years. And it was I, as Shatner, come up in front of all these geeks who are wearing ears. And I called them geeks now then, but I've done a documentary in which I portray them as they really are.


SHATNER: They're not geeks. They're people in search of something else. But that's another whole subject. Anyway, a group of these "SNL" people were wearing ears and all that, and I gave the phrase: Get a life. And a lot of the people laughed and some of the people didn't laugh across the country who were aficionados. But it was meant in fun, and I've ultimately wrote a book called "Get a Life," which examine why the people are going to conventions and their reason(ph) .

BIANCULLI: Well, I consider it one of the - I don't mean to stop you. I just consider it one of the best...

SHATNER: Stop me.

BIANCULLI: ...moments ever on "Saturday Night Live." And I want to ask you a couple of questions about it. But first...

SHATNER: Please do.

BIANCULLI: Let's play it.



SHATNER: You know, before I answer any more questions, there's something I wanted to say. Having received all your letters over the years, and I've spoken to many of you, and some of you have traveled, you know, hundreds of miles to be here, I'd just like to say: Get a life, will you people?



SHATNER: I mean, for crying out loud, it's just a TV show. I mean, look at you. Look at the way you're dressed. You've turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time.



SHATNER: I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves? You, you must be almost 30. Have you ever kissed a girl?



SHATNER: I didn't think so. There's a whole world out there. When I was your age, I didn't watch television. I lived. So move out of your parents' basements and get your own apartments and grow the hell up. It's just a TV show, damn it. It's just a TV show.

BIANCULLI: That's William Shatner in a sketch from a 1986 edition of "Saturday Night Live."

In your one-man show, you show a clip from one of your documentaries in which you're talking to Patrick Stewart, who played...


BIANCULLI: ...Jean-Luc Picard from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And he talks about realizing that his obituary will lead with "Star Trek." And he says he's fine with that. And then you say, at that moment, that you had an epiphany.

SHATNER: That's correct.

BIANCULLI: Will you say that to us now?

SHATNER: I had an epiphany.


BIANCULLI: Now, would you explain the epiphany?

SHATNER: Oh, you want an explanation.

BIANCULLI: I know. I know. Oh, man.

SHATNER: You didn't...


SHATNER: All right. So you're...

BIANCULLI: Once you're on a sitcom, there's no holding you back. Go ahead.

SHATNER: No, no. I had spent years doing "Star Trek" bits and things, and a lot of people loved it. A lot of people mocked it. A lot of people, you know, they did their various comic turns on "Star Trek." And I went with the joke, because - what? You're not going to go with the joke? At the time, the three years I spent, I applied every talent I had to making it valid and working on story and fighting management and doing the best I could. There were many, many talents who did that. I don't mean to take that away. All I'm saying is I did the best I could.

So when I left "Star Trek," I left it with pride and went on to other things. And then "Star Trek" started to become popular about six years afterwards, as it went into syndication. And then people started talking about, hey, there's - beam me up, Scotty. And there's Captain Kirk. And, you know, and then somebody would say: Do you really go where no man has gone before - in that sort of semi-mocking tone that I thought, well, all right. Maybe it wasn't as good as I thought it was. And maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was. And I held myself up defensively.

It was only watching Patrick Stewart - and I have great respect for Patrick, both as an actor and as man. I love him. And the gravitas that this great Shakespearean actor gave to his role, that I suddenly realized that this guy is taking Captain Picard every bit as seriously as Macbeth. And I used to. And I stopped. And what the hell's the matter with me? It was a great piece of work. Everybody contributed to three years that has lasted 50. It's a phenomenon. Why aren't I proud of it? And that's when I had that moment.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with William Shatner, who's about to tour the country with his one-man Broadway show "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: My guest is William Shatner, who's about to embark on a national tour of his one-man Broadway show, "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."

You did manage to create a second major TV character, which a lot of iconic actors do not, on television. But Denny Crane on ABC's "The Practice" and "Boston Legal" is just about every bit as big, and on the night that I saw your Broadway show, got as much applause for the first mention of Denny Crane as for the first mention of James T. Kirk. Now, I have such respect for David E. Kelley as a TV writer-producer, and...

SHATNER: He's a genius.

BIANCULLI: It's just such a funny character. And I'm wondering: How quickly did you and Kelley find each other's wavelengths? I mean, because I think producers, once they see what an actor can do, start writing more for that.

SHATNER: Well, you see, that's very astute of you. That's exactly what happened. He had me saying Denny Crane. And I thought: Well, why is this guy saying Denny Crane all the time? I mean, it was a good comic device. I don't know what David had in mind. But every so often, he would say, Denny Crane. And I thought: Why is this character saying Denny Crane? And in my mind, what I saw was a lizard who sticks his tongue out.


SHATNER: OK. It's funny on the surface, right? Denny Crane. But wait a minute? Why does the lizard stick his tongue out? Do you know why? Because that's the way it's listening and looking and tasting its environment. Its tongue is its - I don't know about eyes, but it's his whiskers. It's its means of appreciating what's in front of it. It sticks its tongue out to be sure that it's not going to be eaten. It's identifying itself by sticking its tongue out. And so I thought, that's what he's doing. He's saying Denny Crane to see what the - I mean, he used to be a great lawyer. So when he says Denny Crane, who's appreciating that? I began to think of Denny Crane, and he sticks his tongue out.

So he had me in one scene, David Kelley wrote Denny Crane, seven over - eight times. How do you play that? I played it like the lizard saying Denny Crane - OK, what was the reaction on that? Well, Denny Crane. Denny Crane. He tries a different series of ways of sticking his tongue out by saying Denny Crane to see who's there to - and nobody pays any attention to him. He's trying to say here I am, but without being able to say it. And that was the image I had.

BIANCULLI: I'd like to play a scene from "Boston Legal." This is from 2006, with you in the courtroom as Denny Crane. And it shows your outrageousness and your - it shows a lot about your character in a very brief scene. It's a case in which an attractive young woman is seeking emancipation from her parents and trying to make it as a young model, and your cross-examination hones in immediately on her daily diet.


SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) What did you have for breakfast this morning?

JESSY SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) I had a diet soda and a cracker with some butter spray on it.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) And lunch?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) I didn't eat lunch. I can't eat when I'm stressed out.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) So how many calories have you had today?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) Sixteen.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Are you aware that the daily required number of calories for someone your age and height is somewhere between 18 and 2,400?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) And are you aware that two out of three Americans are overweight? No one's calling them sick. I'm healthy. I watch what I eat, and I exercise. You can ask any fat girl at my school if she'd want to trade places with me.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Now, don't go knocking fat girls. I love chubby sex. I'm sure your honor does.

MARY BOUCHER: (as Judge Rose Olsheim) Mr. Crane.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Ms. Wilson, are you aware the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" defines anorexia nervosa as a mental illness?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) Thirty years ago, they said the same thing about homosexuality.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Exactly. No further questions.


SHATNER: That's great. It's great writing. It's great writing.

BIANCULLI: That's our guest William Shatner as attorney Denny Crane in the David E. Kelley series "Boston Legal." My further question is: How much fun was this guy to play?

SHATNER: Oh, my Lord. I could do anything. I remember one moment, he was giving himself Botox injections, himself. And something surprised him, so he sprang out of his chair, and he had a Botox needle sticking out of his forehead. I mean, he takes a gun into the office and he shoots somebody because - I mean, the things that Kelley imagined were so outrageous and so plausible in an outrageous character, because in one moment, he's totally lucid. And the other, he's totally insane. How extraordinary. What a character to play.

You know, to have had the privilege to have worked with those great actors James Spader and Candice Bergen and John Larroquette and David Kelley and all the - Bill D'Elia and all those wonderful directors and writers, and I just - I loved every one of them, and it was a sad, sad moment to say goodbye when the show was over.

BIANCULLI: Your one-man show tour for "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It," I'm looking at the schedule. It's March 10th, L.A., March 11th, San Francisco, March 13th, Philadelphia, March 15th Minneapolis. I mean, that's a grueling, young rock star schedule. How and why are you doing it that way?

SHATNER: How am I going to do it? How am I going to do it? I'm going to do it - I once did, as a much younger man, 43 cities in 44 days. How did I do it? I don't know. I came back to Los Angeles, and as I came down the escalator to get the baggage, my hand was trembling from fatigue and nerves. And I thought, wow, that was challenging, physically. I can do this. My wife's going to be with me. I'll make it by resting as much as possible.

And if nothing else in my life, I point to my endurance. I used to run track, and I was an endurance runner. And I'm doing everything I can to make this work because, at the end of which, like I did on opening night, I became exultant. I did it. I - this rage inside me which says I've got to do this, I've got to please the people, has not been banked. It's still there. And I will be there at your city, and I will make it a great show. And fear not.

BIANCULLI: I noticed that you'll be - you're scheduled to perform in Dallas, Texas on March 22nd.


BIANCULLI: That's the day you turn 81 years old. Any special plans?

SHATNER: I am. Plans? To stagger on stage and give the best performance of my life.


BIANCULLI: Well, congratulations on the show, the tour, the longevity, the career, and thank you for being FRESH AIR. I've really enjoyed this conversation.

SHATNER: Thank you. So have I, and I fully expected to, and it's met my expectations.

GROSS: William Shatner spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. Shatner is about to embark on a national tour with his one-man, autobiographical show "Shatner's World." The first stop is Los Angeles, Saturday.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.

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