Look up the word “restraint” in any dictionary and there is little chance you will find a picture of William Shatner. And that is a very good thing.
The same drive and exuberance that has propelled the actor, singer and entrepreneur through one of the longest and quirkiest careers in Hollywood was on full display at Sunday afternoon’s near sold-out performance at NJPAC in Newark.
SPOILER ALERT: “Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It” is a whole lot of fun.
Prowling every inch of the stage like a gray panther. Gesturing madly. Dancing with his chair. Shouting. Whispering. Just plain emoting. At an age when most folks are being groomed for a nursing home, the 81-year-old Canadian dynamo shows no signs of slowing down. From the opening moments that utilized the theme song from the classic 1960’s “Star Trek” television series, the crowd sensed they were in for something different.
Comprised of live theater, archival photographs, video clips, and even a song, “Shatner’s World” is pure energy. Fascinating, yet highly illogical at times, the actor spends over 95 minutes reflecting upon both the highs and the lows of a celebrated life in the public eye.
His earliest years are marked by wistful stories of his mother, summer camp, burlesque shows in Montreal and an illicit, nighttime love affair with a neighbor’s motorcycle. When a young Shatner tells his disappointed father that he wants to become an actor, the elder man requests that his son at least make the attempt to become an accountant.
“So I passed my course and I got my degree,” Shatner recalls, “which was incredible because I was the worst student who ever went to McGill University.” Then, in 2011, the school from Quebec came back into his life. “Just awhile ago,” he said, “McGill asked me if I would accept an Honorary Doctorate of Letters. Wait a minute — I spent four years getting a bachelor’s degree and all I have to do now is say ‘yes’ to get a doctorate? Hell yes!”
Stories from his early days in the 1950s with Ontario’s famed Stratford Shakespeare Company included the time he was an understudy for lead actor Christopher Plummer. So intent on preparing for the role, Shatner would flush the toilet in his tiny apartment to camouflage the fiery delivery of his loudest “Henry V” passages. When Plummer fell ill before show time, Shatner nervously stepped in and went completely blank on a key line. He recovered in time and the production was a hit.
The anecdotes covering his years on live television from the ‘50s were hilarious. He tells of “Sherlock Holmes” movie star Basil Rathbone getting his foot stuck in a bucket and having to complete the entire show with the bucket on his foot. Horror king Lon Chaney Jr. freezes up during a live broadcast and epically flubs an elaborately rehearsed fight scene with Shatner.
The video clips and personal photos perfectly underscore the entertainment icon’s recent foray into self-deprecation. There’s George “Mr. Sulu” Takei cursing out Shatner at a Comedy Central roast. There’s Shatner about to be molested by an overly amorous 800-pound gorilla. There’s Shatner being lovingly punked by the fanboys over at NASA. And, best of them all, there’s William Shatner crashing a “Salute to Star Wars”-type awards show. The awkward silence and haughty looks of George Lucas, Harrison Ford and the rest of the SW gang are simply priceless.
Also worth mentioning is the epiphany that the man once and forever known at Capt. James T. Kirk has during an enlightening interview with fellow Starfleet commander, actor Patrick Stewart. After years of deriding and distancing himself from the role that made him a household name, Shatner finally and proudly acknowledges his science fiction legacy as the swashbuckling space stud.
Oddly enough, his favorite film role of the 1960s was “Alexander the Great.” Attempting to solve an audio problem due to the creaking sound of his armor, it was at that moment he embraced the notion of “an actor and a historical figure fused as one. And I love horses. Playing Alexander on horseback fanned that passion into a burning flame.”
The actor suggests, “Grief and laughter are two sides of the same coin.” And a defining moment in both the NJPAC show and his life hammers this point home. It’s the summer of 1969, and “Star Trek” has just been cancelled. Divorced, broke and now unemployed, the homeless actor is forced to take up residence in his truck’s camper bed, “out in the wilds of Long Island,” he said.
You could have heard a pin drop in the theater as Shatner recalled, “I’m lying there, looking up at the moon with a 4-inch black-and-white television set on my chest. One of the greatest moments in mankind’s history is taking place. The astronaut is stepping down on the moon, saying, ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ And in some small, small, tiny, tiny way, I had made some itsy-bitsy contribution to this moment. And the glory of what was happening in front of me, and the misery of my condition as I fell asleep, … the irony was not lost on me.”
Shatner said that the next morning, a 6-year-old boy knocked on his camper, asking, “Are you Capt. Kirk?” “Yes,” he answers. “Is this your spaceship?” the boy inquires.“ ”Yes,” replies Shatner. “Can I see your spaceship?” asks the boy. “Come on in, kid,” replies Shatner.
And the NJPAC audience erupts in laughter.
“Shatner’s World” is by no means perfect. The hardcore Trekkers will be put off by the dearth of any Spock, Bones or Scotty stories. The wonderful Leonard Nimoy is mentioned only once. And the casual Shatnerite could easily feel the show was far too self-indulgent. Tales of teenage Bill hitchhiking across America, transporting a fussy rabbi to Chicago and trying to salvage “The World of Suzi Wong” drag on just a little too long.
But for every ball that Shatner fouls off, he homers again and again with his insider’s tales of wacky Hollywood. His honest account of the infamous “Tonight Show” appearance when he butchers The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” in front of a horrified Johnny Carson is alone worth the price of admission. And when he beams about selling his “Boston Legal”-era kidney stone for $100,000 to benefit Habitat for Humanity, you realize that you are in the presence of a great storyteller.
After his father died, the sorrow of the event is tempered by the bittersweet realization that his frugal father would have approved of his son’s purchase of the inexpensive pine-box casket. At the funeral service, Shatner’s sister asks him, “That’s nice, Bill. Did you buy it used?”
The actor even maps out his dream scenario for his own final act with a nod to comedian Dick Shawn, who died on stage during a performance.
“That’s the way I want to go,” quips Shatner, “Just not tonight.”
Life, love, loss and risk and the spectre and the acceptance of death all play pivotal roles in “Shatner’s World.”
The crushing pain from the sudden death of his third wife precedes a slow rebirth ushered in by the introduction of his current wife of 13 years, whom the performer obviously cherishes.
Surviving and still thriving after 60 years in a notoriously cutthroat business that routinely devours its young, Shatner espouses the transformative power of love. “I’ve discovered that love is like water, it seeks its own level.”
He declares, “I am a risk-taker, and life is risk. There is a risk to saying ‘yes’ to new love, ‘yes’ to new thoughts, ‘yes’ to new opportunities, ‘yes’ to doing a one-man show in Newark, New Jersey, but …” At this point, the NJPAC crowd explodes into laughter and applause. Shatner finishes: “Just think how much more richer our lives would be if we just said ‘yes.’ ”
With those words, Shatner the man had just eclipsed Shatner the mystique. As if to reinforce that thought, the entertainer closed the show with his Brad Paisley-penned song called “Real.”
The repeated lyric that floats over the audience as we depart is this: “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m real.”
And that is a very good thing.
David VanDeventer is a reviewer of the arts for Worrall Community Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to check out Dave’s exclusive one-on-one interview with William Shatner from last week, also featured on this website.