Live Long, Prosper

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

Sep 4, 2002 at 4:00 am
One day long ago--or not, because no one except he and a rare few know the precise date--an actor dove into the ocean to save a drowning boy. He did not want to do it, but he had no choice. They gave him none, those who gathered around and expected him to do it. After all, he was their valiant hero, their bold captain, and he could not refuse their pleas. They shouted his name, though it wasn't really his name. His name was, and is, Bill. Not Jim. Not Captain Kirk. But that's what they called him, and for a moment he believed them, believed he was that other man--that immortal icon, a rescuer of planets and galaxies and, yes, drowning little boys.

So he dove into the water and swam out to the young man, only to realize the child was too far out of reach. Bill had gone as far as he could, and it wasn't far enough--only far enough to realize he, too, would need to be rescued, lest he also choke on the waves and die not as a hero, but as a fool. On that day, William Shatner realized one thing: He was not Captain James Tiberius Kirk, no matter what anyone else said.

"But he had to try," says Mark Altman, who recounts this little-known and seldom-told story because Shatner himself does not like to tell it. "He had to. After all, he was Captain Kirk."

Altman knows this tale only because, as co-writer of the 1999 movie Free Enterprise, Shatner told it to him so it could be used in the movie, but only if it were dramatically altered. In Free Enterprise, Shatner plays "Bill," a fictionalized, exaggerated, yet wholly recognizable version of the captain of the Starship Enterprise--Shatner as narcissistic drunk, as clumsy womanizer, as self-aggrandizing ham, as bloated schmuck. "Vainglorious," Bill would call "Bill." It was he who demanded to be portrayed this way; he wouldn't act in the film unless he would be made to look flawed, fallible, real. Altman and Robert Burnett, who co-wrote and directed the movie, had grown up idolizing Captain Kirk and initially wanted to pay homage to the actor who played him, yet he'd have none of it. Shatner was too embarrassed to play himself as oracle, as idol. He'd play himself only as person and parody, but not as Kirk. Jim and Bill were not the same guy. At least that's what he kept telling himself, telling all those fans at conventions, telling anyone who'd listen and take him seriously.

In the script, Altman and Burnett altered Shatner's story. It became a tale about the time "Bill" tried to rescue a child from a burning house, only to wind up empty-handed and feeling foolish--"ridiculous," Shatner says in the movie, his eyes growing a little damp as he recounts the tale. But the scene never made the final cut after test audiences found it redundant: Burnett and Altman excised it at the last second, so upsetting Shatner he argued in vain for its restoration.

"It was meaningful to him, and it would have proved meaningful to anyone who knows Bill's work," says Altman, author of several books about Star Trek. "It's meaningful because those expectations--'Hey, you're Captain Kirk'--aren't just external. They've come to be internalized as well."

Though it had almost no theatrical distribution, Free Enterprise launched a second career for Shatner--one that finds him making fun of himself, whether he's sitting next to Conan O'Brien or Craig Kilborn, teaching T.J. Hooker moves to Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy in the movie Showtime or introducing rock-and-roll One-Hit Wonders for VH1 and Z-grade horror films for the Sci Fi Channel series Full Moon Fright Night. Representatives from the advertising agency pitching, the discount air-fare Web site, attended the Free Enterprise premiere and hired Shatner to appear in TV commercials as a hipster lounge lizard croaking out tunes performed by members of Sleater-Kinney and Helium. He returns in a new series of Priceline ads this month--which "won't be in the comedic vein of the previous campaign," Shatner says now, "but they'll still be some fun while getting the message out."

So, yes, Bill knows he is not Captain Kirk. He knows what he is, better than anyone: has-been and comeback kid, laughingstock and legend, everything in between. He's been a Shakespearean-trained actor who began in the movies starring alongside Yul Brynner (1958's The Brothers Karamazov) and Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster (1961's Judgment at Nuremberg). A star of early television, having been part of classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Defenders, among so many others. The captain of the Enterprise. A cop named T.J. Hooker. A game-show guest in the 1970s, when no one would give him work. The star of Z-grade movies, including Kingdom of the Spiders and The Devil's Rain, when they would give him work.

At 71, Shatner is "running as fast as I can," he likes to say, sprinting from meeting to movie set to race-car track to horse stable to screening room to script conference. He doesn't know what to promote during this conversation, because he's got a dozen things to pitch: two new books (including I'm Working on That, about how Trek's technology exists in the everyday world), a paintball charity fund-raiser, TV shows, movies, a DVD called Mind Meld in which he shares Trek tales with Leonard Nimoy.

"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.

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.

This month, Pocket Books will publish Shatner's seventh Kirk novel, Captain's Peril, the start of a trilogy in which the aging hero becomes involved with a younger woman and deals with the death of a loved one--a recurring theme in his novels, as common as punctuation. "We're paying for his therapy," says Mark Altman. "It's cathartic for him." Shatner would not disagree.

"Well, I've had Captain Kirk use my life," he says. "I've invested some of the main events in my life in Captain Kirk and played with them. I've taken what's happened in my life and tried to have ideal solutions. He does more heroic things. He's not subject to the whims and laws of human nature like I am, so he does a better job of conducting his life, but still he has the problems."

Which brings us, inevitably, to the oldest question one can ask of Shatner: Does he miss Captain Kirk? Or does he just miss the idealized Bill Shatner--the hero, not just the actor cashing the paycheck? Does he like going where he has gone before? He considers it for a second.

"I don't know whether I miss playing the part like one would miss a loved one," he says, speaking slowly. "What I do miss is that the part was, on occasion, extremely well-written, and not only that, but I also had a voice in the writing of it. I had an element of creative power without any of the responsibility." He laughs. "And I miss the impertinence of Captain Kirk. If there were roles written for me that were of a different character, now that I have gotten older and am a different character, I would be just as happy."

For a while, his interviewer starts down some long, windy road about how Shatner sees Kirk as a surrogate, as a perfect vehicle through which he can tell his own story. He stops his interrogator midblather. His tone shifts, from friendly to formal. He reminds that, above all, he's a businessman. Nimoy's the artist, the photographer--Spock's shooting nude studies these days, how illogical. Shatner's the pragmatist, the seller of things. His enterprises are business ventures, not a set on a soundstage.

"There's something you're forgetting," he reminds as he drags the deep conversation back to the shallow end. "These books are pre-sold, so I don't have to go to an editor and sell an idea and do all the things writers have to do to get a book published. This is a marriage of convenience as well."

Then his tone quickly shifts again. His voice softens.

"But having said that, it's also a joyful marriage," he says. "I enjoy getting down with this character who leads a life that I lead--who's somewhat peripatetic, who is a lover of life and seeker of mysteries."

For the longest time, he and Nimoy loathed being identified with their characters: Nimoy wrote I Am Not Spock; Shatner went on Saturday Night Live and told a nation to "get a life." But now, they embrace their counterparts; they protect them. They have, at long last, become them.