AS CAPTAIN James T Kirk, William Shatner has long been a cult figure across the globe, attracting legions of Trekkies who chart his every move.
Of course he has moved on to do other successful shows including TJ Hooker in the 1980s and more recently Boston Legal, as oddball attorney Denny Crane. But to most of us he will always be Captain Kirk.
So cultish has he become that a new word has emerged to describe his acting style – ‘shatnerian’. In Star Trek he was famed for his infamous lengthy dramatic pauses, of which he was never aware.
To some, he may seem slightly eccentric. He sold his kidney stone to an online casino for $75,000 in 2006 to raise money for charity and if you see some of his weird musical performances on YouTube you might wonder if he’s left part of his brain on another planet.
Indeed, George Clooney picked Shatner’s rendition of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds as one of the few things he would take with him if he were marooned on a desert island.
“If you listen to this song, you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off the island,” Clooney explained.
We met to discuss Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now, a humorous, self-deprecating look at his career, featuring some hilarious anecdotes, from his early days as a classical Shakespearean actor, touring in Canadian rep and gaining attention on Broadway, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
He turned The World Of Suzie Wong, which was supposed to be a serious love story, into a comedy when he speeded up his lines.
“Just by speaking faster and putting emphasis on different words I shortened the play by 15 minutes – and people began to laugh. I love you, had become, I love you?”
His memoir is peppered with such humorous anecdotes, yet speaking to him, there isn’t the spark of off-the-wall humour which is ever-present in the book.
Inevitably we turn to the subject of Star Trek and the fact that he hasn’t been asked to appear in the forthcoming movie, Star Trek, out next year. His long-time friend, Leonard Nimoy, who plays Mr Spock, is the only original cast member in the new film.
“I find it peculiar that I wasn’t asked,” he says. “It was a great role that was written for me and as I aged, they aged the captain. I know that the director and producer JJ Abrams is a nice guy. I wasn’t hurt, but I was puzzled. I didn’t need the movie as a crutch professionally because I have so much to do but I’m amazed they didn’t solve the storytelling problems to incorporate me.”
While only three series of Star Trek were made between 1966-69, it wasn’t until years later, when Paramount sold the series to many local TV stations, that the fans started coming out of the woodwork to amass, like an army of Klingons, at Star Trek conventions in order to catch a glimpse of their heroes from the starship Enterprise.
No one realised what a success the show would become, he says.
“It was workaday, nobody had the slightest idea that this would last longer than the moment they said ‘Cut’. It only happened six or seven years later when the show was syndicated. I was flabbergasted.”
He went on to star in seven of the Star Trek movies and appear at sci-fi conventions, but only latterly discovered how disliked he was by some cast members.
“Leonard Nimoy to this day remains my dearest friend, but there were two or three people who were dissatisfied for reasons I’ve never really discovered to this day. There must be something really deep-seated.”
One of those people was Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, who accused him of being completely self-absorbed and taking lines away from the rest of the cast.
“I felt badly because you don’t want anybody not liking you but also I had no awareness of it,” he says now.
Shatner, whose ancestors were a mix of Polish, Austrian and Hungarian Jews, grew up in Montreal, Canada. His father, who had emigrated from eastern Europe when he was 14, made cheap suits for French-Canadian clothing stores. His mother was an elocution teacher. The hard work ethic inevitably rubbed off on the budding actor, who is still reluctant to turn jobs down.
He has done stage and TV dramas, hosted documentaries and game shows, appeared in commercials, done voice-overs, charity appearances, conventions, horse and dog shows, made weird albums such as The Transformed Man and Has Been (which have also achieved cult status) and is now a regularly visited subject on YouTube and MySpace. He also remains the face of Priceline.com, the online auctioning site.
For much of his career he has taken on jobs which, he knows, may not have been the best choices, but they paid the bills.
“I needed to work,” he explains. “When I wasn’t acting I was doing everything I could to put money in the bank. I wish I hadn’t done bad movies but then I was glad to get paid for it.”
Shatner, 77, has been married four times and has three daughters from his first marriage. His first two marriages were to struggling actresses who were less successful than him.
“There was envy and resentment, tempered by love and affection, but as the years went by chinks in the armour appeared.”
His third marriage, to model Nerine Kidd, ended in tragedy when Shatner found her drowned in their swimming pool in August, 1999. He had already filed for divorce, unable to cope with her alcoholism.
“I went into shock. It took me months to come out of it. There’s a pattern to grieving. It starts with denial, then rage, then acceptance. I went through it all.”
He sought counselling immediately after her death but doesn’t know if it helped.
“The pain is so extreme for such a long time. I don’t know if counselling assuaged it or whether it was just the passage of time.
“Of course I felt guilty. Was there something I could have done? Did I do something wrong? One feels that there was something more that could have been done, but you have to forgive yourself at some point.”
There were many letters of condolence, one from a horse trainer he knew vaguely, who wrote that she had lost her husband to cancer and offering to help.
“By that time I was fearfully lonely and reaching out. Elizabeth was the perfect person for me to reach towards. She was my great fortune.”
Elizabeth later became his wife, with whom he is still blissfully happy. They live in Los Angeles.
Looking forward to the future, Shatner is hoping that Boston Legal will be commissioned for another series.
“Denny Crane is a whole different set of problems that I’m equipped to solve as an actor. I can relax in it. From that point of view I’m enjoying Denny Crane more than I did Captain Kirk.”
Away from TV, he has a 360-acre horse farm in Kentucky and a horse-breeding business, but there are lots of other things going on, he enthuses, including his new DVD called Gonzo Ballet, (danced to six of his songs), a talk show on US television and a movie script he’s commissioned.
The fear he had of never working again seems to have subsided, for now.
“But I’m having such a good time it’s difficult to say no to anything,” he says with a smile.
Up Till Now, by William Shatner, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson. Priced
£17.99. Available now.