t's not hyperbole to say there's no actor like William Shatner. The man is a bona fide pop culture icon, a whip-smart industry veteran, and a force of boundless energy. He is also quite possibly the only actor to ever inspire his own encyclopedia: It's called The Encyclopedia Shatnerica, and no, we are not making that up.
Over the years, comedians have mimicked his brand of acting—those theatrical, bombastic speech patterns, replete with dramatic pauses and a ferocious zest for each and every word. It's worth noting that the very thing that inspires these impressions is what makes him so commanding as an actor: He brings such conviction to his roles that you can never quite imagine anyone else inhabiting them so fully. "I think Shatner's great charm and his great talent is he is a larger-than-life actor," says writer-director Robert Meyer Burnett, who worked with Shatner on the comedic geek classic Free Enterprise. "You can't take your eyes off him. He also has the courage as an actor to do his thing, to put himself out there. A William Shatner performance is an unmistakable performance." In other words, no one does a better William Shatner than William Shatner.
At this point in his career—after five decades in the business and successes that run the gamut from his star-making performance as dashing Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek to his critically acclaimed, Ben Folds–produced album Has Been—one might think the actor would be content to rest on his laurels and sign autographs at Star Trek conventions, at which he is still one of the most popular and entertaining guests. Instead he's landed himself a hit TV series, a new iconic character, and a pair of Emmys.
As Denny Crane, the brilliant, unorthodox lawyer on ABC's Boston Legal, Shatner gives a performance laced with sly wit and just a touch of sheer lunacy. Still, the actor never expected to be starring in yet another hit show. "Success is very rare, so you always prepare for failure," he says. "So when success hits, it's always a surprise."
Shatner, who is thoughtful and articulate in person, first got wind of the Denny Crane role when award-winning television producer David E. Kelley asked the actor to breakfast and described a recurring character he wanted to include on his series The Practice. "He described what he wanted to write, and it sounded terrific, and I knew him to be a genius—I don't use that word lightly," explains Shatner. "And it was for six shows."
Then a funny thing happened. "Every day, [Kelley] would see the daily rushes—he began to write for me," says Shatner. "As he saw what I was doing, he'd write." And just like that, six shows morphed into Boston Legal, a hit spinoff series centered on Denny and equally outrageous lawyer Alan Shore (James Spader). Shatner's Denny, who uses his own name as a signature catch phrase, is undeniably eccentric; it works, says the actor, because of the lingering possibility that Denny is going senile. "Given the license of possible senility, the character's open to anything," he says. "Anything you might think of, you could rationalize, 'That's what he would do.' In a segment coming up, I take my pants down in front of the jury. Now, any other character I can think of in television, [you would say], 'What? How's he gonna do that?' But [with] Denny Crane, you can say, 'Yes, well, I can see him doing that.'"
Shatner was born in Montreal and majored in commerce at McGill University. During his studies, however, he found that business put him to sleep; theatre was where his passion was. "I was acting all the time, and the further I went along in university, the more I realized my interests were in music and theatre and literature and psychology—all the nonbusiness subjects," he says. "So I failed and had to make up exams in the commercial area and carried a two-year load every year in all the art subjects. I graduated with bachelor of commerce, but my emphasis was really in the art area."
The actor joined the Stratford Shakespeare Festival under Sir Tyrone Guthrie and caught the attention of New York critics when one of the festival's productions, Tamburlaine, moved to Broadway. Shatner eventually relocated to New York, acting in TV and film, and onstage. He vividly recalls the lean, hungry times of his early career. "The biggest challenge, for the longest time in my life—I had three children and I was married young—was to make a living as an actor," he says. "As much as I worked—and I worked all the time, when I was in New York as a young actor—the money you made was very little. I'm trying to remember figures. You might take home $500, $600 for a month of work."
In 1966, Shatner won the role of Captain Kirk, a part that would elevate him to icon status. He has since amassed a résumé as a director, screenwriter, producer, author, and recording artist, and his voice will soon grace the big screen as part of the star-studded cast of Over the Hedge, a computer-animated movie based on the popular comic strip of the same name. The actor, who has also lent his pipes to such projects as Atomic Betty and Osmosis Jones, voices Ozzie, a fatherly possum who enjoys playing dead. "I just thought it was a fun thing to do," he says. "As an actor, some of the hard things you have to do are learning the words…and then there's a lot of standing around and waiting. That's arduous, so here, in these animated films, you rush in, they're ready for you, you do what you have to do, you don't have to memorize anything. It's very easy work [and] it's fun to do."
Ozzie is given to theatrical, drama-laden death scenes that are, dare we say, a mite Shatneresque. Of course, that's another thing about the actor: He's always more than willing to parody his over-the-top image. In 1998's Free Enterprise, for example, he plays an egomaniacal, off-the-wall version of himself. "There's a term in drama: artistic distance. The theory of artistic distance is, the actor or the painter removes themselves somewhat, so there's no great connection," explains Shatner. "I'm not a great fan of artistic distance in some instances. But here, I'd look at that character they're asking me to play as another character; that's the Shatner character."
In the case of Free Enterprise, Shatner helped shape "the Shatner character." When Burnett and co-writer Mark A. Altman approached the actor about the role, it was very different from what ended up onscreen. The character originally was more of a martini-swilling hepcat—the coolest guy in the universe.
"We sent him the script and he never would call us back," remembers Burnett. "We had the movie financed, and we really needed him, and finally he did call us back, and he said, 'Look, I'm a messed-up guy. I have problems, I have foibles, and you've written me as this guru. I can't play this part, because I would be laughed out of Hollywood.' We couldn't even fathom that he would say that. It was totally alien to us, because we thought he was the coolest guy. He said, 'Look, if you were to rewrite this role and make me a real person with problems and foibles, then I might think twice and reconsider the role.'" The result is a hilarious, brave performance that showcases Shatner's gift for self-reflexive comedy.
With such a career and so much still going on, it would seem he could easily go for five more decades if he wanted to. So when it comes to acting, what's the secret for career longevity? "One of the things is good health," he says, chuckling. "You have to be around and have the energy. I've been both lucky in terms of not having anything serious ever happen to me and [I'm] gifted with genes that seem to plug me along…. And I've been lucky. That's a huge factor in life. They say a lot about dealing with the hand you've been dealt, playing the hand you've been dealt, and I think…you're given many hands in life. You play the hand you've been dealt, and [if] it isn't a good one, you can't fold, but you can bet less and wait for a good hand to come along. But you're gonna get another hand. I think that's something I intuitively [understand]."