William Shatner on Acting, 'Star Trek' and Laughing at Himself

Star, 80 and mellowed, has new memoir and spoken-word CD (seriously).

September 30, 2011, 3:07 PM

Oct. 3, 2011— -- What's the most annoying thing random people shout at William Shatner?

"Beam me up, Scotty!" he said with a laugh.

Ironically, as Shatner explains in his new memoir, "Shatner Rules," that's the science fiction equivalent of "Play it again, Sam." Just as no one said that in "Casablanca," no one on "Star Trek" ever actually said, "Beam me up, Scotty."

To his biggest fans, Shatner remains an icon. But long before Capt. James Tiberius Kirk ever served with Mr. Chekov, Shatner was acting Chekov. He sees himself as an actor, not an icon.

Now 80, Shatner has finally made peace with the role that defined him for so long.

Gone is the defensiveness that led him to lash out at Trekkies in a famous "Saturday Night Live" skit in which he told them, "Get a life, people! It was just a TV show!"

Gone is the swagger -- parodied in the movie "Galaxy Quest" -- that so annoyed his "Star Trek" co-stars. During the Comedy Central Roast of Shatner, George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu, told Shatner, "f--- you and the horse you rode in on!"

On the bad blood between him and Takei, Shatner said, "I don't know what is his problem. I keep saying to him, Hey, you're getting old. Do you want to die in enmity? And I'm not getting anywhere, so I've sort of given up."

Shatner now seems to occupy another realm, one where he can finally embrace being William Shatner -- sometimes by playing himself, as in ads for Priceline.com.

Was the rumor true that they paid him in stock, and he's now a gazillionaire?

"No, in fact exactly the opposite," he said. "They paid me in stock, the bubble went up, I was rich. The bubble burst, and everyone got rid of the stock."

Even so, Shatner is doing fine. His passion is horses, an expensive hobby. He and his fourth wife, Elisabeth, breed them and ride competitively.

To Shatner, horses are not props or pets. They are an extension of him and a constant challenge to command.

"One of the requirements of reining is you do a rapid maneuver and then you stay very still," he said while sitting atop a horse.

It's a description that applies to Shatner's trademark style of acting, a halting cadence rich with pregnant pauses.

"Theoretically, it's dramatic," he said. "Did you receive that information? Hang on a second. Here. Comes. Another."

It's also a favorite target of comedians and generations of dorm-room nerds. Although Shatner sometimes joins in the joke, he doesn't want to be the joke.

"I am passionately devoted to whatever it is we're talking about or whatever it is I'm doing," said Shatner. "If it's on a child and charity, if it's on an animal, it's valid and good and beautiful. If it's on a cartoon, if it's on a foolish man that I'm playing and I have the equal attention and devotion to it, it's funny."

As he explains in the book, Shatner's over-the-top Priceline character -- "I will get you a great deal!" -- led TV producer David E. Kelley to cast him as Denny Crane, the aging litigator on "Boston Legal" and "The Practice," a role that earned him two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.

But pushing the envelope has also cost Shatner. Take his memorable performance of "Tambourine Man" on "The Tonight Show." Shatner's spoken-word rendition of Bob Dylan's famous song baffled Johnny Carson and the audience. Shatner said he saw Carson mouth the words "What the f---?" after the performance.

It bothers Shatner that it flopped. He meant it as part of a two-song performance piece about drugs.

"You need to hear the two pieces," he said. "But they don't want me to do two pieces. They want me to do one, so I do 'Mr. Tambourine Man.' 'What the hell is he doing?' [people thought]. Because they don't get it in context."

William Shatner Does Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

Now, bravely, Shatner is releasing a new spoken-word album called "Seeking Major Tom," a musical voyage that imagines what happens after the David Bowie song "Space Oddity." On it he also intones the lyrics to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

"I don't sing the way Freddie Mercury sings 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' but I'm an actor, and I love the spoken word," he said. "I love the musicality of the word and I love the rhythm of the word and so, in a way, speaking can become musical -- iambic pentameter."

He is serious.

"There's a record that you might laugh at, but I don't mean you to laugh at," he said. "But it's on the edge. In fact, it's so on the edge that some people will laugh at it, mock it."

"To the extent that this Shatner is a joke, I'll join in," he said. But he quickly added, sitting taller in the saddle: "This is me. Right here on this horse."

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