Communications were down and the captain looked confused. “These computer guys are working in my office,” William Shatner muttered, “so I don’t know where we should go to talk.”
The 77-year-old was standing in the lobby of his Studio City office, which is lined with more photographs from his beloved equestrian pursuits than his interstellar acting career. He looked at the ceiling and then the door. “I know: Let’s go to Starbucks. I don’t have my wallet, though. Will you buy me coffee?”
Wow, Mr. Priceline paycheck can’t pay for a cup of joe?
I’m joking, of course; I was genuinely thrilled to spring for a triple-shot decaf for the man who gave us all James T. Kirk, the bane of the Klingon empire and the master of the strained staccato delivery. I wasn’t the only one a little geeked to see the venerable old space cowboy; the barista got the “Star Trek” icon’s autograph on an empty cup and then customers kept coming by our table to shake his hand. One gushed about “Boston Legal,” and another, oddly, expressed a passion for those Priceline.com ads. “Maybe coming here,” Shatner whispered, “wasn’t a good idea.”
Shatner is shorter than you think and bow-legged after all those years in the saddle, but the main impression he makes is as a man of fairly intense focus. He brought a stack of notes to the café and scanned them, then looked up like a professor about to start his lecture. “Let’s begin, we have plenty to talk about.” I sat up a little straighter and looked at my tape recorder to make the sure the red light was on.
And there was a lot to talk about. There is a new “Star Trek” film coming, and Shatner is peeved that he won’t be in it (more on that later), but it’s just about the only thing he isn’t in. This past weekend he popped in on “Saturday Night Live” and Sunday night he may well be picking up his third Emmy for his sublimely kooky role as lawyer Denny Crane, the scene stealer on “Boston Legal” (and previously on “The Practice”). “Boston” returns for its final season on Sept. 22.
There’s also Shatner’s sometime-career in music, his recent autobiography and the deep shelf of sci-fi novels with his name on them, as well as his pitchman work. There’s also a brand new venture: The actor is getting into the comic-book business by partnering with Bluewater Productions Inc on adaptations of his novels about heroic deep-space struggles. Two books, "Man o’ War" and "Quest for Tomorrow," will each be given a mini-series treatment, while his far more famous "TekWar" will be an up-ended series. (Darren G. Davis, president of Bluewater, tells me this "TekWar" will also be more faithful to the original novel than the 1990s television series of the same title, which itself yielded a Marvel Comics adaptation.) There will be a fourth title, also, based on a new Shatner concept that is still under wraps.
“With all of these comics, I have final approval," Shatner told me. "This is not a licensing arrangement, this will be me involved very directly throughout the process. They are going to do adaptations of my ideas and also sequels; they will be in the stores in March of 2009. I loved comics as a kid. I used to sit under the sheets with a flashlight and read Superman when I was 6 in Montreal and now, with the comics as they are today, it’s thrilling, really.”
Shatner kept tabs on comics through the years, and he has a soft spot for the old Gold Key comics based on the original "Star Trek" television series. "Oh, they were great. They always made me look so skinny." He also watches the current rage for super-hero movies with a bit of longing. "I would have loved to have been in a super-hero movie. Any of them. To be Superman? Or Captain Marvel? Who wouldn’t love that?"
Shatner will have his name emblazoned in the title of the new comics, and it would have been a nice tie-in if the early issues were coming out amid the hoopla of his appearance in the next “Star Trek” film, the J.J. Abrams reboot set for May, but that’s a party he is not invited to. Only Leonard Nimoy, sharing the role of Spock, will be returning to the cast, which will otherwise feature young actors portraying Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew fresh from Starfleet Academy.
“There is no need for me to know anything because I’m not a part of it. They will have an extraordinary campaign when it comes about, and my dear friend Leonard will be part of that and I would have loved to have been there with him. I am very happy for Leonard, my good friend, though.”
But wait, didn’t Shatner’s Kirk die on screen in “Star Trek Generations” in 1994? He rolled his eyes. “It’s science fiction! If we’re trying to put together the DNA of a dinosaur dead for a 160 million years, why can’t scientists take a molecule that’s floating around and bring back Kirk?” Shatner shook his head and watched the traffic on Ventura Boulevard. “It was weird for me to hand over the movie reins to Patrick Stewart in the last movie. It’s strange to say goodbye. But it isn’t any more strange than saying goodbye to ‘Boston Legal,’ which has been part of my life these past few years in an extraordinary way.”
It was on “The Practice” that Shatner first appeared as Crane, an aging attorney with a slippery grasp of ethics and, at times, reality.
“For me, it has been the greatest fun I’ve ever had as an actor. I’m already in a nostalgic frame of mind. We have about two months left of shooting ‘Boston Legal.’ I will mourn and grieve the loss of this show. I won’t miss getting up and driving to Manhattan Beach at 5 a.m., but i will miss the people. And David Kelley: I looked with relish each week when the script came in to see what new madness David had come up with for me. I have worked with very few geniuses, but David Kelley is a true genius. The efficiency of his ideas is perhaps the best in television. ‘Boston Legal’ always had dual currents as the main flow of its history. On the one hand it was a comedy — outrageous, farcical, almost demented — and the other one was as a dedicated political treatise in which a very erudite man.”
On “SNL” this past weekend, Shatner spoofed his pitchman work for Priceline by pretending to coach Olympic hero Michael Phelps about maintaining "integrity" when it comes to accepting endorsements. The crux of the gag is that Shatner would do anything for a buck and, well, he was the guy who in 2006 sold a kidney stone to Goldenpalace.com for $75,000. The money went to charity, though, so the real knock on Shatner isn’t that he’s money-hungry, it’s that he’s starving for the spotlight. (The kidney stunt got Shatner on “The View,” by the way.) When the aging actor talks about his latest Emmy nomination, it’s clear that for him the platform is more important than the paycheck.
“Look at Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre, these guys that keep coming back. It’s the roar of the crowd and being told how great you are. It’s like that with the nominations. It makes you part of the happening. When you’re not nominated, when you’re not on the scene, then you’re not happening. No matter what you or anyone else says, when that light is not on, you’re in the dark. You don’t know who you are until someone cheers your name. And spells it right.”
— Geoff Boucher
2007 photograph of William Shatner by David Sprague for the Los Angeles Times.
Promotional art for William Shatner’s partnership with Bluewater Productions, courtesy of Bluewater.
Undated photo of Shatner as Captain Kirk from the archives of The Times.