By Mark Robichaux -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/23/2005 8:00:00 PM
At 74, William Shatner never thought he'd act in a TV series again.
After all, he's already etched in popular culture as James T. Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise on Star Trek, which ran from 1966 to 1969 and then launched seven movies, books and an a galaxy of memorabilia. From 1982 to 1987, he played a police detective (T.J. Hooker) in a series of the same name and hosted an emergency-reenactment series called Rescue 911. He's even recorded three fairly unusual solo albums.
“I recognized that my time now is the most valuable thing I had and I needed to be very judicious,” he says. “And yet [dramatic pause] this role was dangled in front of me … and I just thought I'd do it for a limited amount of time … and then it just got out of hand.”
Now, 40 years after he ordered photon torpedo fire on Klingon warships from the bridge of the Enterprise, Shatner is back on TV as Denny Crane, the wacky law partner in Boston Legal, for which he recently won his second Emmy. The role, which he played first in sister show The Practice, was dangled by the show's creator, David E. Kelley, the TV writer/producer of Ally McBeal and other hits.
“David Kelley and I seem to be communicating with each other on a level that is unspoken,” Shatner says. “We're kind of arriving at this character together, and in my experience, that's unique.”
Kelley's a big fan, too. “We feel so fortunate that William Shatner has added Boston Legal to his incredible body of work,” Kelley says. “He has made us laugh in the courtroom, entertained us in space, scared us in the Twilight Zone—and truly frightened us with his singing career. He's a true showman, a genuine icon, and a Hall of Fame man.”
In Boston Legal, Shatner plays an aging, impeccably dressed lawyer on the brink of senility. Fans and critics say he portrays the amoral, egocentric character with humor and pathos and his over-the-top performance is fitting. The Boston Herald, echoing other critics, called the series “habit-forming.”
Shatner could easily retire but says he's enjoying work now more than at any other time in his life. “I really enjoy problem-solving—working on what the nuances are. It's all wonderful stuff, and I've not gotten tired of it. The role of Denny Crane is rich with those questions and the need for those solutions.”
His self-absorbed character on Boston Legal teeters at the edge of his own reality, and Shatner takes great pleasure from playing that kind of personality. “I'm working at treading a narrow line between the buffoon and the tragic character,” he says. “It's a fine line. I'm constantly thinking through, 'Is this real enough, or is this comic enough?”
Shatner attributes much of his acting success to writers of his shows, including Gene Roddenberry and, most recently, Kelley. “Good writing is where it all starts. Good writers are so rare, they're like diamonds,” he says. “Any success I've had, it's been on the wings of that talent. Star Trek was an extraordinary concept. Gene Roddenberry came up with this device—patrolling the outer reaches of space in this ship—and it caught and continues to catch the imaginations of a lot of people.”
The Crane role is another peak for an actor whose credits include writer, director, producer, recording artist, pitchman and horse breeder. Born in Montreal, he made his movie debut in the MGM film The Brothers Karamazov in 1957. Nine years later, he was cast as James Tiberius Kirk in Star Trek, which was yanked after three seasons of so-so ratings on NBC. Its fans loved it; there just weren't enough of them.
But the Star Trek episodes would evolve into a cult phenomenon in syndication. In 1979, Paramount released the first of the Star Trek films, in which Shatner played an aging captain in all his glory until being killed off in 1994.
In the 1980s, Shatner returned to the TV screen as T.J. Hooker, a veteran detective. He hosted Rescue 911 in the 1990s, guest-starred in numerous TV shows and movies, and has written several nonfiction and science-fiction books based on Star Trek.
He seemed to embrace and mock his image as a sci-fi hero in a 1986 appearance on a Saturday Night Live skit, playing himself at a fan convention. “Get a life!” he told fans in the skit. He took to self-parody again recently in Priceline.com commercials.
Shatner is still treading new frontiers. Most recently, he recorded an eclectic mix of songs for a CD called Has Been, produced by Ben Folds and featuring such artists as Joe Jackson and Henry Rollins. (Earlier, he released Transformed Man, a kind of a rock cult classic, and a live album.) He has even tried his hand at reality TV: Invasion Iowa, about a bogus film set in an Iowa town.
But nothing prepared him for the praise for his portrayal of Crane on The Practice, for which he won an Emmy for best supporting actor in 2004 and another Emmy and a Golden Globe in 2005.
“I'm freer than I've ever been,” says Shatner. “Acting is like any sport: When you're relaxed, you can hit the ball farther.”
No related content found.
No Top Articles