William Shatner on His Biggest ‘Star Trek’ Regret – and Why He Cried With Bezos

When writing about a legend who’s still working as a nonagenarian, it’s almost obligatory to include a line about how they are seemingly busier than ever. William Shatner, 92, may no longer be on set 12 hours a day for the roles that made him the first Comic-Con celebrity (Star Trek), or that transformed him into a late-career regular at the Emmys podium (The Practice, Boston Legal), but it’s difficult not to marvel at the pace at which he lives his life.

The actor, who looks and speaks much like he did 20 years ago, maintains a healthy travel schedule that includes appearances at a dozen or so fan conventions every year. Always popping up in new projects (he hosted the extraterrestrial base camp-simulating reality contest Stars on Mars that aired on Fox over the summer), in 2021, he became the oldest person to travel to space, pouring that experience into a music-and-poetry performance at Washington D.C’s Kennedy Center a few months later with friend and musical collaborator Ben Folds. (That recording, So Fragile, So Blue, will be released as an album April 19).

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Now, Shatner is the subject of the crowdfunded documentary You Can Call Me Bill (in select theaters March 22, his 93rd birthday), a meditation on his life, career and mortality.

The Montreal-born actor began performing at the age of 6 at camp and never stopped, transitioning from Canadian radio dramas to Broadway to 1950s TV Westerns. He’s been an omnipresent pop culture fixture since 1966, when he was cast as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek under unusual circumstances never seen again in Hollywood. NBC had a pilot that didn’t work, but the network wanted to try again with a mostly new cast. Where the original pilot was a somewhat dry affair, Shatner brought much-needed humor to the Enterprise.

Though the show was canceled after just three seasons, it earned a cult following in syndication, and Shatner reprised the role for seven feature films.

Along the way, he reinvented himself over and over, as a hard-ass cop who didn’t understand the value of Miranda rights for five seasons on ABC/CBS’ T.J. Hooker, and again as a comedic sendup of himself as the spokesperson for, with ads beaming into homes from 1998 to 2012.

His comedic chops led him to the Saturday Night Live stage — 38 years later, people still ask him about a sketch in which he mocked Star Trek fans with the exasperated line “Get a life!” — as well as multiple Emmy wins playing lawyer Denny Crane on David E. Kelley’s ABC procedural The Practice and then Boston Legal, which concluded after four years in 2008. And he has penned books, released albums and directed documentaries.

During a Zoom conversation in early March, Shatner discussed why Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, his first and only theatrical feature as a director, was the biggest regret of his career; that history-making Star Trek kiss with Nichelle Nichols; and what could lure him back to the captain’s chair.

Some say acting is a way to find the love they aren’t getting elsewhere. Was that true for you?

I’m sure it’s true. I spent a very lonely life in my younger years. Being able to join a cast and be a part of a group of people, I’m sure that was an element in my starting to be an actor when I was very young.

Though you acted throughout childhood, you got a practical degree, a bachelor of commerce, from McGill University in Montreal. Was the plan to use that degree? 

I’ve bumbled my way through my life with a growing realization that all the plans you have for your life are dependent on the guy driving a car behind you or in front of you. The accidents that you have no control over, whether they’re physical, like falling down a flight of stairs, or emotional, like the person you love the most doesn’t love you — and everything in between — you have no control over. So you may think you’re like, “I’m going to control. I’m going to choose that motion picture,” or go onstage choosing elements of your career, thinking you’re making a career move. It has nothing to do with reality at all.

But as an actor, you do have some control, right? You understudied for Christopher Plummer on Henry V in 1956, and he once said, “Where I stood up to make a speech, he sat down. He did the opposite of everything I did.”

I had no rehearsal. I didn’t know the people. And it was five days into the opening of the show [when Plummer got sick]. The choreography was one of the other things that I didn’t know. I was in a macabre state of mind. So that had nothing to do with “I stood where he sat.” [It was, rather], “I’ve got to move around the stage somewhere. I think I’ll sit down here, I’m exhausted!”

You worked with director Richard Donner on the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which was in fact a nightmare for him, as it was technically complicated and the shooting days were halved. Did you sense the pressure he was under?

It’s complicated. When you get those science fiction choices: The guy is dressed in a furry little suit and you say, “Well, why isn’t the suit aerodynamic? Why is it a suit that’ll catch every breeze that blows?” What kind of logic do you use in any science fiction case? When I looked at the acrobat [Nick Cravat, who played a gremlin terrorizing Shatner’s character from the wing of a plane], I said to myself, “That isn’t something you’d wear on the wing of a 747,” but then again, what do you wear on the wing of a 747? So yeah, it was complicated in that way.

Shatner did a spoken-word rendition of Rocket Man in 1978
Shatner did a spoken-word rendition of “Rocket Man” in 1978

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had strict rules about what was appropriate for his show. Were you privy to what informed that thinking?

He was in the military, and he was a policeman. So there was this militaristic vision of “You don’t make out with a fellow soldier.” There are strict rules and you abide by the rules. Around that, [the writers] had to write the drama. But within that was the discipline of “This is the way a ship works.” Well, as Star Trek progressed, that ethos has been forgotten [in more recent shows]. I sometimes laugh and talk about the fact that I think Gene is twirling in his grave. “No, no, you can’t make out with the lady soldier!”

The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation butted heads with Gene when he was alive. 

The fights that went on, to my understanding, were big, because the writers had their difficulties. “We need some more material.” “We need to get out of here. It’s claustrophobic.”

When you joke that Gene is twirling in his grave, you mean he wouldn’t approve of onscreen romances between crewmates on the later shows?

Yes, exactly. I haven’t watched the other Star Treks very much, but what I’ve seen with glimpses of the Next Generation is yes, the difficulty in the beginning, between management, was all about Gene’s rules and obeying or not obeying those rules.

You and Nichelle Nichols are credited with the first interracial kiss on TV. Is it true that you pushed to make every take real, despite the network asking for faked takes so they would have the option?

I do remember saying, “Maybe they’ll try and edit it. What can I do to try and discourage the editing of the kiss itself?” I don’t remember quite what I did because it’s difficult to cut away [from the kiss in an edit]. But yeah, I remember thinking that.

Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan broke hearts when it killed off Leonard Nimoy’s Spock
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan broke hearts when it killed off Leonard Nimoy’s Spock

After three seasons, NBC cancels Star Trek in 1969, and you find yourself broke, doing summer stock theater on the East Coast. Did you think acting might be over at that point? 

I’m broke, living in a truck, sleeping in the back and trying to save that money so I could support my three kids and my [ex-]wife, who were living in Beverly Hills. The only thing that ever occurred to me was, “I can always go back to Toronto and make something of a living as an actor there.” I never thought, “Oh, I’ve got to become a salesman.” It never occurred to me from the age of 6 to do anything else. Which is weird because [today] I hear it all around me: “God, I can’t make a living anymore [as an actor].” And that’s true. People with names can’t make a living under the circumstances that the business has fallen into.

In 1979, Paramount needed an answer to Star Wars, so it revived Trek in the form of movies. Then T.J. Hooker came along a few years later. What did you get out of the show?

It was a terrific show. It had all kinds of drama. I got to direct several of the episodes. And some of my shots are in the opening. I was totally involved, committed to the writing, committed to the directing. You’re running all the time. You’ve got to make decisions and you don’t have enough money.

William Shatner front center starred opposite Adrian Zmed left, Richard Herd and Heather Locklear on T.J. Hooker, which debuted in 1982
William Shatner (front center) starred opposite Adrian Zmed (left), Richard Herd and Heather Locklear on T.J. Hooker, which debuted in 1982

You directed a big-budget feature, Star Trek V, in 1989. It was considered a disappointment, but it has its fans today. Were you hoping to expand what a Trek movie could be by filming around the world?

I wish that I’d had the backing and the courage to do the things I felt I needed to do. My concept was, “Star Trek goes in search of God,” and management said, “Well, who’s God? We’ll alienate the nonbeliever, so, no, we can’t do God.” And then somebody said, “What about an alien who thinks they’re God?” Then it was a series of my inabilities to deal with the management and the budget. I failed. In my mind, I failed horribly. When I’m asked, “What do you regret the most?,” I regret not being equipped emotionally to deal with a large motion picture. So in the absence of my power, the power vacuum filled with people that didn’t make the decisions I would’ve made.

Shatner put out a spoken-word album in 1968
Shatner put out a spoken-word album in 1968

You seem to take the blame, but outside observers might say, “Well, the budget wasn’t there. You didn’t get the backing you needed.” But in your mind, it’s on you.

It is on me. [In the finale,] I wanted granite [rock creatures] to explode out of the mountain. The special effects guy said, “I can build you a suit that’s on fire and smoke comes out.” I said, “Great, how much will that cost?” They said, “$250,000 a suit.” Can you make 10 suits? He said, “Yeah.” That’s $2.5 million. You’ve got a $30 million budget. You sure you want to spend [it on that]? Those are the practical decisions. Well, wait a minute, what about one suit? And I’ll photograph it everywhere [to look like 10]. (Editor’s note: The plan to use one suit famously did not work well onscreen and was ultimately abandoned.)

Paramount+ is rumored to have tossed around ideas for you to reprise your role, à la Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Picard. Is that something you would entertain? 

Leonard [Nimoy] made his own decision on doing a cameo [in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek]. He’s there for a moment, and it’s more a stunt that Spock appears in a future. If they wrote something that wasn’t a stunt that involved Kirk, who’s 50 years older now, and it was something that was genuinely added to the lore of Star Trek, I would definitely consider it.

Did hosting SNL feel like a breakthrough, in terms of showing what you could do with comedy? 

That was a new show then, it was a big sensation, and hosting it was good. They really wrote comedy for me. I played comedy since I was 7. There is a timing. There is a way of characterizing a line. It’s a kind of spiritual thing playing comedy, letting the audience know they’re open to laugh.

After decades in the industry, you achieved your greatest critical success in your 70s playing Denny Crane on Boston Legal. What was the genesis of Denny? 

David E. Kelly invites me to breakfast. He says, “I’ve written this character. He’s a little bit senile.” I said, “Well, I can play that.” He’d write, “The character would say his name, Denny Crane, four or five times.” How do you act that? What rationale pulls that together? David didn’t offer any explanation. I learned somewhere that snakes stick their tongues out. It’s assessing what’s out there. So I thought that’s what the character is doing. Denny Crane is reading what your reaction is to the words “Denny Crane.”

At age 90 second from left, Shatner became the oldest person to travel to space.
At age 90 (second from left), Shatner became the oldest person to travel to space.

In 2021, at age 90, you became the oldest person to go to space. Upon landing, you had a tearful exchange with Jeff Bezos. How have you processed that? 

I was weeping uncontrollably for reasons I didn’t know. It was my fear of what’s happening to Earth. I could see how small it was. It’s a rock with paper-thin air. You’ve got rock and 2 miles of air, and that’s all that we have, and we’re fucking it up. And, that dramatically, I saw it in that moment.

What are your thoughts on legacy? 

At Mar-a-Lago, I was asked to help raise funds with the Red Cross. I had to be at Mar-a-Lago Saturday night, and Leonard’s funeral was Sunday morning. I couldn’t make both. I chose the charity. It just occurred to me: Leonard died. They got a statue up. It’s not going to last. Say it lasts 50 years, 100. [Someone will say], “Who is that Leonard Nimoy? Tear the statue down, put somebody else up.” But what you can’t erase is helping somebody or something. That has its own energy and reverberation. That person got help — and then is able to help somebody else. You’ve continued an action that has no boundaries. That’s what a good deed does

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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