William Shatner has been a fixture of stage and screen for more than half a century. In that time, he has portrayed a number of iconic characters, from the stoic yet awestruck Captain Kirk on Star Trek to the senile yet suave Denny Crane on Boston Legal and countless Priceline Negotiator appearances in between. Shatner started out as a Shakespearean actor in his native Canada before becoming Kirk and solidifying his status as a pop-culture icon. On February 3, see the legend in person when he presents his one-man show, Shatner’s World Starring William Shatner, on Florida’s West Coast at the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg. Shatner sat down with NI.com to talk about Shakespeare, Captain Kirk, and The Twilight Zone.
NI.com: What made you want to pursue acting, and Shakespearean acting in particular?
Shakespeare came along sort of by fate; I didn’t choose it, it chose me. But what made me want to become an actor? I was good at it and got a lot of praise and that started me. It felt good, and I became good at it. Given a facility as an actor it was my way.
What do you mean by Shakespeare chose you?
I was performing in Canada at a professional theater in the winter and a professional theater in the summer, and they were beginning to manifest the idea of having a Shakespeare festival at Stratford, Ontario, and they asked me to be a member of the company. I said “No, I’m working all the time as an actor.” Then, the Stratford opened up and it was a huge success that first year. They came back a second year and asked me to be a member of the company and that’s when I said yes based on the fact that it had been such a tremendous success in its opening. I was a member of the Shakespeare company for three years in Stratford.
Do you have a favorite Shakespeare character? Maybe one you most relate to?
No, not necessarily. Of course, it changes as I get older—from Hamlet to Lear, I guess. I did go on as an understudy for Henry V at Stratford, and I’d had no rehearsal. I’d hardly meet the actors and I was onstage as the understudy, and it went off quite well, and that perhaps was the most memorable moment for me there.
How did your Shakespearean training prepare you to be a starship captain?
As I started playing Shakespeare roles, there is, I suppose, an elegance about the way you play them—an authority that you need to have to play those roles, both in your voice, your language, and your bearing. I think that may have helped me be a commander of a lot of people.
What did you most admire about Captain Kirk as a character?
The awe and wonder that the character had about everything certainly informed me to try to keep that about life in general.
Photo by George Qua-Enoo
You also appeared on two episodes of The Twilight Zone. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in particular, has become one of the series’ most popular episodes. What was the experience shooting that like?
Well, of course, we didn’t know that it would become as iconic as it did. It was fun. I was on camera all the time and had to figure out what to do about how to look astonished and afraid and a variety of other emotions with this little furry thing on the wing. But, it was challenging, I remember, but nobody had any idea that it would stand the test of time as it has.
Have you ever been in any role where you felt at the time of shooting that it had a certain staying power?
No—it’s always the other way around. It’s barely out of your mouth and it’s gone.
How did you develop your one-man show?
It evolved over a series of anecdotes that became stories that blended with each other, and I found bridges between them so they added up to a complete whole. What I’ve got here is a laughter-filled show that has, at several moments, tears to it. It is both comical and meaningful. I talk about love and I talk about gorillas. I talk about motorcycles and I talk about death and I talk about comedy. There is a full mixture of my life but done in as humorous a way as I can imagine.
What is the signature Shatner style?
Laughter, tears, and excellence.