Kicking Kirk: William Shatner has somehow managed to reclaim his life after Star Trek
Tuesday, September 2, 2003
Page: Arts & Life 1
Byline: J. Kelly Nestruck
William Shatner denies that there was ever a definitive moment in his career during which the actor best known for playing Star Trek's Captain Kirk began to become known for playing variations of himself.
"I don't remember starting to do it," Shatner says. "There's been no turning point in my life. It's been a riverbed approaching the sea."
But for external observers, the origins of Shatner's distinctly postmodern career arc can be traced back to a sketch he performed on Saturday Night Live in 1986, in which he famously admonished obsessive Trekkies to "Get a life!" Since then, he has had no qualms about sending himself up and mocking his bizarre celebrity status.
Turn on the TV and you will more than likely come across the Canadian-born actor playing one of a number of versions of himself. In a series of cereal ads currently being aired, a fictional couple decides to take the two-week All-Bran challenge, the only catch being that Shatner has to move in with them. Flip the channel or wait a few minutes and there he is again, this time dressed in a sparkly costume and Riverdancing arm-in-arm with a dozen clones of himself for the teeth-whitening gel Crest Night Effects.
Is this really William Shatner? "I would say it's a distilled Shatner," the man himself says with a chuckle, speaking over the phone from his Los Angeles estate.
While Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich made self-parody hip, Shatner has made it into a viable career option all its own. Whether playing a lovelorn celebrity who dreams of producing a six-hour musical adaptation of Julius Caesar in 1998's mockumentary Free Enterprise or an eccentric drama queen in his regular appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, William Shatner has made William Shatner his most recognizable character, perhaps even supplanting Kirk in the pop-culture pantheon.
"There's an ironic joke, I think, that I'm aware of how ephemeral all this is, [how] nonsensical and how brief it is," he says. "So there's not too much to be serious about."
Shatner doesn't see what he does as all that different from what other actors do. "The truth of the matter is that, with very rare exceptions, actors really are themselves," he says. "It's very rare on screen, less rare on the stage, where the actor absolutely submerges himself into other idiosyncrasies, verbal and physical."
He cites a few exceptions. "A prime example of getting out of yourself is [Robert De Niro] in Raging Bull," Shatner says. "On the other hand, he was still De Niro."
Of course, there is something fundamentally different about putting yourself into a role and actually playing a character with your own name.
"I'm supposed to be an actor donning disguises, and this puts you out there as yourself, without a mask," Shatner says.
But Shatner is a more-than-willing participant in the self-deprecatory humour. In fact, parts of the hilarious regularity-promoting All-Bran commercials were his idea. In one, he wakes up his hosts by making a racket while fixing their sink, then performs a puppet show with dancing bran-cookie men. In another, the grunts emanating from the bathroom are revealed to be Shatner lifting weights.
"I tried to help in any way I could in the writing of the commercials," he reveals, nearly stopping himself halfway through that sentence. "I hesitate because I don't know if I should be taking credit," he laughs.
Not all Shatner humour is of the laughing-with-him variety. Over the years, he has had to learn how to deal with being the butt of some mean-spirited jokes. "You chew a lot of gum and then you swallow," he says. "You just put it away and do the best you can."
Still, despite the potential pitfalls, he keeps putting himself out there as a target -- sometimes quite literally. For the past two years he has been participating in a paintball tournament called Spplat Attack, the latest of which took place on Sunday in Pennsylvania. Participants come from around the world to take a shot at Shatner.
"I run like hell for eight hours," the 72-year-old explains. "It's assumed a life of its own. They're calling it Shatnerball."
An offshoot of the Wells-Fargo Hollywood Charity Horse Show he organizes each year, Shatnerball raises money for disabled children.
"The end result is that by offering myself as a target -- in more ways than just at paintball -- I'm able to raise millions of dollars ... for kids, and that's a worthwhile endeavour," he says. "By using this very celebrity that we're talking about, I'm able to get people to play with me in one form or another and make some money for charity."
Shatner's philanthropic endeavours were inspired by his father, Joseph, who was a clothing manufacturer in Montreal. "Although he never made much money during his lifetime, he gave a great deal," Shatner remembers proudly. "The idea of giving has been inculcated in our family."
Even at his age, Shatner is not slowing down. He has a number of projects ahead that he seems excited about, including a possible sequel to Free Enterprise and a new album with art-rocker Ben Folds.
"It looks like I'll be headed to Nashville in November or December, and Ben and I will go into a studio," he says. "I asked him to produce [the album], and he's had some wonderful ideas. [He's] calling on some friends who are name musicians, so it might be quite wonderful."
He sounds positively Zen as he speaks about life raising horses with his fourth wife, Elizabeth, and his three children, who all live near him in the L.A. area.
"I've got a miraculous life," he says, his voice free of the tics and mannerisms of his television incarnation. "My life is filled with love. It's an extraordinary situation."
posted by J. Kelly 10:36 PM