The journey from Kirk to Bill has spanned a half century.
On one end of the timeline is James T. Kirk, courageous captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, beloved hero in popular culture, inspiration to millions and central figure of the multibillion-dollar galaxy known as Star Trek. It's a role so titanic it could swallow a man whole, toss him tumbling from the axis of sanity.
To live long and prosper in the shadow of a man like Kirk, you must create a character who looms even larger. Not a street cop like T.J. Hooker, or a silver-tongued attorney like Denny Crane, but a character so outsized and eccentric, so brazen and blustery, so curious and quixotic that it could knock even a Starfleet captain from his command chair.
You must create a character like William Shatner — narcissistic actor, pop-cultural curio and, above all, a living, breathing, self-aware wink of a man.
So memorable a figure is "William Shatner" that it becomes easy to forget that he, too, is a character, just like Capt. Kirk — which brings us to Bill, the man at the other end of the timeline.
Like "William," the caricature we see on talk shows and television, Bill can be a bit of a raconteur, a bit of a scallywag. But he's also an appreciative, warm-hearted patriarch and horse lover who's as comfortable on his ranch in Kentucky as he is in the bright lights of Hollywood.
We see glimpses of Bill in Shatner's World: We Just Live in It, the actor's one-man show, which comes to the Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday.
"You might say I devolved, rather than playing the character that people expected me to be," the 84-year-old actor said of his stage persona in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "I gradually, and certainly with this show, became more myself, and less the fictional character of Capt. Kirk, or whatever character that I was playing at the time. Less the fictional character, and more the essential me."
But who is the essential Bill Shatner? Who is this man it has taken 50 years to meet?
• • •
For decades after Star Trek premiered on Sept. 8, 1966, Shatner tried to avoid James T. Kirk. True, he played Kirk in seven Star Trek films between 1979 and 1994. But off screen, he kept his distance.
In Shatner's mind, he was still very much a Serious Actor, the same man who in 1956 replaced Christopher Plummer as the king in Henry V. He didn't understand why people felt such a close kinship with a single space cowboy from the cornfields of Iowa. He never tried to understand.
Over time, his curiosity got the best of him. Remember that famous Saturday Night Live sketch, the one in which he looks an audience of Vulcan-eared conventioneers dead in the eyes and says: "Get a life!"? That became the title of a lighthearted yet insightful 1999 book exploring the universe of Star Trek conventions from the inside out.
"Doing that external and internal search," he said, "I found many truths that I wouldn't have realized if I hadn't followed that path."
One such truth: Despite his decades-long Serious Actor reputation, William Shatner was actually a pretty funny and curious guy. He began to enjoy the company of Trekkers — everyone from Stephen Hawking to a fan who dressed his cats as Enterprise officers — and learned to poke fun at his own expense. In time he went from disliking public speaking to relishing convention appearances, and the opportunity each brought to spin his well-worn stories in strange and riotous new directions.
"I evolved a sort of patois, a patter, and stories, and that became the material that I would go to if I had to," he said. "I kept trying to refresh that material every time I'd go on stage, but it begat a large selection of interesting anecdotes."
By the late 1990s, this new public persona — this self-aware "William Shatner" fellow — had taken over his creative life. He was cast in a popular (and lucrative) series of commercials for Priceline.com. He went from hosting Rescue 911 to appearing in comedies like Miss Congeniality and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. He even won two Emmys for his scene-chewing role as Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal.
Upon winning the first, he grabbed the trophy and quipped: "What took you so long?"
• • •
Rarely does a reinvention of this magnitude happen so late in an actor's life. Shatner relished the attention, the acclaim, his rediscovered role in pop culture. But it had its drawbacks.
"In most cases — and I think so in mine — that persona is thrust upon you by the audience and by the press," he said. "They see some characteristic and inflate it, and it becomes your character."
In 2011, Shatner was offered a one-man show in Australia, sharing photos and stories from his life and career, maybe a song in his oft-imitated arhythmic baritone. He was hesitant.
"That's the highest challenge in the theater, I would think, is to be alone on stage and try and keep an audience entertained for an hour to two hours. You have to have the material. Some people do it with dancing girls and lots of explosions and stuff. I didn't have that. What I had in mind was the original entertainment, which is (sitting) around the campfire."
Shatner always could spin a story, especially after years of "being in front of those Star Trek audiences and trying to amuse them for an hour." So it's no surprise the show worked in Australia. From there it went to Canada, then Broadway, then Las Vegas. He took it around America. Fans bought tickets. He kept going.
"This show is based on the philosophy of saying yes to life," he said. "Not yes to jumping off a bridge if somebody else does, but yes to acknowledging that life is very precious, unique and probably singular — you're going this way and you're not coming back, and to relish every moment.
"I suppose this show takes some examples of my relishing life and gives you an idea of what my life has been. But really heartfelt, personal stories, so that — although filled with laughter and tears and philosophy and anecdotes — it's the essential me that's coming out."
• • •
More than once, life's cruelties have thrust Bill Shatner out of William's shadow and into the spotlight. There was the night in 1999 when he discovered his third wife, Nerine, at the bottom of their swimming pool; a 911 recording released to the media laid Shatner's paralyzing panic out for the world to see.
Then, last February, came the death of his Star Trek co-star and best friend Leonard Nimoy.
Shatner, famously, did not attend Nimoy's funeral. For this, he received a fair share of criticism, even though his excuse — that he had already committed to appear at a Red Cross fundraiser across the country in Palm Beach — remains, in his mind, valid.
"I was naive enough to think that nobody would notice," he said. "I didn't read what people said. I hear a lot of people were harsh. But it was a dilemma. I chose to honor the living first, and remember Leonard the next day."
On Feb. 16, Shatner will release his latest book, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man. It's hard to imagine that over a half-century of lectures, conventions, memoirs and interviews, Shatner has anything new left to say about his old Vulcan frenemy. But Nimoy's passing, he said, put a new lens on their relationship.
"Death created that vacuum that sucked out these feelings and ideas," he said.
Compared to Shatner's other books — most of his creative endeavors, really — Leonard is tender, introspective and surprisingly earnest, touching on themes of mortality and regret.
"I'd like to think that the book speaks to friendship — what friendship is, how we strive for friendship, and how difficult it is, especially for men. Men have more difficulty making friends — not barroom friends and casual acquaintances, that you think of and people say, Oh, he's your friend. No, the friend I'm talking about is the brother you never had."
People often ask Shatner for life advice. Most of the time, he demurs, because, as he says: "I know nothing, and essentially, nobody knows anything. Within your sensibilities, there is a chord that plays harmonically when something is right for you. ... The right notes will sound when you make the right decision."
But because there's still a bit of William in Bill, he often cannot help himself. Of course he has life advice. He shares it every night in Shatner's World.
"What I advocate in my personal life, as well as in the show, is: Get rid of that shell, that defense, that armor that we put up," he said. "Get rid of that as quickly as possible. And be vulnerable. Be open to new ideas and, as I say in the show, new loves and new opportunities."
That doesn't sound like William Shatner talking. It does sound a little like Kirk, though. And it sounds a whole lot like Bill.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.