William Shatner: A captain's log

Captain Kirk: William Shatner's character is displayed at Julien's Auctions annual summer sale at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Captain Kirk: William Shatner's character is displayed at Julien's Auctions annual summer sale at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Captain James T Kirk, T J Hooker, Stan Fields and Denny Crane. William Shatner has certainly created some memorable characters during a film and television career spanning more than 60 years.

But the Canadian-born veteran admits he's only recently "learned how to act" and still feels the same stress and anxiety before performing that he did when he trod the boards as a young man at Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. However, although he might suffer from tinnitus and in 2006 sold a kidney stone for $25,000 to an online casino, he's a picture of rude octogenarian health today, despite a sartorial choice that includes the dreaded socks with sandals.

We're speaking in an Auckland hotel room because he's in New Zealand on a whirlwind trip to help launch Sky TV's new retro channel, Jones! (which begins broadcasting on Sky Channel 13 on May 13). As well as Shatner wrestling monsters and seducing alien women in classic Star Trek, it will offer the New Zealand debut of his 1980s cop drama T J Hooker, something he's particularly excited about. "Isn't that amazing? That it's never played here before."
It's a show he has fond memories of. He was even in talks to resurrect it in cinemas a few years ago. "We talked about it and made sure the newspaper printed it so that if anybody was interested, they'd call. Nobody called," he deadpans.

The son of Jewish immigrants (his grandfather's name was Schattner), Shatner grew up in Quebec and mixed training as a classical Shakespearean actor with economics studies at McGill University. Had he become an economist, Shatner believes he would have been a pessimist ("I've always bought high and sold low"), but says he never really had to make a choice to become an actor because he'd always been performing. "I started doing Canadian radio out of Montreal at 6 years old, then got into teenage radio drama, worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, left university, did some theatre, moved to Toronto (the New York of Canada) and then started working in New York."

After appearances on popular shows like The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone and Dr Kildare, Shatner's big break came when NBC rejected Gene Roddenberry's first pilot for a new space-set show called Star Trek. They liked the concept, but were unhappy with leading man Jeffrey Hunter and the overall tone, and so had asked for a do-over.

Enter Shatner. "The major conversation I had with Gene was I thought it needed more humour. Everybody has been on this long voyage, so they shouldn't get dramatic about turning the ship left."

That humour was put to the test, both with the dialogue ("the lines were essentially gibberish but they had their own logic") - which he describes as harder to learn than Shakespeare - and the regular stuntwork he was called on to do.

"I did a lot of stunts. You do it if your face is there, but you let the stuntman take the hard fall. Because speed is of paramount importance you're more likely to do your own stunts on a TV show than a film, but don't believe any actor when they say 'I do [all] my own stunts' - that's ludicrous because if you should hurt your pinkie and have to get it taped up, that's a lost half-hour, which is a lot of money. Really hurt yourself and the whole production can come to an end."

Shatner says Star Trek, particularly during its third and final season in 1969, was shot on a very small budget. "No overtime was allowed and everything was very pressed."

He confirms rumours that the network simply wanted to be rid of it, despite the popularity of the show among young adults. "There is a lot of stuff that goes on that only a few people know as to why a show is bought and why a show is cancelled. Sometimes producers are legally owed another show, or there's a favour being done, or they don't like an actor - it's crazy. I've heard stories of the wife of the network president saying 'Get rid of him'."

In the case of the much-loved Boston Legal, Shatner says it was simply because the show's creator, David E Kelley, owned a good part of the show that it was cancelled. "Our ratings were pretty good, but not spectacular. They thought they could put another show in there that would do equally well but that they would own all of."

Wild Bill: William Shatner says he's finally learning how to act.
Wild Bill: William Shatner says he's finally learning how to act.

Introduced in an earlier, much more dramatic legal drama The Practice, Shatner's gun-loving, dapper yet daffy lawyer Denny Crane spent five seasons stealing scenes in the outrageous post-modern, Republican-baiting courtroom dramedy.

"William Shatner the man - playing William Shatner the character playing the character Denny Crane, who was playing the character William Shatner," is how Kelley described his creation.

The part went on to earn Shatner two Emmys and a Golden Globe, and yet he confesses he nearly turned it down. "I was warned that it could become a series. So I signed up for it very reluctantly because I got divorced during every other series I did. I was determined it wouldn't happen this time and I think it only didn't because my wife [his fourth, Elizabeth Anderson Martin, 30 years his junior, whom he married in 2001] is such a good soul."
Boston Legal's tone, such an important part of the show, was forged in an unprecedented marathon of a pilot shoot, says Shatner.

"Mostly you shoot them in six to eight days, but with this we spent 17 days. It got to the point where actors were saying: 'Wait a minute, this is like the third show, are we getting paid one show or three?' Turned out we were being paid for one show, it just took 17 days to get it to what David wanted."
Describing work on the show as fun, Shatner says he enjoyed trying to solve the problems of making a joke work without it being obvious. "As the series went on I tried to make Denny stumble a little so that he couldn't quite remember the word. However, it got the point where a couple of times the director would go 'cut - have you got the word Bill?'."

His meticulous approach to his craft confused some of the directors on Boston Legal. "I like to take a script and plot out my arc, especially since we don't shoot in order. So if the first day of shooting involves a scene from the middle of the show, I look and ask myself 'what have I just come from and where am I going?' I like to have an emotional plotline - 'let's see, I'll shout over here, so that when I'm here, the fact that I shouted means I'm embarrassed'.

"I remember that we had regular directors and they'd say 'Bill, come out of the door' and I come out fast or slow depending on what I thought I'd be doing and the director would say 'no,no come out a little faster'. And I'd say, 'OK I'll come out a little bit faster'. Finally, I had to say, and I hate talking about what I'm doing, 'listen, I've got a plot line I've got going here - like you've got your shots lined out, I've got mine plotted'."

Despite now being considered one of Hollywood's elder statesmen, Shatner admits to not feeling competent to offer young actors advice. "I look back and I see that I've provided a way of life for my children and grandchildren, my wife and myself, and that feels terrific. I think I've had the most luck, the best life. But I also know I've a member of the family who is also an actor and looking for work and he's hard-pressed and worried. It can be an ominous life going from job to job."

While there are more broadcasters, and hence more work around than in his heyday, Shatner understands the wages are lower for those who aren't a marquee name. "You can probably pay the rent, but you can't live like someone who's supposed to be important in Hollywood."

That doesn't mean he's not enthusiastic about 21st century Hollywood, citing Silver Linings Playbook as one of his favourite movies of the past year. "Jennifer Lawrence is a great young actress. The moment I saw her come on the screen - I said 'there's a star'. She just emanates stardom."

Shatner says he would love to be offered a role in a film like Silver Linings. "That's a film about ordinary people. I would do anything to just play an interesting character in a film."

But for the moment Shatner is enjoying making his own projects. After directing documentaries about himself and his fellow Star Trek captains (Captains) and the fans who attend Star Trek conventions (Get A Life!), he's recently completed Still Kicking, a TV special in which and his old friend Christopher Plummer reminisce about their respective careers.

The friends have both recently completed one-man shows. Plummer's depiction of legendary actor John Barrymore played in New Zealand cinemas late last year, while Shatner's world stage tour of Shatner's World: We Just Live In It visited New Zealand about 18 months ago.

And audiences have clearly fallen in love with Shatner again too. He's been amazed at the reaction to his one-man show, saying the nightly standing ovations have left him close to tears.

"Just the affection and appreciation of me as an actor made me realise I know what I'm doing. I wrote and in essence directed the show.

"It's really the summation of my life and to have been able to carry it off with the approbation that I've got was perhaps the most meaningful thing I've done as an actor.''

Your Weekend