The Guardian-Hadley Freeman
William Shatner … ‘I don’t have any secret potions. It must be genetic’. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
His career has taken him from Shakespeare to Star Trek – and soon he will be swimming with sharks on TV. He discusses longevity, tragedy, friendship and success
I think I’m arriving good and early for my interview with William Shatner when I click on our video chat link 10 minutes ahead of time. But Shatner has arrived even earlier: there he is, as soon as my Zoom screen opens, poking away at his computer. “I like to get in early to ease my mind. But it’s OK, I can meditate afterwards,” he says. His tone is often heavily ironical, as if he is daring you to accuse him of playing a joke on you. This has led to much discussion from fans about “the Shatner persona”, although Shatner scoffs at the phrase. “I don’t know what that even is,” he says.
I think they think you play up to their expectations, I say.
“What are their expectations? That I’m Captain Kirk? Well, I am Captain Kirk! I don’t know what people mean when they talk about my persona. I’m just myself. If you’re not yourself, who are you?”
As it happens, I am asking myself those exact three words: who are you, strange person talking to me from my laptop? He certainly sounds like Shatner. But Shatner turned 90 in March, and the man in front of me doesn’t look more than 60, as he bounces about in his seat, twisting to show me the view around him, with the agility of a man two decades younger. Is this actually Shatner or a celebrity lookalike? You look amazing for 90, Bill, I say cautiously.
“Ninety?! A lie! Who told you that, CNN?”
Yes, and every single other news outlet.
“The press has spread this ridiculous rumour. I’m 55,” he says, and he really does look like he could be.
But you first appeared on Star Trek 55 years ago, I say, beginning to doubt myself.
“Oh, OK. Then I’ll admit to being 90,” he grins, enjoying my discombobulation.
There is a website dedicated to Shatner’s toupee, but his youthful appearance goes much further than impressive hair. Has he had some serious work done?
“No. Have you?” he shoots back.
No, because I’m just a journalist and can’t afford it, I say.
“Ha! Well, I don’t have any secret potions. It must be genetic. I ride a lot of horses and I’m into the bewilderment of the world, so I open my heart and head into the curiosity of how things work,” he says. I’m not sure if “the bewilderment of the world” is an ingredient Olay can bottle, but it certainly works for Shatner. That, and horses.
“Yes, I’m a competitive rider in an equine skill called reining. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s very athletic and cowboyish,” he says. This is not the only animal-based exercise Shatner has been up to lately.
“Have you heard of Shark Week?” he asks, our interview drifting ever further from my original expectations.
The annual week of shark TV shows on the Discovery Channel?
“Exactly! So they asked me to do it this year, and last month I went to the Bahamas to swim with sharks. Eighteen-foot tiger sharks! They put a 5ft shark in my lap! This will all be on TV,” he says, but then he scowls. “Although they tried to have me say dialogue like: ‘Yes, it’s me, the William Shatner.’ I don’t say that! They had this concept of my persona, as you’d say, and it was just some idiot.”
Shatner is talking to me from his lovely home in Los Angeles, where he has lived for more than 50 years, and his three daughters and five grandchildren all live nearby. He has filled his house, he says proudly, “with love and art”. So much art, in fact, that he cannot fit any new art on the walls, “and that’s a problem”. I had assumed there wasn’t much love currently because, in 2019, at the age of 88, he filed for divorce from Elizabeth Anderson Martin, his fourth wife of 18 years. And yet, when the landline rings, he tells me: “It’s for my wife, she’ll pick it up.”
Aren’t they divorced?
“That’s a long story. I don’t know if this is an appropriate time to get into the reasoning, but I’ve done something really nice,” he says and chuckles to himself.
Did he get un-divorced?
“Well, that’s always hanging there and that makes the relationship really good. Maybe that’s the explanation and I’ve found the solution!” he says, now full-on cackling.
So he spent lockdown with his fourth wife?
“Yes. Are you married?” he asks, not very subtly changing the subject.
Well, I say, I’ve lived with someone for a decade.
“And how’s it going?” he asks.
Well, we have three kids so there’s not much time to think about that, I say.
“And you bore them all?”
“You. Bore. Them. All?”
I’m not sure if he means did I give birth to them or do they all find me incredibly tedious, but either way the answer is yes.
“That makes you very busy! You’ve got a whole nest, and that feeling of nesting and belonging is critical,” he says.
Is this something he’s discovered recently?
“It’s been a gradual dawning,” he says.
Leonard and I talked about all kinds of things in the dark of the limousine … but something happened, I don’t know what
Shatner has been thinking about other dawnings because over lockdown he has been working on another spoken-word album. The casual Shatner observer is probably aware of his intensely serious spoken renditions of songs such as Rocket Man, but the real connoisseur knows that the good stuff is in the pieces he writes, which are intensely personal; or, as he puts it, “they make a philosophical point and they’re also meaningful to me”. The best-known track from his 2004 album, Has Been, was his rendition of Pulp’s Common People, but the most extraordinary one was What Have You Done, in which he talks, voice cracking with grief, about coming home one evening and finding his third wife, Nerine Kidd, drowned in the couple’s swimming pool. She was 40. The autopsy found that Kidd, who was an alcoholic, had taken Valium and been drinking.
I tell him how powerful I found that particular track. He looks startled.
“How do you know about What Have I Done?” he demands.
Because it’s on Has Been, I say, starting to feel that confusion again.
“Is there a track on Has Been called What Have I Done?” he asks.
It’s called What Have You Done. It’s the one about your wife, I say.
“Oh my wife! Yes, my wife, that’s right. I didn’t make the connection but there’s a track on the new album called What Have I Done. Hmm, interesting,” he muses.
Despite having apparently forgotten the song’s title, it sounded like it meant a lot to him when he recorded it. I ask if it was hard to talk about his wife’s death in the recording studio.
“I couldn’t get through it. It took me several tries. I can see you’ve had some tragedies and it never goes away, right? And with What Have You Done, who is the question aimed at? Sometimes I think it’s aimed at me. Why didn’t I do more? During that period when we were together, we were so much in love and she was drinking, but I didn’t understand addiction. Subsequently, I was able to form a charity called the Nerine Shatner Foundation, which has a house, which is connected to a halfway house and 11 women can live there. Women come up to me and say: ‘You saved my life.’ But not me; it was Nerine. She did that,” he says quietly.
Shatner has said that one person who really helped him through what he describes as the “searing pain” of Nerine’s death was his co-star and close friend, Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in Star Trek, and who himself had struggled with alcoholism. Nimoy and Shatner were the same age and both Jewish, and I ask if their shared Judaism played a part in their friendship. I am Jewish, too, I add, in case the question sounds weird.
“You don’t look Jewish,” says Shatner, but not even he can maintain a straight face when saying that obvious lie, and he collapses into giggles. “But yes – of course! Leonard was only four days younger than me, and Boston [where Nimoy was born] is a lot like Montreal [Shatner’s home town], these old cities with big buildings where the snow drifts through the streets. I think he had a much more Jewish upbringing than me; he learned to speak Yiddish and I did not. But the similarities between us were incredible.”
Shatner revealed in his 2016 book about Nimoy, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man, that the two men grew apart towards the end of Nimoy’s life, and he never understood why. Has he figured it out since?
“No, and he was my dearest friend. We talked about all kinds of things in the darkness of the limousine, about divorce and children. But something happened, I don’t know what, it was so bizarre. But his daughter told me not long ago: ‘He really loved you.’ And that moved me to tears,” he says.
I tell him that their fallout reminds me of what happened to Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, two long-term collaborators and friends whose friendship blew up after Groundhog Day. Ramis pleaded with Murray for them to reconcile, but it didn’t happen until Ramis was on his deathbed.
“Oh my God! I knew nothing about that! How can I find out more about the Ramis and Murray feud?” he asks.
You could Google “Ramis and Murray feud”, I say.
“Wow! I’ll look that up as soon as we’re done. Wow!” he says excitedly.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just drifted with the currents of happenstance
Shatner was born and raised in Montreal, the grandchild of eastern European Jewish immigrants. “Jewishness was a very big part of my identity when I was growing up: synagogue, bar mitzvah, all the traditional things,” he says. “One of the numbers I’ve written on my new album has a rabbi chanting the opening while my father is urging me to stay with him. But I read from a different book.”
Instead, Shatner fell into acting, working as the business manager for a theatre after university and then training as an actor. He made his Broadway debut in 1956 in Tamburlaine the Great and understudied for Christopher Plummer in Henry V. Was he envisaging life as a classical actor? Shatner laughs at the thought.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just drifted with the currents of happenstance,” he says.
The currents of happenstance eventually led him to Star Trek, which launched in 1966. Within two years, it would make television history, when Shatner and Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) enjoyed the first interracial kiss in a scripted show on US TV. “I don’t think in those stark terms, but I’m aware that the show had an impact,” he says. Yet the show was cancelled after just three series and Shatner was suddenly unemployed, broke and divorced, and living out of a camper van as he tried to support his ex-wife and their three daughters.
“That was a real blow. It was tough, supporting them. Eventually all three of them went to university. But yeah, that was hard,” he says.
Eventually, Star Trek became a cult favourite, thanks to TV reruns, then the movies took off at the end of the 1970s. Shatner, who starred in six of them, never had to live in a camper van again.
But Shatner has done a lot more than Star Trek. He starred in two other TV shows, for a start: TJ Hooker and Boston Legal, and guest starred in The Practice. He is always fun when he makes occasional appearances in films such as Miss Congeniality and Dodgeball, and he has written about 30 books (with, perhaps, some help.) But he knows he will always be best known for Star Trek: “I understand that it’s a phenomenon and in your and my lifetime there will never be another thing like it, because it would take another 50 years and, as we already discussed, I’m already 52.” He is a good sport about it, but when I ask one too many Trek questions (ie two) he changes the subject and tells me he has recently done a project with a company called StoryFile, which will recreate him as a 3D talking hologram.
“Isn’t that incredible? So it could be on my gravestone and people can ask it questions, and as long as the electronics work there will be some kind of permanence,” he smiles.
It feels rude to ask a 90-year-old if he worries about death, so I ask instead what he wishes he had known at 20 that he knows at 90.
“Here’s an interesting answer!” he says perkily. “I’m glad I didn’t know because what you know at 90 is: take it easy, nothing matters in the end, what goes up must come down. If I’d known that at 20, I wouldn’t have done anything!”
Our time is up now, and so Shatner and I bid our farewells. “This is always the awkward bit, before you turn off [the camera],” he says, and then in his ironical voice he says: “Pleasure seeing you! Bye! Bye!” And then, just like a 3D hologram when the electronics stop working, he vanishes.