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A William Shatner Tribute

I’m going to start by saying that I write this with no apologies and no regrets. Shatner is a wonderful, underrated actor. And I like him. A lot.

There. I said it.

I happen to have a big ole crush on this guy. I also happen to think he’s a magnificent actor. There is of course a stigma that follows him around, and will follow him around for the rest of his career. He will now, and forever be remembered as Captain Kirk. It seems to me though, that he’s finally okay with that. He seems to have come to terms with it, and not only had learned to live with it, but love it as well. This makes me happy as I am indeed a Star Trek fan. That’s right. I said it. And I’ll say it again. I am a Star Trek Fan. I love Television, and I particularly love OLD Television. I also love science fiction. This show was more than just a fantasy show that had some bad special effects and some colored tights and a pair of pointy ears. This was a ground breaking show that on a weekly basis, gave us moral and ethical lessons about what it was like to be an American and more importantly, a human being in the 1960’s, one of the most turbulent times in history. It dealt with racism, sexism, child abuse, Homosexuality, and religious fanatics. It did this with tongue in cheek humor and some over the top performances while at the same time, never once laughing too hard at what was at the heart of each episode. Living Together, and Living In Peace. This was the Enterprise’s motto and goal as they whisked across the Universe. A Western Science Fiction Show, that deserved a much longer run, and afterward turned into part of the American vernacular. Think about it. Try repeating: “Live long and prosper” to anyone on the street at any time, and see what kind of reaction you get. Whether you get teary eyes, or pointed at, or asked to leave, you’ll elicit some kind of a response, I promise you. And you‘ll do that because this show is iconic.

And so is Shatner.

Let’s also not forget that Bill was a classically trained actor. His Kirk persona unfortunately perpetuated an acting style that he eventually had to grow out of and simultaneously, embrace. But, before the mannerisms, and inflated ego that took over in mid Trek season, he was a humble, seriously working actor, like all the other shlubs. Me and Sheila and Mitchell included.

His riveting performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg” is legendary.

Judy Garland's brilliant Oscar nominated performance in "Nuremburg".

Montgomery Cliff. A forgotten genius. From "Nuremburg" as well.

Shatner is stalwart and steady in this masterpiece. He holds his owns with pros like Spencer Tracey, Richard Widmark, and Marlene Dietrich. These were old pros by the time Shatner got this big break. He was humbled, and like a good apprentice, took lots of notes. His scenes with Tracey are fascinating. You know he’s just besdie himself thinking:

“Holy Moley! I’m in a freakin’ movie with freakin Spencer Tracey!”

His staunch portrayal of the soldier with a duty is really wonderful and he certainly holds his own with a movie that was almost banned in many States.

His character is lost in this by-the-book officer gated by rules and regulations. He’s torn by what’s happening on the outside of his textbooks, but can’t seem to relax enough to actually learn from his superiors. There’s a terrific scene where Shatner comes in to the restaurant where Widmark’s been drinking, and has to tell him some news. The look of disgust that’s supposed to be cloaked in his eyes is remarkable. A great job for such a young kid.

Also, let’s not whisk by his early work where he played Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar”, or The Priest in “Oedipus Rex” directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Shatner had a theatrical streak that would serve him well in years to come.

In 1960, he made his first historical Television appearance in Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone”. Coincidentally, co produced by Desilu Studios. Lucille Ball played a large part of William Shatner’s career, and the two of them never met. Not once.

Shatner played the nervous, terrified passenger of an airplane with a surprise guest on the wing that only he was privy to. This performance earned him an Emmy Nomination, and catapulted him into TV guest star heaven. He then began a career bouncing from brilliant dramatic work on shows like: “Studio One”, “The United States Steel Hour”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (many appearances, Hitchcock LOVED him) and of course the multi award winning “Playhouse 90” (a Rod Serling production, and the place that introduced he world to Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, and Kim Hunter).

William in an episode from "The Outer Limits"

Shatner spent his off time hanging out with the theater crowd of the 50’s and 60’s. He and Brando were drinking buddies, and he had a brief affair with a young Elizabeth Ashley. TV was good to Shatner and movie roles started coming in even faster. He was handsome, dating a beautiful, successful Broadway actress, and then one day, Desilu Studios came calling again, and this call would change the rest of his life.

The original Captain of the Enterprise has filmed the pilot for a new “Space-Western”, and Shatner’s name was brought up to replace him. Oddly enough, no one wanted the show and assumed it would loose money for the studio. Only Lucille Ball (at that time, President of Desilu) championed it. Without her okay, the world would have never even laid eyes upon the USS Enterprise. Or most likely, William Shatner. He might have become famous, but would he have had the kind of success he now has attained? It’s doubtful. A successful career absolutely, but an Icon? That happened out of sheer luck. And this was it.

Luck. And Lucy.

For 3 seasons it struggled through mixed reviews, letter writing campaigns to help salvage it’s ratings, and for two years it was nominated as Outstanding Dramatic series, and Best Supporting actor for Leanord Nimoy’s odd, understated, but always entertaining portrayal of Kirk’s best friend and confidant: Spock. Shatner’s Kirk was never acknowledged. Not surprisingly, Shatner was a tad bitter and a bit of a snake in the grass at times to his fellow cast mates. Stories of his inflated ego in the set are legendary. There’s also talk of how one day during filming it was announced they were getting a visit from Ms. Ball. The set was to be closed (meaning no one who wasn’t directly involved with the show would be allowed on set that day). So….they waited. And waited. And waited. They shot scene after scene after scene. Finally, by the end of the day, everyone was so tired that nerves and the jitters people were feeling all day waiting for the Queen Of Comedy to show her face had all but worn off. The cast couldn’t care less.

As the last scene was shot, and the director called cut, a voice form the back of the set applauded loudly, and shouted:

“What a fabulous day! Once you all calmed down, it really cleared away all the shit!”

It was Lucy. She had watched most all day long sitting in the back in her red chair eating and smoking. Gene Roddenberry was the only one in on the secret. Lucy wanted to watch the cast and see the working conditions for herself. She wrote in her autobiography she had seen nothing but good humor and occasional goofing off. Nothing out of the ordinary. She was very sad to see this TV show go.

Shatner didn’t stay stagnant for long. He then went on to a long run of the very successful (but highly campy) TJ Hooker. This was the year of Heather Locklear. The woman was in everything. I think for a time she was Shatner’s pool boy. Nonetheless, William never looked back. He continued his work in Television (a BRILLIANT portrayal of The Big Head on “Third Rock“), and a few guest starring roles here and there in film, eventually coming full circle playing conniving, sexist, egomaniacal Denny Craig in “Boston Legal”. This was the role that FINALLY won Bill his coveted award. The Golden Globe and the Emmy for Best Actor.

It’s about time folks. This is an icon we’re talking about. Wake up.

Look. He may not be DeNiro, he may not be Pacino, he may not even be Ricky Shroeder, but the man has a resume, and some serious chops. Think for a moment if Star Trek would have been near as successful without Shatner at the helm. That TV show started a revolution that continues to this day. It’s not only thanks to the fact that the show itself was years ahead of it’s time, but the ensemble of actors was letter perfect. William Shatner in the front seat.

Here’s to an actor with a cornucopia of tastes that run from beautiful self parody to triumphant, relaxed Actor. He has nothing to prove and you can tell by his TV spots now, he’s fine with that. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore, and yet he has a respect for the craft few youngsters seem to understand. Or care about. Have you seen Paris Hilton’s “acting” debut? I hear she’s recording a CD as well. In a business where commerce means employment, we have very few old pros around still learning and branching out. Shatner’s a pro. This is an award winning actor. This is a guy who took a small role on a TV show back in the 60’s and helped turn it into a multi billion dollar conglomeration simply by doing his job.

Here’s to William Shanter and all the people who believed he’d never do it. A great, great actor, with much more left in him. I like him.

…and I’ll say it again.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 6th, 2005 01:50 pm (UTC)
Alex, what an entertaining post. I guess I'm one of those people who underestimate Shatner's talent. I remember that famous Twilight Zone with him in the plane and the gremlin on the wing - he's amazing in that.

Shatner's over-the-top acting style wasn't served well when pitted against Nimoy's deadpan Spock. Shatner maybe wouldn't have seemed so actory (I think of him writhing in agony a lot on Star Trek, face red, spittle flying) if Spock hadn't been standing next to him in complete repose.

There was a whole group of male stars from 60's/70's TV that I thought of disdainfully as macho shitheads. Some of them were really good actors, but I lumped them all together in the Chip-on-their-shoulder group. Robert Conrad, Chuck Connors, Jack Lord, Chad Everett, the guys from Adam-12, Lee Majors, and yes, William Shatner. I think maybe it was the way being a "real man" was portrayed in those days (thanks to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry) that I took such a dislike to, not the actors themselves.

Thanks for prying open my closed mind on the Shatner issue. :)

Oh, and I loved him in Miss Congeniality.

- Stevie
May. 7th, 2005 09:02 am (UTC)
I agree with you about most of the 60's and 70's male actors. I thought of them the same way....I also have to add Lee Majors to that list. But I've always looked at Burt Reynold's career. I mean, he started out as kind of a product of the Hollywood Hunk Machine. and has ended up a really good actor.

I see Shatner the same way, although Shatner's roots are far more significant.

And yes....Miss Congeniality? OH YEAH!!!
May. 6th, 2005 02:49 pm (UTC)
I'll say it again:

Denny Crain.

May. 7th, 2005 09:03 am (UTC)
....and there's really nothing else to say.
May. 6th, 2005 07:53 pm (UTC)
Twightlight Zone Irony...Or Not
I never thought this (I'm sure others have), but both "Third Rock From the Sun"'s John Lithgow and William Shatner both played the same Twightlight Zone character (Lithgow's episode, in my opinion, was the only good one of the movie).

May. 7th, 2005 09:04 am (UTC)
Re: Twightlight Zone Irony...Or Not

I LOVE that you got that!!!! I thought I was the only one that saw that reference!!!!

May. 6th, 2005 11:59 pm (UTC)
Denny Crain
He's absolutely brilliant as Denny Crain, too.

Also, have you heard his latest album? No kidding--it's REALLY GOOD.
May. 7th, 2005 09:05 am (UTC)
Re: Denny Crain
There's a link to his new album in the above post. I agree with you, it is brilliant. I heard a small bit of it on the site, and I thought: "Oh Christ. Another version of Greensleeves." But this one is realy original, and really terrific.
May. 7th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC)
Since I don't have a LiveJournal account and would rather not post as Anonymous, this is Debra. Brava for a great post about William Shatner. He remains a favorite of mine as does Star Trek. I'm delighted at his success.

"He will now, and forever be remembered as Captain Kirk. It seems to me though, that he’s finally okay with that. He seems to have come to terms with it, and not only had learned to live with it, but love it as well."

GOOD FOR HIM! May he live long...y'know the rest of that! Debra Young
May. 7th, 2005 09:06 am (UTC)
Star Trek will go down in history as one of the only Television shows to produce majoy momey at the box office. It has yet to be duplicated. Amazing!
May. 7th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC)
Alex, I always, always think of Shatner's Twilight Zone episode every time I get on a plane. Those damn gremlins are out there, I just know it. He convinced me. Seriously.

I never watched Star Trek until Star Trek Voyager. I love Voyager so I guess I would have liked the original. Voyager has Kate Mulgrew (who is a big Kate Hepburn fan) and Jeri Ryan as the yummy 6 of 9. Great stories.

May. 7th, 2005 09:08 am (UTC)
I wish they'd give Voyager their own movie. What the heck??? I'm a huge Mulgrew fan, and have been since Mrs. Columbo. Oh yes. Remember that? Her first starring role. She plaed Columbo's wife(we never saw Peter Falk, he was always away on business) and I fell immediately in love. What's the problem???
May. 7th, 2005 12:44 am (UTC)

I've seen the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits episodes. Agreed, he was good.

I also recall one Twilight Zone (I think) episode where the Kirkian speech style, best done in type as "He! Can't! Be! Dead!" came out. If it wasn't for that, I don't think he would have anywhere near the fun poked at him.

May. 7th, 2005 09:09 am (UTC)
Yeah....he fell in and out of that speech pattern a lot. Luckily, Denny doesn't have a trace of it. He's so delicously NOT Kirk.

Jun. 28th, 2005 04:32 am (UTC)
brando & shatner
"Drinking Buddies"?

An excerpt from the July 14, 2004 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, an article 'Busy Shatner has The End on his mind' by Gail Shister:

"There's a sense of not being fulfilled. . . . I don't know what it is. It bothers me, because I'm approaching the end of my life, and I'm trying to do better and better at whatever it is I'm doing."

The death of legendary actor Marlon Brando at age 80 on July 1 hit Shatner hard, even though the two had never met. "He lived not far from me, up on the hill. His death is the end of an era, and my era is closing in on me.

"I'm so not ready to die. It petrifies me. I go alone. I go to a place I don't know. It might be painful. It might be the end. My thought is that it is the end. I become nameless, and I spent a lifetime being known.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )