William Shatner boldly goes just about everywhere in his career

Feb. 14, 2012 | 8:18 p.m.

Some actors disappear into their roles, but William Shatner's roles disappear into him, no matter the movie or the TV show. Shatner, best known for his performance as the suave, cocky Capt. James T. Kirk in the "Star Trek" franchise, has made a name for himself on the big screen, the small screen and the stage, racking up awards and nominations along the way. Here's a look back at some memorable moments in his career. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

William Shatner got his start in the theater performing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada in Stratford, Ontario. Those early days onstage eventually took him all the way to Broadway, where he made his debut in Marlowe's "Tamburlaine the Great," directed by Tyrone Guthrie in 1956. (File photo)

Shatner stayed busy in the 1950s as a working actor making his way in theater, film and television. He scored a minor role in the film "The Butler's Night Off" in 1951 and later made his big movie debut with "The Brothers Karamazov" in 1958. He rubbed elbows with stars like Jessica Tandy and Bernadette Peters in the live TV production of Hallmark's "The Christmas Tree" and even nabbed a leading role in an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," called "The Glass Eye." He's shown above opposite Phyllis Love in the 1958 TV melodrama "Suspicion." (File photo)

Shatner continued to gain ground as an actor in the 1960s with roles in Broadway's "A Shot in the Dark" and Roger Corman's "The Intruder." It was also during this stage that he filmed the infamous "Twilight Zone" episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (above) and costarred with Leonard Nimoy in a pre-"Star Trek" episode of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (USA Network)

It was in 1966 that Shatner took on the iconic role of Capt. James Tiberius Kirk in Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek." Together with Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his crew, the Starfleet commander of the USS Enterprise ventured out "to explore strange new worlds" for three seasons. Although the series was short-lived, the cult classic continued on in reruns and inspired spinoff shows, movies and books. (Paramount)

After "Star Trek," Shatner fell on hard times and made a living in schlock films like "The Devil's Rain" and game shows like "The $20,000 Pyramid" and "Hollywood Squares." The 1970s also brought guest roles on popular shows including "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "Columbo" as well as commercial work. He managed to land a starring role in "Barbary Coast" (above), but the show was canceled after just one season. (ABC)

When "Star Trek" went into syndication, fans couldn't get enough of Capt. Kirk. In 1972 the very first "Star Trek" convention popped up in New York and the fan gatherings continued to expand and grow across the country. (Above left, Shatner addresses a 1977 Trek convention.) Soon enough, Shatner was back in his Starfleet uniform and headed for the big screen. He starred in seven such flicks, starting with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" in 1979. (Lee Romero / Los Angeles Times archive; Paramount Pictures)

For years Shatner was known as the on again, off again face of Priceline.com, an ad campaign he agreed to do for stock in the company. As the story goes, Shatner sold his shares just before the tech bust and made a fortune. His commercial character, the Priceline Negotiator, came to a fiery end in January when his bus fell off a bridge. (Priceline.com / Associated Press)

In 2004, Shatner took on the role of self-declared legend Denny Crane, a founding partner at a law firm featured on "The Practice." Crane, a staunch conservative and womanizer, made a habit of uttering his own name as a way of emphasizing his importance. Crane lived on even after "The Practice" as a character on David E. Kelly's next creation, "Boston Legal." In all, Shatner won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for the part. (Danny Feld / ABC)

Shatner's spoken-word albums are a bit of a pop-culture phenomenon, but that wasn't always the case. His first album, "The Transformed Man" (1968), barely made a blip on his fans’ radar, despite featuring oddball readings of popular songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Years later he returned to the studio to record "Has Been" (2004) and "Seeking Major Tom" (2011), and both were well received. However, it might be his interpretation of Sarah Palin's Twitter poetry on the "Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien that made the most lasting impression. (williamshatner.com; Paul Drinkwater / NBC)

After "Boston Legal" ended in 2009, Shatner had a bumpy road. He was notably left out of the "Star Trek" reboot and instead went on to star in "$#*! My Dad Says," above. The much-anticipated CBS show about a father, son and Twitter feed was canceled in 2011. Since then, he has appeared as a guest star on "Psych" and debuted "The Captains," a documentary he wrote and directed about the "Star Trek" captains over the years. (CBS)

Now, at 80, Shatner's headed back to Broadway after a 50-year hiatus to revisit the ups and downs of his expansive career with "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." The one-man show opens Thursday in New York at the Music Box Theater for a 2 1/2-week run before he takes it on the road for a national tour. (Taylor Hill / Getty Images)

William Shatner is standing in a mostly bare rehearsal room in Hollywood, his arms outstretched as he recites the closing lines to his Broadway-bound one-man show. Naturally, the subject of the moment is his career — that strange, constantly mutating accumulation of TV series, movies, guest spots, online projects, commercials and more.

“It’s easy to say no,” he says, addressing an invisible audience. “Saying yes carries more danger to it. Saying yes is risky business — but how much richer my life has been because of it.”

If there is one inviolable law of the Shatnerverse, it is simply that: Say yes. Shatner’s career is defined by a bottomless capacity to try it all. Nothing is too weird or outlandish; selling out is nothing to be ashamed of. His oddball career choices form the backbone of “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It,” which opens Thursday in New York at the Music Box Theater for a two-and-a-half week run before he launches a national tour at the Pantages Theatre on March 10.

William Shatner, photographed in 2006. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)

The show marks Shatner’s return to Broadway after 50 years — his last Broadway appearance was in the 1961 comedy “A Shot in the Dark,” opposite Julie Harris and Walter Matthau. The danger of having said “yes” to the new show is clearly weighing on him during the recent L.A. rehearsal period. “Every time you’re in something, you wonder if it’s any good,” he says during a lunch break. “Until it’s in front of the public, and they’ll tell you. So that moment of trepidation is with you all of the time… It never goes away.”

“Trepidation” is a word that Shatner used often during the interview. As hard as it is to believe today, Capt. James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise was once a struggling New York stage actor with a resume consisting primarily of Shakespeare and stock theater in his native Canada. (He once understudied Christopher Plummer in “Henry V” at the Stratford Festival.)

“I was making $35 a week, and I was a big success as far as I was concerned,” says Shatner, talking about his early New York days. “I didn’t know anything else. I was following some intuition. I come from a very practical family. The idea of becoming an actor was so foreign.”

“Shatner’s World” toggles warp speed between various high points in his life and career, and some low points as well. (The show inevitably covers some of the same ground as Shatner’s 2008 memoir “Up Till Now.”) The production requires Shatner, 80, to be on stage for close to 100 minutes without intermission. For those who think he’s too old to be doing this, Shatner has thought up an ingenious audience hook.

“I was joking with somebody saying that people should come to the theater to see me because I may die on stage,” he says with a big laugh. “I’m at the age where people are dying. So they can say that maybe he’ll die and we’ll see him dying.”

William Shatner's Capt. Kirk learns all about "The Trouble with Tribbles." (Paramount)

The ability to mock oneself isn’t common in Hollywood, but Shatner possesses it in abundance. His lack of self-importance — no doubt a source of his everlasting appeal to his fans — includes a willingness to discuss his professional failures, of which there have been more than a few.

Shatner recalls appearing in Mart Crowley’s “Remote Asylum” at its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1970. The play began with Shatner and an actress coming on stage in a darkened theater. The actor recalls: “As we’re coming out in front, she says to me, ‘Do you think we’re in a disaster?’ And the curtain goes up. And that resonated for the rest of the evening. It turns out we were!” (The play was poorly received and closed out of town.)

A more recent disappointment was the CBS sitcom “$#*! My Dad Says,” based on the popular book and Twitter feed. The series was canceled last year after less than one season. Shatner said the show should have been a hit.

At the 2005 Governors Ball in Los Angeles, William Shatner hoists his supporting actor Emmy for his turn in "Boston Legal." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Shatner’s World” devotes ample time to the actor’s TV successes in”Star Trek,” “T.J. Hooker” and his late-career resurgence in”Boston Legal,”for which he won an Emmy Award. The script is adapted from his stage show “Kirk, Crane and Beyond: William Shatner Live,” which recently toured Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and featured the actor in conversation with a moderator about his life and career.

The new show dispenses with the moderator and condenses material. “We’re taking what he had done previously and tightening it,” says Scott Faris, the show’s director. Rehearsals have been short by Broadway standards, with just a couple of weeks in Hollywood and a week or so in New York followed by two days of previews.

The idea for the Broadway transfer and national tour came from producers who caught the earlier stage show touring Canada. They approached Shatner and his manager about doing a U.S. tour, and then later decided that a limited Broadway run would serve as a launch.

Much of the show’s commercial potential lies in Shatner’s appeal to multiple age groups, says Seth Keyes, a producer and vice president at Innovation Arts & Entertainment, a live-entertainment company. “He runs the gamut, from hip, younger audiences, to a slightly older demographic of ‘Boston Legal’ fans to the ‘Star Trek’ generation,” he says.

“Shatner’s World” could be classified in the theatrical mini-genre known as the serio-comic celebrity autobiography. Recent practitioners, including Carrie Fisher and Joan Rivers, have mixed career autopsy with hilarious and sometimes gruesome personal anecdotes to create a self-aware exercise in stage therapy.

William and Nerine Shatner arrive at a "Star Trek" tribute in Los Angeles in 1996. (Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

In Shatner’s case, the personal can sometimes be painful. The show touches on the death of his wife, Nerine, who drowned in 1999 in the couple’s swimming pool at their Studio City home. The show also discusses divorce — the actor has been down the aisle four times — and the difficulties that come with raising three children.

But the overall tone is light and hopeful. At the end of the show, Shatner even performs a song from his album “Has Been.”

One of the show’s key moments offers an origin myth of Shatner’s idiosyncratic and widely imitated vocal delivery. The actor was working on the Broadway play “The World of Suzie Wong” in 1958. “It was very poorly received in the beginning. It should have closed but we didn’t because we had this big advance,” Shatner recalls.

In the process of willing people to stay in their seats, the actor says he started delivering his lines faster, with oddly placed pauses. Audiences found it funny. A serious drama about a man who falls in love with a prostitute in Hong Kong became a comedy and ran for more than 500 performances.

After the national tour of “Shatner’s World,” the actor says he will participate in a couple of horse shows (a personal passion) and tape episodes for the Discovery Channel series “Weird or What?” that he hosts.

“Retire? To what?” Shatner says laughing as he resumes rehearsals.

– David Ng

Life in pictures gallery by Emily Christianson and Noelene Clark.

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