Live Long, Prosper

Jim Kirk didn't die. Bill Shatner just got scared to death.

"My wife tells me I am too busy," Shatner says, referring to his fourth wife, Elizabeth Anderson Martin, a horse trainer some 30 years his junior. "I just came back from the doctor. He felt the muscles in my neck and told me I had tension there, not realizing I had just done three days of a monologue and needed to finish each day on time and then got a cold at the same time. I look at my life around me, my loves around me--my wife and children--and I think, 'Am I making enough time for them as well as what I'm doing?' I don't know. My wife is very tired." He laughs.

"But there's a feeling of pride from tiring out a much younger woman. I look at her with a smirk on my face, and she says, 'Wipe that smile off your face.' Still, I think I can run faster. I think I need to prove to myself that I feel 30." He laughs, but the chuckle grows into a rattle, and for a minute, Shatner coughs from deep within his chest and can't catch his breath. "Although you won't know it this morning."

He has written and directed a movie called Groom Lake he's trying to sell, with little luck; doubtful he will find many takers for a low-budget sci-fi movie shot on digital video that stars Dick Van Patten, patriarch of Eight is Enough. He's also trying to find financing for two other movies he's written: Relics, a horror film, and The Shiva Club, about four young comedians who go to an older comic's house to ruminate on death. Dying--or, more to the point, the fear of dying--is a constant in all three projects. It has become his obsession in recent years--his pastime, his passion.

Mirror, mirror: Though Captain Kirk died in 1994, William Shatner keeps him alive in a series of Star Trek novels.
Mirror, mirror: Though Captain Kirk died in 1994, William Shatner keeps him alive in a series of Star Trek novels.

Though he once played a character who was so fond of cheating death--it's the entire plot of 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan--Shatner has been reminded of his mortality in recent years. On June 11, 1999, his old friend and co-star DeForest Kelley died of stomach cancer; gone was one-third of Trek's holy trinity--Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Two months later, on August 9, Shatner's third wife, Nerine, drowned in the swimming pool at their Studio City home. She had just turned 40, but was a manic depressive and alcoholic; her death was ruled a suicide.

"Death frightens me," Shatner begins. Once more, he's cut off by his cough. He laughs it off. "See, I almost died right there." Just as quickly, he turns somber. "And I don't know how to deal with that fear. I try various ways, denial being the primary one. So humor is a very good way of going at it."

On the new Wrath of Khan special-edition DVD, Shatner talks about how he was reluctant to play Captain Kirk as a man of 50. He was resistant to the notion of portraying an aging, mortal man, because that wasn't how he saw Kirk or himself. After all, as he says now, he always played Kirk "close to the way I am," because there was little time on the original series to create a character. Pages were given to actors as they were walking to the soundstage, so in the end, Kirk simply became what Shatner calls "an idealized version of me." And the idealized Shatner did not grow old. He did not fear death, because he refused to acknowledge its existence.

"I just didn't think the audience would buy a hero that got beyond being muscle-bound, so I resisted thinking that was in my youth," Shatner says, talking about Wrath of Khan and so much more. "But then I realized, hey, that is the end of my youth, and I had to accept reality. There was some point, I'm not sure where, I met reality face to face."

But doesn't fiction take on more weight, become more rewarding, when it bears more relation to fact?

"Exactly," he says. "And I didn't realize that. And I began to understand how to use my life in my art, and being given that privilege is enormous. We all go around doing stuff we don't want to do to make a living, and then suddenly I've been gifted with the possibility in some instances of..." He drifts off, pauses, begins again.

"This new script, Relics, deals with a man who's afraid to die. I don't want to give out any more, because it's a work-in-progress. Well, I'm afraid to die, as I told you, so I'm dealing with that in a script. Because of age and my history that becomes an increasingly important question, and the next project I'm working on also contains those questions--of life and death and what happens. And I'm doing it in some of these books."

The books to which he refers are the Star Trek novels he's been co-writing since 1995 with Los Angeles-based writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. Though Captain Kirk was killed off in the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations--he fell off some rocks, a most ignoble demise--he lives on in the novels Shatner writes for his romanticized alter ego, most of which are sequels to old original series episodes or pick up after the events of Generations. Shatner does not hide his reasons for writing these books: They sell to the fans and fetishists for whom Kirk is more than character. But they also represent a bizarro type of literature; imagine if Jennifer Aniston began writing Rachel books after Friends finishes its run next year.

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