Whether you love Star Trek, T.J. Hooker, Comedy Central’s Roasts or have just happened to watch any program over the last decade that was interrupted with a Priceline commercial, chances are, you just can’t get away from William Alan Shatner. In honor of one of the entertainment industry’s most pervasive characters let’s celebrate one of the world’s greatest over-actor’s 81st birthday with some fun facts about his successes (and failures).
And don't forget, March 22 is also Talk. Like. Shatner. Day. in honor of his birthday!
Image Via Jerry Avenaim [Wikipedia]
Fame Came Easy to the Budding Actor
You may have already heard, but William Shatner was actually trained as a classical Shakespearean actor and even started his acting career at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada, playing in a variety of classic plays. His first movie role was in 1951, in the Canadian film The Butler’s Night Off and in 1954 he was cast as Ranger Bob on The Canadian Howdy Doody Show. Only two years later, he made his debut on Broadway. In another two years, he was cast in his first Hollywood film in 1958’s The Brothers Karamazov where he played the youngest of the Karamazov brothers alongside Yul Brynner. He was cast to star in his first TV show only a year later, but CBS canned the show after shooting the pilot and a few episodes. In 1961, he starred in another Broadway play, this time alongside Walter Matthau and Julie Harris.
While Shatner was considered a talented actor and was gaining quite a bit of popularity, he was more focused on getting work than getting good roles and his willingness to take any role likely held back his career. Even so, he forged on with the motto “work equals work,” a slogan he seems to stay true to in modern times. Through the early sixties, he starred in a number of forgettable and non-descript TV and movie roles, including a Roger Corman film and a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. He did get the lead in a critically acclaimed legal drama called For the People in 1965, but the show was a flop and was cancelled after only one season. On the upside, Shatner wouldn’t have been available to be in Star Trek if the show did succeed.
Boldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before
Shatner was also lucky that the first pilot for Star Trek was a complete bomb. While NBC like the idea of the show, they thought the first pilot was way too cerebral . Leonard Nimoy was the only actor who retained his role from the first pilot, everyone else was recast and that's when William was hired as Captain James T. Kirk.
One of the things that made Star Trek so popular was the way it took on current events with a sci-fi setting. The show dealt with race issues, the Cold War, and more and in an incredibly progressive manner. In fact, Shatner secured his place in television history by being a part of the first interracial kiss on U.S. television. Interestingly, the kiss was actually supposed to be between Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), but when William got a hold of the script, he insisted that if anyone got to kiss Nichelle, it would be him.
While the staff was a little worried about the impact of the kiss, the country was apparently quite ready for that moment. In fact, one of the most negative letters the show received read, “I don't believe in the integration of races and the fraternization of the races, but anytime a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a girl in his arms that looks like Lieutenant Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it.” As for positive responses, Nichols was told by Martin Luther King Jr. himself that his family watched the show and that Uhura was a role model and hero to his children.
The show was a hit with fans but had terrible ratings. Even after a successful letter writing campaign and protests around the country managed to save the show from cancellation after its second season, the show’s supporters couldn’t convince the network to sign on for a fourth season.
The End of an Era
While young William Shatner never had trouble finding work, post-Star Trek Shatner did. After his wife left him the same year the show was cancelled, his life quickly fell apart. Shatner eventually started living out of a camper shell on the back of his pick up truck. He took any job he could find, no matter how small, including another Roger Corman flick, a few terrible horror movies, a slew of commercials and guest appearances on The $20,000 Pyramid, Hollywood Squares and Beat the Clock.
While the actor was considered quite egotistical and somewhat difficult to work with during his reign on Star Trek, this point of his life was quite humbling. To this day, he still refers to the slump as “that period.”
Fortunately, the same thing that left him a typecast washout also helped revive his career a few years later. In 1973, Shatner did the voice for Captain Kirk in the animated version of the show and he soon started attending the many fan conventions that were held throughout the country. Syndicated reruns of Star Trek received higher ratings than the show did when it was originally on the air and Captain Kirk started to become a household name.
In the mid-seventies, Paramount started working on a new version of the show, but when Star Wars came out and became a smash success, the studio decided to make the project into a movie instead. All of the original cast members reprised their roles for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Finally, Shatner’s decade of failure came to an end and he starred in the next six Star Trek movies, ending his run when Kirk died in 1994’s Star Trek Generations.
He Can’t Stand Trekkies
While dedicated fans of Star Trek helped save Shatner’s career, he still finds them incredibly annoying. In fact, if you ever saw him in the 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch where he tells convention goers to “get a life,” then you’ve seen how he actually feels about Trekkies. While it’s easy to consider him an ungrateful jerk for having such an attitude, the reality is that many fans did take their adoration way too far. In fact, in 1968, fans even tried to rip his clothes off as he left the NBC studios in New York.
Other Famous Works
While most people recognize Shatner for his role in Star Trek, he also was quite popular as T.J. Hooker, which he starred in from 1982 to 1986. He’s also well known as the Priceline spokesman, a role he held from 1998 up until his character died earlier this year. His work in the Priceline ads even got him noticed by David E. Kelley, producer of The Practice, as a result, Kelley hired Shatner to star in the final season of the show –a role which earned William an Emmy. The character was popular enough that he was then moved onto the show Boston Legal, which earned him another Golden Globe and an Emmy.
Throughout the years, he’s recorded quite a few albums which have been widely parodied. William has also written a number of popular sci-fi novels, including TekWar, which became so popular that it inspired a series of Marvel comics, television movies, a video game and even a short-lived TV show. More recently, he started vlogging, launching his own channel on YouTube called “The Shatner Project,” which has earned him a Streamy Award for Best Reality Web Series. This year he also premiered his one-man show on Broadway called “Shatner’s World.”
Image Via rwoan [Wikipedia]
A Few Other Fun Bits:
- Shatner’s family name was originally spelled “Schatnner,” but his grandfather changed it to sound more Anglo-Saxon.
- While many people, including William and J.J. Abrams, wanted to see Shatner play a role in the 2009 Star Trek film, Abrams couldn’t find a way to work the actor in and didn’t want to force the cameo.
- William can’t stand watching himself perform and has never watched any episodes or films from the Star Trek series, with the exception of the dailies from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which only watched because he directed the film.
- In 2006, Shatner sold one of his kidney stones to GoldenPalace.com for $25,000. The money, along with an additional $20,000 raised from the cast and crew of Boston Legal was donated to Habitat for Humanity.
- William was one of the first people to get in trouble on Google +. That’s because his account was suspended within only a few days after he personally thanked every person who added him, which set off their spam flags.
William Shatner has been in far too many movies and TV shows to list here and there’s way too much fun trivia about his life as a result, so if you have any extra fun facts to share, go ahead and leave them in the comments.
Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, Trek Today, Mashable