Wednesday, February 25, 2004

William Shatner has written several nonfiction books that concern Star Trek, but none is the kind of book all of his crewmates have published (except the late DeForest Kelley): the memoir or autobiography. He's written almost nothing about his life before Trek.

But several years ago he cooperated with filmmaker Harvey McKinnon in a Bravo television biography. After showing Shatner at the large pond on his tranquil farm musing about the moment (just after Star Trek went off the air and a divorce settlement depleted his funds) that he almost sold it and realized he couldn't bear to, the movie follows him to the snowy streets of Montreal where he spent his childhood. He pauses outside his old elementary school to recall that his was one of the few Jewish families in the neighborhood, and that he was regularly jumped by two or three other kids because he was Jewish. "I used to fight---I won most of them. I had to struggle."

He visits the very house where he was born in 1931. The recollections he shares (or at least the ones included in the film) are striking: of cutting up a new living room couch with scissors, and sawing the legs off the new dining room table. He recalls these guilelessly, with a sense of thoughtless wonder. But clearly young Bill had some bad boy in him, and though not exactly in the same league as today's inner city mean streets, his childhood knew some violence and turmoil.

Like Nimoy's, Shatner's introduction to theatre came very early. He attended a children's drama school, and played Prince Charming in Snow White at the age of six or seven. (As one of the few boys in the school, he recalled, he got all the big hero parts.) He learned the power of theatre, he said, at that same age, when he was in a play about Germans taking away Jewish kids in World War II, and he saw people in the audience weeping, and felt the waves of love and admiration.

Shatner pointed out where he had gone to movies, and where the bookstore was where he had read his first science fiction (both now gone.) In his Foreword to C.J. Henderson's The '>Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Shatner writes that he spent his youthful Saturdays seeing movies, racing from one movie theatre to another, seeing from two to six movies in a day. He recalled mostly the DeMille epics, with "a magnificent leading man and a juicy leading lady" and thousands of extras.

Though his parents wanted him to pursue a business career (his father had a successful clothing business) Shatner spent most of his time and energy at McGill University in the theatre. (His best academic subjects, he said, were English, psychology and music.) After college, he "ran away to Toronto to act." He was told there was no way to make a living in Canada acting, but he learned that it might be possible if he was accepted as an actor for radio.

In the film, Shatner emphasizes that he went to Toronto knowing no one there, and had a hard time breaking into the "clique" of actors and writers working for Canadian Broadcasting, the CBC. As he made his way from job to job, in radio and in Canadian theatre and ultimately to New York, he did so without a mentor, and "never had friends in the acting community...I don't remember anyone offering me a hand up."

All of this may help explain the complexities of Shatner's public image. Though there's a good deal of presumption in these speculations, since I don't know him and have never spoken with him, there do seem to be in this background possible sources for the conflicting stories and images about him. The bio film in particular shows a thoughtful, sensitive, driven, generous and good-hearted man with a lot of insecurities, wounds and anger under the surface.

As is well known, other actors on Star Trek apart from Nimoy and Kelley held long-simmering resentments for his careless treatment of them. They believed he insisted on script changes to take away from their parts and put the focus on him. Shatner was amazed to learn of these grievances, and still seems baffled by the bad feeling. He insists he only tried to clarify the stories, and it does seem to be true that his skillfulness and intelligence in dramaturgy and storytelling is underrated. Though he doesn't carry the mantle of fluency in Shakespeare the way that Patrick Stewart does, he was trained in the classics, especially after college. In fact he first came to Hollywood's attention for a Shakespeare performance.

But it is also likely that a combination of his way of working (concentrating more on the effectiveness of the production than the establishing relationships with the people in it) and the blind spots created by his shadow insecurities, competitiveness and pugnacious defensiveness, got expressed in ways he didn't consciously see or understand. Which may be partly why he could portray Kirk's shadow (in the Star Trek's famous "The Enemy Within" episode) with such conviction, and why Kirk could speak with such authority about inner demons and the struggle to control them and use their energies.

He created several long-running characters on television, and is in the process of creating one now---Denny Crain on Boston Legal is probably his finest creation, with the exception of Captain Kirk. But it was as Captain Kirk that William Shatner became one of the best known actors on the planet. It was estimated in the 1990s that a quarter of the world's population recognized his face, which was a higher proportion of the world's people that had ever used a telephone (at least until cell phones.)

But aspects of his reputation made his choice as the director of a Star Trek feature less than universally heralded. Though some of his blind spots probably contributed to the problems he encountered, he was more clearly successful in areas that probably surprised some people who expected him to have his difficulties there.

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