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It’s Friday afternoon at Manhattan Beach Studios, and William Shatner is sitting in his dressing room sweating bullets. But it evidently isn’t nerves. Hot peppers are the culprit, courtesy of a Subway sandwich he’s just eaten for lunch. And as he greets a guest on the set of ABC’s “Boston Legal,” Shatner leaves no doubt that the sweat isn’t a by-product of any professional anxiety. At 77, he has rarely been hotter — even without the peppers.
For one thing, they don’t send a private plane to pick you up and whisk you and your wife to New York for your 45-second cameo on “Saturday Night Live” if you aren’t a bona fide A-lister, as “SNL” would do later that same afternoon for Shatner. And while he admits with a touch of shame that this may not exactly be the greenest thing to do, the man clearly enjoys the perks of being Hollywood royalty.
“You hear a lot about the downside of being famous,” Shatner says, “but the opportunities fame affords you are just remarkable.”
However astounding his good fortune may be, it can’t completely explain a career escalation that coincided with his becoming a septuagenarian around the turn of the millennium. It’s as if everything finally fell into place to bring him the one thing his career had long lacked: critical respect to match the success.
Since 2004, Shatner has received Emmy nominations in five consecutive years for his work as wily attorney Denny Crane, first on ABC’s “The Practice” and then on “Boston Legal.” He has converted at least two of those noms into wins and could have earned a third at the Emmys last night. He also won a Golden Globe in 2005. The irony is that the adulation has arrived concurrently with a crafted stance of self-deprecation.
“When I was serious, I got taken seriously,” he says. “But when I started being not so serious, I started getting taken even more seriously.”
The mocking of his own image can be traced to a celebrated 1986 guest host appearance on “SNL” that included a sketch where he implored overzealous “Star Trek” fans attending a convention to “Get a life!” That was 22 years ago, and Shatner’s own performing life only seemed to sprout from there.
Today, Shatner is busier than ever before.
“I’ve never felt better or more energetic in my life,” Shatner announces. “It’s probably a combination of DNA and luck, I guess. But it really is rather amazing.”
Consider that not only is Shatner wrapping his fifth (and final) season of “Boston Legal” (which leaves the air after the current crop of 13 episodes is finished); he’s also hosting his own half-hour, single-guest talk show, “Shatner’s Raw Nerve,” which premieres in December on A&E’s Biography Channel and finds the actor interviewing everyone from his pal Leonard Nimoy to Kelsey Grammer and porn star Jenna Jameson.
He also spent a lot of time this year promoting his best-selling autobiography that he “wrote for my three kids, as a legacy,” titled “Up Till Now,” which was released last spring. Shatner also continues to be an active breeder, trainer and seller of show horses that he also personally competes with.
This isn’t to mention Shatner’s role as the on-camera spokesman and branded face of Priceline.com, which allows him to mug and rag on himself with impunity. “My contract with them just got renewed,” he says. “It’s a great amount of fun. It’s a viable, multimillion-dollar company that resurrected itself after the dot-com crash and is doing extremely well. I’m proud to be associated.”
Then there’s Shatner’s involvement in the documentary “Gonzo Ballet,” which chronicles the Milwaukee Ballet Co.’s production of “Common People.” In it, the company dances to six songs that Shatner performed on his 2004 album, “Has Been,” with the musical artist Ben Folds.
“Ben Folds is one of only two geniuses I’ve ever worked with,” Shatner maintains. “The other one is (‘Boston Legal’ creator/executive producer) David E. Kelley. He has written some of the most phenomenal character dialogue I’ve ever seen — and he’s written it for me.”
Larry Thompson, who has served as Shatner’s personal manager since 1980, believes the secret to Shatner’s success can be traced to his working-class attitude. “Bill has always consistently worked, which is different than always being hot,” he says. “The theory has been that if you do enough stuff, something will be good. If you stand out in the rain long enough, eventually you’ll get hit by lightning. And Bill has been hit quite a few times.”
If Shatner’s career was given a shot of creative adrenaline by Kelley, it represents a culmination — let’s not say the culmination — of a career that has spanned more than a half-
century and stretches clear back to the earliest days of television. The Montreal native participated in live dramas on such pioneering classics as “Studio One,” “Playhouse 90,” “The Kaiser Aluminum Hour” and “Kraft Television Theatre” as well as a stint on the legendary kids show “Howdy Doody.”
There have been lean times during Shatner’s television acting life of 50-plus years. But he’s always worked, with guest stints early on in some of TV’s most honored shows, such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone” and “77 Sunset Strip.”
When “Star Trek” came along in 1966, it was noteworthy mostly because it was a steady series job. “Nobody had any clue what would happen,” Shatner adds. “But I really owe everything that happened to my career to the impact of that show.” The series would run only three seasons, but it caught on as a cult phenomenon in syndication and the rest, as they say, is history. Shatner starred in the first seven “Star Trek” features, beginning with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979, and also directed the fifth installment.
Shatner anchored the ABC cop drama “T.J. Hooker” that ran from 1982-86 and narrated the CBS reality series “Rescue 911” from 1989-96. And he’s also capitalized on sending up his own intense persona in everything from film to TV to stage to song. (His spoken-word rendition of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is widely considered the most wrenching cover of a Beatles song ever.)
Married since 2001 to his fourth wife, Elizabeth, Shatner has three grown daughters (from his first marriage to Gloria Rand) and five grandchildren. And while he’s already turning nostalgic about the coming end of “Boston Legal” and the shooting of the final episodes in November, Shatner is moving too fast to give any thought to retirement. But he does occasionally focus on death — his own.
“I very clearly see the end of my life,” Shatner admits. “I’m torn between the best and the worst. The best is I die in my sleep and never know a thing. The worst is a death that’s long and lingering. But I find that I have been able to deny my own mortality for so many years that the act of denial is almost instinctive with me. So far, it’s worked out. I mean, I’m still here. And I have no desire to leave anytime in the near future.”
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