Television

Man of Enterprise

The weirdness of William Shatner

From the March 2011 magazine
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Illustration by Paul Kim

William Shatner spends the first six pages of his autobiography deciding how to begin his autobiography, mulling over nearly a dozen options. Among them: an Associated Press article detailing his sale of a kidney stone to raise money for Habitat for Humanity; an account of his journey from Montreal to New York in an Indian outrigger canoe; an excerpt from an episode of Boston Legal in which his Denny Crane character proposes the idea of taking God fishing; and anecdotes about pursuing a wild African elephant, spotting extraterrestrials in the desert, and being sexually harassed by Koko, the San Francisco Zoo’s sign language–savvy gorilla.

He does not want to begin his story with his well-worn catchphrase, “Beam me up, Scotty.” “In fact,” he writes, “I am determined that this phrase will not appear anywhere in this book.” (But, of course, it just has.)

Two things, then, become apparent in the first six pages of Shatner’s 2008 memoir, Up Till Now. First: William Shatner’s persona is extremely slippery. Second: William Shatner knows this. He works rather meticulously to curate this slipperiness, to perfect his Cheshire smirk. He’s doing it right now. And there may be another thing, a question that Up Till Now seems to ask the reader from page one: for all his knowing, smirking, winking, grinning, elbow-nudging, self-conscious cleverness, is William Shatner just genuinely weird? Or what?

Beginning his autobiography with “Beam me up, Scotty” might have been weird, a corny overture to the legion of Star Trek fans who see him as inextricably bound up with the persona of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, the role that made him a household name. But kowtowing to Kirk would undermine the primacy of a far more remarkable and curious fictional character: William Shatner.

As Kirk, he may have phaser-stunned plenty of Klingons; been chased ’round perdition’s very flames; and, in 1968, shared the first interracial kiss aired on a network television drama, with Trek co-star Nichelle Nichols. But Shatner has his own constellation of achievements, many even stranger than the craggy desert topos of Talos IV or Ceti Alpha whatever. Because as Shatner, William Shatner served as Christopher Plummer’s understudy at the Stratford Festival, famously lost his marbles at 20,000 feet on The Twilight Zone, just as famously beseeched Trekkies to “get a life” as a guest host on Saturday Night Live, played cops and robbers for four seasons on TV’s T. J. Hooker, starred in a film presented (and produced) entirely in Esperanto, and lampoonishly covered pop songs by Elton John and the Beatles in herky-jerk spoken word. He appeared nude opposite Angie Dickinson (“As a total package,” he writes, “she was delicious”). He’s hawked All-Bran and clunky Commodore VIC-20 computers, and shilled for Loblaws, and served as “chief negotiating officer” for the travel website Priceline.com. To demonstrate his good humour, he willingly subjected himself to a thorough roasting by a crack team of comedians assembled for a Comedy Central special (stand-up Patton Oswalt, holding a brown paper bag: “Settle a bet for me and my friends. Could you act your way out of this? ”). And yes, in 2006, he sold a hardened calcium deposit he had coaxed through his urinary tract, for $75,000. For charity.

Weird. Yes.

And now Shatner, who turns eighty this month, inhabits what may prove his weirdest role yet: star of a gratingly conventional television sitcom based on entries culled from the micro-blogging website Twitter. When $#*! My Dad Says made its debut on CBS on September 24, 2010, over 12 million Americans tuned in, presumably enticed by the prospect of William Shatner saying a bunch of shit. Twelve million. It was a high-water mark for network television weirdness, surely as strange as any established by Twin Peaks, The X-Files, or The Outer Limits. As a phenomenon, it can only be described as “Shatnerian.”

Born 03/22/1931 (stardate unstipulated), William Shatner grew up in Montreal’s mostly Anglophone Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. His childhood nickname: “Toughie.” The image of him as grade school roustabout, bobbing around NDG’s tree-lined boulevards with a chip on his prepubescent shoulder: impossible to resist. His father, Joseph, a Jewish immigrant who came to Canada from Eastern Europe at age fourteen, worked in the schmatte business, tailoring cheap suits for working-class Montrealers. His mother, Anne, was an elocution teacher who enrolled Toughie in the Dorothy Davis School for Actors, a conservatory for would-be thespians run out of a local basement, when he was just seven or eight. From there, it was Baron Byng and West Hill for high school, McGill for a degree in commerce, radio plays, local theatre, and then Stratford.

Much of the persona Shatner would develop—onstage, off, and in between—is indebted to his training as a Shakespearean actor. (The Shakespearean and the Shatnerian are closely, maybe inextricably, linked.) At Stratford, he worked under classically trained actors such as Anthony Quayle and James Mason, and alongside Christopher Plummer, now considered the grand heir to their Shakespearean legacy. (Plummer and Shatner would square off as nemeses in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a mostly dismal effort that featured Plummer’s Klingon General Chang deploying Shakespeare quotes with minimal provocation.)

Acting for the stage, much more so than for television or film, requires sturdy vocal projection—the ability to hurl out lengthy, lofty, and loud soliloquies that begin in the diaphragm and resonate in the theatre’s nosebleeds. Such grandiosity lends itself to overacting. Combine this with a tendency to… Read. Almost. Every line. Just a few. Words. At a time (perhaps a function of growing up under a mother who hammered home the principles of articulation, emphasis, and inflection) and the essence of the Shatnerian begins to take root.

But just as “Kafkaesque” doesn’t just describe the condition of having too much paperwork to do, “Shatnerian” isn’t merely shorthand for hammy acting demarcated by a certain truncated enunciation. More than that, to be Shatnerian is to be dynamically, effervescently alive in a role. Not to get lost in it, in the style of master thespians and method actors, but to attack it with an urgent swagger—to chew through so much scenery you spend the downtime between takes picking chunks of it out of your teeth. The Shatnerian actor doesn’t so much become the character. The character becomes him. A truly Shatnerian performance can be bombastic, sure, and maybe even a bit of a joke. But it’s a joke that any adept pupil of the school of Shatner is always in on.

In 1961, Shatner appeared in a Broadway production of Harry Kurnitz’s murder-mystery farce A Shot in the Dark, opposite Walter Matthau and Julie Harris. He played a bungling investigator (a role later immortalized by Peter Sellers in a 1964 film adaptation) convinced, in keeping with the genre cliché, that the butler did it. In one performance, he fumbled the character’s exultant delivery of the line “The proof is in the pudding,” instead cracking “The poof is in the pudding!”

“The audience knew that I had blown my line,” writes Shatner. “But for farce to work it has to be played earnestly. If the characters are in on the joke, if we were to start laughing, the entire suspension of disbelief would disappear, ruining the show.” So he stood there, stone faced, as the audience began to laugh. Snickers first. But the chuckles gave way to howls, laughter so loud it doubled back on itself—the audience laughing at the sound of its own laughter. Even Julie Harris began to laugh. Not Shatner. He never tipped his hand, never resigned himself to appearing as if he were in on the joke. It was a matter of his anticipating the audience’s response, and astutely managing his own reaction.

“Bottom line: Bill takes himself very seriously,” says David Fisher, who collaborated with him on Up Till Now. “He understands the public perception of Bill Shatner. Totally. The expectation the public has of him is not fiction. It’s not a character he’s created. He’s going to meet the expectation simply by being himself.” There, as the Shakespearean may say, is the rub. Or, in Shatnerian parlance, the poof.

Christopher Walken has the Shatnerian poof. So do Alec Baldwin and Henry Winkler and Betty White—all actors who possess a self-deprecating, but masterfully oblivious, posture that allows them to play into the pigeonholes the culture has carved out for them. Nicolas Cage, with his own distinctly spasmodic speech rhythms, and a tendency to parade his private weirdness in public, is a breed of next-generation Shatner: subject to bizarre, Jeff-Goldblum-in-The-Fly meta-mutations he can no longer control.

Jeff Goldblum is Shatnerian. Big time.

This Shatnerian je ne sais quoi has buoyed Shatner’s career for nearly half a century. It’s the droll, high-level wakefulness that was apparent even in Star Trek, where, as Kirk, the young Shatner played Horatio Hornblower with a bit of Buck Rogers bravado, bringing humour, smarm, and a rugged, salt-of-planet-Earth charm to something as cerebral and silly as space travel. Well before self-parody became the hallmark of hip, fashionable, ironic comic performance, it’s what made Shatner viable in generic spoofs like Loaded Weapon 1 and Airplane II: The Sequel. It’s what makes him so interesting and eminently likeable that, along with CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says, he is the current star of Biography’s Shatner’s Raw Nerve (an intimate talk show where he’ll uncover the “soft, gentle, loving” side of Rush Limbaugh, or speak compassionately with “Weird Al” Yankovic about the pain of being alone); and the Discovery Channel’s non-fiction paranormal probe William Shatner’s Weird or What?, which has its host recurrently posing the nagging question his own persona raises.

So yes, the Twitter show.

Justin Halpern was twenty-eight and living with his parents in San Diego when he started publishing an online account of the pearls of wisdom dispensed by his seventy-three-year-old father. He minted his Twitter account (@shitmydadsays) on August 3, 2009. By October, it was popular enough to land him a book deal with HarperCollins. By November, he was developing a sitcom. Casting the title role was a cinch. “When we had written the script, we had been given a list of actors CBS was interested in,” explains Halpern. “We saw Mr. Shatner on the list and immediately were like, ‘Okay, he would be amazing.’ He was the first guy we went after.”

It’s no real shock that a rushed-to-market sitcom based on a series of 140-character quips (all offending expletives deleted) isn’t very good. $#*! My Dad Says wallows around in subadolescent non-humour, expecting the laugh track to light up at the mere utterance of words like “balls,” “boobs,” and “wiener.” Shatner isn’t so much its leavening touch as its entire rationale. He’s the star around which all the strained scatological jokes and MADtv cast-offs orbit. If $#*! My Dad Says is anything, it’s a Shatner delivery device. Because forty-plus years after Star Trek, there’s still a marked demand to see William Shatner stomping around a sitcom set in his pyjamas, sort of swearing.

Unlike Raw Nerve or Weird or What?, which hinge on the public’s appreciation of both Shatner himself and the semi-constructed Shatner front, $#*! My Dad Says speaks to his viability as a working actor. In Up Till Now, he writes that “every actor has spent days… months staring at the telephone, willing it to ring. And living with the hollow fear that it might never ring again.” Perhaps this accounts for his dogged productivity, even when he can easily rest on his laurels (as well as all the money he has accrued playing a puffed-up version of himself for Priceline, which some uncorroborated guesstimates have valued in the hundreds of millions).

“He’s a survivor,” says Halpern, “and I feel that a lot of people respect that.” Survivor. It’s a word Fisher echoes. Many celebrities can subsist in a hand-to-mouth, paycheque-to-paycheque, “I’ll take Martin Mull to block” kind of way. But few endure in a manner that’s not just saleable in the eyes of network sitcom bigwigs, but culturally salient. And nobody else teleports from Shakespearean thespian to sci-fi icon to streetwise crusader to patron saint of studied self-parody.

Weird? Yes. Undeniably. Winkingly, nudgingly, smirkingly so. But weird in a way necessitated by all the pop songs left to be incongruously covered, all the hotel and flight rates left to be ruthlessly negotiated, and all the shit left unsaid. Weird in the way that psychokinesis, or magnetism, or an adrenaline-pumped mother jacking a Buick over her head to free her trapped toddler is weird. The kind of person whose sundry quirks can be explained but never explained away. In a word: Shatnerian.

John Semley is the online editor of Now Toronto.

Paul Kim is The Walrus’s senior designer.

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