Let’s start with this: Bill Shatner is the male version of Marilyn Monroe.
No, I don’t mean he’s an iconic sex symbol for a generation (though he might have been, I’m male, and can’t comment on that), I mean he shares Monroe’s amazing talent for knowing how to be looked at. He may even be the best at it who ever lived. If William Shatner was on stage with a burning goat who knocked over furniture and set the theater ablaze, you’d only notice the flaming beast if Shatner pointed it out.
I love Bill Shatner. I love him in ways it’s best my wife doesn’t know about. I’d take a bullet for him, and have, in fact, taken many bullets over the years, including Kingdom of the Spiders, Tek War novels, and T.J. Hooker. But day in, day out, it always comes back to William Shatner, the man Eddie Murphy once called “the coolest white guy alive”.
Everyone thinks that Star Trek made Shatner famous, but in the real world, Trek become popular because of Bill, and not the other way around. The true glory of Shatner is that he didn’t blow it all on one character. The man has been dropping genius bombs for years, usually to the confusion of lesser men who cannot conceive of the talent before them. So, I’m here to help. Today, on the master’s 80th birthday, we talk about his non-Kirk life, and give you…
THE TOP TEN SIGNS OF BILL SHATNER’S GENIUS, EVEN WHEN HE’S NOT WEARING HIS STARFLEET UNIFORM.
10– Free Enterprise
A little known flick, made in 1998. Sure, his Priceline.com commercials had hinted at the rich vein of self-parody that was there, but the role as “Bill” in FREE ENTERPRISE really set it in motion. In the film, he plays an actor named Bill Shatner, former star of Star Trek, but the character of “Bill” is nothing like real life person at all. He’s an addle brained doofus in the part, single and on the make (he was married at the time), unemployed and broke (he wasn’t) and attempting to raise money to make a version of Julius Caesar, in which Shatner plays all the parts. “It would require me to stab myself in the back, I know, but I’ve been doing that my whole career…”. Bill attempts to raise the money from a pair of Trekkies who meet him in the porn section of a video store and the movie takes off from there. Besides the magnificent fantasy sequence involving a fight between Kirk and Han Solo, the DVD extras include a scene of Shatner “rapping” soliloquies from Shakespeare in an outfit that would have embarrassed a stoned hippie.
The glory of Shatner’s singing voice is that he’s perfectly capable of singing, and CHOOSES not to. That’s makes him the Picasso of the throat. No one performs a song like this, and if they DO, they’re called “Shatner-esque”. See for yourself:
8 — Get a Life
When your career (up until that point) is built largely around a single character and a fanbase of stunningly dedicated fans, it takes epic cojones to stab your most loyal admirers in the digestive tract for the sake of a joke. But Shatner did exactly that on Saturday Night Live in 1986 for one infamous sketch.
What makes it work on every level, is the paternal quality to the lecture. It’s like he really cares about us; if only we weren’t such a crippling disappointment. The sketch annoyed about half the world’s Trekkies, and permanently enraged the other half. Somehow, it made me love Shatner all the more. He later named his autobiograpy “Get a Life” just to turn the knife one more time.
Not his first role, but an early example of that Shatner genius caught on film. INCUBUS is the only feature ever shot in Esperanto, an invented international language created in the 19th Century to foster international peace. The language never caught on, so there was no audience whatsoever for this piece of cinema when it was released in 1966. Of course, it would have fallen into complete obscurity, without the presence of it’s handsome Canadian star.
I own this film and can report that, thanks to Bill, it’s better than you’d expect. It’s about mystic women and lost souls and that sort of thing (there are subtitles for the Esperanto-impaired) but the greatness of the film lies in watching Shatner perform his signature staccato style in a gibberish language. It has the quality of dream when you turn off the subtitles and simply allow the experience.
In those Abrams/Zucker/Abrams comedies of the 80s, the various casts deadpanned the corny jokes, and that carried most of the funny. But the fifteen minute cameo that Bill Shatner bestowed upon the world in Airplane 2 was a different game. Bill didn’t play the corny as serious, he played it as the fifth act of a Shakespearean tragedy… an Oscar-bait scene of high drama. Bill the serious actor “went to eleven” and stole the un-stealable movie.
5—NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET
Twilight Zone is an important milestone in the history of SF and Television. Everyone loves the one where Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses in the last library left on Earth, but it’s the Shatner episode that gets the most spoofs, remakes, jokes, and references. NIGHTMARE is the epitome of the Twilight Zone genre, and once again, our hero is at the center of the storm.
4 – Big Giant Head
In the 90s sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun” Shatner had a delightful recurring role as the King of the Galaxy (the Big Giant Head), a character who had been mentioned but never seen for many episodes before they cast Bill in the role. When you’ve created a galactic king, there are so few performers who could have been convincing in the part that they had no choice but to give it to our Bill.
BONUS GENIUS MOMENT:
John Lithgow (the star of 3rd Rock) reprised Shatner’s Twilight Zone character from NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET in the Twilight Zone movie. So, Shatner’s on-screen debut as Big Giant Head included the exchange you’ll see in the clip below: Meta-jokes and self parody? BRILLIANT!
3 – Big Bad Mama
The Bill Shatner nude scene. Say those five words slowly, and intently, and realize what that means. The. Bill. Shatner. Nude. Scene. Now realize it’s with Angie Dickinson. End of story.
2- Has Been
Shatner’s music CD, created in 2004 with Ben Folds, is actually magnificent. I originally picked up the album ironically, to enjoy the terrible over-acted songs, and the over-the-top nonsense of it all, and couldn’t believe my ears. It’s a brilliant, SERIOUS album, that deserves to be called art. The spoken word songs are touching, funny, clever, insightful, and for one track about the drowning death of his wife, Nerine…absolutely haunting. I NEVER saw this coming, and it stayed in my CD player for months when I first bought it. I couldn’t stop playing it. And I wasn’t alone…the CD charted in Billboard’s top forty for a while. The Picasso of the throat strikes again!
1- Denny Crane
Into his seventies, well past the moment that leading men have long retired, Bill Shatner found the role of a lifetime. The supposedly fading star of TV became the fading star of the courtroom, complete with Mad Cow, a gun fetish and a mind-boggling case of eponymous Tourettes syndrome. Denny managed to make the muttering of his own name a threat, a statement, a punctuation and a boast, often all in the same ten seconds. It scored Shatner an armful of Emmy awards, all richly deserved.
And is the genius done? No. He’s eighty years old and STILL going strong, currently starring in Shit my Dad Says, a middling sit-com that ONLY works when Shatner’s on stage. He’s hosting shows on the Discovery network, and Biography. He has his own YouTube channel with an internet talk show there. He’s still plotting Trek novels, and shilling Priceline and showing his skills as a horseman in shows across the United States.
Happy birthday Mr. Shatner. It really is your world, and the rest of us just live in it.
Ty the Guy OUT!
Here now, your EXTRA Shatner Moments: