Wil­liam Shat­ner: boldly going where no Jew has gone be­fore

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - — LILA SARICK

If things had worked out dif­fer­ently, Wil­liam Shat­ner would have had a ca­reer as a Shake­spearean ac­tor and lived a much qui­eter life. But as fate would have it, he ended up be­ing cast as Capt. James T. Kirk, com­man­der of the USS En­ter­prise, and be­came a cul­tural icon.

Star Trek lasted just three sea­sons, but the show cat­a­pulted Shat­ner into a life­time of mak­ing films and tele­vi­sion shows, some ac­claimed and some de­rided by crit­ics. Along the way, Shat­ner, who was born and raised in Mon­treal, won two Emmy Awards for his work on Bos­ton Le­gal and was awarded a star on both Canada’s and Hol­ly­wood’s Walk of Fame, and an hon­orary Doc­tor­ate of Let­ters from his alma mater, Mcgill Uni­ver­sity.

Born in 1931 in Mon­treal’s West End to Anne and Joseph Shat­ner, a cloth­ing man­u­fac­turer, Wil­liam Shat­ner started his ca­reer as a child ac­tor with CBC Ra­dio.

In an in­ter­view with the Guardian, Shat­ner re­called his up­bring­ing as “very standard. I went to Mcgill Uni­ver­sity, so I was liv­ing at home for the first 21 years of my life and stuck pretty much to the grind­stone. Money was very tight, so I had to do it en­tirely on my own.”

Shat­ner de­scribed be­ing raised Jewish, say­ing, “I went to syn­a­gogue and was bar mitz­va­hed in the Jewish tra­di­tion. I never quite un­der­stood or got it.”

De­spite that, he raised his own three daugh­ters as Jews, and it was a shared re­li­gious back­ground that helped him bond with his Star Trek co-star, Leonard Ni­moy, who played the in­scrutable Mr. Spock.

“Both Leonard and I got called nasty anti-semitic names. Ex­pe­ri­ences like that cre­ate a sort of sub­text, and as we got to know each other, those com­mon ex­pe­ri­ences helped bind us to­gether. It’s almost an emo­tional short­hand,” he wrote in Leonard: My Fifty-year Friend­ship with a Re­mark­able Man, a book about his re­la­tion­ship with Ni­moy.

Af­ter earn­ing a BA in com­merce at Mcgill, Shat­ner be­gan train­ing as a clas­si­cal Shake­spearean ac­tor with the Na­tional Reper­tory The­atre of Ot­tawa and ap­peared in pro­duc­tions at the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val – a the­atre fes­ti­val in On­tario – where leg­endary di­rec­tor Ty­rone Guthrie said he was Strat­ford’s most promis­ing ac­tor.

But Shat­ner, al­ways eager to work, turned to the United States, ap­pear­ing briefly on Broad­way and in nu­mer­ous tele­vi­sion shows and movies.

His life-chang­ing mo­ment came in 1966, when he was cast as Capt. Kirk in Star Trek. In a 1968 episode, he had the dis­tinc­tion of kiss­ing ac­tress Nichelle Ni­chols (Lt. Uhura), which is thought to be the first ex­am­ple of a white man and a black woman kiss­ing on scripted tele­vi­sion.

Although Star Trek only ran for three sea­sons, it gained a cult fol­low­ing in re­runs and even­tu­ally spawned a movie fran­chise. Shat­ner reprised his role as Capt. Kirk in seven of the Star Trek movies and di­rected one of them (Star Trek V: The Fi­nal Fron­tier).

Shat­ner is an in­vet­er­ate work horse, ap­pear­ing in dozens of films and tele­vi­sion shows, most mem­o­rably as a vet­eran po­lice of­fi­cer on T.J. Hooker and as Big Gi­ant Head on 3rd Rock from the Sun. He could also be seen as a pitch­man for ev­ery­thing from Loblaws gro­cery stores in the 1970s, to the travel web­site, price­line.com, where he ap­pears as the some­what pompous per­sona he has cre­ated.

Those ads led to his more re­cent role as ag­ing, ec­cen­tric lawyer Denny Crane on the tele­vi­sion se­ries The Prac­tice and then Bos­ton Le­gal, which ran un­til 2008.

Now in his 80s, Shat­ner con­tin­ues to write, act and pur­sue his hobby of show­ing horses.

In 2013, he was hon­oured with a life­time achieve­ment award from the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val, where he launched his pro­fes­sional ca­reer so many years ago. As the Globe and Mail re­ported, he made it clear that he has no plans to re­tire.

Ac­cept­ing his award, Shat­ner said, “This is re­ally good, giv­ing awards to liv­ing leg­ends, but there’s a prob­lem, there’s a prob­lem – I’m a leg­end in the mak­ing, OK?”

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