Legend is a word that gets thrown around a lot when talking about actors in Hollywood. Yet in the case of William Shatner, it is absolutely justified. I’ve been following Shatner’s work for many years, having watched Star Trek with my dad as a little kid. While the iconic actor is best known for his role of Captain James T. Kirk, in the years following Star Trek he’s become famous for a variety of different projects, whether they’re books or charitable organizations.
I carried all this with me as I walked into the auditorium at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last year. As I watched everyone take their seats, the feeling that overcame me was positively surreal. Judging from the chatter all around me, everyone was just as excited as I. After all, aside from a screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there was to be a Q and A with William Shatner, and I could barely contain myself. For years, I had watched him do events just like this online, and now I was going to be there to see it in person.
Although I’d watched the Nicholas Meyer-directed Wrath of Khan many times in the past, as the lights came down, I couldn’t help but feel a renewed sense of excitement, as though I had never seen the film before. In truth, I had never gotten to see it on the big screen, so it was cool to be experiencing it the way so many others did in 1982. To have this shared experience with fellow Star Trek fans was something unique; while it was always special to see the Star Trek films with my dad and grandpa, seeing one with this auditorium of hardcore Trekkers was a whole new experience. As soon as our beloved admiral appeared on screen, everyone cheered, in much the same way people cheered for Harry Potter or, more recently, Han Solo when he first appeared in The Force Awakens. Hearing that joy from my fellow fans was a moment I’ll never forget.
When the film was over, William Shatner discussed a different kind of joy. After telling us what his initial post-Star Trek life was like (he was once so broke, he ended up staying in a camper), one of the first stories he told was about some antics he got up to on the Wrath of Khan set. Deforest Kelley, who played ship doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, confessed to Mr. Shatner during a night shoot that he was worried he had been rather forgetful as of late, with Shatner prefacing the story by waxing philosophical and stating that, in the night, people show you who they are, only for him to pull a prank on his friend the next morning. Kelley was waiting for his bagel to pop out of the toaster, with Shatner saying how his friend was “anticipating the joy.” Shatner called Leonard Nimoy over, telling him to distract Kelley while he took his bagel. This went on for a few mornings until Kelley figured out what was going on. Subsequently, Mr. Shatner said that the two didn’t speak for three days, the latter of which was a recurring gag throughout the Q and A, particularly when he talked about an altercation he got into when he played a prank on Terry Bradshaw on his show Better Late Than Never.
While the session would cover the gamut of William Shatner’s career, the focus was always on his time with Trek, from the first interracial kiss with Nichelle Nichols to his time directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. When the moderator bought up for the former, asking how he felt about it, Shatner replied, simply, “I liked it.” While this tongue-in-cheek response was certainly in keeping with the tone of the night, I had hoped he would confirm some things I’ve read about how the scene played out. Allegedly, the studio wanted to film two versions, one with the kiss and one without it. For the latter, Shatner and Nichols purposefully ruined the take, as both performers knew how important the kiss was for broadcast television (the Nancy Sinatra/Sammy Davis Jr. kiss notwithstanding.) Of his directorial effort, Shatner discussed how bored he had been on set and that there was a lot of downtime on the set amid problems with snow, as well as a writer’s strike. This was my biggest disappointment with the night, as I really wanted to hear from him directly about the inception of one of my personal favorites, the Tekwar book series, which he had come up with on the set. An amalgamation of two of his TV series, Star Trek and T.J. Hooker, the books focused on police detective Jake Cardigan, who was framed for murder and then set free by Walter Bascom, the head of a private detective agency and the role Shatner portrayed in the eventual adaptation.
Despite this, the entire night was an absolute joy. While William Shatner would throw the occasional barb, particularly when asked what role he would’ve wanted to play other than Kirk (hint: it had to do with Sulu), it was always done with good humor, and Shatner played to the crowd wonderfully. But it was things he said towards the end of the night that I think stood out to me the most, the first being his love of horses and charity. He talked about all the money they had raised, and how he was getting ready for another horse show the next day. This had been important in the actor’s life for a long time, and he even first met Chris Pine at one of his shows while Pine was there showing his support. To me, this was a reminder that passion can inspire good in the world and transcend the idea of escapism. Perhaps one of the greatest moments of the night was when Mr. Shatner told the story of when he got pulled over on the way to the set. After the officer checked him out, Shatner got fed up and started walking back toward his car. When the officer asked him where he was going, Shatner shot back, “I’m going to my spaceship.” The officer’s response: a Vulcan salute.
William Shatner is a legendary actor worthy of all the accolades he has received over the years. From Star Trek to horse shows, the man has always bought passion and humor to everything he does. As of this week, he will be 88 years young, and something tells me he’s got plenty more creative endeavors left in him. I can’t wait to see what our forever captain will do next.